This economic downturn has me turned down in more ways than one. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, it’s times like these that try men’s and women’s souls—and pocketbooks. The dollar part is clear: Everything’s going up, from food to fuel. But what’s most difficult is reconciling ethical buying practices with what’s in my wallet.
I’ve always been political in my approach to buying anything. When I was shopping for an engagement ring, we made sure to buy “conflict-free” gems. And I’m adamantly opposed to shopping at Wal-Mart, which is notorious for exploiting cheap labor and for slashing prices to the bone to put local, independent stores out of business. I know about the chocolate industry, Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Gap—and, of course, I’d never consider buying or eating veal. All in all, I’ve prided myself on buying local and on patronizing enterprises whose business practices support a greater good in terms of their employees and the environment—even if it means paying a little more.
So imagine the dilemma I found myself in recently when shopping at the local “scratch ‘n’ dent” grocery market. I shop there, obviously, for good deals. But how far am I willing to go in pursuit of such savings? Am I willing to sell out my principles in order to procure a cheap product?
Case in point: In the coffee aisle, I spied a 12-ounce bag of Starbucks Italian roast, whole bean, vacuum packed (for freshness) for $4.99. At a regular supermarket, this same bag of coffee would be at least seven or eight bucks—and perhaps a buck or two more at Starbucks itself.
What’s wrong with Starbucks, you might ask? Well, do your homework: They’ve been the target of widespread, angry protests pressuring the coffee giant to upgrade its dairy products and offer fair-trade options. Another problem is that with one Starbucks come a dozen more, making it harder for local, indie coffee shops to survive.
For all these reasons, I tend to avoid Starbucks, at least when I’m home (though I must admit to partaking of their coffee when traveling, since it’s a reliably strong and robust cuppa joe that’s also ubiquitous). But while “just say no” had reliably guided my buying decisions in the past, here was this incredibly cheap deal staring me in the face.
On down the aisle, I spied a great deal on eggs—the same brand that’s been accused of false advertising concerning the “free-rangeness” and “cage-freeness” of their “free-range” chickens. The eggs were $1.99, and because there were lots of them and they were close to the expiration date, it was a two-for-one deal. I needed eggs; here they were. In other local stores, I could pay $3.50 and up for one dozen. I’m a teacher, and I get paid teacher’s wages. What am I to do?
But if “cheap” displaces “politics” in determining my purchases, then what’s next? Will I have to eat humble pie and start shopping at Wal-Mart, explaining to friends and family that I finally understand what they were doing all along?
Maybe buying the cheap eggs and shopping at Wal-Mart aren’t really comparable. After all, I’m still supporting a local business rather than Wal-Mart’s oppressive, megacorporate structure. But no matter how I try to rationalize and thus redeem myself, it still seems to me that financial considerations have trumped political concerns.
In my smugness and organic-food, fair-trade, green and conflict-free grace, I’ve tended to judge that “other element” of society for their cheap and mindless ways. Like my grandma, I’ve become fond of saying to them, “Why, I’d be aSHAMed!” I saw these folks as selling out; now I’m watching myself do the same, or at least be very tempted.
Maybe the economy will take a turn upward soon. Maybe the new administration we elected in November will help us all—teachers, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers and students—find some relief. Meanwhile, I hope I can find the strength to continue voting with my purchases, spending my money in ways that reflect my politics and the causes I support (or don’t).
But while I would never eat veal unless I were starving to death, I can’t say the same about what kind of coffee I’m willing to buy when push comes to shove. May my conscience guide me when my pocketbook has taken the plunge.
[Asheville resident Virginia Bower teaches writing and ESL at Mars Hill College.]