“The 800 lb. gorilla behind virtually all of the ‘sustainability challenges’ is you and me, the consumer. The problem is not that we are bad, but that we have been blind to the impacts of our everyday choices which are about to change.” ~ Peter Senge, MIT Sloan School of Management
As we watch the trend of eco-friendly home products and décor cycle towards being greener and hopefully more sustainable, the array of choices blows the field of goods wide open.
Every item we purchase has a hidden price tag. I often wish there was an eco-label that could cut through the web of greenwashing and glean the transparency of products. We consumers have tough questions to ask about all of the hidden impacts of the things that we buy. For instance, I want to know what the social and environmental implications of the furniture, appliances, electronics, and even the sheets and towels I buy are. What are the “people” issues, such as how the workers were treated? Also, the “planet” issues such as waste management and the treatment of animals?
Blaming the past is not really a solution. Yes, many products were conceived in an innocent time when it was virtuous to make things cheap. These items seemed to flow from malleable plastics and an endless source of petroleum. We enjoyed the luster that lead powder gave to paints, and we sourced wood unsustainably to build our homes and make our furniture.
Next: Important questions to ask about products
I recently read Daniel Goleman’s uplifting book, Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts Of What We Buy Can Change Everything. Goleman tackles the problem of all of the wild inconsistencies and mixed messages we consumers are presented with daily. He believes the balance of power is shifting from seller to buyer, as we gather more ecological facts about these products. Goleman calls this, “radical transparency” and he trusts this will enable the consumer to make smarter purchasing decisions that will drive companies to rethink and reform their businesses practices by “rewarding those who merit it and penalizing the rest.”
Dwell magazine eloquently presented what questions to ask when evaluating products for your home:
1. Is it an environmentally preferable material? Think salvaged, recycled, renewable, or agricultural waste.
2. Does it reduce risks to human health or the environment compared to conventional products? Hardwood flooring that’s prefinished under factory-controlled conditions keeps floor-finishing fumes out of your home.
3. Does it reduce fossil-fuel or water consumption compared to alternative products? Laptop computers use 90 percent less electricity than desktop models.
4. When you’re done with it, can it be reused, recycled, or composted rather than landfilled or incinerated? Buying a bookshelf needn’t involve a lifetime commitment, but choosing a well-designed, high-quality product makes it more likely that you’ll hand it down rather than consign it to the garbage truck’s maw.
Are we getting closer to answering some of these questions? Project Label may just bring transparency to non-food companies. Project Label creates “social nutrition” labels for shoppers who want to track manufacturers’ social and environmental responsibility. Also, GoodGuide, Inc. is building tools that “transform how people see and interact with products and companies by delivering comprehensive and rigorous information at the point of purchase.” Check out the GoodGuide blog.
While I am buying less, I do think we’ll need to make well-meaning decisions to protect what the impact our past choices have been on our planet and how we will purchase items in the future. What do you think? Can we trace the real environmental impact of the items we buy? Can we raise our eco-IQs and demand that companies make good stuff for our homes?