Jan 192011

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
  • Foil
  • 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
  • Tampons
  • Kleenex
  • 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.

Product ImageProduct Image

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.

Product Image                    Product Image            Product Image

Produce: Regular apple for $0.99; organic apple for $1.19

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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.

 Product Image          Product Image

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.

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  8 Responses to “The economic downside of “green living””

  1. I really liked this post. I have had the same debate in my head. We are on a tight budget also and it is difficult making choices that you feel good about as well as afford. They don’t always go together. We will be debt-free in a few months and I am hoping to up my grocery budget a little to be able to make more organic/ natural choices. I guess it makes it easier to buy Suave right now knowing it is temporary.

  2. Although I haven’t tried it, I’ve seen recommendations for washing your hair with baking soda mixed with water, followed by a conditioning rinse of apple cider vinegar.

    Also, the folks at Green Baby Guide compared different laundry detergents and determined that the Biokleen powder was the cheapest per load (cheaper than most commercial detergents), followed by the Trader Joe’s brand.

    I’m curious, where does ordering stuff online fit into your plan, if at all? Laundry detergent, for example, can be bought in bulk through Amazon’s Subscribe & Save program, and while there is packaging involved it’s all recyclable.

  3. We allow ourselves to order online, as long as the item comes wrapped in 100% recyclable packaging. I don’t do a whole lot of ordering online, but there’s no real reason for that. I’ll look into that Amazon program – sounds like it might really help me out!

  4. I really enjoyed this post,including the list of things you don’t buy anymore. We’ve eliminated some of those, and you’ve provided some others to strive for eliminating!

    One comment about laundry soap. It can be very inexpensive and easy to make your own. I’ve been doing this for over a year now and I will never go back to buying it. You can find plenty of different recipes online.

    –Amy P.

  5. I was going to comment on the laundry soap too. I have been making homemade for about 2 year, and we use wool balls of yarn in place of dryer sheets. They both work great. Here’s a link to my detergent recipe http://anappleandatree.blogspot.com/2010/01/homemade-laundry-detergent.html

    and the dryer balls:

  6. This has been a HUGE quandry for me the past couple of years! I’ve always been frugal coming from a large family and now that I have my own large family (6 kids) that live on my husband’s one modest income it is very hard to buy what our beliefs are. I still find myself buying the cheap versus the green all the time b/c as much as I want to live how I believe, it’s just not in the budget. I scratch cook almost everything but w/food prices rising and my family growing up into larger portion sizes, it is hard to know where to compromise and where to stand firm!

  7. I think it’s easy to let ourselves think it’s more expensive, but it’s really just the more commercialized and ‘easy’ green that is more expensive. For example my family ‘no ‘poo’s (therefore saving the money on the shampoo, but also the resources it takes to create and dispose of it), we don’t buy juice (again, saving those resources. recycling is great, refusing is better), we make our own detergent (for laundry, diapers, and dishwasher). All of that DOES help make up for the cost of organic apples… just my 2 cents :)

    Also, I know you just started the book posts recently, but have you read ‘radical homemaking’? If not I think you’d appreciate it!

  8. I do agree that some of it comes out in the wash – save some money here, spend more there. You make a good point – the fewer items we buy, the more we save. Absolutely, reduce comes before recycle in the waste hierarchy. The juice was just an illustrative point. I think we all have things we give up for the sake of being green, and we all like to keep certain things around as little luxuries. We love our juice. :)

    I have not read Radical Homemaking, but thanks so much for the recommendation! I’ll check it out!

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