Shopping has been getting a lot of negative attention lately. This year’s Black Friday videos were disgusting and distressing — particularly the one of the woman who couldn’t stop to pull up her pants lest she lose out on a $2.00 waffle iron. Our cultural obsession with accumulating more stuff is not making us happier individually or collectively. It also wreaking havoc on the environment. If you haven’t yet watched “The Story of Stuff” http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/, I highly recommend you do so. It will be 20 minutes well spent.
Yet … I think the shopping story is more complicated than that. Many people — me included — find shopping to be a fun activity. Farmer’s markets are highly social, and, I think beneficial to community well being. Speaking of community building, this summer I participated in a community-wide yard sale, which was great fun. Shoppers and sellers alike were all smiles.
Further, not all shopping afficionados can be easily pigeonholed. For example, a six year-old boy who I’ll call Max lives across the street. His family is loving and attentive. They are hard-working Vermonters who grow their own veggies, raise chickens and heat with firewood they cut and stack themselves. And … Max loves to shop! When he came in my store, he excitedly told me that his town now has two stores! (Our town is very small.)
I offered to teach Max how to make paper, but he was much more interested in shopping. His mom finally went home, while Max continued to carefully consider every item in the store. Eventually, he chose two flowers made from old produce wrappings. Then he happily went home.
Sometimes I think people turn to shopping to fill a spiritual emptiness. Or, to get another fix of the temporary high of a new purchase.
But maybe we’re hard wired to shop. What if it’s part of our hunter-gatherer instincts, a basic survival skill?
In any case, I suspect we can more easily move toward a happier, more environmentally sustainable world if we create new — or recreate old — ways of shopping that honor the work of tradesman, artists, farmers, etc. while not adding to landfills and pollution. When I look at the gnome caves (pictured above) that were crafted by Rob Smart, Maria Smart, and Hannah Smart from leftover materials, I am hard-pressed to see anything “bad” about selling them.
Perhaps, as with so many areas of our lives, the key to “good” shopping is mindfulness. We need to be aware of our shopping choices, because the impact of poor shopping decisions can be extraordinarily negative — not only on our own unhappy psyches but on others we’ll never see or know.
In The Right Attitude to Rain, one of Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie books, Dalhousie’s ponderings remind me of the moral necessity for shopping mindfulness. Dalhousie, a fictitious philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, had published a discussion of “the lifeboat question.” That is, if a ship is sinking and there are not enough lifeboats to go around, how do you decide who to save?
Then, Smith writes:
“…the focus moved on from real lifeboats, which were, fortunately, manned by sailors rather than philosophers, to the earth as lifeboat, which it was, in a way. And here the issues became very much ones of the real world, Isabel thought, because real people did die every day, in very large numbers, because the resources of the lifeboat were not fairly distributed. And if we might feel squeamish about throwing a real and immediate person out of a real lifeboat, then we had fewer compunctions about doing those things which had exactly that effect, somewhere far off, on people whom we did not know and could not name. It was relentless and harrowing — if one ever came round to thinking about it — but most of our luxuries were purchased at the expense of somebody’s suffering and deprivation elsewhere.” (p.221,The Right Attitude To Rain.)
I’d say it’s definitely time “to think about it.” As my daughter might say, “For realz.”