This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month our members have written posts about how they make purchasing choices.
Shoppers love a deal! And why not? Shouldn't we try to "shop smart"? Isn't thrift a virtue? The trouble is that shopping smart may not be such a smart thing to do. Shopping on price is often a sure way to support an unethical, unjust, and unfair business. In a competitive market, the one with the competitive advantage is frequently the one who figures out how to sell a product cheaper than her or his competitors. In this way, it has been argued for quite some time that the competitive nature of capitalism fosters ingenuity, efficiency, and healthy competition. If you are looking for a great deal, this whole system makes a great deal of sense. Maybe... or maybe not.
Prices fall in the market for a wide range of reasons. Technology or innovation is one of those reasons. Competition can foster such technology and innovation. Competition on price, however, also fosters dishonesty, greed, lies, and externalization. The process of externalization is a major contributor to a great deal. You get a great deal at a big box store because the true cost of the object you've just bought was externalized, or paid for by some other source. Who paid for it then? Well, the checker paid for it by forgoing a living wage and healthcare, the manufacturers paid for it by working 18 hour shifts in unsafe working conditions, the environment paid for it through poorly enforced natural resource laws and regulations, and you may actually pay for it with your tax dollars by subsidizing the corporate systems that brought you the product.
That old saying, "you get what you pay for," is a bit overly simplistic. You do get what you pay for, but you also get what you don't pay for. What you get by purchasing the $4.99 t-shirt is the opportunity to support child labor, to encourage outsourcing, and share the planet with farm workers with chronic respiratory disease caused overuse of pesticides. What you didn't pay for was fair and living wages, safe working conditions, sustainable agricultural practices, and support of our domestic economy. Perhaps some are under the impression that companies manufacture cheap products or provide cheap services by "being about more than just the money." The state of the market does not support such a thesis. Consumer product companies return remarkable dividends and pay outrageous incomes to their executives. If there are those who are chipping in to bring you a better price, it certainly isn't the investors or the corporate executives.
Conscious consumption begins with the realization that our consumption buys not only products but also ideologies. Even the purchase of an inexpensive product such as a loaf of bread is the purchase of a set of ideologies. Are you buying the world you want to live in? Are you investing in the sort of future you want your children to inherit?
The easiest way to know whether you are paying for the sort of world you want to live in is to know exactly what it is you are buying and what you are not buying. Doing so requires you to know something about the producer of the good or service you are purchasing. You can support local small-scale artisans for example. You can also look for products carrying a label such as Fair Trade. Finally, you can throw out that old mentality of shopping on price and adopt a new mentality of shopping based on value. The best value is likely to exist in a company that recognizes its place in a competitive market, responds through innovation, adopts fair and sustainable business practices, and delivers products meant to last.
Smart shoppers don't just compare prices. Smart shoppers know what they are buying, they know who and what they are supporting, and they act on value.
Vincent M. Smith - PhD
You may also like: This article on Fair Trade!