Published in the Fall 2007 issue • Features
People everywhere are challenging themselves to live a more sustainable life. One BC couple spent 365 days eating only local food. A Toronto couple tried to eliminate the garbage they produce, and a woman in Seattle spent a year in the same homemade brown dress to protest hyper-consumerism. A New York family started a year-long project where they will buy nothing (except very bare essentials) and a family in Louisiana spent a year without products made in China. But what about the rest of us? We challenged 18-year-old Sarah Frances to a much smaller task: live corporate-free for one week. Here’s how she did.
When the idea came up to try to live a noncorporate life, I thought it would be pretty darn easy, especially living in downtown Toronto. I liked to think I was a fairly conscious and ethical consumer. I avoid Wal-Mart; I support stores in my neighbourhood. But I also knew I could stand to learn some things about how independents function in a world where big business owns everything, how small stores stay open and how they affect neighbourhoods. What I realized was that I didn’t know as much as I thought, and I wasn’t sure where the boundaries should be. This is how my week of non-corporate living went.
In need of groceries, I decided to kick off my mission with a trip to the St. Lawrence Market, home to dozens of independent shops. I was pleased I chose a Wednesday afternoon to start the challenge — the market gets fairly hectic on the weekends with customers clamouring to get the best and the freshest. I spoke to Dan and Alex, employees of Chris’ Cheesemongers, about the challenges of staying independent and they told me some interesting facts. There are advantages if you’re not dealing with a middle agent, but if your supplier starts dealing with a larger chain (i.e. Loblaws), they might not be able to keep up with smaller orders. In their experience, though, independents can keep their prices lower since there are fewer people in the middle to take a cut of the profit. Some of what they said struck me as common sense: people who frequent small businesses like the personal factor. (This theme came up several times throughout the week.) When I asked Dan and Alex what they thought about living a completely non-corporate life for one week, they laughed and wished me luck.
On my way home, I was curious to hear what an employee of a big chain had to say, so I went by a Starbucks to talk to a barista. I wanted to know how knowledgeable the employees really were about the goings-on of the company. Jolene, who has worked there for a year and a half, told me about some of the programs Starbucks implements when it opens a new location and how its training works. She said that employees are relatively well-versed in company matters and know how everything works, and that she believes that Starbucks is an ethical company. I didn’t know what to think of this, since most of what I’ve heard about Starbucks is negative. She offered to make me something, but I explained that I couldn’t take it. Later, I checked out an anti-Starbucks website and read that some employees are given 19.75 hours of work per week, 15 minutes short of part-time status and the benefits that would entail.