The Ungodly Number of Companies We Enrich
I will admit that I’m a Northeastern liberal cliche. Go ahead – laugh. My borough is a liberal punchline to the country, my neighborhood a liberal punchline to the city and I say with zero irony or humor that kale is my absolute favorite food.
Words like “Monsanto” and “real estate developer” fill me with contempt. I want to tax rich people, provide medical care to poor people and give my children milk from grass-fed cows that have been injected with neither hormones nor antibiotics.
I fancy myself to be someone who makes thoughtful consumer choices that reflect my progressive values — someone who, on average, chooses ethical over cheap, nutritious over unhealthy and sustainable over destructive. I spend time researching the best, or, at least, the least bad options before making shopping decisions.
Hooray for me and all those like me!
I heard a news report recently that a lot of the big consumer brands have been facing decreased sales, with people choosing more fresh, wholesome foods. I remember thinking to myself, I’m sure the sales decline is also because there are a lot of people like me (yay, smiley face, unicorn!) who actively try to support smaller brands rather than the large corporations who exercise too much power in our democracy.
I mean, yes, my kids eat Lucky Charms on school mornings, and, ok, we do drive through McDonald’s when we take road trips, and, it’s true, I shop at Old Navy, but surely those transgressions are offset by all the wonderfully enlightened choices I make most of the time.
Of course I’m kidding myself.
My values and my desire to shop my values are genuine, but at the end of the day, the vast majority of my money goes to the usual corporate suspects and the destructive, toxic substances and otherwise cheaply made flotsam that they peddle.
This latest war with myself started as I was spreading some Nutella on a slice of bread at work and my friend came over and told me that she heard Nutella might get banned in Europe because it is essentially 98 percent palm oil. Now, the average person may not care about this. But, God forgive me, I do. The process that makes palm oil possible is awful and it’s something that I’d love to avoid. Bad enough it’s a key ingredient in my children’s most common meal, that beloved American delicacy known as peanut butter and jelly.
My inevitable internet search for “palm-oil-free-hazelnut spread” ensued, while I ignored the irony that, even as I get in a tizzy about a certain product or company or ingredient when prompted, most of the products I buy are never subject to this scrutiny.
I stare at the blueberries for ten minutes – they look good, they are organic, but… they’re from Chile – entry denied! Yet in the middle of the grocery store, famous for its pitfalls, I’m just as much of a lamb as the person who could not care less about organic blueberries, factory farms or antibiotics sundaes.
One of my marathon internet searches recently yielded a fair trade shoe company in Ethiopia (Sole Rebels – wonderful company! great shoes!) when I was in need of some boots. But meanwhile, I am constantly buying clothes and shoes for my children at Old Navy and H&M, where the record for ethical, fair trade business practices is uninspiring, at best. My defense cannot totally be discounted. I obviously cannot afford two expensive kids’ wardrobes that will each see one season of use.
So what is the solution?
I can’t get anywhere without first trying to arrive at some kind of comprehensive understanding of what sort of world I am buying with my current consumer footprint.
I started making a list of every company that makes every product I regularly buy, and every service I regularly use.
It grew and grew and the longer it got, the more disturbed I became. If nothing else, the sheer number of businesses and entities I support is staggering. My list became a full fledged “Homeland Wall” of seemingly innocent products owned by multi-national corporations and other unsavory entities I had no idea I was patronizing (Blackstone Group and… Michael’s???). It showed that, even for an educated and uppity consumer who can be whipped up into a frenzy over ethics, health and the environment… even someone like me who has access to stores that cater to someone like me… success is not assured. I still very often fail in my quest to shop my values and vote with my wallet.
Is it even possible to fully circumvent the corporate barons of consumer goods?
I mean, I know there are those who do much better than me… people whose kids never eat sugar, who make perfect homemade school snacks, purchase artisan socks and underwear and have no TV in their home. But I don’t know how they do it. Is this not a full time job that requires lots of time, lots of legwork, lots of parenting fortitude and especially, lots of money? Because you can go on a shopping freeze all you want for yourself, but your kids still need new shoes every year, and new clothes. They still need school snacks. And toothpaste.
Aside from my determination not to make it rain for ConAgra, I just read Gary Taub’s The Case Against Sugar, and it was as breath-taking, alarming and mind-blowing as I expected it to be. So I can throw dramatically cutting sugar on to my list of things to take into account when shopping. If you want a hazelnut spread that has a lot less sugar and is still delicious – it’s going to cost you $14. And it is made by a corporation who sickened its factory farm workers with a neurological disorder resulting from high exposure to aerosolized hogs brains (which you get from blasting compressed air into slaughtered pigs’ brains, rendering them “pink slurry” – the building block of Spam).
Oh, and it still has palm oil in it. The “palm oil free” hazelnut spread, on the other hand, has beaucoup sugar.
I surrender, hazelnut spread gods.
Still, the larger question remains… how can I run my household and spend money wisely, while also making informed and thoughtful choices that reflect my concerns and values? Save money… or save the world?
It is simply not going to be easy.
Because what I have learned is, I buy millions upon millions of things.
If you were to make a list of the things you buy, including every day items from milk to toilet paper, you might be astonished. I know this, because I did. And I am.
The list below is not scientific:
- I know what “farm” my strawberries usually come from, but not my apples. Butcher, fish, cheese and deli items tend to be of hazy origin and so this very central category of daily food purchases is not really reflected here. The totally bananas length of my list notwithstanding, food is where a major chunk of my disposable income goes. Any item lacking an identifiable source or maker is not reflected here, so a significant amount of my money is going to whom, I don’t know.
- Some things I buy every few days, others far less often. But if they are on the list, there is at lease some degree of repetition, however infrequent.
- I had no idea how to account for for gas companies, as there is no brand loyalty with that one.
- This is all me, not my husband. He buys his own deodorant. We like to keep some mystery in our marriage.
- I know I didn’t think of everything, especially all of my local haunts.
- Finally, this is direct patronage. It doesn’t include the pesticide companies I give money to when I do not buy organic food. Or the trucking companies transporting my goods. Nor any other supply chain complexities.
Still, the list is overwhelming and illuminating. If only to show just how many CEO’s are setting up their grandchildren’s trust funds with my money.
Birthing the list is merely the starting point. Step one. The next (much harder) step will be to take this grotesque snapshot and, piece by piece, give it some version of the Nutella treatment.
Here it is, (almost) every company that I give money to regularly.
Major Retailers/ Apparel:
Bain Capital/ Blackstone Group (Michael’s) (!) (binders full of women)
Bed Bath & Beyond Inc.
Container Store Inc.
Fast Retailing Co. (Uniqlo)
Gap Inc./ Old Navy
Home Depot/ Home Decorators
New Balance Inc.
Trader Joes/ Trader Joes brand
Sketchers USA Inc.
Urban Outfitters (Anthropologie)
Wayfair Inc. (Joss & Main)
Wayfair Inc. (Joss & Main)
Food & Beverage:
Allagash Brewing Company
Andros Group (Bonne Maman Jam)
Barilla Holding SpA (Italian)
Beam Suntory Inc (Knob Creek)
Bimco Bakeries (Thomas’ English Muffins)
Belle & Evans
Bobs Red Mill
Boar’s Head Provision Company
Bumble Bee Foods
Campari Group (Italian)
Con-agra (Alexia Frozen Potatoes, Wesson) (never again!)
Colavita LLC (Red Wine Vinegar) (private)
Crosby Roman (Crosby Wine)
Danone (Stonyfield Farm Milk) (French)
DeCecco (pasta) (Italian)
Diego plc (Tanqueray) (British multi-national)
Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (Motts Apple Juice)
Friendship Dairies (cottage cheese)
Fage (NY based)
Ferraro SpA (Nutella) (Italian)
Fratelli Branca Distillerie (Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth) (Italian)
Frontier Natural Products Co-op (Simply Organic spices)
General Mills (Cereal, Fiber One Bars, Annies Mac n Cheese, Annies Gummies, Muir Glen, Progresso)
Hain Celestial Group (Celestial Seasonings, Terra Chips)
Hormel Foods (Skippy, Applegate, Justin’s (!))
The J.M. Smucker Company (Natural Balance dog food, Crisco)
Kellogs (Keebler, Nutri-grain, Carr’s)
Kraft Foods (Heinz, Polly-O, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Breakstones Butter, Back to Nature, Ore-Ida, Chips Ahoy, Oreos)
Lactalis Group (President Cheese) (French)
Lassonde Industries (Apple & Eve juice boxes) (Canadian)
Lotus Foods (rice)
Lundburg Family Farms (rice) (private)
Madhava Natural Sweeteners (agave)
Maitres Laitiers du Corentin (Petite Suisse Montebourg)
Mars Inc (Orbit Gum, Starburst)
McCain Foods (frozen potatoes)(Canadian)
McCormick & Co (spices)
MillerCoors (Blue Moon)
Nestle Waters (Poland Spring Seltzer)
The Nunes Company (Foxy Celery)
Organic Coffee Company
Organic Valley (Cooperative)
Ornua (Kerry Gold) (Irish) (Cooperative)
Pinnacle Foods (Mrs Butterworth, Vlasic Pickles, Lender’s Bagels, Wish-Bone Dressing)
Sabra Dipping Company
Saturn Farms (greens) (local)
Seapoint Farms LLC (frozen edamame) (private)
Snack Works (Nilla Wafers)
St. Dalfour (jam) (private)
Sugar Foods Corp (Fresh Gourmet Croutons)
Unilever (Maille Mustard, Hellmenns Mayo, Popsicle)
Vincent’s Clam Bar Inc. (Vincent’s Sauce)
Vermont Bread (Matthews Bread)
Personal care/ household:
Alcoa Corporation (Reynold’s Wrap)
Big HeartPet Brands (Milo’s Kitchen)
Central Garden & Pet Company (wee wee pads)
Chattem (Act Anti-Cavity Mouthwash)
European Soaps LLC (Pre de Provence)
J&J (Band-Aids, Tylenol)
Kimberly Clark (toilet paper, napkins)
Lavanila Laborotories (deodorant)
L’Oreal USA (French)
McNeil Consumer Healthcare (Motrin)
Miele (vacuum cleaner bags)
NPIC (Twistix dog treats)
Pilot Pen Corp
Proctor & Gambol (Kid’s Crest, Gillette, sanitary, Cascade, Swiffer, Pesto Bismol, Magic Eraser)
Revive Personal Products Company (Natural Dentist)
SC Johnson (Pledge, Fantastic, Ziplock)
Source Atlantique Inc./ If You Care (parchment paper and coffee filters)
Steward Pet (Pro Treat Freeze Dried Beef Treats)
Sundial Brands (Shea Moisture kids’ wash)
Barnes & Noble
Spectrum (cable, broadband, phone)
Pret a Manger
Bad Wife (local grocery)
Big Nose Full Body Wine Shop
Bread & Butter (Local lunch deli)
City MD Urgent Care
Chop’t Salad Shop
Crespella (lunch spot)
Food Train (local grocery)
Galaxy Collectibles (comic book store)
Hanco’s Vietnamese Sandwich Shop
Kinara Indian Restaurant
La Bagel Delight
Lady Bird Bakery
James Corbett Salon
Jonny Macks Bar & Grill
Mura Japanese Restaurant
New Hudson Dry Cleaners
Prospect Wine Shop
Sweet Green Salad Shop
Russo (local Italian Deli)
Save on Fifth
Seventh Ave. Copy
Union Market (local gourmet grocery)
Where does one even begin?
Unless you are an accomplished and deeply disciplined minimalist, it can be overwhelming and somewhat shocking to candidly examine at your consumer footprint in its mind-numbing totality. I think my step two is to define several key, over-arching goals. How do I want this snapshot to change from a thousand feet up? Then finally, there will be no way around it, I will have to tackle the list bit by bit, starting with the worst of the most frequently patronized companies.
That’s my plan…
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