I want to meet Juan Valdez and ask him why my coffee was crap this morning.
We used to know who made our stuff.
I was reading a book called “Glass, Paper, Beans” by Leah Hagar Cohen. I've never read her stuff before, yet the book compelled me to pick it up one day while browsing at a used book store. Sometimes shit just calls your name, ya know? The subject matter caught my attention. The premise of the book was the stories of the people behind what we use every day. In this case, the author is sitting in a coffee shop reading the daily paper. Thus the title and ultimate history lesson about glass mugs, the newsprint industry and coffee production.
We really have no idea regarding the stories behind our stuff.
For the record, Juan Valdez does not exist. He and his trusty mule bandying about some Columbian mountainside are figments of an advertising wizard's fertile imagination.
There is a push on to buy local stuff. I see it every day in store windows and internet posts and advertisements. But what does this mean? If I buy a banana from a local shopkeeper, do I know the story behind the production and processing of that banana? The last time I checked, we don't grow bananas in Canada which means it came from elsewhere. Presumably, I might know the shopkeeper. Beyond that it's pretty much a crap shoot.
Someone once suggested to me I buy a suit from a local producer. Thus, I would know who made the article. In truth, I don't know who made the article. I know who cut the fabric and sewed it together but I don't know the person who produced the cloth and thread and buttons and zipper nor do I know the person who assembled the machine which stitched it all up. The only person I really knew was the person stitching the cloth together.
Even then, would I know they were the one to stitch it together?
Much of what we buy originates elsewhere, constructed by faceless people (or equally faceless machines). In our global economy, the food container could be from China, the metal to make the container from Europe, the edible contents from Brazil and the labels from Canada. How do I really know where anything truly comes from?
All Canadian Beef!
Um... really? Is the farmer here to verify that?
The world economy has become faceless and thus, emotionless. There was a time when we knew the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They all lived down on Drury Lane with the Gingerbread Man. I knew whose farm my steak came from. I knew the growers of corn and beans and carrots. I knew the weavers of cloth and the builders of chairs. Even now I can go to a farmer's market and meet the grower. Yet, I would bet beyond a reasonable doubt they didn't manufacture the bag or the labels or the cute little berry basket.
It isn't possible to know exactly where things come from any longer. I do get the premise behind buying local and one must also keep in mind the faceless box store corporations employ several people on my block. What do we do with them when the store closes?
This in no way means I shun local stores. In fact, I use them as much as possible. At the same time, I try to be realistic about the origins of certain items.
There are many stories out there. I think it's far too easy to not notice the young man behind the counter paying his way through university or the single mom at the big box store who is worried about what to feed her kids that night. Those are the real stories behind our stuff. Those are the real people.
I think it's important to recognize the mug which contains my morning coffee came from a small company in a town in New Jersey which employs an elderly man who has been pushing the same buttons for 35 years, is close to retirement, who frets over how he will pay his bills come next July when they push him out the door, who only wants to be home with his adored wife of 42 years and to tend to his gardens in the back yard with his grandchildren.
That's the guy I want to know.
Real people behind my stuff.