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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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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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hunger Action Month

Better late than never!

Just a quick post to let you know that September (almost gone!) is Hunger Action Month, a worthy event sponsored by Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest, The Nation's Food Bank Network).

Macy's, The Cheesecake Factory, United Airlines, Sony Pictures Animation and Microsoft are partners with Feeding America for this project.

Click here to read the full press release.

Click here to find out what's going on in your community.

If you're in the Los Angeles area, you can head for the "Rock a Little, Feed a Lot" concert at Club Nokia on September 29th featuring Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper and other performers in an LA Food Bank fundraiser.

The Feeding America site has a calculator that demonstrates how many meals they can provide if we skip purchasing something we don't need and donate the money we would have spent to them instead:

New shoes = 240 meals

New purse = 135 meals

Round of golf = 180 meals

A single latte = 9 meals

Wherever we are, this month can help us keep in perspective our role as consumers. If we're fortunate enough to be able to cut back a little on shopping and entertainment, we can make quite an impact on the lives of others who can't afford one thing every consumer has to buy: food.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

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