We live in a capitalist culture, and that capitalist, consumerist culture would have you believe that “buying green” products is an environmentally conscious practice. I was with a group of friends the other day, and we began talking about environmentalism and consumerist practices. Several of them were convinced that buying “green” made them better people, and talked about the neat new green products they could buy, like new bamboo socks or a nifty water bottle. I wanted to write a post about this issue, because its been something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I think its important to set the record straight.
Suddenly, “green” products are popping up everywhere, asking you to “buy me!” “Buy me! Look! I’m green and good for the planet.” Let me be clear–any product, regardless of how green it claims to be, is a product that has been created using resources, energy, and so forth. It may be that this product is far superior to others of its kind in terms of that process that was used to create it and the way that raw materials / resources were used in that process (hence the “green” label, which may or may not really reflect good environmental stewardship). But regardless if whether or not the product is a “better” product than others on the shelf–its still a product, and you are still buying it. And that’s really at the root of the issue.
The most environmentally conscious thing you can do, period, is NOT BUY AT ALL.
To be truly one with our land, to minimize our impact and develop a relationship with nature, rather than having nature only work for us, we must move away from our heavily consumerist mindset. We must recognize that so much of what we have, we don’t need. So much of what we think we need, we really don’t. And if we spend time searching, we can find better, often free, alternatives. Here’s a little mantra that I really try living by. I’ll admit that it works better for household items than art supplies, lol.
1) First, evaluate whether or not you really need that *awesome new thing.* A lot of times, you don’t. If you really think you do, wait a week and see if it still holds the interest it did for you 7 days before.
2) If you still think you need it, is there a free alternative that’s readily available? Check your local Freecycle, etc. Consider borrowing–do you really need that miter saw if you’ll use it once a year? What if your neighbor has one and is willing to let you borrow it? Also, keep an eye out on the side of the road. People throw away all kinds of good stuff–I’ve gotten all the gardening supplies I’ll ever need for free as well as outdoor furniture, good wood that I turned into other projects, etc, all along the side of the road being set out for trash pickup.
3) If not, can you get it used? See if you can find what you are looking for at a thrift store, on Craig’s list, or at a yard sale. You’d be surprised by the high quality stuff you can find this way.
***Note, buying used is almost always better than buying new. Used stuff is already in the system, and doesn’t really create new demand. Each time you buy something new, you add demand to the system–meaning they make more stuff. For more information, you should REALLY watch The Story of Stuff.****
4) If not, can you find an environmentally friendly product? Its only at this stage, where you’ve exhausted your other options, should you consider purchasing something. And then, its wise to research where you are going to get it, who you are buying it from, and so forth.
To show you this in action, I’m going to provide two such examples:
1) Food. Food is obviously a necessity, and so obviously you have to acquire it somehow (growing it, foraging, purchase). But not all foods are created equal. Let’s take, for example, the potato. If you buy a bag of potatoes in the store, what are you actually buying?
- You are buying the plastic that the potatoes come in (likely not recyclable and likely to cause a lot of pollution – here’s a link that takes you to a video about the problems of plastic).
- You are buying the fossil fuels that it takes to move the potatoes from where they were grown (say Idaho) to where you are eating them (say, Michigan, which adds up to approximately 2000 miles).
- You are buying the pesticides and environmental pollution involved in growing the potatoes, not to mention probably supporting Monsanto, whose greedy little mitts have chained up our food supply.
- You are supporting a business, who you purchase it from. Does this business exploit their workers? Do they respect equal pay? What are their practices concerning the environment, social justice, and so forth.
Let’s say, after considering all of that, you put the conventional potato back in the cart and instead decide to choose an organic potato. This is a really wise thing to do since pesticides concentrate in root vegetables more than many other kinds (potatoes end up on many “dirty dozen” lists, like this one). What, then, are you buying?
- You still have the issue of fossil fuels for transport
- You still have the issue of packaging/plastic
- You still have the issue of supporting a grocery store/big box store, etc.
- Maybe you’ve cut some of the pesticides, petro-chemical fertilizers, and Monsanto out of the picture. Or maybe not–many so-called “Organic” brands are grown right along side their conventional ones, and sold under different labels.
This brings us to two other much more enviormentally-friendly options–purchasing it locally from farmers or growing it yourself. Assuming that you purchase it from a farmer, that farmer may only be traveling 10-20 miles to get the potato to you; using very little packaging, and hopefully, raising it organically. If you grow it yourself, it travels less than 100 feet to your house, and you control every aspect of its development. So in the end, a simple purchase like a potato (which yes, is a necessity), can still be terribly damaging to our ecosystem.
2) Clothing. Ok, sure, you say, food is not as challenging because we have lots of farmer’s markets and so forth. But what about that other necessity, clothing? First, let’s evaluate your current wardrobe. How many pieces of clothing do you own? How many do you actually wear? Do you really need more? Again, let’s think through the list above. Do you need it? Let’s say that you, like me, pretty much wear your clothing to rags (and then turn it into rags to get the last bit of use out of it). So maybe, yes, you need it. And you’ve exhausted your free optoins. Do you need to purchase any new clothing? I would argue, no, pretty much never in most cases (and in most cases you really don’t want to because clothing has a substantial environmental impact). I have purchased almost no new clothing in the last two years–all of the clothing that I own has either been upcycled/recycled from other clothes or purchased used at thrift stores and/or yard sales. I am a professional, I work a real job. And most of the clothing I find used is really quite nice. I have made few some exceptions to this–I did purchase a good pair of hiking boots for hiking/gardening (because a good pair of boots is hard to find used–I looked!). I also purchased socks/underwear new, for hygienic reasons–in this case, I purchased them online from environmentally friendly companies. But for those I purchase new, I will make sure I get every last bit of wear and tear out of them.
So, in conclusion, don’t be fooled by advertising that convinces you to buy something just because it is green. The best green thing you can possibly do is to not buy at all. Produce your own food, find things for free, borrow and recycle things. Don’t be afraid to dumpster dive. If you have to buy, buy used.
While these things may seem small, remember the lessons that the river teaches us. A river the size of the Mississippi is massive and able to shape the land around it. The Mississippi doesn’t start out that way. It starts from tiny little streams–millions of little streams coming from springs, rain runoff, etc. Each of those streams becomes a small creek, each of those small creeks becomes a river. Those rivers join up, and as they join, they eventually become the massive, mighty Mississippi. Each of us is one of those streams. And together, we become a river. We become unstoppable.