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Horns of a dilemma, have a job or go “green?”

I have two publications in front of me this morning.  As usual the business section of my morning newspaper is one of them.  The other is a magazine I purchased while grocery shopping yesterday, “Whole Living: Body+Soul.”  The flip side of the September 2009 issue is titled, “the going greener guidebook.” [flip side is a marketing technique to put two differing kinds of editorial content into one binding…pretty clever really]

The headline of the newspaper says, “Jobs, retail reports discouraging,” with the subhead: “Economic numbers point to a slow and bumpy recovery as companies remain unwilling to hire.”

Here’s the dilemma I saw this morning: millions of people are currently out of work and their unemployment insurance is due to run out – and as the newspaper story alluded, companies are being unwilling to hire.  What are they going to do for income?  Another thought is that those who still have jobs are still worried about layoffs and income cuts.  What would happen if the greening of one sector resulted in thousands of people out of work?  Save the planet or eat?  Save the planet or keep people in their homes?

I know it’s not this simple, but let’s take an imaginary case: the paper napkin industry.  In the magazine, in the article “Reduce and Reuse,” is a list of “5 steps to less waste.”  [page 21]  These are great bits of advice.  Number two is:

  • “…use cloth towels and napkins – If just one family of four switched to cloth napkins at each meal for one year, this green step would prevent 4,380 paper napkins from ending up in the trash….”

Pro – getting rid of paper napkins:

  1. they won’t end up in the trash – however, aren’t they biodegradable?
  2. the plastic packaging material that the napkins come in from the manufacturer won’t end up in the trash – maybe this isn’t biodegradable?
  3. carbon savings from not having to truck/train/plane this product around the country and the world
  4. one less thing to purchase at the store, thus maybe one less bag necessary for carrying groceries home
  5. one less item of inventory for the grocer/drug store/super-mega store to stock
  6. good use of fabric that is left over from other projects…recycle

Con – getting rid of paper napkins:

  1. convenience – frankly, it’s just plain convenient to pull out fresh, clean napkins at breakfast and dinner
  2. buying ready-made cloth napkins means there is another industry that is perhaps contributing to the carbon footprint thing with truck/train/plane delivery
  3. buying ready-made cloth napkins means there is another industry that is perhaps contributing to industrial waste – unless their manufacturing techniques [especially in dyes] are “green”
  4. putting people out of work in the paper napkin industry – the people who work in the factories, the clerical staff, the sales staff, the managers and executives; putting people out of work in the related industries of advertising, delivery and point-of-sale locations
  5. saves having to put more into the laundry basket…saves on detergent,  water and energy use

This is a non-scientific look at how going green might impact us.  But how can you argue with the advice to give up paper napkins?  I admit: right now I purchase paper napkins.  I love the convenience of them and I like not having to wash cloth napkins.  Having said that, I’m becoming convicted to the fact that:

  • they contribute to the trash I throw away every single day; my trash, added to my neighbors, is filling our landfills;
  • adding them to my shopping list takes that amount of money away from something else I could be buying – like more fresh fruit;
  • the knowledge that I’ve been pretty lazy…the thought of having one more item to add to my weekly laundry task isn’t a welcome one.  However, a few cloth napkins added in with the bath towels and sheets…what is the real impact of that?

What really got me to thinking about the correlations between the job market and going green was the recent article in Time magazine, “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food.” [see article online here] I was appalled at the description of pigs:

  • “…Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won’t bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He’s fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he’ll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap,….”

Up until reading this article, I had regularly gotten smoked bacon at the butcher’s counter at my local grocery store.  After reading this article I won’t anymore.  That article spoke to me clearly.  I’m now going to work to find meats for my family that come from local, sustainable farms…including eggs and poultry and fish.  I will declare that I’ll never be a vegetarian…I’ve always known that I’m an omnivore…meat and plants are what my body needs for health, in their proper amounts.

But here’s the dilemma: that article did a good job painting a picture of a planet in trouble environmentally.  And it painted a good picture of the health risks to humans of continuing as that industry stands now.

  • How do you turn it around?
  • How do you feed millions using environmentally-conscious methods that result in human-healthy foods that are “humane” to the living things used as food?
  • And how do you do it without putting people out of work in all the industries involved?  It’s not just the farms/ranches themselves…it’s the advertising agencies that need them as clients; it’s the delivery industry that needs them as clients; it’s the water and energy suppliers and communication company suppliers and clerical equipment suppliers.

It’s a huge pond with many ripples.  This was seen when the auto and housing  industries were so hugely impacted last year and this;  many small industries also suffer, putting many more people out of work and their incomes at jeopardy.

I have no answers.  But I’m liking the conversation and it’s getting my attention.  It’s making me look at my tiny business and its impact.  Is my business green?  It could be greener.  Yes, I do turn off my computer at the end of my work day – one small step at saving energy.

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