corporate consumerism: the end of simple shopping
I’m a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy. I’ve got simple tastes. I frequent the chain stores of the thrifty hipster class: Target, Ikea, Trader Joe’s*. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could just about get by on those three stores and no more.

Over the last few years, I’ve grown more aware and interested in the consequences of my most basic decisions, including where I choose to spend my money. Not only that, I’ve also grown more and more tired of the soul-sucking mega-multi-national corporations. I’ve come to believe that bigger corporations equal more corporate employees which equals, roughly, less fulfillment, less creativity and less skill per capita (as well as more inequality, more hierarchy and less transparency). I think small business is the way to go, both as alternative career path and alternative consumer destination. The interwebosphere is making that a more viable and less risky option all the time. But what about the good ol’ brick and mortar stores, where, I’ll go out on a limb to say, most of us still prefer to go most of the time?

And if I believe so much in supporting local small business, as I claim to, why do I still spend most of my money at big chains, or even small chains? Partly, it’s the convenience factor. I can go to Target, walk out with a half-gallon of milk, a pair of shorts, a $5 DVD, a bath towel and an extension cord. All in one place. Another reason is pure economics. Those five items would most likely cost more, per item, if bought at local independent businesses – and they would definitely cost more in time, transportation and hassle. The third reason is that, all too often, local small businesses in the suburbs just plain suck. Either in quality, service or style. And the indie shops of the citysphere are usually trendy, fancy and expensive. Not all, I know, but many. Besides, I don’t live close enough to the real city for it to matter.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about quality and craftsmanship. I was brought up to be cheap. I’m still cheap. But I’m seeing that those happy hit-bottom price tags almost always come at a cost. There are exceptions, but generally it’s better in the long run to pay more for less. If I go to Ikea, I can get a whole room furnished for one month’s salary. Not my salary, but somebody’s. I could go to a bunch of thrift stores, garage sales, flea markets and maybe get lucky with some curb-side drive-by ‘shopping’ and get the same room furnished for a quarter of that cost. Or I could go to individual craftspeople doing one-off pieces for all my monthly salaries from here to the end of time. There’s a lot more options than just those three, a lot of ways to fill in the gaps between them, but let’s keep it simple.

If everyone who works for the Ikeas of the world went and learned the skills of furniture design and manufacture and started making and selling their own stuff, what kind of impact would it have on the market? What kind of impact would it have on their lives as artisans instead of bar-coded employees? What kind of impact would it have on our lives as consumers? Would we become selectors of high-quality original works of art and function instead of buyers of mass-produced plastic and particle-boarded stuff? If all furniture were hand-crafted and high-quality, could we afford to buy second and third and forty-second hand pieces without having to worry they’ll disintegrate on the ride home.

Does it matter? If all we can do is complain about the way things are and talk big about the way we’d like them to be, all the while looking and feeling completely impotent to make any kind of real change, what’s the diff? Where does that leave us – us simple folk, caring enough to change our shopping habits but with no clear alternatives in sight? We, the poor sad few. As we talked about earlier, the www is one great option, but even the digital omniverse will only take you so far. Who’s to know what the manufacturing practices are on the other side of the screen? And who wants to wait a week for everything you buy? And what about the personal contact, the face behind the product?

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet discovered the best way to navigate this rough terrain. Like I said, I still spend lots of money at places where I don’t know if the men and women at the top are more interested in the good of humanity and creation or the good of their year-end bonuses. I’d be completely fine to learn they’re equally concerned with both, but in the age of Enron, it’s doubtful at best. I am encouraged, as I think most people who want to be socially responsible are, by the upsurge of ethical concern that has been all the rage in marketing the past few years. Obviously, a lot of it is pure, straight B.S., but if marketers are pitching good ethics then that’s what the market wants. And if that’s what the market wants, that shows a big shift in the values people are taking with them when they go shopping.

All of a sudden, for us cheapskates, the dirt-cheapest product on the shelf is not the easy decision it used to be.

*For those of you not familiar with one or more of these, I’m not sure what the national and international equivalents would be. Ikea is global, so you should have heard of it by now. Target is like a nicer version of Walmart. Trader Joe’s is a trendy little grocery chain located all over the U.S. with a lot of natural and organic, but fairly cheap products.