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Companies' Ethics Shouldn't Be My Burden
By M. Alouette
In some ways, I live large. Those tend to be the ways that don't cost money. In most other ways—the ways that involve services and material goods—my life is much humbler. I am middle class and earn the median income for my area, which is predominantly lower-middle class in a very expensive city. I have no debt in large part because I live within my means. I'm also lucky to be in relatively good health and to have no serious accidents or catastrophes. Or least nothing recently. Everything really bad is far enough in the past that I've been able to re-build and move on. Again, I'm lucky. But I've made some of my own luck; with that luck comes guilt. I'm frugal in most realms and I prioritize my spending, which means I cannot always buy the most ethical products. To have control over my financial security, I buy all of my cosmetics and toiletries at the dollar store. I don't deny myself my self-care rituals. I just groom and primp on the cheap. If I regularly bought department store, organic store, and salon brands, I would not have the level of financial security that I have now. I'd probably have credit card debt. After all, the average U.S. household has almost $7,000 worth of credit card debt. That could just as easily be me. With that debt, I couldn't honor my civic duties to the extent I do now.
Saying that I buy my toiletries and cosmetics at the dollar store is as much a tip as a confession. Obviously you can't satisfy all of your self-care needs by shopping at the dollar store. You can't buy therapy or a vacation at the dollar store, for example. I've bought plenty of lipsticks and lotions there, though. Sometimes these products come from ethical brands; sometimes they don't. Many dollar stores are a mixed bag, depending upon any number of factors—the location, the time of year, the recent liquidation sales they've bagged. That last point is especially key. I tend to prefer "true" dollar stores that are national chains, like Dollar Tree. At Dollar Tree, everything is actually is a dollar (no $5 or $10 items) and the company has established relationships with national brands. I found that Dollar Tree will often get discontinued items from name brands for this reason. This means I've found organic and cruelty-free products, as well as ones made in the U.S., that department and organic stores were no longer selling. Often this happens because a particular line isn't popular anymore or the company has done some re-branding.
That is not to say the chain is perfect. By shopping there, I'm not perfect, either. In 2015, Dollar Tree paid $2.7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging it disposed of hazardous waste products in trash bins. Of course, Whole Foods has faced lawsuits, too. Take this class-action lawsuit accusing Whole Foods of overcharging NYC shoppers for pre-packaged foods. (The joke that the store should named "Whole Paycheck" takes on new meaning.) Or, more recently, the fact that Whole Foods fired an employee because of her disability. No for-profit company is 100% angelic because let's be real: Capitalism is capitalism. Companies want to make money and sometimes they act unethically because of it. I shouldn't be losing sleep at night because of an unethical choice that Dollar Tree or Whole Foods or any company made. CEOs should be losing sleep and our government should hold them accountable.
As consumers, we have to make our own compromises, unless we are so financially privileged that we can buy highly rated, ethical brands all the time. The poor and much of the middle class cannot afford to fully stock their homes with the most sustainable and ethical products. Some drawer, cabinet, or closet is going to have a dirty little secret. Maybe it's the Dove bar I bought thanks to a liquidation sale at Dollar Tree instead of a Parsley Porridge Lush bar that retails for $7.95. If they ever sell Lush bars at Dollar Tree, I will buy them by the armful. Until then, I won't. I get liquidated Pantene for $1 instead of £10.95 Jackson & Willow. I'm not forking over £13.50 for Green People face wash when the April Bath & Shower stuff costs $1.
I want a fresh face and a bubble bath when I'm tired and I'm stressed and I won't tolerate judgment for every tiny consumer choice I make. The more money I want to spend on toiletries and cosmetics, the more I have to work. The more I have to work, the less time I have to volunteer, go to protests, attend neighborhood meetings, participate in community events, and otherwise make a positive impact where I live. Capitalism puts us in this bind. Per the Current Population Survey, hourly paid workers in the retail and service industries have the lowest midterm election turnout rates. Who has the highest turnout? Educated people in cushy positions, like lawyers. Retail and service workers work to pay their bills, but they also work to treat themselves to nice things and to purchase products from brands they trust. There's mass media pressure to do that and there's social pressure to do that. Mainstream magazines and television commercials practically exist to make us feel bad our crappy lives so we will buy "magical" products to solve all our problems. The irony is that we are working to afford a certain lifestyle that, really, we cannot afford. Capitalism doesn't allow us to enjoy the same level of self-care as the wealthy. Frankly, the more privilege you have, the more you can "indulge" in self-care.
I make the most ethical toiletry and cosmetic choices that I can make, considering two things: my income bracket and my financial security. I will not rack up credit card debt to acquire more social capital by bragging that I only buy the most ethical products. I will not make corporations richer if it means I might miss a rent payment. I want every company that produces cosmetics and toiletries to be ethical. Our government needs legislation to pressure companies to be fair to their employees, humane toward animals, and just to our environment. I cannot take on the burden of corporate accountability in the name of self-care; it will only lead to hardship and self-harm. If I'm struggling financially, I'm not thriving. And if I'm not thriving, I can't help my community and honor my civic duties.
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