The power of spending

It’s pretty clear the environment is in big trouble. Global warming is increasing at a rapid pace and post-consumer waste is at an all-time high, thanks in part but not entirely to China’s rapid economic and thus consumer growth. Although it’s a gross generalization I’d say the environment is falling apart around us and, despite President Bush’s empty promises during the State of the Union address last week, it’s obvious that the U.S. government isn’t on the Earth’s side.

Environmental scientists at NASA have revealed heavy censoring in recent years concerning issues of global warming and, thanks to Bush’s corporate-friendly approach, governmentally enforced environmental standards have begun slipping even further since the 2004 elections. And despite the fact that half the country voted against George Bush and his administration’s policies, his victory has essentially eliminated any voice of concern the U.S. public ever had.

It’s time to assert the only public power that environmentally concerned citizens still retain ?” our spending power. We live in a society dictated by a free-market illusion, where in theory the public makes its choices through purchases, dictating with open spending, rather than taxes and ballots, how the country operates. From health insurance to hybrid technology, every major policy change is supposed to be decided by the public’s willingness to spend. So if environmental need is going to be ignored by the government, it needs to be dictated by the cash register. It’s time we began to spend with a purpose.

I recognize that there are already many options available to conscience-minded spenders. Organic and recycled options have flooded the market and from co-ops to Wal-Mart there are any number of options available to help you, as a consumer, feel better about your purchase. But in many cases, that’s the only end these new options serve. For manufacturers, new products aren’t an issue of environmental concern but more about finding a new demographic. And while the USDA, through its National Organic Program, has created clear guidelines on the labeling of natural products, there is still a major discrepancy between manufactured products sold as green and their actual impact on the environment.

It’s not simply about the ingredients used, what you feed your dog or clean your floor with, but the overall impact of their manufacturing. How much energy is used in “recycling” post-consumer waste? How much waste is created in using “free-range beef” in dog food? And as cheaper store-brand organic products begin filling the shelves of Safeway or Albertsons, which corners are being cut in order to keep costs down?

In their 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle,” William McDonough and Michael Braungart, a designer and chemist, assert that our methods of production, even the more environmentally sound ones, are rooted in antiquated systems created during the industrial revolution. If we are truly going to aspire to use green products we need to recreate ways of manufacturing, concentrating on the entire production process. We need to begin creating and supporting products that transcend our modes of thinking about waste. It’s not about creating recycled or recyclable products, but creating reusable, or zero-waste products. About having the lowest possible environmental impact ?” aiming not for less, but for zero.

In the four years since the publication of “Cradle to Cradle,” many designers and manufacturers have taken McDonough and Braungart’s philosophies to heart. Through their company MDBC the two began a certifying system for products based around stringent standards of design and impact. And while zero impact is still a painfully hypothetical goal, many companies have begun creating products with that specific aim. MDBC’s certification standards are high and it takes a great deal of time and money for companies to attain certification. It takes a dedication beyond good PR for companies to aspire to MDBC certification, especially when they could be aiming lower, sticking to simpler, less costly and more environmentally compromising standards laid out by government agencies like the EPA or USDA. Companies as established as Herman Miller and Pendleton Mills, to upstarts like Wet Women International, a Hawaiian sportswear company, to Eugene’s own gDiapers, have attained MDBC’s certification.

It’s our job as consumers to support companies that aspire to more. Not just in our own homes, but within the corporations that employ us and within the systems that we consume. If the government isn’t going to make demands from the businesses in the U.S., we need to, with research and with our wallets. Time and time again the U.S. government has made it clear that it works for the private sector, and it’s time we made the private sector work for us.