It’s been a hard year for the environmentally aware. It’s been a hard year for me.
Well, first the bright spots. Plastic microbeads, those tiny things put in beauty products for scrubbing, were banned in the U.S. last month. It was a rare but inspiring case of scientists discovering a problem – microbeads wash straight into waterways where they pollute the environment and get eaten by animals – and then legislators fixing it. Thanks, Congress!
And of course there was the landmark international climate deal was reached in Paris.
Great! Except … some think it’s too weak. The spread of air conditioning to developing countries could derail any plans to decrease emmissions. And in many ways, it’s too late anyway – the oceans are warming and acidifying, and extreme weather is getting more extreme, more frequently. Climate scientists are straight up depressed, and planning their exit strategy to the north.
There’s more! It turns out polyester microfibers wash into the ocean every time we wash a polyester garment. Bottled water consumption continues to rise. Beef is ruining the planet, but the government won’t admit it because it’s in the pocket of the beef industry. Deforestation is contributing to droughts. Ubiquitous neurotoxins are damaging the brains of fetuses. Our shrimp is harvested by slaves. (Yes, even Whole Foods shrimp.) On the home front, New York tried to ban styrofoam, but the ban was overturned.
Fast fashion trundles on, impervious to factory inspections or consumer pressure. Puma gave up on their eco-friendly shoe line. Indian rivers are so polluted they render whole town unlivable, and corrupt local officials aren’t interested in doing anything about it. Counterfeit goods are especially exploitative to workers. Because inspected and approved factories subcontract out to dangerous shadow factories in Bangladesh, most large clothing companies actually have no idea where their clothes are made or by who. Your sequined top could be sewn by an underclass of workers who work in their home for rock-bottom wages.
As corporations have grown ever larger and opaque and globalized, it has become impossible to know whether they are acting in a way that we agree with. Many organic companies are owned by processed food corporations like Kraft, Nestle and General Mills. We found out an independent, artisanal icon was lying to us. We tried to be healthier, and it’s causing vast swaths of rainforest to be burned.”Free range” doesn’t necessarily mean happy chickens, it could mean they have access to a small dirt square outside their massive, industrial coop. There are sweatshops in L.A. Supposedly eco-friendly bamboo fabric is actually made with a toxic process.
It seems that every week we found out something we thought was sustainable, actually isn’t.
The Big Lie
In the past decade, the drumbeat of “vote with your dollar!” from advocates has grown steadily louder. We’re told as consumers that we have power. If we don’t like the way a company is acting, then just don’t give them money, and they’ll be forced to change!
But I’ve come to see this view as naive and simplistic.
Yes, living more sustainably will make you happier and healthier. But like anything worth doing, it takes effort. Anyone who tries to tell you that going vegan, living waste-free, cutting your carbon footprint, switching to all organic and local food, and only buying ethically made clothes is easy, is lying to you. It’s not. It requires a lot of education, time, experimentation, and money. And those are luxuries many people either don’t have, or are unwilling to spend.
I have several people in my life who just can’t be bothered. It’s not that they’re assholes, or selfish, or stupid. In fact, 85% of Americans are concerned about toxins in their products. Most people know plastic is bad. Everyone is aware that oil is contributing to conflict and killing dolphins in the Gulf, even if they don’t believe in climate change. It’s just that they seem to freeze up when presented with all this information. They don’t want to know, really know, because it would mean overhauling everything about the way they live. As long as they can look at my lifestyle as fringe and extreme or paranoid, they can continue to buy the cheap and pretty clothes, drugstore beauty products, gas for their cars, and tasty food in styrofoam takeout containers without feeling guilty about who was poisoned or enslaved in the process.
Corporations know consumers are concerned. They’ve seen the petitions, news stories, and proliferation of blogs talking about toxins and fashion, but their profit margins are fine. For every consumer shocked by the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, there are four teenagers who need that trendy top. So conventional corporations keep doing with they’re doing, protected by obfuscation, an overload of information, deceptive campaigns, advertising dollars, greenwashing, consumer apathy, and a sclerotic political system.
We’ve gotten as far as we can with consumer education. As long as it is more work and money to live sustainably and ethically, this will be the state of affairs. In fact, I’ve been convinced that boycotts don’t work, and they never did.
And this last statement has profound implications for this blog.
Why Do I Even Bother?
If conscious consumption and boycotts don’t work, why on earth do I spend so much time and effort on EcoCult? Why bother creating the exhaustive shopping guide, when I’m not taking any meaningful money out of fast fashion’s pocket? Why meticulously test non-toxic beauty products when Cetaphil continues to be everyone’s favorite? Why do I carefully collect my compost, then get on the subway to bring it to the farmer’s market every week, when I know tons of fresh tomatoes are being dumped in a landfill on the Mexican border? Why do I go out of my way to a local coffee shop and bring a reusable mug, when the Starbucks two blocks away has trashcans filled with disposable cups?
Why any of it? Why bother? Who cares?
I’ll tell you why: Because I can never go back. I’m in too deep. I know too much.
I could never bring myself to buy a Forever21 shirt or Ann Taylor shorts, knowing all the people it hurt on its way to me, even though I know these companies won’t ever notice that I stopped shopping there.
I could never go back to throwing my food waste in the trash, even though I make no discernable difference to the amount of waste going to the landfill from Brooklyn.
I could never bring myself to walk into a cheap nail salon again, because I know paying $10 for a manicure means my manicurist is practically enslaved. I know the fumes I’m smelling could cause her to have a miscarriage, or develop cancer.
I could never buy regular gold jewelry, knowing the conditions in which it was mined.
I just can’t. I can’t live my life hypocritically. I am bound to this lifestyle now.
Someday, years in the future, when my Brooklyn apartment has a waterfront view and the garment factories of Bangladesh are underwater, I want to be able to say that I cut down my carbon footprint. When fisheries have collapsed and jellyfish have taken over the ocean, I want to be able to say that I didn’t eat the last of the tuna. When our grandchildren try to build sandcastles out of plastic particles on the beach, I want to know that those particles didn’t come from something that I discarded. I didn’t eat the beef. I didn’t take the styrofoam cup. I didn’t scrub my face with microbeads.
I didn’t give up.
So that is what EcoCult is about. I’m not laboring under the impression that my army of readers will change the world by deciding to buy used clothes. I’m building a resource where concerned people can go and find out about how they can live with a clear conscience. And that is an important piece of the puzzle.
This site is about not contributing to the problem. It’s about knowing (with as much certainty as we can muster in this globalized age) that our items weren’t made by a 12-year-old in Southeast Asia. It’s about being certain that your old cell phone isn’t being burned in India, where the toxins get breathed in by young waste pickers.
Yes, you’re just a tiny dot among the 7 billion people on this planet consuming and producing waste, but you’re an important dot to me. So I will continue to do this for you. I will continue to share articles with you on Twitter and in my newsletter. I will continue to research and write. And I will do even more.
The Next Level
As I’ve made clear, just shifting your dollars from an amoral corporation to an ethical company isn’t enough. So here’s what else I’m going to do this year to expand my influence:
1. I’m going to put pressure directly on companies to change. Companies don’t care that we sustainable advocates are all chattering amongst ourselves. They love that we have shifted all the burden of responsibility onto ourselves, wringing our hands about spending our money consciously, instead of directly pressuring them. It makes it easy to ignore us. So let’s make their life hell. Every time I hear about a company acting badly, I’m going to let them know my feelings on it. I’m going to storm their social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – and send them emails. They are going to be annoyed. I’ll share my tactics with you, and tell you how to annoy them, too.
2. I’m going to stop giving everyone a free pass. Up until now I’ve been super duper gentle on everyone in my life who is acting like business as usual. That friend who bragged about her faux fur coat from Forever21? I just nodded and smiled. The fact that I got a bunch of plastic stuff in my stocking? I quietly took it with me to NYC so I could donate it. That processed snack I was offered? I ate it. I’ve been so scared of hurting anyone’s feelings or coming off as too strident that I’ve become a doormat. These things are important – incredibly important, end-of-the-world important. I’m not going to be a bitch, but I am going to stand my ground and let people know why I’m turning down their gift, why I don’t go shopping in that store, why I don’t eat that kind of food. I’m going to be an educator, not just online, but in IRL, too. I’m not going to let anyone who has disposable income whine about how buying ethical clothing is too expensive. Get over it. Because for the person who made your cheap dress, eating is too expensive.
3. I’m going to get involved in legislation and protests. Consumers may say they care about ethics, but they’re driven by cost and convenience above all. So we need legislation that levels the playing field! As long as companies who try to do things ethically are handicapped by higher costs, while other companies get away selling polluting products at cheaper prices, nothing is going to change. Slacktivism, when we sit behind our computer signing petitions and complaining, isn’t enough. I’m going to go to the protests. I’m going to call my representatives. I want more things like the ban on microbeads. I want toxic chemicals to be taken off the market, pesticides banned, imports from corrupt countries heavily taxed. I want it to be illegal to do terrible things to people and the environment. Is that too much to ask? Absolutely not. And I’ll share information on how to get involved with you, too.
Yes, this is all more work. Perhaps I won’t change the world with my mindful consumption. But at least I’m living with a clear conscience. Are you?
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