A year has passed since I began my weekly rage against big business and mass consumerism in this space.
And what a year it has been — full of personal shopping successes and failures, both of which have helped me better understand corporate behaviour, as well as consumer behaviour, particularly my own.
This has also been a landmark year for China.
On the eve of its Big Moment hosting the 2008 Olympics, we saw the world’s top exporter take it in the chin for toys it manufactured using toxic lead paint and the suicide of a Chinese toy factory manager who worked for one of the guilty companies, Mattel.
No thanks to me, even though I wrote regularly about China’s sinister regime, and not at all because the Chinese people are being treated savagely there, consumers are finally beginning to boycott Chinese goods en masse.
As journalist Upton Sinclair discovered, when something begins to affect people, that’s when they start demanding reforms.
Though not always.
Here in Whitehorse, a boycott against the 2008 China Olympics is growing and hopefully that will extend to a boycott of the made-in-China brand, a resolution that is increasingly difficult for people to keep as more and more Canadian companies out-source their manufacturing to that country.
And here, as well many other cities, people are adopting a “100-mile diet.”
This is a one-vote approach with mass appeal: while supporting local growers, a single person can help reduce the trend towards monocrops, reduce the devastation caused by large-scale farming, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from an apple’s lengthy pilgrimage from Mexico to Whitehorse.
People, like Anne Saunders of Dawson City, are taking charge by giving up meat and dairy.
She decided to do this after reading about the book The China Study, which I wrote about here.
Her veganism precipitated by my column has humbled me. But I can’t take all the credit. I also gave up meat after reading The China Study. The book’s conclusion about animal protein and cancer is just that powerful.
Suat Tuzlak, the owner of Alpine Bakery, loaned me the book, and so without him, neither Saunders nor I would have been so inspired to change our lives.
Another Born to Shop article, inspired by a reader’s tip, caused SAAN to remove a scandalous T-shirt aimed at young girls from shelves across Canada.
These events exemplify the extent to which a discourse about what we buy and where we buy it can make a difference.
I am privileged to know people who have been having this discussion for a lot longer than me, like the growers of organic foods, the cooks and bakers of organic and fair-trade ingredients, environmentalists, fair trade coffee suppliers, and those who read the labels on clothing and other products and who buy conscientiously.
Whether a blessing or a curse, Born to Shop has increased my drive to be a better consumer.
As the author, I can no longer escape the issues that surround shopping because I research and write about them so often.
But also, because people read this column (theoretically), I am held accountable (read: I can no longer sneak into Wal-Mart for toilet paper).
I have found that being a good shopper can be an extraordinarily burden. It is time-consuming and inconvenient. It can make you feel confrontational, judgmental and self-righteous.
It always involves more work than being oblivious to what’s in your shopping bag. In short, it can make life downright stressful at times.
It is also more expensive, which is why it is easy to dismiss ethical shopping — which would entail eating locally and organically and buying locally-made and ethically-made products — as a middleclass endeavour.
It is indeed a middleclass endeavour!
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Getting governments involved in making ethical choices on behalf of all of its citizens will go a long way towards universalizing good labour practices and sustainable food practices.
We have seen governments around the globe do this.
They have refused to allow the privatization of water and health-care services.
Schools have introduced healthy, organic foods into their cafeterias, and government buildings have introduced fair-trade coffees.
A few cities have taken charge of their jurisdictions by banning disposable diapers from their landfills; many more offer weekly compost and recycling pick-ups.
In my mind, getting our governments involved is our best, and maybe our last, chance to save the world from this epidemic of consumption.
Forget the “one-vote” system, it’ll just take too long.
On the other hand, taking charge of one’s shopping impulses is empowering to say the least.
Choosing to buy locally from people that you inevitably get to know reinforces community.
And being more choosy about the clothing and household goods that you buy only makes you more creative, though you do risk making yourself more individual and, as a result, eccentric.
And it is effective.
The more people who exercise their right to “vote” through their shopping choices, the more likely corporations will start reflecting those choices in their products.
Even Wal-Mart and Starbucks are jumping on the organic and fair-trade bandwagons.
But these are baby steps.
Entire countries, including all of their land and their people — parents and children alike, are being sacrificed for the sake of First World opulence.
One might even say that we have peace here in the West because our poor can indulge in shopping.
I have been told that my column’s name, Born to Shop, should be changed because it sounds frivolous. I meant it to be ironic, but it is also the best way I can describe who we are as humans in the current global system.
‘Shop’ is what the governments of the world want us to do — not only at stores, but through tourism and sport, through the consumption of movies and television, at restaurants and in beauty salons.
Through shopping, we maintain the status quo.
Stop shopping, or change our shopping habits, and the machine breaks down.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.