Tomorrow is World Environment Day again. Over the years, interest in green issues has shot up tremendously. Almost everyone wants to join the green bandwagon by buying eco-friendly products. But the problem is that buying right always does not solve the problem. Most of our green activities are hinged on a set of dos and don’ts. Most urban Indians are aware of some basic rules like don’t use plastic bags and harvest rainwater. A second set of dos is about what we buy: among other things, the products need to be non-toxic and if possible, recycled.
But paying for a green product does not always ensure a greener world. There are three reasons why we must rethink the idea of green shopping. First, the environmental impact of the products. Yes, it is true that the ecological footprint of green products is likely to be smaller than other products, but they still do exist. Second, the after-life of these green products is always not very environment-friendly. And third, the hardest of all, is the question whether they are really green or not.
Take, for example, buying something made of natural fibre. I agree that it’s important to promote artisans and indigenous ecology, but by purchasing more than we actually need, the greenness of the act is reduced since the fibre must have been washed several times with water. And, India already has a severe water shortage. Apart from water, the fibre must have been treated with chemicals, resulting in residual run-offs. Therefore, the natural fibre has a footprint too, even if it’s less than that of polyester.
We also believe that the latest electronic products are greener because they use less non-renewable resources. That’s not entirely wrong, but a study, quoted in Anne Leonard’s Story of Stuff, says that producing an electronic wafer need up to 20 litres of water, enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 18 hours and chemicals weighing over 250 times more than the wafer itself.
By buying more than we need, we exploit resources and create markets for more goods. What happens when we dispose of these green purchases? They add to India’s 100,000 tonnes of daily trash of which only about a quarter is recycled. If it’s biodegradable, such as handmade paper, it will emit methane and add to our greenhouse emissions. It’s important to remember that the fundamental rule of reducing waste applies equally to eco-friendly products.
And what about the credentials of eco-friendly goods? It’s impossible for most of us to compute a product’s green quotient. But some products stand out, such as the new trend of PVC window parts instead of wood. PVC is known to be one of the most toxic plastics we know, with additives that are loosely bound and likely to be out-gassed — a process of releasing molecules of additives in the air. A famous incident in a Canadian school where PVC windows resulted in high lead in children’s blood and a decline in their learning abilities is only one case. Nothing green about that! Is there anything green about this product?
Clearly, buying green can become too much of a good thing when we have much more than we need. But owning fewer things won’t make it harder to live because most of us already have too much. A sensible mantra is to try and find greener options for what we reasonably need, both in terms of products and their longevity. So yes, we should go ahead and replace pesticide-laced food with organic stuff if we can afford it, and if we need a car, let it not run on diesel. But let’s not imagine ourselves on a path of green karma by buying something labeled eco-friendly unless we really need it.