This post is from GRS staff writer April Dykman.

For many people, mindful consumerism starts with questioning the desire to buy Stuff. The reason might be to save money or avoid clutter — maybe both. It’s the first part of a journey to differentiate needs from wants and make mindful decisions about where to spend our hard-earned money.

But at some point, most of us will consume. We’ll buy food or clothing or household items. We’ll need to replace something, fix something, or upgrade something. When we make these purchases, we’re playing a role in a process. Much goes into creating a product and getting it on the shelf, though as a consumer, we don’t see that process. We don’t know if the companies involved in bringing it to us have decent working conditions for employees, pollute water systems, or include additives that pose health risks to our families.

Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy, wrote about considering the global effects of our purchases in his essay, Making the Right Choice:

An organic cotton t-shirt may be called “green” because they didn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers when growing the cotton. That’s on the good side of the ledger, to be sure, but if we look into the life cycle of the t-shirt, we discover that organic cotton fibers are shorter than other fibers, so you need to grow a lot more cotton per t-shirt. Cotton is typically raised in arid parts of the world, and it’s a very thirsty crop, so a lot of water is implicated in the production of the t-shirt.

Also, if it’s a colored t-shirt, we have to take into account that textile dyes tend to be carcinogenic. When we consider all these angles, we may come to see that if you change one thing about a product and leave 999 unchanged, it’s not green.

It’s enough to make the average consumer’s head spin. Most people would like to make informed choices and reward companies whose processes make us feel good, but doing this in practice is daunting. If a busy parent is in the grocery store with two children to wrangle, it’s not feasible for that person to stop and trace the life cycles of Cheesy Poufs versus Cheddar Puffs. People can’t be expected to spend hours on the web researching the health, societal, and environmental effects of every purchase. Not gonna happen.

Technology provides the tools
Luckily, it’s getting easier to know what’s behind a brand. Skin Deep and GoodGuide are two web databases that provide the backstory on the Stuff we buy.

  • Skin Deep is a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products researched by the Environmental Working Group. You can search by product, ingredient, or company, and the site will return a hazard rating with the product broken down by ingredients.
  • GoodGuide is a database of more than 70,000 food, toys, personal care, and household products that rates the products and companies based on the effects they have so that users can make informed decisions based on what is important to them.

For example, GoodGuide provides information about Quaker Quick Oats, which it rates a 7.3 overall (out of 10), and Nature’s Path Organic Instant Hot Oatmeal, which is rated 6.7. We might assume that the organic brand would be healthier, but in fact it’s higher in sugar than similar products. When it comes to environmental effects, Quaker Quick Oats scores lower for water and energy management. Users can delve deeper into how these ratings are determined by clicking on See All Data.

The brainchild of Dara O’Rourke, a professor at University of California-Berkeley, GoodGuide was developed with experts from Harvard and MIT, with tech input from talent at Google, eBay, Amazon, and Intuit. And the tech part is what makes GoodGuide great. The database is available as an iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad app that allows users to scan barcodes and compare products. Users also can create personalized shopping lists and lists of products to avoid, making it easier shop mindfully when you’re on the go.

Start small
If you’re interested learning more about where your Stuff comes from, make a few changes and build from there. Don’t feel like you have to throw out all of the “bad” Stuff you own and replace it with the “good” Stuff. To start, pick one product you’re curious about, and see if it’s listed on Good Guide or Skin Deep. How does it score? Is there a better alternative that will still meet your needs? Often the better-rated product also is the less expensive, which is a great bonus. In fact, I’ve slowly replaced my skin-care products with cheaper products that also rate better when it comes to health and societal effects. Sometimes the expensive products packaged in “green”-looking bottles rate surprising low.

I’m interested to know what you think about databases like Skin Deep and GoodGuide. Have you ever wondered how some of the products you buy get to the shelf? Would you use tools like these to learn more about the effects of the Stuff you buy?

This article is about Choices, Consumerism, Shopping, Tools