Conscience vs. commerce

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.]

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7 thoughts on “Conscience vs. commerce

  1. Mysterylogger

    I too like to let my politcs rules my life, especially when to breathe and not to breathe I must breathe with my party lines.

    Blah, blah, blah give it a rest, your supporting the machine in almost everything you do, right now on your PC writing that opinion piece. It was created by a giant Corp, the buggy you used in your saving store created by a big evil corp, The car you drive, the appliances in your house, it was all a big corp that brought that to you.

    So your not supporting big boxes, a coffee shop, and what ever you don’t support is really hurting the Corps, Good job!!!

  2. Sudhaji

    ~ And this is YOUR opinion, which we’re all entitled to. We could all benefit from taking a break from blame and criticism, and while we cannot change everything in this moment, we do have to start somewhere ~ and I think that this piece addresses places me may begin to do that.

  3. Piffy!

    Americans spend less of their income on food than most anywhere else in the world. People’s priorities are so turned-around when it comes to food, that we wince at an extra buck for eggs from a local farmer, but dont hesitate to pay for Cable, gas for a Sunday drive, or a couple drinks out.

    The store in question in the above letter sells past-date crap that most likely has little to no nutritional value. Food that would normally be “trash”.

    Stop trying to shop for food with the wal mart mentality of saving a couple pennies and spend money in your community, supporting locally produced food.

    Trust me, the couple extra bucks is very much worth it. It strengthens local farms, keeps the money in your community, and gives you food that is fresh and worth eating.

    It is truly sad that people think paying more for quality is somehow “elitist” and snobbish”.

  4. travelah

    Being political brings a cost. If the cost is acceptable to you by all means stick to your guns. I think an employer that provides jobs to a lot of people and offers goods at discounted prices saving families a considerable amount of money is worth supporting in the community. That includes Walmart.

  5. Piffy!

    as long as we can agree that what can be defined as “jobs” and “A lot of people” is quite subjective.

  6. Bob Smith

    “as long as we can agree that what can be defined as “jobs” and “A lot of people” is quite subjective.”

    Wal-Mart employs a lot of people nationwide. They provide basic goods at rock bottom prices. I visit Wal-Mart 2-3 times a week. I am happy they are here and I can save the money I do. Perhaps the OP here should do things the local way. Make Christianity her religion, rather than liberal-socialism.

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