Never Buy Day

As I confessed in my last post, I shopped today — vegetables, dish soap for the office, a yoga mat — on this countercultural Antifeast, Buy Nothing Day. So what?

It’s clear that the polish has warn off the observance. After all, isn’t deferring a purchase by a day the economic equivalent of security theater? Paraphrasing Yoda, “there is shop, or no shop. There is no try.”

But the hope behind Buy Nothing Day is in the right place. For instance: recreational shopping is not a substitute for self-esteem or cultivated relationships. Things do not make happiness. Consumerism is not an excuse for moral consumption. And there’s the visible effects. I mean: how many people have to die or be hurt while shopping before good sense takes over? And consider the wasteful acres of parking that surround shopping malls/merchandizing prisons needs for the handful of peak days each year. I could go on.

To my way of thinking, you can orient your consumption to do the most good and least harm, or you won’t. I plan my needs, consiering their use and cost, and often vet my vendors. Big frantic mall experiences just aren’t in my plans. Walmart isn’t in my plans. Car dealerships aren’t in my plans. Steakhouses aren’t in my plans. For these, today isn’t a Buy Nothing Day, but just Buy Nothing Ever.

Fairtrade clerical shirts coming

Anglican priest and blogger Andii Bowsher (Nouslife) notes a new company in the UK that makes and sells fairly-traded clerical shirts. That’s good news. One downside is the US dollar exchange rate against the British pound. (Not that clerical shirts are particularly cheap in the first place.) Also, in my experience 100% cotton black shirts fade badly, but other colors will follow in a few months.

No word about where the shirts are made, nor if women’s sizes are offered.

The bigger problem for me is that these shirts are of the tab collar variety; what the maker calls just as accurately a “tunnel collar.”  I prefer a detachable Moravian collar. But it’s nice to have the option, and seeing as the company is new and young some feedback might be welcomed and honored.

New ethical certification for kosher food

Religious life and ethical consumption are two of my interests. Non-Jews might miss growing story in the Jewish and secular press, so I want to mention Hekhsher Tzedek, a new kosher certification that includes the ethics of production in parallel with religious regulation. (For news about it, it’s easier to follow Rabbi Morris Allen’s blog.)

A scandal concerning Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking facility, concerning animal welfare and labor standards (including child labor) made The New York Times (“Inquiry Finds Under-Age Workers at Meat Plant“) and the wires and gave Hekhsher Tzedek a particular timeliness. (PETA and the UFCW have their own exposé sites.)

I welcome the new certification, but it is one of dozens (many local) and is dwarfed by the Circle U hechsher of the Orthodox Union, which apparently doesn’t share the expanded set of concerns. (Also Hekhsher Tzedek is Conservative; I can only imagine the intra-Jewish controversies and politics at play so I’ll comment no further.)

So what’s the import for non-Jews? There are relatively few standards — fair trade certifications, vegetarian certifications and union labels among them — by which one can measure whether something comes to market in a way the buyer thinks is ethical. Plus, some ethical standards may clash: say, local production against opportunity for persons in a developing country, or synthetic fabrics that have recycled content but which itself cannot be further recycled. Lacking standards, it easy to give up the hope of consuming ethically, or worse, be lured into thinking you’re doing your part by something that has the affect of an ethical decision, but is substantially no different than an “unethical” product. Certain brands of bottled water come to mind. I’ve come to the point where I’m more suspicious of a product if it claims to be green than if it doesn’t.

Until more certifications come into being, we can celebrate and support the ones we have. If Hekhsher Tzedek can tell me a lettuce is free of insects (a kosher issue) and came from a farm with fair labor practices, I’ll respect its authority and buy accordingly. And we can take a stronger interest in the activities of those who produce the goods we use, and share the news: the considered opinion of a thoughtful and just person may be the greatest certification of all.

Union-made men's dress shirts

I’m losing weight — 34 pounds so far — and am beginning to swim in my old clothes. I had already planned to replace much of it because they are showing signs of wear, but only with clothes I know can be sourced without sweatshops. I’ve had to step back a bit from my US-made, union-made goal. I’ve got two posts soon about that.

But today, victory.

I wear Van Heusen shirts and like them. Mine are ordinary white pinpoints, US- and union-made. But they vanished in the stores and I figured the jobs were shipped off-shore. But then I saw the company listed at UNITE HERE’s clothing site, so I wrote:


I saw Phillips-Van Heusen listed by Unite HERE! as a maker of union-made
dress shirts. ( I would like to
buy these; can you tell me which lines are union made, or how I might buy
them in person or online?

Yours truly,
Scott Wells
Washington, D.C.

I got the reply yesterday:

Dear Mr. Wells:

The UNITE HERE label is sold in department stores only.

In your surrounding area, the label is sold at Macy’s and Lord & Taylor.
Please visit, store locator for the exact address of these
department stores.

Thank you!

Van Heusen Retail Customer Service

Now, Van Heusen has a number of dress shirt lines, some of which are sold locally at Macy’s and Lord and Taylor and some not. I do need a couple of new shirts. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

And if not them, there are other options, but by mail-order and probably at greater cost.

Ethical consumption update

The pressure on world grain production — crop failures, diversion of biofuel production — has created huge price increases and I have a hard time imagining how millions of the world’s poorest people will manage to eat when they get priced out of the cheapest food available.

Point one: Cyclone and storm damage leaves Bangladesh’s 150 million people with a rice deficit. Sea water intrusion threatens coastal cropland.

Point two: Saudi Arabia, a net wheat exporter, is phasing out all wheat production under water pressures. HT: Financial Times via Celsias via Nouslife.

Point three: From Lester Brown via the Earth Policy Institute:

In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

But this is the future? Seems like there’s more pressure than ever to reduce grain demand by avoiding most meat, dairy products and farmed fish — ironically, actually eating the grain itself — and using less transportation fuel. I think affordable and available food for human beings (wherever they may be) is irreducibly more important than food for livestock or automobiles.

Yet I rather doubt United States public policy and the market will follow.

Getting clothes the right way

I just mentioned Project Runway: a delightful show with tons of pluck that enlivens an industry that I want far, far away from me. (I enjoyed Six Feet Under, too, but that doesn’t mean I trust funeral homes now.) The unspoken assumption of the show is that women are decorative and probably vain, and that nothing’s too much to meet their needs. Not even the workers in wholly unrecognized sweatshops that might well pump out the “commercial dresses” that fuel the industry.

As you, dear readers, know I have a particular beef about how and where clothes are made. I’m also losing a lot of weight and my wardrobe was already showing its age. I see a good bit of clothes shopping in my future. But not so many pieces. I don’t think it’s too much to demand that I find well-designed, well-tailored pieces that can last a long time. That means I can afford to pay a premium for ethically sourced clothes and the added time now will save me time later by not having to replace them. I’m not poor any more, but an old friend of mine put it well (when we were all at the end of our tether): “The poor can only afford the best.” Or at least the best made. Passing fashion and fippery frippery is the domain of the senseless rich.

Not that it can be easy to find. Linda Grant, writing in today’s Guardian, plumbs some these same issues in “Cheap at Twice the Price.” Alas, again most of the resources are for women’s clothing, so I’ll continue to keep watch for the menfolk.

Buying American: at the arts supply store, grocery

Out again today, walking, but the weather isn’t as nice as yesterday. Much colder with gusts that remind me of my hurricane-filled childhood. But anything for you, my dears. For the shopping suggestions, drop to the end; first, being Sunday, cometh the sermon.

As it happens, I’m trying to slim down on just about everything: personal weight, of course, as I mentioned before, but also plastic (especially gratuitous packaging), petroleum, meat, ostentatious things, goods made in unfair labor settings, and badly designed (pre-broken?) goods, to name a few. Wanting less, I’m left with more time and money to develop habits that meet the goals I’ve set for myself. I mention this, not to be ostentatious, but to counter the notion that these efforts equal a kind of neo-Puritanism. Rather, I think it is living as you would want the world the be, instead of just mewing how awful things have become. If it was easy and involved neither thought nor sacrifice, or only involved “one great cause” I believe we would make the right decision. But it doesn’t. It involves thousands of decisions.

I buy American goods where I can because they’re made closer to me and the manufacturers are subject to labor laws not known in many other countries. And even where our laws are weaker, at least as an American I have more power to make change than in a foreign sweatshop, obscured by layers of distributors and perfumed by so-called status branding.

Now for the shopping. On the way home, I was almost literally blown into an arts supply store, which is just as well as the office supply store I’d just visited didn’t have blue mechanical pencil leads I wanted (as an alternative to highlighters and some pen use.) Not only did they have them — Japanese-made Pentel leads — but they weren’t carded under a plastic blister and were cheaper than usual. I have never found U.S.-made new mechanical pencil leads.

Poking around, I saw that many of the supplies they had — not only for artists, but also hobbyist and office use — were made in the United States. I had been putting off buying blades for my X-acto #1 knife since they are now made in China. Wonders! Excel blades were a perfect fit and are made in Patterson, New Jersey. While carded under a blister, they included a plastic phial to keep them tidy. Oh, again, cheaper than the alternative. Available in local retail and online.

Also, I was looking for United States-grown dried beans. I know they’re grown here, but labeling is the problem, especially at Whole Foods. The solution? The United States based, Latino food processor Goya. They print the country of origin on their products. (I also buy non U.S. sourced Goya products.) Need I tell you they’re cheaper than W.F.?

Red beans for dinner!

All this talk of IDs . . . .

Several people have resumed discussion of General Assembly: of this, I have nothing to add.

But it leads me to a bit of good news. I am back to the weight shown on my driver’s license, long a fiction. More than 20 pounds down from where I was when I started to loose weight at Thanksgiving! The blogging upside is I will start ordering sweatshop-free, union- or worker-cooperative-made and ethically-sourced clothing.

Just a status update. Just another 25 pounds to go!

Looking at worker cooperatives

Last night, the BBC America World News ran a clip about worker cooperatives in Argentina, evidently recycled from a domestic BBC report from last October. More than perhaps anywhere else — Spain might be the exception — Argentina’s worker-owned cooperatives pick up and recover what scraps the owners of failed businesses left behind. And it seems to me the greatest resource was the workers themselves. It’s easy to romanticize any cooperative venture, so I mentally added in the inevitable bickering, angst and fear of recreating and re-establishing a business.

Worker-owned cooperatives are pretty thin here in the United States. Perhaps the most famous ones are Equal Exchange, the source of many a Unitarian Universalists’ Sunday morning coffee and Frontier, the herb and spice supplier. (Here’s a US worker cooperative organization to note.)

Even though I do not work for a cooperative, they promise to be important in my buying decisions. Put plainly, I cannot think of a better protection against unjust labor practices than buying from worker cooperatives. Even better than union suppliers.

As it happens, you (Americans anyway; I don’t know how far they ship) can buy from some of the Argentine worker coops, including the balloon maker featured in the clip.

The Working World