04 December 2006

ethical compromises

As I mentioned yesterday, sometimes when you're on a budget you have to make compromises that you wish you didn't have to. This is something I've struggled with for a while, and I know my sister has written about this before as well, though I couldn't find the post I was looking for after browsing her archives this afternoon.

It's a conflict that's hard to resolve at this point. Ideally, according to my values, I would like to support local businesses, support businesses which are socially and environmentally responsible, support environmentally friendly and sustainable agricultural practices, and avoid giving my money to those businesses or organization that espouse values contrary to my own. With that in mind, I went on Saturday to check out a local craft fair: Metro Justice's Alternative Fair, which was offering "fair trade, earth-friendly and/or locally produced goods that support a just and sustainable world." I was hoping to find some holiday gifts for the people still left on my shopping list.

And at first I was enchanted -- it was a progressive's ideal alternative to the mall. There were lots of booths for progressive organizations -- the ACLU, the Sierra Club, CodePink -- and other booths full of handcrafted gift items, as well as homemade treats to eat. But as I wandered around, I began to get more and more discouraged. Sure, I would love to buy organic fair-trade Peruvian coffee beans, but on our graduate-student budget, it's more practical to buy beans of questionable origin for half the price from the local coffee chain. There were some gorgeous hand-knit scarves, but I could knit something almost as nice myself, for less money. Everywhere I turned I saw things I would love to buy in support of the principles I believe in, but it seems you have to be a wealthy progressive to do so.

I got so frustrated that I left after only twenty minutes or so, and nearly cried on the way home. It's frustrating that the default products in this country are mass-produced by workers who are either exploited or underpaid, and support corporations that use every loophole on the books to evade social responsibility. Ethical business practices are not the norm. Caring for other human beings and for our earth are not priorities for the business world -- the bottom line is money. And when you don't have much money, you have very few options about who you're giving yours to. This is why we bought our Christmas tree from the Boy Scouts, and why I shop at the Salvation Army -- both organizations discrimate against homosexuals, a position I'm not keen to support with my business, but their prices are hard to beat, and on our budget, that's really the deciding factor.

All of this is on top of beginning to read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which, like Fast Food Nation and other books of that genre, has me desperately wishing we could afford to buy produce and meat from sources other than corporate farms and agribusinesses. It's depressing that the morally and ethically responsible choices are not available to everyone, but only those with enough dough. And sure, within a year, once Greg gets a job, we'll have enough money to start buying grass-fed, free-range beef or sweatshop-free apparel, but the fact that my circumstances will change doesn't do anything to address the problems that require one to pay more to be an ethical consumer.

I don't know whether there's a real solution to this problem. Our country has long been promoting quantity over quality: consumerism is vital to our culture and economy, and more and bigger and cheaper are always better. It's a culture that focuses more on money than on people or the earth, and I worry that we're too far along this path to make any meaningful changes any time soon.


ryanikon said...

RIGHT. ON. **nods head, AGAIN.**

My husband and I choose to be a one income family and all of the issues you brought up, are ones I deal with constantly. I would love to shop at the local grocery store with better meat and a friendly atomsphere, give back to my community... but Wal-freaking-Mart is cheaper.


Anonymous said...

I dream of the day when I can buy organic and fair-trade, but alas it isn't realistic at this point in our lives. I just try to take pride in the things that I do buy when I can afford them. It may just be a couple of items, but it makes a lot of difference over time.