Buying for the future

By Lauren Vincent

Being a socially responsible consumer gets increasingly difficult the more you know.

This year, I’ve been trying to transform my shopping habits and make better choices. But as I learn more about the way the things I own are produced, the harder it is for me to commit.

The first step wasn’t too painful. I started by giving up water bottles. It was something I’d been putting off doing for a long time, but I’m glad I finally did. I’ve saved a ton of money and it’s only slightly less convenient. There’s no reason to pay for water. Corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have taken over a public resource and are selling us something that already belongs to us. And did you know that tap water actually has more regulations on it than bottled water, making tap water actually safer? Finally, all that plastic is not obviously eco-friendly, despite what they say. Less plastic or smaller caps do not equal green, especially when you toss a bottle after one use. So kicking the water bottle habit wasn’t too difficult after getting used to it.

Then I planned on only buying fair-trade coffee. Fair Trade Certified (TM) coffee, according to the Starbucks Coffee Company website, “Empowers small-scale farmers organized in cooperatives to invest in their farms and communities, protect the environment, and develop the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.”

I knew this wouldn’t be hard at the University of Massachusetts, because People’s Market is right there. But I had to do some research for when I was home. I was happy to learn that fair trade has expanded to most coffee chains, including Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. But when dealing with big corporations, I’m often wary.

For example, Dunkin’ Donuts states they use 100 percent fair trade and organic coffee for all espresso-based beverages – that’s lattes, cappuccinos and espresso.

It doesn’t say if their regular coffee is fair trade. Starbucks has made significant efforts to be a responsible company and indicate that they have purchased 14-million pounds of certified organic coffee in fiscal year 2009. When choosing between Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, I’m playing it safe now and picking Starbucks.

Clothing was the next thing I tried to conquer, and one of the hardest. I told myself I wasn’t going to shop anywhere that utilizes sweatshop labor, which eliminated a lot of my favorite stores. I’ve gone shopping several times this year, and, admittedly, slipped up. The problem here is that a lot of organic and fair-trade clothing is much more expensive. It’s handmade, and the person who made it was paid a fair amount. The reason that Forever 21 and Wal-Mart are so cheap is because they use sweatshops and cheap labor – but it can be easy to forget this when you compare the prices, especially as a college student.

My solution to this was to go shopping less. I’m trying not to go to the mall unless I absolutely need something – that way I won’t be tempted. I took myself off the e-mail and mailing lists of my favorite stores, so I won’t be tempted to go to their websites. It’s tough, because I do love to shop. I don’t know if I’ll be able to commit to only buying fair-trade clothing from now on, but I can commit to not making unnecessary purchases.

Food is probably the most difficult thing for me to evaluate. I am still having trouble letting go of a lot of different things, for example, Kraft products. Kraft is the largest packaged foods company in the U.S. It is also a subsidiary of the tobacco company Phillip Morris, which lobbies not only for tobacco but also against public interest laws. According to Sourcewatch.org, the company fights laws mandating recycling, and one of their press memos stated that “recycling is not the answer to solid-waste management.”

Since I disagree with that statement, I decided to no longer buy Kraft products, which seemed simple enough – I rarely eat mac and cheese anyway. Then I found out that Kraft owns basically every company that I buy snacks from: Ritz Crackers, Crystal Light, Jell-O and Post Cereals. So now I’m trying harder to check labels and see who owns everything I eat.

This is a challenge not only because I’ve eaten those things for a while and enjoy them. It’s hard to wipe them all off my shopping list, but once again, money is an issue here. Most of the companies that are truly socially responsible are organic companies.

Whole Foods is probably my best bet for finding brands that are 100 percent organic and not socially destructive. Again, I’m a college student, and I don’t have a lot of money to spend – especially when there’s a cheaper alternative right down the street. It’s an unfortunate reality.

I hope that making small changes will lead to the socially-conscious transformation I’m aspiring to. If I start now, I can hopefully be the kind of shopper I want to be someday. Maybe my actions will even make a little difference, and inspire you to take action, as well.

Lauren Vincent is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]