Sunday, 21 November 2010

Plain dress November - thinking globally and acting locally

Among the comments on my blog post yesterday, someone made a really interesting and fair point that I wanted to respond to more fully than my comment allowance would permit - I so I thought I'd take it up here.

The point I wanted to respond to is this:
I don't quite understand the desire to buy local. If something can be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone else, why would I want to do it inefficiently here? Yes, I could benefit the local shop owner. But I do it at the expense of someone who needs the money more. And the local shop-owner can do something that can't be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone in Taiwan.

The issue at stake here is what can be called 'the journey of the pound in my pocket'.

In the Bible, blessing is always seen in terms of increase, be that prosperity or fecundity. Spending money is a form of blessing, so we have to think carefully about where we want to direct our blessing.

For the Christian, an important principle of spiritual obedience is Christ's command to love our neighbour - and of course He took that from the teaching of the Jewish Torah.

So in spending money we are mindful to remember to bless our neighbour.

Here are the reasons I try to shop locally.

1) I can watch that the producers I am blessing and supporting are compassionate. I can visit the farm or the shop and see how staff are treated, or if I am buying animal produce, how the animals are treated. When I lived in Aylesbury we bought eggs from a place where you went to the shop along a track through the fields where the hens were, and could see their conditions for yourself. In a supermarket, there are only eggs on a shelf from a place far away out of sight that I cannot check.

It is important to me that the goods I buy are produced with compassion and integrity, and I do not believe an unscrupulous producer would tell me the truth. I like to be able to see for myself.
2)  If I buy from a small local business, a high percentage of my money stays in the community (depending where the goods are sourced). Part of the reason the US is in debt is because the US buys a high proportion of goods from China, but because of Chinese currency kept artificially low, the Chinese have no reciprocal need to buy from the US. So there is a steady leakage of financial advantage to China. Enriching China is not necessarily a problem, but rising debt in the US is. Sourcing goods from one's own country creates stability and prosperity. This was Gandhi's point about Khadi cotton.

So if I buy my potatoes from a local greengrocer, sourced from a local supplier, both of them employing local staff, the money I spend will roll around within the community where I live, creating stability and prosperity. It is a form of loving my neighbour. Also in that small owner-run shop, the greengrocer can have his kids in the shop with him if his wife has to go for a hospital appointment, and he can choose to make room in his staff for his cousin's son with Downs Syndrome, and his elderly dad can mind the shop for the day while he takes his family to the fair. He also has the intellectual stimulus of autonomy and responsibility in running his own business - and if he wants to he can tithe to charity, maybe putting 10% of my potato money in the Quaker meeting collection for poor and destitute people :0) .

If I buy my potatoes at the supermarket, I know that the hardnosed supermarket people have cut the suppliers to the bone. The supermarket chooses the bargains, but it is the suppliers not the shop who stand the cost of special offers. The staff who work there are only units - they cannot bring their children to work or have their elderly dad stand in for them. The staff will spend their money in the supermarket probably (they will have incentive schemes), so though in one sense they spend their money locally, they mainly spend it in that shop. So only a tiny percentage of my pound returns to bless my community - most of it is barrowed away to increase the bank accounts of shareholders and big businessmen. That is not unethical per se, but it is not how I wish to spend my money.
The goods on offer in the big, cheap supermarket are cheap either because they pay our producers so little they are putting them out of business, or because they have sourced them from overseas in conditions which sometimes represent our export of exploitation, poverty and abuse of human and animal life.
Cash crops grown overseas are often a short-termist and unsustainable way of dealing with poverty, creating social and financial vulnerability, removing the freedom of indigenous peoples to make real decisions about the use of their land, and often resulting in serious impoverishment of the community and the environment - like the prawn farms that have ruined the agricultural lands in some parts of the world, or the rainforest that has been cut down to the detriment of all of us to create cattle ranches for cheap beefburgers sold by food giants.
I don't think it can be the case that all supermarkets are bad or that all their products are unethical - but I do know that it would be extremely difficult for me to verify.
3) There is also the issue of food miles (or the transportation of any manufactured goods), which does immense environmental damage that we ought to take seriously. As the time of Peak Oil comes upon us, we have to take this seriously.  The more locally to their point of consumption goods are sourced and produced, the lower is the environmental impact their production creates.

Modern life has become so complex that I don't find it easy to uphold a principled way of life.  Sometimes, for example, a big chain out-of-town supermarket may sell very ethical goods (eg British organic vegetables or Alpro non-GM soy milk) where the corner shop has only goods at higher prices than I can afford made by corporate giants whose business practice I distrust, and wilting vegetables long past serving much nutritional purpose. 

Shopping carefully is something I regard as one of the largest ethical responsibilities of the household.  It is a spiritual thing, not just a chore.  It's one of the reasons I choose to live very simply, because that gives me the spaciousness in my life to make the decisions of household management as if they were not merely a task to be done, but also a form of blessing, a testimony, a witness, a creed and a prayer - all of which I believe they are.


Susanna said...

Well said Ember :0D
I am so thankful that I live in an area where I can source local produce, and eat in places that use local produce. I do buy stuff in supermarkets as well, but try to go for the fair trade option if it's available. Some of my friends work in supermarkets, and they would be out of a job if they closed. I also have to shop cost effectively, so that I have money to give to other causes. Perhaps it's all a question of balance?

River said...

There are sooo many answers to this.. but it all boils down to one thing for me..

Its the right thing to do ..

Denise in TN

River said...

I know this doesn't have a lot to do w/ this entry but I think you would enjoy this blog..

I've followed her for a long time now..

I think if ya'll lived closer ya'll would be friend :)


Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Sue - yes, this is a brilliant area for the small local businesses - I spent a happy time at your farmers' market at the weekend - the carrots I bought there tasted *so good*!

Hi "Tis the gift to be simple" - yes I must add this lady's blog to my list here - I read it sometimes; she's lovely. When I first came across it I embarrassed myself by writing an impassioned reply to a trouble sate of mind she seemed to be in, only to discover afterwards she'd written that post 4 years previously!! I do hope she never published my comment! :0D

Michelle-ozark crafter said...

very well said. I shop locally as much as I can because our little town has already lost a lot of businesses and has struggled. I would hate for the town to start the slide into losing more and more people and slipping away all together as many towns have,

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Michelle! :0)

Stealth Jew said...

Actually, the supermarkets here are unionised, so they're pretty good jobs. There's no correlation of which I am aware between small businesses and good working conditions. In fact, small businesses are generally _less_ flexible about leave. A cashier at Safeway can call one of the other hundred cashiers, but at the small grocer she has no such option.

But when I shop at an American Walmart, it's an appreciably better experience than shopping at my local grocer. The service is better, the prices are lower, and the selection is wider. Some people may prefer the experience of shopping at their local grocer, and more power to them, but I don't see how it then becomes a moral imperative.

Why would it be particularly moral to subsidise my neighbours doing something inefficiently? My neighbours aren't necessarily more worthy than Taiwanese people. If people can grow potatoes better in Taiwan, then my neighbours need to be doing something else. An example: I could, if I wanted to, grow bananas here in Canada. I could grow tomatoes in December. But the energy it would take would make it not worth the trouble. It's more efficient to get tomatoes from California, and to give California something that we here in Vancouver do well in return. Should I pay the man next door to grow bananas because I know him, or should I buy bananas and encourage him to do something more suited to our local economy?

I think you may be confusing the trade deficit with debt. The US has debt because the federal government is spending more than it is taking in, and has a great number of unfunded liabilities. The US has a trade deficit because the currency is high. You can artificially lower your currency, but it's not a good deal for the country in the long run. China I suspect can sustain it only because they aren't a democracy.

The "peak oil" problem, if it comes to pass, will solve itself. When oil is more expensive, the price of transported goods goes up as well.

Stealth Jew said...

btw, forgive me for commenting again, but Gandhi's economic principles (economic autarky) were in serious error and have been abandoned almost everywhere in the world -- much to India's benefit, I think.

Unknown said...

Ember~Well said.I have 3 stores to shop at. During the summer try to get some items from the Farmers Market. Blessing's

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Yvonna and Stealth Jew - thanks for your comments! I love this blog - every day I learn something from the intelligence of the people who post here. I bet you're right, Stealth Jew - I have *no* idea of the difference between national debt and trade deficit - that's why I have such trouble thinking things through! I learn as I go, as people explain to me bit by bit what things are.

River said...

I personally will not step into a Wal Mart..
I know not everyone has that luxury..don't you think that is a shame?

No,I would rather spend my money with folks I can look eye to eye than a corporation.

Do I buy local 100% of the time.. no sometimes I don't make the mark
but I try.. and its non local stuff is small.

Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal,Vegetable and Miracle is a really good book to explain it ..

Denise in TN

Tony Collins said...

A couple of thoughts about trade.

We need trade. I am part of a commercial Christian publishing business which sells 70% or more of its books outside the UK. So when Stealth Jew points out that Vancouver is wiser to produce materials that California needs, trading them for California's bananas, I do get the point.

But Peak Oil is creeping upon us. It is self-rectifying in the long run, but in the medium and short term we are facing considerable social disruption, including probable international conflict. The same point can be made about other scarce resources - Water Wars are already upon us, arguably.

The way forward is to be self-reliant in small to medium sized communities, using what clever technology can offer - in my industry, ebooks - and keeping the carbon locked up in the earth and its forests. Forget about green beans from Kenya and peppers from Israel: let's trade data and intellectual properties and good ideas for raising children. We don't need unseasonal veggies. I would be sorry to forget what a banana tastes like, but it would do me no lasting harm.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Tony! :0)

River said...


Well spoken..

Speaking of foods .. and speaking for myself and my self only..

I think eating foods out of season is out of Gods plans for me or anyone else..

I love this site
GNOWFGLINS, which means
God's Natural,Organic,Whole Foods,Grown Locally,In Season
Heres the link to it

We're using this guild line when we shop for our food..

Do we buy like this 100% of the time.. no.. but I bet we're at least 75% of the time now..
We won't buy any food product knowing that it was outside of the US.. and I do think twice if it comes from CA or out west..
1500 miles for something like a tomato to travel to my plate is crazy to me..

Denise in TN

River said...

Staying w/ local foods ..

This is Joel Salatin
one of my hero's .. explaining why its good to have small farms.. i.e. buying local..

Denise n TN

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, Denise. That makes sense to me. x

Jenna said...

Hi, Ember--re-reading your plain dress posts. I've lost my star momentarily and these are just the sextant I need. Thank you.

Pen Wilcock said...

How very interesting. Yes, I do still absolutely "believe in" (whatever I mean by that) the power and beauty of Plain Dress - indeed I still wear it. It's just that my interpretation of it (in terms of the clothes I choose) has changed, to fit my context, to be faithful to simplicity as I see it, and to minimise the amount of space I take up in a shared household.
There's a word, "bottom". Wesley used it (makes me laugh). He said "I endeavour to wind my bottom round the year".

Pause for delighted chortle.

When I first read it, I thought, "WHAT?"

So I researched it.

The word "bottom" comes from the Latin word "gravitas" - you can see that "gravity" does too, and so quickly see why "bottom". Gravitas is seriousness, dignity. It meant "substance" - a quality of serious purpose and to be taken seriously. In 17/18th century English, "substance" was another term also for material substance, i.e. wealth, money. "A man of substance" = rich.

Hence, "bottom" came to mean one's substance = wealth, too.

But if one reaches back the meaning of wealth and money, to the substance, bottom, gravitas in its original meaning - something of dignity, something of consequence, serious, worthwhile, of substantial intent - why then I believe that Plain Dress has "bottom". It is of weight, in the sense of "weighty Friends".

God bless your journey. xx