Everyday Choices...for a better world!
Nearly everything we do everyday has an impact on our neighbors around the world and on the planet itself. So it's important to use the power we have—our money and our voice—to change the world for the better. Here are some areas where we can make a difference every day related to how and where we spend our money and even the way we try to help our poorer neighbors:
The US imported $64 billion in clothing last year-or over 90 percent of everything we wear. Most of it was made by young women in sweatshop conditions-low wages, long hours, often mistreated.
Chocolate: US'ers spend $18 billion every year on chocolate, consuming about 14 pounds per person. The vast majority of this chocolate comes from West Africa , where many growers employ or enslave children on their plantations, where working conditions are difficult and dangerous. Here's what you can do:
Soft drinks and bottled water : Large soft drink companies often treat their workers harshly and harm the environment. For instance (according to Belching Out the Devil by Mark Thomas), Coca Cola has a long history of harassing workers who want to form unions and creating severe environmental impacts, especially to groundwater supplies (a 12-ounce drink requires four times that much water to produce). The Dr. Pepper/Snapple corporation cleared $555 million in profit last year, but forced workers at its apple juice plant in New York to take a wage freeze—while its CEO made $6.5 million. Aluminum cans? Don't get us started-we throw away 50 billion cans in the US every year-enough to rebuild the US airline fleet four times.
Bottled water companies aren't any better-half of this water comes not from a "mountain stream" but from city water supplies; bottling, shipping, marketing and disposing of the water bottles requires 55 million barrels of oil per year in the US; we toss 40 million water bottles every day in the US; Coke and Nestle control a large percentage of the market, and neither have a strong human rights or environmental record.
Palm Oil: What do lipstick, Cheerios and natural peanut butter have in common? Palm oil. What's the big deal? Most of it comes from the tropical countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, where some of the most diverse rainforests in the world are being cut down to plant palm trees. Along with being home to many endangered species, including orangutans, cutting the forests releases enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. (Here's a list of The Dirty 19 palm oil using corporations, plus about 300 more!)
Electronics are a big part of our lives, with every US household owning around 25 e-gadgets. But think about the word "electronics." Yes, these cool gadgets and games use "electricity." How much? Game consoles alone use over 16 billion kilowatts a year in the US . How much is that? Try all the energy produced by FIVE coal-fired power plants! Or the amount of energy used by San Diego ! And that means over 16 million tons of CO2 are produced in the process. So gaming is more than a game-it's serious environmental business.
The impact of our electronics doesn't end there. Every year in the US we get rid of 2 million tons of e-gadgets-including 150 million cell phones and 30 million computers. This creates several problems. First, making a 40-pound computer requires 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals, and up to 14 tons of materials—so every time we buy a new one, this is part of our impact. Every new cell phone we buy contains coltan, a mineral mined from streambeds in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Profits from the mining fuels a civil war that has left millions dead and inflicted enormous violence against women. Then less than 20 percent of our "old" (average cell phone life: 18 months) e-gadgetry is recycled. The rest heads into a landfill-along with the toxic waste and valuable metals and minerals it. Most of what is recycled is shipped abroad to be dismantled in unsafe working conditions.
What's an e-consumer to do?
Credit cards are handy in lots of ways-so handy that we'll charge $1.5 trillion worth of products and services in the US this year. Plus, plastic eases the pain of purchasing, since we don't have to actually hand over our hard-earned cash-in fact, we may not have even earned the cash when we spend it. (What a deal!) But there's a catch-the average US'er with a credit card balance pays $1900 a year in interest payments-that's more than half the world's people have to live on in a year!
Students are especially vulnerable-they're targeted by credit card companies (often with the assistance of their school, with the school receiving a kick-back for every student who signs up and sometimes earning a percentage of every purchase the student makes!), are often short on cash, and may not have a lot of experience managing their own money. As a result, the average graduate has over $4000 in credit card debt to go along with those massive student loans-not a great way to start your post-school life!
Since we're throwing banks a lot of our money via interest charges and late fees ($20 billion on late fees alone), it makes sense to think about who's profiting from our love of plastic.
Here's the deal: Many credit cards, especially those whose offers arrive most frequently in your mailbox, are issued through corporate mega-banks such as Citibank. The problem with these banks is that they may be using your fees and the interest you pay on your credit card balances for purposes you may not agree with (like contributions to particular political parties or funding projects that harm the environment).
Affinity Cards seem to help us feel better about using plastic. These are the ones issued by banks that carry the logo of a charity or nonprofit group. Each time you use the card, the bank donates a certain amount to that organization. The average contribution to the nonprofit from such cards is half a penny for every dollar you charge or transfer. If enough people use a card, donations to the particular charity can add up. Just keep in mind that affinity cards are usually connected with a mega-bank, so your money also indirectly supports the practices of that bank. In addition, interest rates are often higher than with standard cards, and many charge annual fees, while most standard cards do not.
Working Assets Visa card is perhaps the greenest affinity card available, as for every purchase it donates ten cents to your choice of one of 50 nonprofits. It offers a low APR, with no annual fee. Working Assets also gives its customers the opportunity to speak out on critical public issues through its action Web site, www.actforchange.com , and long-distance telephone program. (One caveat: Working Assets Visa is issued by MBNA, which has made large contributions to the Republican party and has been accused by consumers of predatory practices. The card used to be issued by Fleet One, but MBNA purchased the Working Assets program from Fleet.)
Albina Community Bank Scholastic Plastic Visa is dedicated to providing resources and services that help low-income families in Portland , Oregon buy homes or start businesses. 503/288-7280, www.albinabank.com
ShoreBank Pacific's card supports individual and community efforts to bring together conservation and economic development in the Pacific Northwest .
The Brighter Planet Visa credit card lets customers earn one EarthSmart point for every $1 spent in purchases. The points earned are used to help build community-based renewable energy projects across the U.S. , according to the company. Each 1,000 points earned is projected to offset one ton of carbon dioxide.
Credit Union cards are issued by member-owned nonprofits, so they don't charge exorbitant fees and generally have consumer-friendly policies.
For lots more info on credit cards and the banks behind them, see Green America's report.
US'ers contribute over $300 billion to charity every year, far out-stripping all aid programs of the US government. That's a good thing, as there are plenty of needs in our world, from saving the rainforest to sending relief aid after a natural disaster. And we've got way more than we need anyway.
It's hard to ask hard question of charitable organizations that seem to be doing good, but not all charities are as "charitable" as they should be with our money, and their activities are not always as helpful as they could be in addressing the injustices of our world.
Some questions you might want to ask.
Last but not least.
.can you easily find out how the charity uses your money-and do you feel good about that?
.do they work at changing or at least questioning the larger economic and political systems that are harmful to so many of our neighbors?
.does their approach fit into your philosophy about how and why to engage our neighbors?
.is there reciprocity: an effort to build a relationship with those on the receiving end of a gift, so that we can see what they may have to give us?
.are you challenged to reconsider your values and priorities as a result of making your donation or being involved with their programs?
NCP's approach is to try to capacitate local people to provide things needed in the local area; however, there are times when outside connections/gifts can be useful. Fair Trade organizations are a case in point here, although even here we may wonder whether the local producers are paid comparably to the folks at the Rich World headquarters. There's also cause to be cautious about companies that encourage us to buy a product as a way of helping others—like the RED campaign or Tom's Shoes—where they just raise the price of the items you purchase and then send that to assist others. For one thing, it encourages our consumption, plus we then send less to the poor than if we'd donated the whole amount. And really, Tom's Shoes is not unlike any charity—taking our donation and sending something to someone—it's just that we sort of are sending half as much since we also got a pair of shoes out of the deal, right? Of course, if we really need another pair of shoes, I guess not so bad....but then, the average US teenage girl owns 15 pair of shoes; the average US woman owns 27...