Archive for the ‘consumerism’ Category

Do you know where your STUFF comes from?

I’m taking a departure from my usual farm updates to share some of my recent thoughts about consumerism and the STUFF we bring into our homes and our lives.

It’s increasingly common to hear people asking about where their food comes from, particularly in communities like ours with their heavy focus on local food producers and small farms. People are starting to look at a food item in the grocery store and ask questions: where was this grown and under what conditions? who tended to this crop and were they paid a fair wage? how far did this item travel to get to me? what exactly is IN or ON this food that I might be concerned about? how much real nutrition is in this food item (i.e. how useful is it for my body)?

After having practiced this conscious consideration of the food I put on my family’s table for years now, it naturally began to extend to other areas of my life. Lack of time and budget makes it tempting and easy to pick up cheap, mass-produced goods. I have to steer myself away from the very low-priced (and usually, low-quality) kids clothes in our local Superstore when I do my grocery shopping, or that inexpensive sweater that would add a pick-me-up to my day without putting a crimp in my bank account. But with the Holiday Season approaching to remind us of the rampant consumerism that plagues our society I am making a conscious effort to steer away from those things and to think carefully about every item that enters my home.

It started when I was writing in my “Dream Home Journal” – this is a collection of thoughts, ideas, sketches etc. that I am putting together in anticipation of building a proper house for ourselves on the property. Having moved plenty of times over the years and being a fond practitioner of Decluttering, I was struck by the idea that every item in our new home should be consciously chosen. As much as possible, that is. I can’t afford to replace our mass-produced, fake-wood bookcases all at once. But I will need new items, as one always seems to when moving, like perhaps some rugs or something to put on the walls. And here’s where I would like to be particularly conscious in my choices.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: I’ve had two “decorative” glass jars for several years now. I bought them at Ikea, on a whim, because they went with the colour scheme I’d chosen for the living room in our rented house. The jars serve no purpose – they are not functional and could not be put to any practical use. They were mass-produced on factory assembly lines in Asia and sold cheaply by the millions. They sat on our fireplace mantle as part of an arrangement of objects that was supposed to “harmonize the room’s colour scheme while being attractive and suited to the room’s style”. They have no meaning for me. There was no artist whose hands and creative spark touched them, they weren’t a well thought-out gift from a loved one. They are just items that take up space and need to be dusted.

To me these jars represent all that is thoughtless and mindless about consumerism. Right now they sit on my bedroom dresser, a faded pink three-drawer Ikea unit sandwiched in between two identical ones in fake brown wood finish. The bedroom in our ugly old mobile home is wallpapered in some tacky 80’s country rose pattern that clashes with everything else. The jars look ridiculously out of place, both in style and in colour. But I have kept them there because every time I dust them I’m reminded of how silly such items are, how easy it is to acquire such things, and what a colossal amount of money the average consumer throws away on such things over the course of our lifetimes.

I’ve decided that, in our new home, decorative items will be displayed because there is a story behind them. Perhaps one of the kids made it for me, or it was a gift from someone special who put their heart into it. It may be a souvenir from an important event or experience in my life. It may be from a local artist I admire and, if so, will definitely be handmade from natural materials. It may even be made by myself as I pursue my growing love of fibre art.

Another example: I have some plastic cutting boards (Ikea again!) that I don’t like and they are starting to really show their age. Despite my mother’s insistence that plastic is “hygenic” because you can put it in the dishwasher, some of mine are showing signs of mold/mildew in the cracks and cuts and I’m having to soak them in bleach. I have a wooden cutting board. One is pine strips glued together (yes, it’s also from Ikea) and it is really not holding up well (which I should expect given that it cost me $5). It’s warping and splintering and I realized I don’t even know where the wood came from, or how it was harvested and I don’t know what sort of glue was used to hold the bits together. I decided I was going to ask for a proper, handmade wooden cutting board for Xmas – the kind I see at the farmer’s market. Then a couple weeks ago I was at a local Xmas Fair held at a therapeutic farming community and I found a guy who made cutting boards from fallen Garry Oak. The Garry Oak is native to the Pacific West Coast and our island is home to some of the few remaining Garry Oak ecosystems, which harbour a number of rare species of wildlife. Now that has meaning for me. The cutting boards were carved by the man who was selling them and he explained to me how to oil it regularly to keep it in good shape. When I saw he had one carved into the shape of a pig I knew destiny had led me to his table. I treated myself to the board and it was only $15. Sure, that’s five times more than the cheap-ass one from Ikea, but you get what you pay for, right?

And so as we head through the holiday season and I put together my Xmas gifts I’m trying to be conscious about these things. On a recent trip to Vancouver my mother and I went shopping. It was a very rare treat for me to be able to spend a day with my mother without kids in tow, but honestly the Mall was not the attraction for me. It was spending time with her (and the sushi lunch we had!). As I wandered the stores all I could see was masses and masses of…stuff! Stuff I didn’t need, stuff I didn’t even want until I saw it all done up so nicely in the displays. I passed a window with a lovely fair-isle style sweater and thought “oh, that looks nice” and then I thought to myself “Chain store, likely made in India by poorly paid workers, ten million of them released this season, then by next season they’ll be on the clearance rack because they’ll be ‘so last year'”. That took all the yearning for the sweater out of my head. Not to mention the fact that I’ve always wanted to try Fair Isle knitting and one day I’ll either make one myself or buy it from a local fiber artist. That is worth waiting for (or saving up for).

I’m pretty good at steering clear of “shopping as a hobby”. I do think about the things I buy and I strive to be frugal and keep clutter down to a minimum. Truth is I buy very little. But around Xmas I tend to go into a frenzy of buying stuff I normally wouldn’t because I feel the pressure of this time of year.

So over the next couple of weeks as you make up your gift lists (and wish lists for yourself), think about the things coming into your home and the things you are sending into others’ homes. Ask the same questions you would about your food: where did this come from? who made it? who tended to it? were they treated well and paid fairly? And ask some more questions: is this well-made and useful and will it last? or will I be chucking it out in a few months?

Sorry, Martha, but it’s over between us.

I used to love watching home renovation shows. It started way back in the early nineties with Bob Vila’s Home Again series. The last show I was addicted to was Trading Spaces before we discontinued our cable service. I loved getting ideas on how to decorate a home, seeing what I liked and disliked, and imagining what my future house would look like when I had it done up just the way I wanted.

In fact, it was only recently that I was entertaining the idea of being in a brand new home. There was the condo fiasco, and then the chance to purchase bare land that would require a house to be built upon it. The first didn’t pan out because, you know, I was temporarily insane and all. And the second didn’t pan out because we would have been house/land poor, living on a shoestring, with no chance of paying off our mortgage before we died. And so we ended up here, on glorious Vancouver Island, with 4 beautiful acres to call our own for less than half the price (and half that much land) on the Mainland.

It did come with a home. Well, a mobile home to be precise. Otherwise known as a trailer. Renovating these things is not quite the same process as doing renos on a stick house. These puppies are metal framed, with metal roofs and walls made of something – I haven’t quite figured out what – but they don’t have studs you can hammer nails into and the walls are thinner than standard drywall. Old trailers generally aren’t worth very much and therefore renovations don’t tend to produce enough value increase to make up for the cost. So there’s no real incentive for us to either add on to the place, or redecorate to bring it into the new century. The 80’s country-style wallpaper and cabinets are going to stay, and there is therefore little incentive for me to shop at Ikea or Home Sense for funky trinkets, carpeting, or cheap modern furnishings. So little point, in fact, that it has pretty much robbed me of even the effort of thinking about what might look good in that corner, or whether I should try to match the bathroom towels to the wallpaper.

And do you know, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and this brings me great surprise on a regular basis. I wander around doing my laundry and picking up toys and find myself happy and content with our little trailer home. It’s warm and dry and therefore serves its purpose adequately. It’s also in good condition, which means that even though the wallpaper and cabinets are dated, they are all in good shape and there isn’t that decrepit, falling-apart look that does more to make a home look unattractive then a lack of fashion sense, IMHO. And I can’t deny that cleaning a 1000 sq ft house takes considerably less time than cleaning one much larger.

I regularly ask myself how I came to this point. How did I, who used to spend considerable time daydreaming about whether my future mud room should have wainscotting, or whether I want the exterior to be shingles or hardiplank, get to the point where I am happy living in a mobile home with wallpaper in every room (and every room a different pattern)?

I suppose part of it is that I don’t think of this as a permanent house. It won’t last forever and there will come a time when it will make more sense to get rid of it and start over again. We might replace it with a newer model, build something more permanent, or just sell the place and move on to a bigger acreage. Who knows? But this isn’t THE house in which we will see our children grow up and ourselves grow old. So perhaps I have just put off my inner Martha for a time, and am therefore able to be patient and content because in the back of my mind I will yet, one day, get to design my own home.

On the other hand, it may well be that I have managed to truly internalize some of the values of Living Simply to which I aspire. Perhaps I am not just learning, but feeling, that Stuff really isn’t necessary for happiness. And it may also be that when I can look outside my window and see this:

…instead of this:

…that suddenly what my house looks like isn’t of much concern.

Dumpster Diving: country style

In the city it is not unusual for people to leave unwanted items on the curb so that others can come by and pick them up. But out here in the country you don’t get that sort of traffic. You also don’t get the kind of garbage pickup you do in the city, and often disposing of it means hauling it to the dump. We have every-other-week service here, and pretty decent recycling service too. But just cleaning up around the property we gathered enough garbage to take a run to the dump. It wasn’t that expensive, and if you have a utility trailer it’s not that difficult a task. But apparently some people find it all just too much hassle.

Sad to say, the forest beside our property is littered with garbage. Everything from wrappers to deep freezers and microwaves, car batteries and old mattresses, broken strollers and piles of clothing. Seems some local yahoos like to drive their ATV’s in there at night and toss whatever they can’t be bothered to keep right into the woods. The neighbours and I have been discussing what we can do about it, but in the meantime it’s a growing problem.

The other day while on a walk we found a new pile of dumped material, and right there in the middle was a mini-trampoline. Upon closer inspection it was in excellent condition, other than a small tear in the fabric that covers the springs. Then the kids noticed a set of building blocks, much like Lego, along with little fences and a whole pile of small plastic farm animals. They wanted to bring the stuff home. In less than a minute we’d found an old ice cream bucket. We had to sit there picking the pieces up out of the mud, but a good rinsing at home would take care of that. When we left the woods we all felt we had scored. I said out loud “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” and later I heard the kids repeating the phrase. I love that they are adopting these values of thrift and haven’t succumbed to the consumer culture of wanting everything to be new and from a Mall. Here’s hoping it lasts!

The Debt Economy: can we stop the madness?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I personally did not fully appreciate how much our economy is dependent on consumer spending until I read books like Affluenza, or watched movies like Maxed Out . I’d never heard anybody in the mainstream media come out and say “by the way, you the consumer need to buy ever-increasing amounts of stuff each year or else our economy will fail”. But I’ve noticed that since the economic crisis hit mainstream media they’re not even trying to hide that fact. Witness the intense coverage of retail sales over the Christmas holidays, as the media desperately hoped we’d all spend more money than last year, even while broadcasting daily reports of how bad the financial situation is and how it’s only going to get worse. Did nobody see the contradiction in this? We’re headed for tough financial times, so go out there and spend, spend, spend…?

It’s crazy, but true: our economy apparently depends on people buying more stuff each year than they did the year before. How does anybody say this with a straight face? You don’t have to be a genius to realize it isn’t the least bit sustainable. I mean, how can growth continue indefinitely? For one thing, our planet has a finite amount of resources (see The Story of Stuff for a good illustration of how this relates to consumerism).

But what’s even more crazy about using consumer spending to determine our economic health is that we apparently don’t take into account whether the consumer is spending money they have earned or money they have borrowed. As it turns out, borrowing money is considered to be a consumer purchase because you pay interest to the lender. Thus, buying with borrowed money produces more economic growth than buying with your own money, and don’t think the system hasn’t figured that one out yet. If you doubt this connection, consider that we’re coming out of several years of booming economic times and yet consumer debt is at record highs and personal savings at record lows.

When you are a single consumer and you overextend yourself the result is personal bankruptcy. But when you are a government, what happens when you effectively do the same thing? The United States is carrying a frighteningly high amount of debt, and this is after years of boom times. Now they are arguing over how many billions to give to the auto industry but where are they getting this money from? They are borrowing it (they sell bonds, mostly to foreigners)! Isn’t this “solution” the equivalent of trying to pay your overdue bills with credit cards? 

It begs the question: how is the US government ever going to get out of this debt, and how much more debt can they possibly take on? I’m beginning to feel like the United States is one of those folks you read about in debt counseling books who rack up credit card debt, pay the minimum balances, and kid themselves into thinking they’ll be okay until that one day when it all comes crashing down. It doesn’t seem any different than the sudden, almost-overnight collapse of multibillion-dollar companies like Citibank and Lehman Brothers. Is it a stretch to predict that the government could wake up one day and discover that it’s broke?

While the tone of this post may seem negative, I was actually inspired to write on this subject today because of some positive things I read and heard recently. First, I came across this blog post and I’ll quote the part that made me feel hopeful that not everybody is crazy:

 

I couldn’t understand how I, who was making about the median wage for the area in which I was living, couldn’t even come close to comfortably purchasing a home, while families (not individuals, but families) whose gross net income could not have been much higher than mine at the time, were out purchasing four-bedroom McMansions so that they could park their two cars–one of which was obligatorily an SUV–in the driveway…That’s when I found the one-word answer to the dilemma: Debt. In fact, it was insane, “you’ve never seen anything like it” levels of debt that individuals/families were taking on without seemingly the littlest regard for a strategy of how they were going to ever pay it back. Everyone (and his two-year-old son and pet cat Wheezer) was going into debt at a rate that I just knew was not sustainable. 

And then I stumbled across this YouTube video that introduced me to Peter Schiff. Finally, someone in the mainstream media who is talking sense! (forgive me if this guy is a well-known character; I don’t have cable and I rarely ever see programming like this, I just liked what he had to say here)…

I probably don’t need to remind you, dear readers, that the sensible thing to do in both good and bad economic times is live frugally, don’t spend more than you earn, and make sure to put aside some savings. Let’s just hope the governments will figure this out before it’s too late.

edited to add: I’ve just rung in the New Year watching Peter Schiff videos on YouTube. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear someone tell the simple truth. I would highly encourage anybody who is frustrated with the current economical system to take some time to watch… It’ll cheer you up!

The Joy and Pain of Holiday Shopping

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Yesterday my mother and I spent the day doing our Christmas shopping. As someone who rarely ever sets foot in a mall, does not participate in “recreational shopping”, and is trying to stick to a budget, I found the experience bewildering to say the least. At times I felt like I was an alien visiting from another world, seeing things through new eyes. Malls are filled with just such an enormous amount of things that nobody would ever truly need, such – in my eyes – inordinate wastes of money, it was hard to fathom. 

It’s not like I wasn’t your basic Western consumer up until a few years ago. But even before I discovered the concept of Simple Living I had figured out that when I didn’t go to malls, I didn’t buy much. Still now, after a year of resolve to rid myself of the influence of consumerism and marketing, I found myself tempted in the stores. I suppose that’s nothing to be ashamed of given how hard retailers have worked over the last few decades to study the psychology of your average shopper and design an entire environment – complete with sights, sounds, and smells – that is geared directly toward stimulating that impulse to acquire shiny, new Stuff.

But every time I passed a store whose windows were laden with overpriced clothing (most likely made by workers being paid a pittance), or sparkly baubles, or unimaginative plastic toys…all I could think of was how most people in this part of the world don’t even have a savings account (my province, British Columbia, actually has a negative savings rate). People complain about having no time and no money but look at what we choose to spend it on! And it made me rather sick to think about how much of the Earth’s resources had gone into this massive temple of mass production.

I had resolved to keep the gift spending down this year (more on my homemade gift baskets will be posted soon), yet even so with each swipe of the credit card I winced (and not because I was putting myself in debt: we are devout pay-off-the-balance-each-month folks, but it does make it easier to track extraneous spending). There were those one-or-two gifts that come more out of a sense of obligation than desire to do something special, and those are the kind that hurt the most at the checkout counter. At least most of my gifts this year will be more heartfelt.

The nicest part of the day was getting to spend time with my Mum, and to wander through stores without young children in tow. We ended up having dinner together, warming up on an unusually cold evening with some spicy Szechuan cuisine. 

The downside was my aching feet, my growing stack of receipts (though we came away with not a single disposable bag, having brought sufficient reusable ones with us), and a cold, harsh look at a world I try to stay away from most of the time – teenagers strolling through the mall wearing too much makeup and showing too much skin, spending money without a thought to saving for the future, all in a desperate and misguided attempt to find themselves; middle-aged women trying to hide themselves (or, more accurately, hide their age) under layers of goopey makeup, with hair unnaturally dyed and coiffed, squeezed into clothes designed for a younger, tighter figure; men and women lining up at the cosmetic counter to spend ridiculous amounts of money on fancy bottles of smelly chemicals, potions, lotions, and cremes to hide their scent, their face, their colouring. So much escapism…so much fear of just being oneself. It was all really rather sad.

I wish I could say I’m done for the year but the one stop I was most looking forward to proved the most fruitless. We went out of our way to a natural toy store where I was hoping to find some quality, non-plastic, imaginative toys for my kids priced under $50. Fully half the store was devoted to dolls and their accessories (my girl has no interest in such things), another good chunk were puzzles (we have tons, and guess who has to pick up all the pieces), and the few toys I thought they might like were well over my price limit. And so I’ll have to venture out into that strange world once more before the season is over. Meanwhile, I’ll sit here and stare out the window at the falling snow and the winter wonderland that greeted us this morning. Now THAT is my idea of beauty!

SALE is a four-letter word

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I was listening to a story on the radio the other day about yet another large chain-store retail business that has succumbed to the “global economic crisis”. They’d put their various outlets on “liquidation sale” status and were advertising prices reduced up to %75 off. But when some customers were tearing off the price labels after bringing their purchases home, they discovered that the original price was not much different than the sale price and, in some cases, was even less. The journalist reminded us that “liquidation” does not mean “get rid of stuff at a loss”, it means “make as much money as you can in as short a time as you can”.

The whole story got me thinking about the retail magic of the word “Sale”. Everybody loves a sale, right? Why? – Because we think we are “getting a deal”. We think that we are paying less for something than we should be. But the reality is that we are often being suckered into parting with our money while at the same time being made to feel as though we came out ahead. As the above news story points out: 50% off an already over-inflated price is no bargain, and yet many people will snatch up an item that is 50% off, thinking they are getting good value for their money. In other words, the percent discount becomes such a central focus in the consumer’s mind that whether the actual price constitutes good value for the product is barely considered.

A hefty discount is also usually enough to convince a consumer to purchase something they don’t need, didn’t even know they wanted until they saw it, just because they think the price is so good. The thinking becomes focussed on how much was saved, as if buying it at the original price were a given. Which, of course, it usually wasn’t.

When it comes to sales, the consumer thought process goes like this: “This item is usually $100, if I get it for $50 then I’ve saved myself $50!”. 

Why doesn’t it go like this: “That item costs $50, and if I buy it that is $50 less that I have to spend on necessities or put into my savings account”?

Getting a 50% discount is not saving money, it is spending money. We should always remember that.

I think that a good habit for consumers to develop is to decide beforehand what an item is worth to them, and how much of their budget they are willing to devote to the acquisition of that product. Then go find it. That may mean hitting Home Depot on the way back from grocery shopping, or it may mean scanning the weekly flyers for a sale that brings your price into range, or it may mean hunting through thrift stores and garage sales. But having decided ahead of time that 1) this is something you actually have a need (or a strong desire) for, and 2) how much value that item holds for you and your budget, I think that truly does shift the balance of power to you, the consumer.

With the holiday season approaching, a time when consumerism tends to run rampant, let’s all try to keep in mind the potential pitfalls of that four letter word.

Another way to help with the food budget?

Grocery cartI wrote a few weeks ago that I’d decided to switch to organic milk and butter. We upped our allotted food money in the monthly budget, and reduced amounts in other areas to make up for that. Because my milk comes in 1L glass bottles and we go through almost 12 per week, I took advantage of our local organic delivery service and now have a standing order of milk, eggs, and butter that comes each week.

This month I made my first purchase from a wholesale organic distributor I signed up with. I saved a bundle on organic spices, bought about 4 months worth of organic cheese (my friend has been using this service for a while now and swears their vaccuum packed cheese lasts for 4 months in the fridge before opening) and stocked up on fair trade organic tea, fair trade organic cane sugar, and other staples. And I now have enough laundry powder, dishwashing powder, and dish soap (the only household cleansers I buy, and all from Nature Clean) to last me for months. While the prices on most items were much cheaper than in the store, for other items the savings weren’t as significant as just not having to make a special trip to the upscale grocery store that carries them. 

Well, I just updated our budget sheet for November and we are doing far better this month than we have been in the last little while. And although much of that can be attributed to less eating out (even small purchases add up over a month) it seems that overall we are just spending less on groceries, even though we’ve begun purchasing organic items that cost more than their conventional counterparts. I wanted to know what we did this month that was different than previous months.

Well, my friend pointed out the other day that one of the reasons she prefers to make her own bread is that when she doesn’t, she ends up having to go to the store for bread…and comes home with a whole bunch of other things. It then occurred to me that, with my new system, I’ve dramatically cut down on the number of trips to the grocery store, and I wondered if that was saving me money. I can’t say for certain as I haven’t tracked the items, but I know I fall victim to impulse buying as much as the next consumer, even if my impulsive selection is healthy and wholesome! So it makes sense to me. 

Ideally I’d like to be in situation where I don’t have to go to the store much at all. I don’t enjoy being in grocery stores as they feel like churches filled with altars devoted to crappy food and lousy eating habits. The kids invariably want some kind of treat for their suffering, and leaving them home with their father so I can wheel a wobbly cart around a giant flourescent-lit warehouse seems like a pathetic way to grab some “me time”. It’s also really nice to be able to produce a healthy, well-balanced meal just from things lying around the house (or in the garden – my swiss chard is thriving in this chilly weather) rather than having to get in the car and drive (ah, suburbia!). Saving money by not having to go as often is definitely an added bonus!