This blog post is about something as girly as shopping. Impulse shopping even. In a nationwide trinkets store called Søsterne Grene (The Grene sisters) I stumbled over a table filled with different kitchen utensils. They were all made of bamboo, and even better, they were all made of sustainably grown bamboo! And it was really cheap, something you value when you’re on a student budget. There was cutlery, plates, cuttings boars, pallets, salad tongs and even those tiny plates you use for your chopsticks when you eat sushi.
Wow, I thought, this is everything I need, and more! And it’s all from sustainably grown bamboo. The entire table of stuff is from sustainably grown bamboo. And when I reached this sentence, my smile faded. The entire table of stuff is from sustainably grown bamboo. Not sustainably produce, not sustainably transported. I won’t question that the bamboo is grown with attention to the use of pesticide and good working conditions, or that no illegal deforestation took place. I’m sure the bamboo pallet in my hand had a great and sustainable growth. But that pallet has been on a long journey from it sprouted out of the ground till it ended up in my hand. Now, I do not have the knowledge of this particular product, but let’s break down some of the possible steps that this pallet has been through.
Growth: sustainable (yet, information about it is not transparent). I think I recall a ‘made in China’ sticker on one of them.
Harvest: For an industrial production this size, I’m willing to bet my hat that it’s not harvested by hand. More likely it’s harvested with big fuel consuming machinery. If it’s produced in a 3rd word country, then there are probably limited restriction in relation to particle filters and energy consumption.
Transportation: Again, big heavy machinery. Trucks, trains maybe even freighters; all of these consume fossil fuel.
Production: Here lots of machines cut and sand the bamboo. Water (too often drinking water in heavy quantities) is used to clean the dust and dirt of the raw material, as well as the cut product. The finishing might be done with oils i.e. sesame or coconut oil (are these sustainably produced with regards to illegal deforestation?), or they might be finished with lacquer (I wonder what chemicals are in that). Seeing as we don’t know anything about the production method, we don’t know if the production process had good working conditions for the employees, or if the processing chemicals are toxic or environmentally hazardous.
Packaging: The utensils are given individual stickers. The cutting boards are wrapped in plastic. Some of the utensils are packaged in individual cellophane bags. Stickers, wrapping plastic and cellophane have all been produced with the help of energy consuming machinery, chemicals, and at some point, crude oil.
The now individually wrapped and price tagged products need to go in boxes. Boxes and more wrapping. If it’s an older packaging procedure this could involved Styrofoam, which releases toxic gasses when burned. If it’s a newer packaging procedure the Styrofoam will most likely be replaced with paper. The packaging product in-between these two, is of course bubble wrap, something I shamefully admit I am big fan of. Pop, pop, pop!
Shipping: Yep, you guessed it; Trucks, train and ships. All very fossil fuel consuming
And then I’ll skip elegantly through distribution to warehouses and the re-distribution to the store, both of which requires more transportation. And now the pallet is in the store. Lying there all pretty and inviting with its ‘sustainably grown’ label on it, screaming “buy me! I’m sustainable and cheap!”
But we don’t see the full price. We don’t see the other raw materials in use, we don’t see the energy consumption and we don’t see the working conditions for those involved. We only see the price tag and the word sustainable. So why do we want to buy it?
There’s a lot of psychology and sociology underneath the choice of buying sustainable, and I will get back to them in a later post. The following is the ultra short version:
We have in recent years been told by society that buying sustainable and “going green” is, for various reasons, the right thing to do, and we feel like a good person when we perform “green acts” i.e. save electricity, eat organic food, use biodegradable fabric softener or buy pallets from sustainably grown bamboo. And the psyche likes to feel like a good person and likes to show itself as a good person. In Britain there is a trend happening now; People are buying and installing solar panels of their roof in massive numbers. Great right? The only problem is that homeowners are primarily installing them on the roof side facing the street, instead of placing them on the roof side which is actually getting sun, resulting in very low efficiency of the solar panels. A much higher efficiency could be obtained by installing the solar panels on the roof side facing the sun, not the one facing the street. Why then install them on the street side? To show your neighbors that you are a good person because you use renewable energy.
So how do we make the right choice if it is not necessarily the same choice that makes us feel like good people? (Also, I promise to deliberate further on this in a later post, but at this point you have been reading for a while so I’m not gonna push it). I will here give you the example of milk. Milk is used in most household and has a huge global distribution with a ton of different varieties. I use it in my coffee.
Depending on where you live, milk mostly comes in a conventional version and an organic version. The conventional milk is cheaper than the organic milk and the price difference varies a lot depending on where you live and shop. In Copenhagen, Denmark where I live, every store has organic milk. From organic mini stores and supermarkets, to 7-11’s and gas stations. Organic milk is a very common sight in Denmark, so common that every 3rd carton of milk sold in Denmark in 2010 was organic. And this is despite the fact that organic milk is roundly 25-30% more expensive than regular milk. Studies suggest that buying 1 liter of organic milk, instead of conventional produced milk, will save 200 liters of groundwater from coming into contact with pesticides because the livestock is only allowed to eat organically produced feed, meaning no pesticides are used for the fields that grow the grain used for the feed. Also organic farming discharges 40% less nitrogen than conventional farming, organic milk is said to contain 60% more polyunsaturated fatty acids, have a higher level of vitamin E, and emit 10% less CO2 than conventional produced milk [Link] (If you would like to see English scholar articles about this subject, please contact me). So in short: Organic milk is in the “good person” folder and 1/3 of the Danish population buys it, even though is pricier than other products. How did milk win the marked like that? As said before, milk is a household product and most people see it as a regular object on the shopping list. In other word, you were going to buy it anyway. You choice is whether to spend the 30% more and by doing so, feeding the ‘good person’ feeling. You don’t have to change a major habit, you just change brand. Of course the organic milk revolution didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of dedicated individuals and stakeholders to push for government initiatives and regulations. Because of the controversy regarding standardizations and regulations that were needed for introducing organic milk to the mainstream market, it was also one of the fist organic products to be thoroughly tested and inspected. This lead to a sizable knowledge pool based on quantitative methods, which was then distributed to the general public. In other words, the knowledge about the positive environmental aspects of organic milk, a longer time to spread though the collective knowledge of society and become socially accepted as ‘the right choice’.
So what can we learn from the pallet and the milk? If we are to make choices that benefit not only our own feeling of self good, but the environment as well, we need more knowledge about the products we buy, or don’t buy. There is a need for a solid foundation of empirical knowledge about the product. A product that has the label ‘sustainable’ on it, it not necessarily a sustainable choice, just as organic milk isn’t necessarily just an expensive version of an ordinary dairy product. With the global market as intertwined as it is, mapping all the different steps in the production chain is almost impossible, but in those steps we lose the actual price of the product.
There is a need for more transparency in regards to the production of our goods, and to promote this we as consumers need to not be dazzled by a shiny “sustainable” object. Our first step is to think, to be critical in our choices, and let those choices be base on knowledge instead of assumptions. “But that’s so hard…” Yes, yes I know, but you also feed the I’m-a-good-person-feeling by making smart choices, not by buying whatever has a green label on it.
There is no easy answer and no obvious solution on how to be sustainable. But we need to be conscience about these questions and the choices in our daily lives.
And now you might be wondering if I bought the Sustainable pallet. I didn’t. I decided that my old pallet at home was just fine, because it had already been produced and bought and is after all still a functional pallet. But some day that pallet will break and I will need a new one, and when that day comes, I’ll look for a somewhat sustainable one.
All photos by Mona Jensen
Disclaimer: I am not accusing ‘Søsterne Grene’ of being unsustainable or unethical, I’m simply making a point.