On the occasion of its 40th birthday in November 2006, This Magazine asked 40 past and present contributors—and some distinguished guests—for a big idea whose time has come. This is my idea.

In a knowledge economy, few people know how to make things that can actually be used. That’s why shopping has a bright future, especially among the intelligentsia and other specialists in learned helplessness who denounce consumerism.

Since radicals and environmentalists are articulate shoppers, they will exercise more influence by promoting a particular style of shopping than they do now by pretending they don’t believe in it. Instead of buying a brown bag to wear over our heads when we go shopping on Buy Nothing Day, we can promote Comparative Shopping, an idea whose time to be shopped around has come.

Make sure you contrast comparative shopping with comparison shopping. Comparison shopping is for narcissists. Once the mirror gets boring, they have nothing better to do with their days than shop for more things made solely for their pleasure. They compare to make sure they buy the best-looking thing they least need for the lowest price.

Wal-Mart targets these chumps. Mirror, mirror, on the Wal-Mart, who’s the most beautiful comparison shopper of all? Why, of course, me, me, me: the centre of the world who cares not a whit what child made the good, at what rate of pay, with what toxic chemicals, in what country, carted on what gas-burning vehicle, to be sold by what underpaid clerk, at a mall on what former farmland.

The comparative shopper, by contrast, doesn’t think inside the boxstore, and realizes that all the factors that go into keeping the sticker price low have a way of coming around very expensive when the bill on the hidden sticker price comes due for lives warped by exploitation and pollution. The comparative shopper looks for a package deal, always cheaper than buying one bit at a time, that includes community stability and environmental safety, and which even lowers taxes by creating more local manufacturing jobs while requiring less truck traffic on subsidized highways.

Instead of boycotting, comparative shoppers buycott, increasingly with the help of labels that ensure the product is a good deal all-round. Buycotting can be done individually or in groups, as when schools, hospitals, workplaces and community agencies get into the swing. It’s a strategy for optimizing what economists call “distributed benefits.” Its time has come.

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