I have never been more acutely aware of where I spend my money than right now. It’s not that I didn’t care before: over the past five decades I have tried to incorporate various ethical consumer concerns into my household buying patterns, my good intentions usually compromised by a lack of time, energy or money.
Over the years, and to varying degrees, out have gone: dolphin-unfriendly tuna; Barclays Bank (apartheid); battery eggs; non-free range meat of any species; bottled water; disposable plastic bags; farmed salmon (that one still hurts); palm oil; fast fashion; big travel companies; excessive packaging; and most recently and dauntingly impossible, made in China.
In (also to varying degrees) came British / Scottish / local; fair trade; fair wage employers; environmentally friendly; sustainably-fished seafood and from small independent businesses. There are many, many more.
Living a regular life balancing these myriad moral consumer aspirations can feel exhausting. To watch me agonise over choosing a sandwich in a motorway service station is both comical and exasperating, as – when combined with a dislike of raw onion – my competing ethical criteria usually whittle the choices down to an elderly tray of vegetarian sushi or something – anything – vegan. Over time, my husband has learned it’s best to just wait in the car.
What all of those previous purchasing decisions had in common was that they were remote to me. The aims of my boycotting or patronage, whether correct or misguided, was to somehow bring about a better world over there. By my actions I sought to improve conditions for the seabed / foreign workers / pollinating insects etc., or in some tiny way make less profitable the companies, countries or practices of which I disapproved. If I let my buying standards lapse, well that was a pity but it was no big deal, my life wouldn’t be affected, and my individual decisions probably weren’t having much of an impact anyway.
Now though, I have skin in the game.
In October 2012 I was in New York City staying near Central Park when Hurricane Sandy hit, and a day or two after the worst of the storm subsided we walked down to lower Manhattan to see the extent of the devastation. There was strangely little visible damage – the flooding had mainly hit the tunnels and the subways, all of which were closed – but it was the creeping knock-on effects of the electricity substation on 14th Street having shut down due to a transformer line exploding that left a lasting impression.
Except for a few pockets, lower Manhattan had lost power from 39th Street southwards, leaving almost 1/4 million homes and businesses without electricity for four days. With no light to illuminate the interiors of buildings, and no electricity to power the cash registers or sliding entrance doors, all shops, banks and businesses shut, including hotels. Residents hunkered down in their homes as best they could, while a wave of now-homeless tourists who were staying below 39th Street migrated northwards on foot with their luggage in an attempt to find somewhere to stay – and something to eat and drink.
We did not ourselves see the wave of tourists – that had happened the previous day – but we did see the proof of their passing. Walking south from the mid 50s, as we got closer to 39th Street we first noticed occasional hand written signs in the illuminated windows of cafes and diners: “Water $3”. As we neared the power cut off line, the signs changed to “Water $5 – cash only”, then “No water”, “Eat in only” and finally “No food” and “Closed – sold out”.
Beyond 39th Street the winds gusted through a city that was dark, deserted and apocalyptic: no neon signs, not a single light switched on, no cars moving, no people, everything shuttered that could be secured, a handful of unlocked and looted storefronts, a few overlooked access points into the subway system with stairs leading downwards into the ominous gloom, and only a smattering of stranded tourists like us, walking around town out of boredom and slightly ghoulish curiosity.
By happy coincidence, we were in NYC at the same time as other good friends, and we became each others’ lifeline. Our Broadway theatre tickets useless, Central Park closed off due to falling branches, all attractions and most restaurants closed due to shortages of food or staff or both, we clung together and instinctively pooled resources. The difference that being with friends made both to our morale and to our circumstances is impossible to overstate: we hung out together, our shared predicament binding us closer, spending time camped out in their hotel room as our hotel had lost heating, fellow survivors finding humour and solace in the face of forces vastly beyond our control.
The lesson I learned is that no matter the majestic size or sophistication of the structures and organisations we build, they all rest on the the unimpeded supply of basic commodities, and whoever controls those supply lines controls everything. Also, that every city on earth is only ever a week or so away from utter anarchy and major civil disobedience. And that friendship in adversity is worth more than gold.
Way back at the start of the current pandemic we had early intimations of the precarious foundation on which our society rests, with panic buying of pasta – and loo roll, bizarrely – and then frankly of anything. Our leaders reassured us that there were ample supplies to go round, representatives from supermarkets were wheeled out to calm the waters, and the provision of foodstuffs did indeed return to normal in short order.
Now, the pingdemic is causing localised food shortages, as hauliers and supermarket staff are instructed to self-isolate by a hyper-sensitive Track and Trace App, because one of their contacts has received a positive LFT or PCR. I do not anticipate this situation will be allowed to continue for long: the powers that be will be well aware of the risk of a panicked populace rioting should access to food, that most fundamental of essentials, be limited in any significant way. I believe the ‘rules’ for both categories of worker have this week been relaxed in order to permit The Pinged to continue working (although not to socialise after work – steady on, drone).
Back to my skin in the game: I am not concerned that there will not be food on the shelves. There will be. But, in a novel and disquieting development, I am concerned that I may not be allowed to buy it.
In recent weeks the popular press in the UK has been full of speculation regarding vaccine passports, with government ministers judiciously opining about their intended use (nightclubs, sporting events and … churches, apparently) and commentators speculating with relish over their eventual reach. Opinion polls,TV and radio presenters have invited comments from the public, whipping up a frenzy of viewpoints for and against. I cannot but notice how those in favour of vaccine IDs and the separation of people into two classes are given more prominence than those who caution restraint. The more righteous of the spittle-flecked callers demand no jab no job; no jab no NHS treatment; no jab no school; no jab no admittance practically anywhere.
In addition to mandatory proof of vaccination for nightclubs, to further coerce the young, ministers are suggesting that proof of vaccination may be needed to attend university in person, and the NHS has just produced a quartet of punchy ads exhorting the 18-30s to take a vaccine in order not miss out on ‘going clubbing’, ‘the good times’, ‘going travelling’, and ‘the big events’.
I had intended to return to university, but took the decision to defer once again on learning that for this academic year also, the tuition will be online. Next year, tuition may be in person but by then I may be an unperson, and so not permitted. Who knows what the future holds?
What we do know, however, is that right now as you read this, all around the world, those who cannot demonstrate proof of vaccination are seeing formerly run-of-the-mill activities and venues barred to them. In Italy, if you are not vaccinated you are not allowed to eat in a restaurant or visit a gym. In France, you may not visit a cinema, a museum, go to a sporting event, or frequent a restaurant, cafe or bar, and this has just been extended to include public transport. In Cyprus, you are not allowed in supermarkets. In Israel, the same list applies but with the addition of places of worship. In Ireland, you may not eat indoors, and must show your papers to prove you are a ‘permitted person’. In the Philippines, you will not be permitted to leave your house; and in the Sindh province of Pakistan, the government is proposing to block your SIM card and to sever your connection to the internet. Should you find yourself in New York, you may not eat in a restaurant, work out in a gym or go to the theatre.
While these schemes are being introduced, of course there are some permitted exemptions. Aber natürlich. Some countries grant that if you have proof that you contracted Covid within the past six months, you may enter. Others require a negative Covid test taken within 24 hours prior to admittance. At least for the time being, there are ways around this.
Not your problem because you’re already double-jabbed? Perhaps, but you can’t just waltz in like the Übermensch you are, dearie me no! You too need to show your digital papers, to prove your vaccination status. Here in the UK, a third ‘booster’ jab is being planned for all top 9 groups starting this September. How long do you think your digital ‘freedom’ pass will work if you don’t take the booster? Or next year’s one?
I don’t have to ponder that particular dilemma since I do not qualify for a vaccine passport, and even if I did I wouldn’t deign to use something so poisonously divisive and totalitarian.
I’m sure we won’t starve: I daresay that home deliveries will still be available, even to the unclean – after all, it wouldn’t do to have us rioting in the streets.
But it sits ill with me to give my money to entities that would unprotestingly bar me and those like me for not having the right papers because we did not consent to submit to experimental medical procedures – and whatever your views on the desirability or otherwise of Covid vaccinations, that is what they are.
It’s true, no ‘Covid pass’ restrictions are legally in place in the UK yet, and they may never come to pass. But we have just forced an entire sector of the lowest paid workers to be vaccinated if they wish to keep their jobs: care home workers who selflessly worked through the peak of the pandemic at huge cost to themselves, and if we can do that we can do pretty much anything. I do trust to God, but like Cromwell I think it wise to keep my powder dry.
So I am looking at my household expenditure through newly-narrowed, appraising eyes. As an individual, my power to protest the monstrous actions of our governments is limited. My protest cakes may reach some 100 people a week; my writing a few thousand more. The loss of my spending – only my spending – won’t make a dent in anyone’s balance sheet, but unlike my cakes, this is an area that can be scaled up.
By diverting every pound I can away from the seductively cheap and convenient national and global corporations and towards local or freedom-loving options, I am putting my money where my values are, away from the bloated mega-companies to whom I am merely an obliging cash cow, and strengthening a network of local small businesses and those who share my values: the dignity of fellow humans and our inalienable right to liberty. I am investing in my immediate geographical community and in my wider community of shared ideals. And I am cultivating and reinforcing the supply lines on which I might well come to depend, and building them calmly now, in advance, before I find myself potentially locked out of my existing systems.
Granted, it will be more time-consuming – I won’t pretend this has not been my Achilles’ heel to date – and granted in some instances it will not be as cheap, but when I think about the exploitation to someone, somewhere, that cheap must always entail, it’s something I can accept.
And while we still have a choice, when I have lunch or coffee out, I want to go to a place that doesn’t see me first and foremost as a disease vector. A place whose proprietors meet whatever legal requirements are imposed on them with a respectful light touch rather than the bug-eyed gusto of the Covid zealot who would smugly exclude me the instant that approval is given to do so.
But after years of defaulting to Google and Amazon Prime, all those handy online reviews, the free postage and next day delivery, where does one even start?
Local is obvious – walk around your town and those nearby, explore the side streets and the industrial estates and walk into shops you’ve never been in before. You’ll soon figure out whether the owners are kindred spirits, or the kind of people you’d like to do business with – or neither or both.
Alas, you may not assume that the usual suspects, the ardent liberals and vocal upholders of progressive causes, will, now that push has come to shove, automatically share your respect for civil liberties. It has been a source of surprise and disappointment to me that in the UK so many on the traditional left, who I assumed would have cared about and protested against the crushingly disproportionate impact that Covid measures had on the poorest in our society, have instead been so supine and accepting of state authoritarianism from this Conservative government – only raising their voices to lament that more measures were not imposed, harder, sooner and longer.
To find the liberty-loving businesses takes a bit more work, but if you are reading this then you do actually know where to start. You will at the very least lurk in some online groups, or follow people on Twitter – follow the threads that lead to active and positive online communities, or go to your local Stand in the Park this Sunday, because amid all this sinister gloom there are points of light. Don’t be disheartened: promising things are afoot. Within our community, some serious people are building databases of local and national suppliers who share our values. Some are still in development, some are already in existence, like the excellent UK-wide awakenedpages.co.uk, others will launch in the coming months. Some will fail and the best will succeed, and because there are a lot of us, the best will flourish.
I have been struck by how damn good it feels, starting to move my spending away from the big boys and into the pockets of people whose values I respect and share. So many of my efforts for the past 17 months have been directed against something negative: choosing where and from whom to buy stuff is entirely positive, and it lifts my spirits in a way I had not anticipated.
It may not have the visual impact of tens or hundreds of thousands on a Freedom March through the streets of London, but I suspect that the same number of people – and many more, who do not march – diverting their spending away from the multinationals and into alternative structures will be far more troubling to those who rule our society at such profit.
Use what’s left of the summer to nurture your lifelines and come winter you will be prepared: it feels deeply right when your spending is more aligned with your values. Your local community will benefit both from your money and from your attention – and be open to the serendipity in the ripples that your actions will bring into life – the connections and friendships that are forged in times like these are of a calibre like no other.
The freedom of where you spend your money is, for the most part, entirely within your power. Wield this power to strengthen what matters to you, while it still exists.