I have once again emerged from the abyss that regularly and mercilessly swallows unsuspecting women like me, draining them of energy, judgment and money before spitting them back out as heavy-laden shells of their former selves. I’m talking about Target. What is it about that place? Is there a spell cast upon me as I pass through those red, electronic sliding doors? (‘Mich-shhhh-ele,’ they sweetly whisper as they open, and again, Mich-shhhh-ele, as they close.) I swear on the life of my children and unborn grandchildren that I dutifully compose a shopping list in the Target parking lot, on the back of what is probably a very important receipt (which I found crumpled beneath my brake pedal), and promise myself that I will adhere to it absolutely: tennis balls, brown lunch bags and goldfish crackers.
I clutch the list tightly and keep it within eyesight as I grab my crimson cart. But as God is my witness, once inside the vastness that is Target, with its endless aisles stocked with every consumer good that any consumer in the history of consumerism has ever consumed, I am powerless to resist. My otherwise discerning mind begins to utter these words the moment I breathe the rarified air of the Target vestibule, with its giant red bulls-eye that should more aptly be painted on my back than on their wall: I need, I want, I must have…
I need the twelve-ply, double-roll, twenty-four pack of toilet paper…I need that thirty-seven liter jug of laundry detergent…I must have that cleverly antiqued garden sign and matching garden hose spigot…I want to see all my clothes hanging on those faux velvet hangers…my kids need two Scooby Doo electric toothbrushes…my husband needs those seer sucker Bermuda shorts…I must have those three chick flicks (because what woman doesn’t need a chick flick library and since I can’t decide between Julia, Drew and Meg, why not get all three since they’re only $5 each?) A talking cookie jar, a case of cinnamon toaster strudel, four pair of new summer flip-flops…because last years flip-flops are just so ‘last year’…even though it’s only February.
Before I know it the original list with the tennis balls, brown lunch bags and goldfish crackers has gotten buried beneath two new doormats for Halloween (again, it’s February), a carwash kit for my Father’s birthday (November), a lifetime supply of cotton balls (because we used up our last lifetime supply), a new laundry hamper, and a couple of bottles of my favorite chardonnay…because who doesn’t need a drink after such an exhausting day?
I might be exaggerating ever so slightly, but honestly, I’ve long been embarrassed by my chronic lack of self-control in that place. Lately, however, the real source of my shopping angst has changed. For lack of a better way of putting it, I’m trying to grow a shopping conscience. Part of it comes from simply wanting my kids to learn how to appreciate what they do have rather than whine about what they don’t. And as much as I hate to admit it, contentment is a trickle-down attitude. They need to see me asking myself, “Do I really need…the cookie jar, the door mat, the flip-flops…?” Recently I taped a note to my bathroom mirror that reads ‘Be a consumer of only what you need today.’ It helps.
But in addition to my parenting concerns, over the past several years I’ve had the chance to travel to a number of places in East Africa. I got to know people who live on less than $2 a day. I walked beside women who travel miles morning and evening to get water for their families. And I learned that a significant percentage of people in our world live this way. Talk about a ‘reality check.’
And even more than that, I’ve seen people who actually suffer oppression because of the ‘stuff’ that we citizens of wealthy nations insist on having at our disposal. For most of human history the majority of things people used or consumed were grown or built or created by themselves or someone they knew. We had ‘direct relationship’ societies. But in today’s post-industrialized society, few of us have any idea who made what we use, or where it really came from. We don’t know who picked our strawberries or sewed the buttons on our blouses or bottled our milk or assembled our cell phones. And because we don’t know, we often don’t care.
But what if ‘readily available goods’ at ‘rock bottom prices’ means that someone somewhere is being exploited? Does it matter? I think it does. It matters who made my kids shoes. Was she paid a decent wage? It matters where my coffee beans were picked. Are growers there treated fairly? It matters how the cotton for my pillowcases was harvested. Are the working conditions humane? I’ve come to understand that I really do have a relationship with the person who produces my goods. And even though that relationship is indirect, the fact is that if I’m drinking coffee harvested by someone who was exploited, in a way I’m participating in that exploitation.
As an American woman I have a lot of influence over the ways in which our family’s money is spent. I’ve begun carrying a handy little shopping guide (Better World Shopping Guide by Ellis Jones) in my purse that gives ratings to products based on the way the company or corporation treats its employees and the surrounding environment. I’ve stopped buying certain products in favor of others. And when I do I make sure to let the company know why and what are my values.
Sometimes it means going without a product that I didn’t really need anyway. Sometimes it means sending an email to a company and asking them to pay their employees a fair wage or make better environmental policies. A lot of the time it simply means shopping locally and knowing the people who make or grow the things you want. I’m grateful that my shopping conscience is leading me to become a more compassionate consumer. And I look forward to the day when I’ll drive out of the Target parking lot with nothing in the trunk but tennis balls, brown lunch bags and goldfish crackers.