be a conscious consumer

Submitted by sproutnewb on Mon, 2011-03-28 14:29

Cape Town's Canal WalkCape Town's Canal WalkI recently moved to Cape Town after living in much smaller cities for most of my life. Despite adjusting to the changing landscapes and different people I noticed that there is one kind of place, no matter where you are in the world, where you know what to expect. The big sale sign, special offers, all too familiar brands, those standard price tags, the florescent lights and suggestive mannequins in the windows - shopping malls and stores are the same whether you’re in Cape Town or Polokwane! The familiarity was comforting at first but it was not long before concern grabbed hold of me. Let me explain why:

What our shopping malls say about us
Imagine if, in 2000 years from now, a scientist visits our planet (yes, from the mars colony, due to climate collapse!) and finds thousands of similar buildings (shopping malls and stores) all around the globe, all bearing these repeated symbols (brands, signs, price tags), how would they make sense of it? Well they would probably compare them to another set of buildings that are dotted around the globe all bearing repeated symbols of their own kind... religious institutions. Having easily concluded that religious institutions are places of worship of respective gods they would probably draw a similar conclusion for shopping malls and stores. That is, they could easily assume that our shopping malls and stores are places of worship of a different kind of god...consumption!

The age of consumption
Could it be? The 20th century gave rise to a new kind of shrine where your "daily bread" is available in low gi, wholewheat or rye, your "holy book" is wrapped up in a variety of fashionable designs and your "songs of praise" are aisle’s of sales? You may think you are making your own decisions but I can guarantee you that the very nature of the displays in shopping malls, product advertisements and mass media are dictating your actions.

You don’t believe me? Well let me give you a scenario to prove my point. You walk into a store and want to buy something to drink. You can choose between Vitamin water if you are in need of a boost, Coke if you want that all American favourite, Fanta if you want that German favourite, Bonaqua water if you prefer to stay healthy, maybe a Bacardi Breezer if you like a little alcohol, maybe a Capri Sun or Minute Maid if you want something fruity, Powerade if you are feeling active, the options are endless...or are they? Hate to break it to you but every product and related brand I’ve just mentioned are all owned by the same company... The Coca-Cola Company! Shopping malls may make you believe that you are in control of your consumption (what you buy) but at the end of the day, no matter what you choose, you are a slave to large corporations.

Why is this a bad thing?
Let me stick with my example of the Coca-Cola Company. The Coca-Cola Company has existed for over a century, has over 139 000 employees around the world, has over 3500 products which are sold in over 200 countries around the globe. Now despite these impressive statistics you must realise that with great power comes inevitable great greed and Coca-Cola is no exception to this rule. Some of the controversies surrounding this company include:

  • In the law case titled Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola (2001) the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit in US court against Coca-Cola and some bottlers in Colombia on behalf of their workers. In January 2004, a New York City-based fact-finding delegation, a self-initiated group that included some city officials in a personal capacity, confirmed the workers' allegations. They found that there had been a total of 179 major human rights violations of Coca-Cola's workers, including 9 murders, abduction and torture.
  • Coca-Cola's operations in India have come under intense scrutiny as many communities are experiencing severe water shortages as well as contaminated ground water and soil that some assert are a result of Coca-Cola's bottling operations. As a result the Plachimada plant in Kerala state, one of Coca-Cola's largest bottling facilities in India, has remained shut for 17 months now because the village council has refused to renew its license, blaming the company for causing water shortages and pollution.
  • In June 2007, when Coca-Cola noticed that consumers were buying less soda it bought Glaceau's VitaminWater for $4.1 billion. Two years later it was being sued for selling people this soft drink while falsely claiming it was a vitamin! Coca-Cola put profit above health concerns.

These are but a few of the controversies surrounding just one of many multinational companies. It is clear that with great amounts of money comes great power, and with great power comes the ability to disregard human rights, environmental concerns and health concerns. To ensure that you don’t pay for these kinds of practices (through buying these products) all you have to do is become more aware of what you consume, that is, consume consciously!

You’ve got the power!
Consumers have the power to control what is on the shelves and help the environment at the same time by simply being picky about what they buy. Consider the plastic bags we carry our bought goods in for example: Yachtsman and environmentalist Ian Kiernan (Chairman and Founder of Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World) said that "Plastic makes up about 80 percent of all marine debris, plastic shopping bags alone make up 10 percent." If we all made the simple choice to carry a reusable carry bag we would be saving the environment of 10 percent of waste as well as save a bit of cash for ourselves.

Closer to home
As an exercise to become more aware of my consumption I have listed and tracked some of the products that I have used often throughout my life so that I can make a more informed decision about the choices I make when I go shopping. Here are some interesting things that I found out:

My Koo Apricot Jam, Albany bread, Black Cat Peanut butter, Fatti’s and Moni’s Spaghetti, Spray and Cook, Jungle Oats and Tastic Rice are all produced by Tiger brands. Tiger brands is a South African company that was fined R98.7 million in 2007 by the South African Competition Commission for colluding with other bread producers to raise the price of bread by 30c to 35c per loaf. This selfish and unnecessary action left millions of people hungry but it also left the owners wealthy. Is this the kind of moral reasoning we should support?

My Sandex body wash, Vaseline body cream, Stork butter, Lipton tea, Knorrox and Robertson’s spices, Handy Andy surface cleaner and Omo washing powder are all produced by the Anglo-Dutch brand Unilever which is a British-Dutch multinational corporation that owns many of the world's consumer product brands in foods, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products. Unilever is not in Greenpeace’s good books as it has been accused of buying palm oil from companies that are destroying valuable rainforest and peatland areas; bad news not only for the millions of people who depend on these for their way of life and endangered species such as the orangutan, but also for the global climate. The Hindustan Unilever has not only been accused of using child labour but has also been accused of racism due to a controversial television advertisements for skin-lightening cream, Fair and Lovely, depicting depressed, dark-skinned women, who had been ignored by employers and men, suddenly finding new boyfriends and glamorous careers after the cream had lightened their skin.

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself the question: do I want to pay huge companies practising exploitative tactics for my household products whose main goals are profits or would I rather pay smaller companies with healthier and more humane ideals? The aim at the end of the day is to be more conscious of your consumption as not only could it save the environment and the lives of others, it could also save your own.

As an exercise for my next blog post I am going to list all the products I use in one day and give examples of healthier alternatives that could be used instead. It is important to remember that this is not a diet. You are not being asked to give up your favourite foods but merely to replace them with healthier alternatives. So you can have your piece of cake while enjoying a peace of mind!

For healthier, eco-friendly and more humane alternatives see our directory.

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