Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Limits of Markets? A Personal Anecdote on Environmentally-Conscious Consumption

So, I have a lot of ideas lined up for future posts, but I would like to actually discuss something that happened to me tonight. My other posts require a bit more research, but I think this is still quite relevant, especially for those who take moral quandaries with them to heart in everyday life.

I was at the grocery store tonight knowing that I should probably get new dishwasher detergent. To most, this is a trivial problem. The smart person would probably have gotten the cheapest stuff available at Costco or Walmart, but they were closed and I am probably not going to go to Costco by bus any time soon or go to Walmart at all. We could have a whole debate about how ethical big warehouses are, Walmart in particular, considering its treatment of workers and its executives' political persuasion. I digress though, as that is not the issue I want to talk most about.

I'll try this again now. I was at Safeway to buy dishwasher detergent. The typical student would probably just grab the first thing they saw. A smarter student would have done some research and figured out which brand is cheapest. Either way, it wouldn't take more than a minute before they mindlessly purchased something and went on their way. However, being a semi-eco freak, I gave a lot of thought to the environmental impact of my decision. Should I get liquid, tablet, or powder? Which brand? And should I get the "green" stuff even if it's more expensive? How do I know that "biodegradable" is really important at all and not just a pseudoscientific buzzword designed to lure the eco-conscious shopper? Of course, a true hippie would not even buy anything at a store, and certainly not a "Bright Green" branded (AKA Safeway branded) product. I don't, however, necessarily think that all chemicals are evil or that GMOs are inherently bad or that the "eco-friendly" choice is even the best option for society.

In the end, I brought the "green" stuff after several minutes of deliberation. But I don't really know whether my decision was right, even for the planet. Perhaps the higher cost reflects a greater energy input, or perhaps it does not clean as well, meaning even greater material use and water use necessary to clean dishes. Or maybe it is actually better since the regular stuff requires greater inputs to clean our lakes and rivers. The "right" decision may even have a location dependence since some areas may be more at-risk to human-caused toxicity than others.

I highly doubt that even a fraction of a percent of consumers think about any of these issues, and I don't really think my choice was more educated than anyone else's. I feel the same struggle when deciding on what food to buy, what clothing to buy, or what computer to buy. Often I choose not to purchase anything at all, and if this meets my needs, it is almost certainly the most eco-friendly decision. For food, I make my life easier by being a vegetarian. But I know that I am oversimplifying things-not all vegetables are exactly good for the environment or even for animals. If I really cared, I would be mostly a vegan and avoid energy-intensive fruits and vegetables whenever possible. That still doesn't tell me whether I should buy organic or fair-trade, or local, or in bulk, or avoid quinoa. In principle, these all sound good, but organic can be more energy-intensive and land-intensive, fair-trade could just be higher cost for little benefit in conditions, local tends to mean small-scale and inefficient, bulk could just be large-scale and destructive, and why should we criticize quinoa over growing rice in drought-ravaged California? I don't have all the answers and don't want to think about such dilemmas all the time.

So where does economics come into play here? Basically, in an ideal world, I wouldn't really have to make a decision. The final price tag would include all possible environmental and social impacts, so the only thing I would have to care about is performance. However, this would only be possible with a multitude of taxes based on local environmental impacts. It would also mean that there should be no advertising, other than listing the performance per unit input. Of course, then the decision would be easy and there would be no need for branding and product differentiation. But that is not the real-world, where externalities are usually untaxed, advertising is rampant, and people are drawn in by catchy logos. A preferred libertarian solution is proper allocation of property rights (for example, detergent providers would be responsible for the runoff they create), but this is not really any more easily applicable than taxes.

Sometimes the only way to make sure that we are not completely destroying the planet is through sensible regulation-of water, of air, of soil. For dishwasher detergent, phosphorous was essentially banned, so even the regular stuff I could have gotten would not lead to eutrophication. But at what point should the regulation stop? Clearly our lives are filled with toxic, environmentally destructive products, even in EPEAT gold electronics and vegan shoes. Education is hardly the answer-no one can be expected to put in even 5% of the thought I do, and I still have no idea if I made the moral choice. If anyone has a practical and helpful way to solve these quandaries, I'd love to know, but I don't think there is always a good answer as there are always tradeoffs. I should have a later post devoted to my feelings on the term "sustainability" as it relates to our economy and way-of-life. For now, I'll leave you to ponder all the intricacies of your next purchasing choice, big or small. The only thing you'll likely learn is that you really have no clue and should just go back to blithely buying whatever the heck you want.

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