Friday, October 23, 2009

We count calories. Why not carbon?

This is one from the archives, it ran in May of 2009 in The Christian Science Monitor. It's wise to pause and reflect. I believe this is what I was discussing with Little Pie while we took a stroll in the Adirondacks one day.

Little Pie is especially concerned
about environmental issues. She tells me that "Too many people have let go of the thread that ties them to the earth."

Denver - Thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I see that my serving of Honey Nut Cheerios has 110 calories. This, along with dozens of other data points on the box, helps me make educated choices to do right by my body. I'm ready to tackle the day as an informed consumer of food.

Wait! That box: What "ingredients" went into that? Ditto for the plastic liner and all those O's: How many "calories" did it take to manufacture them and then ship them to my table? What's the carbon footprint of my breakfast?

At the store, I can compare cereal carbohydrates but I can't compare how much they cost the planet. I'm not empowered to shop right by the health of the planet. I might as well put on a blindfold.

Americans need to broaden their understanding of energy and its cost. Nearly everything in our homes, from toasters to hair dryers, consumes energy (and emits pollution) from start to finish. But we don't think about that. We think that's the job of the energy companies. We turn down the thermostat and buy reusable bags at the grocery store, but that's about it.

Americans are voracious shoppers. We use more than our fair share of resources in this world. To embrace conservation, shouldn't we consider a product's carbon cost? Take appliances. Many come with an Energy Star rating. We all nod and feel good about it. But this label just shows the relative energy cost of ownership, not the absolute cost of manufacture. I wonder if it is confused with the car device OnStar; consumers may think washers have satellite connections offering emergency assistance for grass stains.

Think about all those products that companies dare to call "green." Unlike "organic," which is a federally regulated label, companies can affix "green" to just about anything, even petroleum-based plastic Easter eggs from China! Head slap. The manufacturers can't be trusted – they're colorblind. By "green," they must mean the color of money. Unless they start making edible sofas, this is beyond the FDA's scope, so who is going to settle this issue?

Misconceptions abound. Most runners don't think they have a negative environmental impact. The runner just runs, right? Hats off to Runner's World magazine for taking a hard look at this question in "The Runner's Footprint." The article showed that the carbon cost associated with a shoe's life cycle can be eye-popping. My husband is a runner. Runners don't like air pollution. So I know a shoe's carbon cost would weigh heavily on his choice.

If price and quality were equal, which widget would you buy – the one that cost 10,000 carbon points or 100? From jeans to washing machines, we need a common metric for the pollution costs that products incur during their life cycles. If we can list the nutritional value of a pickled egg, surely we can drive a healthier market and planet through system-cost comparison.

While we wait for that, we don't have to wait to be smarter shoppers. When we spend money on new products, we spend a great many carbon points. But when we buy repurposed goods at thrift stores, we spend close to zero carbon points. We have choices, but we need to be informed to make responsible ones.


Bee Balm Gal said...

I just wrote a post where I calculated the retail value of items I purchsed for $8.00 at garage sales earlier this month. My total (with linked evidence) was $250. Re-use or retail? I prefer the Saturday morning treasure hunts. Besides, there's no fresh air and sunshine inside a sprawl mall or big box store...

Shopping Golightly said...

Good Morning Bee Balm,

I wish there were a metric in place that also revealed your carbon cost savings in your purchase. Bettcha a couple of nickles that it was well over 500x more than a new product purchase.

Be proud in your $$ savings and be proud in your carbon point savings.

Most Americans do not understand that most countries shop in open air markets. Funny, there is carbon savings in that too - no buildings to heat and cool and no electricity to light!

Avrila said...

If products were to be labeled with environmental information, I'd like to see more than just carbon (like I want to know more than just calories about food). There are a lot of downright poisonous pollutants that get pumped into the air and water; while those would somewhat correlate with carbon, I'd like to know specifically. You can balance out carbon by planting enough trees (I'd rather plant the trees just because they're trees too, I'm just saying, it's an option) but there aren't simple ways to take lots of other pollutants out of the air.

Oh, and speaking of open air markets, I guess I'm one of the few non-clueless Americans. Farmer's markets are awesome for local (i.e. less energy and pollution to transport it) produce in season, so I get around to them for a portion of my shopping over the summer. And once when on vacation in Wales, I wandered into the traditional weekly Machynlleth outdoor market and had to restrain myself from completely cleaning out two used bookstore stands by reminding myself that I could only have what I could carry. Best shopping trip EVER.

Shopping Golightly said...

Amen Avrila!

I concur that toxins and other factors would need to be a part of this revolutionary green metric!

Your shopping in Wales sounds like a much better experience than what you'd get by going to the chain retailer.

America's desire or want of retail homogeneity is boring and bland and sucks the creativity from our lives. Isn’t it silly to think you could stand in most malls in the US and look at the very same stores no matter the city? The same applies with restaurants.

My husband worked high tech for a short stint in Research Triangle, NC. One woman he worked had been out of the state but one time in her life on business to Buffalo, NY. She told my husband, “I didn’t like the food!”

Saver Queen said...

Ms. Golightly, you should write a book! You already have a huge fan base that you could probably leverage for a book deal. I know I'd be the first one in line to buy it...