De-commodifying the world

We’re used to the commodification of the world. It’s become a part of life. I should know. I’m sitting here, typing this in a Starbucks. It doesn’t matter where this Starbucks is, as they are virtually all the same. The quaint coffee shop, where you can go to enjoy a bit of quiet with your journal or book, a conversation with some friends, or to type away on your current writing project has been turned into a space that could be anywhere. Literally. I think one of the reasons that they have been successful at this is that they’ve made the spaces nice, and they’ve trained their staff — partners in Starbucks parlance — to be friendly and to connect with the customer1. This is very different than McDonalds, who was probably the first restaurnat to really put into place the commodified restaurant. They all felt the same (and were designed in such a way as to make you want to eat and leave ASAP), and their staff were minimum wage paid folks who weren’t necessarily trained to go out of their way to make you feel liked2.

McDonalds created the commodified restaurant. Starbucks perfected it.

These are only two examples.

Look at grocery stores (see the impact that Whole Foods is having on Safeway yet?). Look at the online space. Most people are on Facebook and/or Twitter. We use Gmail. Uber. Or Lyft.

Books are Amazon. Of course, same with paper towels. And, well, most things.

There’s an element of sense in all of this. Scale can help keep prices down. An organization getting really good at something can make it better for all of us. Right?

Well, that’s at least the story that we get from those that are building these organizations (and those that are profiting from them). The thing is, commodification is, by definition, a move away from connected, local, and meaningful. It is a move away from community. It only supports the disconnect that is happening across the world. A disconnect that has exploded even as we live in the most connected time in the history of the world. That’s remarkable. But it doesn’t have to be inevitable.

How do we move away from this? We do it by doing more and more to engage locally. In community. We do it by doing the work. By getting to know the places where we spend our most precious resources — time and attention. Oh, and then our money (which is, in part, a representation of those other things). We do it by supporting the places that these larger companies seek to displace.

It feels super important to say here that in doing this, it means that we have to find and support the businesses and communities of the most marginalized people in our society. This means BIPOC3, LGBTQIA, immigrant and refugee, disabled. Naming Black communities and businesses up front is critical. At a workshop I attended recently, one of the facilitators commented that when we talk about the martinazlied populations in our society, race, and especially people of African heritage, is generally put last. For this reason, I want to raise it here. We can’t move away from an economy that drives us to commodification without lifiting up these people and their work.

On that note, check out this website I just found.

The world that I long to live in is one that feels much less sterile. It’s a world that holds space for everyone. It’s a world in which we know our neighbors and understand how we are connected to not just the community we live in, but to the water and forest systems that surround us. It’s a world in which all are liberated.

I know this sounds pretty pollyanna. I’m caring about that less and less. I’m mostly interested in doing what’s necessary to support bringing that world forward. That’s why this is going to be the last thing I write in a Starbucks for some time.

  1. Indeed, in a recent survey I received from Starbucks to rate a visit, one of the statements to dis/agree with was, The staff to the time to get to know me.” Interesting, right?

  2. Let alone to get to know” you.

  3. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

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