Shopping our way out of it?

So, there’s a kind of thinking about sustainability that is very pro-business, that says “if we just bought better stuff, the world would be a better place.”  And, to an extent, they’re not wrong.  Certainly, in Bill McDonough‘s parlance, it would be “less bad,” but not necessarily “more good.”

A few weeks ago, I was faced with something I always dread – having to purchase a piece of junk… no, an undeniably useful, time- and energy-saving household appliance (a microwave oven).

So first of all, I’m feeling ooky because I’m potentially sending the old one to a less-than-ideal recycling (at least it’s not a landfill), because it would cost as much to have someone look at it and tell me what’s wrong as it costs to replace the dang thing, let alone take the time and get the parts to actually fix it.  I was at a point where someone was offering to purchase a new one for me (thanks Mom & Dad!), so I succumbed to the money-culture logic of the least-cost option.

There were plenty of microwaves in the same $120-ish price range around.  So I wanted to find out which would be the least evil option – seeking out the less bad.  How to choose?

The now-dead one was a hand-me-down, produced by the acutely evil GE. Why would I say GE is acutely evil?  After all, it had been a perfectly serviceable microwave for at least 7 or 8 years (until a short in the front panel meant that it had started to turn itself on in a way that was suggestive of demonic possession).  But I knew that GE, in addition to producing perfectly serviceable appliances and even some CFLs, produces sketchy nuclear power plants.  I have some real concerns about that, and about their former practice of nuclear weapons production, too.  So I knew I didn’t want to participate in their financial success in any way, shape or form.  But what about other brands?  Who was least bad?

I went to one of my favorite resources when it comes to figuring stuff like this out: the Ask Umbra column on Grist.  (She was the one who told me that using the dishwasher is more eco-friendly than handwashing – yay, laziness! Umbra, will you marry me?  Oh, wait, already have a spouse… never mind then, goes against minimalist principles I suppose.)  But aside from noting that they are very energy efficient for certain kitchen tasks, and reminding me to never nuke plastics (carcinogenic squick in your leftovers, anyone?), Umbra couldn’t help me decide which microwave was least offensive on short notice. 😦

Then I remembered, there are some websites that are meant to help.  Daniel Goleman has a book called Ecological Intelligence:How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything (which I loaned out to someone before I read all of it…).  Part of it talks about an online tool for comparing consumer choices: the GoodGuide.

And, for many things produced by big-ish brands, the Good Guide lets you compare the same product made by different brands (e.g. “How does Jif compare to Kettle peanut butter?”), in terms of their personal health, environmental and social impacts, using the work of a panel of reliable-sounding scientists.  I’d trust those folx to help me in my decision (unfortunately, they didn’t have anything to say on microwave ovens, either).  More recently, I found Better World Shopper, which uses similar rating criteria.

Of course, these don’t cover the (often much more ecologically sane) options of buying used, buying locally-made, choosing radically different alternatives (why buy diet soda, when you could get a carbonator, fizz your tap water, and put homegrown lemon slices in it?) or doing without things. But, as Shepherd Book always said, “if you can’t do something smart, do something right.” Or, do something a little smarter and a little less wrong.


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