The concept of being a thoughtful consumer quite easily leads to considerations of being an ethical consumer. But isn't this quicksand for many of us who are coping with already having consumed too much, too thoughtlessly? How can we worry about making the "right" purchasing choices in the future when we've already done such a lousy job with our past choices that we're positively drowning in stuff?
Clearly the primary concern for those of us dealing with clutter is unloading our excess possessions. This is a good time for a reminder that clutter doesn't necessarily mean junk; clutter is simply a quantity of stuff that is so large that it interferes with living our lives joyfully. It's not always as obvious as stacks and stacks of unread magazines that never will be read and now have become a fire hazard. A closet full of lovely clothes that don't get worn because they no longer fit is a closet full of clutter. A kitchen full of exotic cooking gadgets that never get used because you only enjoy cooking simple meals is a kitchen full of clutter. If it doesn't leave you room to live the way you want to live, if it doesn't leave you space to breathe, if it weighs you down in your mind, it's clutter and it's got to go. Working through that process of elimination obviously must be the priority for most of us.
But life goes on and every day we're faced with purchasing decisions, even as we sort and toss and clean and fervently vow that never again will we allow so many things to crowd our homes and burden our brains. So, why not try to make the right decision every time we buy something?
Well, first of all there's that pesky concept of "right" that needs to be defined. Do you only buy food that's organic because you believe it's healthier for you and your family? A good idea, but it can be expensive, it limits your product choices, and you may not live in an area with easy access to organic products. Must your clothes be manufactured only by companies that don't engage child labor? That does require determining which companies fit that category before you go shopping. Must your product choices be "made in America?" American companies now often have at least some part of their manufacturing done in other countries, so are they no longer producing "American" products? If you want to consider the impact your purchase has on the environment, how, exactly, do you assess it? For example, what about that lovely politically correct bamboo floor you're installing that required a huge amount of energy expenditure to transport the wood to this country? If you're a vegetarian, will you wear leather shoes?
Makes you want to scream, doesn't it?
Not only are there your personal beliefs that need to be clearly thought out and refined, there's also a huge amount of research that needs to be done in order to find out where a company or product fits into your criteria, once you've decided what's "right" for you. I've tortured my brain too often about this issue and, while I'll make every attempt not to be a fool in making my purchasing decisions, I have decided on a gentler approach that makes sense to me.
First, by simply reducing the quantity of purchases I make, I believe that I am favorably impacting the environment. When I do buy, whether I choose something used and give it new life, or buy something new of high quality so that it will last longer, I'm pretty certain that I'm demanding less of our limited supply of natural resources.
Second, I'm not totally oblivious to the news (although some days I'd truly like to be!), so if I'm made aware that certain companies engage in practices that I find offensive, I'll avoid their products. We live in a land of abundance, so it's not too hard to find an adequate substitute for almost anything we need to buy.
Finally, I'll try my best to consider what I know about the source of the product I'm buying, the people who make it, the process they use, its purpose in our world and the purpose it will serve in my own life. Just a momentary pause to think, even with limited information, will help me make better choices. Then, when I make some mistakes, because I can guarantee I will, I'll forgive myself and move on.
I made a choice today that I'm happy about: American Flatbread, an organic vegetarian pizza made in an artisan bakery in California and purchased at my local health food store. I often eat food that is not organic, I'm not a vegetarian, and I bought it because I was walking by the store and I didn't want to have to cook anything demanding for dinner. But I took a moment to read the box and liked what the company had to say. Result: it tasted great! I have no connection with the company and am not receiving any compensation for an endorsement; I'm just passing along a tip about a good product and using it as an example of how that brief pause before purchasing resulted in a satisfying experience.
On other occasions, I've also paused, reflected, purchased and ended up with something totally unsuccessful, so my system is hardly flawless. But more times than not, it has worked for me. So, if I take a few deep breaths, put the system into practice and make the leap of faith it requires, well, then at least I don't feel like I want to scream.
(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob