I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately, mostly because I don’t have much right now. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about money in relation to living a green lifestyle. I’m often asked whether living trash-free means living cheaper, and the answer I’ve always given is a variation of this:
I think, in the beginning, absolutely yes – living trash-free meant we simply didn’t spend as much on things like groceries. However, as part of the Green Garbage Project mission is to tread lightly, my environmental focus isn’t only on reducing my trash. I care, too, about things like reducing my carbon footprint, eating organic foods, buying cruelty free products, and living naturally (in regards to cleaning and personal care products). My animal rights activism is what actually inspired me to become a more vocal environmentalist. When I add these other changes into my consumption pattern, the economics of environmentalism get muddied.
We’ll start with an (incomplete) list of all the things I don’t buy anymore:
- Paper towels
- Disposable lint brushes
- Saran wrap
- Ziploc baggies
- Waxed paper
- Individual servings of lunch food: Granola bars, applesauce cups, fruit snacks, bags of chips, packets of oatmeal, etc.
- Shaving cream
- Body wash
- Wet wipes (for classroom use)
- Candy bars
- Liquid soap
- Most frozen food
There’s more, I’m sure, but early on, it seems like trash-free equals more cash in my pocket. Less to buy = more money saved, right?
Except. Except I buy organic produce. I now buy things like juice in glass (as opposed to plastic) bottles. I buy natural household products (laundry soap, fabric softener, dish soap, shampoo, conditioner, and so on). I’ve only recently begun to notice the economic backlash of decisions like these.
Now that Adam and I are living on one income, as Adam starts up a wedding photography business in our new town, these choices have started to add up for us. It’s hard to know where the give and take is. Here are a couple of the comparisions I’ve been grappling with:
Shampoo: 15 oz. Suave bottle for $1.89 compared to 18 oz. Nature’s Gate shampoo for $8.69. $0.09 per ounce compared to $.049 per ounce.
Juice: 32 oz. Knudsen’s cran-raspberry juice in a glass bottle for $3.59; 36 oz. Welch’s frozen cran-raspberry for $2.49; or 64 oz. Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail for $3.69.
Produce: Regular apple for $0.99; organic apple for $1.19
Laundry detergent: Arm and Hammer powdered laundry detergent for 46 loads at $7.39, or Seventh Generation powdered laundry detergent for 42 loads at $11.49.
Green grocery shopping – and green consumption in general – falls into that tricky gray area where it’s hard to make win-win-win choices. An all-around “win” would be, for me, a product that is packaged in something other than plastic, a product that is inexpensive, and a product that is friendly to the environment. In our current corporate-driven economy, the big guys (like Tide laundry detergent) can afford to offer a cheaper product than the littler companies (like Seventh Generation). There are many issues at play here, but I want to bring two to your attention.
Externalized Costs: Externalized costs mean there is a gap between the price paid at the store and the true cost of manufacturing a product. The number on the price tag ($0.99 for a bottle of shampoo, for example), pays for a company’s labor and distribution costs, but it rarely considers things like health impacts on workers and pollution of drinking water. Annie Leonard, in her most marvelous book The Story of Stuff, writes: “Since these costs are paid by people and organizations outside the companies responsible for incurring them, they’re called externalized costs.” Many times, the more natural products are priced to include some (not all) of these externalized costs; raw goods, for example, are sourced from a group that practices, say, sustainable forestry instead of clear-cutting.
Environmental Justice: Again from The Story of Stuff, Leonard explains, “Dirty development follows the path of least resistance, seeking out those communities that developers perceive to lack the economic, educational, or political resources to resist.” That means (I’m paraphrasing here) that low-income communities and communities of color face a disproportionate share of resulting toxic pollution. I’m not so much worried about dirty development, but the same principles of environmental justice apply to consumption of green products.
What I mean is that I don’t just buy green products for the planet. While this is part of my motivation, I also buy green products for my health. Organic produce is produced without pesticides, which are toxic. Some types of that cheap Suave shampoo contain sodium lauryl sulfate and other chemicals that are linked to skin and immune disorders, among others. It is only reasonable to assume that a person on a budget will buy the cheaper product because they simply cannot afford the more expensive one. It is surely an issue of environmental justice when the low-income members of society cannot afford to make safe decisions regarding their health.
So what do we do about all this? You know the solutions, and you know things aren’t going to change overnight. BUT – if we want to make a difference, we must raise a collective voice against these issues. Write letters, both to green and not-so-green companies informing them of your preferences as a consumer. Get informed – learn about the chemicals and artifical ingredients that creep into our food and household purchases. Refuse to stand for it. No one should have to choose between economic hardship and their health.