April 17, 2011

Ethical consuming for poor people

Yesterday, I got my hair cut, and somehow the conversation turned to the economy. I asked my stylist how the recession has affected the salon, and she said the impact has been huge: People are now coloring their own hair and waiting longer between haircuts, or they are leaving entirely to get $10 haircuts at the discount salons. But, she said she's fortunate to have clients who understand that she depends on them to feed her family, and many clients have made an effort to stay with her even if they can't come in as often.

The conversation made me think about how consumers play a role in how the recession affects workers in some industries. The number of goods and services we can purchase is determined by our incomes, but we can make a small difference by spending our money at places that are more vulnerable in a bad economy, and by supporting individual workers with repeat business and generous tips. But when you're a poor grad student without summer funding, or poor for other reasons, it's very difficult to be an ethical consumer.

I have no patience for workers who expect consumers to compensate for the fact that their jobs are a crappy deal. For example, taxi drivers who blow up at customers when they need to travel a short distance or use a credit card. It's nice and appropriate to tip a few extra dollars when you know that workers are exploited by their employer, but that's all that consumers can be expected to do, especially when they already feel like they are overpaying for the service.

I also don't think that consumers can reasonably be expected to "support small businesses" when prices are substantially higher for the exact same products. It's hard enough to live on a very tight budget, and people need to make rational decisions that maximize their purchasing power. You can't blame poor people for shopping at Walmart. I get very irritated when liberals want low-income people to spend more out of guilt -- to support local business, or to save the environment, or for any other reason -- it's a ridiculous, elitist expectation, and it's the wrong way to solve our problems.

But, we can help just a little bit, when we can, in situations where it makes sense. Even as a poor grad student, I can shop at local businesses that have reasonable prices, especially local bakeries, sandwich shops, cafes, and takeout places. Since I eat out very rarely, I can afford to tip more than 20% without it making much of a difference in my overall budget. I also tip a couple of dollars for carry out, because many local restaurants are almost exclusively carry out, and the poor waiter hardly has any customers all night. I was also thinking, maybe this year I will make an effort to purchase most of my Christmas presents from independent businesses. But when I need something that's cheaper at Target, I'm going to buy it at Target without feeling any guilt.

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