Chain stores may be necessary evil

Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2005

Southeast Tides By Ted Wright

I 've been thinking a lot about big box stores and capitalism and the free-market system, and about the environment, and generally about standards of living and quality of life. I try not to be a hypocrite, so I monitor my behaviors against my beliefs to see where I could do better. I'm sure everyone does some version of this personal calculus, but I figured it would be interesting to share mine:

My apartment could be an IKEA showroom, a fact that startled me after I took inventory for this column. The only item not from the Scandinavian big box is a weight bench from another big box. I've checked out IKEA and can't find any dirt on them. They seem to treat their employees well and avoid sweatshop contracting. I see very few "minority" faces in their Seattle store, however, so I'm going to see what I can learn about their hiring.

I drive an SUV, but only about 10,000 miles per year and I'm about to sell it and fully rely on the local bus system.

I spend a lot of money on books, magazines, and movies, and I eat out a lot. I've been thinking about taking a cooking class so I'll eat out less, but thinking about it is as far as I've gotten.

Most of my clothes are from Eddie Bauer, The North Face, and Lands End (now owned by Sears), so it's not like I'm a clothes horse. And besides, I couldn't find anything evil, immoral or unethical about these companies.

So, taking stock of my spending and thinking about my beliefs leads me to conclude that I'm doing all right. But so what? We all have different standards for what is right and good in the world, so who am I to judge where others shop or what they buy? And do I really need to be so conscientious about my own consumption?

There are many aspects of American consumer culture and of capitalism that I find abhorrent. Because we need to have and spend so much, Americans are using most of the planet's resources. A modest standard of living just doesn't seem good enough for many of us. We live in houses that are bigger than we need. We drive cars more often than is necessary. We eat more, drink more, and have more than any other society on earth.

But the argument for our way of life, our "system," is that American consumption and production drive a world economy that benefits all nations and peoples. Maybe. But then why are there so many Americans unemployed, hungry, homeless, in need?

Could it be that our economy and our "system" help those who are best able to help themselves - those who win in the competition for grades, degrees, and jobs - and that for every winner there are many more losers?

I'm a student of life's great ironies, and one of those I see most clearly is that the majority of Americans need the Wal-Marts of the world, even as the discounters take advantage of their labor and their lack of options in the "free" market.

I have the means to make choices, but understand that most people, even in this "richest country on earth," have far fewer options. On one hand I see the evil that is Wal-Mart and its big-box corporate brethren. On the other, I see that theirs may be a necessary evil.

Unfortunately, corporations are like people. We can suggest they are doing wrong and that they should do better. But in the end, the only behavior we can control is our own. So, I won't shop at Wal-Mart, but I don't begrudge anyone else his or her right to do so. For most Americans the choices they make in the marketplace are based on need, not on want. It wouldn't hurt for all of us to spend a bit more time this year thinking about the difference.

• Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Alaska educator.

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