I have a deep appreciation for my feet. I like them a lot because they play an integral part in getting me where I need to go each day. Hence, I try to show my gratitude by keeping them happy. When one contemplates her possible paths to pedal happiness, however, there are certain factors she needs to take into consideration. Mainly, it’s cold out, and cold is not conducive to bare feet. Since I conveniently enjoy the privileges of both being a resident of a developed country and having a comfortable income, I solve this problem by buying shoes. In my closet reside a pair of Nikes, a pair of Adidas, two pairs of Birkenstocks, a pair of waterproof hiking boots, a pair of dress shoes, and a pair of Chaco sandals. At first glance this list may not seem highly significant, but upon further examination this inventory belies a far deeper issue. All of those shoes exist solely for two unassuming, undemanding feet that are not in any way different or more deserving than any other pair of feet worldwide.
Let me explain. A great deal of labor, material and energy resources go into the production of each of these pairs of shoes, the summation of which is their purchase and consumption by an average American student. Yet the benefits of this production often reach only the consumer and the profiting corporation. For example, it is relatively common knowledge that a pair of Nikes such as the ones in my closet or the ones owned by any average American student retail for approximately $80 in the U.S. The cost of their production in Indonesia, however, is only $5.60 (U.S. dollars). Labor practices in the factories producing the shoes are largely unregulated, and the workers making the shoes often receive at maximum $1.35 a day. In stark contrast, Michael Jordan receives more than $20 million in a single year for promoting Nike shoes. This amount is much more than the entire annual combined pay of all the foreign factory workers producing Nikes.
From birth, American consumers are targeted by large corporations as potential sources of profit for a wide spectrum of goods. We are constantly bombarded with popular media images of the new things we need to purchase in order to lead happier, more fulfilled lives. This image, however, is insular and incomplete in that we are not shown the consequences of the consumption in which we are so strongly persuaded to partake.
At Yale alone, students moving out at the end of each year throw away so many completely functional items that the sheer area of these piles of things could cover the campus many times over. The total weight of this waste is estimated at 10 tons. This amount, paltry to the average privileged Yale student, represents fathoms more consumer goods than multiple individuals and populations in developing countries would possess in a lifetime. This discrepancy is stunning. So what can we, as American students, do to remedy it?
The first step is to realize the quality of life that so many of us enjoy is both unnaturally linked to material goods and highly unsustainable in the global framework. Bluntly, we just have too much stuff. A lifetime of media influence and overstimulation has led the great majority of us to take for granted not only the constant presence in our lives of things like cell phones, cars, clothes, shoes, televisions, computers, kitchen electronics, airplanes and fast food, but also the fact that these items come from somewhere, and then go somewhere when we discard them. Hence, this first step towards informed consumerism involves realizing the complete life cycle of each item we buy and acknowledging that the more things that enter our lives, the more cluttered our lives become. How can we reduce this unnecessary clutter? Instead of discarding things in favor of buying new ones, we can reuse them. We can learn how to fix things. We don’t have to throw these things away, and through our actions we can set a precedent of using this smaller amount of possessions to demonstrate that a fulfilled life is possible without the goal of maximum possible acquisition.
The second and most important step, I argue, is the realization that our enjoyment, fulfillment and experience of life are not linked to a high degree of consumption. Granted, every global citizen has basic needs and wants concerning physical and emotional survival. But beyond that, the image which we are so strongly coerced to believe, of a direct relationship between our amount of material goods and our consequent degree of happiness, is far from the truth. As an informed, privileged generation of thinkers, it is our responsibility to unmask this image. We spend too much time consuming and too little time considering the consequences of our consumption. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we should not “– accumulate wealth while millions are hungry” and that we should “– live simply and share time, energy and material resources with those who are in need.”
If I were to leave New Haven on foot tomorrow, what would I need to bring? Certainly not 7 pairs of shoes. One pair of shoes can carry my feet for a good many miles. Perhaps the other 6 pairs could enable the journeys of 6 other pairs of equally deserving feet.
Cara Berkowitz is a junior in Berkeley College. She is co-chair of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.