Shopping with the World in Mind

As an anthropologist I spend a lot of my time thinking about globalization and its effects. Recently after discussing commodity chains and the near impossible task of avoiding harmful products, I began to think about the products that I consume on a daily basis.

The chicken I had for dinner was raised locally – somewhere in Colorado – but the rice I made that night definitely did not get to my plate via a Coloradoan farmer. Mostly likely my rice came from an underpaid, overworked farmer, possibly even a child.

In an attempt to avoid speculation, as I’ve been trained to do, I thought that I should know where my products are coming from – how they got to me. I began to wonder why, when I know the devastating consequences of many product I buy, I keep buying them. I think I’ve figured part of it out.

I attribute poor consumer choices (including my own) largely to the seemingly impossibility of tracking products through our global system. Many people are trying to do ‘the right thing’ but all too often they’re intercepted by yet another problem with the new choice they’ve made.

Let me explain:

There’s been a large push for buying and living local. Purchasing local products boosts the local economy; avoids supporting child labor or forced labor of (some) overseas farms; local animals are treated more humanely than otherwise; and local farms use less pesticides, take up less land, and are overall better for the environment.

I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads, disagreeing with one or more of the arguments I just made. That’s exactly is my point.

As a consumer processes these many arguments it seems obvious that they should by local products whenever possible. But then come the counter-arguments:

Local farms aren’t as efficient as large scale agriculture, how can you be sure the animals are better treated, it costs much more to produce foods locally, the concentration of pesticide is much higher on small local farms, and farming in drought prone areas takes water from our fragile ecosystem. And on and on and on.

Consumers are hit with too many choices and too much contrasting information. They shut down. Consumers seem to just accept the fact that it’s too complicated and go about their days as before – buying products, often without a second thought.

To combat overwhelmed consumers, simple, straight-forward information needs to be easily available from a trusted source. Consumers need a clear cut guide of what they should and shouldn’t buy. Obviously, it seems far-fetched to expect every bit of information to be compiled into one source without some disagreements and complicated topics. But I think it is possible to make hassle-free guides for consumers. And I know it’s being done.

Take Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their guide is available online, on your phone, or in print. Consumers can find almost any type of fish, including information on farmed vs. wild caught, and see how it’s rated by the aquarium.

For example, I can type in salmon and here’s what I get:

Seafood Guide

If you continue to scroll through their results, you’ll find recommendations for best products, good products, and ones to avoid.

The information presented through Seafood Watch is extremely accessible (assuming the consumer has internet access or access to a print copy). What you see is what you get. And if you’re shopping in the U.S. when you get to the store all fresh fish must be displayed with information about country of origin and wild-caught vs. farmed. The guide lines up almost flawlessly with what is on the shelves.

I’ve used this system myself and it is very user friendly. I was able to size up my options at the counter and choose the best option I had. It is still possible that this guide could be further complicated with additional information. I’m only using it here as an example of a consumer guide that is easy to access and use. I don’t intend to imply that this is flawless.

I think guides like this encourage sustainable choices because they provide easy to understand information. Essentially it takes all of the guess work out of buying fresh fish. All you need to do is buy what’s in green or yellow and you’ve done your part!

Be on the lookout for more post about where the products I buy come from and more consumer guides!

What consumer guides do you use to inform sustainable purchases? Share in the comments below!

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