Yellowstone National Park, of which I’m a huge fan, recently launched a really exciting venture. Its Mammoth Hot Springs General Store has been re-created as an interpretive center to educate the public about climate change and the implications of consumer purchases, recycling, conservation and more. The store’s products are identified accordingly as fair trade, organic, renewable, locally-made and so on. Consumers can then make their choice based on a true understanding of the product’s value.
It’s a brilliant — and unique — idea and one I’d love to see rolled out to many “conventional” retailers. A shopping experience would quickly become an educational experience, and shoppers would go home feeling much more content with the contents of their (reusable, of course!) bags.
We are accustomed to cheap goods
Beth Pratt, environmental affairs director at Yellowstone who was instrumental in creating the retail model for the park’s store, tells a sobering story. She was showing someone around the store, explaining the various initiatives. The customer fell in love with a pair of earrings made by a local artisan — until she saw the price tag.
It could be argued that the customer was on a budget and simply didn’t have the cash. More likely, however, the customer is accustomed to cheap goods. And when we see an item priced at its true value, we balk.
The irony, of course, is we’ve created homes, closets and jewelry boxes filled to overflowing with cheap stuff. It’s no coincidence that “decluttering” has become a common practice, and the building of storage units — warehousing our excess stuff — is booming, up 75 percent from just more than a decade ago.
We pay for the price in other ways
Rather than buy one of something we love (that’s made by someone paid a fair wage, from renewable or at least non-toxic materials, and that will last), we buy many of the cheaper items. Yet, we pay for the price in other ways: exploitation of workers, some only children; extraction of non-renewable resources, some toxic; greenhouse gases from global transport; pollution from the manufacturing process … the list goes on.
The dollar-and-cents price of some goods is actually half what it was a century ago, and the environmental cost has risen considerably.
Next time you find yourself surprised at the price of a sustainable purchase — whether organic cotton sheets, a bamboo or soy T-shirt, fair trade chocolate or hybrid vehicle — consider that you’re only seeing the cost in dollars to YOU, not the cost to the planet or to the people who made it. You just might find that the best purchase, the one that not only reflects value but mirrors your values, is the greener choice.