Like many parents, Leslie Garret spends a lot of time at the store. Whether it's new running shoes, or a new ballet leotard, or whatever else her family happens to need, this mom of three does her fair share of shopping. But Leslie became increasingly uncomfortable with the products that were available to her and with her own family’s level of consumption. As a journalist and author, Leslie started writing about her concerns. These musings became the syndicated column The Virtuous Consumer. She later published The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Guide For A Better, Kinder, Healtheir World to help families learn how to make purchasing decisions that are better for the planet. Here’s what Leslie Garrett had to say about Christmas, allowances, and looking her children in the eye.
JS: Why did you decide to write The Virtuous Consumer?
LG: Before I wrote the book, I never really thought of myself as a consumer. I just wasn’t someone who shopped unless I needed something specific. But with kids, someone always needs something. I’m always out buying. I became really uncomfortable with the level of consumption that is considered status quo for families.
JS: Have always considered yourself an environmentalist?
LG: I still have a hard time calling myself an environmentalist, because it always felt like an exclusive little club. In order to belong your parents had to belong to a hippy commune or at the very least you had to have grown up with an organic vegetable garden in your back yard. I wear polyester…how could I call myself an environmentalist. I actually came at this way of life much more from a social justice perspective than from an environmental perspective.
When I was about 8 years old, my mother took me to see the play, Oliver. After we left, I commented to my mother, “Well, people aren’t poor like that now.” My mother’s response was to take me on a tour of the city and show me that some people’s homes were the size of my playhouse. My eyes were opened and from that moment on I became this little fundraiser who was forever trying to raise money for some cause or another. I took the lessons the mother taught me really seriously.
When I became a parent and subsequently became a consumer, the whole notion of sweatshops and child labor became an issue for me. I was increasingly bothered by the fact that I didn’t want to be complicit in that. So I decided to create this column telling people how to shop with a social conscience. And it’s not a leap at all to go from having a social conscience to having an environmental conscience because companies who don’t care about their workers generally also don’t care about the environment. To me, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing.
JS: Did you come across any major surprises in your research?
LG: I can be very naive. I have always assumed that products, if they are on the market, have been tested by somebody. Somebody has made sure that they don’t contain chemicals that are known to cause problems. That to me was the biggest shocker of all…the number of products, whether they are cleaning products or personal care products, that are not only untested, but that contain ingredients that are known to cause problems. Yet they are still on the market. I realized that I have to look out for myself because nobody is protecting me.
JS: What do you think are the biggest changes that parents can make in terms of consumption in order to protect the environment?
LG: I am very conscious of the fact that I have written a book about consumption. But the strong subtext is that we have to consume much LESS. I know that is really hard with kids. The average American child gets 69 new toys every year. That’s obscene isn’t it? My husband and I only buy our children one present each at Christmas time. And frequently we buy one big present that is the gift from Santa for all three children. When I tell other parents about this, many of them look at me like I’ve lost my mind.
We live in this gift giving culture where you pretty much don’t show up at someone’s house without a gift. Even kids begin to have this expectation that when people come over they will bring a gift. I think this teaches kids a message that you can be made happy by stuff as opposed to experiences or being around people that you care about. So I think the number one thing parents can do for their kids is to consume less. I’m the first to admit that this is not easy.
JS: How can parents teach their kids to be “Virtuous Consumers”?
LG: All of my children get an allowance but ¼ of their allowance goes into a charity bank. Then they get to decide together as a committee which charity it will go to. Usually it’s either a children’s hospital or something to do with animals. That’s what speaks to them. Then they save the other money and when they start bugging me for something I suggest they use their own money to buy it. It’s amazing how quickly they decide that they really don’t want whatever it was.
Another thing a friend of mine once told me is that when kids want something new, if possible, take the item out of the box. Because kids frequently look at the box and see the picture of kids that look like they are having the time of their lives in a setting with many other things that don’t even come with the product. My eldest daughter is still outraged by the fact that the kids on TV are getting paid to look like they are having fun.
JS: Do you have any advice for parents who feel they don’t have time to take care of the environment because they are too busy trying to take care of their kids?
LG: First and foremost, what people often don’t understand is that you’re doing this for your kids. I don’t know of a parent that isn’t trying to give their kids the best chance to succeed in life. But at the same time, we are going to be leaving them with an unbelievable mess. This is far more important then getting your kid to karate or piano lessons. At some point in the future, when my kids are just furious about the state of the world that they have inherited, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say to them, “I did what I could.” And I want to be able to say it with absolute conviction.