On The Soap Box Again!

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When did shopping become a struggle in decision making? Part of going vegan almost a year and a half ago has been adjusting my buying habits to reflect my evolving morals. Not wanting to eat animals or to exploit them for my own benefit has morphed into trying to do right in a general way; trying to live responsibly in the world at large. It's very difficult because each choice that is made that benefits me also comes at a detriment to some other living creature. It's a real pickle.

Most decisions are a mix of good and bad outcomes. For example, when we bought my car a while back, I asked the salesman if the car contained any animal products such as a leather steering wheel. (It does not so that's good.) But, a car runs on gas (we did not buy a hybrid car) and gas is a petroleum product which is a fossil fuel. Burning fossil fuels  harms our environment by contributing to pollution, global warming, and tearing up the landscape (which affects the creatures living on said landscape) to dig for that oil. 

Here is another example of a decision with a mixed outcome. Most of us realize that plastics, specifically plastic bags and bottles, are a serious issue. We have plastic garbage floating in our oceans and rivers, littering our landscapes, and piling up in our garbage dumps. This is indisputable. We are told to reduce, reuse and recycle. Great. Super. I can get behind that. With those concepts in mind, I purchased some mesh bags to use at the grocery store. One set is made of certified fairly traded organic cotton. The manufacturers claim that the product is compostable. The product is also made somewhere in China, likely in a factory that utilizes fossil fuels to power its operations, perhaps underpays its workers and which is massively polluting the environment. Not to mention the fact of the cotton fabric production itself and that impact on the environment. Oh, and by the way, these bags were shipped from China and arrived eventually at my house via a UPS truck. But, it's all good because I won't be using those pesky plastic bags anymore to buy my organic produce. Or will I? The second set of bags that I bought is made from recycled plastic bottles. That's a win right? Yes and no. The same problems exist for these recycled plastic bags as described for the cotton bags above. 

I could go on, really. What do you do as a consumer? How can you make a decision at all, let alone a "good" decision? My evolving solution to this problem involves both conscious choice and flexibility of thought. Essentially, a decision comes down to selecting the lesser of many evils. Each decision contains some benefits but ultimately will affect some living creature or the environment. Decisions are not made in a vacuum and are not made without consequence. Here then are some things to consider when deciding to buy a product.

1. Necessity:

Have I run out of this product yet or do I simply want to replace it? There are still Ziplock bags in my pantry. Do I recycle them and buy better bags or use up what I have? I chose to keep using the bags as long as possible, wash them and recycle them. Waste not want not right? I realize that this decision may or may not impact workers somewhere that manufacture these Ziplock bags as well as the companies that sell the bags. (I am trying not to focus on the water needed to wash the bags either.) The other question that falls into this category has to do with desire versus need. Do I just want something because I want it or is it really going to benefit our household? Deprivation sucks and honestly, sometimes you do just want something. But by and large, I try and ask if the item is really pertinent or can it wait to be purchased.

2. Human Impact:

With each purchase, who am I impacting? In a global economy, workers everywhere get paid to produce, repair, assemble, fix or maintain things. They grow our food, harvest it, package it up and get it shipped off. Workers in third world countries are often exploited. Many are not paid a fair or "living" wage and perhaps have no chance to live a better life.  When you choose not to buy something, you are affecting someone. Not buying a particular product, even if the production of that product harms someone, might eventually affect someone's employment status. On the other hand, we are told to be the change that we want to see in the world. If that's true, we should buy from companies that pay fair wages, treat their workers well, and minimally impact the environment. Not easy to do.

3. Impact To Other Living Beings:

On one hand, this decision is easy. I don't eat animal products so that is good. On the other hand, I benefit from animal exploitation, which is bad. Starting with the medicines that I take, the glue that holds my shoes together, and the animals that get killed when fields are plowed to grow my food, my choices have a tremendous impact on other living beings. It's inescapable. This is the one area that bothers me the most since animals cannot speak up, engage in collective bargaining or walk off the job if they are unhappy. What can be done while striving for a clearer conscience? Knowing that there are some things that I cannot bypass, I am going to try and continue to do a few things: make good, better and best choices when it comes to buying something; be informed; continue to learn about the impact of humans and non humans living together and be consciously aware of my decisions while being as honest as possible in my thinking. Continuing to learn and to be thankful for the sacrifice of those that can't speak up may be the only responses for now.

4. Impact To The Environment:

We live in a rural area, by choice, without much in the way of shopping options. A lot of what I buy for our household comes to us on a truck, a plane or a train. I see that UPS has some clean air vehicles, which is great, but by and large we are talking about the use of fossil fuels. My initial thoughts are that these trucks are already out on the road. By not getting in my car to drive somewhere to shop, I become one less person impacting the infrastructure. It's not always possible though to have everything I order come in one shipment or from one vendor. I then have to ask myself how badly do I need the item and can I make due with something else? Lately, I have been trying to ask these questions prior to each purchase. I don't always get it right but the point is to think and to ask.

Specific Examples: Things to try

Where can you start?  I have 10 ideas that I am currently working with. These are as good a place as any in which to begin the process of hopefully reducing impact.

1. Use cloth napkins and towels instead of paper towels and paper napkins. Also, substitute handkerchiefs for kleenex (old flannel sheets work nicely for this).
2. Try switching out your coffee: fair trade that doesn't impact orangutans, the rain forest or workers. You may have to pick your battle here.
3. Gradually switch out your makeup and other personal hygiene products. One  thing at a time.
4. Buy dairy locally if possible, including eggs if you eat them.
5. Re use existing plastic bags as much as possible and slowly replace with cloth, recycled plastic or glass containers.
6. Use up what you have first prior to replacing it.
7. Consider whether or not Costco fits with your goals. I'd like to ditch the place but my husband thinks otherwise.
8. Look specifically for products with minimal and recyclable packaging.
9. Try the library. It will help to keep this resource alive and viable and will also keep the volunteers busy.
10. Turn the lights off when you leave a room.

It all seems overwhelming doesn't it? Questioning each purchase requires conscious effort and as I mentioned above, flexibility in decision making is key. Accepting the imperfection of choice is critical to maintaining some sanity. It isn't an excuse to employ sloppy thinking but instead a call to be more educated and vigilant. I hope my decisions are supported by logic and reason (even if they may at times be a little illogical!) My final point is to remember to realize that any decisions I make will impact others. Even if I make the best decision available, someone or something is still going to be affected. Be grateful for options and be mindful of others. It's the best I can do.


  1. I run a very limited paper & plastic usage household. I sewed grocery tote bags from heavy drapery fabrics and made vegetable bags from tshirts. I haven't bought paper towels in years. I use old tshirts as wipe up rags. I use wash cloths for cleaning at the sink, cloth hand & a separate cloth dish towel. I've been using cotton cloth napkins since the 1980s. I have a few plastic containers for food storage and an assortment of glass jars and containers. Any packaging is recycled through my neighborhood recycling center.

    I also try to limit my water usage. I run the dishwasher once a week, shower twice a week and wash my hair once a week. I run 2 small loads of laundry a week. I generally wear the same clothes 3-4 times a week but always change for church on Sunday (!) ha! ha!
    Since I live in an urban city, I can organize my shopping and errands around each other making trips as consolidated as possible.
    When I started selling thrifted clothes on Poshmark, the recommendation was to take the package to the post office & get a receipt. That practice used time & gas. I decided the postage the customer bought covered the mailing and the receipt. Now I listen for the mail truck & when I can I get out and hand the packages to the mail lady. I'm no longer using my gas & time to mail a package that the postage is designed to cover anyway.
    I also deal in cash as much as possible and use electronic check deposits so I don't have additional receipts or need to drive to the bank to deposit checks.
    I buy secondhand almost exclusively. As you know, I also repurpose clothes for fabric in my artwork.

    You are right. We have choices. Being mindful & forming conscientious habits, even small ones, help build a more solid foundation of thrift, sustainability and ecological awareness.


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