Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Problem With Purchases

If you're lucky enough to have any discretionary income, you probably make choices about where you spend your extra money and what you spend it on. But the global economy is so inter-connected, and so dependent on vanity and the exploitation of cheap labor, that it feels impossible to make these choices "good" ones.

You could spend all day every day thinking about your consumer transactions: the food you buy that supports terrible farming practices even when you try to be "good" and buy organic; the clothing that was produced in a sweatshop; the beauty products full of carcinogenic chemicals. As soon as you feel smug and self-satisfied about boycotting one awful thing, you discover another, and it feels like an overwhelming and losing game of whack-a-mole.

Last week, the New York Times published a series of articles detailing the working conditions of nail salon workers, specifically their criminally low wages and exposure to toxic chemicals in the name of cheap manicures and pedicures. A friend wrote that she found this "horrifying." She said:  "I feel complicit in something evil, and yet I will miss getting a pedicure now and then. I also know a lot of women who feel that they need professional nails for work to be taken seriously. What a crappy beauty standard that requires us to exploit others."

This last comment was interesting, because when you think about it, it's women and the standards of beauty to which they are held (and to which they hold themselves) that aid and abet some of the worst offenders. Nails, makeup, jewelry, and designer clothing are some of the least "necessary" things, and yet these industries are some of the most deplorable.

Take diamonds, for example. Without going into great detail (many books have been written on this by people way smarter and more informed than me), the European corporation De Beers more or less "invented" the diamond. There is nothing inherently valuable about diamonds; they occur naturally in relative abundance. But De Beers secured an early monopoly on diamonds, manipulated their supply, and increased their demand by successfully marketing them to the world as a symbol of love and commitment that no woman should do without. As a result, diamonds have fueled violent conflicts, culminating in consumer backlash and campaigns to end conflict diamonds, and then, even after placating the masses with "compacts," "solutions," and "assurances," the industry cannot reliably guarantee that any given diamond is "conflict free." It's why I don't own diamond jewelry, and I've always been a nail-biter, so manicures aren't part of my routine.

Does this make me feel superior to women who wear diamonds and get manicures and pedicures? Absolutely not. If anything, it makes me feel even worse: like a hypocrite. I shudder to think of the rippling effects of my other choices. Have I investigated where my makeup really comes from? No. Have I divested myself of mass-produced cosmetics? Nope! I buy clothes and shoes with the mindless click of a mouse and without a second's thought to where or how these things are made. I pretend that buying "organic" meat and produce means I'm doing something good for the planet, when in all likelihood all it really means is that a chicken had two more square inches of space in its pen. I'm apparently unwilling to give up meat or makeup or nice clothes and shoes. My strident rejection of diamonds and nail treatments can't compensate for all of these other infractions, so any self-righteousness I might feel as a result is fleeting and unfulfilling.

My maternal grandfather had an interesting life. I never met him, because he died when my mother was three and he was 54 when she was born. She later researched his story at the National Labor Archives in Michigan. He was a union organizer at the birth of the labor movement. He organized copper miners and spent six years in federal prison for sedition, because copper was an essential war materiel during World War I and organizing the labor who mined it was considered treasonous. There he contracted tuberculosis and penned a series of letters to his mother explaining why he refused to take a plea deal from the government or abandon his cause, as she had begged him to do.  

It feels too late for me to do anything with my life that is half as cool as what my grandfather did, but I sometimes guiltily picture his face in his framed mugshot (the only photo our family has of him) when I take out my wallet. At the very least, the nail salon articles were a good reminder of my grandfather's legacy and to be a little bit more mindful about where and how I spend my money.




My grandfather, Alexander Cournos, in his mugshot, circa 1918. Seemingly I inherited his good eyebrow game, although I doubt he would approve of my waxing habits.

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