Offer me a helping of potatoes and sugar snaps from a local farmer or a plate full of war and carnage, and I'll take the vegetables, thanks.Invite me to sit on a cushion in a chair made locally from willow branches or let me settle softly into plush slave labor and environmental degradation, and I'll choose the rustic chair and cushion.
None of my friends or family actively seeks to support war, impoverishment, or desecration of the earth. But what is indisputable is that most any product I purchase, unless I know its maker, has long supply chains in its manufacture that do just that.
My point is not that farmers, even those in industrial production, support war or use practices that knowingly harm others or that furniture stores harm the environment or workers. They may or may not. But behind virtually every purchase, there are profound impacts, sometimes for individuals, but overwhelming for the broader society.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science says that of 20 major traded commodities, our nation consumes the greatest share of 11 of them: corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, tin, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil and natural gas. Some of that consumption is obvious and wasteful, such as the 6 tons of rock mined to produce a pair of typical gold rings or the approximately 330 kilos of paper (around five trees) the average American uses each year. But much is hidden, because products are too complex to discern the impacts of our purchases.
Cars, for example. It's not just the loss of life of miners in China and elsewhere or environmental havoc created to obtain metal for the car. Or the wars our nation fights to protect supplies of petroleum used to make plastics in the car. Or the labor abuses in developing countries used to assemble them. There's no practical way to assess the environmental impact of one manufacturer over another.
We don't understand the hidden world of power behind our purchase, and so we buy the model that looks best, drives most smoothly, and perhaps has good gas mileage.
From computers to clothing to musical CDs, the list of consumer products whose components have unknown environmental and social impact is virtually endless. Even some peace groups sell bumper stickers, mugs, key chains and computer mouse pads but give no information about the resources used in their manufacturing.
Where does this leave us -- in guilt, passivity or self-reproach? Mostly we seem to ignore it and accept without question the marketing systems that obscure the impacts of what we buy.
I spent last week in a spiritual community with 1,500 Quakers at an annual gathering. I sang and ate with new and old friends, contemplating throughout the week the question of "Who is my neighbor?" For me, this has translated into a question of how to make consumer choices that support not only an environmentally sound but also a peace-based world.
My first decision must be forcing myself to decide whether I really need to purchase something. Can it be shared or done without? Second, given how well my junior high school home economics class trained me to seek the best dollar value for what I buy, I have to accept that not harming others I don't know will cost more. Every time I buy a more expensive item whose provenance I know and support, I need to remind myself that I am buying healthier lives for others, a hope for environmental relief.
Current marketing doesn't make this easy. Fair trade campaigns, organic food, and other certification programs are a first step in creating the peaceful world we want. And like "Build it and they will come," I place my faith in the belief that if consumers communicate a desire to know, marketers of responsible goods will enter the marketplace to help us take more control over our impacts on neighbors across the world whom we will never know.
Margaret Krome is a Madison resident.
© 2007 The Capital Times