Over the weekend I posted a flippant note about saving money on milk. I hoped to spur conversation about unit pricing, but it led instead to a comparison of milk prices around the U.S. and Canada. This discussion was more interesting than the one I had intended.

“Wow,” I said to Kris after reading some of the comments. “Can you believe anybody would pay $6 a gallon for milk.”

“But it’s organic milk,” Kris said.

“So?”

“So, some people are willing to pay for that. For some people it’s worth it. It’s like how you’re willing to pay extra to buy something local.”

She has a point. Last week I stopped at the grocery store to buy honey. I was frustrated that the only honey available was from California, Maine, or Argentina (!?!). I wanted Oregon honey, preferably from a farm within twenty miles of our home. I’m willing pay more to buy local products because I want to support local farmers and merchants, to enrich my neighbors and my community.

Money and values
For all of us, shopping decisions go beyond just price. When we shop, we are voting with dollars. I support local merchants. You may support Christian businesses. Many of my friends make financial decisions based on concern for the environment.

  • I have a friend who lives within walking distance of a national chain supermarket. She could buy all of her food there. Instead, she drives ten minutes to a natural food store, where she pays a premium for her groceries. Obviously this isn’t frugal, but is it foolish? For you, it may be. But my friend is happy to pay the extra money for quality organic food. Buying her food from the natural food store allows her to spend money in support of her values.
  • Another friend is wary of U.S. dependence on foreign oil and of the environmental damage caused by heavy use of fossil fuels. He lives in a neighborhood that allows him to walk to buy groceries or to see a movie or to eat in a restaurant. He rides his bike to work. When he drives, he uses a Toyota Prius. Though he pays more for some of his choices, he saves money on others. (Choosing a walkable neighborhood is a great way to save.)
  • A third friend is a vegetarian, in part because of the ecological damage caused by raising animals for food. She also grows a lot of her own fruits and vegetables so that she can be sure of the methods used in production.

Our shopping decisions come from an intersection of money and values. Sometimes the least expensive item isn’t the best choice because it would require you to compromise your personal ethics. Sometimes you’re willing to pay more for a product that is organic or environmentally friendly. Some people are willing to pay $6 for organic milk because of the perceived benefits, not just to themselves, but to the world around them.

The ecology of commerce
Last year, one of my friends loaned me The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, a book about the future of capitalism, about what sustainable economic systems of tomorrow might look like. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve skimmed it, and I’ve found a lot of food for thought. In the introduction Hawken writes:

To create an enduring society, we will need a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative. [...] We must design a system where…the natural, everyday acts of work and life accumulate into a better world as a matter of course, not a matter of conscious altruism.

Is such a system possible? I don’t know. What I view as a better world may not be a better world to you. And isn’t there some value to a system where we do have to make sacrifices, do have to make conscious choices in order to support the causes we believe in? If showing our support for the environment is painless, are we really showing our support?

Hawken proposes eight guidelines that he believes can lead us to an economically and environmentally sustainable future. Though most of these concepts deal with market-level issues, a few have relevance to personal finance. Hawken says the ideal system must:

  • Be self-actuating as opposed to regulated or morally mandated. Give people a reason to choose organic or locally-produced food and goods. Don’t attempt to legislate it. Don’t proceed from a sense of moral superiority. Make it clear how these choices support the average consumer’s goals and desires.
  • Honor market principles. “We can’t just ask people to pay more to save the planet,” writes Hawken. “They won’t do it in some cases — and can’t in most.” Not everyone can afford to pay $6 for a gallon of milk. For sustainability to succeed, it must conform to our capitalist culture.
  • Be more rewarding than our present way of life. Hawken notes that “government, business, and environmental organization cannot create a sustainable society. It will only come about through the accumulated efforts of billions of eager participants.” And in order to get those billions of eager participants, people need to have options that they do not perceive as limiting. Not everyone is willing to sacrifice current comfort for some abstract ideal.

If you’re concerned with how your personal lifestyle affects the environment, consider borrowing Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity from your library. I’m not a fan of the book — when I reviewed it last summer, I wrote that it wasn’t about simplicity at all, but about “ecological living” — but I do think it could be interesting for those interested in living lightly on the earth and consuming less. Elgin relays four questions designed to encourage conscious simplicity and balanced consumption:

  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
  • How tied are my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the earth?

And remember my number one tip for saving the environment: buy less stuff!

Personal choice
When I bought honey at the grocery store last week, I tried to make a purchase that matched my personal values — I tried to buy local. But my grocery store didn’t let me make that choice. Instead, I was forced to compromise. I bought organic honey. From Brazil. By way of Ohio.

How are your shopping decisions influenced by your personal values? Do you consider the environmental impact of the choices you make? Are you willing to pay more for organic produce? Do you go out of the way to support local businesses? Are you worried that choices like these are luxuries available only to the affluent? And if you believe environmental concerns are largely unwarranted, how does this affect your decisions?

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