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.
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I went for brunch with my mother to give her an update. I ordered orange juice, which turned out to be made by Tropicana, a Pepsi Co. company. Curses, tainted juice! Afterwards, I went to Type, a small bookstore on Queen Street West. I talked to an employee named Kyle about what they were doing to compete with larger chain bookstores. He told me that they’ve been open for a year (they consider that a success in itself) and are still learning what it takes to run a small business. Again, he mentioned that providing more personal service was important, even though the store can’t compete with chains when it comes to discounts. Type can’t sell a new book for 40 percent off the cover price like Chapters (the chain gets discounts from publishers for ordering more stock). But in the end, he said, independents know more about their products, and you feel a little better about supporting the little guy.
Later, I talked to Angela, a local from Parkdale (a neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto that has more than its share of problems, including homelessness and drug addiction) who was very passionate about her community. She rolled her eyes when I told her that Jolene had said that Starbucks is a good company. We got into a pretty heated argument over whether Parkdale would be better off with larger businesses in the neighbourhood — I never realized how much passion this topic inspired in people. But many people’s viewpoints were feeling a little one-sided.
I talked to Aaron, a teacher I know, about what he thought about corporations. They aren’t bad in themselves, he said, but it was people who take advantage of the circumstances of power who give them a bad name. This made sense to me. I know there are many good people in the world, including many of the people I had talked to so far, but there are always the people out to exploit others. I felt that my mission was more important than ever.
This was it, my last day. I decided to extend my research and went up to Bayview Village, where the upwardly mobile shop. When it comes to non-corporate clothing shopping, it seems to be a little harder to do if you don’t have the money. Clothing by independent designers is usually pretty expensive compared with more mainstream stores. Bayview Village is mostly independent, but there are also the ubiquitous chain stores like The Gap and Roots. I talked to Catherine at The Tea Leaf, who owns this location and plans to open a few more in the future. She trains her employees through an online tea school she set up herself, and travels to countries to buy the tea she sells so she can know the harvesters and see how it’s grown. She let me sample some tea and then I was on my way home for dinner, where I had fresh juice (finally!) and delicious homemade ice cream.
What did I learn from this experience? I started to really think about what was actually going on beyond my own life and consuming habits. I’ve never really considered myself an activist, so I think I was a little hesitant to live a new, more radical lifestyle. But I also started to understand the influence I wield as a consumer — especially since women are typically the “shoppers” for everything from clothing to groceries. We have buying power. Imagine what could change if we all decided to use that power more thoughtfully.
Sure, in the city, it’s easy to shop at the little fruit market down the street or buy clothes at an indie or second-hand boutique. But what about when you live in the suburbs, where almost everything is a chain store? I wasn’t sure, but I did learn that the key to fighting back is to be knowledgeable, to find out what you’re buying, where it comes from and the conditions under which it’s made. Be aware. I thought there would something much deeper, but it really is that easy to take the first step.