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Shopping II — Consumer Activism

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

My mind turned to boycotts after receiving an oversized box stuffed with plastic bubble wrap from West Elm. If companies can't do better, shouldn't we stop doing business with them? As a matter of fairness, I wrote West Elm's customer service to get their side of it. However, in the three weeks since, I have not received a response to my packaging complaint. I have; however, ended up on their marketing list. Now, adding insult to injury, they spam me everyday. Yes, unsubscribing is making its way to the top of my to-do list.

As you know, national and international boycotts have accomplished some pretty amazing things: from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which put a nail in the coffin of segregation here to the international boycotts that ended apartheid in South Africa and forced Nike to up its environmental game; these large-scale efforts have yielded impressive results.

And while there are climate-change villains worthy of boycotts, (I don't buy gas from Exxon or Chevron) many companies will move toward sustainability under the steady drip of consumer demand. In the case of West Elm, when I started doing some research, I fully expected to find them on somebody's baddie list, but they weren't. West Elm had set up fair-trade goals. They did not meet their goals, but they did admit that publicly. It's a start.

This all reminds me of children in my classroom who try to behave, but only achieve intermittent success, I don't want to call home every time they slip up, but consequences move them in the right direction. So, if you still buy your candles from West Elm, I won't condemn you, but consumer activism, as the positive flip side of the boycott coin, offers an alternative worth considering. It's the conscience choice of spending our dollars on items and with companies whose work doesn't destroy the things we love.

I took an informal survey among friends and family and found that consumer activism comes naturally for some. They said, in various ways, call it what you like, but it's really just being sensible.

Food is an area where the majority of us must purchase what we consume, and it has an enormous impact on the planet. I have a friend who buys whole foods rather than processed foods. He says that what one trades away in convenience provides us with healthier options. As an example, he opts for oatmeal over oat milk because it's less processed. Okay, I still stand by my oat milk habit—it tastes better in coffee, but I've tried to take a page out of his book. Now I'm looking for sellers who offer bulk or loose herbs and vegetables. Why have I been buying them in those little plastic packs?

My sister, Holly Boyer Dorr, embraces technology to get things done. (She's managed to lease solar panels for her Maryland farm.) Holly uses apps to find healthy food and suggested I do the same for sustainable shopping. Sure enough, a little digging yielded Done Good, a shopping website and app that helps one find sustainable and ethical products.

Sensible spending can also go beyond what we get from Amazon or the local grocery store. My aunt and uncle, Rosalie Ann and Robert Beasley, are way ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability. (They installed geothermal technology to heat their home years ago.) My aunt explained that often it's just their way of being frugal. In the realm of travel they enjoy going on cruises, but they've found a way to do it without harming the ocean in the process. According to my aunt, "I don't remember actually boycotting a company, but there are some cruise ship companies that aren't very good about disposing of garbage, and toilet waste. We belong to the Seven Seas Cruising Association, which is mostly sailors who have circumnavigated or done long sailing trips - they are dedicated to leaving a 'clean wake.'"

In my neighborhood and around the world some people find the best spending is no spending. They trade gently used items like toys and household goods rather than buying new. I have friends that exchange a ton of children's clothing through groups like Buy Nothing.

Some may argue that these choices are small potatoes when compared to the harm caused by big polluters—who often seem beyond our reach. But if we add up all of these small actions, I believe we will influence others. We can push our society forward on the path to sustainable change. So what are your shopping strategies?

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