Ask the grumpies: Being responsible consumers

Debbie M asks:

How can I be more polite in making various purchases (or, really, doing anything). Some answers: use less water and power (and certainly don’t waste it); re-use, fix, and share things rather than buying new; buy organic instead of regular for less poisoning of the earth and farmworkers; buy fair trade instead of regular so the people who actually do the work get some of the money; buy shade-grown chocolate instead of regular so they don’t have to burn down more rainforest every three years; buy free-range meat/eggs instead sardine-city-raised meat/eggs to be nicer to the animals–or even better, get nutrients directly from plants; contribute to charities that address important issues effectively and efficiently.

All of the things you mention are great ideas.

We think the best answer to this question is to lobby your government officials to put into place and to fund and enforce legislation that makes it more difficult for companies to be irresponsible providers.  Voting with your feet is great, but it doesn’t help much when corporations can flat-out lie or when there aren’t local responsibly produced alternatives.

Grumpy Nation, how do you consume responsibly?


27 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Being responsible consumers”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Today, I put back on the shelf the washcloths made in Pakistan so I would not support a country that actively supports terrorists, and probably with child slave labor.

    I raise my own chickens and do not ever give them commercial chicken food. They eat good, fresh fruits and vegetable because I will eat those eggs.

  2. plantingourpennies Says:

    It’s easy to drive yourself nuts with this kind of stuff, so we tend to prioritize on our immediate community and where we shop more than what we buy. Ie – Is the company providing good jobs with benefits to our community? Is the company active in our town and supporting the kind of community we want to live in? Then we’re probably cool with paying a premium to shop there.

    • Debbie M Says:

      I try to compromise between doing better and driving myself nuts!

      Most of my money actually goes to monopolies (property taxes, utilities), then food. Then gas and insurance. Most of these things are not about choosing to buy local. But my city does have a really good food coop and a really good hardware store, plus our favorite restaurant is family owned. Admittedly, I still mostly shop from the grocery store and hardware store that are in walking distance.

      What kinds of decent local places do y’all like to support?

      • chacha1 Says:

        We are buying property up in Calaveras County, CA … in an area recently swept by the Butte Fire. When we went up in April, we were going to do a little work on our lot, so we bought tools at the local hardware store (Sender’s Market). Sender’s re-opened as soon as allowed, while the fire was still burning, and has been doing great things for the community. We could get the next batch of tools elsewhere, but will certainly get them at Sender’s instead.

      • Debbie M Says:


  3. becca Says:

    I think the legal side is crucial at times, we ought to be collectively clammering for criminal charges in the Volkswagon diesel thing, for example.
    At the same time, my ethics are not everyone’s ethics. I’m glad to be in a financial position where the cost of “free range” eggs is acceptable, but it’s not like there’s one correct answer here, assuming you care something about suffering chickens and something about hungry people.
    Yes, I want a law getting non-therapeutic antibiotics out of chickens. But do I want a law that chickens have to be allowed outside, even if there is a certain amount of chicken-on-chicken violence inherent in that and prices reflect loosing some chickens? Beats me.

    And that’s not even getting into the GMO flavor of conventional vs. organic pesticide use debate (which is not nearly as straightforward as one would like).

    I was *really* scandalized by the slaves-in-cage-no-hyperbole appalling working conditions of Burmese fishermen… there’s no practical way to lobby politicians here to make that illegal there (I suppose we could ban all imports from there until they get their stuff together, but that has ethical costs too- who will the market find instead of the current slaves, what becomes of them now, ect…. it is a BIG set of problems). Simply buying pet food that doesn’t contain fish isn’t a perfect long term solution, but it’s all I can do right now.

    None of this is a reason to give up in despair over the complexity of the problems. But ethical consumption has a lot of layers, and I could do with less quibbling over polite eggs when we (we being “Americans generically”) live in 2400 sq ft glass houses.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I learned recently that free range grass fed beef produces more methane than feedlot beef. :(

      Re: chickens, I do think that the free range label should have a consistent definition and companies who use the label should be monitored.

      • becca Says:

        Yep, free range beef definitely has some legit pros and cons. All meat consumption is complex actually.

        Free range does have a consistent definition for boilers- it’s just not what the consumer imagines (“access to outdoors” is the criteria). Free range for eggs should *at least* mean that.
        There’s one type of egg I buy at the store that are produced in Ann Arbor- they say their birds are “pastured in summer, indoors in winter”. I don’t know if you’ve been through a recent Michigan winter, but I have… this kind of approach strikes me as by far the most sane for the area.

        The difference between the unsentimental realism involved in actual food production and a stereotyped hipster in a beard with their own personal chickens (that they keep at Qoopy when they travel, of course!) is striking. My Aunt and Uncle own a dairy farm, and it is so hard to actually try to make that work. They just plunged my cousin into debt (he qualified as a “first time farmer” for loan purposes) to buy milking robots. I’m sure this is pretty much the opposite of what the hippy dippy types imagine when they think of how a family farm should look. But the hippy dippy types are not my Uncle, whose shoulder has needed surgery for years but for whom the unrelenting milking would have just reinjured it. They are also not the cows, who apparently give *5* milkings a day when under the robot system, to the old *4* milkings a day, in part because they can come to it when they want to get the good food.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yep, chickens are a better choice environmentally than beef, and vegetarianism than chickens. I loooove ground beef. But I am also trying new vegetarian recipes. Surely I can at least find a beans-and-rice recipe I love, because I love beans and rice!

        I agree that some of the definitions are terribly strict. For example, I’d like to support farmers that are doing the same things that organic farmers are doing even if they’ve been doing it for less than three years, so they can’t call it organic. And I want sick animals antibiotics if it would help. And I want beef to be able to eat non-grass in the winter. And I want to know if people are trying the safer things first and resorting to crazier things only in emergencies rather than just doing maxi-poison all the time.

        Oh, I like the idea of cows choosing to get milked five times for the good food.

        I might still need a beard, though!

  4. Susan Says:

    I don’t buy the relentless marketing that tells us we must only drink bottled water. That’s hands-down the biggest thing that convinces me the human race will kill itself: the massive rise in bottled water in the 21st century. Don’t even get me started on keurig.

    But hey, I bought ‘clean diesel’ that gets 40+ mpg four years ago, and look what that got me.

    • monsterzero Says:

      Bottled water is the worst (well, no, slavery and abuse are worse, but you know what I mean). If my tap water isn’t safe to drink then the directors of my local water utility should go to jail. If it is safe then why the hell am I buying bottled water?

      • becca Says:

        I’m from around the Great Lakes, and I firmly believe uncontaminated tasty water in my pipes is a God-given right of modern humanity. But I can’t deny that the bottled water equation looks very different in unincorporated areas around Los Angeles. Now, you can argue no one should live in Southern California, as the combination of earthquakes and drought propensity make it unfit for humans, but that’s a tough sell. Especially in February.

        That said, the people responsible for lead poisoning kids in Flint would be lucky to make it to jail instead of simply being tarred and feathered. I am so unspeakably outraged when places that *can* have decent water *choose* not to.

        Susan- don’t feel too bad for a VW problem- we can pass laws and try to vote with our pocketbooks, but lying liars who lie will always thwart good intentions. Nonetheless, going forward, I for one will try to remind people that “clean diesel”* is like “clean coal”- a marketing tactic, not a thing that makes any goddamn scientific sense.

        (*NB- yes, true biodiesel from waste food oil that would otherwise go to a landfill is not the worst thing to run a bus on… but nobody filling up a VW at the gas station thought they were using french fry waste).

      • Rosa Says:

        Wells here in the Upper Midwest are often contaminated with farm chemicals. It’s not as bad as not having water, but pretty much anyone who’s not on a municipal water grid should worry.

        on the other hand the places with no water in Southern California, it’s because of specific legal and ownership systems that prioritize some uses and owners over others, and those are subject (slowly and painfully) to democratic change.

        So it really all comes down to legal advocacy. Producer responsibility laws, taxes that build public costs (ranging from mundane things like long term infrastructure costs all the way up to the climate we all have to live with) into the costs of doing business, and ethical questions like “how much cruelty do we allow in our food system”.

        I worry that the personal-virtue choices just sap the energy people might otherwise put into political action. Californians aren’t inherently more virtuous than average Americans, yet they use half as much energy per capita, because of state laws.

  5. Ana Says:

    Yeah, like Becca said, a lot of these issues are not straight-forward, and “right” in one sense may not be “right” in every sense. I do the best I can with the knowledge I have, and also realizing I need to balance cost/convenience/sanity. The only thing that seems unequivocally “right” is to minimize waste in every form and I am continuously working on that.

    • Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

      So much of this! Nothing is an easy choice, and there are always unintended consequences that may not be obvious. I have to remind myself sometimes that by even thinking about how my consumer choices affect the rest of the world, I am doing more than a lot of people.

      I personally have little faith that a letter to *my* congressperson will do anything (because ze is terrible and is an “insert any science-y thing here”-denier), but I have gone out of my way to write notes to those congresspeople who are fighting the good fight about what I care about, or who appear willing to entertain ideas that are new to them (HA!). My easy-ish solution is to do my best to support the high-quality small businesses in the area I live, but that is partly out of luxury (i.e. I can afford it), partly out of convenience (no driving!), and partly because they are so darn fantastic. I imagine all of this will go out the window when my super-old car breaks down for good and I have to go shopping.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yes, minimizing waste, at least, should be easy. But it’s so easy to waste. I keep finding new ways I do it. Like drink out of water fountains instead of bringing my own in a container. And the classic of forgetting to turn a light off when I leave. We are sooo rich!

        My congresspeople also suck, but they still have to deal with getting petitions signed by me. They can think I’m misguided or idiotic, but at least they have to know that lots of people like me exist.

        Norwegian Forest Cat, what kind of fantastic high-quality local businesses do you have? I am quite used to shopping in big chain stores.

  6. chacha1 Says:

    Ethical consumerism is the epitome of a first world problem. :-) Americans do the most damage – in my opinion, unsubstantiated herein – with three things: the houses they choose to buy, the cars they choose to buy, and the non-food consumables they choose to buy.

    Downsize & insulate your house, downsize your car, stop eating anything made by Frito-Lay, and stop drinking anything that comes in a bottle, can, or carton that isn’t essentially pure fruit juice, vegetable juice, or milk.

    Yes, there are still vast downsides to drinking milk, wine, beer, or V8. But given that bottled water, soda, “tea,” “coffee,” (in quote marks because look at the actual ingredients of most of them), juice cocktails, or chemical cocktails a la Red Bull convey little to no nutritional value, and are (aside from water) engineered to be addictive, and are hugely expensive both at the retail level and in the various costs of production, I seriously think that is an effective sector to torpedo.

    And don’t even get me started on the non-milk milks. Yes, I know some people have serious dietary issues and can’t drink real milk or eat real yogurt. California’s Great Central Desert is planted with ecologically-unsound almond trees because of a FAD, not because almond “milk” is good for you. The aquifer is being drained almost visibly. Fresno is sinking by the day. Drink real milk, and if you can’t, get your calcium some other way than in a manufactured beverage. Eat spinach, for god’s sake.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Whew, I’m doing some of this. I’m buying the better pre-made drinks.

      I could definitely have a smaller house, but I’ll probably make mine even bigger. First I’m trying to teach my boyfriend/roommate of 15 years about the joys of decluttering. Meanwhile, our 1000-square-foot house is too full for parties.

      I’ve seriously thought about ditching my car. I actually did it for four years once. But part of the benefit of living in a city is lost when you can’t access it. Also, I like to lend my car to others when their car breaks. So I buy old cars with good mileage and try to keep them working as long as I can. And walk or take a bus whenever reasonable.

      I am addicted to sugar, though. And cheese puffs.

      • chacha1 Says:

        LOL we all have our vices. In order to avoid going insane, one must be moderate in all things – including regulating vices. We don’t eat cheese puffs, but we go through more than four dozen bottles of wine per year. :-)

  7. pyrope Says:

    Interesting – I’m teaching a global change class right now and was pondering having the free range vs. feed lot question on the mid term exam :)
    Based on my read of the sustainability/food lit, if there are two things to cut out/reduce that would make diets more sustainable they would be beef and shrimp. Beef production (both free range and feed lot) releases anywhere from 40-60x the green house gas equivalent of vegetables, and 20-30x the equivalent for other meats, processed grains, dairy etc. Shrimp farming is hugely detrimental to coastal ecosystems worldwide, and it likely contributes to long-term losses of coastal protection and native fisheries for people living in developing countries (due to loss of mangroves). I am a vegetarian for sustainability purposes … that’s a big ask for some people, but eating fewer hamburgers is pretty doable.
    The other big thing to do if you own a home – get an energy audit, extra insulation and plugging leaks pays itself back in a year or two, and then you’ve done something awesome that you never have to think about. Also, swap out your toilet(s) for low flow … that’s the number one water user in most households (not your shower).

    So, drawbacks of free range beef vs. feed lot beef (from a strictly environmental standpoint):
    Free range:
    greenhouse gas emissions higher (more fiber = 4x more cow burps)
    land cover change (a single cow takes *way* more space in pasture land than equivalent feed corn). Estimates are that up to 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free surface is used for agriculture/pasture land. Associated loss of habitat for non-human species is profound.
    Feed lot beef:
    Excess nitrogen loading to grow feed corn – excess nitrogen also increases N2O emissions (another GHG), negatively impacts aquatic ecosystems and creates dead zones and toxic bacteria outbreaks in coastal oceans.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The free range vs feedlot thing was recently covered by Hank Green, IIRC, so anybody who follows him will have a head’s up!

      One thing that is missing from those arguments though is the general equilibrium economics– Per cow, it sounds like free range is worse for climate change, HOWEVER, because free range beef is so much more expensive (because it is less efficient), people will buy less of it. So it’s hard to say that a good policy solution would be outlawing one or the other. (And in the true general equilibrium, demand will change cow production, not just prices.)

      In this situation, a carbon beef tax (that is higher for free-range than cattle-lot) may make sense.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I think this sort of thing is fascinating. I wonder if any studies look at indigenous cattle vs European cattle, in terms of ecological impacts? i.e. bison in North America, water buffalo in Africa. We buy organic or at least “humane” grass-fed beef almost 100% of the time, prefer ground bison to ground beef, and – now that I think about it – don’t actually buy a whole heckuva lot of four-footed meat.

      Shrimp … I used to love it, but photos of the shrimp farms are O_o ew ew ew.

      • First Gen American Says:

        The other thing about cattle is that they can be raised on cursed earth that can be used for little else….so yes, free range cattle may take up a lot of space but they can use space that can’t otherwise be used for other types of farming/development.

        There indeed is a lot of complexity to making “green choices” and there is even a term for product companies that try to claim greenness when it’s not really so. It’s called “green washing.”

        I agree that starting by using/buying less is the easiest thing That can make an impact. I am also a big fan of buying used.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Sadly, I eat the same amount of beef whether it’s regular priced or expensive. At home, anyway. I sometimes sub soy for half the hamburger in a recipe, but I’ve decided I need to look for more vegetarian recipes I like. (I don’t like shrimp, so no temptation there for me.)

      I have done the weatherization and gotten a low-flow toilet (and shower faucet), so that’s good. I’ve also got window film and/or sunscreens on the windows (I live someplace hot) and am trying to grow shade trees. We have ceiling fans so we don’t have to keep the A/C so low to be comfortable. If I renovate, I’ll want longer eaves.

      I am a big fan of carbon taxes and anything that makes us pay the real cost of things to help the market system do its magic.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    Thanks, Grumpies!

    I do wish we had better labeling and better laws on minimum standards (enforced for anything sold here AND everything made here to minimize loopholes). I spend a lot of time signing petitions. I admit that none of my charity money goes toward lobbying the government–I’d rather spend it to actually do things than to beg other people to do things–but maybe I should re-think that. The government sure has the power to legislate BIG changes.

    • chacha1 Says:

      My charity money goes to the Nature Conservancy.

      • Debbie M Says:

        How did you pick the Nature Conservancy? I have also donated to them–a zoology professor I used to work for talked about how they worked with landowners to help them have good practices. Also, they buy environmentally important land.

        And I’ve donated to Conservation International which seems to do the same things but with lower administrative costs.

        I’ve switched to Rainforest Foundation, Inc. because they get that you don’t need to kick locals off the land to keep it in good shape.

        I don’t really know which groups do the best work, though. I’ve heard it’s best to donate to small local organizations where you can see the progress.

        Then I also donate to charities that fight poverty and pain/abuse/torture.

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