First, let me get it out of the way – in case you want to boycott me as well – as a Millennial woman with a doctoral degree in the sciences who works at a university, it’s probably unsurprising that I did not vote for our president-elect. I’m hardly alone in pondering the consequences of this election – I have questions on everything from how will this affect my friends’ healthcare plans to how to counter the wave of hate crimes and intimidation in my own community to whether or not Congressional Republicans will slash federal research funding, which I rely on for my work. This isn’t a post about the election so much as it is about how everyone is responding to it, particularly with their shopping habits. More specifically, as a fans of frugality and mindful spending, how can we approach being consumers when seemingly every dollar is politicized?
If you’re on social media, it seems like there is a new company to boycott every day, with both sides occasionally boycotting the same business at different times for different reasons. For example, several years ago Target was on the receiving end of a great deal of backlash after it was discovered that they donated to an anti-gay rights candidate in Minnesota. More recently, Target has spurned boycotts from several other groups, due to their support of bathroom access for transgender individuals. Chick-Fil-A has been a long-time boycott favorite for their financial backing of anti-LGBT causes, and although their support ceased and their stance changed way back in 2012, they are still boycotted by a great number of individuals who aren’t aware of that (or don’t care). Since the election, I’ve seen lengthy lists of companies to boycott, since at some point someone from that company allegedly supported or “normalized” President-Elect Trump. Last week, I saw a huge push for Trump supporters to buy New Balance shoes (some styles are made in the USA) after the CEO praised Trump’s opposition to the TPP, immediately followed by a wave of anti-New Balance sentiments and shoe-burnings after some white nationalist leaders announced it would be their movement’s footwear of choice. On the flip side, Penzey’s Spices came out vehemently against Trump and is facing both a backlash from Trump supporters and a wave of support from anti-Trump individuals. It’s dizzying, to say the least.
Vote With Your Dollars
There has always been a push for consumers to “vote with their dollars,” whether that be supporting American manufacturing, local businesses, or companies that outwardly support a living wage or environmental causes. These are admirable goals, but it’s damn near impossible to make certain that every single purchase aligns with some set of pre-determined values that you have established for yourself. Even if you’re Berkeley’s most adept car-free, dumpster-diving fruitarian, your lifestyle probably depends on fossil fuels and low-paid workers in some capacity.
Buying local is great – but I can’t get a locally grown bell pepper in the Midwest for 9 months out of the year, and no non-chain businesses in my town are going to sell me a new TV. And in a small-ish town like mine, I’ve probably bought stuff from local businesses where the owners supported a political candidate that I opposed. But does that really matter? Should it always matter? At the end of the day, should I buy something from Amazon (who’s labor practices among its programmers and warehouse workers are shady, at best), or would I rather buy from a local merchant with opposing political views, who still supports local charities and town festivals? To me, the answer is pretty obvious.
That being said, there are places in my community where I purposefully don’t shop, because I don’t agree with their business practices or political stances. I’m certainly not alone, but I don’t make a big deal out of it on social media, and I try not to be petty. For example, I won’t shop at a pet store that gets puppies from commercial breeders, and I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby because of their vocal opposition to covering contraception for their employees. Thankfully, I have other local options where I don’t mind spending my money. Some people don’t care about these issues, and some people do care but shop there anyways because they feel the alternatives are not as good. Regardless, I’m not going to judge you for your craft store choices. (Although I may judge you for some of your purchases, because Hobby Lobby is tacky crap central. 😉 )
Don’t Vote At All
There is, of course, the other admirable goal of rarely (or never) buying anything at all. Maybe you are pursuing this track because it will help you reach other goals such as paying off debt or saving for retirement, or maybe you’ve decided to become a minimalist. As the Frugalwoods recently wrote, not buying things has the added advantage of freeing you from having to make a ton of decisions about a purchase, especially when your actual goal is to buy as little new stuff as possible. It’s truly a blessing to receive a hand-me-down or find a piece of curb furniture that fulfills a need in your life. Although the item may not be perfect, it’s probably good enough, and it was free. By seeking out free and used items, there’s a lot less concern to be had over whether or not spending money on that item aligns with your broader moral imperative.
Bartering and Sharing
We all probably have micro sharing economies amongst our families or groups of friends – baby stuff handed down over the years, pet sitting exchanged for pet sitting, baby sitting for baby sitting, help with the harvest and you can take home some of the extra, help us move and we’ll feed you dinner. Although most of the things in my personal sharing economy tend to focus on services, there’s nothing stopping you from more actively bartering for goods and services in your community, especially among really small local vendors like vegetable farmers or craftspeople. My only gripe with bartering is that when people attempt to barter with me for hand-knit items, they severely underestimate the time and materials costs associated with their request. So, my advice here is to approach bartering from a place of curiosity and humility, and be willing to adjust your trade accordingly.
Outside of my group of friends, there are other ways to be engaged with the sharing economy in my community. Our local Buy Nothing Group is just getting off the ground, and one thing I didn’t realize before I joined was that it’s not just a platform for giving away free stuff. The group also encourages its members to build lending libraries for tools, books, speciality kitchen gear, etc. Borrowing from your neighbors is a great way to support your goal of not buying stuff, while at the same time building community (assuming you return the item in good condition!).
Be Mindful, Be Realistic
My frugal friends definitely tend to be more mindful about their purchases – not just how much they’re spending, but if they really need the item, how the item is sourced or grown, and if the item is built to last. And that’s great, but it’s obviously maddening to think about the moral implications of every dollar you spend. I’m not in favor of petty boycotts against every company to ever say something nice about our President-Elect, but I’m also not in favor of spending a bunch of money at a company because they said something I agree with. I’ll buy things when I need them, and I’ll do the research if I really care about what it means to spend $5 on anti-Trump cinnamon or $150 on anti-TPP shoes. Do I need shoes? Do I need cinnamon? What if I already have a preferred cinnamon vendor who has not voiced an opinion about the election? Can’t a woman just buy her damn cinnamon and get on with her Christmas baking in peace?
So my goal for this holiday season is to do my research when it matters, but also to stay a little above the fray. I plan on making gifts when possible, and purchasing a few items from companies and local businesses that I trust and respect. I plan on giving experience gifts and donations to local groups that are doing good in my community. I can’t afford organic butter for all of my cookies, but I’ll try to buy fair-trade chocolate whenever possible. I’m sticking with my apolitical cinnamon vendor (a local spice shop), because they have good cinnamon, and they’re nice. Maybe these things seem trivial, but it’s all a part of my goal to spend my money mindfully year-round.