Posted by: Adam Roper | May 9, 2009

Personal Finances Part 2: Traceability

A little while ago I came across the idea of “Traceability”, relating it at first to food products then everything in general. The Traceability of food or a product measures the extent to which you can trace the origin of something. It’s basically trying to discover how many miles the product had to travel to get to your hands, and the impact of a product (one great example is the Paper Audit Geez Magazine publishes every issue).

A potato I buy at a local produce store is relatively easy to trace, as the farmer probably drove it ten or so miles to the store. A package of convenience food is more difficult to trace, because likely all the ingredients came from different countries- wherever the food could be purchased the cheapest distance, regardless of the distance or environmental/social impact.

The environmental impact, as well, varies between products. The impact of Factory Farmed Beef is more difficult to trace than the impact of a small local farm. Factory produced products may be cheap enough to buy, but as consumer you really have to ask why the product is so cheap- what factors contribute to the low price.

There are two great resources that I have come across recently that express the theme of traceability:

1) Black Gold. Black Gold is a documentary that examines every aspect of the coffee industry- everything from classy barista competitions to the farmers of the coffee, to markets that coffee growers sell their coffee to. One scene shows a group of farmers discussing the profit of their coffee, explaining that some farmers are paid 25cents for a sack of coffee worth $250.

2) Chris Jordan’s Photography.  Recently I came across Chris Jordan’s powerful visual images. Jordan’s projects take staggering measurements of how much is consumed in North America everyday and create visual pictures with them. An example is one image that “depicts 28,000 42-gallon barrels, the amount of oil consumed in the United States every two minutes (equal to the flow of a medium-sized river).” I encourage you to spend some time with these images sometime this next week, really taking them in.

The reason I bring up the topic of Traceability in a discussion on Personal Finance is this: Every purchase we make leaves a footprint. Some leave larger ones than others. The question is whether or not we would care to consider the impact each purchase carries with it.

As consumers we can slip into the habit of purchasing things without having to think about where they come from. And, to be fair, it’s really easy and convenient to do so. A grocery store worries about getting the food into a central location for you to buy it. Malls stock items that are cheap enough to buy. Why worry? The tag on my t-shirt says where which country the shirt is from but I’m not immediately required to think about how the shirt is made, what the shirt is made of, who made the shirt, how much they got paid, how much waste the factory the shirts were produced in creates, or where the shirt traveled before getting to the mall.

It’s staggering how complex the commerce in our world has become. The vast majority of the products we buy are sourced from other countries because the manufacturing costs were cheaper in other countries. Or the food was in season two thousand miles away.  At the heart of commerce there is the sad truth: That the reason why a shirt costs ten dollars here is that the person who made the shirt only gets paid 30cents and hour, and the from the $10 pound of coffee we buy the farmer only sees less than a cent (I hope you will forgive these generalizations I use to express the point).

So, why should we change how we buy things? And how? I’ll explore this topic more next time (and leave you hanging again! Ah ha ha!). To reassure you I’ll also continue exploring what a reflective approach to Personal Finances looks like, as promised.

Stay tuned.

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Responses

  1. A few comment.

    One. You should upload The Story of Stuff Video in your next blog. Very Cool. Very Applicable.

    Two. How do we actually do this? I think I tried buying local and all that for a while, and recently realized That A) Truely sustainable, local products are pretty hard to come by, and maybe even more pressingly, I’m poor and this stuff is expensive!

    Three. I wonder how the rapid rise of the middle class in countries like China and India is going to affect this conversation. The tables are turning and I think the conversation is too.

    Four: On a provincial Level, how can we vote tomorrow for a party/person who will help this cause? Give me your best pitch.

  2. Hm. I’ll try and work on these questions soon.


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