I started reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation yesterday, and, twenty pages in, it already has me thinking about a whole bevvy of issues. In it, Schlosser explores not only the history and make-up of our still burgeoning fast-food industry but, more importantly, what it has done to our cultural landscape. One of the arguments he makes is that the fast food phenomenon has effectively taken the local out of our localities. Through mass production standardization and national (and international) ad saturation, McDonald's et al have created a nation in which an alarmingly high percentage of available food choices wallow in fat-laden sameness from town to town.
Some of this, Schlosser points out, can be attributed to the car-crazy culture that came about as a result of the completion of the coast-to-coast Interstate system during the 1950s. The new transportation paradigm dictated a shift in thinking regarding speed, convenience and cost of food. Gas stations and restaurants sprang up almost overnight to service hungry travelers at exit sites. This, coupled with the increasing tendency in recent years for both parents to work, has created an almost insatiable demand for the kind of cheap, reliable food that fast food restaurants excel in.
What all this has to do with the price of tea in China is this: around the same time the minimum wage pool of workers was growing by leaps and bounds thanks in large part to the explosion of fast food popularity, the world was becoming smaller in many different ways. Lower cost, more reliable international transportation, vastly improved communications networks, unionized labor's consistent demands for higher wages and better benefits, and a less protectionist foreign policy resulted in the gradual outsourcing of virtually all product manufacturing for American consumption. Overseas manufacturers, not subject to the same labor and environmental laws as their American counterparts, essentially bargained American manufacturers out of existence. Large chains with tremendous purchasing power brought in quality goods at low prices from overseas, and small businesses were unable to compete. The average American, struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage or slightly better, saw only the bottom line, and who can really blame him? When faced with the choice of patronizing several local merchants and paying an average of 15-20% more for the family's weekly needs or opting for the one-stop shopping and significant savings of a Walmart, who can blame Joe Q. Public for choosing the latter?
But what is the real cost? At what cost do we continue to short-sightedly sell our country to China and India at the expense of our neighbors? Is it for a $7.99 pair of shorts? A $2.69 gallon of milk? A $150 phone that can tell us where the nearest Walmart is? And what are we doing with all that money we're saving? Assuaging our national guilt by buying bigger houses and more gadgets and the super-sized combo at the drive-thru? There has to be a better way, and there is. It may not be the least expensive or the most convenient way. It takes discipline, commitment and a willingness to see a bigger picture. But not so long ago, back before the Internet and globalization and big box stores, it was the only game in town. It involves people doing business with people. It invokes words like accountability, responsibility, integrity, ANSWERING THE PHONE. It's called buying local. It's not too late. There are still lots of opportunities to try it on, and you just might like the way it feels.