Fran Hawthorne on the Ethical Chic Lifestyle
Hot-and-sour soup, an environmental case study: You order the soup takeout from a Chinese fast-food restaurant. The soup goes down easy, but disposing of the container doesn’t. It needs to be cleaned if it’s to be reused or recycled.
You can scrub, but the oil just clings. A spurt of dish soap won’t do. A hearty blast of hot water just creates a soapy sheen.
Fran Hawthorne — journalist, wife, and mother, not the person in her household who orders this soup — has been there: “How much water am I wasting? What are these soap pads made of? To save this little piece of plastic, I’m probably wasting more resources.”
What’s a good consumer/environmentalist to do? Globalized-first-world problems demand hard decisions.
Hawthorne’s: “It killed me to put it in the garbage pail.”
Evaluating such practical-turned-existential crises characterize Hawthorne’s recent work. She explores what the “good” decisions are in modern life’s confusing and uncomfortable spots. Local or organic? Long-term, socially responsible investments or short-term, quick-return ones? Eco-friendly or economical? How much can you ask of a product? Of yourself? Hawthorne respectively addresses the last two questions in her 2012 book Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and 2010 book The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism.
Ethical Chic investigates Tom’s of Maine, Timberland, Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s, and American Apparel — cool kids on the ostensibly green-business block. These companies have their virtues, ranging from using natural ingredients to selling items exclusively made in the USA.
And yet — it’s never quite simple, Hawthorne finds.
Take, for instance, Timberland’s lifeblood and crunchy-granola-cool currency: leather. The hearty, traditional material makes adventuring possible no matter how unlikely its wearer to trek more than a mile. It also costs mightily in land (often, rainforests) razed for fattening cattle to slaughter for food and hides, the latter transported to tanneries for fleshing, pickling, and buffing. Then there’s shipping and shaping the stuff into a shoe.
Every raw material, though, triggers its own set of dominoes. Hawthorne notes that cotton production guzzles water and pesticides, while synthetics’ underbelly is likely petroleum. Everything is intricately, exhaustingly connected.
“No company is perfect,” Hawthorne said.
So what, then, does a “green” or “ethical” product even mean? Hawthorne explores the oft-conflated and increasingly nebulous terms in The Overloaded Liberal, tackling the practical application of living your values.
Perhaps you want dinner with a low carbon footprint. Food that’s local, it turns out, can be sourced from 100 miles away to, Hawthorne writes, “even, in a pinch, three thousand.” She cites a Brooklyn co-op that opts for Florida oranges rather than California ones.
And a food’s carbon footprint could still be smaller despite a distant origin. The emissions required of a farm in perennially lush New Zealand differ from those of a plant hothouse during a British winter, Hawthorne writes.
And so the merry-go-round goes. And so, according to Hawthorne, you should pick your spots.
“You must set priorities, you must juggle, you must compromise,” Hawthorne said. “Research the companies, research lifestyles. That will help you. You can’t juggle if you don’t have the information.”
Oh, the information you can gather: ingredients, processing, labor, and transportation — for each ingredient and process. Simply paring down is another option, but wouldn’t it take amassing some stats in order to know what to chuck? Perhaps that’s another book.
“How many degrees do you take this out? You know, you can drive yourself crazy,” Hawthorne said. “When you have the case when you have several ethical choices, you choose just one. You’re going to hurt two, but you’re going to help one. You can’t be about everything. You can’t do it all. And that’s fine.”
To do a little fact finding of your own, check out the Consumer Resource List on Hawthorne’s site.
Mackenzie Mount is an editorial intern at Sierra. She's cleaned toilets at Yellowstone National Park and studied sustainable cooking at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.
-- images courtesy of Fran Hawthorne