Paul Hawken – The ecology of commerce

This book landed in my hands thanks to my condo neighbour and I am really grateful for the loan because it was such a great read! I would totally recommend this essay, which is accessible and solutions-oriented. No wonder it was a best-seller since it 1st publication in 1993. I would like to mention some of Paul Hawken’s ideas that I particularly liked.

One of the most important is that our markets are imperfect in that they fail to reflect the real costs of products and services. Why? Because real costs include all the externalities linked to them. These externalities can affect biodiversity, the quality of water, the preservation of ancient cultures, people’s health, air pollution etc… All the actions undertaken to “repair” those negative consequences have costs.

Because the costs of these “negative externalities” are difficult to take into account and because industrials don’t pay for them, our markets are fundamentally flawed.

As good “homo-economicus”, looking for the cheapest option is the basis of our purchasing behaviour. Unfortunately, today, the cheaper options are also the ones that bring about a cheap environment, cheap human rights, and a cheap world. This is true for all the goods we consume, from the 10-dollar H&M T-shirt made in Rana Plaza, to the cheap chicken wings hardly made of “chicken”.

Back to topic: how do we concretely include the price of negative externalities into our products?

As far as the environment is concerned, Hawken advocates for a solution that appears simple (at least conceptually): green taxes.

If polluting industries were taxed according to the environmental damages that they cause, the prices of their products would automatically be higher to include the costs of the taxes. Meanwhile, companies selling the same product that does not harm the environment would be more attractive to final customers. Their prices would have a competitive advantage (their lower cost).

“We must design a marketplace that obviates acts of environmental destruction by making them expensive and rewards restorative acts by bringing them within our means”.

The concept of green taxes is at the core of the “restorative economy” that Hawken is defending. Interestingly, he distinguishes two types of costs that would have to be taken into account: the “actual damage” caused by a company to the environment or to people; and the damages to future generations, which are more difficult to take into consideration but equally important.

In my opinion, that solution would bear a lot of potential. In a world where politics cared.

Regardless of political decisions, we as consumers will always have the power to make choices through our consumption habits. Hawken says:

“… the cash register is the daily voting booth in democratic capitalism”

I am skeptical about governments’ will to change things.
I am skeptical about traditional big companies’ will to do good. But I am definitely optimistic about people’s ability to make sensible purchasing decisions, provided they are informed.

Hawken even talks to the activists in us and suggests writing to companies, to question them, to tell them what we think about their behaviours (good or bad).

I leave you with a quote and a warm recommendation to borrow the book from the library.

 “We need to imagine a life where having less is more satisfying, more interesting and more secure”

 

 

My journey from disposable to reusable (1st mile)

“Make disposable an obscene word and favour the reusable over the recyclable.” is one of my favourite quote by David Suzuki.

Zero waste may sound intimidating but no matter how you call it, the point is to try, collectively, to reduce the amount of waste we produce.

I wanted to share with you the basic first steps that I have been taking in that journey. Let’s hit the (waste-free) road!

In the kitchen:

-From food packaging → to bulk and non-processed food

Buying in bulk is synonymous with buying raw, non-processed food. It’s the best thing you can do for your body, for the environment and for your budget without a doubt. I am still dreaming of a well thought-out grocery store where everything could be bought in bulk at the same place: rice, olive oil, tea, coffee, laundry detergent etc…

-From kitchen foil → to plates and reusable clothes

I cover my leftovers in the fridge with a simple plate. I wrap my sandwiches in a clean cloth, or in plastic boxes (I still have plenty). And I recently discovered a great brand called Abeego. They produce reusable beeswax wrap that replaces kitchen foil perfectly.

-From absorbing paper →  to sponge and cotton towels

It can be replaced more easily than I thought, with small towels and a sponge. If I need to grease a pan (which has been a problem for me until I read a blogger’s idea), I now grab a stale piece of bread or a leftover vegetable to do the job. Creativity at all levels!

-From plastic plates and cutlery → to napkins and hands

When I have a party at home, I’ll have my guests use napkins instead of disposable plates and make sure they can eat with their hands. No plates and plastic knives, glasses, forks and spoons. Gross? Less than throwing everything away the next day. Even if this kind of plastic can be recycled, the best waste is the one that you don’t create in the first place.

-From chewing gums → to cloves

This one is anecdotal: when my Indian in-law gave me cloves to freshen up after lunch, I knew I could immediately add “Chewing gums” to the “don’t buy again” list. I love to find solution from unexpected sources.

In the bathroom:

-From shower creams → to bars of soaps

Shower creams are expensive, their plastic packaging is completely useless (in regards of the final use), they contain weird chemicals. There are plenty of places in Toronto where we can buy nude bars of soap. And for the most adventurous makers, why not try to make your own soap?

-From liquid shampoos → to solid bars of shampoo

Same as above. Solid versions come in recyclable card or better, naked. Lush has some solid bars that work well. They have very flashy colours, which first made be cringe, but the brand displays its ingredients in a way that is rather transparent. Better yet, Sudsatorium is a Toronto-based cosmetic company that also sells solid shampoo bars.

-From disposable makeup-remover cottons → to reusable cotton towels

There are many options here too. I bought some very soft mini towels that I wash at the end of the week. (from Logan and Finley, on Queen West). Some of my friends are huge fans of Konjac sponges.

-From tampons and pads → to menstrual cups

How many discussions with my girl friends did the cup bring about! Obvious, economical and convenient, they just require a little practice to overcome the prejudice we can have towards them. DivaCup, Mooncup and the like can be bought online. If you are not convinced yet, look at a rubbish ad for tampons and raise a finger at how they talk to women. (These ads infuriate me…)

-From Q-tips → to bamboo sticks

Simple as a soft stick collecting earwax without damaging the eardrum. I haven’t found that in Toronto but I brought one from France. You can take a look at it here.

-From plastic toothbrush → to recyclable toothbrush

Bamboo is a good solution. I use a Woobamboo! one, they (or equivalent) can be found in any organic store. This will still be a waste, but a recyclable one.

-(My next challenge) From tissues → to handkerchiefs

This one I haven’t done yet, as I still have plenty of Kleenex at home. But don’t say yuck. We should only yuck at our useless waste.  We just have to do it cleanly with a minimum of hygienic common sense.

I can’t help adding that reducing is also key in the bathroom. Just came back from my bathroom to check on the toothbrush’s brand, and sighed at the quantity of things I still have.

Outside:

-From plastic bags → to reusable bags

Not that I don’t like the poetry of plastic bags floating in front of my 20th floor-window, but seriously, let’s all say no to plastic bags. There are too many of them in the ocean, the trees, and birds’ stomachs and the solution is too easy. Bring your reusable bag with you everywhere, period.

-From coffee cups → to refillable mugs

Your coffee cups are not recyclable. Only their lids are, provided they are not black. I know, this sounds esoteric. Check Ask the wizard for more information. This is an online tool provided by the City of Toronto with a simple concept: type the name of the item you don’t know how to recycle, and the Wizard will give you the answer.

Bringing your own mug with you when you go out is really not that hard. I have found a refillable one at home, but there are several other options, one being the JOCO cup. Starbucks and Tim Hortons will even redeem you 10 cents if you bring a travel mug.

-From plastic bottles → to reusable bottles

I came to the conclusion that I should always leave home with 3 things …  my coffee mug, a bottle of water and some nuts (to avoid buying compulsively expensive plastic junk food) … in a reusable bag. To remember myself of doing so, I just stuck a note to my door. Sometimes the dumbiest tips are the best.

To go further:

This is the state-of-the art of my zero waste efforts as per May, 30th, 2016. I have loved writing it, and I hope you did too. Reducing one’s waste is a journey, it requires organization and perseverance.

But more than everything, it’s fun! And visualize the amount of trash we can all avoid with these simple and economical alternatives. Here are two additional resources that I find interesting.

Toronto Environmental Alliance launched a project called The Waste Free Project. It sets challenges for all Torontonians to reduce their waste in several areas. It’s community-based and people can share their experience and upload pictures of how they succeeded in taking the challenge.

Lastly, you can also take a look at US-based Lauren Singer’s blog, Trash is for tossers. Her Zero Waste Alternatives is a very complete article.

More than ever, let’s go Green TO!

Dear wardrobe…

I was looking forward to writing something about the relationship we have with our wardrobes. Following the famous Reduce / Reuse / Recycle sustainability guideline, I suggest to rethink the way we buy (or don’t) clothes.

1 – Stop over consuming – REFUSE

I am not just a wallet. There is more to me than this commercial inclination to buy goods. I deeply feel that what makes me happy lies somewhere else. In creative activities, in writing, cooking, in the existence of my friends and the peace of nature.

And yet. I am often weak. I often yield to the deceitful promises of the fashion industry. Consciously or not, I tend to believe that my social life will be better if I do buy this new jacket. That my self-confidence depends on what I am wearing.

Am I particularly weak, though? Not at all. Marketers are particularly strong.

In my Business School, I actually learnt some marketing techniques based on the study of consumers’ psychology. One of them is called the Means-End chain model. Its states that products are consumed because they are instrumental in attaining more abstract values, such as self-respect, excitement, sense of belonging or security. As marketing students, we were also given a method meant to trigger purchasing decisions. Advertisings need to emphasize the product’s attributes that will allegedly help reaching these end values, and ultimately, happiness.

Are you looking for fun and a sense of belonging? Drink Cocagina! Excitement and peer’s respect? Easy as driving a fancy car. Self-respect? First, dress appropriately…

I can testify that this is how future marketers are trained. This is how they learn to make us buy, leveraging the universal desire to be happy.

As beautifully stated by Longines (a brand that I love), “Elegance is an attitude”. Any paradox here?

2 –Tidy this wardrobe up! – REDUCE

This second point is just the logical continuation of the first one.

I suggest tidying our wardrobe on a regular basis. Putting all our clothes, shoes, and accessories on our bed and look at the quantity. It will make us realize how much we possess.

With the question of surplus comes the question of the surplus’s impact on our well-being. Are the two linked by a causal effect? (quantitywell being)

In my case, I can for sure answer that it is quite the reverse. It implies more cleaning, complicated moves, and a sense of suffocation. So, tidying is a good way to realize that we already have a lot and also to remember the existence of things we forgot we had.

(In case you wonder, I am not a cleaning-maniac and my hobbies include a variety of other things. But I like the aftermath of cleaning).

3 – Give your items a second chance – REPAIR & RECYCLE

The two points above were about “Refusing” (the power of marketing in your life) and “Reducing” (your consumption).

This one is about “Repairing and Recycling”

Before buying new clothes, we should ask ourselves:

– Can I repair my item of clothing that is holed, broken or damaged before getting rid of it? I know, you can’t. Me neither.
But what about we learn?

I just read this quote by the CEO of Patagonia, Rose Marcario:

“It’s a radical thought, but change can start with just a needle and thread.” Challenge accepted!

-And if I really need a new one, can I find a second-hand version of it?

It will be cheaper for me. And I will give a second life to an item that would otherwise be discarded. The first time my environmentalist friend Clem told me about buying second hand clothes, I clearly thought he had reached a point of no return. It was in the summer of 2015. Some months later, this option seems conceivable to me.

In Toronto, consider a visit to Value Village. They have big depots with vast choices and honestly, if you take time to rummage in the alleys you will find more than decent clothes for nothing.

4 – Be selective in the brands you choose – RESEARCH

The three previous points could refer to any consumption goods. Refusing, reducing, repairing and recycling are not specific to clothes.

When it comes to actually buying clothes, prefer brands that are known to not use toxic chemicals and dyeing products or who don’t take advantage of cheap labour in developing countries. I know the information is not always easy to get. Big fashion brands themselves often say (pretend?) that they don’t even know what their suppliers do and don’t have control over them.

To what extent are companies responsible for the business practices of their suppliers, lower in the value chain? Do you think it is their responsibility to stop contracting with suppliers who behave badly?

If you answered yes to the previous question, apply this logic to yourself. Look at the lower rung of the ladder. Be vigilant with the practices of the company you are buying clothes from. It sure requires some research and time. But companies who invest in doing things right don’t hide it.

Patagonia’s Footprint chronicles is a beautiful example of an effort to give customers transparency about how their products are made. On a map, Patagonia displays its factories, its textile mills and the farms it works with. When you click on them, information is given about the number of workers, the gender mix, what is produced there and the history of the partnership with Patagonia.

Patagonia uses only organic cotton since 1996. A cotton grown without causing damages to the soil, the water or the ecosystems. It is still more expensive than conventionally grown cotton and the price of their products reflects it. This being said, buying Patagonia is like an investment: this jacket will last for years. And in case it needs a repair, you can ask Patagonia to do so. They have a garment repair facility and the stores’ staff is trained to do the minor repairs.

There would pages and pages to be written about Patagonia’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices. You can read more about them here if you are interested.

I like to end with this example because Patagonia’s philosophy encapsulates all the four key points mentioned above: Refuse, Reduce, Repair & Recycle, Research. In my opinion, this brand pioneers a new kind of relationship with customers that is no longer based on mistrust. Instead, it bets that information and transparency will be key to build stronger customer relationships. THAT is brilliant marketing.