In my Leadership Skills for Social Justice class this quarter, we were asked to respond to the question, “How do my consumer practices contribute to oppression?” It would be naïve for me to answer with a simple “They don’t,” because it is impossible to know who makes each product, how it is transported, and what other factors go into getting it to my doorstep. Therefore, any honest answer to that question must reflect at least the possibility that I contribute to oppression every day, through almost everything that I eat, wear, read, and otherwise consume.
But, if my every act as a consumer contributes to oppression, then doesn’t the term oppression itself become meaningless or at least less potent? That’s the problem I have with this question—that it is too like the proverbial “When did you stop beating your wife?” in its inescapable accusation. So what if I am an oppressive consumer? How am I supposed to eat, etc. in the middle of a major metropolitan area without depending on the unseen industrial, agricultural, and transportation workers who make my lifestyle possible?
Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from the environmental movement, which has also been plagued with similar problems of scale—complex issues that seem too big for any one person to mitigate. In the face of such issues, it is all too easy to complain that there’s nothing to be done, that things simply are they way they are.
However, I am a child of the environmental movement. I participated in the first Earth Day, following in the footsteps of my mother, who is still an active conservationist at age 80. One thing I’ve learned in watching the environmental movement evolve over the past 35+ years is that it is possible for individuals to make a difference. They can do it in two ways—band together with like-minded others to effect specific changes or, at the personal level, start making conscious choices about consumption and lifestyle. We’ve seen in just the past few years how a small group of people buying organic products has led to the wider availability of such products. The same goes for products made from recycled plastic and glass. The latest trend, at least here in the Washington, DC, area, is people choosing to bring their own shopping bags to the store. A few people do it, and then suddenly many more people perceive that it’s a good idea.
My current understanding of the issues surrounding oppression and social justice is such that I’m not ready to join any movements, but I am capable of thinking more about what I buy. Given the interconnections between social justice issues and environmental issues, it makes a lot of sense to learn about what goes into the creation and transportation of the products I use, especially those I purchase frequently.
Let’s start with coffee. It fuels my day. It’s not so much the buzz as the fragrance, flavor, and warmth that help me set a good pace for my work or study. I am fortunate to live in an area where not only is shade-grown coffee readily available, but I’ve even heard fair trade coffee advertised on the radio. That doesn’t avoid the possible oppression of the people who ship the coffee and build the boats that carry the coffee, but if I worry about the entire production and transportation chain, I will quickly find myself paralyzed. What I can do is choose fair trade, shade-grown, organic coffee as often as I feel I can afford it. It is heartening to read that such a choice may have a definite positive effect.:
If coffee sells as a complexly marketed specialty beverage like wine rather than an anonymous, price-driven commodity like branded supermarket coffee, and if some of the premium paid for those complexly marketed specialty coffees actually makes it back to the pockets of subsistence growers rather than staying in the hands of marketers and dealers, then specialty coffee becomes part of a self-regulating, market-oriented solution to the rural poverty that haunts many parts of the tropics.
Right now, my biggest quandary is about decaffeinated coffee. One of the ways I manage to drink coffee all day without getting the jitters is that I mix regular and decaffeinated beans. I visited a coffee plantation in Costa Rica about six years ago and was shocked to learn that the decaf coffee they sold on site was actually shipped to Germany to be decaffeinated and then shipped back to the plantation to be sold to tourists. What extra economic “inputs” go into the making of my decaf coffee? This may be more of an environmental issue of which process is the least harmful than it is a social justice issue, but it illustrates the complexity of the consumer’s dilemmas.
What’s next? Well, it’s winter, so maybe it’s a good time to think about buying fruits and vegetables appropriate to the season, rather than eating strawberries from South America. Parsnips, anyone?