Market Commons: why it's so hard to shop for a better world

by Catherine Lerza, reprinted from YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, Spring/Summer 1996, with permission

have to confess something: I like to shop.

I like stores where, as in the mythic Cheers bar, everyone knows my name - and what I like. I like window shopping, not in the predictable glistening confines of a mall, but walking down a real street experiencing real weather. I like the way that shopping - whether for food or books or clothes or a gift for my mother - can connect me to other people and to the world. Commerce as interaction, as connection, as relationship.

Author and eco-feminist Luisah Teish shares a Yoruba proverb, "The earth is a market place, but heaven is my home." She explains that Yoruba culture, unlike our own, views life here on earth not as a curse, a penance or the result of bad karma, but "the manifestation of creation." The world is market place and each of us can bring "our gifts, distribute and exchange information and experience, pay our dues, and receive our reward." I envision a bazaar brimming with brilliantly hued fresh fruits and vegetables, musky pungent cheeses, bitter and salty olives, tangy spices and sweet smelling herbs, handmade soap, textiles in every color of the rainbow, baskets, boxes, and jars of jelly. Bargaining and trading go on - with lots of dramatics and laughter. Those who sell are those who produce, or the friends and neighbors of those who produce. I carry a basket or a string bag over my arm (and it's getting fuller by the moment) and I come to this market on foot.

Ripe tomatoes

Okay. I'll stop. I know my vision does not describe the global marketplace circa 1996. It is not Safeway or Wal-Mart or Price Club. It is not the Home Shopping Network or the Lands' End catalogue. Certainly, it's not Victoria's Secret. You won't find it in the strip mall that ate up the farm on the outskirts of town. But it's one of my favorite visions. And it's not just fantasy - I've been there - in Paris and Arles, France; Castlebar, Ireland; Union Square, New York City; Mexico City; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon - even in Washington, DC. This is "consumption," and I love every minute of it.
Doubtless, many of you can recall buying perfectly ripe tomatoes in July from the farmer who grew them and perhaps you bask even now in the remembered intimacy and communion of that exchange. Or recall buying a work of art or craft from its creator. Perhaps you asked questions about how it was made, or why. You learned something about art or craft or culture; the physical presence of the object keeps what you learned alive and present. In this transaction, producer and consumer value and respect one another; they may even be neighbors and friends.
But sadly, this kind of consumption, the kind I love, is harder and harder to find. I don't feel a sense of communion in the mall and I've never been to a Price Club or a Wal-Mart (they scare me). The intimacy of commerce has been replaced with the "efficiency" and scale of the big box store and chain stores that allow you to buy the exact same thing in Washington, DC, Tokyo, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, or Des Moines - not to mention what you can buy through your television or your computer.

Barrel children

Those "exact same things" can be found in every corner of the world. A recent Newsweek article described the phenomenon of "barrel children." Thousands of West Indian children are now left behind on the islands while their parents work in the United States in order to achieve a materially "better" life for their children. (Note: About one third of Jamaican adults now work in the United States.) These parents send money and barrels of "things" home periodically - like brand-name clothing and athletic shoes, as well as toys and other objects glorified by our economy and culture. These children are often left with less than loving relatives and, understandably, feel abandoned. According to sociologist Claudette Crawford of the University of the West Indies, parents are "simply forced to make a choice between satisfying their children's material needs or their emotional needs."
Ultimately, they can do neither. The article goes on to explain that barrel children become obsessed with status. As one 15-year-old boy said after examining the contents of his mother's barrel: "Fila [a brand of athletic shoe] is OK. But my mother is in the States. I should have more than this."
For this child and his mother, the world is indeed a marketplace, and they are among the commodities being bought and sold. Those of us recoiling against consumption are in fact recoiling against the realities of the global economy. We understand that the marketplace in which we all live, to which we are all subjugated, is destroying us. And I mean "us" in the Gaia theory sense - all life and the earth herself as one interconnected entity.
My Luisah Teish-inspired marketplace is full of things that have been produced locally or by workers: artisans who control their own production processes. I go to the market because I need something or because, to borrow Theodore Rozak's phrase, I want to experience "a few things, beautifully made."
Everything in the market is unique - even the potatoes, like snowflakes, are all different one from another. The cookies here are not baked by Mrs. Fields. There's also a direct relationship between price and supply. In July tomatoes are cheap; in August they're even cheaper - by September, you may get a pound or two for free. But in November, they're nonexistent. So I buy carrots or cabbage. Because I know the farmer or green grocer from whom I buy, when she assures me fruits are organically grown, I believe her. We have a relationship.
Now let's take a trip to the big box mall. Only a few people work in the stores there, and many of them drive small fork lifts. When I buy, I pick the cheapest and the biggest. If I have questions, too bad. The people who work there are paid only to tote, lift, bag, and ring up. They have no relationship with the big boxes or with me.
At the mall, I know exactly what I'll find: Athlete's Foot, The Gap, Victoria's Secret, Casual Corner, The Limited, B. Dalton, Macy's, - you can add to the list. But don't forget Hold Everything - you need someplace to put what you buy, after all. Everything in the mall (except for the "upscale" retail) is predictable. It is advertised on television or on billboards or in magazines. You see it in movies or videos or Melrose Place.
Everything is relatively cheap and it's plentiful. And it's almost always on sale. In the mall, I can buy things made in China, India, Thailand, Ecuador, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Haiti. But you know what? Everything looks the same, no matter where it's made. In the bazaar, everything is unique and reflects the place in which it was made. In the mall, everything looks like television situation comedies. And it is too painful to really think about who made what is sold there and the conditions under which that person works.

o here I am. I love to shop and I hate consumption. I hate the fact that the world is being retooled into a giant system that creates artificial needs (as in "I need that tee-shirt in pink") and desires - concepts unknown before the advent of capitalism and mass production/marketing.
I hate being deluged with things while being assured that the opportunity to buy them will make me happy and stimulate a "healthy" economy. What we buy is the proverbial tip of the economic iceberg. The tee-shirt, the lettuce, the synchila parka, the car, all are simply a manifestation, to borrow Luisah Teish's word, of the global economy.
Only about 1.7 billion of us here on planet Earth are engaged in "consumption" as we know it in America - granted, we're buying things and spending money (or our Mastercard's money) at an amazing rate. But most people in the world don't have the resources (cash or credit) to consume as we do, nor do they have access to the range of consumer goods that confounds us every day.
Yet, virtually every person on the planet is connected, whether they want to be or not, to the global economy whose goal, as economist Herman Daly puts it, is to make everything "cheaper, cheaper, cheaper."
I am puzzled. If all of us who care about sustaining this sacred planet decided to consume less, to reduce our dependence on cars and non-renewable energy, would our personal act bring about the systemic change that must occur if we are to sustain this Earth? We might all lead better, healthier and happier lives, but would the benefits of our action reach beyond our own homes?
If we don't work to insure that the whole global system changes, are we any different than those who opt out by living in gated communities, protected from the world by barbed wire and armed private security guards? (Did you know that jobs as private security guards - along with any prison-related jobs - are among the fastest growing employment opportunities in America?)
Right now, we are all prisoners of the global mall - even if we choose not to shop there. How can we reclaim the marketplace and turn it into a mechanism that rewards stewardship and sustainable practices; that provides a decent, healthy life for all people; and that celebrates the fruits of this Earth? Because here's my vision: I'd like to meet all of you on a Saturday morning at this marketplace full of products that are the manifestation of a sustainable economy - an economy that sustains people and the planet. A market that celebrates relationships and inclusion.
This market is not gated: it doesn't need to be. Those who sell there don't create "needs" or desires. In fact they can't, because people come to this marketplace knowing what they need. And, more importantly, the people who trade at this market know that their most profound desires can only be fulfilled outside it in the larger world of family, community, and Gaia.

Catherine Lerza is a writer and consultant living in Washington, DC. She has worked for progressive social change and environmental organizations for the last 25 years, and most recently completed a two-year effort to organize a national conference called Defining Sustainable Communities.
She is currently working on a project that explores our relationship to shopping and to "things" and invites readers to share ideas, resources and experiences with her ( She would like to dedicate this article to the spirit and life of Judy Mings, a woman who understood and lived what is truly important.
Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures is published by Positive Futures Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainability research and education. Address: P.O. Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Tel: (206) 842-0216. Subscriptions $24/year, call (800) 937-4451.