Questions of the conscience

One of my most grand new year’s resolutions for 2008 is to become a more conscientious consumer. It has been something that I have struggled with for many years, along with vegetarianism and having to brush my teeth a FULL two times a day (I think that is kind of asking a lot).

There is definitely an up side to brushing my teeth. I love the feeling afterward, of a bright, blissfully clean mouth, but the act itself is tedious and I tend to gag when I force the toothbrush down my throat in order to do a thorough tongue cleaning.

Conscience consumerism poses the same problem for me.
In a world where an average American is faced with thousands of consumer choices everyday, it is impossible to avoid partaking in our culture’s constant need for product consumption. We face it when we wake up in the morning and grab that hot Starbuck’s coffee, when we stop to buy gas and wander into the quik-e-mart for a candy bar and a marked down copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits. It even follows us to church as we make sure our embossed copies of the Book of Mormon are in-tow and that our CTR rings are securely placed.

When I think of how much time I actually spend contemplating my next purchase, I get queasy in the gut, knowing that I am buying into a culture that invariably impoverishes nations, pollutes the earth, and deteriorates a desire to cultivate my mind and instead emphasizes one of cultivating my wallet.

So the question then posed is, how do I become a more conscientious consumer? I decided to take one small step at a time. Or, at least I thought it would be a small step. We have all heard arguments on the ills apparent in American jobs shipped oversees. We feel criminal as we listen to stories of developing nations overtaken by multinational corporations who exploit local populations in order to provide each of us with notebooks to write in, pens to write with, and pocket protectors to shield our Chinese made JCPenney oxford shirts. 

So my first step towards conscience consumerism was to start buying American made. This seemed logical, because however critical I am of the United States, I still deeply desire the success of my neighbor. I also saw it as an opportunity to rail against the sweatshops dominating countries like Mexico, India and most notably, China. Just maybe, if we all stop buying products stamped with “Made in China” we can begin to tackle the breach of international labor standards so prevalent around the world.

Oh how naive I was. I walked through the isles of Target, Best Buy and University Mall and found that 9 out of 10 items I picked up were Chinese made. China has the most rapidly evolving economy, which now sits as third largest in the world. In fact, in the last thirty years, China’s economy has doubled nearly three times over.

In 2004, American’s bought $162 billion more in goods from China than we sold to the country. As consumers, we are captivated by their ability to promise us lower and lower prices each and every year. This, many say, comes at the expense of China’s millions of mistreated factory workers. But, unlike the assumption that our purchases impoverish other nations, the more American’s load up on laptops, DVD players and iPods, the higher the standard of living is afforded for the average Chinese man or woman.

That may not be saying much since the Cultural Revolution forced China’s billion person population into utter ruin, but it runs counter to our belief that consuming goods from developing nations is akin to exploitation. Without U.S. consumption, China’s exponential progress would come to a grinding halt, and they know that.

They are so invested in our continued consumption that they are one of the most aggressive lenders to the United States. In 2004, China doubled the amount it had invested in the U.S. securities market only two years before, the new figure amounting to $480 billion. This also means that the more we consume of China’s products on credit, the more indebted to the nation we become.

These issues are not the trivial problems of having to brush my teeth twice a day, or even of the bleeding gums I encounter after going months without flossing. It is closer along the lines of having a 23-year-old, undergraduate student of liberal arts walk into a dental surgery with a chisel in hand. Globalization has intertwined our two nations so closely that it seems impossible that either will survive without the other, and it makes the process of picking out a Chinese made T-shirt all the more complex.

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