Friday, May 15, 2009

Buying Responsibly

With diminishing resources and increasing harmful waste threatening the survival of our species and most others, the most responsible thing we can do is to change both what resources we consume and how much we consume. The option most of us prefer is to change what we consume, with any coincidental savings in quantity remaining largely invisible.

I recently bought a handy little book that helps people easily compare the social and environmental impacts of products commonly sold in the U.S. “The Better World Shopping Guide” by Ellis Jones ranks over 1,000 companies across 75 product categories in a report card format. As an ecologically conscientious acquaintance pointed out, the book (and others like it) deals with the “what” rather than the “how much” question, which too him is more important since people will tend to buy more of something they think has higher value, offsetting any gains such a decision might have. A practically-minded family member immediately recognized that the companies with the highest grade in each category were also the most expensive, and in almost direct proportion to their grade, thus making responsible shopping a luxury, especially in a recession.

There is an elegant solution to the apparent dilemma posed by these two objections to buying responsibly: Use the grades to determine how much of each company’s products to buy. For example, if 100% corresponds to a grade of “A” and zero corresponds to an “F,” then we would buy only 25% of that product if the grade of the company making that product was a “D,” 50% for a “C,” and 75% for a “B.” At one extreme, we wouldn’t reduce the amount we bought, but it would be better for people and the rest of the biosphere; at the other extreme, we would have to either cut out buying the product entirely or find free alternatives that had minimal negative effects. This solution also has the benefit of being budget-neutral, even in households where some members insist on buying the cheap (and generally worse) alternatives: the other members can, as much as possible, simply cut back on what they use or how long it takes to use it (such as leftovers of food).

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