Ending my romance with dollar stores

I have a confession to make: I used to like dollar stores. For this, as for many other things, I blame my parents. They immigrated to the US with virtually nothing and climbed their way into solid middle class respectability — without ever losing their immigrant mentality regarding money. This meant a number of things: never saying no to free stuff (did my dad ever love those big computer conventions ), never buying ice cream from the ice cream truck (because it cost four times as much as getting it at the supermarket), and bargain hunting as if it were a world class sport.

Friday nights were spent at Big Lots, followed by a massive Dollar Tree (both helpfully located within a two block radius). Saturday mornings were spent at garage sales and flea markets. We never bought a lot of stuff — more often than not, we came out empty-handed — but it was our form of entertainment and, er, quality family time. Dollar stores, redolent with the smells of cheap new plastic, carpet square adhesive, and off-label cleaning goods, are as much a component of my childhood memories as homemade birthday cakes and half-melted crayons.

Over the years, I’ve found a number of goodies at dollar stores. Organic cotton and bamboo socks, stone coasters, pillowcases with cool tree patterns on them, fairy wrapping paper, and even surprisingly decent books. But I now also realize how emblematic dollar stores are of our national love affair with cheap, imported crap whose dollar price tag doesn’t even begin to cover its environmental and social costs. Dollar stores perpetuate just about every social and environmental crime you can think of. And lest you think they only discriminate against developing nations, they rip off US employees, too.

Sigh.

I’ve all but stopped going, because when I do, there’s nothing I can buy responsibly.  Anything I buy would be an exception to my own ethical convictions, which I hope are worth more than $1. What I’ve learned about mindful consumption has cost me that part of my childhood. I feel sad about its loss, even though there is no rational reason to hang on to it. (No one ever claimed that putting rationality and environmental responsibility in front of family tradition, cultural acceptance, and instant gratification was, well, fun.) But I also see my own reluctance to give dollar stores up entirely and wonder how rationality on its own could ever be strong or compelling enough to change culture, tradition, or emotional perception in mass.

Being cheap and going green can be fully compatible, but only if you take the DIY/reduction routes. Dollar stores? Not so much. What do you think think? Do you have a history with dollar stores, too?

20 responses to this post.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sandra Lee. Sandra Lee said: RT @noteasy2begreen Ending the romance with dollar stores. New blog entry! http://bit.ly/e9AOIH #green #consumerism […]

    Reply

  2. Posted by The Environmental Goddess on 01/14/2011 at 13:48

    I totally support this! I also need to stop going (that is, once I get what I need for my sister’s baby shower…oops!)

    Reply

    • What do you need to get there? Maybe we can think of more eco-friendly/upcycled alternatives!

      Reply

      • Posted by The Environmental Goddess on 01/17/2011 at 07:22

        I need balloons that say “it’s a girl” or maybe a banner. I also wanted to get either a hat or crown or something she could wear during the shower. Not sure what else one needs for a shower (I don’t have kids and never organized anything like this before)

        Reply

        • Thrift stores would be a good place to get things like lace placemats, tea cups, and other accessories. They wouldn’t necessarily match, but I think you could make it work. Instead of balloons or other decorations, maybe local flowers? I’ve never organized a baby shower either, so feel free to ignore me if I’m being completely unhelpful!

          Reply

  3. Posted by shortystylee on 01/14/2011 at 15:09

    I am so lucky that there are no dollar stores near me (at least, I don’t know where they are and I’m gonna keep it that way). I think the only thing I ever got at the dollar store was wrapping paper, but I’ve switched to using newspaper from my work – it’s in Japanese so it looks good as a wrapping paper.

    Jessica

    Reply

    • I still have a major wrapping paper obsession — or just a major paper obsession. I open presents carefully and reuse giftwrap, ribbons, tissue, and paper. I’ve also had some luck wrapping smaller presents in pretty Japanese cotton handkerchiefs that the recipient can re-use to wrap or turn into a napkin.

      Reply

  4. Total history with dollar stores, I used to never walk in without buying something cheap that I thought I needed. They are great for filling kids birthday loot bags with plastic crap, even Santa shops there. It is strange – the classic dollar store smell that they have. You nailed it! I have been thinking about this topic lately too. Dollar stores encourage buying more than we need because it is cheap. Good bye dollar store!

    Reply

    • I wonder how much money we actually ended up wasting through dropping a dollar here and there on things we didn’t need or really want. I’ve been thinking that it might be time to write a post on how to be cheap the green way. I freely admit to being a cheapskate, thanks to my upbringing!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Emily on 01/14/2011 at 20:52

    I recently went to Target for the first time in many years to buy a crockpot. But I didn’t just buy a crockpot. I was so shocked and amazed by how cheap everything was (I guess I’d forgotten) that I also bought some other items partly out of necessity, but mostly because they were cheap. I agree, you just have to say no to these sorts of cheap stores all together.

    Can you fill the void by going to flea markets and yard sales like you did as a kid?

    Reply

    • Actually, I find it easier just not to shop. I do go to the flea market occasionally with a friend (they really have the best fresh churros there!), but I generally try to remind myself that I could be making much better use of my time!

      Target is definitely a trap. How’s your new crockpot working out? I’ve never had one, so I had no encouraging words to offer you.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Liz Rockey on 01/16/2011 at 12:06

    I have been to so many Dollar Stores, Family Dollars and Dollar Trees than I even care to admit. My family ALWAYS went to these stores to buy everything from shampoo to cans of food. I even used to buy my Christmas presents there for my family when I was a little kid. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so this was where we went. Now, I never go to Dollar Stores on my own free will (However, I did go there with my Mom last year to get things for my sister’s wedding shower, but that’s about it). I feel that the $1 price tag causes us to consume more than we need. It’s definitely difficult to resist low prices (I still shop at Target, but don’t go to Walmart anymore) but I do try to consume only what I need and not be gluttonous with my spending. It’s tough now to make the right and greener choices, when trying to stick to budgets.

    This was a very insightful post–thank you for sharing!

    Reply

    • It’s funny how even though I can now see that the true cost of an item extends far beyond its price tag, I still feel tempted by cheapness (and the associated thrill of ‘getting a deal’). I think that $1 price is a particularly clever and successful marketing trick to get us to overconsume, but the principle is probably true of any bargain or discount store. My primary solutions has simply been to stay out of them unless I’m actively looking for something that I can’t [easily] get a more sustainable version of.

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  7. Posted by The Environmental Goddess on 01/17/2011 at 12:52

    I found Food Inc. at the library, yay! I will watch it this week! Thanks again for commenting about it!

    Reply

  8. My history with dollar stores has faded over the years (even before I became a conscious consumer), but I ended up in one a few months ago and was almost knocked over by the stench of plastic, synthetic materials, and toxins. As if concerns about the environment and consumerism weren’t enough to keep me away from such stores, now I can add to the list anxiety about my own health! Imagine what it’s like for the workers in the overseas sweatshops…

    Reply

    • A couple years ago, when I visited my sister in Toronto, I thought Honest Ed’s was terrific fun. I wonder what I would think now. My tolerance for stores in general has been dropping — the fluorescent lights, recycled air, and piped music all add up to a headache in about 20 minutes. This holiday, I went to the dollar store with my parents and just kept thinking: if we’re really such an advanced civilization, why are we enslaving other humans to make fuzzy reindeer stuffed animals that sing when you press their tummies?

      Reply

  9. Posted by david on 03/15/2011 at 17:07

    Wow! The article on managers salaries was an eyeopener. I knew about the cheap products from china and mexico. And having formerly having been a salaried “manager” I know how that game is played. Had just forgotten about it. But it is one of the BIG reasons I’m not salaried now. They always want more, for which they don’t have to pay for.

    Reply

  10. Posted by goddessoflubbock on 03/15/2011 at 17:39

    My mother taught me how to make a dollar stretch, she grew up during the great depression. I’ve taken it a few steps further in my own family.

    Dollar stores have been a part of this. Name brand products, greeting cards, gift bags of all shapes and sizes, all for $1 each (some times half price!).

    I see them as a way to keep my family economy in line.

    I had a friend who ministered in foreign countries, mostly 3rd world. Those ppl needed the *horrible* jobs we export to them. When some activist got a factory closed these ppl went from barely existing to not living.

    Reply

    • @goddessoflubbock – I used to think like this too. It is cheap, I save money, and those people need those jobs right? But the better solution is to pay the real cost of the items we buy, even if it is more expensive. I watched a documentary about jeans made in China, and it broke my heart. As consumers, we should demand that the people that make our stuff are respected, safe and paid a fair wage. Many of the factories in China do not do that. How to change it? Vote with your dollars. Consumers have way more power than we think.

      Reply

  11. Thank you for the wonderful article.
    Thank you for supporting a more healthy and honest society.

    I run a green house cleaning and maid service company. We focus on sustainable and socially responsible business practices.

    We support local business and we compensate our people well enough so that they are economically empowered to purchase sustainable products and services.

    We must all begin to relearn that value lies in quality and socially responsible business.
    I personally have not supported the Walmart corporation for more than three months now.

    Reply

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