Money and Values: The Ecology of Commerce

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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Katy
Katy
12 years ago

yes, these are luxuries for the affluent.

Flaime
Flaime
12 years ago

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? I disagree with this assessment. Frugality is not about being cheap. It’s about getting the greatest value for your money. Value is subjective, regardless the preachings of certain money zealots. If you friend finds this is the best way to get greatest value, then then it is absolutely frugal. Another example…as an… Read more »

Shauna
Shauna
12 years ago

hahaha!

It’s not organic if it came from Brazil! Well, in Brazil it is…

A huge part of buying organic should be that you avoid the consumption of fossil fuels used for transportation. If you buy honey that you got from Brazil via Ohio and you live in Oregon, you are only paying for the label.

Ian
Ian
12 years ago

Buying organic is an investment in your health.

How much does colon cancer surgery cost?

Dean J
Dean J
12 years ago

“Can you believe anybody would pay $6 a gallon for milk.”

Some people don’t structure their lives out of maximizing their finances.

Some aim for health first, and do the best they can. Some aim for happiness. Some aim for leisure.

It might be an interesting direction to consider the motives and goals of folks who *aren’t* 100% focused on optimizing personal finances now and again. I’d suspect the large portion of us still pay the bills on time, but value different things than you might.

Sharon
Sharon
12 years ago

J.D.,

You can get local honey at the farmer’s market. You aren’t being forced to buy imported honey at the grocery store.

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

It takes up to four years to become a certified organic farmer for produce. So, just because something has not been “certified” organic doesn’t automatically mean it’s been doused in pesticides, or pumped full of hormones.

And, I bet you didn’t know this, but after three days, organic produce is potentially more harmful to your health than non-organic produce based on the fact that decay and rot begins to set in…So, before preaching to us about the virtues of organic, please inform yourself completely of all the issues.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

You can get local honey at the farmer’s market. You aren’t being forced to buy imported honey at the grocery store. No farmer’s market in April! And no produce stands, either. Give me a month, and I’ll have access to all sorts of wonderful local products. But this just highlights another aspect of this whole dilemma. We are accustomed to eating a wide variety of food year-round. This isn’t natural. If we demand organic or locally-produced foods, there are all sorts of implications. If I want strawberries in March, they’re going to be from California or Mexico. I need to… Read more »

Sara A.
Sara A.
12 years ago

I would love to eat naturally grown foods. Unfortunately, there is NO guarantee that you buy anything more than a label when you buy “organic” or “natural.” There is not enough regulation in place for companies using those terms. Many people don’t know just how diluted those terms have become.

I don’t mean to bash natural foods, but I worry that what we’re paying for and what we’re getting are two WAY different things.

Vered - MomGrind
Vered - MomGrind
12 years ago

@ Dave: “And, I bet you didn’t know this, but after three days, organic produce is potentially more harmful to your health than non-organic produce based on the fact that decay and rot begins to set in…So, before preaching to us about the virtues of organic, please inform yourself completely of all the issues.” I do buy organic and although I have no research to back up your claim (do you?), I must agree that organic produce spoils SO FAST that it sometimes amazes me. It’s normal and natural and to be expected, I guess, but when you stick with… Read more »

Silverlegs
Silverlegs
12 years ago

Hahahahah Organic vs Air Miles debate We have that dilema daily in the UK. We are no longer self sufficient in food. So much of it comes from overseas. When I buy organic it normally is produced by less intensive methods, and therefore more likely to come from Africa, South America, US etal. My other choice is to buy local, non organicly produced food. But the Supermarkets in their infinite wisdom see fit to have growers send all their produce to distribution centres in the UK (even overseas growers), then onto to places like Poland and Kenya to have poorly… Read more »

Andy
Andy
12 years ago

I agree with the book, sustainability has to be practical and doable for everyone for it to work. I am actually surprised how much it has all caught on – I thought it would have fizzled a while ago. The people who will strike it rich and change the world are the ones who can create sustainability in products and things without forcing consumers to sacrifice much.

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

I try to buy national (Italian) produce at the supermarkets, I buy some things organic and/or local. I particularly love the monthly markets where I can find food specialties, organic *and* local produces, ecological cosmetics and handmade shirts – and where the stockbreeder herself explains her meat and lets us taste it after grilling a small piece on the spot. Now that is fun! 😉

J
J
12 years ago

Regarding milk, everyone who drinks milk should learn as much as possible about RBGH (assuming they live in a country that allows these hormones). RBGH, commonly shortened to just “growth hormone”, causes many serious illnesses in dairy cattle, and has been shown (in independent labs) to physically alter the chemistry of dairy milk. Anyone who has a spare 1hr 40min should check out the documentary “The World According to Monsanto”. You can watch the whole thing through Google video:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-842180934463681887

A.J.
A.J.
12 years ago

I’m surprised you didn’t explicitly tie this post or the previous energy post to Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day

Gwen
Gwen
12 years ago

Maybe I’m spoiled because I live in Texas. We can get a lot of produce that’s fairly local and is organic and it’s all at the normal grocery store. I had this debate with a transplant from Germany to the Berkeley area and she drove me nuts, griping about how American’s don’t care, etc. etc. I then pointed out to her that maybe she should stop using toilet paper, because I was pretty sure there wasn’t a toilet paper factory within 200 miles of Berkeley, CA. Or how about the coffee she was drinking by the thermos. There is a… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

A.J. wrote: I’m surprised you didn’t explicitly tie this post or the previous energy post to Earth Day.

🙂

They’re implicitly tied to Earth Day.

Actually, the real problem — and this is completely true — is that I couldn’t find an official free-to-use Earth Day logo. I spent HALF AN HOUR (which is way too much time) looking for one. I found a logo that I liked, but it’s under a non-commercial Creative Commons license. Bah! You have to just imagine that there are Earth Day logos on these two posts.

jessica @pianomomsicle
jessica @pianomomsicle
12 years ago

My husband MUST have organic milk. He read a book about it and it makes him sick to drink the regular stuff now. However, because we’re paying so much for milk, i’m having to skip buying other things, like fruit. We’re living on a diet of frozen budget meals and organic milk. This is totally screwed up:)

Sim
Sim
12 years ago

Capatalism is good at providing profit to companies that offer the best value proposition to consumers. What’s often lacking–and this is not an attack on capitalisim, more of an attack on how our society uses capitalism as a means to absolve itself of all moral responsibility–morality is not rewarded as it should be by the laws. In my opinion, laws should help create more of a connection beteen between profit and morality. Thinking only about short term profits loses site of the bigger picture. Thinking only about driving prices down right now ingores the burdens future generations will suffer as… Read more »

Hildy Richelson
Hildy Richelson
12 years ago

Some people are digging up the grass in the suburbs and growing money crops to sell. I have a small but very productive garden that provides us with vegetable during the summer and part of the winter. I even had a form of greens that survived the winter in PA. The problem is knowing what to do with all the produce in August. There was a funny cartoon that I have much simpathy for. A child asks his Mom: “Why do you leave zuchinni at people’s houses?” The mother responds: “Because people want them.” “Then why,” asks the child, “do… Read more »

Walter
Walter
12 years ago

Andy, Give it time. It will fizzle. I do not know if you recall the early 70s, but that environmental movement, while making great strides, faded when fossil fuels got cheap again. This time, it’s going to fizzle because the snake-oil salesmen have gotten into the act and now declare things that are ‘green’ when, in fact,they are anything but. There will be (read: is) a glut of disinformation and misinformation flying around out there and people won’t know which way to turn or what is the ‘right’ thing to do. I do not go out of my way to… Read more »

The other PDX JD
The other PDX JD
12 years ago

J.D., I agree with Sharon. Make a trip to the Portland Farmer’s Market–it started in early April. Clackamas is also open, but I’m not sure they’d carry honey.
-JD

Trent (not that one)
Trent (not that one)
12 years ago

You may support Christian businesses.

You say that, and, because of where this discussion started, I am reminded of a Steve Taylor song:

So you need a new car
Let your fingers take a walk
In the business guide for the born again flock
You’ll be keeping all your money, in the Kingdom now
And you’ll only drink milk from a Christian Cow….

That doesn’t forward the discussion any, I just like quoting Steve Taylor whenever possible.

J
J
12 years ago

In reply to Walter, the logic of your argument is essentially ‘since I cannot know for sure if X is Y, Y-ness is of no value to me’. I’m not sure this is reasonable. There are empirical scenarios where 100% truth is not sufficient for decision-making. We can make inferences about our world based on incomplete data, and it’s not unreasonable to do so. It’s not difficult to investigate ingredients and ask questions about the food you eat. I think the larger issue is one of priority – I prioritize food quality over most of my other daily routines. As… Read more »

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

i think values are incredibly important when deciding how to spend one’s money. unfortunately, i’m not exactly in a position to “vote with my dollars” as the term goes. i am very excited that the local farmer’s market is starting up again within walking distance from me at work. i’ve actually been able to find some good deals there, and the food is fresher. i considered signing up for a csa plan through the farmer’s market this year, because it’s a fantastic deal and the food is local and fresh, but i will be living alone for half the year.… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

@both J.D.s 🙂

The Vancouver farmer’s market is fantastic, and they’re open now. I’ve seen local honey there. They used to be open year-round, but sadly that experiment seems to have failed. 🙁

zach @ Pennywise
zach @ Pennywise
12 years ago

wow. . . I love this discussion and what a timely post! JD– Bumblebee farms is located in troutdale. I am doing a series of interviews with Dave, the farmer for my blog. It’s a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that costs about $550 for 24 weeks (about six months). You can get as much food as you want. It’s certified organic. Localharvest.org lists all the CSA’s in the United States. >>How’s your garden coming anyways, JD? Is it “frugal”? Also, the *cost* of eating organic is different than the sticker *price*. Organic, real foods make some people (like me) less… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

How’s your garden coming anyways, JD? Is it “frugal”?

HA! Excellent point. 🙂

Odds are looking against it at this point, aren’t they?

Diatryma
Diatryma
12 years ago

I read, possibly at Peter’s Cross Station, that all things have a cost. The cost has to be paid, in sticker price or other ways. If you are not paying it, someone else is. I try to remember that. I’m not an organic milk person– I drink way, way too much, for one thing– but I try to buy local because then the cost is local. The labor is local. Anything bad coming from my purchase is local, which means I pay some of it. I don’t compromise on books, though. I know too many writers. I’m trying to buy… Read more »

Char
Char
12 years ago

At our house the big joke when going to buy eggs is “Mom, I’m going to pick up eggs and I will make sure to get the beaked ones!” I will not let anyone buy any eggs that don’t say free range because they cut off the beaks of many of the caged ones so they don’t hurt each other. I think that sounds horrible so I pay whatever the price of free range eggs are even if it is double – you couldn’t be more right about values change how we perceive frugality!

zach @ Pennywise
zach @ Pennywise
12 years ago

@JD.

stick with it till harvest time. Growing is slow business and it’s been a hell of a hard season this year.

Recommended reading:
barbara kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”

Tim S.
Tim S.
12 years ago

Great discussion. I am a farmer in Iowa and depending on your views on agriculture, I would be considered a commercial and/or local family farmer. We tried to raise an organic garden but it was too heartbreaking to see produce lost to pests. We do eat our own free range eggs, because they have thicker yellower yolks, not a welfare issue, ours can get killed by predators. We sell pork and beef locally but most of it is sold to a packing plant, there is not enough demand in rural iowa to sustain a local rural economy that we can… Read more »

Greener Pastures
Greener Pastures
12 years ago

I think prices get jacked up simply because they are organic, not because they actually cost more to make. The perception is that organic costs more, so it does, when in fact, probably sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Andrea >> Learn how to set your hourly rate
Andrea >> Learn how to set your hourly rate
12 years ago

So, uh, I think I’m the person who said they paid $6 for a half gallon of milk. I usually pay C$5.79 for 2L. Two litres does not perfectly convert to a half gallon. Based on price per ml and converted to US prices, that’s about US$5.44 for a half gallon of *organic* milk — from an urban grocery store, not a big box in the ‘burbs. As for where the milk comes from, it’s a local milk cooperative. White milk cannot be imported to Canada. Milk is heavily regulated in Canada. No milk, organic or not, contains antibiotics. Growth… Read more »

Don
Don
12 years ago

I don’t know how I feel about paying more to support the local guy. The local Wal-mart for good or evil is also a local business. They pay their taxes and their employees, etc. They support local organizations. What if the non-Wal-mart businesses in town sold their merchandise for the same prices as Wal-mart and then set up “donation boxes” at the front of each store saying, “We can’t do business as efficiently as Wal-mart. Please consider a little charity to keep us running.” Would you just chuck some money in the the collection box and think, “Yeah, you don’t… Read more »

Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters
Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters
12 years ago

I do pay more for organic produce because I feel that it’s healthier. I also pay more at our local farmers market because I want to support local business. Using my money to cast a vote for the businesses in our area makes me feel good about my choices. I know that whatever choice I make it will have repercussions. If I organic it may support a farmer in Florida, but I just weigh what is most important to me and go with it. I may support a farmer in Florida, but I would rather do that then buy something… Read more »

Joel
Joel
12 years ago

Ok, someone help me out with this one. What’s the difference between “organic” and non-organic honey? I’ve never heard of hormones or anti-biotics for bees.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Joel wrote: What’s the difference between “organic” and non-organic honey? I’ve never heard of hormones or anti-biotics for bees.

I have no idea. I actually was puzzled when I saw the label. Are these free-range bees? I’ve heard arguments that local honey has some actual health benefits (sorry, no evidence at hand to back that up), but organic? I don’t know what that means.

chow
chow
12 years ago

Honey produced by conventional methods may use chemicals and antibiotics to control bee diseases and in production. Organic beekeepers sustain the natural life cycles of bees and of course don’t use the chemicals or antibiotics.

Andrea >> Learn how to set your hourly rate
Andrea >> Learn how to set your hourly rate
12 years ago

In Canada, organic honey means that the bees are from an apiary that is not within 3.5 km of non-organic land. So no pesticides on the flowers and what-have-you.

shevy
shevy
12 years ago

Is there a prize for buying the most expensive milk? If so, I get it. Normally I buy Lucerne milk at Safeway, which is kosher (supervised from the time of processing) and costs something like CAD$4.29 for 4 litres (close to a US gallon). But for Passover I buy special milk that comes from Montreal and is supervised from the time of milking. The cost? CAD$5.60 PER LITRE. So I spent $56.00 for enough milk for the 8 days of Passover. Ouch. But I wouldn’t consider doing anything else. (And I know many people who buy this milk all the… Read more »

Pearl
Pearl
12 years ago

Your friend drives 10 minutes to the store to buy milk rather than walk next door?

How is this an appropriate example for upholding Earth Day?

I hope she brings her own grocery bag.

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

The local Wal-mart for good or evil is also a local business

The point is, are the products local?

Walter
Walter
12 years ago

To J., Your interpretation of what I said is not correct. Instead of you saying ’since I cannot know for sure if X is Y, Y-ness is of no value to me’ I would say that ‘the justification for pursuing Y-ness is diminshed,’ much of which is based upon my prior concern that there are, particularly now, too many cases of the unscrupulous profiteering from genuine health and environmental concerns with products that do not provide the benefits being touted. In some cases, it is fairly easy to find out if the products are genuinely organic, and in other cases… Read more »

anne
anne
12 years ago

I just moved to the UK from California. I’m constantly surprised at how small the price difference is here between organic and non-organic food. 1 quart of local or organic milk costs about £1.60, compared to about £1.20 for the conventional stuff. Choosing organic is usually a no-brainer now, whereas in California I felt like I was constantly debating whether or not I could afford to eat organic food.

Ben @ Trees Full of Money
Ben @ Trees Full of Money
12 years ago

There are several couples that my wife and I are friendly with that insist that it is so much better for the environment to buy organically certified foods.

The irony is they have to drive 30 miles to the nearest premium organic food store, when they are literally a 10 minute WALK from the local “chain” grocery store.

I have no problem with them driving the extra miles for better tasting food if they want to, but don’t tell me that driving 60 miles to buy organic food is “better” for the environment.

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

eating less meat (we’re now at buying NO meat for the house, though I may still indulge when eating out) has made our food dollars go much farther — when we choose organic over non I don’t worry about the price difference because the way I see it I’m using the money saved from what someone else would use for a meat purchase. It generally does feel better to buy organic, especially in terms of dairy. My husband has switched to soy milk (he eats dry cereal with “milk”) which I’ve found works well in cooking, too, so that’s also… Read more »

Malena
Malena
12 years ago

Wow, and I thought I was paying a lot for milk at $8 per gallon. Still, I would pay more if I had to because this stuff is white gold. It comes from a farmer in the next valley, it is raw and whole, and wow is it good. I’ve made the most amazing yogurt and cheese with it. Also, when it sours, you can still use it to make sour milk biscuits and the like – not like pasteurized milk that rots when older and must be thrown out (composted). Buying locally is important to me for two reasons:… Read more »

Christy
Christy
12 years ago

I am surprised slightly that in all the discussion about local produce and seasonal only eating that no one brought up freezing or canning. Am I the last person under 40 who does this?

I’m not fanatical about it but if I am lucky enough to acquire more locally grown veggies than I can eat I plan ahead for leaner months. Squash particularly freezes well, as do soups and sauces made with fresh veggies.

I am still working on ways to can fruits with no sugar that still taste good but its a work in progress.

escapee
escapee
12 years ago

I’ve written before about how I actually pay *less* for organic food than I would buying conventional produce at a supermarket. My CSA costs just $23/week and it’s enough food to feed our entire family for the week if you add in, say, meat twice per week in addition to it. Even if organic meat costs about $30, that is still just $53 per week to eat completely organic! It doesn’t have to be more expensive, you just have to find an affordable CSA. Also- this is another benefit that I haven’t seen anyone mention. When you get organic produce,… Read more »

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