Dying of Consumption

11/22/2006 12:00 AM |

You know from living in New York that, if nothing else, you have options as a consumer. You may even get the feeling you’re a marketer’s wet dream — you’re just not sure if you’re ok with that. You buy organic and you’ve heard the phrase “fair trade,” assuming it to be a good thing. It’s likely that you want to make the world a better place, but, overwhelmed by theories and statistics, you’re uncertain about where to start.
The responsible consumption movement in New York has a few public faces, most of which you wouldn’t recognize — with the possible exception of Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. If you haven’t witnessed the “big bad Elvis-haired” activist, Bill Talen, in a Starbucks, he usually jumps up on the counter or prays for the exorcism of demons from the cash register or encourages customers to “take three steps back, pull the lipstick out of their purse and put the nipples back on that Starbucks mermaid.” Talen is banned from Starbucks establishments and has a restraining order that requires he stay at least 250 yards away from California’s 1,500 Starbucks.

“It’s theater,” he says of his revivalist preacher act, which usually consists of rousing anti-consumption sermons punctuated with “Hallelujahs”: “We don’t want suffering in our products! Someone give me a change-a-lujah?!” I think he let a “bike-a-lujah” out during a particularly spirited sermon on gas prices. The services usually involve some prayer to what Reverend Billy calls “the fabulous unknown” and end in freestyling sessions, a mingling of middle-age hippies and hipsters (almost) dirty dancing.

Reverend Billy participates in  Adbusters’ annual “Buy Nothing Day” on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving — traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. In 2005, American shoppers spent $28 billion on Black Friday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. 

Talen says he’s never seen statistics as to how Buy Nothing Days affect markets, but insists that economic change isn’t the point. “The day is a celebration of the possibility of stopping consumption. Consumption is an American addiction. Buying nothing is a personal exercise; it’s a feeling of freedom.”

Michela Calabrese, Campaign Coordinator of Argentine and Brooklyn-based interrupción* — a self-proclaimed community of individuals, organizations and NGOs working for economic and social justice through responsible consumption — is as far from the old-fashioned tub-thumping of Reverend Billy as one can get. She speaks plainly and clearly, not bombastically — she’s an academic not an actor.

While Reverend Billy and interrupción* are in many ways working toward the same end — economic and social justice — their means of achieving it occupy different ends of the spectrum.
interrupción*  works at what they call, “new activism”, building new systems of production and consumption, like micro-enterprises, not just opposing old ones. 

“This isn’t just about ‘don’t buy Starbucks,’” says Calabrese. “This isn’t corporate versus fair trade. It’s about letting people decide for themselves, understanding that their purchase has power. In fact, four percent of Starbucks coffee is fair trade. But, it’s nearly impossible to get a cup of fair trade coffee at Starbucks; [they only offer it] ground and by the pound. Basically, it is your choice if you want to shop there, but you should know.” 
To the chagrin of many fair trade activists, interrupción* collaborates with corporations like Nestlé and Unilever, attempting to have them integrate socially responsible business practices — everything from waste management to stock market investment. “Multinationals are major players and are not going anywhere anytime soon,” says Calabrese. “We need to learn how to link notions of responsible action from the individual to the corporation.”
Calabrese draws a distinction between interrupción* and the overall Fair Trade “movement,” which, she says, can make people think of Christian nerds. 

Christians? Fair Trade? “Oh yeah,” says Michela, “It’s big in faith communities. A lot of places like Judson Church — where Reverend Billy comes from — have Fair Trade coffee hours after the service. Actually, interrupción*  believes the Christian social values… minus God.”

Fair Trade aims to ensure that farmers, without access to the technology to foresee international market prices, receive fair wages for their labor. The movement began in Europe in the 1960s as a response to multinational corporations and the new free trade system that meant ever-fluctuating international market prices for goods like coffee and cocoa. Farmers might spend six months with a crop and send it down the supply chain, to find that the demand has changed so dramatically, they’ll receive a fraction of what they made the year before. 
Fair Trade groups like TransFair USA certify products as “Fair Trade” according to their standards and mark the package with a seal.

Their certification, however, only accounts for farmers, the very first link on the supply chain. The rest is the basically invisible journey that a product makes on its way from producer to consumer. Large companies often ship their product to different countries to avoid tariffs — the average T-shirt, for example, will go to six or seven countries before it ends up in an American retail store.

Traditionally, a successful marketing strategy moves the consumer as far away as possible from the producer, keeping the supply chain invisible. interrupción* tries to rectify this disconnect: “You don’t want to know about sweatshops in Mexico, you don’t want to know about environmental damage in China and you don’t fucking want to know about economic free trade zones in South East Asia,” says Calabrese.
In purchasing you have much more available power than in, say, voting once a year — you can literally build or destroy a community. “The bottom line is accessible information about the root of your product. Responsible consumption begins with recognition — products do not begin or end with you.”

The easiest way to know the root of your product? Buy local. It’s a statement of investment in a community, in people. Building local markets essentially protects the indigenous personality of a place. People generally want a good life for their family and neighbors; they don’t want to add suffering to the world — so align your moral beliefs with your purchasing patterns.

“You will never be the most responsible consumer,” says Calabrese. “It is not an end goal; it is a process. Society overall is moving in the wrong direction. Any steps that you as an individual are taking in the right direction are good, are significant.”