Trying to Do the Right Thing

An Inquiring Mind by Ginny Smith

Shopping in a responsible manner is becoming harder and harder. So what can we do?

I used to love shopping. I liked nothing more than a Saturday afternoon wandering around a shopping centre with my mum or exploring a pop-up market with my partner. But over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more stressful. With images of plastic-eating turtles and homeless orangutans always in my mind, I’ve started to think about things differently. Rather than making decisions based simply on price and how much I like something, I now find myself asking a million questions and it is, frankly, exhausting.

I want to do the right thing, I really do. But I’ve also never been someone to take ‘facts’ at face value. If someone tells me that organic vegetables are healthier[1], or better for the environment[2], I want to see the evidence. And that’s where things start to get tricky. Because what is ‘better’ isn’t always obvious. And it varies depending on what aspect of our environmental impact you are looking at.

Take the current ‘war on plastic’, for example, triggered by the ‘blue planet effect’. If you are looking to simply reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans, this makes a lot of sense. But if you are worried about overall environmental impact, things become a bit more complex[i]. Food is a big contributor, making up roughly 25% of our carbon footprint[ii], and much of this comes from waste. This includes food rejected at the farm, damaged during shipping, or that goes off before or after it gets purchased. And this is where the problem lies. Because plastic packaging, in some cases at least, can help reduce food waste[3][iii].

So what about the alternatives? Many ‘bioplastics’, often touted as the solution, use more energy to produce, and are harder to recycle[iv]. And that organic cotton tote bag you always forget to take to the shops with you? You will have to use it 131 times to make it more environmentally friendly than a plastic bag[v]. I’m not saying there aren’t better alternatives out there, but if you are looking at environmental impact as a whole, plastic-free is missing the point. At best it’s too simplistic, and at worst, downright damaging.

Carbon accounting is messy, and I am no expert, which is where the problem lies. I find myself frozen, unable to make simple decisions without all the information. Should I buy the UK courgette[4] or the Spanish one[5]. Should I order the #plasticfree shampoo bar, or will shipping make it worse than my usual supermarket bottle? Would I be better off buying floss that comes in a glass container, or does the extra weight negate any benefit[6]? And that’s before you consider things like deforestation, soil quality, overfishing or workers’ rights. Trying to keep all the do’s and don’ts of ethical consumption straight feels like a full-time job.

Decision fatigue, from repeatedly making difficult decisions, can leave us overwhelmed and tired, and there is some evidence it impairs our ability to make good decisions. In fact, it can lead to us avoiding deciding at all, simply going with the status quo[vi]. This is certainly something I’ve experienced- browsing ‘green’ products for hours, before buying my usual mascara or toilet cleaner because I’ve run out and don’t have time to complete a rigorous meta-analysis of peer-reviewed publications for every purchase.

The problem is, it never feels like I’m doing enough. And I’m not- no one person can make a difference alone. But small actions do add up, and that’s what I need to remember. One way to reduce this cognitive load so you can make decisions more easily is to put into place some simple rules, which may explain why things like #PlasticFree and #Veganuary are so popular. So while I by no means have all the answers, I thought I would share the guidelines I have developed for myself:

  1. Eat less meat (and fewer animal products[vii]).
  2. Choose local, seasonal veg where possible- try to avoid anything that has been flown[7].
  3. Put on another jumper and turn the heating down.
  4. Drive less, cycle more.
  5. Use what you have rather than buying new. What you do need, buy second-hand.

Of course, there is always more I could be doing, and I am always striving to make my life greener, but if everyone made a few little changes like these, it would really make a difference. And while I may still spend far too much time agonising over small decisions, hopefully these rules will help prevent them taking over my life.  

[1] They aren’t

[2] This one is more debatable…

[3] One study found that packaging a bread product in plastic rather than paper reduced waste by 10%, saving over 100g CO2 equivalent, even once the packaging was taken into account.

[4] lower food miles, but may have been grown in a heated greenhouse…

[5] will it have been flown or shipped? Does it use more water?

[6] Transporting a glass bottle can use 40% more energy than a plastic one, according to a report by the University of Cambridge

[7] shipped items like oranges and bananas have a much lower carbon footprint.

[i] http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20180705-whats-the-real-price-of-getting-rid-of-plastic-packaging

[ii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46459714

[iii] Link

[iv] http://www-g.eng.cam.ac.uk/impee/topics/RecyclePlastics/files/Recycling%20Plastic%20v3%20PDF.pdf

[v]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/291023/scho0711buan-e-e.pdf

[vi] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1948550616639648

[vii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46654042

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Ginny Smith is a science presenter and writer. A Natural Sciences and Psychology graduate of Cambridge, Ginny performs science shows all over the world and presents a wide range of science content for the likes of the Cosmic Shambles Network and the Naked Scientists. She is the co-author of three DK Publishing books looking at science, food and the human body. She is @GinnyFBSmith on Twitter.

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