There’s a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. With apologies to the late, great author, I want to summarize it here:
In the city of Omelas, everyone is deliriously happy. The people eat well, drink well, and party all the time. There’s no sickness, no pain, and the weather’s always perfect. It’s a utopia. Everyone has everything they could possibly want or need.
Well, almost everyone. For deep in the heart of Omelas is a dark, damp, cold room. And in this room is a child: unwashed, starved, uneducated, and treated cruelly. They don’t have a name, a family, clothes, or a clue as to why they’re kept in horrible conditions.
Everyone in Omelas is taken to see the child once in their lifetimes. They’re made to understand that, somehow, all the glorious happiness of Omelas relies on this one person’s suffering. As long as this child suffers, everyone else in Omelas will thrive.
And it’s then that the individuals of Omelas make a choice: to stay in Omelas, content in the knowledge that their comfort and happiness relies on the misery of another; or to leave, to opt out, to go somewhere that might not be as perfect as Omelas, but where they can live without exploiting another for their own gain.
The ethical choice is, of course, to walk away from Omelas. It’s a fable for modern times.
We live in a world where so much of our lifestyles, our wealth, relies on exploitation. Animals live short, brutish lives on factory farms so we can eat meat from the supermarket. Carbon emissions slowly damage the climate to devastating effect so we can drive cars and ride airplanes. Children work twelve-hour work days in sweatshops so we can browse a closet full of fashionable clothes and still say “I have nothing to wear.”
The way we consume—food, clothing, electronics, everything—is, all too often, pretty fucking unethical.
Now here’s a gif of a doggo hanging out with some baby chicks because that shit just got real fucking dark!
When we talk about “ethical consumption,” we’re generally referring to two separate, but related, issues:
- Pollution: We’re slowly but surely killing the planet with manufacturing and agricultural processes that aren’t good for the environment.
- Inhumane and exploitative labor practices: Many companies treat their workers poorly, forcing them to work long hours in uncomfortable conditions for little pay, employing children, and limiting their options.
So let’s talk about how to be a (slightly more) ethical consumer. Lets talk about how to walk away from Omelas.
Just buy less stuff!
Do you really need certain things? Can you do without others? Can you extend the life of things you already own in order to avoid replacing them more often?
Learning to sew and do basic carpentry has helped me to make do with the things I have for longer. Recycling typically single-use items (yogurt containers, for example) has eliminated my need to buy other items (plastic food storage containers, for example). Borrowing from friends or using the goddamn library has cut way down on the stuff I buy.
The plain and simple fact of the matter is that the most ethical form of consumption is sparing, rare. When you make fewer decisions to buy things, you can be more intentional about those decisions, more deliberate in how and what you buy.
Buying less also has the benefit of being considerably cheaper than buying more. The math is super complicated, so just stay with me here: some dollars > no dollars.
Lessen your consumption! Your wallet will love you, and so will Captain Planet! So consume less stuff…
You guys know Aunt Piggy’s all about buying used. I love the idea of answering compliments on my outfits with “$8 at the thrift store, baby!” Gets me rock fucking hard.
I’ve written about buying secondhand goods as a means to live frugally and save the world on multiple occasions:
- Almost Everything Can Be Purchased Secondhand
- Fast Fashion: Why It’s Fucking up the World and How To Avoid It
- I Am a Craigslist Samurai and so Can You: How to Sell Used Stuff Online
Here’s the thing: everything we buy or build eventually ends up in a landfill. And buying secondhand stuff simply extends the life of that stuff past its usual expiration date. This keeps it out of the landfill a little longer and lessens demand for the manufacture of new stuff that will eventually wind up in the dump. We’re not filling in Back Bay anymore, children, we don’t need that much trash!
Most of the furniture in my home is either secondhand (kitchen table and chairs, living room lounge chairs, desk, dresser, guest bed, bar cart) or homemade (bed, nightstands, shelves). It looks great, it’s fully functional, and I get to be smug about saving money and adorable sea otters or whatever else happens to be threatened by pollution these days.
Never underestimate the power of a white lady’s smugness to improve the world.
Buying locally made food and goods can sometimes be more expensive than buying generic brands or even large national brands with broad distribution. I willingly admit that!
But it’s generally much better for the environment, as it cuts down on the pollution of packaging, shipping, and inhumane labor practices. If you’ve got a local farmer’s market, USE IT. It’s great for both food and unique gifts.
Shopping locally is great for the economy too! You’re putting money in the pockets of your neighbors rather than the Walton family or Jeff Bezos. Because let’s face it: your local business owners need it more.
They’ll use it to pay their employees a living wage. They’ll spend it at other local businesses. This means by shopping locally, you’re keeping your economic influence local as well, helping to create jobs for your neighbors and contributing to improved community infrastructure.
Shopping locally basically makes you George Fucking Bailey.
Make your own
Kitty and I are both big gardeners. This is both a privilege and a hobby, but it also means we go to the grocery store less often during the summer. This lessens our carbon footprints and prevents us from purchasing veggies and fruits in plastic packaging. It also encourages us to eat more of the plants we grow, which is good for our health!
The only thing that tastes better than a homegrown tomato on the vine is the sweet, sweet sense of superiority that comes from declaring myself independent from corporate corruption and greed. Also sugar snap peas on the vine.
On top of my gardening, my husband hunts and fishes, and it’s a long-term goal of ours to replace all grocery-store meat with hunted meat (though it would be helpful if certain thousand-pound ungulates would stop hiding during elk season). Eating hunted meat is much better for the environment than eating farmed meat.
But making your own extends beyond the food you eat. You can build your own furniture, sew your own clothes, repair your appliances, trade or borrow with friends for things you don’t have.
And forget smugness: the sheer personal pride of making something with your own two hands provides a much more ethical high than the recreational drug industry. (Unless you happen to be growing your own weed, too.)
A note on privilege
No post on ethical consumption would be complete without a note on privilege.
I just recommended growing your own damn food, learning how the fuck to sew and build things, and spending time scouring secondhand stores and websites for shit. I am painfully aware of how time-consuming all that is. It can be difficult for some people to find the energy and resources to make all that happen.
It takes a lot of time to make your own stuff! Gardening literally takes months and considerable sweat equity, not to mention dollah-dollah-bills to get started. And it can be hard to seek out local brands, stores, and artisans rather than just hitting up Target after a twelve-hour shift.
Our girl Angela over at Tread Lightly, Retire Early is attempting to cut plastic out of her life because of its effects on the environment. In fact, she’s trying to go entirely zero-waste! Holy duckstockings, what a monumental undertaking! And she is devastatingly open about how time-consuming, energy-sapping, and logistically difficult this endeavor is.
The working poor have the fewest Beyoncé Hours of anyone, and they absolutely should not be judged for choosing convenience and expediency over ethical consumption. If your life is too broke and busy to make the above methods work, do what you can. Stick with the generic brands at the national chain store and the clearance rack at the department store. You won’t get any judgment from the Bitches.
Ethical consumption is generally a goal for the privileged among us. And while we should all do what we can when it comes to preserving the environment and shutting down exploitative labor practices, the key phrase there is what we can. Some of us can do more than others.
How ’bout it, Bitch Nation? What are you doing to consume more ethically? Give me all your ethical consumption tips and tricks in a comment below!