Instagram likes to sell me stuff. Occasionally it even works: I’ve clicked on a company’s pic and ended up buying a product from them (only once, but still). And knowing my generally leftie, aging-hippie-mom profile, it’s not surprising that the image on the left, above, keeps cropping up in my Insta feed.
It’s from a company that sells reusable products intended to cut down on the use of disposable plastics. I’m not going to name and shame the company here because they seem to be a small business genuinely trying to do their best to make a buck. But I will use their ad as an example of capitalism’s misguided attempt to solve big problems by selling us products that fit our image of who we’d like to be, rather than actually addressing the problem.
The company that produced this ad targeted it at the right person. I do care about the overuse of disposable plastics, and I think reducing our dependence on those products is a key step to a more livable planet. And I think consumer choice is important here, because businesses big and small — like fast-food chains and coffee shops that automatically hand over plastic cutlery packaged in plastic sleeves — won’t make changes unless they see a customer demand for those changes.
And yes, I am the crotchety old hippie mom who brings her travel mug to Starbucks, her reusable bags to the grocery store, even her stainless-steel straw for her cold drink in summer. So it’s understandable that somebody’s algorithm also thought I’d like a complete set of reusable stainless steel cutlery and a tidy cloth bag to put it in. Ready to slip into my backpack and pull out whenever I’m at a place that offers me plastic cutlery.
Except: here’s the thing. I already HAVE stainless steel cutlery. Pretty sure you do too. At home. In that drawer in the kitchen. Like the stuff pictured on the right, above.
What’s wrong with just slipping a knife, fork and spoon from my kitchen set into my bag and hitting the road?
Since metal cutlery is something virtually every home-owning or apartment-dwelling person in North America already has, how could there conceivably be a market for single sets? How could anyone who wants to reduce plastic use possibly be duped into buying this product?
If you know of a legitimate reason why the single set of cutlery pictured above is somehow superior to just grabbing a knife, spoon and fork from the kitchen drawer, hit me up in the comments. Otherwise, I’m just going to say: this is peak capitalist craziness.
Our entire economic system is driven by the engine of making people wantthings they don’t actually need. I admit I was briefly seduced by the attractive design of the cutlery in the ad on the left. It’s so pretty! Using it would make me feel like I’m helping solve the plastic problem. Plus, if I used it at Starbucks, people might glance at it and say, “Oh, how cool!” They would know I am Environmentally Conscious and Concerned About the Right Things.
As opposed to pulling out my flatware from home, which, frankly, is going to make me look a little like a nutty old bag lady.
If your concern is truly what’s best for the environment, there is no conceivable metric by which buying a new product — one that had to be manufactured and then shipped to you — is better for our planet than using something you already have around the house.
What’s being sold in this ad (and countless others like it) is not a product that saves on disposable plastic: it’s an image. A picture of who you want to be. A visible cue to what kind of person you want others to see when they look at you. A smug sense that you have done something, however tiny, to Make the World a Better Place.
We are so hard-wired to the idea that the solution to any problem is to Buy More Stuff, that we don’t critically interrogate our purchases as often as we should. T-shirt that promotes feminist ideals, made by women in a Bangladeshi sweatshop under unsafe conditions? I’ve bought it; I’ve worn it. Sipping non-fair-trade coffee from a mug that promotes a socially-conscious anti-poverty message? Guilty as charged.
I’m as susceptible to that desire to look good, to package my social concerns in a pretty bundle and slip them into a drawstring cotton bag, as the next aging hippie mom. I’ve definitely fallen prey to that urge a few times.
But not this time. This time I’m putting a set of my kitchen flatware in my backpack and going off to get my morning coffee and bagel, looking like the crotchety old future bag lady I am.
I encourage you to do the same.