I was at Walmart last weekend. Normally, I stay away from Walmart, but my parents were visiting the big city and needed to pick up a few things. So I was at Walmart, wheeling the big blue cart through the cluttered aisles of cheaply priced and cheaply made products on a Sunday afternoon with my parents, my husband, and a lot of other people. Everyone was pulling those cheaply priced and cheaply made products off the shelves. Some people heaped those products in their carts. Most people seemed frantic to check off their Christmas list before the end of November.
I don’t remember exactly when the overwhelming feeling of sadness washed over me. But I felt sad as we snaked our way through the clothing section with rows and rows of monotonous clothes. I saw a rack of purple and pink dresses all cut in the same style. Having done my fair share of bargain shopping I guessed that the cut of those dresses was likely not very flattering and the stitching was likely not very sturdy. I wondered how long those dresses would last before they ended up in the bin or in a bag headed for Value Village.
I also thought about the people who made those clothes. In my mind I watched as a woman of Asian ethnicity hunched over a sewing machine with her hands moving dextrously. This woman was either starting or finishing a 10-12 hour day and, despite that amount of time, wouldn’t earn enough to comfortably feed her family. The clothing she and countless others stitch everyday is valued more than the labour and lives of those who stitch them and that’s not saying very much.
I felt sad when we wheeled through the holiday section. Garish gift bags hung in long rows, huge bags big enough to fit two small children inside. Boxes of cheaply made decorations in bright colours lined the aisles. I knew that in just over a month most of these bright colours would be shoved into a black garbage bag. I longed to see something of quality, something worth holding onto. A hand painted wooden ornament. Or reusable cloth wrapping ‘paper’ in place of those gift bags.
I felt sad as we waited in the long line at the checkout. So many people out shopping on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Everyone looked miserable. One woman kept bringing out one of those oversized gift bags at a time and holding it up to show her aging mother. Her mother looked so weary, sitting on her walker, and responding to her daughter quietly, in a language I didn’t understand. I wondered if she really cared which elf design would greet the receiver of her holiday shopping.
I felt heavy with sadness. When, I wondered, did we all became so content with so much less? Over the past number of months I’ve started to ask myself when we became so disengaged from the objects and items that we surround ourselves with everyday. When did we stop caring about where our clothes come from and how well they are made? When did we stop caring or even knowing where our food comes from and how it is grown and processed? When did we stop paying attention to the things that make up the world around us? When did we start accepting the fact that the things we buy are hurting people around the world, the planet, and ourselves? When did we become okay with this? Seriously, when?
I almost started pleading with people. ‘Please don’t buy that throw. That throw is one of the same hundreds of other throws on the shelf, made by someone who likely didn’t get paid fairly for their work, and will likely wear out or rip far too soon after you’ve bought it. That throw has no value.’ Or ‘please don’t buy that box of chocolates. The cocoa for those chocolates was likely picked by slaves, some of whom might even be children. Is that the message you want to share this Christmas? I care about you so have some chocolate that was processed by children who missed out on weeks of school? Please pick the chocolates with the Fairtrade label instead. They will likely taste better, which increases the value for you, but also adds value to the wider world by helping those who grow and harvest cocoa in the developing world.’
I feel a deep longing to see more products on our shelves and more businesses that add value to the world. I’m so tired of this race to the bottom where companies look for the cheapest way to make their products and we look for the cheapest price point at which to buy them. I long to surround myself with things that are valuable. Food that is nutrient dense and free of pesticides. Products that will last a long time so that I do not need to keep buying more. Items that were made by people who earn a fair wage for their labour. I’ve reached my limit and my ability to understand why we are so content to fill our baskets, our homes, our planet, our lives, and eventually our landfills with things that have no value.