Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dollar Store Costs

I went into a dollar store today for the first time in ages. The smell assaulted my sinuses immediately - all those crappy scented candles and room deodorizers. And why do the lights always blink in there. Is it an intentional means to encourage people to be on their way, to speed shop? Do they just need to tighten a connection? It's lucky nobody had a seizure....

I needed to buy some little handkerchiefs, the kind I could easily pick up from a garage sale, but it's the wrong season for that. We're showing No Impact Man on Wednesday night, and we're trying to do it with as little impact as possible. We're popping organic corn by shaking a pot over a stovetop, and using 100% recycled paper bags for the pop corn. But we need napkins. Instead of paper napkins, we decided to buy some cloth ones that people could buy for a quarter and keep to use over and over again. We're trying to be trend-setters here.
I would have cut up old receiving blankets to use instead, but people are stuck on new, and I figured nobody would be willing to wipe their hands on used flannel. Baby steps.

I found some for four for a dollar in different colours. They're perfect except, ironically, they came wrapped in plastic. So the total waste output is I think slightly worse than if we used the paper napkins, but it'll be better in the long run if people keep using them and are seen using them and inspire others to use them. That's what I'm going on anyway, so I bought by hankies and high-tailed it out of there.

The Price of a Bargain, by Canadian Gordon Laird, devotes a section to the "Dollar-Store Nation." Apparently, " 2003, roughly 49% of all American households with incomes of more than $70,000 regularly shopped in dollar stores." At least I'm in good company. But, for better or worse, it's all coming to an end as global power shifts to China. We've outsourced our jobs there because the labour was cheap. As they raise their wages, so far 20% increase in 2008 (279), we'll be saying good-bye to all those deals. And you gotta know that, "...some Chinese manufacturers still resort to with-holding wages, illegal working conditions, and child labour to meet the low-cost demands of export markets" (108). Melamine-flavoured milk anyone?

Actually, the melamine wasn't isolated to baby formula: "It has also been found in candy in several Connecticul stores, pretzels in Toronto, and instand coffee in B.C. - the coffee had melamine levels three times those of China's contaminated formula" (251). Another good reason to buy fair trade coffee.

On Apple manufacturing in Shenzhen, Laird says: "There is no other place on the planet that can reliably manufacture and broadcast millions of high-value products and still manage to pass along a healthy profit to Western companies" (107). BlackBerrys are still manufactured locally, by the way. I don't own any cell-phones or iPods; I don't even have a transistor radio. We can fight the push to fit in by owning whatever everyone else owns. It hurts the economy if we don't buy crap, but the economic system we're using is messed-up anyway.

Laird was interviewed in the Globe and Mail this weekend. He gave a good sound-bite that sums up the problem:

"The Achilles heel of our system is that it needs open, liberalized trade relationships, cheap energy and able, hungry consumers. And all of these things are being challenged as we speak. I don't think the consumers this year will show up for consumer duty in the mass numbers that we've seen in recent years."

Then he posited an analogy between running out of consumers and running out of oil. They both cause a downward spiral. We're stuck in a globalization gone mad without an exit strategy.

"The fundamentals of growth - cheap credit, offshore labour, affordable energy, and transport - will be depleted or become unavailable during the 21st century. This web of interdependence will not unravel itself gracefully: there is no going back to normal, no rewind or reboot on global trade" (7).

Beyond the facts and figures carefully researched and compiled, Laird's willingness to accept the burden of caring about a world full of people in crisis comes through in his writing. Remember Spiderman's motto: With great power comes great responsibility? That's a good line, and now we need a good superhero to reign this in for us.

Barring that unlikelihood, Laird concludes, "Sometimes things happen just because of deep inertia, not because change isn't possible. We are habituated to patterns: grocery shopping, foraging for deals, aspiring to better gadgets. There is nothing to suggest that we can't change this in favour of competitive conservation or extreme local commerce. Like energy efficiency, it's hard to imagine why we haven't done it sooner" (294).

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