hunting for the ethical purchase

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Bryan is an artist, father, husband, and son (not really in that order). He works for the Department of Vetern's Affairs and writes and administers The Fireside Post with his father, Ohg Rea Tone. His writings have not been published, though they have been printed a lot.

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hunting for the ethical purchase

As consumers, we vote with our pocketbook.  There is plenty of complaining about the impact of Wal-Mart, but they are winning the campaign of the free market because they they are, in fact, cheap.  Everyone loves a bargain, and these days the way to get one is to invest your time and money into supporting sweat shops, forced labor and widening income disparities.  That is the market force.  If we want to enforce the ethics of our system, if we are to be the change that we want to see in the world, then we have to evaluate our decisions.  And that includes our decisions as consumers.  Take my recent hunt for a new vacuum, for instance.

I have been shopping for a new vacuum cleaner.  The old one that we had was cheap and has been through a lot.  I spent more time cleaning it in the last several months than I did vacuuming my carpets.  My wife and I decided we should get another vacuum, and we began talking about what kinds of criteria we would use to make our decision.  It is, after all, only a vacuum.  Well, one week and $150 later, I am ready to clean my carpets with our new vacuum. But it wasn’t  easy, let me tell you.

I am bound to make decision based on my value system.  In fact, I believe that we all send a message with our purchases, whether we are intentional about it or not.  I don’t shop at Wal Mart and I try to shop locally as much as possible.  I am notoriously cheap these days, and my wife frowns at me anymore when I come home boasting of the ridiculously low price I just paid for something.  I want to be a good steward of my resources and to be aware of my impact on the community and the planet.  So I can’t make purchases, especially large ticket purchases, without due consideration.

So now to the vacuum.  The cheap vacuum won’t work for us anymore.  I have no desire to dismantle it all the time and the cheap vacuums are basically disposable.  You use them for about 18 months and then you throw them away and go get another one.  IWell, i don’t throw anything away, so I am left with a barely working machine that I feel compelled to use.  I want a good vacuum, something that really works and I don;t have to repair or clean every other time I use it.  So I am willing to spend a little more there.  The carpets are not mine, however, because I rent, so I am not really interested in spending the money on a vacuum that will be good for the carpet and bad for my checking account.

So I had some criteriua and I went out on the hunt.  I went to the local retailer down the street to see if I could get something out of his shop that is made in the U.S. and can be serviced less than a mile from my house.  I found some, but the cheapest one was $299.   The better one was $399.  Well, I didn’t want the “cheaper” one, so I left.  I went to Ace Hardware, the next best thing to the local haredware store, and they had an awful assortment of expensive machines.  I had reasearche dthe vacuums with Consumer Reports, and none of the machuines that I saw there were in the store, and none of them were under $200 (with the exception of the super cheap model, which I had aleready ruled out.)

So I was off to Lowe’s.   I wasn’t really comfortable with their selection and was worried about being back to a vacuum that didn’t work and I was left with repairing it on the ktchen floor with a screwdriver and a butter knife.  I left.

I ended up with the not-so-cheap model from Best Buy and I bought the four year replacement warranty.  I spent half as much as I would have at the local shop and I ended up with a vacuum that, if it breaks, I can just take it back.  I liked the guy at the local store and I intend to be a homeowner one day, so I will be looking to invest in my carpets and my neighborhood a little.  I don’t know if I will invest that much, but I will have to revisit that when it is time.

So, should we do this with every purchase?  Is this the process for everything that we buy?  I try to do it as much as possible.  I buy my food at Aldi because I get three times as many groceries for my money.  I avoid Coca-Cola products whenever possible.  I leave my car in the driveway as much as I can and walk.  I try to read up online on the businesses that I shop so that I can avoid supporting practices that are not in line with my value system.   Sometimes I fail.  Sometimes I am just impulsive or obsessive about a purchase.  But if I choose never to evaluate my consumption, then I choose to allow other forces to control my destiny, like advertising engines and multi-national corporations.  And that is not OK with me.

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