The High Cost of Going Green? Why The Illusion of Cheap Disposables isn’t that Great for Your Wallet
So the plastic waste documentary, The Story of Plastic, recently became widely shared, and for good reason. It couldn’t have been better timing. The pandemic unleashed a widespread fear of reusables and touching anything that someone else had already touched. Not only did disposable masks, gloves, and face shields proliferate our environment, but places such as Starbucks and Whole Foods stopped accepting reusable cups or containers. Many grocery stores stopped accepting reusable bags in the beginning, even in states like CA where the plastic bag fee went into effect prior. Was this the end of the zero-waste movement?
As if that wasn’t enough, remember what else happened? No more sit down restaurants! Not only was this a major blow to many family businesses, especially smaller or fine dining restaurants, but it unleashed substantial and widespread use of single-use, disposable plastic containers, utensils, and cups.
Even restaurants that worked hard to provide sustainable take-out options before the pandemic, like Snooze and Sweetgreen, sometimes ran out of compostable utensils and had to provide plastic (at least the locations I went to).
This was really through no fault of their own, but because there was such a sudden and significant demand for everything related to take out packaging, there was a strain on the supply chain. Surely, you've been hearing about the backlog at US ports and shipping containers stuck on ships for months; it wasn’t even as severe back then! So, restaurants had to stick with whatever they could get at the time and make sure they pleased customers to stay in business. Who could blame them!
While you can now take your tote bags to the grocery store again, and (most) Starbucks stores have started allowing me to bring my reusable mug back, this has re-ignited a conversation around the cost of going green.
Many people got used to everything disposable during the pandemic, and grabbing any toilet paper they could, thinking “Meh, I can save money buying this generic brand, why spend $1.50 more on that other brand just because it’s eco-friendly? I don’t know for sure!”
Many of my friends have asked me how I can justify spending more buying clothing made from sustainable material, or buy compostable cups for that socially-distanced picnic, or spend $50 on a Hydro Flask bottle when a case of bottled water is $2 (I’m sorry but if you’re still buying plastic water bottles please stop reading this and go watch The Story of Plastic).
You know why? Because there is an inherent-long term investment with that marginally higher price. Another documentary you should watch, is the one on Walmart called The High Cost of Low Prices. While Walmart has come a long way on their sustainability journey since then, the film places a compelling emphasis on the ripple effect of low prices that many retailers were racing to beat.
When I buy an organic apple, I’m supporting farms that went through the rigorous process to become USDA certified organic and affirm their work to preserve soil and use sustainable farming practices.
When I buy 100% recycled foil, it costs me $1 more, but I’m sending a message to the manufacturer that I want sustainable products like that. And as more people buy it, the price comes down.
Sure, you could argue that going green like this isn’t necessarily good for your wallet, even if it makes you feel better about your eco-friendly practices. However, buying or using a reusable bottle of water will help you never spend money on bottled water again.
Not only that, but you’ll garner the habit of taking it with you everywhere, and since reusable bottles (like my 32oz beloved Hydro Flask) are larger, you’ll stay more hydrated. This means you’re less likely to barge into a convenience store every hot day and spend $4 on some fake sports drink. I’ll even go as far to say long term, your kidneys will be in better health, so savings on healthcare costs! A bit of a leap you might say, but that’s just one example.
For your reusable bags and mug, both of which I got for free at events and through corporate promotions, you get a discount at Whole Foods and at coffee shops (including Starbucks). Many restaurants are even charging a packaging fee now.
Let’s talk about more durable goods, like clothes and furniture. If you’re a diligent reader of Financial Fives, you’ll find out ways to find deals on lightly used clothing, and where to find cheap or even free furniture! Not only is this saving you money, you’re also being green by 1) preventing, or at least delaying, those items from their fate at the landfill, as well as 2) not having a product manufactured, packaged, and shipped to you brand new.
Yes, it used to be the case that going green was more expensive. From buying solar panels in 2005 to investing in ESG mutual funds with high expense ratios, the wealthier you were the easier it was to go green. However, as a society, we are increasingly becoming aware of climate change and the plastic problem, and so there are more incentives floating around.
Even Google, every millennial's favorite search engine (and verb) now lets users search flights and hotels based on carbon emissions and green practices. Do you want to go from Tampa to Seattle? Great, now you have one more filter that can help narrow the choices instead of just time and price, as well as do something that takes minor effort to reduce your carbon footprint.
This means more companies and governments are providing financial incentives for people to adopt green living practices. In addition, the rapid evolution of technology has made everything from solar panels to electric cars more accessible to people across the country.
Buy quality items, invest in things you use often, and patronize companies that are doing the right thing. They usually have the best customer service if things don’t quite work out anyways. This, combined with frugality, minimalism, and buying second-hand, is how to succeed at winning at both a sustainable lifestyle and financial independence.