A sustainable shoppers guide

Catalog Green:

What is a healthy environment worth? What is survival worth? Is it worth spending around 20 percent more for the items we use every day? Because that’s what it costs.

Speaking in Monterey last month, the environmental writer Bill McKibben pointed to a blackly humorous irony that appeared in the news a few weeks earlier: a report about scores of SUVs running out of gas as they tried to escape the path of Hurricane Rita.

The irony comes from the fact that, in McKibben’s judgment, Rita, like Katrina, was a man-made disaster, and SUVs helped make it happen.

The celebrated journalist and author of a half-dozen books, including 1989’s influential The End of Nature, is among those who believe that human-caused global warming is producing storms of greater frequency and intensity. (He pointed out that already this year, with a few months of storm season remaining, the National Weather Service had made its way further through the alphabet for hurricane names than ever before in history.)

Like a vast majority of environmental scientists, McKibben blames global warming on human activities such as driving. The SUV drivers, then, were responsible for their own crisis.

As are we all.

News of environmental havoc is no longer news. There are those among us who refuse to accept it as fact—those people, I’m afraid, are hopeless. Many more of us understand, to one degree or another, that we are participating in a crime against nature, but feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about it.

McKibben added to the already daunting pile of evidence that we are headed for a calamity—from studies of the rapidly shrinking polar ice cap (20 percent smaller this year than in 2000) to the growing number of “environmental refugees” worldwide fleeing what are still called “natural” disasters.

The solution that McKibben put forward, and which forms the subject of his upcoming book Deep Economy, requires a profound philosophical shift. To survive, he said, we Americans must learn to think less as “hyper-individuals,” and more as members of a community. This will be difficult, he conceded, in a mediated world where we each are told every day that we are at the center of our own universe—a world in which “This Bud (and everything else) is for you.”

By seeing ourselves instead as members of a community, only then will we be able to make the difficult choices required to undo some of the damage, and forestall much deeper destruction.

This is heady stuff, and it probably left some members of the audience wishing for something more immediate, more practical—something easier than a complete lifestyle revolution.

Buried in McKibben’s talk in Monterey was one fact that I found hopeful. He reported that the average inhabitant of Western Europe uses one-half as much energy as the average American. This suggests that we do not all have to move into solar-powered yurts in order, as a nation, to significantly reduce our environmental impact.

Of course, today’s Europeans have an advantage over us when it comes to living sustainably. Their cities are laid out to allow walking and public transportation—that’s the main thing. And their governments, for the most part, are more willing to provide both carrot and stick, in the form of socialized commuter trains and strict emissions requirements. 

But it’s also true that European consumers are doing their part. In fact, enough individuals have made the choice to change their habits, just a little, that they have created something of a movement.

Last February, the London daily The Guardian published a guide to what it called “ethical shopping.” That guide ranked 39 items that the average Londoner purchased every week, and determined that it cost more than 5,000 pounds sterling per year (around $8,700) for a Brit to shop with a conscience.

The Guardian quoted another British publication in discussing the trend: “Ethical living is being driven by two apparently divergent groups,” said Lucy Siegel of The Observer. “At one extreme are grassroots eco-warriors who live simple, low-consuming lives. At the other end of the scale are wealthy urbanites who express their concern through consumer choices.”

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These consumer choices, here as in Europe, aren’t easy for most people. As this “Green Money Catalogue” shows, choosing to pay the environmental costs of the products we desire can be pricey. But it also demonstrates that our purchases can make a profound difference. Our money can be used to destroy rivers, kill wildlife and pollute airsheds, or to help heal a planetary biological system that is in peril.

So what is a healthy environment worth? Or we may well ask: What is survival worth? Is it worth spending around 20 percent more for the items we use every day? Because as this Catalogue demonstrates, that’s about what it costs. The following pages also try to illuminate the environmental costs hidden behind other consumer choices.

There is no direct connection between our individual survival and a decision to buy a $200 fleece jacket made from recycled plastic bottles, or to buy an organic chicken or a box of ladybugs. And those poor fleeing SUV drivers may have gotten stuck even if they were driving Priuses. But the choice is, nevertheless, clear. We can pay big now, or pay big later.

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