The Daily Green, working with eBay's Green Team, recently asked a deceptively simple question: What Does It Mean to Be A Sustainable Consumer? ... We're impressed and thrilled with the thoughtful responses, and in response we'll be publishing periodic buying guides organized around different product categories.
First up: Electronics. Ask these 7 questions before buying electronics, and you can be confident that you're making a wise, ethical and green decision.
Facing economic stress unprecedented in our lifetimes, we might not need this reminder the way we did a couple years ago, but it's always a question worth asking. Separating your "wants" from your "needs" is a good first step toward reducing the environmental impact of your purchases (not to mention the financial impact on your wallet). The environmental impact from buying comes primarily in the use of natural resources to manufacture the products in the first place. If you don't buy it, you eliminate its impact.
In the case of electronics, this can be a tricky question because outdated electronics are often just that -- outdated. But as personal electronics proliferate, a big part of the appeal of the latest gadget is as much fashion as it is function. Discarded electronics, from the desktop computer to the lowly cell phone, contain toxic compounds, including, in many cases plastics, flame retardants and heavy metals. These can leach from landfills or go into trash incinerators, and then up in smoke -- and into the air we breathe. Not only that, but the electricity required to power all those electronic devices is derived, largely, from burning coal, which produces copious greenhouse gas emissions, as well as toxic mercury that contaminates fish, ecologically damaging acid rain and unhealthy smog. Bottom line: if you don't need it, don't buy it.
Many products have a useful life that extends far beyond the needs of one owner. Many products can ably serve more than one master at a time. Ask your friends and neighbors if they can share. Before buying new, check local garage sales, thrift and antique stores, refurbished electronics stores, classifieds, auctions, clothing swaps -- and their global on-line equivalents, freecycling, Craigslist and, of course, eBay -- to look for items that can be given a second (or third, or fourth) life. Bottom line: buying used is the most environmentally sound way to buy, because it not only requires the use of no new natural resources in manufacturing, but also because it keeps a useful product out of a landfill or trash incinerator.
Particularly if you're buying new, consider how a product was made: what materials were used, who made it and how were those workers treated? It's often not the end-user or the end-user's community that suffers from the manufacture of products that aren't made according to high environmental standards, but workers and local communities and ecosystems near the factories. Some suspect chemicals are also found in many common consumer products, so the question of progeny isn't important just for the health of workers, but for consumers as well. eBay has made this one step easier by bringing together ethical buyers and sellers via World of Good, which uses independent certifiers to ensure that only products that adhere to high environmental and human rights standards are offered for sale.
In the case of electronics, a single cell phone might be made of 1,000 components, each manufactured from a set of natural resources and manmade chemicals -- oils and solvents, plastics, heavy metals, flame retardants and more. These chemicals and metals may do no harm to you during the use of a gadget, but their manufacture and disposal can pollute the environment, or threaten the health of workers and others. Greenpeace assesses companies based on a variety of metrics, including the toxicity of the materials used to manufacture devices, and publishes its ratings in an annual Greener Gadgets guide.
The making of a product is only part of what contributes to its environmental footprint. The materials used to package it, and the fuel used to transport it, are two other biggies. Studies have generally endorsed the proposition that online purchasing has a smaller environmental footprint than buying from a brick-and-mortar store, in large part because of the reduced energy costs associated with lighting and heating. Look for goods packaged minimally, and packaged with post-consumer recycled materials. If packing something of your own for sale on eBay or elsewhere, get creative: Crumple the paper that you'd otherwise have recycled to protect fragile items. Set aside a few boxes as you come across them, so you can re-use them when you need them. A minimum of thought can save significant resources over the long term. If you are buying from a brick-and-mortar store, ask questions of the store manage, or consult the company's Web site for information about how they manage the efficiency and wastefulness of their supply chain.
The environmental impact of newly purchased items doesn't necessarily end when you get them home. Clothing needs to be washed, and jewelry shined. Buying a new dress that you can run through the washer has less impact than one that must be dry cleaned, for instance, since many dry cleaners clean with toxic sovlents. Furniture may need to be washed, oiled waxed or reupholstered. Electronics -- most obviously -- need to be plugged in or charged. Look for Energy Star labels on home stereo and entertainment equipment, cordless phones as well as a range of other home electronics and most home appliances. The label will help you choose the most energy-efficient model, which decreases its ongoing cost, its electricity demand -- and environmental impact.
What happens to that product once you're done with it? Is it durable enough to be of use to your grandchildren? Can it have a second (or third or fourth) life once youre done with it? If it breaks, do you have the means to repair it?
Not only does it save resources to buy durable, long-lasting goods, but it can also provide a good return on investment. When you've tired of a new product, you can sell it to recoup some of your costs -- or even turn a profit. But often that's only possible if you've purchased a good quality item with lasting value.
In the case of electronics, not all products are equally recyclable. Increasingly, pressure from non-profit groups and consumers has prompted electronics manufacturers to accept all used electronics for recycling. But for many products, it's still the exception, rather than the rule. The Electronics Take Back Coalition is leading the effort to encourage companies to run free, comprehensive and easy-to-use programs that allow consumers to recycle used electronics and be confident that the used electronics will actually be recycled and not dumped, incinerated or exported to developing countries, where scavengers have been exposed to debilitating levels of pollution.
The crown jewel of ethical buying comes if the purchase you make helps you maintain a green lifestyle. That may mean supporting local artisans with a purchase of a painting or piece of jewelry. It may mean buying a piece of clothing that lets you wear your passions on your sleeve -- and educate friends and passers-by in the process. Or it may be as simple as buying a good raincoat ... so you can walk instead of taking the cab on rainy days. It may mean that your next gadget isn't a new video-mp3 player, but a home energy monitor, so you can track down and eliminate unnecessary electricity use.
Finally, maybe the purchase itself contributes to a cause, because the seller donates a portion of proceeds. Check with the organizations you support to see which companies they work with, and get in the habit of reading the environmental and sustainability sections of companies' Web sites. One great way to connect with sellers that share your passions -- and who will back up that passion with a donation based on your purchase -- is via eBay Giving Works.
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