Thursday, September 24, 2009

Going Wrong Going Green

We all like to think we’re making wise consumer decisions that are good for us and good for the Earth. We like to think we’re making informed decisions, not irrational, arbitrary ones. Okay, at least we like to think we’re giving it our best shot. Turns out that often there are trade-offs and compromises that probably don’t even occur to us when we’re making those decisions.

Here are just a few things to consider:

Sometimes the real cost of "buying American" defeats, or seriously compromises, our efforts to go green. For example, Newsweek recently reported that "[a] New Yorker leaves a smaller carbon footprint drinking a French Bordeaux shipped across the Atlantic (2.93 pounds of carbon per bottle) than drinking a Napa merlot (7.05 pounds). That's because when it comes to calculating carbon costs, the method of transportation matters as much as the distance. Shipping freight by sea generates less than half the emissions associated with airplanes and tractor-trailers."

The same shipping problem exists for groceries. Consumers have come to expect fresh produce in our stores throughout the year, so importing is the only option. But the New York Times reported that "the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food. Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures."

But the transportation/fuel issue isn't straightforward: "The problem is measuring the emissions. The fact that food travels farther does not necessarily mean more energy is used. Some studies have shown that shipping fresh apples, onions and lamb from New Zealand might produce lower emissions than producing the goods in Europe, where — for example — storing apples for months would require refrigeration."

And how about those "green" re-usable bags we're all supposed to remember to carry into the store when we go shopping? Again, it's not so simple to figure out the benefits. From the Wall Street Journal: "'If you don't reuse them, you're actually worse off by taking one of them,' says Bob Lilienfeld, author of the Use Less Stuff Report, an online newsletter about waste prevention. . . . [and] Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution. Many of the cheap, reusable bags that retailers favor are produced in Chinese factories and made from nonwoven polypropylene, a form of plastic that requires about 28 times as much energy to produce as the plastic used in standard disposable bags and eight times as much as a paper sack . . ."

Kind of makes you want to throw up your hands and surrender, doesn't it?

But let's not do that. Let's continue doing our best to make good decisions, but let's also remember that life is full of compromises. In fact, it's not always possible to make the "right" consumer choices because we can't always figure out what they are. Maybe realizing this is an opportunity to develop a more tolerant response to people who make choices that we don't understand. Maybe it's an opportunity to lighten up.

And maybe the whole dilemma doesn't matter all that much because if we don't start making better choices about how we relate to and care about other human beings, trust me, shopping will be the least of our problems.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

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Kirsten@Nexyoo said...

Great post! I agree that the science behind sustainability is incredibly complex, but that doesn't mean we should give up trying to make the best decisions we can. Luckily, better information is available all the time, so I think the process is going to get easier.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks, Kirsten!

Glad you're remaining optimistic; I am, too.