As the end of the year approaches, so does the biggest consumer rush of the year, as millions flock to the stores and online vendors for the latest TVs, gadgets, trendy toys, clothes and more. The Friday after Thanksgiving, now popularly known as "Black Friday" has, in recent years, been hyped beyond the bounds of decency by marketers hoping to motivate thousands of people across the country to line up outside of stores in the wee hours of the morning in hope of securing discounts on big ticket items. One could even make the case that Thanksgiving is now overshadowed by the next-day shopping extravaganza -- in some communities, stores even opened on Thursday night, so intrepid shoppers could leave their holiday festivities and get right to it. And don't forget about "Cyber Monday" just days later, for those inclined to get their deals online.
The holidays, once considered a sacred time for family and celebration, have been hijacked by big companies sending out a message to the American people, playing on an endless loop from as early as November 1st all the way to the New Year: "Buy, buy, buy!" Think of all of those products that millions of Americans are purchasing as gifts for their friends and family. Where were they manufactured? Who profits from their sale? What happens to them when they break or become obsolete?
Winsted, Connecticut, where I grew up, once had about a hundred factories and fabricators -- manufacturing such things as appliances, clocks, electrical equipment, clothing and more. They were the town's lifeblood -- the gears that spurred the local economy and provided jobs and goods for the town's 10,000 residents. Almost all the factories are gone now. Someone looking for a well-paying job likely has to commute an hour to Hartford, the nearest major city.
The local economy, once the bread and butter of the United States, has been traded away in favor of the national economy -- namely, an economy driven by unpatriotic multinational corporations. The idea of a thriving Main Street has largely became a quaint relic of the past -- drive along any major roadway in the United States today and you'll see the big, bright signs of Walmart, Target, and Best Buy, one right after another. These stores and online retailers such as Amazon are the thriving businesses of today. But how does their success help most of the country?
Because so many big multinational companies ship jobs and industries abroad, the lack of well-paying jobs has become a serious issue for American workers. Millions of blue-collar jobs moved to countries that won't cut into a company's profit margin with requirements such as basic worker's rights and a minimum wage. (Consider the recent factory fire in Bangladesh, where 112 workers died due to lax safety standards. The factory produced clothes for Walmart, Sears and Disney, among other American companies.) Many white-collar jobs have also gone overseas -- how often do you call a customer support hotline only to reach someone in India or the Philippines? The evidence of this great job migration is all around, depressed small towns with empty factories, fewer and fewer family-owned small retail businesses, big banks over community banks, supermarkets over grocery stores. While American workers enjoy more rights and privileges than their overseas equivalents, there is still much work to be done. For instance, the federal minimum wage is three dollars less then what it was, adjusted for inflation, back in 1968. Hundreds of American Walmart workers walked off the job on Black Friday to protest low wages and poor working conditions. Poverty is increasing.
Despite the iron grip of major corporations on the consumer dollar, local businesses have managed to maintain a foothold in local economies, as many consumers grow weary of the processed foods and goods the retail chains provide. Farmer's markets, community gardens, small shops and cooperatives are trendy now, and many are springing up in cities and towns across America. One example -- Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, North Carolina -- is a cooperative owned by 10,000 consumer-owners and 90 worker-owners. It uses locally grown and produced foods to supply its various restaurants and stores, and reports that 50 cents on every dollar spent remains in the local community. (In comparison, 15 cents on every dollar stays local at most big chain stores.) Seeking out such businesses when doing holiday shopping can result in your dollars going much further, in tangible ways, in your local community. Visit greenamerica.org for a directory of such businesses and for more information on cooperatives and sustainable economic strategies.
Another problem, accentuated by the perverse overload of holiday commercialism, is the enormous amount of waste we produce. How many of the gifts that Americans buy this holiday season -- the computers, the TVs, the cell phones, the tablets -- are broken or obsolete after a few years? What happens to all these big-ticket items? Many end up discarded. And the goal of the companies that manufacture them is simple. By planning product obsolescence, enticing consumers to spend more and more on increasingly disposable products, customers will keep buying more, year after year.
For change to occur, Americans have to become more aware about what manufacturers are doing and why, and expand the use of second hand, reuse and material exchange programs. Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff Project has done an admirable job of bringing attention to the vast amount of production and consumption waste in our throwaway economy. Patagonia -- the environmentally-conscious clothing company founded by Yvon Chouinard -- recently started a pledge with a simple goal: "Don't Buy What You Don't Need." As of now, nearly 40,000 people have signed up. Across the ocean, Holland has seen the recent emergence of "Repair Cafes," where people can take their broken appliances to be repaired instead of tossing them and buying a brand new one.
This holiday season, instead of venturing out to the big retail chains to do your shopping, try thinking alternatively. Ask yourself what you, your friends, your neighbors and your family really need. There are real benefits to establishing local self-reliance -- both short and long term. By supporting local shops, businesses and co-ops that have a tangible investment in the local community -- far more so than the powerbrokers running national retail giants -- and by encouraging new ideas and programs that focus on sustainability, you'll do far more good for your community. What's a better gift than that?
(For more on the local economy, see the chapter "Make Our Communities More Self-Reliant" of my new book, The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Available and autographed from Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington D.C.)