Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How to Be a Green Shopper

Shannon Del Vecchio

This is my first guest essay, by Shannon Del Vecchio, a talented Feng Shui consultant and an expert on green interior design. Since I often mention products - some of them green alternatives - I thought Shannon's insights would be useful.

So here's Shannon . . .

One thing to clarify right up front: In the realm of consumer products today, very few options are 100% green. Currently, almost everything we buy has damaged the environment in some way, which produces a vague sense of guilt and anxiety for many ethical shoppers. In order for this current reality to shift, our entire society will need to undergo a truly radical transformation - which is indeed happening, but it takes time.

Meanwhile, most of the products on the market are sustainable in certain ways, yet not in others. For example, let’s say you purchase some delicious locally grown organic blueberries at the local store. Probably, those berries are purveyed to you in a plastic container, one of the most environmentally problematic products in existence. Our favorite renewable resource, bamboo, is usually shipped all the way from China, using up a lot of fossil fuels in the process. Many products with a high recycled content take tremendous energy to manufacture. In fact, virtually ALL products currently have some pros and some cons in terms of environmental impact.

Don’t let this paralyze you! The purest path we can take as consumers is to educate ourselves about the different types of impact, and attempt to make choices that minimize overall impact, while accepting that it cannot be done perfectly (yet).

Clearly, one of the greenest choices out there is to reduce consumption overall, and the second greenest choice is to buy secondhand whenever possible. It is wise to emphasize these choices whenever possible. For the purposes of this article, however, I would like to focus on the factors to consider once you have decided to buy something, you have decided to buy it new, and you would like your choice to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

Things to find out:

* Is the product made from raw materials that were sustainably grown or extracted?
* Is it made from recycled materials or does it have a high recycled content?
* Is it built and finished with non-toxic glues, sealants, paints and stains?
* Is it packaged lightly, self-packaged, or packaged in materials that are recycled, recyclable and/or biodegradable?
* Does the product require minimal amounts of energy to manufacture?
* Is it manufactured locally, using local materials?
* Is it durable and timeless, with a long useful life?
* Can it easily be recycled into something else when you are finished with it?

Keep in mind, you will often get several "no" answers even with products that are considered "green"! So, here are a few more ideas to help you develop your priorities and make a decision, in the land of the imperfect options in which we live:

If health is important to you, place your emphasis on buying organic, non-toxic and biodegradable products whenever you can. Eating fresh organic produce and using zero-VOC interior paints and natural cleaning products is not only good for the earth, but good for you!

If saving money is important to you, focus on buying gently used products, and buy durable products that will have a long useful life. Often you can find beautiful, stylish and well made furniture or clothing at consignment stores for less than a third of original retail.

If ensuring a safe world for your children is important to you, focus on reducing use of fossil fuels by installing solar panels, buying alternative energy credits, driving a hybrid or using public transportation, and shopping locally as often as you can. Climate change is probably the most urgent environmental threat to the next generation.

Obviously all of these issues are interconnected; and most of us care deeply about all of them. Broadly speaking, what all of us need to do is consider issues of social and environmental responsibility before spending our money. The fact that an increasing number of people are doing this already is the impetus behind one of the most radical shifts in commerce that has happened since the dawn of the industrial revolution. To borrow a phrase from Lime.com: “Live the Change!”

[July 25, 2007: This is a slightly modified version of Shannon's original essay.]

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