Thursday, 1 March 2012

Lessons Learned

Project Made in China is over, officially anyway. I consider it to have been a success, not because I succeeded in buying nothing from China (I did not- succeed that is), but because it made me a more conscious consumer.

I ended up donating about 20 things to make up for what I did buy from China- mostly clothes and baby items I've never found a use for. I had to tie a red string onto the zipper pull of my wallet to remind myself to check things when shopping, because I found that I often forgot, and then got home and realized I'd bought something made in China, like the cheap bike lock I bought for the stroller.
It was a combination of uncomfortable and entertaining to be constantly asking cashiers and sales clerks where something was made. Most of them had no idea and seemed a little taken aback by the question. Sometimes I felt like I was being a snob, having to return something to the shelf and explain that I couldn't buy it after all. Sometimes I felt guilty if I was in a small independent store and couldn't buy something- it's a lot easier to tell a Walmart manager you're not buying their Chinese crap than a small business owner who's just trying to keep her manufacturing costs down to keep her business alive and support her family.

Some things utterly shocked me. Our friends have a baby a few months older than Hunter, and when she first went to the grocery store to start buying baby food, she picked up some Canadian-brand, organic teething biscuits, only to discover when she got home and read the label: Product of China. What?! Really? I also discovered that my cloth diapers are made in China. That was a real disappointment. I bought them back in the fall, but I never would have even thought to check. I only discovered it by accident when I went to the website to read their washing instructions (mine are starting to get a bit musty, a common side effect in the winter when you can't line dry them in the sun). I emailed the girl who sells them (I had assumed that she also made them, because her store is the only place you can buy them besides online), and asked if she knew how much the workers were paid. This is one of those times where I felt a bit snobby and condescending. She said she didn't. I told her that it kind of defeated the purpose of buying cloth diapers in the first place to have them manufactured and shipped in from China; all my good green intentions were negated by the pollution-spewing factory where (I imagine) they were made, and the oil-guzzling cargo ship that freighted them halfway around the world to me. I would have gladly paid more for them (they were only $10 each, very cheap) if she had them made in Canada, by people who were paid fair wages and worked under ethical conditions. I cringed a bit as I wrote this to her- I felt like I was coming off as completely holier-than-thou, but I sent it anyway. She thanked me for the feedback and offered to give me information on some Canadian-made diaper companies. I appreciated her reaction. It would have been easy for her to get defensive with me. So, the best thing I can do now is take really good care of these diapers and make them last as long as I can, and replace them, if I have to, with homemade or locally-made ones in the future.

Consumer feedback is powerful- that is one of the biggest lessons I have learned. While it was very uncomfortable for me to let the sweet owner of a small store right down the street from me that I was really unhappy with her business decisions, I feel it was the right thing to do. If I had not spoken up, I would have simply stated with my purchase that I agreed with how these diapers were made and how the workers that made them were treated and paid. It was not a slight against her- it was a heartfelt opinion about the arena of capitalism she was choosing to engage in. If I had known the diapers were made in China before I bought them, and I had simply not bought them, she would never have known the reason. Maybe I didn't know she sold diapers, or I chose disposables, or I didn't like the way they looked. Now she knows- I love her diapers, I just don't love where they were made. We vote with our wallets, of course, but it's also important to use our voices. It's the privilege and responsibility of living in a country where it's safe, and effective, to do so.

We vote every day. When we buy a chicken at the supermarket. When we drop off our dry cleaning. When we use the 407 toll highway. When we buy a $10 diaper made in China.

I approve of how this animal was treated, fed, killed and processed. 

I am okay with the impact this business has on the environment. 

I support the building of this highway with taxpayer's money, the sale of it to a private company, and the tolls I now pay that company to drive on it. 

I agree with the wages and conditions this product was made under, and the environmental costs of shipping it overseas to me. 

Don't get me wrong. I don't buy all organic, sustainably grown and harvested food. I drive on the 407. I take our good clothes to the cleaner's. I still buy things made under unethical conditions. But the first step to making changes in my life and my family's life is to be aware. I don't want to be ignorant anymore. I don't want to choose blindness because facing the truth is uncomfortable. It's easy for me to lapse into this mindset:

I can't be totally concerned with everything I buy and do. It's just too exhausting. I would spend every waking minute trying to find good things to eat, and wear, and it's just too much. We can't go back to living like Little House on the Prairie, and I'm not going to become a granola-crunching vegan that makes her own feminine products and brushes her teeth with baking soda. I'm a good person, but we have to make compromises and priorities. I donate to charity, I try and buy organic meat, I recycle and compost. I do what I can. 

But I'm finding that if I choose to be aware- if I don't lie to myself and I admit when I am making choices that don't jive with my values- if I look at my behaviour critically instead of just lapsing into guilt and despair, and if I take it One Step At A Time, slowly changing my habits and decisions, I find that I can do it. We can do it. I make decisions every day that don't support my values. I know that. It's not okay, but I'm working on it. I'm not a bad person, I'm a work in progress. I also make good decisions every day, and I'm proud of myself for that. I smile every time I change a diaper (okay maybe not every time), because I'm thrilled that I made the decision not to use disposables, even though many people told me flat-out I was nuts. I stopped buying a lot of the pre-made meals I used to keep on hand in the freezer so we could afford to make the switch to local, organic milk and eggs.

Project Made in China is over, but I am going to do my best to stick with my new habits. The red string is staying on my wallet and label reading has almost become an automatic instinct. I have no plans to go to Walmart anytime soon. I accept the fact that things I am accustomed to paying next to nothing for are going to cost us more now. I will be buying more things second-hand, especially baby stuff, and learning how to make more things. This experience has been hard, incredibly frustrating, and very rewarding. 30 days felt like an awfully long haul, but I know it was just the first step.

The greatest lesson my Dad ever taught me was how to eat an elephant. One bite at a time.

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