Although the worst impacts of climate change are still decades away, experts say it’s already a costly problem. In 2012, U.S. taxpayers spent nearly $100 billion—approximately $1,100 apiece—to cover crop losses, flooding, wildfires and other climate-related disasters, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s more than America spent last year on education or transportation.
Given the lack of action on climate change by Congress, more Americans are looking to leverage their purchasing power to make a difference. Yet, as consumers trying to “shop their values” know, it’s often difficult to distinguish the “green” from the “greenwashed”. Natural Awakenings has rounded up some tips that can help.
Dismiss Meaningless Labels
Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., who leads the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports and its Greener Choices and Eco-labels online initiatives, says companies take far too many liberties in product labeling. The dearth of standards and consistency across the marketplace has rendered terms like “fresh,” and “free range” meaningless. Also, there’s more wrong than right about the “natural” label put on everything from soymilk to frozen dinners, she says.
While critics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s USDA Organic label say its regulations are not tough enough, Rangan says at least we know what we’re getting. The same is not true of many claims decorating consumer goods, Rangan advises. Plus, producers get away without identifying myriad other controversial practices, she says, including genetically engineered ingredients.
To help consumers protect themselves, the Consumer Union and other nonprofit public advocates have made their evaluations easily accessible via cell phones and iPads. The Web-based Good Guide’s evaluations of more than 145,000 food, toys, personal care and household products are at shoppers’ fingertips via an app that scans product barcodes on the spot.
A number of easy-to-use online tools help us understand the far-flung impacts of a purchase, including on humans and habitats. The Good Guide, for instance, employs chemists, toxicologists, nutritionists, sociologists and environmental lifecycle specialists to evaluate a product’s repercussions on health, environment and society.
Sandra Postel, who leads the Global Water Policy Project, has teamed up with the National Geographic Society to devise a personal water footprint calculator. It helps people understand the wider environmental impacts of their lifestyle and purchasing choices, and provides options for reducing their footprints and supporting water replenishment efforts.
“It takes a per capita average of 2,000 gallons of water each day to keep our U.S. lifestyle afloat,” twice the world average, calculates Postel. The typical hamburger takes 630 gallons of water to produce, for example, while a pair of jeans consumes 2,600 gallons, most of it to grow the necessary cotton.
Water is just one of numerous resources overused in the United States, according to author and journalist Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank. “We overbuy food. It goes bad and ends up in landfills,” where it lets off methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as it decomposes.
“We also over-order at restaurants,” observes Nierenberg, whose think tank focuses on the interrelated issues of hunger, obesity and environmental degradation. Overall, the U.S. annually accounts for 34 million tons of food waste. “Part of the problem is we’ve lost home culinary skills,” says Nierenberg, who says we need to rethink how and how much we eat. “We don’t really understand what portions are,” she adds.
Share Instead of Buy
Collaboration characterizes the broader trend in careful consuming that relies on cell phone apps. Sometimes known as the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption”, initiatives can range from car and bike shares to neighborly lending of lawn mowers and other tools and sharing homegrown produce. One of the more innovative food-sharing options is Halfsies, in which diners at participating restaurants pay full price for a meal, but receive half of a full portion, effectively donating the cost of the other half to fight hunger.
Whatever the product, experts say, the new sharing business model is part of a fundamental shift in how people think about consuming, with the potential to help us reduce our personal carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable future.
Christine MacDonald is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in health, science and environmental issues. Learn more at ChristineMacDonald.info.