In July my wife and I went to Chicago for our yearly visit, and we really went to town at Marshall's. For those who don't know, Marshall's is a somewhat seedy, depressing place where the down-and-out go for cheap clothes. The clothes are cheap because they are passés de la mode, or defective, or excess clearance items. But they are new, and do not usually have mysterious stains as at a thrift store. At any rate, we always stock up on clothes at Marshalls (and now with Sam around we also do a run to an outlet mall in southern Wisconsin to get Oshkosh B'Gosh clothes), though our Marshall's trips are usually limited to underwear for me and my nephew. But this time we got new pants, collared shirts, dresses for my wife--we managed to spend upwards of $400, which at Marshall's buys about a year's worth of clothes for the whole family! I was glad to solve in one fell swoop my perennial problems of holey socks, scarce undershirts, and ripped pants inappropriate for any professional occasion. That said, I am not sure if it really makes sense for me to wait to go to the US to shop for clothes. I mean, people do wear clothes in Colombia, most clothes there are relatively cheap, and they're usually made in Colombia under working conditions I can get on board with. So perhaps the most sustainable thing for me would be to buy Colombian clothes, at least for underwear and such. Socks in Colombia are too small for me, and shirts and pants are I think more pricey than they would be at Marshall's in Chicago.
Our major forays to Marshall's also had me thinking about poverty in the US and in Colombia, and if the rampant consumerist model in the US somehow improves life for the poor. At least for a middle-class family in the US, you can really get stuff cheap and live well if you're willing to do "poor people things" like shopping at Marshall's. That is to say that a median income in the US, plus the wide availability of cheap consumer goods, mean that you can live pretty damn well. On the other hand, a middle-class income in Colombia also allows you to live pretty well, perhaps not in terms of buying lots of manufactured goods, which tend to be relatively more expensive than in the US, but in terms of hiring services for lots of things. You can hire people to clean your house, to fix your plumbing, to repair your car, to babysit your kid, all for very cheap, because there is a huge mass of poor people that will work for very little. At any rate, I then thought about being poor in either place. Being poor in Colombia isn't easy, though the bare necessities like food tend to be pretty cheap. But then again, being poor in the US isn't easy, either. A middle-class family might be able to go crazy at Marshall's, but for a poor person, even this store's heavily discounted prices represent a real stretch for a tight budget. So the jury is out for me as to which country provides a more dignified, healthy life for the poor.
Recently I've also been thinking about bags. For a long time I used plastic grocery bags to tote everything. In college my classmates were often bemused by this habit, though I was just surprised that they noticed. I mean, you always see people carrying plastic bags around. What's the big deal if it's because they just picked up something at the grocery store, or if they're carrying around schoolbooks in there?
But now I use a cloth tote bag I got for being a member at Chicago's Field Museum. It's not because it's more ecologically friendly; in fact, I'm not sure if it's treading lighter on the planet to use a cloth bag (that did, after all, require the tending and harvest of a field of cotton to produce) or to take advantage of the plastic bags that are already circulating everywhere, and whose reuse basically implies a zero investment of new energy. I've heard that grocery bags are rare and much-prized in Cuba--I can definitely feel them on that.
In fact, I've seemed to notice that plastic grocery bags are becoming rarer here in Colombia, too. It used to be that any house or office had some lying around that you could use. Now people are cutting down on them, reusing them, even replacing them with cloth tote bags for their groceries. On top of this, in Colombia a lot of stores use biodegradable plastic bags now (though I have yet to do the experiment to see how well they actually decompose). Anyway, it's a good thing if the world is producing and throwing away fewer plastic bags. Though maybe more people have dogs now, and bags are just scarce because they're using them to pick up shit.