In this short essay, author Kelly Garriott Waite reflects on the need to reclaim trust and community in today's culture of hyper-consumerism.
On Saturday, I went to a big box store to pick up a water filter and a birthday gift for my daughter. Total charge: $44.
"I don't need a bag," I told the cashier.
"Mom," my son nudged me. "You do need a bag. She'll see it."
Right. "Can I change my mind?"
The cashier nodded and slid my purchases into a bag before chasing them with the receipt.
My son pointed. "That's not going to hide anything."
"No," I agreed. "They probably use clear plastic so people don't steal anything." Other stores use similar tactics: garish orange PAID stickers on plastic milk jugs. RFID devices buried inside books. Security cameras... Mirrors... Alarms...
I took my bag and we headed out, pausing to laugh at a $60 electronic Furby that, apparently, can learn to communicate with its owner. At the exit, a beefy security guard approached us. I held up my bag so he could see inside.
"Receipt." He extended a hand.
"Are you serious?"
I withdrew the receipt and gave it to him. He studied it and nodded once, neat and tight, before returning it to me.
"I think this is the last time I'll be shopping here," I said as the exit doors slid open silently.
The guard didn't care: He was just another cog in the wheel of big business.
"I can't believe that," I fumed in the parking lot. "Like I'm going to steal a water filter."
"Calm down, Mom," my son said.
"It's like a police state. It's like you're guilty and have to prove yourself innocent."
"I don't see what the big deal is."
And perhaps that's the scariest bit of all of this: My son accepts that security guards posted at exits are a normal part of doing business. We live in a culture of mistrust, and he's OK with that.
"I mean, really," I continued. "Do I look like the type of person to steal?"
"How does he know, Mom?"
He doesn't know. He doesn't know my name or my family or my story. That is the crux of the problem: Big businesses do not know their customers. Big businesses do not trust their customers.
The reverse could hold true as well: Stealing is easier (I suppose) when you're anonymous. Stealing is easier when you can't see the direct effects of your actions. Too, a thief may feel justified stealing from big business, rationalizing that such a big company won't miss a water filter or an iPad, and even if they do, they could afford to absorb the loss.
When there's a disconnect between buyers and sellers, stealing becomes easier. When there's a disconnect between buyers and sellers, sellers don't trust their buyers, resorting instead to checking in on us; to carefully monitoring our every move.
And yet...as we trust companies to do the right thing, who is monitoring them? Who takes the time to ensure that the companies from which we buy are using good practices? Who asks if a company's business model includes such considerations as the environment, the health of the world's people, and old-fashioned honesty? Who stands at the entrance door to big business and educates would-be buyers?
Do we educate ourselves?
Do we question why we need to filter our water and how the pollutants got there in the first place?
We need to return to the small and local model of business where business owners know not just the names but the stories of their customers. We need a model where customers know and trust and live among the people who make and sell the products they need. We need a model of trust, where cause and effect is obvious; where change is easy; where security guards are unnecessary; where customer input is welcome.
Some would say this is a step back in time.
It is going back to a time when we made do with less stuff; when material goods did not dictate our happiness; going back to a time when trust prevailed.
Impossible, some may say.
I say no. Small CSAs are sprouting up all over the country. Local residents are fighting to keep their community stores alive. People are joining Community Exchange Networks where they can barter goods and services, learning again to do for themselves and each other rather then relying on big businesses.
We need to be willing to do more for ourselves.
We need to want clean air and water.
We need to stop wanting to communicate with electronic Furbys and instead wish to communicate with each other.
We need to want to live in a state of trust once again.
Kelly Garriott Waite grew up on a 40-acre farm in Ohio. Much of her writing revolves around farming, community, and the tragic loss of both. She is the author of The Loneliness and Downriver, a collection of essays examining the effects of consumerism on modern society. Her work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, and in the anthology Thunderbird Stories Project: Volume One. You can find more of her writing on her blog, Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams.