Over the past few weeks, we’ve been contemplating our spending habits and, more specifically, what it means to splurge. The idea of splurging is a somewhat enigmatic one, its definition shifting depending on its context and usage, but I’ve always associated it with the broader notion of spending more than one typically would on something. As our team sat around our little table at Makeshift Society discussing what the term means to each of us specifically (Amy noted how she prefers to splurge on beautiful, memorable experiences; Grace mused on the importance of waiting for the right purchase), I found myself thinking about my own choices as a consumer—my role the grand scheme of the worldwide marketplace and how I felt about that role.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in Kingston’s Stockade Tavern, having a glass of wine with a friend and chatting—as one does—about life, work and the problem of sweatshop labor. I had just read an article in The New Yorker about the troublesome disappearance of the anti-sweatshop movement in America. The movement, which was practically inescapable on college campuses and activist circles in the nineties, has all but disappeared, its battle cries hushed to quiet whispers, the siren call of $5 t-shirts apparently too strong to question. My friend, a purveyor and professor of textile design, is well-versed in such matters, so I took the opportunity to pick her brain on the subject. What she said, while quite simple, blew my mind.
“This is an exercise I often do with my students,” she said. “Think about the last time somebody gave you something handmade. A sweater, a scarf—even a small piece of jewelry. How did it make you feel? How did you treat it?”
“I treat it like a treasure,” I said. “It feels so special when I get something handmade from a friend.”
“Well,” my friend continued, “why is that? What makes you feel that way?”
I took a minute to think. “I don’t know—I think the time and the effort put into it. Making something by hand, rather than just buying something… It was made with love. With me in mind.”
“Ok,” my friend said. “Now let’s look at the shirt you’re wearing. Where did you get it?”
I named one of the big, faceless stores at the shopping mall.
“Well—you don’t know who made that shirt for you. But somebody did. A person sewed those stitches, a person put time into making sure everything was properly constructed. And that person was definitely thinking about something while they made it.”
Everything she was saying was true. And in that moment, the weight of that truth hit me like a five-ton sack of bricks. I had gone through the grand majority of my life surrounded by objects—objects that had at some point in their construction, come into contact with human hands. Objects whose materials had been grown, sourced or mined by human hands. Objects that had, through the modern miracles of flight and fossil fuel consumption, ended up on a store shelf where I had picked them up, thinking little of their point of origin.
I looked again at the shirt I was wearing. I had spent probably less than fifty dollars on it. Even at the lowest of “living” wages, my shirt—at the consumer end—cost a little over five hours of work. But what about at the producer’s end? How long had it taken to pick the cotton needed to make that shirt? How many gallons of water were used to treat, process and dye that cotton? How much time did the factory worker responsible for my shirt spend making it? How much were they paid to do it? Were they paid fairly? How much fuel did it take to ship that shirt across the ocean to the shopping mall where I eventually picked it up? At what expense to the environment did all of that come? Suddenly, my fifty dollar shirt—the fifty dollar shirt that I would likely toss away as soon as it became too stained, ragged and weatherworn for my taste—seemed remarkably underpriced.
When I got home that night, I took a look around my home. What other objects had I treated the same way? How much did I actually know about my things, aside from that fact that they worked well or I liked the way that they looked? I began opening my drawers and closets, reading tags and flipping over objects. The portrait painted in my mind was not unlike an atlas of far-off locales that I had never been to—places that, more likely than not, had fractured economies, little support for workers, few environmental regulations, and governments too willing to allow outsiders to exploit their citizens. Far too many of the objects I owned were part of a system that I did not support, a system that I did not want to be a part of.
But that’s the issue with systemic problems—opting out of them is often easier said than done. After all, I’m just one person. One person who, despite my best efforts to educate myself and live mindfully, still unwittingly takes part in flawed, incredibly unsustainable systems. And, let’s be real—there are not a whole lot of options for the average consumer interested in leaving behind the trappings of modern-day “pile it high and sell it cheap” capitalism. In many ways, any efforts in that vein seem painfully, insurmountably futile. So, what to do?
I think I’m a realistic person, but I’m also an optimistic one. There must be ways to consume consciously and ethically—even on an income unbefitting of the so-called 1%. “How do you do it?” I asked my friend, at this point so panic-stricken about my state of consumptive affairs that I was seriously contemplating becoming a hermit. “How do you live and function in this world and still manage to make conscious choices that you can feel good about?”
The answer, it would seem, was as clear-cut as the problem that preceded it. Live with less. Instead of spending a little on a lot, spend more on the things you really need. Check your labels. Know your sources. Try to connect with the makers behind your purchases, whether they be a clothing designer, a jeweler, or a farmer. And, most importantly, wait. Time, and patience especially, seems to be integral to mindful living. Patience to save the necessary pennies needed to pay the fair price for something. Patience to wait until that thing you need (or want) becomes available on eBay or Craigslist. Patience to sort through the intimidating racks of thrift stores and consignment shops—places that, at the second-hand, are divorced from many of the ethical issues that plague first-hand sources. Most importantly, patience and faith in the fact that if you can change, others can, too. We’re not just citizens of our countries—we are citizens of the world. And as citizens, it is our duty to stand up for what we believe in, to be active in those beliefs, and trust that others can (and will!) follow suit. It might take a long, long time, but patience and awareness are key. They may be hard pills to swallow, but they can be the cure and the path to wiser, more sustainable, healthier and happier choices. Here’s to happy choices!