This post marks the beginning of a three part series on greed, consumption, and economic oppression of the majority by the few.
In the wake of September 11, former President George W. Bush advocated consumer consumption as both a way to strengthen our nation and a prosperity tactic. In 2007, Annie Leonard wrote The Story of Stuff as a critique of hazardous rates of production, consumption, and waste. In 2014, potentially the warmest year on record, we mark our 23rd year of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and the release of Apple’s sixth iPhone in seven years. Reflecting on these landmarks, I’ve found myself thinking about the sustainability of our spending habits and the social consciousness of our collective character.
I spent part of my childhood in the well-off community of Palo Verdes, California in the home of a prosperous salesman and a mom who got to be a part-time homemaker, I came to know the comfortable dream of the 1960s white middle class society. At 54, I am conditioned into a U.S. culture focused on the individual initiative and unstoppable growth that sustained the rose-colored glasses dream of my generation’s parents’ past. But one small detail interfered with that dream — deregulation, the deregulation of the Bell System, banks, and many other industry giants that has steadily increased since the 1980s, enabling massive greed. The result? The Great Recession. Now only the rich wear the glasses. And so, we meet with greed.
Recently, I was reminded of the detachment and depersonalization of greed through a series of interactions with an activist group picketing at the front of my outdoor clothing co-op in Seattle. Being a curious person, I gave this group of young people a bit of my attention and time. They shared with me their concerns regarding my co-op’s buying practices, and expressed an interest in meeting with the executive team to open dialogue about livable wages and working conditions. After chatting with the student activist group, I offered to help support their cause by doing my best to set up a meeting with the co-op’s CEO.
Being a people-minded and persistent person I assumed setting up a meeting would be a quick and simple task. When it comes to landing appointments with CEOs, business leaders, and government officials, I’m not often stonewalled. One of the many gifts that dyslexia has given me is the tenacity it takes to open doors. This time, after many hours of committed time on the phone with executive personal assistants and the co-op’s public relations professionals, I was still meeting dead ends. I connected these dead ends to greed. The execs didn’t want to discuss their practices. In the end I think a meeting may have happened, but I was not invited to attend, so I am unsure of the outcome.
When I was young, I don’t remember a huge skepticism toward business — any fracture in the feeling that businesses looked out for customers and shareholders without conflicts of interest was concealed by the apathy of a fat and happy middle class. Companies were approachable. CEOs and boards of directors were reachable by phone and assumed responsible.
I look forward to revisiting that customer-focus and approachability in our future. Maybe we’ll see those values displayed again by small and local companies, maybe with the growth of organizations like Kickstarter, a crowd funding platform for creative projects. Or maybe big corporations will find their way back to seeing the importance of customers and business ethics. Who knows? In the meantime, I will continue to look for ways to lower my consumption.
How did we get here? How have the rights and responsibilities of corporate citizens changed in your life time? Can you find someone in your community either younger or older to have a conversation with about this topic? If you could stop supporting one store, industry, or big business person because of greed, who would it be?
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