Does it matter how something was made, or just whether it does the job you need it to do?
I have a little statuette of John Lennon on my desk. It reminds me of an inspiring guy, but what makes it really meaningful is how it was made from illegal handguns turned in to police amnesty programs, which were melted down and cast into my little statue. How it was made gives it as much meaning as what it portrays. (Remember how John was killed.) Together they make a powerful statement.
What interests me is the true stories behind the things we eat, wear, and use every single day. What’s so interesting? Well, the only reason I’m not out farming, hunting or gathering right now is that our economy evolved to deliver these everyday things to us on a huge scale. This allows me to spend my time doing work that hadn’t even been imagined a few decades ago. I’m pretty grateful for that, but also concerned about how the economy does that job for me.
Forty-six million people today – right now – live and work in conditions of slavery, according to a recent credible report. By slavery, the report’s authors mean, “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception.” Also recently, Nestle announced that an internal investigation had found evidence of modern slavery among Asian fishermen in its pet food supply chain.
A step above slavery are sweatshops where no overt coercion exists, but millions have no choice other than working in unsafe conditions that would seem familiar to Charles Dickens. They are paid a minimal subsistence wage, virtually eliminating hope of escape for them or their children, and attempts to unionize are met with brutal violence. We thought we had abolished these conditions, including child labor, didn’t we? Turns out, we merely exported them to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India.
Open your closet and it’s almost guaranteed that lots of your clothes were made under sweatshop conditions, and that the cotton was grown using toxic chemicals that are illegal in the U.S., by workers who are not protected or trained in their use. In Uzbekistan, cotton is harvested by enslaved workers and it’s been reported that ISIS has taken over three-fourths of the cotton fields in Syria. Guess who is working those fields…
Similar issues exist for virtually any consumer product you buy. Do any of these facts matter? If you can’t change the situation, why worry about it?
Because there are alternatives. That’s our theme here at GreenerDailyLife.com. There is no need to give up things that make our lives comfortable. We just need to take a few minutes to understand how things are made and what alternatives exist. You can do this in four easy steps.
Step 1: Choose One Thing
Choose one thing you use every day, something you especially enjoy. For me, it’s coffee. I love the taste, the warmth, the shot of mental clarity. For you, it’s probably something different – fashion or cosmetics or cars.
Step 2: Do a Little Google Research
Learn about where this product comes from and how it’s made. Who makes it and what is its environmental footprint? For example, if you love blue jeans, check this quick look at the inner life of blue jeans from Patagonia, a company that uses only organic cotton.
So, what’s the story of my coffee? Coffee is the third most chemical-intensive crop in the world. Large areas of forest are cleared for coffee plantations, destroying ecosystems, endangering rainforest species, poisoning farmworkers, and releasing climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere.
Well, that’s a depressing story and doesn’t make me feel great about enjoying coffee made that way. But stay with me.
Step 3: Find Better Alternatives
Better alternatives exist. With the help of some trustworthy online resources, I discovered amazing coffee roasters who buy organic coffee beans at fair trade prices from farmers they know (here are my favorites). Some form true partnerships, with farmers getting a share of retail profits, and developing cooperatives that give farmers economic power. Some companies work hard to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging or the energy they use. Some plant trees to offset the carbon released by transporting and roasting the beans.
This is ‘conscious capitalism’ – combining awareness of the human and environmental impact of a business, from raw material production to finished goods manufacturing, with a determination to make all of those impacts positive ones.
These entrepreneurs are reinventing the coffee business – a business in dire need of reinvention. They are my gurus on the path to understanding the inner life of my cup of coffee, the heroes of this everyday-epic story.
Step 4: Adopt a Better Alternative In Your Daily Life
Now I buy coffee beans with a healthy pedigree, from fabulous roasters who help farmers benefit from the value created all along the value chain, from farm to consumer. It’s delicious, and totally worth the premium I pay over commodity supermarket coffee. When I commute to work, my bag contains two travel mugs of this delicious beverage, which also means that I no longer leave a trail of discarded single-use cups. And, of course, I’m enjoying the good stuff.
What difference can it make if you change what you buy? Your everyday choices can be the seeds of a smarter, more beautiful way of life. Every one of us can:
- reduce our personal environmental footprint
- feel better about the products we and our families use all day long
- influence other people by our example
- reward entrepreneurs who are reinventing business (instead of supporting tired, outmoded corporations)
- show the old guard that profits are shifting from unsustainable to sustainable business
- join millions of others in adding a brick to the foundation of a clean, healthy, and prosperous 21st century economy
I feel good playing a small role in this epic story of transformation and redemption in the coffee industry. For those of us living at the top of the Consumer Industrial Complex – probably most of us reading this blog – every single product we buy has this unseen inner story. You don’t have to change everything. Pick one thing – something that gives you joy, but whose inner story can give you greater joy when chosen consciously. Try my simple four-step process, or just join me here at GreenerDailyLife.com, where we are dedicated to uncovering the epic sustainability stories in everyday life.
Now you’re a “conscious consumer.”
– Chet Van Wert
For more on modern slavery, I recommend:
Nearly 46 Million People Trapped in Modern Slavery, Report Finds
There Are More Slaves Today Than at Any Time in Human History
For more on the story behind your clothes: Time for a Fashion Revolution
For more on community-supported agriculture: Hire Yourself a Farmer
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