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The Problem with Greensumption: Questions for Annie Leonard

Planet Green's Virginia Sole-Smith discusses "Greensumption" with Annie Leanard, former Greenpeace activist, founder of The Story of Stuff and reigning #92 on our 100 Most Creative People

To kick things off, we're talking about "greensumption," or when you buy organic produce, install a low-flow showerhead in your bathroom, bring reusable bags to the grocery store and think, "whew, let's call it a day!" I fully admit to being guilty as charged on this one. Here's why we can (and should) all do a little more — and the good news is, it won't cost you a thing.

PG: A key message in The Story of Stuff is that we have to get away from "greensumption." Why has the green movement gotten so used to pointing to "10 easy things" or "buy organic" as the way to solve our problems, and why won't that work? (Or will it work a little bit?)

ANNIE SAYS: Of course, when we do buy something, we should buy the least toxic, least exploitative product available. Finding those products is often hard. With globalized supply chains and so many bogus claims of being "green" and "natural" on labels, knowing what is in a product and how it is made is really tough. Fortunately, there are some great online resources to help make it easier for us to weed through the reams of information. My two favorite online resources are Skin Deep and the Good Guide. The Skin Deep database which rates tens of thousands of personal care products (sunscreen, baby shampoo, hair conditioner, etc) based on the toxics in each so you can easily find the least toxic products in whatever category you need. The Good Guide rigorously crunches data from hundreds of sources on the environmental, health and social performance of a wide range of products and even has an iPhone app to make evaluating products in the store as easy as it can get (absent tougher laws requiring honest labeling!)

So yes. Buying less toxic stuff can help reduce your families’ exposure, protect workers, and send signals through the marketplace to producers. But shopping better won’t ultimately work on either the personal or national level.

You see, toxic chemicals are so pervasive now in our consumer products, our food, air, water, clothes – everywhere! The Presidents Cancer Panel just came out with a report confirming that Americans are bombarded with a variety of carcinogens in our daily lives, which is – not surprisingly – linked to increased rates of cancer. (Duh. Are we surprised that we get more cancer after we put cancer causing chemicals in all our stuff?!)

With these chemicals lasting years in the environment and building up in the food chain, it is just impossible to protect ourselves on the individual level. I am a living example of this. I strive to make my house toxins-free; I have no PVC, no BFRs, no BPA, no Teflon, and no Scotchguard. I buy organic food. I don’t buy new carpets and furniture. I do everything I can to protect myself and my daughter. But when I had my own body burden tested, I found my body loaded with toxic chemicals that I’ve abraded through daily life.

That is why a real solution isn’t available in the grocery store aisles.

A real solution comes from collective action to change how we make, use and throw away stuff. Rather than spend hours studying Skin Deep and going door to door telling neighbors about it, then nagging them to use it, let’s invest that time and energy into a campaign to prohibit chemicals that cause cancer and neurological problems and more in our shampoo!

Not only is it impossible to protect ourselves and make widespread change through shopping better, there’s even some evidence that focusing on self protection like that may delay real solutions which only happen at the policy and regulatory level.

So, yes, shop smarter and shop less. But please don’t let that dissuade you from engaging in campaigns to make real lasting change.

Planet Green's Questions for Annie Leonard
Part 2: Why polyvinyl chloride has no business being here.
Part 3: Why discount stores and bargain basements cost us (and the planet) more than we realize.