Thursday 4 June 2009

Don't Buy a "Green" Thing

There are so many “green” products out there – from eco ironing spray to solar powered cherubic water features – that it’s easy to miss the simple fact that avoiding a purchase entirely is usually the greenest choice of all. The truly green alternative to a mains-powered water feature, for instance, is not a solar-powered one with a huge manufacturing, transport and disposal footprint, but an entirely non-electric one (like this made from a bathtub rescued from landfill), or just doing without a water feature altogether.

Making something pretty by re-using what would otherwise be wasted is a nice idea, and there are loads of projects and websites on making funky clothes, jewellery and desk tidies from reclaimed waste. But how often are you likely to wear a newspaper dress, how many pen holders could anyone really need, and how much jewellery would you avoid buying new if you mastered the art of making bottle-top earrings instead?

We’re so hooked on consumption that we’re coming up with ideas to reduce it by essentially consuming more. We’re inventing more “needs” that we can satisfy with ideas borrowed from sustainable solutions, while forgetting that we already have real needs far more deserving of our efforts to meet them more sustainably.<

Along with this, almost all products which are actually useful have just about succumbed by now to the natural state of decay known as the Shoe Event Horizon, which caused global societal collapse on the planet Brontitall in “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams:*

“The foundation of the Shoe Event Horizon theory is that when depressed, people tend to look down, and when they look down, they see their shoes. To cheer themselves up, they might buy themselves a new pair. Thus, in a generally depressed society, demand for shoes will rise.

In the critical condition, demand for shoes rises faster than the capacity to make good quality footwear. As shoe quality decreases, the demand increases further because shoes wear out faster and need to be replaced more often; as the demand for shoes increases, cheap mass production causes shoe quality to drop even more. What results is a spiral of increasing shoe demand and decreasing shoe quality. Eventually, this destabilises the economy to the point where it is "no longer economically viable to build anything other than shoe shops", and planetary society collapses.”

It seems to me that it is no longer economically viable to manufacture anything much other than cheap, shoddy products that don’t properly withstand normal wear and tear, that are deliberately designed not to be repairable by the average user and that are inherently disposable, thereby ensuring the future purchase of replacements as often as manufacturers think they can get away with. The result is that we’ve stopped expecting anything to last, we don’t expect to have to form the habit of maintaining anything, it rarely occurs to most of us to even attempt to fix anything that breaks and we’ve largely lost the skills we need to do so even if we wanted to.

How come so many people who grow their own vegetables don’t know how to sharpen the tools they use? Why, when everyone knows they should only boil the water they need, do they not also know to regularly de-scale their electric kettle to prolong its useful life? How many people use an energy efficient light bulb in a lamp, but throw the lamp away when it stops working because they don’t know to check and change the fuse? How many of those designing exciting “eco” clothing ranges throw away good versatile T-shirts from their own wardrobes when they don’t know how to get rid of a stubborn stain?

Instead of making very beautiful bottle-top earrings and pen holders, perhaps we should concentrate on things we couldn’t just entirely do without – basic clothing, tools, lamps, kettles, bikes, taps, everything that serves a useful purpose and is a solution to a real need rather than an invented one. We then need to teach each other about how these things are made, which designs are most durable, how to fix them when they break and how to maintain them so they break less often.

Why has learning simple repair and maintenance techniques yet to become fashionable the way "eco chic" apparently has, and where are all the reduce-reuse-recycle-but-see-if-you-can-REPAIR-it-first sites?

I’ve made myself a new “repair and maintenance” tag for this kind of thing and I hope you all have nice sharp garden shears now. I'll try to find something else to fix while you're busy descaling your kettle.

* Sorry to stereotype but I imagine I’ll now get Douglas Adams fans commenting that they’ve memorised the entire text of HHG and the planet Brontitall isn’t in it, so thought I’d better just mention that it’s only in the original BBC radio show and that memorising the entire text of HHG isn’t likely to get you a girlfriend.


merrick said...

Excellent piece, well written and with your characteristic point to make that nobody else has said.

It would be so easy to add repair to the front of the reduce-reuse-recycle slogan.

On the invented needs thing, can I just a sweary rant about those fucking solar garden lights?

A piece of steel and a load of plastic and a light bulb, topped by a little solar panel.

I just googled them and the top site is whose front page says 'are you doing your bit for the environment?'.

They sell those fucking lights, they sell solar powered illuminated house numbers, they sell solar powered lights in balls to put in your pond.

None of these products are replacing fossil-powered items, they are new bits of tat, additional consumption of products that did not exist before. As such, there is no argument to be made that they are anything other than detrimental to the environment.

somewhere out there are solar panel factories that could be producing panels that plug into your house or the national grid and actually help. Instead, their efforts and resources are squandered on these fucking lights, and so more fossils are burned for our electricity supply.

They are evidence that humanity is too fucking stupid to survive.

Samantha Fowler said...

Really enjoyed this post. Looking forward to your next one. Love the way you point out buying green is really ungreen and how there is a real need vs our own crazy desire to just purchase and consume.

Kitty said...

what a great post! very intelligent. thanks!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Great post, but I loved the most your aside for fans of HHG. :)

Alice said...

I had never heard of solar powered illuminated house numbers and now I want to kill myself.

But it's nice to hear that people liked the post, thanks!

So maybe I won't.

Everyone go and look at Fake Plastic Fish's site, which is excellent. I loved Captain Moore!

I should point out that I am a fan of HHG myself...

Anonymous said...

The waterless car wash pushes the envelope on how we clean cars while reducing the carbon emissions typical found in conventional cleaners. Most noted is the fact that a standard garden hose, when used to wash a car at home, will expel approx, 100 gallons of water for 10 minutes of washing. Unbelievable.

For those who are aware of the impacts of water wastage with the current drought crisis in several continents across the world, one hundred gallons of water is pretty much to save. A waterless car wash provides the same results of orthodox cleaning sometimes even better since most contain a wax that enhances shine.

This can be a double edged sword, however since most cleaners contain toxins which are harmful to the environment. Companies like ForLifeProducts or Seventh Generation aim to make products that provide solutions for everyday living that are eco-friendly and safe on the environment. The lastest product released was the Rejuvenate Waterless Car Wash. Check the ingredients here:

Wouldn't it be great if the norm would be "waterless" to wash a car? Think of the tons of water you could save in just one week!