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  • Susan Gallagher

Shopping Cart Activism


It takes a certain kind of angry enthusiasm to be an activist—something I do not possess. I’ve been deeply disappointed by plenty of environmental practices and decisions, but have never been able to channel that frustration into public action.

I’ve got friends who’ve taken up causes with the passion of a Justin Beiber fan holding front row tickets. Most have their legislators’ numbers on speed dial and can quote the voting record of every elected official in Harrisburg. Some have marched on Washington to bring awareness to climate change or social injustice. One even chained herself outside a pigeon shoot a few years ago. I admire—no, I envy—the way they commit to things with such intensity, because I just can’t seem to muster it myself.

I remember graduating from college at the tail end of the environmental movement, full of new ideas and eager to change the world. “Why don’t you go out and get arrested for something?” my mother asked. Gee, Mom. Sorry to disappoint.

After those college years, I did find a way to get in touch with my quiet, inner activist—something better suited to my personality, and a practice I carry on to this day: I’ve learned to embrace my power as a consumer.

This is a power that all of us, from the meekest to the most militant, have at our disposal. Every time we buy (or “buycott”) something, we’re sending a message. Either we accept (or ignore) the practices inherit in the production of the goods offered, or we do not. Our buying habits speak volumes in a language all businesses understand—that of dollars and cents.

Questions of ethical consumerism start off simply at first. Do you buy the regular shampoo, or spend a little more on the brand that wasn’t tested on animals? Does the tuna can label read “dolphin-safe”, and if not, should you be asking the retailer to carry it?

But things get complicated, as opportunities to make a statement as a consumer appear every time you open your wallet. A simple trip to the grocery store becomes a mind-bending examination of conscious for the informed consumer.

Is the coffee fair trade, the milk BGH-free and the sugar socially-responsible? Is the seafood sustainable, the poultry grass-fed, the eggs cage-free and are the apples local? Ooops! Forgot to check if the tea bags were Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Are the napkins and coffee filters unbleached, the trash bags photo-biodegradable, the batteries rechargeable and the light bulbs CFL?

Inhale. Exhale.

Is the wool predator-friendly, the T-shirt made of organic cotton and all the other clothing SweatFree? Is that garden plant native and the lawn care spray non-toxic? Was the last lumber purchase FSC certified? Is the hotel room booked for summer vacation Green Seal approved? Are all the energy choices carbon-neutral and the gasoline 10% ethanol? Oh—ethanol is bad now, right?

Wait… What???

I’ll be honest. For me, the answers to some of those questions is “no”. It’s not that I don’t care. I do. I just have a hard time keeping up with it all, and can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

Every day there are new alerts, reminding us why certain products and practices are bad for the planet.

You’re not buying Scott’s bird seed are you? a friend asked the other day. Don’t you know Scott’s Miracle-Gro added pesticides to its bird seed supply to protect it during storage? The company was fined $12 million by the EPA in 2012!

Oh, I must have missed that one on the news last night. I was busy reading Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, and vowing never to buy another imported winter tomato again.

After my friend gave me the whole story on Scott’s (true story, and a pretty nasty tale if you care at all about songbirds) I gave her the lowdown on tomatoes. Unless you’re buying local or organic, chances are some of these fruits have carved a pretty destructive path on their way to your salad plate.

Estabrook’s book tells of migrant labor crews being forced to sign unfair working agreements in a language they don’t understand, returning from the fields drenched in pesticides, and women giving birth to horribly deformed babies. The anemic soils of some large-scale tomato fields are drained of natural nutrients, as are the fruits, grown and picked for color alone.

It’s a grim picture, and the book has done more to convince me to change my produce-buying habits than anything else. But honestly, do I have time to trace the production history of every item in the shopping cart? Definitely not.

I think trying to tackle it all at once is a recipe for failure. So I pick my battles, and try to learn as much as I can about one thing (tomatoes, say, or wine or chocolate—necessities, all) until I’m fully convinced of the need to make real and lasting change in my shopping habits. Then it’s time to do the same with another item, and another, and another. Soon I’m turning into a more ethical consumer, a real shopping cart activist.

Sometimes I don’t pick the battle—the battle picks me. It’s hard to watch those images of a collapsed factory in Bangladesh, and wonder if any of my cheap, Big Box Store clothing purchases came from there. The new running shirt may have only cost $9.99 out of my pocket, but someone half a world away paid the real price.

There’s a growing “minimalist movement” that’s popped up in response to all the social and environmental injustice of consumerism. Minimalists aren’t just telling us to buy organic or buy fair trade—they’re telling us to buy less.

And while that sounds like another worthwhile goal, the truth is we still have to shop. The need for food, water and shelter is universal. And the world most of us live in at the moment requires that we pay for—that someone pay for—those basic needs.

So why not vote with your shopping dollars, especially if you’re suited to a more mild-mannered form of protest. It’s a great way for me and my fellow introverts to speak up without saying a word.

This is not to rule out a more aggressive kind of activism in my future. I feel strongly that there’s a need for greater awareness of the impacts our energy choices have on wildlife. Though I think it unlikely, just imagine if I could find the angry enthusiasm necessary for an act of civil disobedience. I could chain myself to an industrial wind turbine with a giant sign that reads THESE THINGS ARE KILLING TOO MANY BATS, AND NOT ENOUGH IS BEING DONE TO STOP IT!

If I should end up on the local news, being handcuffed and hauled away to jail, somebody please call my mom. She’ll be so proud.


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