The Power of the Big Green Purse

A best-selling author describes how women can use their economic clout in the marketplace to help protect the environment and human health

08-01-2008 // Diane MacEachern

WOMEN ACCOUNT FOR as much as 85 cents of every dollar spent in the retail marketplace, which adds up to vast consumer clout. By opening or closing their purses, women can encourage manufacturers to reduce pollution, protect air and water and save wildlife. But sometimes the “green” choice isn’t clear. As the author of a new book about women and the environment, I often give talks to audiences across the nation, discussing how women’s shopping can help produce a better environment. I have found that women everywhere share many of the same questions about making green consumer choices.

For example, many women realize that replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) will save energy and reduce climate change. But they worry about the mercury in these more efficient bulbs—even though it’s only 5 milligrams, about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. I remind women that an electricity-generating coal-fired power plant emits four times as much mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb as it does for the equivalent CFL. Even if the mercury in a CFL were directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute more mercury to the environment over its lifetime. Yes, CFLs need to be disposed of in a community hazardous waste facility, and, if one breaks, the pieces need to be swept up rather than vacuumed and the room aired for an hour. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency says that when it comes to conserving energy, slowing climate change and reducing overall mercury build-up in the environment, CFLs win hands down.

Women also want to be sure they are using safe cosmetics. Increasingly, scientists report that the cumulative use of makeup, body lotion and perfume may contribute to a variety of health and other problems, such as asthma. Because cosmetics, hair color, soaps and shampoos wash down the drain, they infiltrate our water system and wreak havoc on wildlife, causing some fish to grow both male and female sex organs and some frogs to develop thyroid problems. I encourage women to avoid products that contain parabens, which have been linked to breast cancer; phthalates, considered a reproductive toxin by the state of California; fragrances, the largest source of skin problems according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and antibacterial agents like triclosan, which may contribute to our increasing resistance to antibiotics as well as to abnormalities in aquatic animals. Choosing cosmetics made from the fewest ingredients, while buying fewer products overall, is also a savvy way an eco-shopper can use her purse.

When I ask women what annoys them most about shopping, many respond, “The throwaway plastic and paper wrapping!” Obviously, a little packaging is necessary. It protects food from contamination or damage during shipping and renders some items tamperproof and child-resistant. On the other hand, animals that get tangled in plastic beverage rings, eat polystyrene packing materials or swallow plastic bags may die. Packaging wastes money, too. One out of every 11 dollars spent shopping goes for throwaway wraps. Again, women can put their consumer clout to good use. Picking detergents, bleaches, cleansers and fabric softeners in “ultra” or concentrated form minimizes manufacturing and shipping materials. Opting for the economy size of a product rather than single servings reduces packaging and saves money, too, since ounce for ounce an individually wrapped product costs almost double the larger size. Replacing plastic bags with reusable shopping totes for clothing and household supplies as well as groceries limits the number of bags thrown away.

In my travels, I have often found that women also worry about the impact of drinking bottled water. It takes 1.5 million barrels of oil, enough to run 100,000 cars for a whole year, to make the 22 billion plastic water bottles Americans throw away every year. Bottled-water processing also wastes water, up to 2 gallons for every gallon bottled. And since only 10 to 12 percent of water bottles are recycled, the rest end up in landfills, along roadsides or bobbing in rivers and lakes, where they could take thousands of years to decompose. The solution? A reusable bottle. Models that come with their own filters, replaceable after multiple uses, are available from various websites and sporting goods stores.

Women can even make a difference based on the coffee they buy. Most coffee is grown in the rich, equatorial rain forest belt that circles the world. Growing java in the shade of rain forest trees is the natural way to raise this crop, and can be grown organically. Sun-grown coffee plantations, which typically use large quantities of chemicals and year-round labor, produce greater amounts of erosion and toxic runoff. Studies have found up to 97 percent fewer bird species on pesticide-intensive sun-grown coffee plantations than on organic shady farms. Shade-grown coffee provides an economic benefit, too, because it is usually raised by fair-trade farmers, who are paid a respectable wage. Women can use the power of the purse to support organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee.

With all this talk about spending, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that, first and foremost, I urge women to buy less and to reuse what they buy. Clearly, nothing will get manufacturers’ attention more than consumers who decide to keep their money in their purses. Corporate needs for profit give consumers power. And because women spend 85 cents of every dollar in the retail marketplace, we have a whole planetful of power. By intentionally shifting our spending to products that offer the greatest environmental benefits, we can use our purses like bright green tethers and pull manufacturers in a safer, healthier, more eco-friendly direction.

Writer Diane MacEachern, based in Maryland, examines women’s economic clout in her new book, Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World, and on the website www.biggreenpurse.com.

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