The Green Money Trap

When Buying Cheaper Isn’t Always Buying Smarter

For most environmentalists the first law of money is “Spending less is best.” That’s a fast way of saying the less we buy the better off the environment. As a general rule, it’s a good one: America’s prodigious and unsustainable shopping habits are creating pollution and depleting resources as fast as you can say “GNP growth.”

The spending-less-is-best ethic has been championed at least since the time of Thoreau, but recently it has received renewed attention from the voluntary simplicity movement, which advocates consuming less for the benefit of the planet and one’s inner life. Environmentally, the movement ranks among the best things to hit the national zeitgeist since the oil crisis.

There is, however, a caveat that should go along with some of the recommendations of the popular consumer cutback advocates: namely, saving money isn’t always the environmentally friendly thing to do. Some movement gurus, for instance, advise their acolytes to shop at discount chain stores and bargain hunt at the low-cost supermarkets.

What that advice doesn’t take into account is the environmental and social impact of the products we buy. As David Morris of the Institute for Local Self Reliance writes, “Large discount stores undermine the local economy,” devastating small, mom-and-pop retailers, friendly commercial exchanges, and Main Street economic life. “Shopping at big chains and franchises concentrates money and power in fewer hands, draws money away from the local economy, and is creating a monoculture of merchants, where every town—filled with McDonalds, 7 Elevens, Dunkin Donuts, and Jiffy Lubes—looks the same,” points out Andrew Baker of the Institute for Community Economics.

As for the cheap tomatoes offered at the Pricechopper, they are probably sprayed with pesticides, perhaps flown in from Chile, and the growers and supermarket may exploit their workers via low wages. Organic produce usually seems expensive, but when you’re in the supermarket it’s easy to forget that farmers spraying harmful chemicals aren’t picking up the tab for the environmental costs they create—estimated to be more than $8 billion a year in the United States alone. “It can hurt to ‘pay up’ for organic fruits and veggies,” says Alex Gyori, manager of the Brattleboro [Vermont] Food Coop, “but in many ways the extra cost is money spent at least as well as a donation to Greenpeace.” In some ways it’s even better, since if everyone bought organic, there’d be one less battle for Greenpeace to fight.

The Real Costs

If the prices of many “everyday” products included their real clean-up costs, we’d all behave differently. If gasoline, for example, reflected its true environmental expense—which the Sierra Club has estimated at $6 to $11 per gallon—cruising yard sales and checking out the bargains at Wal-Marts wouldn’t be such a deal. Of course organic foods aren’t the only consumer products worth paying up for: There’s also solar energy, electric cars, handcrafted goods, hemp products, kenaf paper, and energy-efficient lightbulbs, to name just a few. What these goods have in common is either that they are produced by nascent industries that could really use support until they reach mass production levels (which will lower prices); they are labor-, not energy-, intensive; or their environmental cost savings are embodied in their price. Sometimes, all three are true.

An endorsement of more expensive environmentally friendly products isn’t a green light for spending. It’s still important to ask yourself if you really need what you’re buying. What’s needed is a realignment of our buying habits. Instead of buying a new lawnmower, see if you can share one with a neighbor if you keep the engine tuned up and the blades sharp. Instead of keeping up with the latest Disney toy trend (which might be a “deal” at K-Mart), use your “savings” to pay more for handcrafted toys. If you stick to buying the essentials and use your resources creatively, even paying more for sustainably produced goods will have the net effect of spending less overall. Those leaner spending habits will reflect what you care about and help the environment.

What we all need to look at is how much each of our own consumption or “low-cost” lifestyle is impacting the Earth. Are we being subsidized by either exploited natural resources or labor? Often eliminating those subsidies means we need to spend more, not less, to avoid being selfish and shortsighted. If that means there are some exceptions to the environmentalist’s first law of money, so be it. By now, most of us have learned that there are few simple formulas to live by.