Thursday, May 2, 2013

Buying Nothing

My life provides me the opportunity to do many things.  I write.  I direct.  I sing.  I run an arts organization, Hidden River Arts, which I founded.  And I teach.  Often, I teach undergraduates; and in a few of my classes, there are discussions, readings, videos and film viewing about the consumerism and out of control capitalism of our culture.  I show them videos about Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew, who used his uncle's theories of the human unconscious to manipulate and control mass behavior in two particular areas - shifting America from a needs-based to a wants-based society, and maintaining a level of fear in Americans about the ever-growing external threat - from communists, from terrorists, every age has its own boogey-man --  that creates consent for the kinds of extensive war-mongering our military is now addicted to. 

We discuss the possibility of a no-money culture.  We discuss conscious and controlled buying habits.  We discuss the dangerous situation with our agri-business dominated food supply and the need to be ever-vigilant in the way we approach our food realities. 

We watch The Story of Stuff and discuss the chain of production Annie Leonard illustrates.  We watch The Story of Bottled Water and discuss the way in which we are manipulated, the ways in which a product like "water" can be sold by creating 1) fear of the free water and 2) a status item out of bottled water.  I see my students becoming painfully aware of a new level of responsibility in their decisions and actions. 

With all that, when I suggest that they try living without buying anything, most of them look at me as if I'm out of my mind.  There are necessities, of course, that have to be purchased -- food, personal care items, etc.  But the reality is that the majority of what is purchased in the U.S. ends up as trash almost immediately and simply IS NOT NEEDED.  Why should we buy new furniture, which is made shoddily, and which we often are required to build ourselves, when we can buy used furniture in thrift stores, used furniture stores, etc?  Why should we buy new kitchenware when thrift stores and flea markets offer more than enough?  Why should we buy clothes new - most of which are made in sweat shops under horrifying conditions by girls who are elementary school age -- which enrich companies practicing labor abuse, environmental ruination, consumer disrespect? 

Buy nothing new.  I've followed that model now for nearly five years.  I didn't realize that there was a movement where people took a pledge about their refusal to purchase new items.  I just stopped buying things unless they were absolutely necessary; and when they were items I could find used, that's what I did.  In Philadelphia, where I live, there is a thrift store, Philly AIDS Thrift, where the items are wonderful and the money goes to medical research and community support for AIDS victims.  I have purchased clothes, kitchen and cookware, glassware, books, furniture -- all really high-quality stuff, for low cost and a good cause. 

The most recent factory fire that kills hundreds of abused workers raises a cry to boycott the companies whose clothing is made in that factory - but why not take it farther and simply boycott buying altogether?  These companies have no interest in human rights, in anything but their financial bottom line.  So, they'll get their PR people feverishly working, make some cosmetic changes and express dismay, apologize....maybe throw some money at a memorial for the burned dead girls, and people will feel as though they've accomplished something - made these companies ashamed of themselves.  It's laughable.  Stop shopping.  Period. 

Obviously, there are going to be things that you have to buy.  Sometimes you have to buy a dress for a wedding, and need to go find something new.  You may never be able to find pants that fit, and have to buy them from a store. one pair of pants.  Two. 
Buy that dress but no other.  Then, wear what you buy over and over again.  We've been brainwashed to think that this is an embarrassing way to present yourself.  I don't agree.   Try wearing the same dress to a few weddings.  The people who notice will be fewer than you imagine, and what are the values of those people?  Do you care about them? 

Anyway.  The point here is that I try to plant this non-consumerist idea in the minds of my young adult students.  I'm gratified when I see it start to take root.  Usually the signs of the shift come within the semester -- papers they write about shopping more carefully for their food, refusing to buy processed food.  Or their conversations about tracking where their electronic goods are coming from.  One of my students helped form a group who demanded, and got, a promise from the university that they would no longer purchase their college clothing lines from companies guilty of using sweatshop labor.

Whether that promise will be kept is now their concern; they are ready to act as watchdogs.  This student is a business major, and weathered a lot of hostility from her professors for what she was doing.  But her goal in business now is quite different -- she wants to study sustainable business models, worker-owned business models -- and knows that this is not the value system being presented by her business school.  It may very well cause her to change schools, or to find appropriate business mentors to guide her in her quest for better practices.  There is something about this student which makes me believe she will succeed.

For myself, I continue on, refining ways to avoid consumer practice.  My thrift-shop clothes, my flea market kitchenware, my  natural cleaning products - baking soda, white vinegar, Dr. Bronner's pure vegetable soap.  Next will be experiments with hand-made face creams and perfumes.  This has gone beyond a decision, or an experiment.  It's become a way of life that provides more satisfaction and peace.