Friday, September 25, 2009

Going Wrong Going Green, Part 2

Synchronicity, according to, is "a coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related." After my previous post, I haven't been searching for more examples of the complexity of the decision-making process when you want to be a thoughtful consumer, but the LA Times had two articles today that relate to the topic. Synchronicity? Why not?

First, fabric. Let's consider the fact that many consumers who think of themselves as concerned and aware disdain anything other than "natural" fabrics like cotton, yet "Hard Truths about Uzbek Cotton," an opinion piece written by Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), details the plight of children forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, the world's third largest exporter of cotton -- cotton that ends up in our marketplace.

"Unlike most instances of forced child labor in agriculture, this mass mobilization is not driven by exploitative plantation owners or desperate families but by the government. . . Consumers and companies in the West prop up this monstrous system by unwittingly purchasing cotton harvested by forced child labor. Supply chain analysts have determined that most Uzbek cotton is sold to countries in South Asia and Eastern Europe. From there, the cotton is processed and turned into garments sold in retail stores in the United States, Canada and Western Europe."

Is child slave labor cotton any more acceptable than blood diamonds? No.

And don't think that buying "organic cotton" necessarily solves the problem. Erik Cussack's "Organic Cotton" blog has interesting posts about fake organic cotton that's being sold as the real thing and about genetically-modified organic cotton from India. Also, if organic cotton fabric is dyed with toxic chemicals, which does happen, that defeats its purpose. There's also a cost factor if you're purchasing most legitimate organic cotton goods; not everyone can afford a $35 T-shirt.

The next issue may sound amusing, but it really isn't: toilet paper. Reporter David A. Fahrenthold wrote, "Environmentalists Target Plush Toilet Paper," in which he explains that "plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old. Environmentalists want Americans, like Europeans, to wipe with tissue made from recycled paper goods."

Although toilet paper and facial tissues account for only 5% of the products made from "the forest goods industry," do we really want to cut down a single old growth tree so that we can have three-ply toilet paper? No.

And finally, before I put to rest, at least for awhile, the problems inherent in going green, I want to close with some information I just happened to come across recently having to do with ethanol, which has been touted as as a biofuel alternative to gasoline. In 2008, the U.S. and Brazil produced 89% of the supply of ethanol fuel; Brazil has been nicknamed "the Saudi Arabia of biofuels."

From Wikipedia: "Because it is easy to manufacture and process and can be made from very common crops such as sugar cane, potato, manioc and corn, in several countries ethanol fuel is increasingly being blended as gasohol or used as an oxygenate in gasoline. Bioethanol, unlike petroleum, is a renewable resource that can be produced from agricultural feedstocks."

This makes it an appealing commodity to environmentalists. But, it turns out that, in addition to potential ecological problems affecting water quality (see the NY Times) and the contamination of grain fed to livestock (see Minnesota Public Radio), once again the human cost must be considered.

According to an LA Times article by Patrick J. McDonnell from June, 2008, "[m]ore than 300,000 farmworkers are seasonal [sugar] cane cutters in Brazil, the government says. By most accounts, their work and living conditions range from basic to deplorable to outright servitude. . . In its annual report, Amnesty International last month highlighted the plight of Brazil's biofuel workers, more than 1,000 of whom were rescued in June 2007 after allegedly being held in slave-like conditions at a plantation owned by a major ethanol producer. . . Although slavery cases tend to grab headlines, advocates say laborers typically face more quotidian abuse -- low pay, excessive work hours, inadequate safety gear, an absence of sanitary and health services, and exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals."

So, this is what it takes to produce one type of alternative fuel? Is that okay with everyone? No.

Unfortunately, I could list many more situations that most consumers may not be aware of, including some that I've covered in previous posts (see, for example, Fair Trade Jewelry). Clearly it's not easy to understand the complex issues surrounding every single thing we buy, to make the right decision, to do the right thing. But accepting that fact may at least help us make some decisions that we know are right:

I know for certain that I can live without that third ply.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

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Jeri Dansky said...

With so many difficult environmental choices - where the best approach isn't always clear - I'm glad to buy my Seventh Generation TP, which seems to be one of the best.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks, Jeri, for the link to the survey!

I've always liked Seventh Generation products, ever since way back when you had to get them mail-order and almost no one had heard of a string bag. (I still have my original ones!)

I'll give the TP a try. It will be interesting to see what the price difference is, too.