-Erica Altomare, Insight Staff
I don’t know if I’m the only one thinking this, but lately watching the news or reading the paper is more shocking and upsetting than usual.
Our last blog post probably didn’t help. If you read it, perhaps you were thinking, ‘Okay, I get it. Voluntourism trips abroad may not be as beneficial as Facebook profile pictures make them seem.’
If you have a passion to make a difference in this world, it sucks to learn that your good intentions may be causing more harm than good.
My desire to volunteer abroad and “make a difference” is seemingly harmful to local communities, which sometimes results in unqualified volunteers taking the place of local labourers, conflicts over resource allocation, the reinforcement of neoliberal policies and colonial paternalism, foreign donors weakening governments and enforcing their own agendas, and/or the commodification of children because of the demand to volunteer in orphanages.
I continue to notice this trend – that everything I enjoy, or even just my everyday habits, potentially possess an evil alter ego.
My carnivorous diet (and quite concerning addiction to cheese and ice cream) is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, ocean dead zones, species extinction, water consumption and pollution, habitat destruction, and Amazon destruction.
My cell phone is reliant on coltan mines in the DRC, where children and adults are found to be working in hazardous, life threatening conditions.
My face cream, hairspray, makeup, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hair dye, and perfume all could contain toxic ingredients and life threatening chemicals, that could lead to cancer, nerve damage, hormone disruption, and lower immunity to disease in both humans and the animals these cosmetics are tested on.
Coming to terms with these realities is overwhelming. As a consumer, will everything I buy, use, eat, drink, wear, practice, or engage in have some sort of harmful effect on me or the world around me?
I am only beginning to feel less like a monster by deciding to switch the question that I’ve been asking.
As a consumer, what can I do that could have a positive effect on the world and me?
By focusing my energy on this question instead, I hope to use my knowledge of these issues, rather than turning a blind eye, as motivation to try and do things differently.
So, let’s focus on the DO, rather than the DON’T. Here is a list some of suggestions of lifestyle changes we can make that can positively affect both ourselves and the world around us.
Experiment with your diet
Since diets are so personal, changing what you eat can be a big lifestyle adjustment. I’m not about to tell anyone what their body needs (and wants) so that’s all you, but earlier this year I maintained a vegan diet during the weekdays. Most people laugh when I say that, but for me, it works quite well.
My rationale behind being a “flexitarian” or “reducetarian” is that I significantly reduce the amount of animal and animal by-products I consume. While at the same time, not sacrificing my Italian family’s homemade lasagna on Sundays or ordering a $30 pizza, sans meat and cheese, when out for the occasional dinner.
This arrangement is basically the best of both worlds, and both sustainable for the planet and attainable for me.
Invest in & support social enterprises
The reality is that money makes the world go round and consequently, wealthy corporations have a lot of power in society. A new wave of social enterprise is trying to use this to their advantage by modelling their businesses around both making money AND creating social good.
When supporting a social enterprise, through buying their products or investing in them, you are supporting more than just a product or a company. They are impact-based companies, meaning they measure their success based on their impact, instead of just their numbers.
Be a “recyclist”
My Italian grandmother is an avid “recyclist”. She lives by two fundamental rules: waste nothing (especially food) and reuse everything. Growing up with these rules has taught me two things: only take as much food as you need (because you WILL sit until every last bit is gone), and ask yourself “can I reuse this?” before throwing something out.
My grandmother taught me how to creatively reuse and recycle items that I would have probably just thrown out. However, I learned about her creativity the hard way, such as discovering that the container of lemon gelato was actually storing frozen parsley or that the bottle of Gatorade was actually Windex (do not recommend!!!).
Remember our rights
Vote. This one is obvious, and one of the most important points. What is less obvious is knowing who to vote for. Educate yourself and make the effort to consciously vote for leaders and politicians that will prioritize what you want to see implemented in society. Taking these simple steps can be one of the most impactful things you do.
Recognize our privilege
Something as simple as recognizing the privileges you do and don’t have allows you to see that the world is bigger than you. It allows you to notice the unjust systems of oppression in place, and actively counter them and discuss them with others to increase awareness of social imbalances and marginalization.
Be a smart shopper
“Sustainable”, “green”, “natural”, “eco-friendly”are all feel-good marketing terms used to entice the public to buy certain products. However, how do you really know what these terms mean? If you are willing to spend a little extra on ethical products but don’t know how to be sure, here are the quick things to investigate. I’ll try and point out the pros and cons of each, since most of these purchases really come down to personal preference. I personally prefer to disregard the labels and simply try to purchase products that support local businesses.
Organic products can be loosely described as products that are grown without the use of pesticides, chemicals, hormones, GMOs, and antibiotics. The organic industry is the fourth largest in the world, but are these products really worth double the cash? There’s evidence suggesting organic actually might not be better for the environment, animal welfare, or your health. However, if you are willing to invest in the potential benefits of organic, don’t blindly trust the labels. If it says “100% organic,” then it really does have 100% organic ingredients. If it says “organic”, it has 95% organic ingredients. Last, if it says “made with organic ingredients,” it has at least 70% organic ingredients.
Fair trade (FT) products provide smallholder farmers with a stable wage that prevents their crops from costing more money than they make. Now, whether this wage is really “fair” is still up for debate. FT could very well be another trend in the West that is inhibiting locals in the Global South from reaching self-sufficiency.
FT is also tricky because products are not legally validated. The most reliable fair trade products are ones that are inspected and certified by a third party (as opposed to membership organizations). Even then, don’t blindly trust the seal. For example, the well known third parties are the FairTrade Labelling Association (FLO) and the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). Both the FLO and IMO require at least 50% FT ingredients for the product to be a “whole product” but only 20% to say the product is fairtrade lite or “made with single/ some FT ingredients.”
Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit that drives companies to be transparent about the ingredients in their products. Any company with the EWG verification has passed all standards, meaning their products do not include any “unacceptable” or “restricted” ingredients, and are transparent about their manufacturing and formulations processes. However, whether or not they are impartial about the products they promote is in question.
B-Corp is the most accessible and reliable way of finding out if what you’re buying is an ethical product. They score companies based on impact, in 4 main categories: governance, workers, community, and environment. They need to achieve an 80 out of 200 points to become certified. Check out the companies with this cert and how they earned it.
Don’t just take my word, do your own research
As long as it is not extreme, skepticism is good. Don’t simply read this post and take some stranger’s word; educate yourself. Indeed, taking my word for it is easier, but easier is not necessarily better.
Trying to live better, for you and the world around you, starts (like most things) with educating yourself. Yes, knowing about the child labour that went into the manufacturing of your phone, or learning about the harmful ingredients in your food and everyday products can be a buzzkill. However, without knowing the cause, it is a lot harder to find a solution. I am slowly learning not to get overwhelmed by the extent of the world’s problems and focus on what I have control over – my own thoughts and actions.
Here are some cool resources/tools if you’re interested in learning more!