Sustainable packaging. Image: Yuriy Golub Shutterstock
Buy “green” or “sustainable”? Science says you’re not doing the environment or your mental health any favors.
With the impending climate catastrophe on the news every day, it is natural to want to do everything we can to stop alarming reports from scientists. For many of us (including myself) part of that means rushing out to buy bamboo straws and reusable shopping bags, organic cleaners, products without plastic packaging, etc.
But before you go crazy over “green” shopping, take a second to consider the results of a new study from the University of Arizona. By comparing the shopping habits, mental health and environmental impact of nearly 1,000 young people, the researchers reaffirmed a principle that should be obvious but is too easy to forget.
Not buying anything is better than buying “green” things. And that’s true whether it’s about the impact of your purchases on the environment or your own happiness.
Buying less is better than buying “green” for the planet… It shouldn’t be too big of a shock that simply consuming less is better for the planet than consuming a product that is marketed as “green”. After all, every new item a factory finishes requires some resources to produce, even if that item is environmentally friendly and less impactful than another.
But in the confusing whirlwind of environmental news and expert advice, this simple truth can get lost. For example, the bans on plastic bags. If your country or city is banning single-use shopping bags, it may be tempting to buy that fancy organic cotton bag hanging outside your supermarket.
However, experts who have studied the data on environmental impact insist that growing cotton is much worse for the planet than the original plastic bag. Your best bet to carry your groceries if you care about the sustainability of the planet? Any bag you already have at home.
This is true for many types of “green” products. If you’re going to buy straws, biodregradable ones outperform plastic. Fairphone is better from an ecological perspective than an iPhone. But the best option of all is not to buy straws or a new phone unless it is really necessary.
… And for your happiness. It’s not just the earth that will be happier if you simply buy less stuff. According to the University of Arizona study, you too will be happier.
Again, this is not a surprise. Much research has shown that materialism in general makes us miserable and lonely. But you might think that buying green wouldn’t have the same negative impact on our mental health as normal, everyday consumerism. Not so, this new study found.
We thought it could satisfy people who participated in increased environmental awareness through green purchasing patterns, but it doesn’t seem that way. Reducing consumption has effects on increasing well-being and decreasing psychological distress, but we do not see this with green consumption.
Sabrina Helm, Principal Investigator.
In short, it is perfectly possible to be obsessed with ecology and be a raging materialist at the same time. Lust for every new “eco” product on the market may make you feel virtuous, but it presents the same emotional traps as lust for all other non “eco” purchases.
If you have many things, you have many things on your mind. Maybe you have a lot of debt because you bought all those things, and now you have to live with all those things. Many require maintenance and organization. It’s not like you buy it and it’s over. If you let go of that burden of ownership, most people say they feel much better and freer.
Sabrina Helm, Principal Investigator.
The land (and probably your financial advisor too) will thank you for saving too. Which makes the final recommendation from this research very simple: If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.
The key is to reduce consumption and not just buy green things. Having less and buying less can really make us happier.
More information: uanews.arizona.edu