Whenever holidays and birthdays come up, we all get the “what do you want?” question from family and friends, to which we respond with the obligatory, “you don’t need to get me anything”, whether we mean it or not. As a soapbox-mounting and somewhat garrelous ecovangelist, most people I know understand that I don’t want “stuff” just for the sake of giving a gift, and while making efforts to be a conscious consumer, I now have a hard time receiving a gift without judging it from an environmental, economic, and social standpoint. I am, of course, very grateful for any gift as it truly is “the thought that counts”, but as I’ve held my own purchases to a higher standard, I’m always even more grateful and even flattered when others recognize this and put a little more thought into a gift than that initial one. So, I have my Amazon wishlist of some gadgets (admittedly an eco-weakness), a wind turbine, a few books and blu-ray movies for some focused shopping for things that I definitely want, and then there have been a few larger items that I’ve developed a need for.
My desk chair came with the house when I bought it 7 years ago, and is an old, overstuffed armchair-style executive chair, with cracking maroon leather, mounted atop mismatched casters and massive, squeaky springs that allow it to recline and bounce around in a seemingly random pattern which I’ve mastered over the time I’ve spent in it’s worn-out seat. I loved the style, but could no longer stand the numb legs from the front edge of the chair, now painfully apparent from the sagging and pokey springs and flattened cushioning. So, for my 36th birthday, I collaborated with my wife, my parents, my in-laws, and saved 2 months of my own “gadget allowance” to choose a shiny new desk chair where I will spend many future hours in front of my iMac. I looked at the options: Used chairs, many of them grungy or beat up, begging the question – what was the former owner’s hygiene like? Did they ever sit in it naked? This branch alone in the thought experiment essentially ruled out used chairs. There are sturdy, almost regal-looking chairs to be had at Staples, Office Max, and even Ikea for less than $200, but what are they made of? Foam and plastic. Where and how are they made? China and who knows. Then I went in search of sustainable office furniture worthy of Cradle to Cradle certification and was able to find a few models that fit the bill, particularly those from Herman Miller and SteelCase.
After trying to be cheap and looking at the refurbished options for these high-end engineering marvels, I sucked it up and decided on the Think! chair from SteelCase, made in Michigan out of 97% recyclable parts, with a Cradle to Cradle Gold certification. This chair not only is designed to be much more ergonomic, comfortable, and durable than all of the chairs found in Staples, but purchasing it makes a statement that I value good craftsmanship, that I would rather pay more to buy a quality, well-designed piece of furniture that supports our nation’s economy rather than shipping more jobs overseas (I’ll admit that I felt a slight pang of eco-guilt as well as more of a sting to my bank account as I checked the $250 leather option when ordering, both of which were immediately soothed as I slid into the comfortable, more durable, easily cleaned, and supple seat). While the $1000 cost for this chair may seem unreasonable to some, this chair to me is an investment. This high-quality piece of home furnishing is better built, has more adjustments and ergonomic features than the vast majority of chairs, so not only do I plan to use it for years and hopefully decades to come, it also supports the once mighty and now anemic American manufacturing industry. This concept, in case you haven’t heard of it, is called conscious consumerism.
Over the last half century or so, our culture has developed a conditioned obliviousness that has decoupled us from the production chain, allowing the quest for corporate profit and consumer bargains to transform what was once lovingly crafted by an artisan in a neighboring town into a stamped piece of toxic plastic made by a worker making $100 a month on the other side of the world. We have been trained by psychologically based advertising and the illusion of adequate safety standards to be unconcerned with the origins or underlying costs of the products we see on the store shelves. Say you need to buy shoes, you go to WalMart or Target, or Amazon or whatever, and you see a label that tells you where those shoes came from, who made them, how their job’s healthcare program was, if their families had enough to eat every day, and if their towns had clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. If you looked at the $10 pair of shoes and saw a label that described the poor working conditions, the meager wages, the environmental degradation, and other negative impacts of the production of those shoes, and you saw a $20 pair of shoes with a label that shows a healthy, American worker with healthcare coverage for his/her family, and sustainably and safely produced materials that support other domestic jobs, which one would you pick? When you buy something cheap, with throat-burning VOCs offgassing from the packaging, that’s made overseas by a less expensive and likely oppressed workforce with less regulations on toxic materials and manufacturing processes, you support that system and you discourage companies from using responsible methods and give them no reason to bring manufacturing jobs back into the U.S., why should they? Unfortunately because of this learned and reinforced obliviousness, people will happily and obliviously buy the cheaper items while they’re complaining about the economic recession and the lack of jobs.
Conscious consumerism is the solution to this problem, a way to slow down the depletion of our resources, the pollution of our lands and waterways, and the oppression of people around the world. Conscious consumerism means we understand that in buying something, we directly support the way in which it was made, from resource utilization, to labor practices, to toxic byproducts, packaging, transport, and each step in the chain that brings a product to us. It means that we choose to pay for coffee or chocolate from farmers that are paid enough to feed their families instead of those who are barely paid enough to survive. It means that we choose to a pay a little more for vegetables and meat that was grown through healthy, humane, and sustainable practices instead of cruel and antibiotic laden concentrated animal feed lots or pesticide-soaked and petroleum-based fertilized monocrops. It means that we save up enough money to buy a quality, responsibly made piece of furniture instead of the cheap, quick, and toxic solutions offered in most stores. This entire concept is based on personal responsibility and the simple feat of considering the impact of our individual decisions. It is a concept that should resonate across political lines, across cultures, creeds, and languages. Conscious consumerism means that as individuals, we recognize that each choice we make has an effect not only on our own present and well-being, but also has a definable effect on others, including our friends, our families, our community members, our country, as well as the global community. This tenant is based on the aforementioned principle of making logical decisions utilizing as much knowledge of the problem as possible. Avoid basing judgements and actions on unproven dogma or previous prejudices. Use best practices, the communal knowledge base and wisdom to solve problems. Consider the health, prosperity, and happiness of all people and the world when making even small choices.
Update: As a bonus, I used the box to make a free and recyclable indoor play house for our son, who continues to use it after 4 months!