Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Yoga of Shopping

As we move deeper into our yoga practices, there is often a natural increase in desire to help our communities – to engage in seva or selfless service. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that one way to do this is by shopping – something I am already so good at!

What Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, realised decades ago, is that what we buy affects the people who made that item, the people who grew the raw ingredients, the environment, and our own well-being. It’s a long chain of people, creatures (sometimes) and plants, and every cent we spend can be used to the greater good. So we can take our yoga practice off the mat and into the supermarket or clothing store.

It’s almost a form of economic voting. The more people choose to shop responsibly, the more big companies will feel it in their bottom line, and this creates a powerful force for change. This can already be seen in SA, where the organic food industry has grown from a mere R5 million per annum three years ago, to around R155 million currently, according to Leonard Mead, head of industry body Organics SA. To paraphrase Renee Bonorchis in the Business Day, August 30, 2005, this growth has so alarmed large (chemical) fertilizer company, Omnia, that in their 2005 annual report, Chairman Neville Crosse made an attack on organic food, quoting an outdated British Foods Standards Agency study, run by Sir John Krebs, a man thought by many to be a proponent of genetically modified food. Crosse ignored all more recent studies, which have shown that organic food is in fact richer in most essential nutrients, and of course lacking in chemical residues from the products his company makes.

The first step towards yogic spending is becoming aware of how we spend our money. Do we know where our food was grown, how it was grown or if people were paid a fair wage to grow it? Do we know where our clothes were made, once again, were they made with fair labour practices?

Start small, with one focus, so that it’s not too overwhelming, trying to change all your shopping habits at once. Maybe you don’t want to harm animals, or perhaps you are worried about the environmental effect of all those chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, not to mention genetic modification. Perhaps the plight of people in Asian sweatshops worries you. Every bit you do will help, far more than you think.

Woolworths have been at the forefront of making organic produce available to the general public, and in the last few months costs have dropped considerably – organic fruit or veggies now cost much the same as their chemically and genetically altered cousins. And they offer a range of organic dairy, eggs and meat, which are infinitely preferable. Animals on modern farms are usually treated as commodities – they lead miserable, overcrowded, drugged lives, all for the sake of maximum productivity, so if we choose to consume animal products, organic gives us the guarantee that the animals are not medicated unless they are sick, are allowed to range freely, and lead generally more pleasant lives. If we believe in ayurvedic philosophy, we will understand that the life an animal leads influences the quality of prana or life-force we get from eating dairy, eggs etc.

You may choose to take your responsible food shopping even further, and stop buying meat, chicken and fish, eliminating the deaths of animals altogether from your shopping cart and shopping karma!

Buying South African products is another great way to positively influence our economy. The Proudly South African campaign has made it much easier for us to identify ‘home-made’ products, by the nifty little flag on their tags, and most items say where they were made – locally made products not only help our immediate community, they also remove the environmental impact and costs of long-distance transportation. Our textile industry has come under considerable pressure recently, with the removal of import controls and a flood of cheap imports from China. Human rights groups have reported great difficulty in accurately monitoring the conditions in Chinese factories, so buying South African is the better route. For every South African clothing designer whose business takes off, there are new jobs for pattern makers, seamstresses, shop assistants and textile mill workers.

On this note, you may decide you want to make sure you are buying fair-trade products. This means that the people who grew or made the product were paid a fair market price, sufficient to live on. It is quite shocking how often this is not the case. Two favourite comfort foods, coffee and chocolate, are among the worst offenders. According to John Robbins, author and activist, the bulk of the world’s cocoa is grown in Ivory Coast, and the big confectionery companies pay the farmers such a low rate that the farms often resort to slave labour to make ends meet. Yes, slave labour, in this day and age. The only sure way to make sure your chocolate or cocoa is human-friendly is to buy organic, since there are no organic farms in Ivory Coast. As for coffee, growers in South America are paid less per kilo than they were 20 years ago, resulting in a vicious cycle of increasing impoverishment. All Seattle Coffee Company coffee is now fairly traded, in the wake of the US coffee scandal several years ago, and they offer several very tasty organic coffees too.

There are many other ways to influence the world around you with your “cash vote” – you could buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, energy saving light bulbs, or you could buy all this years Christmas presents from the numerous street vendors at a traffic light near you!

Just as a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a storm on another continent, one change, made by one of us, makes ripples of changes, and before we know it, MacDonald's will be serving food as wholesome and ethical as that at your local health store!

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