Buy an eco-bag, save the earth?: How we might be commodifying sustainability

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Our deep-seated environmental problems reveal that our “eco-sensitive” lifestyle choices may be less sustainable than we think. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The way you define a problem illuminates its solutions.

There’s a popular anecdote that follows a boy’s walk down a beach, picking up starfish that have washed ashore. Each one he collects, he casts back into the water. But the starfish number in the hundreds, and a man watching the boy’s progress points out that he’s unlikely to make much of a difference. As the boy throws another into the sea, he says, “At least I’ve made a difference to that one.”

This story, intended as an inspirational — if deeply cheesy — reminder of the power of little steps, frames the challenge as such that your eyes stop at the shoreline. The problem at hand is the beached starfish, so there’s virtue in these small successes. But as others have pointed out, the story is also a telling representation of the world’s preoccupation with piecemeal solutions to what are, in actuality, systemic problems.

We’re familiar with this myopia because we’ve grown used to seeing it play out in our politics. More recently, however, it’s taken root somewhere less obvious but perhaps closer to home: our shopping choices.

As environmentalism begins to enjoy its induction into mainstream consciousness, “sustainability” has emerged as everyone’s favorite buzzword. But sustainable development, in its most traditionally accepted form, draws from a complex matrix of factors whose reach extends far further than just challenges to our environment and our lifestyles.

The bottom line is that stuff, when environmentally benign but ultimately needless, cannot claim sustainability. At best, it’s the product of misdirected good intentions, as with the endless — and therefore thoughtless — production of eco-bags.

It involves, for instance, providing access to clean water for the one billion people who lack it, and improving livelihoods and social protection systems, particularly for the 800 million who continue to live in extreme poverty. It deals in the adjustment of food production and management, so we can restore sanity to a world in which over a billion tons of food is wasted annually, but nearly a billion people are undernourished and two million are overweight or obese. This list goes on, and that’s precisely the beginning of the challenge: Sustainability, in its holistic sense, is so immense an issue, it’s often dwarfed by the day-to-day.

So, to cope with our powerlessness, we make incremental changes. We dissect the problem and hold fast to what seems most within our capacity to control: our stuff.

As the New York Times has asserted, “that vision of an eco-sensitive life as a series of choices about what to buy appeals to millions of consumers, and arguably defines the current environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making a stylish statement.”

As a result, eco-sensitivity has been translated into popular commodity. The availability of products that are debatably good for the earth has swelled, from reusable water bottles and metal and paper straws to the fundamentally ironic eco-friendly lines of fast fashion labels.

The motive behind these purchases is commendable in theory. But the upshot is that it’s become necessary to second-guess not only the supply that’s desperate to meet the escalating demands of the environmentally conscious, but that demand itself. As consumers, do we know where to draw line between what aids sustainable development and what’s only a moderately improved version of the very things we’ve set out to supplant?

The bottom line is that stuff, when environmentally benign but ultimately needless, cannot claim sustainability. At best, it’s the product of misdirected good intentions, as with the endless — and therefore thoughtless — production of eco-bags. At worst, it’s corporate greenwashing at work. This is the case with clothing companies that espouse recycling while also selling millions of pieces in a single year, each garment taking a shocking toll on water, electricity, oil, and people, from the cotton farmers to the factory laborers exposed daily to poor working conditions. Across the spectrum, however, the logical conclusion is the same: They are additions to the escalating total of global waste.

In terms of consumption habits, sustainability is less about buying better than it is about buying less.

When striving for sustainable lifestyles, we commit to stretching our view of a product’s beginning and end points, so that the critical question is no longer “how much will it cost me?” Instead, the lines of inquiry shift: What did it take to put this shirt together? Who made it, and does their compensation ensure more than just the next meal on their plate? What will happen to it when I decide to get rid of it, and how long will it be before I get there? And, perhaps most importantly, from where do I draw the belief that I need it?

When we concern ourselves with the complex questions, needs tend to betray themselves as wants. Sustainability, then, is not only a reevaluation of what we have, but how our purchases buoy the rest of the system. Questions of cost must pertain to more than just market price.

In three short decades, we will be sharing the planet with nine billion other people. That’s two billion more than today, each one of us competing for resources already straining under the weight of our current numbers. And as poverty drops and purchasing powers rise, the push against the earth’s reserves will only be magnified if we fail to pivot our values from quantity of stuff to quality of life.

We cannot, as individuals, buy our way to sustainability. As Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, put it, “We are just trying to get better and better at swimming upstream, rather than changing the course we are on.” We empower injustice when we mistake benevolence for lasting social change.

In terms of consumption habits, sustainability is less about buying better than it is about buying less.

Sustainable, systemic solutions often demand an overhaul of the rules. The most dramatic impact is reliant on many sectors and governments valuing innovation, collaboration, and farsighted policy creation. Think along the lines of Bhutan’s commitment to combating climate change or the landmark Paris Agreement officially coming into effect.

The purpose of this argument is certainly not to denounce individual decisions made in consideration of our ecosystem. By all means, buy better and buy less. But know that while these are not bad choices, neither are they lasting solutions. Purchase, instead, as a practice of mindfulness, a commitment to a process rather than a final stop.

That, then, becomes the quotidian reminder to be better-informed citizens, so as to understand the hurdles to sustainability before we endeavor to embark on concrete solutions. And because that awareness must engender action, it also becomes necessary that we demand more from both our loved ones and our authorities — from those we vote into office to the decision-makers and thought leaders of the private sector and the academe.

When we test the bounds of what would otherwise seem a static sphere of influence, we find a means of framing the problem in which the work doesn’t stop when we’ve thrown back the starfish.