Shopping: The Worst Fairytale, Ever

Posted on February 19, 2015




Anyone who has a 5-year-old Disney Princess in their life has probably gotten:

  • glitter butt from a sofa she’s been sitting on,
  • poked in the eye by a tiara
  • or has waded ankle-deep through dolls and accessories to deliver a glass of royal apple juice.

On Saturdays while visiting my nieces, I marvel at the “good fortune” of these children at being able to have any throwaway toy they want. But, inwardly, I wring my hands at the rampant consumerism that seems second nature to this next generation of kids with well-to-do parents and often two sets of even richer doting grandparents, who, in what Douglas Coupland once wrote, are up to their eyeballs in “striving middle-class participation”.

Let me unravel my cognitive dissonance. As I survey my own Made-In-China Queendom—a jersey-knit, acrylic, rhinestoned mountain of crap (are you really one to judge, oh Duke of Phone Chargers?), I am aghast. It is of course, no Queendom at all: no eagle-huntress skillset, no ancient wisdom of the land, sky and trees, no knowledge of how anything around me was made or came to be; just of how to use and how to consume it all.

I suspect for many of us, there is no realm, no legacy as vast and powerful as our Consumerism that we have to pass on to the next generation. In the developed world, we’ve never known any different way of living. In the developing world, they can’t wait to molt out of their penurious caterpillar status and join us.

Evolutionarily, my generation has got one major thing going for us: we have been selected for our shopping prowess—our overdeveloped Consumer Muscle—the one thing that can make us look right and smell right. National Geographic would easily catch us in the mist in malls, loading shit in the trunks of our cars and driving home to stuff it in our closets, in the weird human dance to prove our worth and desirability to others. For me, I can even feel my genes mutating as I’ve realized that merely clicking can be just as effective. More than Like-ing shit, I Buy it. Like an arm wrestler in a Hemingway novel, or a mighty cartoon mouse coming to save the day, or at least 30% off, I’ve gone down in modern lore for having abnormal powers in what no god intended. I Watch items online, and Check-Out end-of-season. I pull a rope-a-dope when I try something on in-store, but then go buy it online for cheaper (unless there’s an in-store gift with purchase or it’s a limited edition). If sales persist, I’ll come back, swinging with a price correction within 14 days of purchase. If I get push back—I’ll talk to a manager, take my business elsewhere, or rate 2 stars on Yelp: the purgatory of Customer Service satisfaction. Yelp: once the sound of a suffocating puppy reclaimed for human empowerment; top-of-the-food-chain stuff y’all.

No one can blame us. If you picked up any macro-economics textbook, which tries to read like it’s the hallowed Science of Consumerism, and if you followed national or regional elections—always talking about the growth of the economy—you’d think that consumerism is some all-important inherent, prime-directive that is enshrined, if not in our charters and constitutions, then in the physical laws of the universe and in our DNA. But really, Hoarding Shit From The Mall is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. I’d say its lessons are better told by tales rather than quasi-serious economic formulas. Not scrubbed Disney tales, mind you, where a bit of personal can-do financial restraint and recycling will alleviate consumer debt, the plight of slave-wage workers and global warming, but uncomfortable Black Forest doozies:

  1. When we shop, we merely interface with the retail point of transaction and with the final product itself. We have almost no knowledge of the supply chain and logistics of how the product gets to us. Whether it’s a chicken drumstick plastic-wrapped to a Styrofoam tray or a pair of pants, we are a culture that looks forward to a product’s use, not back at the resources used to mine, farm or make the thing and its packaging; the fuel used at each stage; the shipping routes it took or on what terms suppliers were paid. For instance, big box stores like Walmart and Target don’t pay small suppliers for up to 4 to 6 months, which is a problem when bills (for harvesting, manufacturing, trucking and paying workers) are due every 15 or 30 days. I used to work for a bridge loan company and every day fielded worried calls from these suppliers, who had narrowly escaped bankruptcy in the middle of a “lucrative” contract. Not paying the piper threatens to lead to a society that can’t sustain its families and children. Except, we are simultaneously the piper and the society that doesn’t concern itself with ensuring his payment.
  1. As consumers, we also don’t think about the politics behind our products. We don’t think of the small communities impacted by the openings or closures of plants, factories, distribution centres and stores; the details of the labour contracts for workers; the health implications of the chemicals used in production; what a regional economy needs to sacrifice in negotiations to attract major businesses and all the social pieces it has to pick up if they go bankrupt—like promising our first born in exchange for services that seemingly spins straw into gold. In Canada’s steel capital of Hamilton, US Steel Canada’s 2014 bankruptcy declaration left the region’s taxpayers with almost half a billion dollars in pension obligations for 12,000 workers of a once profitable industry, which the company had knowingly taken on in 2007 in a merger to boost shareholder value at the time, but now admits it can’t fulfill. This is small potatoes compared to the GM, Ford and Chrysler USD $50 billion bailout in 2008; a fine debt for our first born and theirs to pay off.
  1. And while we pride ourselves in the West for not having to worry about cases of babies dying from tainted formula, like in China, or of people dying from drinking moonshine in India’s villages, we have no idea how lax our consumer protection mechanisms really are, once things go really wrong. In Ontario, Canada’s economic engine, the provincial government centralizes all the business registrations of the country’s largest economic region and has the power to inspect finances of businesses hoping to set up shop and be accountable to suppliers and consumers for the long term. However, according to the Auditor General in its latest report on the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, the Ministry has never used those levers for any of the thousands of businesses it oversees, to prevent anything or discipline anybody (AG Latest Update p 326). Fly-by-night scammers and irresponsible businesses leave behind a wake of: depressed commercial real estate vacancies; jilted customers who had pre-paid membership or on-going service contracts or product claims; and unpaid suppliers that are often small businesses or farmers. The federal government is no better: Target Canada’s 133-store national expansion in just two years, turned out to be as financially implosive as it sounded from the beginning. Its bankruptcy this year leaves out in the cold: 17,000 employees who had foregone other opportunities to work for them, and a lot of suppliers who won’t get paid until the banks get their cut of the liquidation proceeds. [Sorry, didn’t mean to bum everyone out with social implications of a huge bankruptcy. Oh, wait. Update: As Target begins liquidation sales, hordes of customers disappointed at lack of bargains]. Or how about governments that are quick to abdicate responsibility? Condo and retail developers have excavated hundreds of thousands of Olympic-sized pools of soil and dumped them in prime farm country around Toronto—2015’s World’s Best City to Live In, according to the Economist. The province blames local government oversight when it turns out the soil is laden with heavy metals and petroleum and has contaminated the local food supply—even though the two regularly overlap in regulating the region’s businesses. Governments, as they are, try to woo corporations with tax breaks to fatten them up and then struggle to keep them under control.  But in the end, they remind me of the blind old witch of the Black Forest, who was easily outwitted and pushed into the oven by some greedy kids after they ate all her candy.
  1. In the US, consumers may not be aware that their one last tooth is being pulled: Tort Reform is the controversial removal of the one last recourse an individual has to go toe-to-toe with a major corporation: a day in court. The 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, by Susan Saladoff, who represented the woman who sued McDonald’s over too-hot coffee that burnt her thighs, highlighted how mega-corporations are behind the media to spin the recent cultural narrative that it is wrong to be a litigious society—that Cry Babyism is un-American; and to nevermind what’s actually evidenced in the claims of the customer plaintiffs. Unfortunately for big companies, like for Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, the judiciary is the one place justice can prevail for anyone, based on glass-slipper evidence. Corporations and service providers are all hoping that things like impenetrable user agreements, clauses that say you can’t sue no matter what [don’t worry, you can], declarations of arbitrary caps on claims and if all else fails, a team of scary lawyers, will deter consumers and end users from costing the companies billions in lawsuits, settlements and awards.
  1. Consumers of abstract products and services are even worse off. In the US, December 2014’s congress saw CitiGroup’s 11th hour reversal of a major clause in the 2009 Frank-Dodd Act that had protected banking customers’ deposits from being gambled with in the shadow banking sector by their financial institutions—a major reason the 2008 financial crisis was so far reaching throughout the global economy. The Citi provision was tied to the bottom of a must-pass budget bill, car-bomb-style. Then of course, congress passed this steamer trying to spin it like they were some kind of heroes who gave the kiss of life to another year of government services. But, Senator Elizabeth Warren made it clear that congress were the very ones re-poisoning the American people with these concessions to the financial terrorists. In her speech denouncing the move, Senator Warren outted no less than 11 high-level government staffers and Executive Branch influencers who used to work for CitiGroup as being the delegation responsible for this act of crony capitalism.

American writer Joseph Campbell once said that you can identify what is most important to a culture, not by its art and literature, but by its biggest buildings. At this point, it might be obvious to point at our shopping complexes and banks, and feel a twinge of recognition (shame?) at our indictable shallowness. But, actually, those Lego sets are dwarfed by the real mega-infrastructure of consumerism we never think of: factories, warehouses, distribution centres, oil refineries, airports, hangars and ship-building plants—the secret, un-sexy logistics ogres that do the real heavy-lifting in our consumerist socio-economy. Is it any wonder that billionaires, (=financial ogres) who have staked their money in these industries, leverage their political influence and publish official economics textbooks to teach the next generation to keep on course?

I know, My Princesses and Princes, this was a tiresome tale I just told. But good thing it’s of no importance. Stories like this won’t change the world. Your castles will remain standing.

Good night.



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