Knowing What You Buy

When Scott Ballum turned 30, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based graphic designer started the Consumer®econnection Project: a yearlong effort to only make purchases if he could make a personal connection with someone along an item's production chain. Now in its 10th month, the effort has been both challenging and life changing.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. When it comes to something you buy, you can usually tell where it came from. But it's less common to meet the person who actually made it. A man in Brooklyn is trying to do just that. He spent an entire year meeting the makers behind every item he buys - or at least someone along the production chain. Rebecca Sheir has his story.

REBECCA SHEIR: So perhaps you've made the acquaintance of your local butcher or baker, but what about your local athletic-shoe maker?

Mr. CLAUDIO GELLMAN (Plant Manager, New Balance, Lawrence, Massachusetts): So this - in this factory, to our left is - this is (unintelligible) what we call the cut-through-stitch, the shoes that are made in USA that we cut from scratch.

SHEIR: Claudio Gellman(ph) is the plant manager at New Balance, which claims to be the country's last domestic manufacturer of athletic footwear. Scott Ballum has driven up from Brooklyn to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to meet him.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. SCOTT BALLUM (Creator, Consumer Reconnection Project): Where were you before?

Mr. GELLMAN: I'm from Argentina.

Mr. BALLUM: Why the move to the States?

Mr. GELLMAN: I was an exchange student in 1980.

Mr. BALLUM: Really?

Mr. GELLMAN: Yeah, I just fell in love.

SHEIR: Scott Ballum has been making trips like this since March 2008, when he turned 30 years old. He calls it the Consumer Reconnection Project. And on the ride back from New Balance, he explained why.

Mr. BALLUM: Nothing is what it is. I think we've become pushed further and further away from the people who actually produce, and I think that both the producers and the consumers would feel better about things that they do if they had an idea of how their actions were affecting other people.

SHEIR: Of course, spending an entire year only buying stuff that you can trace it back to an actual person whom you've actually met, that's kind of a tall order. Which is why, right from the get-go...

Mr. BALLUM: I gave myself two kind of outs, you know, over the course of the year that, you know, I wasn't going to starve, and I wasn't going to socially ostracize myself.

SHEIR: To preempt the first, Scott met the farmers who supply his local food co-op, where he now buys all his groceries. He also met the chefs at a handful of restaurants. And by handful, I actually mean...

Mr. BALLUM: There are three restaurants that we can eat at.

SHEIR: Three.

Mr. BALLUM: I get a little bit sick of it.

SHEIR: Joe Hankins has been dating Scott since before the project began.

Mr. JOE HANKINS: Right now, he's away, and I get to go out to all sorts of restaurants. Earlier today, I was at a Cuban restaurant and texted him and said, ha-ha-ha, I'm out at a Cuban restaurant, which we never get to enjoy.

SHEIR: Scott claims he's been so busy tracking down other makers, he hasn't had time to meet more chefs. Once, he went to dinner with some friends, and he actually brought his own sandwich since the restaurant wasn't on his reconnections list. So, in terms of that second out, the one about not socially ostracizing himself, let's just say that some people in his life aren't sure how well he's succeeding.

Mr. MARK ROSENBERG: I think my immediate response was, are you crazy? Are you nuts?

SHEIR: Mark Rosenberg learned of Scott's project last March, when he emailed his friend suggesting they go out for Scott's 30th birthday.

Mr. ROSENBERG: And he was like, great, but I'm doing something new, and we're going to have limitations - or something of that nature. And I wrote him back; I'm like, what are you talking about?

SHEIR: Scott knows it's been hard on the people in his life. Heck, it's been hard enough for him. But he says it's worth it because now he can tack a human face onto a tube of toothpaste, a bushel of tomatoes, or a pair of running shoes.

Mr. BALLUM: Just knowing a little bit about other people and how that person is - it's just such a completely different life than mine, but I'm connected in some way, and it's nice to explore that.

SHEIR: But when the project officially ends in March, Scott Ballum says he'll be ready to pick a restaurant, call up his friends, and leave the sandwich at home. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Sheir.

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