Not long ago, I posted an article on boycotting as a normal every day part of an ethical life, particularly an ethical business life. The other part of that is considering justice (ethics) in each purchase. Boycotting is about rejecting certain uses of wealth. Using justice in purchasing is about ethical use of wealth.
There are a lot of ways one could write this piece: a list of principles (something of a penchant of mine), a set of examples (I started to) or, in this case, a history of what I’ve worked up to. I selected the latter, because one of the key points is that, for most of us, it will be a gradual transition rather than an instantly comprehensive one. And perhaps it will be more sustainable because of that. Our commitment needn’t be less and needn’t waver, because it is implemented over time.
Personally, I started with animal cruelty. Right there, I’ve lost some of you. Our cultural obsession with meat borders on the pathological. Most people haven’t considered the emotional conditions its constant consumption produces, and the addictive capacity of those conditions. And if we can’t consider the consumables we take into our own bodies, what basis do we have for considering external consumables? I started with chicken. I won’t go into detail about the ethics of poultry production; this information is already well known and certainly readily available. And you don’t have to go to PETA to get it. They’re just making book and bank off of well-known realities.
In fact, one of the reasons this is such a candidate for a starting place is what I call the sausage principle. We prefer not to think about what goes into it, where it comes from, or what it takes to produce it. We prefer not to think about the source of the stimulation we receive from it. We want the good feeling apart from facts or their aesthetic significance, much less their ethical significance. But that’s just the point, whether we’re talking about boycotting or ethical use of wealth – if we prefer not to consider the source, we’re denying ethics at the outset – we’re saying our pleasures our immune to ethical considerations – and that, frankly, separates us in such a way that I think (if that’s you) you’re reading the wrong blog. I knowI say that a l ot, but work is about meaning, and meaning is partly about ethics.
So I stopped eating chicken, mostly, and switched to cage-free eggs. I’d like to eat free-range, which is better.
We quit using Walmart. I know that’s part of the boycotting post, but that was huge. It was a matter of principle. They’re ubiquitous, and families will sometimes spend 80% of their disposable income there. I reduced us from 50% to 1%.
Just being exposed to shopping at other places opened up other avenues of ethical purchasing for us. Now, at Target, and even at Crest, we’re seeing organic cow’s milk, for instance, which we promptly switched to, along with soymilk.
Next I cut MSG from our diets. I cut out chemical based foods almost altogether. That was huge. I don’t like that it makes you stupid, that’s for sure. But I also don’t like it out of principle. It isn’t food – it’s simulated food and addictive drugs and neurostimulators. We started using organic broth, cereal, etc. (got them at Buy for Less), and we’d read ingredient labels.
That’s the thing. Ethics and health are like piety – they involve taking little pains. They involve some degree of precision. They involve attention, thought, and integrity. Again, if you’re not interested in that, I’ve not much to say to you about work, either.
We switched to a more balanced diet overall – more vegetables, smaller portions of meat, when we have meat (which is not at every meal), and excellent soy products and other non-meat sources of protein are part of our diet (like hummus and tofu – which we were already eating – and Boca Burgers). It’s so inexpensive to steam some vegetables, oor put together a healthy gourmet meal with a few minutes and a few ingredients that, after a while, that’s just how we live now. It’s the norm for us.
We switched to fair trade tea and coffee. Sure, we try to avoid sweat shop goods – but thats on the negative side. We also try to buy products that keep people out of near-slavery. Fair trade is a non-brainer. And frankly, we get better coffee and tea because of it. It’s less than Starbucks prices, too.
We went to toothpaste (Tom’s) that isn’t tested on animals. Incidentally, they don’t brush their teeth with it – the testing is cruel. Tom’s toothpase is excellent, by the way, comes in multi-care and tartar control varieties, and we get ours at Target or Walgreens.
We went to organic deodorant, too. Jason tea tree oil deodorant. The stuff is excellent. No aluminum to cause brain problems, no parafins (it doesn’t crumble, and it’s not chalky and visible under your arm), and it works better than anything else at it’s primary job. Tom’s deodorant, frankly, didn’t do the trick. Jason is odorless and doesn’t rely on covering up smells with other strong smells, like a lot of them, or drying you out completely like the heavy chemicals do. I have extremely sensitive skin, and I can use Jason daily. Again, we get it at Target.
This is another point about Walmart. You just won’t find this kind of stuff there, so changing what you buy really does require changing where you buy. If you’re only exposed to products that are willing to cut their margins and play Walmart’s game, you’re going to use mostly the usual crap.
I’ve already talked about the shift to a smaller fuel-efficient car. We’re working on saving utility use, too.
The key point I’m always learning about this stuff is that it involves thinking, again, about where everything comes from – what it takes to put it in your hands – the chain of events from creation to delivery. In that sense, you could say it’s a Christian undertaking – Christianity is partly about creation and redemption, origin and ethics.
It’s also a classic capitalist undertaking. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, the capitalist bible, advance the labor theory of value (something immediately poo-pooed in university, and forgotten by those who claim to follow his precepts). The labor theory of value asserts that the value of a thing is the labor it takes to produce it. In other words the blood, sweat, and tears – the very lives of people – spent in time and energy – spent in the conditions necessary – to produce an item and deliver it into your hands. When you pay for an item, you’re paying for a life, in degrees and increments, and subsidizing a kind of existence. You’re purchasing the conditions under which something is created and delivered. The remaining question is whether that act on your part is subject to ethics at all. And you know what I’d say about that.
It’s extra effort, it’s extra time, thinking about these things, considering your purchases. I could make the argument, quite successfully that you’ll recoup all or most of that, perhaps more than once over. I could point out that if you’re willing to do it for prices, why not other reasons? Why not multi-task? Why not look at the total picture, not price alone – the latter is bad economics. I’ll bet I pay less for my $6 deodorant than you pay for your $2 deodorant – but that’s another conversation. The point is that I’m not denying it takes effort or thought – I’m saying it’s worth your effort and your thought. I’m saying that ethics is, that meaning is, that people are, and that you are – and the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live. If not, what the hell are you reading this for? Go get an issue of Maxim and think no farther.
I know I can sound preachy – at least in a culture that’s saturated with “oughts”, and bombarded by nihilism at the same time (“there is no ought, there’s only is”) But I really can’t identify with people who want to make money for no point and no thought other than comfort. I don’t identify with the leisure class, or the aspiration to join it. If we’re talking about work, therefore, and we’re colleagues at all, we’re talking about a much broader spectrum of life.
So, I’m not going to justify this post this time by appealing to a principle of work. I could, I can, but I also already have, a number of times. You either get it by now, or you don’t. I’m not trying to convert anyone. My audience is my peers. You know who you are. You know why you work and what you think about. And I feel you out there, even as I listen to you when you talk back to me. A lot of you are my clients.
So this has been a post about work, about the lives it produces, and about its point and purpose. It has its own flavour. It’s my version, if you will. This is how we do it. Your way may be better. But I think it’s a reasonable chip off the prototype. If you agree, purchase accordingly.