Alice in Wonderland strikes again. Over the past 65 years, millions of children have marveled at the absurdity of the Red Queen making her minions paint the white roses red, or lose their heads. Unfortunately, the same children grew up and became mindless consumers of plastic junk, not giving a second thought as to who made their peculiar trinkets.
But this Christmas, a stunning article by Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian made it impossible to ignore. No art director in the world could come up with more unforgettable images of Santa’s workshop from hell. Wainwright writes: “Wai is 19. Together with his father, he works long days in the red-splattered lair, taking polystyrene snowflakes, dipping them in a bath of glue, then putting them in a powder-coating machine until they turn red – and making 5,000 of the things every day. In the process, the two of them end up dusted from head to toe in fine crimson powder. His dad wears a Santa hat (not for the festive spirit, he says, but to stop his hair from turning red) and they both get through at least 10 face masks a day, trying not to breathe in the dust.”
And this is just one among countless displays of the insanity of blind capitalism we are subjected to every year. When is it going to truly sink in?
There is not a single person on this planet who can claim that red Styrofoam snowflakes so greatly improve their quality of life, to the point that young, faceless men and women have to sacrifice their health and lives to produce them. I mean, sure, you could claim that, but then you also have to admit to being a terrible human being with no empathy or compassion for others.
Because this is what it comes down to. Most of us actually don’t know the true cost of the things we buy. If we did, we would buy less and pay more.
Humanity is pretty good at arguing about pretty much everything. But there are some infallible truths. 1) we need this planet to survive. 2) we need other people to survive. 3) we need a fair system in which to distribute goods and services.
So when designing such a system those are things to consider, in that order. Planet. People. Profit.
My article Why ‘voting with your dollars’ doesn’t work received a lot of attention. Some people agreed that we need to change our values before what we purchase really matters, and others disagreed vehemently, saying that voting with our dollars is all we can do and that the power lies with the consumer. I respectfully disagree. The power lies within the system itself, and who can manipulate it the most. But change is possible.
Consumers have a responsibility to demand ethically produced goods. Companies have a responsibility to produce goods within standards set by society at large. Lawmakers have a responsibility to pass laws that benefit, and ideally, improve the planet and people’s quality of life. Currently, we have a handful of consumers who work tirelessly to advocate and implement change in their communities. The rest are perhaps just trying to get by. We have a handful of small companies that are local, sustainable and ethical. We have massive, global corporations that are above the law, trash the planet, abuse workers, and destroy communities to make a sale. And we have a bunch of puppet politicians who allow it all to happen.
Sustainability starts with changing your values. Until then, everything else is business as usual.