Saturday, December 17, 2011

Just In Time For the Holidays

I shop almost exclusively at thrift stores. Initially I found my way to these bargain havens because I am shamelessly cheap. So shameless I haggled a beggar in Jakarta once. But as I’ve researched manufacturing, I’ve realized better reasons to support second hand stores.

Through Green America’s work and the book Not for Sale, I've become curious about the products I buy retail. When I go into Macy’s or Marshall’s, see the label and price tag, I wonder who made it, under what conditions and about the materials used. I then consider the journey that item took to get to a store near me. I’ve learned most things we buy so cheaply come at a cost. 

The brief film The Story of Stuff details the how and why of production, consumption and its repercussions. Somewhere someone is slaving in an unsafe factory so I can get my shoes, rug or shirt for $5 at Target. If something is that cheap then someone is getting shafted. Chances are that someone is a woman like me or children like mine. 

The documentary Maquilapolis focuses on multinationally-owned factories in Tijuana where female workers earn $6/day assembling TV components, cameras and other goods. They live literally downstream from where these factories spew their chemicals, unregulated and unfiltered into the river inflicting a range of maladies on the workers and their children. Manufacturing takes an unimaginable toll on the health of factory workers, mostly women of reproductive age, children and the environment. 

It’s overwhelming to learn about the atrocities suffered by workers worldwide.  But once I’ve learned about an injustice, how can I support its perpetrators? For instance in 2010 workers in a Bangladeshi factory making clothes for Abercrombie & Fitch and Target died in a preventable fire. Despite worldwide pressure from human rights groups, these companies refused to create safer working conditions, compensate families, or simply respond in a humanitarian way. How can I shop in those retail stores again? 

Perhaps globalization is systemic haggling of the poor.

For the most part thrift stores are locally owned and affiliated with local charities. I like knowing the money I’m spending is staying in my community and a portion of it, in some cases all of it, is going to a homeless shelter, being reinvested into job training (as the Goodwill does), and such. I like knowing that items didn’t travel from across the ocean to get to me, just from someone else’s closet across town. I like knowing that no raw materials were extracted and processed for me to have a winter coat, umbrella or desk. I like knowing perfectly useable goods are being diverted from a landfill and are being reused.

But there's another reason I shop second hand. Thrift stores are a sobriety check. You know when you're out drinking, feeling supremely alive, so downing shots 4 through 10 seem like a good idea? Buying new stuff can be like that. Nothing is more tantalizing and promising than a mall or store full of new clothes, gadgets, toys or my weakness, shoes. Having grown up completely drenched in commercials, I go shopping anticipating something phenomenal at an awesome price that will make me feel like a million bucks. Like the promise of a night of drinking, neither delivers quite like we hope they will. The novelty of the purchased item fades as quickly as the buzz. Thrift stores are a sobriety check because goods are stripped of the false promise of the mall. Nothing's shiny or new. It's where shiny and new end up when we've become distracted by yet shinier and newer. 

 Have you donated stuff to a thrift store lately? Gotten a glimpse of the warehouse where they inventory discarded items? It’s like the party house after the party. Masses of clothes that didn’t make us look like whosit on the cover. A graveyard of gadgets that proved to be more complicated than helpful. Stacks of toys more time was spent prying from boxes than played with. Seasons of holiday d├ęcor that didn’t make our family less dysfunctional. I think about this mountain range of forsaken goods when I consider going to the mall to buy something new, this massive accumulation at the morning after end of consumption.

Second hand stores are a reminder that what we buy has a life that extends before and beyond our fleeting interaction with it. Our checkbooks and bodies eventually recover from too much shopping or drinking, but factory workers and our planet continue paying long after we’ve tossed that must have item from last season. Thrift stores keep me sober when I want to be drunk on the illusion that an endless array of new goods will continuously, magically appear.

Of course I still relish the cheap. But $5 for new pants at TJ Maxx can never make sense if workers are paid fairly, labor safely and the manufacturing process didn’t poison the surrounding area with residual toxins. $5 spent for new-to-me pants at the thrifty however, makes sense for me, my community and our planet.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


"I think eco-judgmentalism is a real danger. This is not a matter of finding another five quick rules to keep you on the right side of God. This is not about what we do; this is a change or a development in the depth of our relationship with God himself. It's about everything, not just about a narrow slice of topics. It would be disastrous if we turn the biblical vision into a code that "good" Christians follow—something like, thou shalt eat muesli, wear sandals, and look miserable." Peter Harris (

I am an environmental Pharisee. I know this because my good friend the other day apologized because she had a Styrofoam cup from Sonic. Just like the Pharisees in the Bible, I tie up heavy burdens on people's shoulders by my judgment. It’s so true. In my mind I keep a running tally of people’s choices. They buy meat at Costco, his car is idling, she put out more trash than recyclables; it goes on and on. I even mean mug wait staff at restaurants if they give my kids drinks in Styrofoam cups before I can tell them otherwise. And here's the worst: I feel slightly smug about natural disasters because they prove that climate change is indeed happening. Therefore I’m right. 

It’s difficult to admit this. I consider myself open-minded; hip to the truth that each of us gets to God through a very personal path. I have all sorts of empathy and grace for people who do drugs, drink, smoke, have sex outside of marriage, get divorce, are GLBT, whatever. But if you put chemicals on your lawn, I condemn you.

How did I become this harsh, OCD room monitor for creation? How does awe for God’s mystifying imagination turn into a grumbling obsession with trash and recordkeeping? I started to pay attention to what triggered judgment: fear and anxiety ignited by way too much research. When I notice litter, which is always, I get fixated. I picture plastic debris splintering, making its way into the bodies of birds and fish or eventually joining other pieces of litter crowding out plankton in the ocean. And frankly, I don’t believe God’s got it under control. It’s why I stepped up as creation monitor. I’m well suited for the job because I come from a long line of perfectionistic, micro-managing worriers (and I mean that in the best way possible mom and dad). So when I attend social events, I spend the duration of the gathering rescuing recyclables from the trash, making sure SUDIs aren’t used, washing dishes and sometimes I even get to take home the recyclables I’ve rinsed or cardboard I’ve broken down.

Such a blast for my kids by the way.

It’s also an issue of identity. Being born into a family of professionals and married to someone achievement driven, then choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, provokes feelings of inferiority. I want to stand out somehow, be an expert in an arena outside the home. Loving nature and being a voracious reader I became an authority on our environmental impact. I can assert or feel self-satisfied based on researched criteria. This helps compensate for what I’m not doing career wise. If I can judge others for their environmental choices, I can feel better about myself.

Being an enviro-Pharisee is burdensome. I carry a tremendous load of guilt when I make environmentally unfriendly choices like throw the clothes in the dryer instead of line-dry or drive the kids to school instead of toughening it out in the winter. But I can’t persuade people to take care of our amazing habitat or even sustain my own energy if I’m relentlessly militant.

Somehow my good intentions have gone awry and I’ve lost my way. 

This summer a couple of moms and I took our kids hiking. I brought along gloves and trash bags so we could collect debris along the way. There was a lot of chatter about how harmful litter was and at the time I was pleased with how many bags we filled and how probably these kids wouldn’t litter. I see it differently in retrospect. Again, unintended curriculum for kiddos: litter and litterbugs= bad. People who clean up litter and don’t litter=good. What would they have learned if we talked about the various trees, plants, flowers along the way instead? What would they have experienced if we didn’t have our heads down seeking trash? Perhaps time spent simply hiking would have unfolded for them personally, naturally, with its own unique gift for each hiker.

Ironically, love for nature initially prompted me to learn more. What I learned sparked fear and anxiety about nature, leading me to research information further fueling my fear and anxiety rather than compelling me to seek the solace and buoyancy of creation or its Creator. 

How do I find my way to what's vital about creation care? I know it has to do with reverence for the intricate detail, harmony, and beauty bursting in the created world. I know it has to do with a growing realization about our interrelatedness and dependence on everything in creation. I know it has to do with a desire to live justly. Maybe it’s like the beginning of yoga class when participants set intentions for their practice. Maybe I have to reset my intention.

May I cultivate choices, not from fear or anxiety, but rooted in respect for the divine in everything.

May I share, not heavy burdens, but knowledge in ways that honor the divine in myself and others.

May I learn to simply honor the Divine.