Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Conscious Shopping

I am a bleeding-heart liberal (my father's term). This should put all of this in context.

About five years ago, I embarked on a little experiment: to not buy anything made in China for six months. This was a reaction to the news at the time about our Chinese trade deficit. I can't begin to describe how annoying it is to need to buy a desktop calculator and not being able to find a single one not made in China.

Essentially, the experiment failed because it's impossible to buy nothing made in China. But what grew out of the experiment was the decision to shop consciously. This meant more than trying to avoid buying something made in China. It meant choosing a small, locally owned shop over a big chain store, because they are at a disadvantage in the market. It meant buying things in person rather than over the Internet, because that would mean I would pay sales tax, which goes toward providing state services I depend on, like public transit. Also, buying something in the store that I bicycled to reduces the carbon load of the purchase.

Recently, I read in Mother Jones about  how Internet mega-retailers like Amazon and Walmart use third party logistics providers to do all the actual order filling and shipping. And the workers they hire work in sweatshop conditions:
One suggestion for minimizing work-related pain and strain is to get a stepladder to retrieve any items on shelves above your head rather than getting up on your toes and overreaching. But grabbing one of the stepladders stashed few and far between among the rows of merchandise takes time. Another is to alternate the hand you use to hold and wield your cumbersome scanner. "You'll feel carpal tunnel start to set in," one of the supervisors told me, "so you'll want to change hands." But that, too, he admitted, costs time, since you have to hit the bar code at just the right angle for it to scan, and your dominant hand is way more likely to nail it the first time. Time is not a thing I have to spare. I'm still only at 57 percent of my goal. It's been 10 years since I was a mover and packer for a moving company, and only slightly less since I worked ridiculously long hours as a waitress and housecleaner. My back and knees were younger then, but I'm only 31 and feel pretty confident that if I were doing those jobs again I'd still wake up with soreness like a person who'd worked out too much, not the soreness of a person whose body was staging a revolt. I can break into goal-meeting suicide pace for short bouts, sure, but I can't keep it up for 10.5 hours.

Go and read the whole article: I Was A Warehouse Wage Slave

I am distressed that this sort of employment is even legal in the US, and that because of the third-party temp-labor hiring, companies like Amazon aren't held liable for the working conditions.

This has really soured me on shopping at Amazon, or any other online retailer that I can find using similar third-party logistics for order filling. But today, I found a new wrinkle in my conscious shopping. For years, I've used the "wish list" function of Amazon to keep track of books I'd like to read, although I often just get them from the library. And yet, there are a number of people who actually, sweetly, buy me books and things from that list... from Amazon. Am I encouraging them to use Amazon if I keep my wish list there?