What choice(s) do I have?

Yes, it sometimes feels like this…

I am an American consumer. I have no little choice in the matter. There are extreme options for living off the grid, but I live in a big city (Seattle).  Therefore, I must do as the Seattlites do. I try to make intelligent, conscientious consumer choices: buying second hand, buying local, buying independent. However, these choices are difficult at best. Many supposedly healthy, organic, responsible brands are owned and operated by large multi-national corporations who have more compassion for the bottom line than for environmental or human health.

It’s like that scene in the Shining… but on everything…

This really frustrates me. Due to my choices (mostly, a car and electronics) I have at least 36 slaves working for me. I fully acknowledge the things I buy are tainted. It’s because I demand cheap goods that will satisfy me immediately. It’s because I don’t grow my own food or make my own clothing. It’s also because tainted goods are the only choices corporations and companies offer me. Or I could remove myself completely from the consumer loop and become a recluse.

Ideas anyone? Bueller… Bueller…?

The thought isn’t so bad, except I really like movies, cheeseburgers, beer, video games, refrigeration, modern medicine, owning a car, and the interwebs. Modern life in the United States can be awesome, amazing, and wonderful!

There has to be a better way.  Few things in life are this black and white. Change has to come from both sides–manufacturer and consumer. I must demand my goods be slave free and ethically sound. I have to accept that these goods will eventually cost more. Corporations must wake up and realize human beings have an inherent dignity and the Earth can’t be raped until there is nothing left. If I can have fair trade coffee and conflict free diamonds, why can’t I have blood free electronics and transparent labeling?

These are your only choices… forever…

Google and some other companies are on the right track. There are alternatives for those of us who can afford them. But I worry about are people who can’t afford (or access) these choices. Millions of people can ONLY shop at WalMart and eat at McDonalds. Economics dictate their food and goods. Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and the little hipster organic shop on the corner don’t exist in their neighborhoods and are too expensive for their budgets. In a country that prides itself on freedom and choice, millions of people have no alternative but depend on goods bound to human slavery and environmental atrocities.

Power to the people!

So what is an American consumer to do?  Start with consumer choices. Nothing will be 100% guilt free, but I have been buying better. Heather and I have scaled back how MUCH we buy in lieu of the QUALITY in what we buy. When we can, we frequent farmers markets. We walk to work. We don’t own a TV. We cook our own food. We buy clothes second hand. We make choices to go without, rather than participate in.

We also gear our investments in portfolios and organizations which work towards just environmental, economic, and employment practices. These investments may not have better returns, but the ethic is more important. Also, I speak up on corporate social media pages and participate in local and national government… I demand policies and laws that take the environment and human rights into account.

Trust this guy.

Gandhi’s words will forever be true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Change is difficult and comes at a sacrifice; it means discomfort, delay of reward, or just saying no. But I believe it’s worth all this and more to achieve as much of a slave free and environmentally sustainable world as we can get. It is happiness and health for the long run.

98 thoughts on “What choice(s) do I have?

  1. Ah, yes the enlightened consumer conundrum. It is a huge issue and hard to overcome. Consumerism is such an immediately rewarding drug. One that is very hard for society to think past. Even though we know better we just cannot seem to help ourselves. We like stuff. We like to be entertained, not educated. I don’t meant to paint such a negative picture with such a large brush; but it is what we have allowed to happen. We are forgetting how to eat right, let alone cook, we would rather watch polarizing TV then go outside because we have been convinced that everyone is out to get us. I’m digressing, let me just share this link and move on:
    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=treadmill+of+production&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C29&as_sdtp=

    This is the problem, well, add in some Malthus, but too much more and Soylent Green may start looking like the only solution. Or however Monsanto will label it?

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  2. Families are not forced to buy at Walmart or eat at McDonald’s. It is cheaper to buy out of the bulk aisles (at Whole Foods or wherever) and, if you have a yard, grow your own food. No one needs to eat fast food – they can cook for themselves, and make their own lunches, and preserve their food. It is not an elitist lifestyle to live this way – it’s the way my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother grew up. Humans always have a choice. And yes, I live in the Northwest but I have been in a lot of small towns far from Whole Foods where they have beautiful farms yet the people choose to eat crap food, invite crap companies & restaurants to set up shop rather than promote local businesses. I think about the Tri-Cities for example where there are a whole lot of very expensive pickup trucks and they’re voting for Republicans who push the big business agenda rather than focusing on the beauty that could be an amazing community where resources are shared and thoughtful consumption is encouraged rather than accepting the untrue societal pressures that say you must shop at Walmart or eat at McDonald’s in order to live simply and inexpensively.

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    1. I agree- I can eat well & healthy on $5 a day through purchasing groceries at a regular grocery store, and if I wanted to eat the same volume of food at a fast food restaurant, I’d easily be spending at least twice that. This has more to do with health & nutrition rather than consumerism, but it still irks me that people use the poor excuse “eating healthy is too expensive”.

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      1. While eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive, it is a fact that many poor people lack the resources and education to access healthy options.
        http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator.aspx

        I think it is too easy to blame poor people for being poor. It’s a trap and boils down to the false statement “God helps those who help themselves.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_helps_those_who_help_themselves

        Poverty is complicated and messy, and it will take a community to deal with it: not just government, not just churches, not just poor people, and not just money.

        Thank you for contributing to the discussion! 🙂

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      2. Schools need to return to teaching what is required to live, rather than being so singularly and narrowly focused on teaching what is required to get into over-priced universities.
        The first thing that should be mandatory in high school is a nutrition and cooking class!

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      3. I learned about cooking from my parents and family. I know I’m lucky in this regard, but my wife and I have really pushed cooking in our household. I agree though: cooking should be taught as a basic education class. Along with ethics. 🙂

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      4. I won’t say I didn’t learn cooking from my parents, but cooking from scratch was something relegated more to holidays and weekends. Cooking from boxes and cans was the day-to-day norm. At 35 I can say I’ve just about managed to pare every last box and can out of my pantry with just a few exceptions. Now I stock up on flour, oats, sugar, eggs, and fresh produce for the bulk of my daily diet!

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      5. kibbled

        I think is a genuine need in many parts of the world. At least one generation has lost the skills and understanding of cooking and nutrition. I am dismayed at how little some people know about the food they buy. They no little of how it came to be on the shelf of their local store. The key, as with most things, is education

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    2. Ecogrrl,
      Isn’t it crazy that many rural areas are amongst the least self-sufficient when it comes to creating local food economies? I don’t entirely blame residents of the Tri-Cities areas and other locales…agribusiness has made it so tough in certain areas to reestablish infrastructure for farmer’s markets and other community-based commodity systems. It’s a shame.
      http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com

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    3. Exactly – of all the things this article said, the one about economically bound to eat at McDonald’s stands out as the biggest yet most pervasive falsehood. Eating *any* food prepared for you is always more expensive because you pay for the food on top of paying for the person to make it for you. Buying ingredients and making it at home will always be economically more sound and nutritionally better!

      I don’t live that far out of Seattle, but I know there are options even in the city for those who do some homework. Growing Washington is a local farm co-op that has pick-up locations in Seattle, and they take fresh, local produce and get it to consumers for very reasonable prices, and much of it is organically grown. This is my first year with the program and I’ve been delighted with the variety and quality of the produce.

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  3. I tried the whole recluse thing; it doesn’t work. We have to dwell in the gray areas in terms of what we can do, like the things you mentioned. Good for you. Thanks for all the reminders: Be the change you wish to see in the world.
    God bless.

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  4. I don’t live in”developed” country so my family grows most of our food we own cows and hen its taken you should cook your own food our family doesn’t own a car but we would like to one day for consumerism is hitting hard and fast on our side of the world too 😦

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    1. When I lived in Eastern Europe, it was much easier to live off the land, and the food was simple but delicious. Life was definitely harder, but we could see the people around us sliding into the same mistakes we’ve made in the USA. Keep on trying to push your community and country towards more just and healthy practices for the earth and human beings!

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  5. This might be the first time I’ve seen someone approach the issue of transparency in manufacturing with the understanding that it is the consumer driving those practices. I live in China and work for an apparel manufacturer – the factories are not the problem, they want to run their facilities fair. But when all your customers beat you into the corner with a hammer, forcing you into quoting the lowest FOB price possible – what choice do you have? Remember when Apple was attacked for Foxconn’s issues – that was plain laughable. Ahem, if you would like Apple to manufacture your iToys at a 100% compliant facility – the toys will double in price. Fact. Will you buy them then?

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    1. I wish more people would wake up and realize the issue… our consumer habits drive so much of the slave trade (much like our drug habits drive much of the drug cartels). It will happen as long as more people decide on simplicity and quality over gluttony and quantity. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

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  6. I don’t know if there is an easier answer. DIY means setting aside a significant amount of time to grow your own food (and lots of it), sew, etc.

    I know, I used to sew 80% of my wardrobe before cycling passion bit me. Just last week, I was disgusted that I had to buy fresh thyme shipped in from California…not locally grown where I am. Ridiculous. Someone is being held down at low wages in California..

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  7. jumeirajames

    From my experience in America – Americans DEMAND the cheapest in everything. They demand bulk discounts and love big box stores. Much of this is not dictated by the size of their wallet, a lot of it seems to be an inbuilt hunger to get more for less. Another more direct way to say this is that the want quantity rather than quality.

    I arrived at Houston Airport one day and tried to hire a Mercedes. Every car hire company I phoned immediately offerd discounts on ‘larger’ cars and when i refused the discounts got cheaper. I never got to hire that Mercedes (which is a very fuel efficient vehicle, safe and quiet).

    Same thing with eating out – massive quantities of rubbish piled high.

    Maybe (and I agree with many of your points) the ‘dumbing down of consumerism’ isn’t all force feeding by corporations. There are choices.

    See my blog of ‘chicken slurry’ if you want to feel ill. I was.

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  8. jumeirajames

    I did the slave count test – 71 slaves working for me. mainly in the gold, diamond and mobile phone sectors. A sobering test to take. Excellent blog.

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  9. Although I’m agreeing that most have a choice, I’m not sure if some people have heard of “Food Deserts”, where people with low income in inner cities often find themselves trapped in just that–a Food Desert. Fast food is typically all that is located in those areas and, lacking the funding and transportation to obtain more healthy food, that is what these people turn to. A lack in nutritional education is a huge problem in these areas, as well. Educating people, especially the younger generations is most important in affecting change.

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  10. Great post!

    I sometimes wonder how many people even stop to think about how the things we buy and use were produced — and at what human cost. There are two terrific books you might enjoy if you have not yet read them, “Where Am I Wearing?” By Kelsey Timmerman, and “Cheap” By Ellen Ruppert Shell, both of which I read in full when writing my own book about retail, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, in which I discuss in detail the Foxconn suicides — and the astonishing power of these major firms to simply set up shop wherever workers are most desperate, governments most willing to cut a deal — and health and working conditions and pay be damned.

    Short of not buying anything we do not make ourselves (highly impractical for many), it’s extremely difficult to pull out of the chain of human misery that delivers this stuff to us. I like that you have also highlighted the option of socially conscious investing.

    Such an important topic!

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    1. Thank you for reading! 🙂 I will check out all those books. Part of my job entails working for a corporate responsibility coalition; when I started my rose colored glasses were torn off and I was forced to realize the dirty underbelly of our food and goods. We need to keep on educating and lobbying for more socially and environmentally just choices!

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  11. I do try to not be as demanding as others when it comes to consumerism. I’m lucky that I do live in a town that has a lot of local flavour so I do make a small effort to support local wares and food outlets. But I also still shop (and work) at the big supermarket down the road from me. I suppose being raised in an environment that has everything catered for so easily does make us more complacent and a little bit foggy-eyed.

    After taking the slave test (17 slaves – though I get the impression I subconsciously tweaked my answers to skew the results more favourably…) I will definitely make more of an effort to be more earth friendly. We have a slew of local businesses and charity shops dotted about so it’s doable.

    Interesting post by the way.

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  12. Excellent reflection!
    Like you, I realize that it’s taxing to attempt to be 100% guilt-free, but we can all do better. I really make an effort to cook and eat better. Consumerism is the real problem–we are so detached from where and how our products and services are made, arrive on our plates, etc…while the global economy creates an amazing array of options, it’s also nearly impossible to trace the impact of some of our choices…
    http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/tracing-actions-to-the-source/
    Keep up the thoughtful blogging…

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  13. Great post. I share your effort of Living Better.

    Purposely don’t own a TV (can stream enough to keep my media/entertainment addiction going).
    Purposely don’t own a car (no car payment, gas, insurance, oil changes, etc…).
    Purposely chose to live central so I’m connected to what infrastructure there is here.
    Purposely accepted a lower salary for an employer who within walking distance, gives discounts (10-20% off) to many local businesses/services AND… gives employees FREE bus fare!

    There are challenges; bus infrastructure is wanting (too few routes, often a 40 min wait between buses or no service after 9:00pm). However, services like Zip Car and Car2Go come in handy.

    If you WANT to add quality, simplify, make a difference – you’ll find a way to make it work for you.
    Kudos to you and Heather for even trying!

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  14. Because business is dictated by the drive of getting something for as little as possible, and squeezing profit margins as tightly as possible, the conglomerates which dominate the consumer world will continue to exploit.
    Unless change comes about whereby ethical practice > returns and proft margins. And it is through each and every one of us striving to make the choices you and Heather do that this can become a reality – although this will undoubtedly come at the expense of a little more money every month, and being able to buy a little less. When we take a moment to think about how much we really have compared to some people, can this really be so bad?

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  15. theperpetualtraveller

    To be fair, after living in New Zealand and London, and having just recently moved to Vancouver, I find it much more difficult to access fresh fruit and vegetables, and a reasonably priced supermarket (i.e. food that I can afford on a minimum wage) without using a car or public transport. In London I lived in an area with 5 major supermarkets within 2-10 minutes walk. Here, it’s more like a 20 minute walk. It doesn’t sound far, but when you’re carrying a heavy bag of groceries, it feels more like 45 minutes.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of fast food choices abound – McDonalds is just down the street, as well as many other takeaway shops. You just KNOW it is going to be so much easier to just pop across the road, plop yourself down in a chair and eat food that you only have to wait two minutes for. So, not saying that I have no choice, but I know what the easier choice is.

    I think supermarket chains need to focus on having more, but smaller, stores. Maybe not as cost effective, but much better for the population’s health and wallet.

    But other than that, I agree with absolutely everything you say.

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  16. US consumer has been a demanding consumer and there is always quantity (to put it euphoniously – economies of scale) that has taken precedence over quality. Be it the dominance of the Japanese car makers or the dumping of “Made in China” good in the economy. US demands and world provides. The choice is always there… but then there are certain adjustments that have to made when the choice alters.
    I would say the question about “choice” is to the whole world rather than US alone. Even here in India, a lot of talk is going on around renewable energy, organic food, electric cars, more use of public transport, recycled products n all. Of course, all of this would be mean adjustments – financially as well as socially. It is not an overnight process – would take decades to come.

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  17. I’m a student at The George Washington University and president of The FREE Project at GW, an anti-slavery student organization. Students face these same choices on college campuses across the United States. I believe that students have the power to demand ethical practices and transparency from their universities. I’ve started a petition on Change.org to make my campus “slavery-free.” Will you sign my petition and help make The George Washington University a slavery-free campus? Thank you! http://www.change.org/petitions/make-gw-a-slavery-free-campus

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  18. ….Did I mention Costco? … Hate Costco with a passion… – Not only does this Giant not recycle dilly squat, but it increases the consumption for people.. Without them really thinking about it… Unnecessary needs… I usually don’t hate many things… but man that warehouse is on my H list.. Right alongside Wal-Mart.. and all the other marts. –
    Refreshing blog and boy are you right on. Many people don’t have choices, – They are forced to shop and eat at the local 99cents hangouts, since most healthy produce are wayyy more expensive than your local Chick filet or Mc D. What is this world coming to? Choices, – Yes, the ones who can afford it have choices.
    And the Gandhi quote. : Be the change you wish to see in the world. – Spot on!

    Cheers,

    Stina

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    1. Did some math for you:
      average US price for 1 pound of ground beef for August, 2012:
      $3.447/lb ground beef – $0.65 per 3 oz patty (meat is 3 oz for one serving.)

      $1.69/8 pack hamburger buns – $0.21 per bun.

      1 hamburger at home: 86 cents.

      That is cheaper than the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

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  19. You’ve said everything there is to know about it. Perfect. The hardest part of the whole struggle is getting people to believe that there is a problem (which is getting better because of people like us) and then getting them to change their habits. We need a cultural upheaval, because the current one is self-destructive.
    Brilliant.

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  20. jamesroom964x

    Cool post. I’ve often thought of the idea of a “cheap,” consumer good is really ridiculous. It may be cheap in dollar terms, but our consumer lifestyle is extremely expensive in terms of its environmental impact, and even its impact on our sense of self-worth. The problem is, in the words of the corporate world “externalized costs.” A company might save money by dumping its industrial waste into a stream, but there’s still a cost there, but one that get’s absorbed by the environment, and is thus external to the entity that made it. We externalize far more than that in consumer society, and I think we are only just now waking up to the real costs.

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  21. You have some neat views on the world, i can imagine life is harder in america than where i live in australia, i know things cost more over there than here. I always make my meals at home, and now in advance.
    To anyone reading my comment if you dont own a slow cooker i suggest investing in one and keep your plastic takeaway containers and wash them for storage. You can get atleast 4-5 seperate 2 serving sized meals from cooking in advanced with a slow cooker. And also there is never any shame with buying second hand clothes. You will almost always find a cool item in a second hand store.

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  22. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man; no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t; and we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
    Awesome post man!

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  23. Some people are overwhelmed by the massive number of awful things that are hidden in the day to day of our modern lives, so overwhelmed that they give up. But doing just a few things helps. Every single piece helps. If the people who care just make a few changes every day, perhaps that little tumbling rock of good intent will turn into a landslide? One can only hope! Great post.

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  24. Pingback: The Three E’s: Environment, Economics, Ethics | The Right Environmentality

  25. Very interesting post. I admire your own efforts to live a sustainable and ethical life. For the last twenty years I have lived in a west London suburb which has changed enormously in that time. I don’t think many of my neighbours could have been described as rich to begin with but in recent years life has become less comfortable for them. Salaries and pensions buy a lot less than they once did. There has also been a rise in the number of immigrants who have sought a safer place to live and raise families.- this does not necessarily meant they now have a vastly improved standard of living. I have a British commentator on urban regeneration called Mike Chitty to thank for this link to the Church Urban Fund poverty research http://www.cuf.org.uk/research/poverty-in-numbers which gave me some grim statistics about my area. We have a lot of “pound shops”. These are one sign of a local decline in wealth in the UK, places where you can buy very cheap mass produced goods and, in some cases, brand products at a discount. When the challenging economic climate began to make life difficult even for the better off, managing on less became a topic of conversation at dinner parties and people began to confess that they were shopping regularly in pound shops. Those who really could still afford to make ethical choices were saving on groceries so that they could continue to indulge in other things. What I find heartening is that there are many shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables in my area and they are thriving. I now see less obvious obesity than I once did. Unfortunately there are also many small fast food outlets but I still see comments on Twitter from local teenagers complaining that there are no branches of McDonalds, Burger King and other similar chains in our high street. It worries me that even when surrounded by much cheaper fast food outlets they still crave a familiar taste pushed by relentless marketing. I think poverty and availability do drive many consumer choices but marketing and branding continue to have a profound impact on what we buy.

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  26. nearlynormalized

    “Actions speak louder than words.” Yes they do and there is the good old American saying, “I’m doing the best I can.” Know it, do it and as friend of mine use to say, “It’s White mans disease.” She being not of the White Race explained it to me. We are trying to exist and you have to much time on your hands…Oops, just picked up my board and am heading to the waves.

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  27. you raise an important point here and kudos for putting it into practice…

    you know, the worst part of it all is that people like to say that they are smart consumers but half of the time it’s just blabber.

    I mean, look at the whole controversy on the American Olympics team uniforms. They were made by Ralph Lauren … in China. Everyone was acting shocked and hurt by the whole thing, but I still don’t get it. We’ve all known that even big designer brands like Lauren have been outsourcing their production either in China, Malaysia, Indonesia or wherever is cheaper for some time now, so why would the uniforms be any different? If all those people that were outraged really did something about it, then designer-brand sales would slowly but surely decrease. But they haven’t, at least not that we know of, so yes, it’s easy to talk the talk, but it’s far from walking the walk…

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  28. “We make choices to go without, rather than participate in.”
    I am wondering if a different way of staing this would make more people understand how Less is Really More. You ar not ‘doing without’. You are choosing to live with the things that make your life complete with enough. The Best Life possible in this world. You are richer than most people by far!
    What a FANTASTIC example! So happy so many will read this and being to subtly change their live.
    The bucket 9making a change in the world) can be filled by drops or by pours. Drops make up the pours as we know.
    Living life The Best way possible in the world that is Now is truly the mission of everyone. We have to stop being scared to choose something different, fresh, healthy, what might appear to some as “LESS” and start following this example of striking the happy median. Soon the balance will tip, the perception will shift; toxins, stuff and useless information will become “not cool”. Being Aware, considerate and Caring will become the more comfortable choice.
    LOVE this post!

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  29. You could choose not to whine about everything. It makes you sound like one of those corporate hating liberals that has no clue how our economy works and who provides job opportunities to those who choose to work.
    By the way, that company called WordPress happens to be one if those big bad corporations.

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  30. A noble cause and a very challenging endeavor in today’s global market economy. Like Ghandi said, it starts with you. I would love to get people back to the mindset of owning one really good quality “thing” instead of having six of them just because they’re so damn cheap. Unfortunately, technology and cheap labor have made us a nation/world of thrower-outers instead of fixers. Resole a shoe, fix a radio, repair a sweater, have one pair of sneakers. Would Ghandi be waiting in line to get the new iPhone 5? When I was teenager, if we were hungry we went to a diner. Today, one can choose from processed burgers with amonia, battered chickens fried, rolled tortillas with e coli, whatever your heart and stomach desires. I think I’ll have a beer …………………. now, do I want the Irish ale, the Octoberfest American, or, perhaps the western microbrew ………… Congratulations on being “freshly Pressed!”

    Like

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