July 16, 2013

We Can’t Save the Environment By Shopping.

In the past year, I decided to green my wardrobe and try to minimize my impact on the planet as much as I could.

There was no shortage of books and how-to guides on the topic. In every one of them, though, whether it was sustainable living guides or DYI books on making one’s own beauty and cleaning products, there seemed to be an underlying theme that we can somehow shop our way to a better environment.

Few that I found would come right out and say it, but the planet and most of us would be better off if we simply consumed less-whether it be food, clothing, fuel, or electricity.

Using less or, heaven forbid, having to sacrifice seems to go against our Western philosophy that more is more and somehow, those of us who live in the West deserve more than those living in developing countries. I see that when I hear someone with four or more children saying (without irony) that over population is a problem in the Third World.

When I try to point out that the average carbon footprint of a child in the US is approximately 100 times more than that of a child in most developing countries, I am met with a curt nod and a comment about how something must be done about Third World over population now.

I also am reminded of a friend of mine who shared a story about a 17,000 square foot home (no, that is not a typo) that his father’s construction company built for a recently divorced woman and her three dogs.

My friend who was one of the construction workers on the project revealed that the woman asked repeatedly for the home to be as “green as possible.” The response she got: it couldn’t be. My friend’s father tried (unsuccessfully) to explain that the carbon footprint just to heat and cool a house that size was going to be huge no matter how many energy efficient heating and cooling units she had or how much “green” insulation was used.

If she wanted to be green, then she needed to go dramatically smaller—there was no getting around it. Still, she could not be talked out the size of the home.

She is not alone.

The idea that somehow we can have our cake and eat it, too, is not just wrong, but distinctly American.

We are a nation of more is more. Our homes are big, we are big, even our SUVs are bigger than the ones sold in other parts of the world. Growing up, my idea of “making it” was to one day live in a 20+ room house  like the ones I saw on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. (This was pre-MTV’s Cribs.) The program and its counterparts never once stopped to point out just how much materials and resources go into making these homes much less how much it costs both in terms of money and resources to maintain it.

It’s been pretty well-documented that as humans, the more space we have the more compelled we are to fill it with stuff. This is especially true of houses.

My real breakthrough when it came to understand how much I did not need came when I lived in student housing in London. There simply was not enough room for a lot of stuff. Also, I knew I would be returning home in a year’s time, and I did not have the money to ship a lot of stuff back to the States.

I also learned to become unattached to stuff, because I knew I would be giving away a lot of things I acquired once it was time to leave. As it turns out, my most treasured things from that time are memories and photos. Coming back to live in America suburbia was a bit of culture shock.

Still, even after that experience I was not immune. Every year or two, I have a major cull and am amazed how much stuff I throw away—I justify it by saying most of the things I obtain are second hand, but I still have a lot of stuff that I do not need.

Likewise, one of the traps that would-be greenies fall into is thinking that by buying a lot of “green” stuff they are somehow helping the planet more.

Lest anyone think I am thumbing my nose at green products, I am not.

In most cases, if you are choosing between two products, the fair trade/organic/ethical product is probably going to have less of an impact than its conventional counterpart. However, the idea that, say, buying three bottles of organic body lotion with fair-traded shea butter when you don’t need it isn’t going to lead to a healthier planet. Every product, no matter how small takes energy to create and add to that the environmental costs of packaging, shipping, etc. it would be far better off for the planet not to buy it.

If you truly want to support the people who make that product, then donating to a non-profit that works with people in that area would probably be a far better option.

As others have pointed out, green living has become increasingly associated with a luxury few can afford.

That’s sad, and it’s even sadder to think of the people who really believe they are embracing responsible green living when all they are actually doing is contributing to the problem of overconsumption. Least anyone think I am advocating living the life of a monk, I am not, as I enjoy nice things as much at the next girl but honestly, how many “nice things” does one actually need when so much of the stuff we buy is ultimately destined for the landfill?

Even in the case of those things that do not end up in the landfill do you honestly need more in the first place? It’s something to at least think about the next time we are lulled into believing that we can shop our way into saving the world.



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Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: via Pinterest}

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