What You Can Do Change How You Shop

What we buy not only affects how we use the earth's resources, it also influences how those products are made and discarded. Every product we buy therefore affects the environment in myriad ways, many of which are often difficult to see. Also, by choosing certain products over others, we send signals to industries and governments about how we feel about the environment. By selecting environmentally sound products, we can cast billions of "votes" per day for a world that protects biodiversity. Here are some guidelines for greener shopping:

1. Buy only what you need

2. Buy products that are made locally

3. Avoid buying disposable items

4. Choose products with minimal packaging

5. Buy products that are durable or longer-lasting

6. Avoid products made from endangered species

7. Avoid products containing toxic ingredients or petroleum derivatives

8. Buy products that were sustainably produced or farmed organically

Source: American Museum of Natural History.

1998. Biodiversity and What You Buy: A Guide for Green Consumers. New York: Center for

Biodiversity and Conservation. For more information, visit http://research.amnh.org.

ment or degradation of the natural resources and processes that sustain human endeavor. The most basic and widely used of those indicators, the gross national product (GNP), is no exception (Gore, 1992, p. 183). As natural resources are consumed and environments' ability to support healthy ecosystems is reduced, our ability to keep using those resources is also diminished. But the current calculations of GNP do not reflect this. For example, an aging factory with outdated or broken machinery is not worth as much under current accounting schemes as a gleaming production line that promises to churn out goods for years to come. Likewise, we should be assessing the reduced ability of eroded fields and polluted ground-water to grow and irrigate future crops, and calculating the true costs and benefits of current intensive agricultural practices.

4. Abolish perverse subsidies and incentives. Governments around the world constantly try to influence the behavior of their citizens and the shape of their cultures by manipulating the economic playing field. Imposing taxes to prevent undesired actions or offering tax exemptions to engender desirable actions are among the most apparent strategies that governments employ. Often these interventions by governments wind up encouraging or even paying for environmentally destructive practices. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, in fulfilling its mandate to provide the logging industry with access to the national forests, winds up spending more on building roads than it recovers in logging concession fees— an effective windfall for the logging companies, which don't have to pay for their roads. In Brazil, a government policy designed to encourage settlement of the Amazonian frontier gave pioneers free land if they cleared more than half of the forest from their properties. It has been estimated that the global sum of all of these destructive subsidies is U.S.$2 trillion annually

(Myers and Kent, 2001). The net effect of these incentives and subsidies is to further twist the "free" market away from reflecting the environmental degradation caused by human activities.

5. Change the time horizon for economic decision making. One of the most problematic economic practices involves the discounting of future income and resource availability. Discounting allows us to compare the gains and losses that occur over time and evaluate different courses of action. For example, we might want to compare the value of clear-cutting a forest now—essen-tially taking all of our profits immediately and moving on to another venture (ignoring the costs of degraded lands and water-sheds)—to managing the same forest sus-tainably, cutting a small number of trees each year, and receiving smaller profits indefinitely. Under current discounting practices, which heavily favor immediate profits over long-term profits, destructive activities like clear-cutting nearly always come out ahead on the balance sheet. In practice, then, the current discounting methods essentially make biodiversity resources worthless when projected far into the future. Several alternative methods for discounting future or present alternatives exist that favor the long-term sustainabil-ity option. We must adopt these alternative economic formulae to incorporate the long-term impacts of what we do today and make our indicators more effectively guide us toward reaching our societal goals.

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