Computer shopping guilt and made-in-USA plea
“There has to be at least one big box store you like, right?” People ask me this all the time, as if the possibility that I don’t is just beyond comprehension.
When my pledge to exclusively shop local began, my ground rules were: No big-box stores, no Internet shopping, no chain restaurants. I successfully completed my goals over two years ago—better yet, I haven’t stopped. It’s inspired an entirely new way of living and connecting to my community, while helping maximize my economical contribution.
I always find it interesting that people seem to think I “stocked up” before launching Live Local. Often times, they think I desperately waited for the year to end so I could go to Target. Alas, I still haven’t bought anything at Target since—sorry.
Probably the biggest “chain” I have to visit is Harris Teeter. While my personal household groceries are bought at Tidal Creek Co-op, I have to tend to Daddy’s needs, too, which require items from a larger grocer. Still, I have felt OK with Harris Teeter, in that at least they’re headquartered in Matthews, NC. Though, according to local foodie mag Devour, they won’t be changing headquarters or staff with their current merger with Kroger, an Ohio-based grocer, I suppose I’ll need to change over to Food Lion to keep within my “mileage requirement”—if not available locally, then regionally or at least within our state. Food Lion has headquarters in Salisbury, NC, so it fits the latter.
Any how, these conversations come up over and over again in my life; it’s just how it is. After more than four years of writing about living local, people realize I spend a tremendous amount of time contemplating my shopping. It’s always a good fallback for conversation when my friends, bookstore customers or community acquaintances have exhausted the weather.
Last week, my puppy collided with my laptop during a thunderstorm. Actually, it wasn’t the part where the puppy hit the laptop that caused the machine to die. It happened as an immediate consequence of their collision—when the laptop hit the floor. So, I am trying to remedy this unexpected problem, figuring out how I am going to acquire a replacement laptop—and keep within my local requirements.
A couple of days ago my friend, Brandy, in an effort to be helpful, mentioned how Walmart had laptops on sale for back-to-school…
I shook my head immediately. “I can’t shop at Walmart.”
She understood what I meant, and so we moved on to other possibilities.
No matter how bleak the options, Walmart remains bleakest in my world. So much so, I associate it with being trapped in a Dickens novel.
From local research, I did find that Bilzi Mac Consulting (251 S. Kerr Avenue) sells used Apple products, while Your Computer Friends (3816 Oleander Drive) sells both new laptop PCs and re-manufactured items. It’s certainly nice to know about these local options.
Of course, any purchase of a computer is, in my book, a morally compromised choice regardless of the shop which sells it. Just by virtue of the coltan used to manufacture consumer electronics, the footprint left behind haunts me. One of the first Live Local columns of 2013 explored the question raised by a thought-provoking website, slaveryfootprint.org. They offer a survey for folks to track: “How Many Slaves Work For You?” I got a tremendous response from this column—almost as much as the piece about buying a bedspread a few weeks ago. (Admission: I am not sure what to make of that comparative data, but apparently couples’ sleeping arrangements and guilt are more closely linked than I had realized.) One of the specific topics addressed in the “Slavery Footprint” column remained on coltan mining. For those unaware, coltan is a mineral primarily used in the manufacturing of electronics (cell phones, computers, e-readers, etc.). It comprises tantalite and niobium, which in world politics teaches us comes from Africa. Why does that matter? It’s the key player in the war zone of the Congo. The environmental and human devastation caused by the mining of coltan is horrific. People are literally forced to stand in pits and mine so our modern electronic world keeps functioning. Rarely are the miners paid well, if at all, and the high prices the coltan commands lines the pockets of their exploiters.
People trying to finance a war in Africa find it has great potential. I, however, feel such complicity and guilt about participating in this ruthless exploitation of people and planet that I can barely articulate how the guilt wrecks my soul. Every time I check my e-mail, I am thoughtlessly profiting from human suffering and environmental disaster. It’s like the modern equivalent of owning a Volkswagen or buying an IBM product in 1944.
I struggle so hard to not let my life be controlled by the unnecessary “buy-in” aspects of our culture: smartphones, iPods, e-readers. Hell, I still don’t have a “real” TV, by most people’s standards; it’s just boxy with rabbit ears, and signals PBS—and that’s on a good day when the police helicopter isn’t circling our neighborhood breaking up the transmitter waves.
No matter how much I fight against the technology, there are some realities I cannot escape. Being a writer means I have to own a computer. No editor accepts handwritten columns or type-written hard copies to which she has to transcribe. No matter how angry I am about coltan and how terrible I feel about computer ownership, my business, too, wouldn’t function. The endless amount of inventory and financial upkeep of the bookstore maintains itself on computer software.
I have spent weeks pondering a way around buying a new computer. It is impossible. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept the conditions of computer manufacturing as a foregone conclusion. We can still advocate for American-made computers. Indeed Apple announced they will return a very small amount of their manufacturing to the U.S. this year.
If I had the ears of these techies, my pitch would go something like this: humanely manufactured computers and electronic products, made with fairly mined and acquired coltan, and assembled in unionized factories using made-in-America parts. Tagline: “Certified Free of Slavery and Exploitation.”
It might sound crazy. Call me a dreamer, but I am not the only one. Thousands of people standing in damp pits with guns at their backs, and thousands more working 14-hour days in factories that look like prisons might just be dreaming the same dream.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author or ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.