Friday, 3 April 2009

Buying ethically Vs frugality?

by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Last year, I had to travel for work. I really don't like like travelling for work and resist it when I can. However, this occassion stood out for me in more ways than one and thought I'd share... (xposted from my personal blog)

This morning I sat on an airplane on my way to a work meeting and I picked up the Airline's inflight magazine and had a bit of a chuckle when I realised that the entire magazine was dedicated to the theme of "GOING GREEN". In it, there was a run down of the different types of petrol cars use and the carbon footprint, changes top business men have made in their personal lives to go "Greener" etc etc. All very superficial (concentrating on the "Being Seen to be Green" as opposed to actually "Being Green") and all very ironic given that there was no mention (at least what I can find during the 30 mins I spent reading the mag) of the carbon footprint of this airline or even air travel in general, and steps towards offsetting it.

Another article on that magazine was about a reporter who decided to "try out" being ethical in their eating habits for a weekend. In the end, she concluded that ethical eating was "too expensive and too time-consuming". Okay, so no suprises there given the whole superficiality of the magazine and the superficiality of her commitment to ethical eating.

Having said that, her conclusion is no doubt a common opinion amongst many many people. The thing though is that changing consumption habits (whether its food or things or whatever) takes time and commitment before one can start seeing that it doesn't *have* to be expensive or time-consuming.

Expensive ethical consumption happens when you try to fit a lifetime of consumption habits and try to make it fit an ethical framework. It is no doubt the reason why so many people get taken aback the first time they venture into a Fairtrade shop - immediately you can see them thinking "well, geez, if it costs this much, then I wouldn't be able to buy X and Y or buy ten Xs". I think the fallacy of this thinking is not the cost of the item but the second part of this thinking - "the I wouldn't be able to buy X and Y". Ethical consumption is not just about buying ethical items but actually looking at your whole life and realising that we are over-consuming. And that it is over consumption that has lead us down the path of exploitation. It is what has made our lifestyles unethical in the first place.

Curbing over-consumption, is actually the first step and hardest step towards ethical consumption. The rest then falls from that. By curbing our over consumption, then we are able ?to afford the things that really do matter to us... that is the things that we would buy joyfully as opposed to to buying them because its what we've done and what those around us have done for so many years. And as part of joyful consumption we would be able to buy those things that were produced/manufactured and retailed in an ethical way.

But yes, curbing over-consumption is hard. We have built our identities, our relationships with others and our society on this habit. Breaking it would involve (as I have found) questioning our identities, and finding alternative ways in relating to others. It may even mean (at first) feeling even more isolated from the rest of our over-consuming society. But then the rewards at the end of the long road are worth it. Instead of feeling helpless against the problems of exploitation, we are now empowered. Instead of feeling frantic and pressured to buy, we are now buying (or not buying) joyfully and on OUR terms.

Ethical buying does not have to be opposed to a frugal philosophy. Indeed, I have found that a frugal philosophy enables me buy ethically... and buying ethically helps me live a more simple, green and frugal life.


littleecofootprints said...

It is sometimes tempting to buy the cheaper option - rather than the ethical one. To avoid temptation I tell myself "if i'm paying less - who is paying for the difference?" most cases its the environment or someone in a third world country. I don't think its fair for someone else to pay for my suff. I'd rather pay the extra thanks!?

I have found paying a fair and realistic price for things has just helped me to consume less and be more frugal..

Seraphim said...

Hurray, I loved this article :) I always get irritated when people say to me 'I don't know how you can afford to buy all organic food, it's such a struggle just to buy the cheap stuff...'

Well of course it is if you buy ten bars of chocolate and organic beer and big packs of cigarettes and organic chips and goodness knows what else in with your pre-cut organic carrots!

I'll just stick to my couple of kilos of organic baking flour, rice and pasta, thank you....

Bel said...

I agree Eilleen! My buying habits are still a work in progress. I'm doing the Buy Sustainably Challenge this year to keep me accountable and get me really thinking about every purchase...

Thanks for putting it so succinctly!

livinginalocalzone said...

You are right in that it is so much about habit and what seems "necessary" or "normal" given the background/mentality that is there.

"Breaking it would involve (as I have found) questioning our identities, and finding alternative ways in relating to others. It may even mean (at first) feeling even more isolated from the rest of our over-consuming society. But then the rewards at the end of the long road are worth it."

Well said, and I think questioning identities (and by extension what is needed for it) is a scary proposition for many. But even though it seems like deprivation at first, there are often unexpected rewards along the way that have their own internal, inherent value. Even though it is not the same as what might be seen as "lost," it is to be valued and enjoyed in its own right I think. That somehow resonates for me and helps in various areas of my life.

Joanna said...

Thanks for this post! This question bothered me so much that I started a whole blog about it! It annoys me when I see the "frugal" blogs ignoring the ethical implications of say, buying sweatshop goods or really-not-local food, while the "green" posts I see highlight crazy-expensive products. There totally is a middle ground. What littleecofootprints said is true- "if i'm paying less - who is paying for the difference?"

ChristyACB said...

You're so right! I couldn't have said it better and thoroughly enjoyed reading such wonderful common sense.

Jen said...

Great point and well said.

Karen said...

I'm so very glad you wrote this (see my most recent blog post, if you're so inclined) when you did. Because I've chosen fairly recently to walk a different path in life, it's still at a point where it's not easy to let go of "needing" to buy. Often, it's how I fill free time ... case in point, the other day, when i just "had" to go by the goodwill and buy a dress and a bag for $8.48... granted that's less expensive (and more ethical, for sure!) than a mall trip (i am at the point of having sworn those off entirely, yay me!), but it's still consuming mindlessly/needlessly. i often worry about whether i'll get past it all, as these "must shop" moments are a bit like cravings ... but i try to accept these moments of weakness as part of being human, and try not to get stuck on it. i think a few good solutions might be: cash in jars for certain things and when it runs out that's it (better representation than the swipe of a debit card), mantras, simple morning meditations on stillness. realizing that it's okay to just. sit. still. it's a tough world to go against the grain ... but i'm trying like hell to get back to a simpler life, because that's where the real happiness is. i'm glad there are others in the raging waters to help me float rather than drown in the madness that threatens to swallow us today (hope that didn't sound too negative, but it's true!!)

KPiep said...

I'm going to have to disagree a bit.

Six years ago I became a SAHM, and we became a frugal-by-neccessity family. Over the last three years, we've been working to also live a more green life - but it is VERY hard at times to justify that price tag. We've done many, many things to offset the cost of organic foods/locally produced stuff - but no matter how you look at it, it's still more expensive. We often find ourselves in a position where we must make a choice. If our family has a need, and we can't afford/make/find a 'green' option, than we do what we must to fulfill that need.

Just yesterday I had someone at the grocery store ask me the 'how do you justify the expense' question. My reply - we do what we can, but don't expect to be perfect because that's unrealistic.

Really, what I'm trying to point out is that it's absurd to cast stones. (and I kind of get the feeling that many of you are doing just that) I get it - I really do - and in many ways I agree. I refuse to feel guilty over some of my choices, though, because I know full well that we are doing everything within our power to live a clean life which is meaningful to us as well.

Amber said...

Thanks for this post!

Threads of Light said...

Karen, thanks for pointing out that even thrift shopping can fall under the over-consuming banner, I hadn't thought of that before and I know I'm guilty.

KPiep, you are right about not doing the guilt trip thing when you're making the best possible decisions for your family in your circumstances. Thank you for your confidence in what you wrote, it gives me the confidence to continue forging my own path without reference to the approval of others.

Joanne said...

I'm trying to find a balance, and not just with food. In Australia there was a proliferation of '$2 Shops' a few years ago. They are full of cheap Asian imports. When I was shopping more I used to enjoy going in and filling a basket with cheap food, toys, candles, garden implements- all sorts of things. Gradually it dawned on me that the quality wasn't there, the candles smelled fake (what kind of fumes were we breathing?), the toys broke and a lot of plastic went into landfill.
Melbourne will soon be getting a Costco. Supposedly with membership, everything from flour to diamond rings is very cheap. But hardly local. Aldi is another discounter that you have to be careful with. They do sell Aussie fruit and veg but many other products are imported. My sea salt came from China. Uggh. And um, we live in Australia- its surrounded by sea. Surely we don't need to get sea salt from China!
So for me, shopping frugally and ethically is a work-in-progress. I'd like to do both.

jean said...

Thanks KPiep for your comment. I'm also doing the best I can for my family and our "green" efforts. I too have felt that it I've had to compromise and make some difficult choices which are not always the most environmentally friendly OR organic.

I have often felt a little shamed by some articles and posts that demanded perfect compliance, but you've made me realize that I am doing my best, and that is nothing to scoff at.

- Caro

Carrick said...

Yeah, when an organic and/or fair trade item is priced higher than the"conventional" version of that item, as far as I'm concerned, that's the "real" price of that item. And just as I would like to think that I would have never bought clothes made from cotton picked by slaves if I'd lived in antebellum America, I refuse to participate in a system that trashes our earth and exploits third world countries.

But luckily, a lot of organic food is comparably priced, and even if overall it's more expensive, sustainably minded practices--like eating less meat or growing your own vegetables--makes up the difference--often even more so.

Nat said...

I agree with the comment that cheap is not really cheap - it is just paid by someone else somewhere else or even by us - later, in taxes or in insusrance premiums. My mom's cancer medications and surgeries cost a fortune and produce lots of non-green waste. One of my children died in infancy from a disease caused by my exposure to agrocultural chemicals in food during pregnancy, leaving us with pain - and $15,000 of medical bills. If by buying organic food throughout our life we would prevent one of these 2 tragedies, we would be ahead financially - and happier. The extra expence of buying organic for a month for a family of 4 is less than 4 co-pays for doctor visits. Which one would you rather pay?