Sustainability or the Price of Sweet Tea

>> Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This post is my submission for the Green Moms Carnival which will be hosted this month by Mary Hunt at In Women We Trust. The topic is "standards" with a specific look at Walmart's sustainability index.

Yesterday, I gave a little background information in preparation for my post today. With this background in mind, Mary asked us to ponder the following statement:

Wal Mart and other big box stores are developing a sustainability index. I don't have the $250,000 it costs to get a seat at the table, but if I had a seat there, this is what I'd want to make sure is in that index criteria..."

Thinking about this subject reminded me of a novel I read last year called Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. It was a sad but beautiful account of a brave woman in the mid-1700s, describing her abduction from her home in Africa, her trials as a young slave on an indigo farm in South Carolina, her escape to freedom in Canada, and finally her aid to the abolitionists in England.

It might seem strange that Wal-Mart would remind me of a novel about slavery, but there was one particular scene in the book that I've often thought of as I've learned more about environmentalism and social justice.

The heroine, Aminata, is talking to an Englishman who is connected to the slave trade. Aminata tells him about her life, and seeing his sympathy, she asks him how the British can continue to participate in slavery.

The man replies, "Ninety-nine Englishman out of a hundred take their tea with sugar. We live for our tea, cakes, pies, and candies. We live for the stuff, and we will not be deprived."

The price of sweet tea...

I recognize that the scene from this novel was completely fictional, but I have heard this same attitude in real life from
modern corporations. And that includes Wal-Mart. "Our customers demand cheap products," they say. "Manufacturing our products in countries with fewer environmental regulations and lower human rights standards is the only way to meet the demand for cheap products."

I have also heard that attitude from the mouths of consumers. "We are just pawns in the system," one friend said. "It's not our fault, and there's nothing we can do about it...But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of it!"

It seems like everyone wants to blame everyone else for the problems with the system. The corporations blame the consumer for demanding cheap products. The consumer blames the corporation for making poor manufacturing decisions. It's everyone's fault and no one's fault. And nobody really cares...As long as we all get what we want.

Even those of us who don't regularly shop at Wal-Mart have to recognize the importance of the development of this sustainability index. While laws and regulations stutter to a standstill in Congress, Wal-Mart's index will force their 100,000 suppliers to action, leading to improvements and accountability throughout the manufacturing world and hopefully providing customers with an easier way to make informed decisions in the marketplace.

But the demand for ever cheaper products by Wal-Mart and other big box retailers is at the base of our environmental degradation and global human exploitation. The case could be made that Wal-Mart is the root of many of our problems. Can the world's biggest bully make an about face to become the biggest influence in our transition to sustainability?

So this is what I would say to Wal-Mart: Are you committed to sustainability? Are your intentions true? Will you make the standards strong enough to make a difference? Will your lifecycle assessments push for a cradle-to-cradle standard? Will you put an end to ridiculously wasteful packaging? Will you take a stand for safety and quality? Will you establish accountability for social injustices? How will you measure compliance to the standards? (Right now, it looks like they just have to be able to answer "yes" to a bunch of questions. Honestly, that's a fairly meaningless way of measuring sustainability.)

Most importantly, I want to know, if compliance to sustainability standards means higher prices and your customers balk, will you drop out of the game?

And since Wal-Mart only deserves a portion of the finger-pointing, I would ask everyone to ask themselves: Was cheap sweet tea worth the price of slavery? Are cheap products today worth the cost to sustainability?

Photo by prakhar

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Alan David Doane October 13, 2009 at 9:52 AM  

"It might seem strange that Wal-Mart would remind me of a novel about slavery..."

It would be strange if it didn't.

cpcable October 13, 2009 at 10:21 AM  

A really great post. Every day I hear the excuses that you quote about why the worries of the world are someone else's problem and not "mine" ("it's too expensive," "but I REALLY like [fill in the blank] and I CAN'T go without it, and on and on) and sometimes the excuses do come out of my own mouth. This is a good reminder to me to stay true to my commitment of keeping my values in the forefront of my mind and to consider them in all of my daily actions, as a consumer or otherwise. Thanks.

mother earth aka karen hanrahan October 13, 2009 at 11:15 AM  

I love your parallel of sustainability to slavery and I think your questions are excellant

Erin aka Conscious Shopper October 13, 2009 at 10:02 PM  

@Alan - Lol!

@cpcable - Thanks for the reminder that we all need to consider our values first.

@mother earth - Hope Walmart gets the message and listens to us!

Eco Yogini October 14, 2009 at 11:14 AM  

great post. I've been thinking a lot about the recent rise in the Canadian dollar- and how it will affect our economy (canada's). How supposedly 'stuff' will get cheaper. How economists are touting being able to 'shop' in the states and abroad- which misses the entire 'buy local, support local'.
We need to step away from cheap and many to few and quality. Which balances out in the long term.
I have a few friends who go ON about how they got this on sale, or that on sale... which results in a closet FILLED with cheap crap. Ten pairs of sandels that last one season.
I have one pair of sandels that have lasted three summers. But I paid a bit more for them.

Anyhoo- a bit of a rambly comment, but thanks for making me think :)

Amber October 14, 2009 at 2:55 PM  

You really hit the nail on the head. We need to consider the consequences of our actions. It's not OK to exploit others, or the planet, in order to have the cheapest possible prices.

I hope that Wal-Mart takes real action. But in the meantime, I will not shop there. I don't think it's worth the true cost of the cheap stuff.

Fake Plastic Fish October 16, 2009 at 6:37 AM  

I will remember your post the next time I have the urge for a chocolate bar, certainly. I don't NEED to eat chocolate, and if it's not Fair Trade, it's not worth it. Same for bananas and coffee and sugar and vanilla and all the other products we routinely take for granted.

Now, if I could only find organic fair trade brown sugar in a bulk bin and NOT in a plastic bag!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper October 17, 2009 at 10:25 PM  

@Fake Plastic Fish - Can you get regular sugar in a bulk bin? I've stopped buying brown sugar and instead use regular sugar and molasses (about a tablespoon per cup of sugar). The molasses comes in a plastic bottle, but it's recyclable so better than those nonrecyclable plastic bags. Just a thought!

Katy Farber October 19, 2009 at 10:15 PM  

Love the metaphor you used-- lovely and literary and inspirational.

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