A few months ago, I bought a bag of six wool dryer balls. In my many decades of doing laundry, I have almost never felt the need for fabric softener or dryer sheets – both of which struck me as wasteful. And yet, I was enticed by the promise of an environmentally safe product that promised softer, less wrinkled clothes, and shorter drying times.
A few months later, I’m not sure if my clothes look or feel any better, or whether my dryer is getting less of a workout post dryer balls. I am sure that chasing them as they merrily bounce from dryer to laundry room floor, has not made me happier. And I know for a fact, that when it comes to helping the planet, putting up a clothesline would have had much more impact.
While recycling, repurposing, avoiding toxic chemicals, and making more thoughtful purchases are good habits to cultivate, we also should ask ourselves:
Do environmentally responsible products help the planet, or do they just get us to buy more stuff?
Given all the variables, it may be impossible to get accurate data to answer the first part of the question, and as my short-lived infatuation with the dryer balls illustrates, the latter half is sometimes true.
From email to pop-up ads and TV spots, we are peppered endlessly with the message that buying more stuff will make our lives better, happier, and even greener. My own Instagram feed is loaded with videos and photos of bloggers opening recyclable packages of green products — everything from bar shampoo to ethically made rain boots — while promoting sustainable living.
I get it: If one’s budget allows, why not support companies that focus on making their product’s life cycle sustainable from beginning to end? If nothing else, it takes money away from more wasteful competitors.
Yet no matter how carefully we consume our stuff, we can’t shop our way to a clean planet any more than we can buy our own happiness. In fact, when researchers at the University of Arizona explored the impact of our materialistic culture on millennials, they found a link between buying less and individual happiness.
According to one of the study’s authors, Associate Professor Sabrina Helm,
“Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we don’t see that with green consumption…. Having less and buying less can actually make us more satisfied and happier.”
Another study by Patrik Sörqvist, and Linda Langeborg from University of Gävle, in Gävle, Sweden, found that some people will use green purchases as an internal bargaining chip to compensate for environmentally harmful behaviors.
Sörqvist, lead author of the study told the New York Post,
“People might purchase some extra groceries because they are eco-labeled — [and] think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature. …You can’t kiss and make up with the environment.”
He also told the Post that the same kind of hypocrisy is true for larger entities,
“… companies — nations, even — claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.”
As individuals, what we do for the environment matters, but what we do collectively, and on a global scale matters much, much more.
A recent headline in the New York Times, “America’s Air Quality Worsens, Ending Years of Gains, Study Says,” highlights the efficacy of broad-scale action and the harm created when that progress is eroded.
According to the Times, the research suggested,
“… that a decrease in enforcement of the Clean Air Act may have contributed to the recent rise in pollution. That law and its subsequent updates put in place strict air pollution standards for power plants, factories, vehicles and other sources, and has been credited with dramatically improving air quality across the country and saving hundreds of thousands of lives.”
The weakening of the Clean Air Act and its enforcement likely contributed to the nearly 10,000 premature deaths between 2016 and 2018 attributed to a more than 5 percent uptick in fine particulate pollution nationwide.
If individual actions alone aren’t effective in halting climate change, voting, relentless protesting, and demanding systemic change are.
Writer Erin Boyle, who blogs about “slow, simple, sustainable living,” recently made this point when some readers criticized her for going forward with an unplanned third pregnancy. Boyle, who lives in a 500 square foot apartment with her husband and two children and has turned living with less into an art form, reminded them that structural and systemic action are crucial,
“We need to demand wide-scale, far-reaching, global change from leaders, politicians, and corporations. … policies and infrastructure put in place that drastically reduce humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels. … international investment in green technologies. … world leaders who agree to regulate industry and enforce those regulations, and who value people and environmental health over profit.”
She then put her personal decision into perspective.
“I also believe individual actions matter…But just as I know that using stainless steel straws or eschewing plastic in our individual homes are far from the only actions needed to change the course of climate change, I understand that the baby that I’m currently carrying will neither be responsible for the planet’s collapse, nor its saving.”