September 24, 2008

Al Gore May Not Be My Biggest Fan

Print More

I am not the eco-friendliest person. I don’t know if me and the environment are friends; I’d say we’re more acquaintances who drunkenly bump into each other at the bars and make plans for lunch — “Like, not this week, because I’m really busy, but maybe next week?” — and then we both forget about it.
But if the biological system I just anthropomorphized as a literary device didn’t like me then, it sure isn’t going to like me after this one. But that’s OK, because while I like the eco-friendly movement — I really do — I just like people more.
Before every socially conscious person gets up in arms, I’m actually only talking about one aspect of our “Go Green!” society: reusable bags.
I hate reusable bags. I like the concept but, for some reason, every single time I see one, my skin crawls. I’d blame it on their design: they’re usually decorated with some subtle value judgment, like “I heart Green!” or “GET HIP GET GREEN,” or “People without reusable bags are mean; let’s throw rocks at them.” Or maybe I hate them because after spending my summer in L.A., I had the oh-so-special opportunity to see them in every shape and color, toted around by yoga-pants-clad women — not as grocery bags but as purses, like they were the love children of Al Gore and Mother Teresa. (As a sidenote, I can’t decide if that kid would be awesome, or a complete toolbox.) In fact, the few times I ever saw reusable bags actually used inside a grocery store, they were being carried as purses, and the groceries got to sit in their usual paper/plastic.
Now this is where you go, “But Julie, don’t hate an entire environment-saving idea just because there are some stupid people out there who think it’s fun to accessorize with them.” And if you said that, you’d be right. As a whole, I think that whoever figured out how to brand being environmentally “friendly” as fashionable deserves a prize.
(By the way, if you don’t agree that eco-friendly is a vastly, successfully marketed brand, look closely at the ads around you — in Wegman’s, Whole Foods, in “green” restaurants, on the runway and in the fashion world. Look at the bamboo t-shirts, the commercials and even the EnergyStar sticker on your printer/flat screen TV … a sticker that makes your item cost between $50 – $100 dollars more. Do you think people don’t make money off of it?)
My ranting aside, here’s the reason why reusable bags ick me out: Do me a favor and take a look at the inside tag on one of those reusable bags the next time you get a chance. More likely than not, it’ll say “Made in China.” So, aside from the fact all the environmental damage (the gas it takes to ship the bags across the world; the materials used for packaging those bags, the energy needed to fuel the factories where they were made) that goes into getting those bags here, it’s also extremely likely that reusable bags are made in sweatshops.
I don’t want to play which-cause-is-more-important with you, because I’d probably lose; not to mention that I’m sure there are multiple items of my wardrobe that also shamefully say, “Made in China/Indonesia/by a small child somewhere.” What bothers me is that the friendly reusable bag advertises that, “Hey, if you buy one of me, you automatically become a socially conscious citizen.” In this case, I don’t think the adage “the thought counts” works.
There used to be “reusable bags” back in the day. Remember those Friend-of-the-Library canvas tote bags? My mom had one; she used to it for groceries, and it always ended up smelling like onion.
My point being: There are plenty of real ways to be eco-friendly, even in your grocery shopping. If you really want a “reusable bag,” I’m sure there are plenty of Made-in-U.S.A. versions. I did some preliminary research, and found a few: SPS Group, Inc. makes them, and guarantees you can find out where and how each part of your bag was made. (Plus it’s organic. I don’t know why that’s necessary, but there you go.) There’s also, and — slightly more expensive, but with the assurance that they have a Fair Trade partnership with India. I’m sure there are plenty of others, and they may cost a little more than your average reusable bag, but in the meantime, do you really think it’s fair that kids and adults in sweatshops on the other side of the globe are the ones saving our environment for us?
As a whole, eco-friendly branding is a good thing. We’re going to save a lot of trees, energy, fuel and hopefully be able to exist on this planet for a lot longer that way. But I wish that, along with the branding of eco-consumerism as trendy, environmental education and conscious consumerism were branded as trendy as well.