I consider myself an environmentalist. I get a little uncomfortable talking about this, because it falls within the ‘value’ category for me, and experience has taught me that whenever someone mentions the V-Word, they are also about to suggest forcing conformity on anyone who disagrees. But the truth is, that’s how I feel about this issue. I enjoy the outdoors and want the scenic beauty of America to still be there for the next generation. Theodore Roosevelt is probably my favorite US president. I willingly pay extra for products that don’t cost the earth. I think any political candidate without a solid alternative energy plan is by definition unqualified. Et cetera, et cetera…
I also have the good fortune to live in a democratic, capitalist society. My vote is not my only tool for changing the world around me. I have my income, as well. The dollars I spend toward the products I buy are little votes for the sort of world I want to live in. They represent economic demand which directly affects the profits and prevalence of the brands I choose to buy. I’m not much of an activist – I’m not in the habit of joining street protests. But I’ll happily use my dollar to support businesses that choose to adhere to practices that support my values.
This is harder than it sounds.
For one, there’s a general lack of transparency about this issue. Companies that produce products are not obligated to provide information about their business practices on their labels. If they are cutting corners, then, they can simply choose not to tell you. Why would a clothing company tell you that this shirt they’re marketing was produced with child labor if they don’t absolutely have to? Would a poultry farm mention the fact that their chickens were raised in startlingly inhumane battery farm conditions as you’re trying to choose between products at the grocery store? Of course not. There is no facts label for the environmental/animal damage or human rights abuses associated with each product like there is for nutritional information.
There is also a great deal of obfuscation. There are a lot of people like me out there – people who care about the environment and human rights, people who don’t want to give money to companies who cut corners and sustain abuses, yet who are also less than rigorous in their research methods in figuring out who’s worth spending money on and who isn’t. Therefore, there is quite a lot of money to be made by continuing to pollute or abuse human beings while using marketing voodoo to convince potential customers that you are a socially responsible goods and services provider. This is called ‘Greenwashing’ by the sustainability crowd.
The point is that it’s hard to even start walking the walk when it comes to green issues. Companies can hide their dirty laundry behind this total lack of information, and they invest quite a bit in obfuscating the issue to keep potential customers confused. After all, most people wouldn’t voluntarily choose to buy clothing made by sweatshop labor. Most people would not want to buy from a company that is actively and without apology damaging the environment to save a few dollars. But at the end of the day, what the customers really care about is putting clothes on their backs and food on their tables. That’s why they’re trying to part with their hard-earned dollars in the first place. When you’re actually in the aisle comparing products, it’s hard to tell which supports your values and which don’t.
Hell, it’s hard for me, and I actually give a shit. I probably own clothes that were made by exploited human beings, and I’ve almost certainly eaten delicious meat made from poorly-treated animals.
(These ideas are not originally mine, nor are they particularly new. The only cure for these things is information. The more knowledge you arm yourself with as you go shopping, the better. Thanks to the magic of the internet, the information is available. The fruit of knowledge is low-hanging. All you have to do is reach out and grab it.
But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a resource available to categorize and rank everyday products you might want to buy? I submit to you The Better World Shopper. First found this little book while working at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum for a year, and it’s a neat little pocket guide that covers a surprising amount of products. The website is better, more detailed, and more frequently updated.)
A lack of transparency isn’t the only thing that makes it hard to be green.
Let’s be honest. Recycled or Environmentally Friendly products are often crappy products. If you take a sheet of recycled paper towel, look at it with narrowed eyes so it knows you mean business, and whisper “I’m going to take you to a spill, now” in a threatening tone, it will completely fall apart. Using environmentally friendly washing machine tablets actually makes the dirty dishes laugh. Eco cleaning products have a reputation for not doing their job. There are exceptions to this – Method makes excellent cleaning products, and we buy them where we can find them. Their laundry detergent is especially good. But for the most part, the classical, screw-the-planet alternatives are just plain better.
I think this is because many companies offer eco products for the wrong reasons. They want to tap into the market of slightly-concerned consumers – people like me who care enough to base purchasing decisions around that, but not enough to spend hours googling everything I buy. So, they take things just far enough to put environmentally-friendly imagery on their labels and that’s that. They just want your dollar.
The trick is to find the few that actually are worth your cash and compensate where green products just don’t work. I hate recycled paper towels, so we’ve stopped using them entirely. We just use actual towels, now, and wash them when we run out.
Also, it seems to me that comfort is wasteful. Automotive transportation, for instance, is an inherently prodigal endeavor. Any time we drive somewhere we don’t have to, we’re essentially throwing away money. I’m fine with walking everywhere, so this is no issue. The worst of it comes in the winter months, when my desire to not freeze to death in my own home comes into conflict with my SO’s desire to stop wasting energy. Me, I like to be warm. If I can’t take my jacket off in my own home, it is not warm enough. She’s a harder-core Green than me, though, and her philosophy is that if my piss isn’t freezing before it gets to the toilet, the radiator stays off, thank-you-very-much.
(Yes, I’m exaggerating. Please don’t kill me, honey.)
We also own a Bokashi Bin for breaking rapidly composting our food waste, as well as a container of worms for further processing it. We use the soil this creates to raise plants on the balcony (though we have yet to achieve real success there – no edible success, that is). Sounds great, in theory. In practice, the bokashi bin has the sweet aroma of an open-air sewer, and I only keep it in the house to indulge my lovely partner. I’m just thankful that its seal is airtight, so it gives off no stink unless we’re putting food in it. (Incidentally, however, it does do a damned good job of breaking our leftovers down, and has cut down on our food waste quite a lot.)
Anyway, as I write this – there is a point, I swear – I’m taking the temperature of the green movement as I see it right now, and I’m coming to the conclusion that we’re just not there yet.
Hard Greens often make the argument that ‘good lives don’t have to cost the Earth,’ but I’m not sure that’s true. It seems to me that the only way they can make that point stand is to dramatically redefine what a ‘good life’ is. Sure, there’s a lot of fat you can trim. You can drive less, take the stairs instead of the elevator, eat better and healthier, buy locally to cut down on food mileage. You can be perfectly happy living a carbon neutral life, they say. They’re right. To a point. But comfort does cost, and while you can eschew some comfort and still live well, people will not want to do this. Working to maximize your personal comfort is the whole idea of the capitalist system, isn’t it? As long as getting beyond this this is the mantra of the movement, it will always be on the fringe. People will nod their heads and agree that making some lifestyle change is probably a good idea, but when they actually go shopping, they’ll go with the products that actually work and make their lives better.
This is where the green movement fails, I think. Capitalism does not think or reason. You can’t set it aside, explain to it that some of the things it’s doing are harming the environment, and get it to stop. You’d have to make this argument millions of times, once for every consumer cell that makes up the whole organism. And not every one will buy into what you’re saying. The best way to make real changes is to make green products that are equal to or better than their non-green counterparts. Do that and people will pick those products without any cajoling whatsoever.
Instead, the prevailing attitude appears to be ‘make the bad behaviors illegal.’ This does have its place. You can’t really fix human or animal rights abuses by improving on the alternative products. But greens have to understand that to the average consumer, their lives get more expensive and less ‘good’ every time this happens. Of course they’ll resist the idea. As long as this is the party line, they always will. Since we live in a democracy, this resistance translates into legislative inaction on green issues.
But I’m optimistic. Green products are getting better all the time, at least in Britain. They seem to be going in the right direction with this stuff, finally. One hopes that in the near future, being green will feel less like self-flagellation, and smug superiority will not be the only comfort I take from trying to do right by the environment with my purchases.
(Yes. Exaggerating again, please don’t kill me, love!)