“Enjoy your meal” the waitress says placing a plate of lobster in front of me. Beside it on my plate is a strange knife and a nutcracker. I turn to the waitress. “So…um. How do you actually eat a lobster?” I fear ridicule. I fear pointing. I fear laughing. She looks down at my plate, not with pity, but with embarrassment. “Um. You. Er. You just…I think you…hmmm. Welllll…” She doesn’t know how to eat a lobster either. For a moment I wonder why she doesn’t know. She’s the waitress, surely she should know! But soon it makes sense to me. She’s the waitress, why would she know? To buy a lobster she would have to work for 4 hours straight. Nobody would trade 4 hours of their life for a lobster.
Moments later the waitress has come back with one of the chefs from the kitchen. He bends over next to me. I expect him to be French. No matter where I go in the world, I always think the chefs are French. He’s not French. He’s local. His accent is strong, he’s clearly from one of working class areas of the city. Yet he’s the one cooking my food. I wonder if even he can afford to buy a lobster. He explains how I should eat it “jus git in wiv tha pointy kneef, an move it aboot til ye can git the meat oot.” Translation: just get in there with the pointy knife and move it about until you can get the meat out.
I thank him for explaining. I pick up my knife. I stare down at my lobster. It stares back up at me with sad eyes. I feel like I’m looking down at Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. I’m just about to stab my knife in when it shouts at me, in a thick Scottish accent, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOIN’?! DON’T YOU KNOW HOW WRONG THIS IS!!”
I’m taken aback, this is a bit weird, my dinner doesn’t usually talk to me. I try not to look at him. “I’m sorry” I say “but they’ve assured me that I’m not harming the environment by eating you, you’re a really ethical lobster! You didn’t feel pain when you died. It’s all good!” The lobster laughs cynically. “Eating me isn’t the unethical thing you fucking idiot. I’m tasty. I’m more than fucking tasty, I’m fucking gast-gast-gast.” He struggles with the word, stopping for a moment to take a breath and try again. “Gastro-fucking-nomically astounding.”
I shrug, not really understanding. What’s the problem then. He seemingly knew what I was thinking, he growled, “Because I cost so fucking much, that’s why?!” “Oh?” I replied.
I thought about it some more. He cost so much. Why was that a problem? Then it dawned on me.
For the price of a lobster I could have bought two meals. Or for the price of a lobster I could have bought one meal and with the remainder of the money I could have. Done what? I don’t know what. But there was something I did know. The money that I really didn’t even need to spend, could be spent on something else. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. It was Christmas. Freezing cold outside. There were people sleeping on the streets. Each night I go to bed with two duvets. If it gets too cold I can just pull a third out of the cupboard. These people couldn’t even afford a hot meal, I could afford two.
Consumer guilt. I’m not the only person to feel it, am I? Every time I buy something, I feel like I’ve made some form of ethical choice based upon how that item was created. If I buy a lobster, knowing I could also buy a meal for a hungry person with that money, would it be wrong for me to do so? If I buy a cotton t-shirt, knowing it was created with the use of child labour, wouldn’t I be in some way condoning that child labour myself? Would buying that t-shirt make me a bad person?
When we think about why something costs what it does, our initial conclusion is that it’s expensive or cheap due to the materials used in creating it. For example, we assume a $5 cotton t-shirt is cheap because it’s made of cotton. But really it’s cheap because all the way down the line, to create the shirt, the labour was cheap. The cotton farmers were paid little, that’s why the cotton was cheap. The man driving the cotton to the factory was paid little. The people working in the factory were paid little. All so that we have to pay little for the shirt. In essence, cheap products equal cheap labour, and cheap labour usually equals unethical labour.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that expensive products are ethically sound, something I believe is perfectly summed up in a Flight of the Conchords lyric. “Why are we still paying so much for sneakers, when you got them made by little slave kids, what are your overheads?” Expensive products still use cheap labour, they just have a higher profit margin
This presents a problem though. If inexpensive items aren’t ethical AND expensive items aren’t ethical, what can we buy to stay completely virtuous? The answer. NOTHING. If we trace anything backwards, enough steps, then we can find some reason eventually for it to be something we disagree with. Even if the factory workers, are fairly paid, that doesn’t mean those cotton farmers are. If those cotton farmers are fairly paid, then that also doesn’t mean the cotton is environmentally friendly. Somewhere, at some point, something unethical would have occurred in conjunction with your cotton t-shirt, but this doesn’t make the t-shirt unethical, it just means you’re holding yourself up to impossible ethical standards.
The only solution is, to live as ethically as POSSIBLE, by being more conscious of what we buy and who we buy from. We shouldn’t feel guilt for buying unethical products, as often we have no choice in the matter. The system is against us, and we are forced to work with the system while we change it.
As I stared down at the lobster in front of me, I came to one last realisation. This lobster was so expensive because it was ethical. It was farmed in Scotland, where people were being paid a good wage to collect the lobsters. The lobster was from a sustainable source and environmentally friendly. Eating the lobster in front of me was a no-brainer. It had to done! It would be one of the most ethical meals EVER!
So I took my knife, looked down at my lobster and I said to him,”Sorry, man. It’s got to be done.” He wasn’t sad, he just smiled and said, “Don’t worry kid, I know you’ve learnt a valuable lesson today.” If I looked hard enough I would have seen a tear of pride in his eyes.
But by that point I was too busy stabbing him with a knife, eating his claws.
And he was delicious.
Photo 1: Red by _Pixelmaniac_