The word ‘free’ has its own special magic for many of us. I’m the daughter of Asian immigrants who came to the US with nothing, worked hard, saved up, and made it into middle class tax hell. My childhood was full of extra napkins and ketchup packets saved from McDonald’s, red and white wet wipe packages from KFC, squeezy stress relief gadgets from computer conventions, and even the odd stuffed animal from a free bin at a garage sale.
Even with my commitment to reducing, free still has an undeniable allure for me. This time of year, I’m thinking about the impact of all the free stuff that gets handed out at Earth Day celebrations: T-shirts, reusable bags, reusable water bottles, flip-flops, key chains, and the inevitable Random Plastic Kitsch for the kids.
You’ll find two basic mindsets on Twitter about Earth Day. We have the ‘Yay, Earth Day!’ camp, and the ‘What a pointless, greenwashed excuse for shopping’ camp. As usual, I’m somewhere in the middle. I do think companies (even green ones) who advertise Earth Day sales are kind of missing the point, and that consumers who see Earth Day as another shopping occasion are equally missing the point. But I won’t deny that Earth Day is a good opportunity to raise awareness and preach outside the choir.
But do we really need free stuff to do that? It is so easy to equate zero impact on our wallets with zero impact on the Earth. It’s like the environmentally conscious part of my brain switches off when it comes to free. I think, “I didn’t buy anything, so I didn’t mess up the planet more.” Not true.
Everything, whether it cost us money or not, has an environmental impact. Free is a myth. The reusable bag was probably made in China and may well contain toxic dyes and chemicals that leached into the atmosphere. The T-shirts are probably not organic cotton, but even if they are, represent a significant investment of natural and human resources for something we may not even wear more than a few times. Just because it’s being offered to us at an Earth Day celebration doesn’t mean it’s green, or that we should take it. (Case in point: how many reusable bags do you have?) I’m not much of an activist, but maybe even turning Earth Day kitsch down isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a way to get companies not to make it.
There are many ways to celebrate Earth Day that don’t involve conspicuous consumption. Many, many blogs have offered suggestions: go for a walk, plant a tree, pick up trash, or just get outside and appreciate the fine color of the sky and the texture of clouds. Being neither social nor celebratory, I’m not sure I’ll be attending any celebrations. But if you go, I hope you’ll turn down that extra reusable bag you don’t really need.
How are you celebrating Earth Day? Do you take the Earth Day freebies?