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An Inconvenient Truth about our Shopping Habits

[fa icon="calendar'] Nov 21, 2013 10:55:59 AM / by CSRHub Blogging

By Guest blogger, Gia Machlin
If you have ever watched Seinfeld or any other comedy based on Jewish humor, you knowshopping habits that we Jews are not generally the most optimistic people.  Remember the Nanny’s mother and her constant criticism of her daughter, or Don Rickles’ insulting humor?  I recently saw a video parody of a Mad Men ad campaign, where the ad execs think the slogan “It gets better” would never work with a Jewish audience.  Instead, they came up with a campaign slogan: “It could be worse!”

A lot has been written about how to get a message of environmental stewardship and conscious consumption across without relaying doom and gloom.  We are told to inspire people to change their habits, instead of scaring them or instilling feelings of guilt.  Terror and guilt can make people feel overwhelmed, helpless, and ultimately hopeless and defeated.  So there is a lot of merit to keeping the message positive, inspiring, and empowering.  That is what I and so many other environmental bloggers have been trying to do over the years.  But being optimistic and inspirational is not mutually exclusive with being realistic, informed, and completely honest about some really unpleasant facts.  And just as “It Gets Better” may not work with all audiences, we mustn’t feel that we can’t use a little sobering reality to encourage people to change their purchasing habits.

The movie “An Inconvenient Truth” made people uncomfortable enough to start installing solar panels, drive Priuses, and rethink their indiscriminate use of fossil fuels.  It’s time to get people thinking hard about their addiction to cheap consumer goods, and to understand the true cost of the products they purchase.  Not to be a bummer, but that cheap but chic clothing, that wildly popular cosmetic, or that great smelling air freshener all have some pretty ugly side effects.  Let’s make sure we talk about these issues openly without the fear of being called “Debbie Downer.”

Let’s break this down into a few simple questions to ask yourself when shopping:

  • Do I really need this?  Is there something I already have that can be repurposed or reused to perform the same function?  If the answer is yes, or if the answer is no but you still feel like treating yourself to something new (it’s important to allow indulgences unless you want to and commit to changing your life radically), then move on to question 2.
  • How long will this product last?  Is it made of something that is durable or will it fall apart after a few uses?  If the answer is more than a year (or whatever standard you select), then move on to question 3.
  • What material/ingredients make up this product?  Does it contain toxins that can be harmful to people and the environment?  If the answer is no, move on to question 4.
  • How/where was this product made?  Did the workers get paid fairly?  Are they working in safe conditions?  If the answer to this is yes, move on to question 5. (Note – this is a hard criteria to meet, unfortunately, so until more companies take this on at the corporate level, you may have to settle for moving on to question 5 even if the answer is no).
  • How will I ultimately dispose of this product?  Can it be recycled, or better yet, composted?  If not, can I give it away for reuse or repurposing?  Even if you don’t know, this is important to think about when you make a purchase decision.

 

There are many other things to consider, like how much packaging is involved, how energy efficient the product is (for electronics), how far the product needed to travel before it got to the store, and the list goes on and on.  But if everyone took the time to at least ask themselves these 5 simple questions every time they shopped, we would see a big change in where and how people spend their money.

You may be wondering how this ties back to being a downer.  I believe these questions are not asked because it takes some pleasure out of the shopping experience.  How can I enjoy that beautiful coat when I have to think about the conditions of the workers who made it in some far away country?

However, if we talk about these issues more openly and make them a part of our daily discussions, people will become informed and (heaven forbid) maybe feel bad about the consequences of their indiscriminate shopping, and make some real changes that will ripple across the shopping world.


Gia Machlin EcoPlumGia Machlin, president and CEO of EcoPlum, an online green shopping rewards site. Watch for her contributions to the CSRHub blog on eco-friendly products and green living ideas. For more on EcoPlum, or to follow the EcoPlum blog, visit www.ecoplum.com.

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Being a Conscious Consumer Need Not Consume You

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 31, 2013 11:47:14 AM / by CSRHub Blogging

By guest blogger, Gia Machlin

conscious consumerBy now you probably know that I was not always a conscious consumer.  To be precise, in the days Before EcoPlum (B.E.), I was quite an unconscious consumer.  I used to shop for anything, anytime, with little to no regard for the environmental, personal health, or social impact of my purchases.  I did not think about how much I was buying, let alone what the product was made of, how its ingredients might affect me or my surroundings, how it was packaged, and whether or not I really needed the product.  It may be hard to believe, but this environmental advocate was at one time a consumerist hog.

After quite a bit of soul searching and of course a ton of awareness and education, I changed my wasteful ways and started buying less, researching the environmental and personal impact of my potential purchases, and understanding the social conditions of the workers who make the products I buy.  I have advocated extensively for fair trade clothing, jewelry and food, safe cosmetics, organic clothing and food, non-toxic cleaning products and housewares.  While building the shop at EcoPlum, I have curated all these types of products, along with those made of recycled and upcycled materials, and products that are made with environmental, socially responsible and health conscious practices in mind.

For a while after my “conversion,” I had zero tolerance for anything that did not meet my new standards.  (What can I say?  I’m a very passionate person!)  I would scoff at anyone who bought bottled water.  I stopped buying anything I didn’t truly need, bought only organic produce and meats, and used personal care products made with only the most natural and toxin free ingredients.  I even made sure that my clothing was not made in sweatshops in developing countries.

Unfortunately, living this way is not very convenient and requires a lot of sacrifice.  At times I became so obsessed with doing the ‘right thing’, that I was no longer thinking clearly.  For example, if I was out with my daughter and we forgot to bring water (in a reusable bottle) and my daughter was thirsty, I refused to buy bottled water even if we could not find a water fountain or tap water nearby.  My poor daughter had to go without drinking. What??  That’s not rational. Our planet’s plastic trash problem is not going to be effected one way or another by my occasional purchase of AquaFina® (but my daughter will probably be in therapy for a long time).  So I started to relax my rules a little bit.

For example, I haven’t found a natural deodorant that I feel is strong enough for me.  So rather than smell like a gym locker, I use an anti-perspirant product that may be causing harm to my body and sending toxins into the water supply. (Feel free to send me suggestions for a strong natural deodorant that works really well!)

Last summer, I didn’t say anything when my teenager went off to camp with shampoo and conditioner that I knew contained some harmful chemicals, because I realized that being a teenager is hard enough, and seven weeks of using this stuff was not going to kill him.   And when I see that adorable sweater in the boutique window that fits perfectly and looks good with jeans, I may buy it even if it is not made of organic cotton or does not carry the fair trade label. I still use disposable tissues as I find hankies quite disgusting. You get the point.

If I didn’t allow myself these transgressions, I might find it hard to continue with my more conscious lifestyle and give it up altogether, and (heaven forbid!) go back to my wasteful ways from B.E.  What’s important is that we make informed, conscious decisions, and understand the impact of our purchases on our health, the environment, and social justice.  We should strive to do the best we can. We should spread the word, get involved and try to change regulation and policy.  And, of course, celebrate all the great companies that make it easier rather than harder for us to make better choices.

A few years ago, those checking labels for chemical ingredients in their food, buying organic produce, or looking at the sustainability ratings of seafood were in the vast minority. Organic and natural foods were only available in “health food” and specialty stores and organic restaurants were practically unheard of. People were also buying their clothing at Target, H&M, Gap, and from designers without thinking about where and how it was manufactured. And while the food industry has undergone a slow but steady revolution, fast fashion has yet to slow down.

Thanks to slow food pioneers like Michael Pollen, Michele Obama, and Jamie Oliver, there’s been a wave of change around food. We’ve seen organic food sections of supermarkets and restaurants specializing in sustainable cuisine pop up everywhere, and we’ve even seen more sustainable choices in our children’s school food programs. But, for the most part, we still buy our clothing without thinking about the workers and the materials behind their production. Unfortunately, until the tragic collapse of a factory killed over 1000 women workers in Bangladesh this past April, few people were tuned in to the sustainability issues around fashion. That is beginning to change. I can only hope this is the start of a fashion revolution.

When thinking about the “sustainability” of any product, in this case clothing, it is helpful to consider three important elements:
1) The effect on the earth, nature and the environment
2) The personal health and safety impact on the consumer
3) The impact on the workers who make the product

The environmental component is probably the most well known aspect of the three elements I listed above. What materials were used in making the product? How much water and energy were consumed during the production process? How many miles did the product have to travel to get to the consumer? Is the product reusable, recyclable, or compostable, or does it leave behind a large footprint upon disposal? These are all critically important questions to be asking, and luckily we have reputable eco-labels and Life Cycle Analysis experts to guide us through the decision making process. But how much have you heard about the personal health impact of a cotton t-shirt or dress?

According to the Organic Trade Association, “Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop.” Really? And I put that shirt on my child? They go on to say that “during the conversion of cotton into conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the product, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde-just to name a few.” Wow! That should make you think twice next time you shop for camp clothing for your kids. Luckily there are companies that use GOTS certified organic cotton and other non toxic materials in their clothing. We sell many of those organic cotton clothing products at EcoPlum. And many manufacturers are starting to shift to less toxic production processes, which is great for those of us who don’t want to leach chemicals into our skin just from wearing clothing. But the part that, until this year, got the least attention was the third aspect of sustainability: how are the workers who made the article of clothing treated?

After the tragedy at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, H&M and other European companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, but US companies refused to sign it. As it turns out, just an hour ago (while I was writing this post), the NY Times reported that 17 major US retailers, including Walmart, Gap, Target and Macy’s, announced their plan to improve factory safety in Bangladesh: The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative. I haven’t read it yet, but critics are saying it is much less stringent than the European plan. Still, this is great news. But as long as there are workers in developing countries making our clothing, it is important that we find out more about the conditions of those workers before making a purchase. One good way is to purchase clothing from companies that are members of the Fair Trade Federation, Green America Certified, or otherwise transparent about the fair treatment of the people who make their products.

I know this is a lot to think about when making a clothing purchase, but if we make these mindful decisions and evolve as consumers, the fashion industry will have to follow suit.


Gia Machlin EcoPlumGia Machlin,  president and CEO of EcoPlum, an online green shopping rewards site. Watch for her contributions to the CSRHub blog on eco-friendly products and green living ideas. For more on EcoPlum, or to follow the EcoPlum blog, visit www.ecoplum.com.

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