Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Click here for guilt

Oh, the guilt.

It all started with a hair care product that a stylist introduced me to last fall. Unlike just about every other hair care product on earth, it’s perfectly suited to my very curly hair. But like many salon products, it’s expensive, and once I got hooked on it, I was spending three or four times more on my hair per month than I did when I relied on drugstore inventory.

Maybe I can find it online, I thought to myself. Of course, if I could, it would probably be on some obscure beauty supply wholesale site where the ordering system would be complicated and the minimum shipment would be two hundred dollars’ worth of the product.

But no. To my surprise, the first hit that came up on my Google search was Amazon, offering the same product for half what I was paying at the salon: nine dollars a bottle, which would likely last me about three weeks. With a click, I virtually deposited two bottles in my cart.

That added up to eighteen dollars, which was a fantastic price for this product but left me seven dollars short of the $25 minimum that qualifies an order on Amazon for free shipping. Normally when this happens, I throw in a book or small electronics accessory, but at the moment I didn’t feel particularly deserving of a gift, and the point of the purchase was to save money, not to spend extra.

Then I remembered a fragment of a line I’d heard on NPR a few days ago. “People on Amazon buying diapers….socks….laundry detergent,” it said.

The lightbulb went off. I could fill up my cart with ordinary grocery dry goods. “What do I least like to lug home from the supermarket?” I asked myself. Paper towels. Click! Toilet paper. Click! Twenty-pound bags of dog kibble. Click!

A vision developed in front of me as I sat at the keyboard. Everything that’s a pain to buy at the supermarket was going to appear on my doorstep. Free delivery, and at purchase prices marginally lower than what I normally pay.

And that’s where the guilt kicked in. I know ordering from Amazon has its ethical drawbacks. Avoiding state sales tax means I’m not helping to build Massachusetts infrastructure. Having a truck deliver grocery items rather than taking them home in my Prius increases our carbon footprint. And it’s not like I want my local Market Basket to go out of business. Not at all.

I gave it some more thought. It was just a one-time event, but already I was finding the idea of never again unloading bulk paper products or heavy dog food bags from the car tantalizing. Was I really willing to take on the ethical implications of this choice?

It was a powerful reminder that just about every decision we make comes with costs and benefits. The thought of having these items delivered to my door made me happy. But was I willing to use that sense of good cheer and the extra time it earned me to do something really positive and productive to benefit the world? If so, it was a fair trade-off. But if I didn’t make a conscious effort to somehow compensate for my decision, it was harder to justify.

So I’ll try to think of a way to “pay back” the time and freedom that having paper towels and toilet paper delivered to my door will gain me. I’ll try not to squander the extra time or take it for granted.

I’m sure I’ll still make plenty of visits to our local supermarkets to buy food. I’m not ready to go so far as to order edible groceries on line yet. But it’s definitely a quandary to which I need to devote a little bit more thought. And with the mental space I freed up by not having to shop for paper products this month, that’s what I’ll try to do.

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