Archive for November, 2008

Eco Shopping: A Matter of Class

November 29, 2008

Why do they put your groceries in ten flimsy plastic bags when they would fit in three? Annoyed, I watch the tired Safeway cashier stick a loaf of bread in one bag, a quart of milk in another, a couple of oranges and some bananas in a third. Doesn’t he care about all the plastic that goes to waste? It takes 1,000 years for a regular plastic bag to break down in a landfill.

wfm_organic_today_s_18671It’s a completely different story at Whole Foods, which famously banned plastic bags earlier this year. There, they sell chic designer grocery bags made from recycled plastic bottles that you can buy to prove that not only do you care for the environment – you can also afford to belong to the green club.

Besides selling reusable grocery bags, Whole Foods gives you 5 cents for each used paper bag that you bring back and fill with groceries. It feels so right, but our family is burning too much money at Whole Foods – at least $700 a month, in addition to the shopping we do at other grocery stores. Our monthly food bill easily exceeds $1,100 for a family of four. While surveys show that you actually pay less for organics at Whole Foods than you do at other chain stores, we could save money by picking up “conventional” lettuce, crackers, ground beef and bread at Safeway or Giant.

The class gap is evident when you travel a couple of blocks from Whole Foods to Safeway in downtown Silver Spring, Md. Gone are the tempting displays, the free food samples, the exotic fish counter, the self-assured professionals – and the recycled grocery bags. Tired moms with kids in tow hurry through the wide aisles with their endless rows of cereal boxes and chips bags. I leave Safeway disgusted, having acquired only half the items on my list. Of course, I tell myself, I should spend more at Whole Foods to get chemical-free snack bars and lunch meat for my kids! And certainly, it’s worth paying $4.50 for a loaf of bread when it’s both nutritious and fresh.

But many regular families on a tight budget may not have that choice. For if you’re poor in America, you tend to be relegated to disposable plastic bags, industrial spongy bread, sprayed fruit, and snacks laced with preservatives, artificial flavors and coloring. You’re no more likely to eat organic beef than you are putting solar panels on your roofs or driving a hybrid car.
The market for organic food has exploded in the past decade, with sales increasing by between 20 percent and 30 percent annually, according to the Nielsen Group, a market research firm. With the economy falling into the hole in recent months, consumers are becoming less likely to pay $3.50 for half a gallon of organic milk when conventional milk can be had for $2. U.S. sales of organic products for the four weeks ended Oct. 4 grew 11.2 percent, down from 27.1 percent a year earlier, Nielsen reported.

And even before the economy took a turn for the worse, research showed that people buy eco food when they can afford it. A study released last summer by an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rachael Dittman, confirmed that people with higher income (annual household income of at least $70,000) and higher education are more likely to spend more on organic food than poor Americans (annual household income below $30,000) or people of color.

Conclusion: Shopping green and eating healthy is still about education and cultural values, but even more about economic class. And me? I’m stretching my budget every month to stay in that coveted club.


Back in the U.S.A.

November 14, 2008

1075772_the_metro2In the two years that we’ve been overseas, green has – finally – become hip in America.

The subway car that whisks me to work in the morning is sporting ads from Chevron, the oil and gas giant, that urge us to conserve. Close-up portraits of sober citizens proclaim: “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will use less energy.” Wow!

Public transportation ridership has soared in tandem with rising gasoline prices. Americans took 140 million more trips by bus or train during the spring than they did a year earlier, the American Public Transport Association reports. And as investments plummeted in a weakening economy, venture capitalists managed to pour a record $1 billion into renewable energy projects during the third quarter alone.

Change is definitely in the air.

At my workplace, we have blue recycling bins in the office and the lights automatically turn on and off when we come and go. But progress is uneven – or, should I say – half-hearted?

In September, as outdoor temperatures in Washington, D.C., dropped to a comfortable 80 degrees, I piled on sweaters and cranked up the electric space heater next to my desk because the air conditioning was turning my windowless office into an ice box. There was no way to turn it off, our maintenance man explained. I drank hot coffee to keep my fingers from going stiff.

Our fancy coffee maker, however, is another environmental concern. To brew a cup, you stick a small, sealed plastic container with coffee grains in the machine. When your cup has been filled, the now-empty container automatically falls into a trash bin. How much plastic do I go through in one week?

“And why are there only plastic forks in the kitchen drawer and paper cups for coffee?” I ask a co-worker. “Can’t we buy some cheap mugs and silverware at IKEA and just wash them after lunch?” That would never work, he replies. “People would just leave their dishes in the sink and we’d have a mess.”

papermug11At the take-out restaurant downstairs I’ve made a point of telling the woman at the cash register that I don’t need my wrapped sandwich stuck in a plastic bag. “I’ll just grab it like that,” I say, sounding green and chipper. “It’ll save you some plastic!” I get a blank stare in return. She has no idea what I’m getting at and couldn’t care less.

The printer at the office spits out paper all day long. How many trees did we consume in the past month? I soon learn that some of my colleagues print out reports and documents to read and edit on the train home in the evening. The workload is such that tasks can never be completed even if you log eight or nine solid hours in the office and eat lunch at your desk. Best to print it all out and bring with you.

I rarely see people working on their laptops while in transit and I have yet to hear any discussion about deducting such telecommuting time from the regular workday, as many Europeans do. There’s also, still, no wireless access on the trains that run in and out of D.C. So people do it the old way: On paper.

But hey, we’re making efforts where we can. Metro officials are scrambling to put in more bike racks outside the subway stations, because so many more people are biking rather than driving and parking the car there. That’s progress!