Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.
In late November, the small businesses in my Toronto neighbourhood launched a savvy marketing campaign. Shops in the Roncesvalles area that are still in business put up For Lease signs as a warning of the precariousness of their situation during the pandemic: If no one shops local, local shops will disappear.
I sympathize with the need to keep small businesses going, both for their staff and proprietors, and for people like yours truly, who enjoy walking down the street and seeing things other than empty storefronts or banks. But from a practical standpoint, how much of a dent can I make? I do patronize local businesses. The hardware store knows me well, and I’m forever grateful to the neighbourhood produce stores as a stopgap between trips to the supermarket. I’m hardly ordering croissants from Amazon. And if the place around the corner where I buy coffee beans were to close, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions.
Yet when I contemplate where I could swap a big-box purchase for a local one, I come up short. I can’t bulk-buy toddler clothes for daycare from a boutique (this would conflict with paying for daycare itself). Nor will I replace a grocery trip with a visit to the intimidating store that I think sells minimalist vases. Most of my credit card statement is too boring to reveal in a newspaper. (The time the salad spinner broke and I ordered a new one would be among the more luxurious instalments.) Local stores either don’t have essentials, or do, but at exorbitant prices. There are small businesses around Toronto calling themselves “general stores,” but it is my understanding that it’s a twee reference to olden times, versus an indication that they’re places that sell basics such as toilet paper.
The current guidance about how to shop – a mix of lockdown rules and ambient social pressures – doesn’t add up. You’re not meant to go outside unless absolutely necessary, and if you do, be sure not to go indoors. But it’s also unethical to shop online. Consider the warehouse workers and emissions and just generally the cruelty of making other people leave their homes at a time like this, all so that you can have a sweater in a slightly different shade of blue than you already own.
Consumption itself is wrong, but so too is failing to support local businesses – which does start to get tricky when you’re not legally allowed to go inside them, but they also haven’t yet been able to magically switch to e-commerce overnight, making it nebulous what exactly they sell.
Then throw into the mix the looming deadline of holiday shopping. An inability to see family in person can make gift-giving feel that much more pressing. But if relatives don’t live nearby, or in Canada at all, where should someone even shop?
There’s this myth of a clear-cut divide between those who find the pandemic a breeze and those it’s actually affecting. The split itself is real, but fuzzy. The reality is that many fall somewhere between these extremes, neither out on the streets nor smugly ordering delivery from the comfort of their lavish homes. People whose incomes have been hit but have not disappeared. In abstract terms, one might deem such individuals “middle class,” but another way to put it is: If a local shoe store has a no-returns and no-try-ons policy, you’re only shopping there if you’re okay with seeing the price of a new pair of boots go down the drain.
Indeed, if you allow yourself some cynicism (or refer to any of the opinion pieces that appeared on Black Friday prepandemic, defending the sale-requiring hordes from posh tsk-tskers), it looks as if ethical consumption is largely about status signalling. It’s a way of indicating that you are – or see yourself as – someone who can afford to throw money away. It’s not chic to admit you can’t afford to pay $7 for shipping on a $2 item you’d have bought in person when such things were possible. It’s reassuring to imagine yourself on the philanthropist end, not the recipient one, where generosity’s concerned.
All of this is reminding me of the heir to a retail fortune who was quoted in a November New York Times article about socialist millennials with trust funds: “When I think about outlet malls, I think about intersectional oppression.” Meanwhile when I think about outlet malls, it’s to wonder, what sort of discount are we talking? Is it unethical to want more for less, or uncouth – or simply necessity?
This isn’t even getting into whether small businesses are more ethical than big ones in terms of employee benefits, or whether you can be confident that paying more for an item means it was ethically produced, or the outrageous “support small business” defense that cropped up in favour of keeping a Toronto barbecue establishment open under lockdown.
The closer you look at this question, the clearer it becomes that it’s impossible to shop your way to sainthood. Maybe just buy what you need, with the occasional splurge – and redirect political energies to problems larger, yet more clear-cut, than your own shopping list.
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