Though I was raised Catholic, my family actually worshipped at the Church of Frugality. Flyers were our sacred texts, clearance sales and last-day markdowns our acts of devotion. I emerged from this childhood the most frugal of frugal. Getting a good deal gave me a physical high, and still does. It felt like I was beating the system, damning the man.
Except, of course, I was still in the system. Not only was I buying more than if I had paid full price, I was reinforcing some the worst parts of globalized capitalism, which slashes human rights and environmental protections before coughing up a cent of profit. I was also perpetuating that idea that various goods — notably clothes and food — were only worth the bottom dollar. I was prioritizing “value” over values.
As I educated myself more on social and environmental issues, I saw the failings of that system all too clearly: the downsides (or “externalities”) that aren’t covered by the price tag, the way things like lax environmental regulation, devalued human labour, and government subsidies make the retail price a straight-up lie. Take this example from Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing, which highlights that though a Big Mac is sold for $4, but when you factor in cattle raised in clear-cut forests, the burger should actually cost $200. (And the mother of all externalities? Will the climate crisis please stand up.)
Even once I understood those externalities, the problem was opting out of that system came with a steep price tag. In the beginning, this made me whiny, and sometimes still does (see: me buying $10 eggs last week). Why does doing the right thing have to cost more? But, duh, doing right by people and the planet is more expensive. (Though paying more doesn’t always translate to better ethics: luxury brands can be just as guilty of exploitation.) I had to expand my point of view from paying for a product to paying into a system. Did I want the system that exploits people and the planet at every step, or the one that supports them? Did I want to support the people and companies who are doing good work or the ones who can do it for the lowest price?
Of course it’s not fair to reduce this to an individual moral choice, when government subsidies and legislation have a huge impact, and the people most exploited by the system are the ones least able to buy the “better” product. We can’t achieve social justice and environmental regeneration just by buying the nicer coffee, but buying the nicer coffee is still a good thing when we’re able.
I’m writing about this because we’re in a time when a) as a country, we have an opportunity to revamp major systemic approaches, and b) there’s more pressure on money to do more good for more people. And while we’re often talking about bolstering the economy, let’s remember that making environmental choices can also have huge economic benefits. For example, as far back as 2014, renewable energy in Canada supported more jobs than the tar sands. Right now Canada invests more money than any other G7 nation in subsidizing oil and gas, and taken together those G7 countries are providing US$100,000,000,000 annually in subsidies. (Which, aside from making oil artificially cheap, is a bit like pumping billions into the cigarette industry because all those jobs!) What if we invested some of that money in renewables like solar, which has seen the cost of installation fall by 50% in the last few years, and a just transition plan for oil and gas workers and communities who rely on fossil fuel income? This crisis is an opportunity to rethink, rebuild, and retool. Naomi Klein argues that a crisis is a time of great opportunity: it can be used to slide through regressive policies that decimate protections for the environment and the working class to benefit the wealthy, or a time for something like a Green New Deal, which, by the way, is supported by the majority of Canadians who learn what it is.
Another example: if we believe in investing our own money in local, independent businesses (a great move that brings 3.5x the wealth to your community compared to spending at a chain), what if the government did the same thing? In her most recent graphic column for Yes! Magazine, Sarah Lazarovic examines the importance of anchor institutions in creating community wealth. Anchor institutions — pivotal, permanent organizations, like hospitals or universities — have huge economic spending power, that can make a huge difference if invested locally. Lazarovic focuses on an experiment in Cleveland’s University Circle neighbourhood, where institutions decided they wanted to buy local, so they helped created worker-owned businesses. This led to wealthier citizens, who could buy homes and help revitalize a low-income neighbourhood. People could also afford to make greener decisions and buy things like local produce and green power.
I had the pleasure of editing Take Back the Tray, a memoir/manifesto by activist chef Joshna Maharaj (available May 5th!), who’s made a career of trying to serve better food to vulnerable people (at community food centres, in hospitals, at universities), and she also sees enormous opportunities in using our government dollars to help finance good jobs and support local food networks (rather than sending all our money to the Ohio headquarters of some megacorp that sells everything from dehydrated potato powder to urinal pucks). Unfortunately, she’s constantly bashing her head against the cost ceiling, because we’ve come to believe paying bottom dollar is the highest good. She writes, “Although I’ve found ways to provide good food frugally, the idea that real, wholesome food should cost less than the current ‘edible, food-like substances,’ as writer Michael Pollan calls them, is ridiculous. A return to sustainably sourced, scratch-made food only seems to be expensive because we have dramatically reduced what we’re willing to invest in food. In most cases, food service budgets are just a fraction of their former selves. The good news is that there are huge holistic benefits, including economic ones, to these changes — we just need to expand our focus beyond the bottom line.”
In short, on a personal and governmental level, let’s look beyond at the end product or an overly reductive price tag, let’s take the time to look at the system we’re supporting. For those who still have an income, it’s a great time to spend with intention and especially to support those local businesses that might not seem as cheap or as convenient as Amazon (but they support the economy and don’t have working conditions that are unsafe). You may find yourself actually saving money by not going out to bars or seeing movies — an activity for millionaires (see, I’m still cheap) — and maybe that means you can buy the book you want from your local independent bookseller, or order some pasture-raised meat. If the Instacart markups mean you’re spending more on groceries anyway, why not support local businesses and producers? Our price thresholds are already being challenged, so why not do maximum good?
I realize this week’s newsletter has been heavy on the theoretical as opposed to the practical, but we’re all in very different financial situations right now — do what’s possible for you. And for Torontonians, here’s a list of some grocery companies that let you put your money where your mouth is (and, bonus, avoid the purgatory of trying to get a delivery/pickup window at one of the major supermarkets or waiting in a long lineup). None of these require a subscription.
FoodShare Good Food Box: super affordable grocery delivery that also supports community food programming. (Plus, they’re paying their workers an extra $4 an hour during this time — Galen Weston Jr., despite his good press, isn’t keeping up.) You can’t customize the fruit and veg you get, so, like me, you may be currently researching ways to slaughter a rutabaga. You can also add bread and crackers from the excellent Spent Goods and meat shares from Niku. (Free delivery in April!)
Fruit Suite: Fruit Suite currently has a partnership with 100 km Foods, a wonderful company built to connect local farmers with restaurants. You can order great produce, dairy, eggs, and a few other local items. Fruit Suite is also giving 5% of all sales to a Parkdale food bank. ($5 delivery for purchases over $50.)
West Side Beef Co.: For those who want ethically raised, pastured meat, this company works with local farms to bring it direct to you. (Free delivery with a minimum order.)
Bare Market: Bare Market is an east-end zero waste grocery store that opened just before the pandemic took hold. Pantry items, bulk goods, and more. Shop online for pantry staples for pickup.
Unboxed Market: Another great zero-waste grocery store, this one in the west end, with a range of products, including, meat, bread, veg, and pantry. It offers next-day pickup.
Annex Market: A brand new zero-waste store focused on supporting local producers. Their offerings are more limited, but they also offer next day pickup, $6 delivery, or free delivery on orders over $75.
Certain farmers’ markets, like the one at Wychwood Barns, are facilitating pickups or deliveries from usual vendors. Others, like Sorauren Park, are offering mixed boxes featuring products from regular vendors.
Many Ontario wineries are now shipping free with a minimum around 4-6 bottles. Full list here. (I’m a big fan of Tawse and Hinterland.) And beer drinkers, don’t despair, here’s a handy spreadsheet of microbreweries selling (and sometimes shipping).
We’ve bought our coffee from Coffeecology for many years: they have a great selection of fair trade, organic, and often shade-grown coffee. The deliver in reusable mason jars to Toronto and Hamilton by bike, or in paper bags in the mail.
Chocolate is an human rights minefield, but local biz Chocosol pays workers more than fair trade prices and supports sustainable community agriculture. They’re also having a great bulk chocolate sale right now! (Plus it’s all vegan.) I’ve ordered a bulk box of their vanilla sea salt flavour. (Delivery by Canada Post or free pickup.)
But think beyond the grocery cart (especially for products that don’t require shipping, so warehouse and postal workers can stay as safe as possible). What other services and businesses do you value? I bought a book I could pick up at my local indie, paid for a tune-up and repair to throw some cash at my local bike shop, I’m still buying a class a week at my longtime yoga studio running classes via Zoom, and we’re going to rent a movie through the new indie movie house, the Paradise. Consider these values-added purchases. If a recovering cheapskate like me can do it, you probably can too.
If you have a regular income right now, spend more of your money locally and on ethical businesses.
Watch what the government is doing and write your representatives accordingly. Who benefits from economic subsidies? What are the environmental repercussions? What kind of future are we investing in? 350.org is a great resource for this kind of critical coverage and action prompts. And for a primer on the opportunities and risks of disaster capitalism, watch this video at The Intercept.
Wins of the Week
I have conversations every day with folks who are gardening for the first time, or stepping up their game. I’m so excited for all of you!
Lindsay made homemade cleaner! (Important note: if you want this to destroy coronavirus, it needs to be 70% alcohol, as hers was.)
Jenna has got her food waste basically down to zero!
I’m running low on wins, so please hit me up with your successes large and small. Also, happy to have feedback on what you do or don’t want to hear about during this era of upheaval. Many thanks to all of you who have read this far, and who are still keeping environmental issues on your radar in this time of intersecting crises. That’s how we come out of this a smarter, stronger society that allows everyone to thrive.