The broccoli have feelings too, you know

(U-WIRE) STANFORD, Calif. — I was standing in the kitchen when the discussion turned to footwear, and I received a compliment from my friend on my sneakers.
I responded with thanks and proceeded to rotate my foot for further admiration. But when the maker’s emblem came in to view, I suddenly blushed and explained, “I failed to notice when I bought them that they’re made by Nike. Oops. I try not to buy Nike.”
“Why?” my friend probed, raising his eyebrows in reference to our earlier conversation on conscientious consumerism.
“You know, they support the regime in Burma,” I began to explain and then caught myself. “Wait, that’s Pepsico. Nike. Hmm. Oh, yeah, sweatshops in Southeast Asia.”
With eyebrows knitted, my friend questioned, “Isn’t it rather culturally imperialistic to assume that those workers in Indonesia are unfairly compensated using American standards? I would imagine that the workers appreciate the jobs that Nike provides.”
I was stumped. Days later I happened to listen to a radio show that explained that the wages paid to Nike factory workers are hardly enough to subsist by that culture’s own standards; plus, many workers have respiratory problems caused by poor factory conditions.
So I continue to feel guilty about my shoes because, in general, I try to spend my dollars responsibly. I buy organic produce because it is ecologically more sound, I get cruelty-free shampoo because it’s not tested on animals, and I try to forego certain name brands from companies which allegedly employ questionable labor ethics.
But I’ve come to believe that true conscientious consumerism is an oxymoron. I once read a copy of a monthly newsletter devoted to boycotts, only to realize that if I were to participate in all the non-participation I would have an empty closet, an empty fridge and an empty garage. Not only Nike, but Reebok and Adidas too — no tennis shoes are safe. It is impossible to consume American quantities of American stuff without hurting someone or something.
I have a friend who, on his quest for perfect non-violent living, once worked on a Buddhist organic farm. Every morning they repeated in their prayers the Buddhist tenet, “I will not kill things.” However, my friend came to learn that the farm utilized bone, hoof and blood meal — products of slaughterhouses — as fertilizer. The hypocrisy eventually compelled him to leave.
“I deduced,” he told me, “that if you don’t want to kill anything you’ve got to kill yourself.”
Thankfully he decided that living non-violently by the suicide solution is egotistical, unnatural and absurd. Instead he became inspired by a line from “The Jungle Book” which said that the law of the jungle is to take what you need.
For a person so committed to simple living, my friend can employ that philosophy without stepping on too many toes. For me, the question of socially responsible consumerism is: How can I take what I need respectfully?
Scrutinizing our choices can often lead to befuddlement. My sophomore year I was one of the few in my dorm who attended a talk to educate residents about the grape issue. Because of the complexity of the United Farm Workers boycott, I left the presentation far more confused than I had come. I voted against serving grapes in our dining hall, but it was not without many reservations.
Everyone has to learn to draw the line somewhere. I spend most of my days eating only vegetarian foods and am often chided by my carnivorous friends about the sorrow of broccoli souls.
I have much less concern for the broccoli than I do for the human-inflicted pain that I am constantly reminded of in the media. Watching the news or reading history books leaves me feeling overwhelmed with hopelessness.
There are two ways to cope with the reality of human suffering: either rational nihilism or irrational compassion. The former is easier, but the latter feels a lot better.
And the optimistic result is that as caring grows in popularity, it has the practical possibility of becoming equally as economically viable as exploitative labor.
My New Year’s resolution is to cultivate compassion and the belief that I am connected to the global community in all things that I do.
And no more Nike.

Kerry Rodgers’ column originally appeared in the January 6th edition of The Stanford Daily.