Shopping 101: What About the Small, Cheap Stuff?

May 1, 2008

Making improvements in production is vital but we can't forget about the post-consumption phase.

By Keri Luly, LEED AP

Green is growing at NeoCon®! The Mart achieved LEED®-EB Silver certification, more showrooms are greening with LEED for Commercial Interiors, and more products are spouting green claims. In addition to the LEED certifications, more product-focused certification programs and directories are helping sort out the differences between marketing hype and real achievement.

Most of the NeoCon products are durable and long-lasting-an environmental plus. Most of my colleagues wisely buy Energy Star rated appliances and thermal windows, and a few are even giving up their SUVs in favor of smaller vehicles. These I categorize as "large, smart purchases"; the major, calculated improvements in buying habits that save money while doing good for the environment.

But, the "small, ordinary purchases" we make-the ones we barely think twice about because they're usually cheap and seemingly inconsequential in the greater scheme of things—can be another important part of the sustainability solution. They are the things we buy and toss out with little thought to the chain of impacts tied to them. They may be small goodies for gift bags at kids' birthday parties; take-out containers from the nearby café (and the food leftovers); the "gotta have" trinkets we're bored with in a couple of months; the cheap plastic ink pens tossed into the trash ... the list goes on and on.

We all buy that "stuff," but how often do we think about the open loop or the invisible people associated with it?

THE OPEN LOOPSome colleagues recently showed me their new, biodegradable/disposable plates, cutlery, and glasses made from plant starches. I congratulated them on moving away from petroleum-based, single-use consumer goods, but couldn't resist the teachable moment that presented itself: Were they going to compost them after use? Did they know that waste thrown into a landfill won't biodegrade back into useful nutrients? (Modern landfills are designed to protect the environment from whatever is thrown in, so the conditions are wrong for biodegradation to occur). Did their community have a composting facility for biodegradable materials so they could break them down into nature's nutrients?

Making improvements in production is vital but we can't forget about the post-consumption phase.

Nature's ecosystems are complex webs of interdependent organisms (plants and animals) that live and die in an interconnected whole. "Waste equals food" as the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) folks say—nutrients tied up in organisms return to free nutrient building blocks for the next generations of organisms in a cycle of life. The C2C team also points out that the same thing needs to happen with the "technical nutrients" in the products that we use. What is no longer in use must be brought back into the manufacturing loop, not thrown into a lined pit, covered with dirt, and flattened by earth-moving equipment.

Consumer ecosystems are more like dead-end streets, ending at the landfill. Even our food system operates that way. In 2006, of the 251 million tons of municipal solid waste (our trash) that Americans generated (4.6 pounds of waste per person per day), only 81.8 million tons was recycled. In fact, the amount of waste we generate has increased every year since 1960. In 2006, almost 31 percent of our waste was biodegradable materials (food waste, lawn cuttings and wood) that could have been composted into soil nutrients, and much more could have been recycled.

Nature's nutrients and consumer products need to be reused in a "loop" or continuing cycle of production (that's called a closed loop). Natural resources that are harvested from the earth and used to produce and transport products that are soon to be tossed out ... products that are unavailable for future use as natural or technical nutrients for new products ... that's an open loop.

So, what does that have to do with shopping?

We all notice when food and gasoline prices rise. But how many of us notice the amount of cheap stuff available and why it's so cheap?

There has been a proliferation of stores that specialize in items costing a dollar or less. I hadn't paid much attention to them until I was drawn in a couple years ago by my young nieces who had money burning holes in their pockets. I was amazed by the amount of stuff available for a lot less money than similar items purchased elsewhere. I killed time while they shopped and started noticing where the stuff was made—almost all of it in Asia. How could the price be so low for so much stuff shipped from so far away?

My first reaction, as an "enviro," was to consider the energy it takes to ship from all those widely scattered places on the other side of the planet to the United States. My second thought was about the short lifespan of the thousands of small cheap items—from the thousands of stores known for super low prices—before their trip (using more energy) down the dead-end street to the landfill.

Then another impact occurred to me—equity.

Sustainable development requires success in three areas: environment, economy and equity. That third "e," equity, has to do with safe and fair living and working conditions for all people on the planet—a requirement if we're truly going to achieve sustainability. Much public attention was paid years ago when a number of large, well-known companies (Nike being the most recognized) were discovered to be indirectly responsible for often deplorable working conditions in developing countries.

Nike and those other big-name firms have since worked with their suppliers to make major improvements, but what about all the small, unbranded items in the cheap stores? The cold hard truth is that most of those items cannot be shipped and sold so cheaply here if the invisible workers (often including children) in those countries are paid reasonable wages and provided safe work environments. There is no association with a big-name company that the public can demand to perform better with these items. As an aunt, I think about how lucky my nieces and nephews are that they live here. As consumers, we all need to think about how our shopping habits demand rock-bottom prices that are achieved by driving poor working conditions in other countries.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the issue of social equity and cheap purchases? What can a shopper do? It's unrealistic to think that we're all going to change our buying habits overnight, but change requires awareness (which you now have) ... then action.

First, make it a habit to think about the importance of closing the loop, and consider those invisible workers as you're picking up those small, cheap items.

In manufacturing, we say that you can't manage what you don't measure. Consumers can apply that same approach. Keep a journal of all your non-food purchases for a month and record the answers to the questions listed below.

Ask yourself:

  • Did I really need it?
  • How soon will I send it to a landfill?
  • Is there a more durable item that I could use instead?
  • Can I pay more for a better item that will last longer?
  • Can it be recycled in my area?
  • Was it produced locally?
  • If foreign-made; is it a fair-trade item requiring reasonable working conditions?
  • Does it have minimal packaging waste to discard (such as bottled water)?
  • Is there a used item that I could buy instead of new?
  • When I can't use it any more, can I find it a new home?
  • If no one can use it after me, can/will I take it to a recycling or composting facility?
  • What can you change in your future shopping trips?

The C2C team says it well by encouraging "a positive agenda; one that seeks a renewably powered world, full of safe and healthy materials that are economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly deployed."

I'll buy that! How about you?


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the Worldwatch Institute-an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations. Worldwatch provides compelling, accessible, and fact-based analyses of critical global issues to inform people around the world about the complex interactions between people, nature, and economies. Visit to learn more.

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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