Consumers – The Best Force for Change

Every few minutes, advertising reminds us we live in a market economy. Our buying choices have a direct impact on how industry shapes our world, and in the end, decides our collective fate. “Hold on, I’m just buying a soda, not running an oil tanker into a wildlife refuge!” If your soda’s in a plastic bottle, you’re why the tanker was there.

What Can I Do?
The necessities of a market economy don’t always exist neatly within the boundaries of sustainability. In a truly sustainable economy, goods would be bought, sold and produced by and for local consumers. But we live in a world where mass production is perceived as the only viable way to deliver goods we’ve come to enjoy as part of our quality of life. Just as the genie won’t go quietly back in the bottle, it’s currently unrealistic to expect all regions to produce all goods for their consumers, as true sustainability models dictate. Buying choices, then, become the driving force in determining how green a local market will be, what its ripple-through effect might become globally and how successfully we might shift from acting as blind consumption machines to serving as agents of positive change.

The Price Beyond the Sticker
Paper packaging is made from an arguably sustainable resource: trees. But from where? A plantation or an old growth forest? Even if the wood was cultivated, trees produce less pulp per acre than higher yield annual pulp crops such as kenaf and hemp and do nothing to help close an ecological and economic loop as agripulp does.

Glass packaging comes from an abundant resource that’s fairly easy to extract. Metal packaging resources such as tin, steel and aluminum are destructive to collect and refine. So you might say, “Well that’s easy then, I’ll just buy stuff in glass.” If only it were that simple. Glass packaging is heavier to transport in all phases of its lifecycle than steel for the same uses, particularly prepared or preserved foods. Heavier transport weight means burning more oil. Oil is a non-renewable resource and an eco-hazard waiting to happen. When burned as fuel, oil adds to global warming. Plastic packaging is often used today in place of glass and steel because of its light weight and thus lower transport costs, durability and clarity, as well as recyclability. Yet plastic is made from oil.

Every purchase we make is a statement about how we really feel about the environment. Curbside recycling is not enough. Each of us must look for opportunities to close the loop. A great start is to purchase tree-free and recycled paper products. Having a market for the collected paper encourages the shift towards a more sustainable pulp cycle. Low-end papers such as copier paper, paper towels, and toilet paper, are great opportunities to encourage the production of tree-free and recycled papers. Simply ask yourself, do I need to cut down a tree to wipe myself clean?

A Shopping List for Positive Change

  • Choose products and/or packaging that use renewable or recycled materials first.
  • Reward manufacturers that are doing the right thing. Make those eco choices part of their competitive advantage. Watch for new products using bio-based plastics (plastics made from renewable crops such as corn or soybeans).
  • Buy locally. Products produced locally don’t have to travel as far, and thus burn less fuel.
  • Choose products currently recycled in your area; plus look for those that close the loop. Stay familiar with the recycling rules for your curbside program. Not all areas take all materials. Give preference to products that allow you to close the loop.
  • Use common sense. Concentrates are better than ready-to-use products. Do you really need cheese in individually wrapped slices? If the package is plastic, is it adding a positive user feature, such as shampoo in a shatter-proof bottle for safety? If it looks wasteful, it is. Don’t encourage manufacturers to produce bad products with your money.
  • Be an eco-purchasing activist. In general, if you regularly buy a product that’s overall really good, but has unfriendly packaging, drop the company a letter. Tell them you would like to keep buying their product but their un-eco packaging is making it hard for you. If there’s a competing product packaged in a more responsible way, point that out, too. Support manufacturers that are proud of their eco efforts (usually printed right on their packaging with more details on their web site).
  • If you see a friend using a product you know a good eco alternative for, casually mention it.
  • Teach your kids why good buying choices and recycling are important. There are many web sites to help them get involved.
  • If your company doesn’t recycle, organize a recycling pool, and take turns carting the recycling home for curbside pick-up.
  • After a little research, give your company’s purchasing department alternatives for more eco-friendly products. Most people will pick a more suitable eco product if given the option. Make it easy for them.