Growing up in New York City, one's pressure to keep up with the eponymous Joneses is amplified by that to keep up with the Ramones, the Rothschilds, and a whole slew of ever-morphing tribes. Beyond the trend, however, and beneath those changing tides of tastes in tile or tulle is a deep politics.
On the surface this appears to be clarified by the retail outfits' own self-appointed titles as green, organic, free trade, union, and the like: allowing the consumer, still, to participate in the transactions only semi-consciously, by simply entering and exiting through different doors.
Yes, yes - it's an old saw. The song of consumer responsibility has long been sung... and yet, the lesson has far from sunken in. Quite the opposite: exhausted by systems that oppress them in various ways, otherwise lovely intelligent people skulk around making entirely unconscionable purchases, in a modern variant of "don't ask, don't tell." When pressed about such issues, friends and family have responded with a range of reactions from feigning indifference to hurt expressions to even outright anger at my having broached such a subject. Yet I know that personally, I am haunted by such decisions, in multiple realms of consumer activity, and the less than subtle nature of these reactions suggests that I'm not alone. Also, that it's a bit of a taboo, isn't it -- to discuss our complicity in the baking of the systems cake on which our shopping is only the frosting?
But WHY? Why are we so hesitant to even have open conversations with ourselves about something so clearly crucial? When how and what we buy, as a collective, clearly has such enormous impact?
As a hint, consider this familiar scenario: I feel pressure that my own wardrobe is inadequate and/or out of date and/or inappropriate -- this last because of work, family, age, etc -- and since making clothes is now more expensive than buying and/or tailoring is nigh impossible to have done with the way clothes are now made and/or I cannot fit into the ones I have, I feel as though it is necessary for me to buy new clothes.
Given that I make about enough to pay my rent and feed myself (and honestly not too much else) when something needs purchasing, price is the primary issue. This is true for most people, even those with considerable discretionary income -- especially if they are of the "financially responsible" type. A low price on items like clothing or housewares will allow someone with little to no money be able to buy such things once in a while, and those more fortunate put the balance away for a secure future, or perhaps a house made out of ticky-tacky.
From my depression era family I have learned the traditional "value of a dollar" -- which, at further inquiry, I have found the be at the crux of this issue. The idea of "VALUE" -- and how deeply it is ingrained to monetary prices. Engrained in many of us from an early age is the idea that frugality is equal to wisdom. In considerations of "value," therefore, the lesson is plain and simple: If one apple costs $1 and the other apple costs $2, the apple of better value is the cheaper apple. Now, of course, if the apple that costs $2 is a designer apple, one is also purchasing a certain amount of symbolic currency, and the value system has changed remarkably. The depression era great aunties and my mother besides would scold you for even caring about the label -- though the 50's made brand name groceries standard in the household realm.
But I digress -- the point is, "value" remains in the realm of the object. I could go off on Marx now but that would be obvious and painful so I won't. However, I will say that there is a direct connection to the effort exacted from and by a laborer to every single commodity out there for purchase -- and that, by extension, when we are consuming a commodity, we are playing into a larger system of "value" than the one that puts the price tag on an apple: one that puts a pricetag on ourselves.
The conclusion of the story begun above is that -- in such a bind -- the exhausted, overworked consumer considers the clothing made humanely out of fabrics manufactured and processed humanely, and has sticker shock. Ruminating over "value" and feeling sufficiently abused already, with the choice in front of one of perhaps purchasing a single new item, made well and humanely, or perhaps being able to rotate a few new things bought at -- oh, I don't know, Old Navy? -- ends, with some guilt, at Old Navy.
For there are multiple things to consider. How would one explain the fact that one is wearing the same item every day for several months because one didn't want to contribute to child labor in East Asia? One is concerned about the public, the workplace, and cannot bear to complicate one's life more.
And yet? We have just made a value judgement, as we do with every such decision. And it was not one that said, "this shirt is a better value than that shirt" but one in which our own comfort (or lack of discomfort) is more important to us, on a daily basis, than the fate of those who suffer so that those prices can be so low. We are saying, your labor is not worth more. You are not worth more.
It is not easy to do otherwise. For those of us in financial diress -- as I have so often been, and have even more often been on the brink of -- it can appear a nondecision. But how many things in our lives will we give the power over to others in? Are we that afraid of our co-workers, and what they will think? Sure, even if we don't shop that way, millions of others will. But if enough "individuals" choose to value labor, and life, over their own comfort, those individuals may too add up to millions. We have more of a voice than we've ever chosen to speak with. With every purchase, we have the power to assign value, to assert what is important to us, to stand up for what we believe in -- and what a super power that is.