Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Costs of Consumption

In the Business Ethics class I taught last spring, I spent a bit of time talking about Walmart's "incredibly low prices". On the surface, low prices seem to be a way to meet the needs of the working class and those in poverty, who might struggle to buy milk, healthy food, or winter clothes for their family. Why would anyone, then, have a complaint about low costs or want to rein corporations, like Walmart? Isn't getting more for less money always the preferable choice?

Externalizing Costs: We could talk about the impact companies like Walmart have on local businesses, or the ethical problem of price gouging, or even the effect a corporation's size has on our choices (products barred or products carried). Instead, the behind-the-scenes process of "externalizing costs" seems to be the real problem, partially because we claim no responsibility for the damage it might do, but we support the process in our buying practices. When a company "externalizes the cost of a product," it means that the company does not charge us for the materials and labor that goes into the production of the product. Instead, we are charged less because the company passes the costs off to others, while passing the savings on to us. The company externalizes the costs by pursing cheap labor at the manufacturing level or in-store through its employees, denying benefits to employees or factory workers, or prioritizing the pursuit of profit over considerations of impact on the consumer, the workers, the environment, etc). While there's more to the story, of course, this is one of the points raised in the video, The Story of Stuff. I found it to be worth watching.

The video isn't offering easy answers or conspiracy theories about the government (if you listen closely), but it is describing a process and marketplace invisible to us as consumers. So, regardless of the ethical imperative one might draw from this description -- that we ought to consume less and more thoughtfully -- at the very least, we should consider the impact our buying has on something as simple as our own happiness, or on the lives of workers who make and sell the products we consume. Watch the entire video here, at http://www.storyofstuff.com

Consuming Less: For those who do see an ethical imperative here or believe that consuming less is a better and more socially responsible way of living, you are in great company. The topic of consumption & stuff has been on my mind a lot lately, because we've spent the last month packing our things (into an absurd # of boxes) and now are slowly unpacking. The questions for us are 1) what can I get rid of, 2) where have I fallen into the trap of getting rid of things that work fine, only to unnecessarily replace them with new things, and 3) how can I stop this cycle?

Chris and I have been regularly making trips to the local Salvation Army, where our sellable donations are offered at discounted prices in their family stores. Profits from the sales contribute to social services and employment opportunities they offer to the community. Donations that cannot be sold because of wear or age, should be donated to churches or shelters that can pass on the donations quickly and directly to those in need.

There are other options as well (suggestions from my friend Rich):
(1) Freecycle - A community-based forum (organized by city) within the Yahoo forums. Post something on freecycle and it'll be gone in no time. And it may be more dependable than Craigslist.
(2) Craig's List - On craigslist you can either sell or give something away (see: Free section). You can either post your item(s) & schedule a pick-up time, or indicate that it is currently curbside and someone will probably come to you and haul it away. Rich suggests watching from the window, I suggest therapy for Rich.
(3) Recycling Electronics: This may take a Google search, but most cities have recycling programs for electronics. In RI, we have Rhode Island Electronics Recycling, and for Ink Cartridges, Ipods, and Cell Phones this site will allow help you mail them in for free recycling: Recycling For Charities.