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Green Family Values: Why is Sustainability So Expensive?

Sustainably Produced Crib by Kalon StudiosSustainably Produced Crib by Kalon StudiosThe Green Movement and sustainable living are often accused of being only accessible to those with a higher level of socioeconomic status. In some ways this statement is true, but in other ways it is false. Many families simply cannot afford to buy organic food and clothing, wooden toys, sustainable children's furniture, etc., because they do not earn living wages. However, these families often make sustainable choices, such as purchasing clothing from thrift stores, based upon their economic needs. Other families are used to megastore prices and go into sticker shock when they see what sustainability costs. Still other families can afford to buy expensive, sustainable products as they make choices to live greener lives. The real question is not how expensive sustainable products are, but how our purchasing habits affect the global population and environment.

Houston's Bike Shop: Photo Credit:  The Bike ShopHouston's Bike Shop: Photo Credit: The Bike ShopIn many ways, sustainable living is about returning to simpler, less expensive model of living used by families of lower socioeconomic status. For example, many families must use public transportation and bicycles to get around, because they cannot afford vehicle and fuel costs. The choices these families make may be driven by economics, but these choices reflect a more sustainable global lifestyle. In addition, programs have sprung up in poor neighborhoods to help residents maintain and repair their sustainable practices. For example, The Bike Shop of Houston conducts youth programs and promotes recycled bicycles as "an affordable means of transportation in the Third Ward…..Our youth and adult programs focus on hands-on self-directed education as a path to self empowerment." Such programs include Open Shop, where residents fix their own bikes with help from volunteer mechanics, and Earn-A-Bike, where participants receive their own bike by salvaging and repairing a bike for the community, then repairing a bike for themselves. The Bike Shop was recently featured on PBS NOW.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kalon Studios is a new company offering "design for a sustainable culture." Yes, their prices may send you into sticker shock. Their explanation: "In today’s world, sustainability is more than just being green. Rather, it has evolved into a belief system, an approach to living, being." Kalon Studios uses renewable, raw materials and food-grade oil finishes on their products. Although the prices are high, the company's children's products are designed to be versatile and multifunctional. For example, the Ioline Crib converts to a toddler bed, and the Ioline Changing Trunk can be used as a toy chest or reading bench. Kalon Studios believes that loss of aesthetics, chaos, and clutter do not have to rule family life, but sustainability and beauty can go hand in hand with parenthood. Their products are locally made in southern California.

Are sustainable products really more expensive? There are many costs not reflected in the prices we pay for products and services. When looking at a price tag, we are not seeing the true impact of our purchases reflected in the price. As Tom Kemper of environmentally responsible office supply company Dolphin Blue explains,

Please also consider the cost of the loss of resources like habitat; native forests being replaced by mono-cultural species of trees; loss of air quality because we use more energy and create more tons of emissions to make virgin-material products; loss of clean water because of unnecessary and excessive bleaching of paper; excessive reliance on oil because every time we don’t recycle and remanufacture a toner cartridge we use another pint of oil; and then, the associated costs to all of us through increased disease caused by pollution, and the transference of cost to each of us through healthcare premiums and medical care. The list goes on. Unfortunately, our balance sheets don’t account for these costs. So, if we now measure all these costs, which are only a portion of the true costs of 'business as usual,' then what are the costs of that cheap paper, or that non-recycled and non-remanufactured toner cartridge? And, with global population increasing by approximately 90 million people each year, accompanied by eco-systems and resources in severe decline, in what state are we leaving the planet for our children and their children?

Remember the mantra "less is more": If we buy less, we can afford more expensive, sustainably produced products and services for our families and live with a clear conscious. The prices of sustainably produced products and services reflect the true cost of our purchases.


  1. I understand the situation you describe exactly.I would love to live a totally ethical life but it really isn’t easy. I have been recycling since the 80’s but even with the increase in recycling facilities it can still be difficult.It is almost as if the local council makes it as difficult as possible.
    I try to prepare meals using only local organic products but it can be difficult to source them and they are certainly not cheap.However, by cooking meals from scratch does make the food significantly cheaper and also a reduction in packaging.
    I would love to have a solar panel and a wind turbine but cost is definitely prohibitive and as yet I do not believe our local council has given planning permission for one(I may be wrong).
    And of course I am not a well off person which makes the situation even more difficult.
    What should I do? Buy organic food from New Zealand or Cuba at expensive prices(also think of the huge distances they have traveled) or less expensive, non- organic local produce.
    The only real difference that we can make as individuals is to influence governments to make changes that will make the world a better place for everyone to live in.

  2. Robert says:

    I have followed all the advice on green living that I can afford. Low power lights, water heater set at 120 and isulated, items unplugged when not in use, etc,etc. It has reduced my power usage over the last couple of years. Of course this is not shown in the cost because I’ve had two power price increases, one water increase and three natural gas increases. I am acually paying more thanks to these increases than I was before.
    Don’t misunderstand me, I am really really glad that I did everything to get more energy efficient. Imagine my bills if I hadn’t.
    I was saving for a more fuel efficient truck (I need a pickup for work, a car litterally is not an option). I drive only to and from work because I am lucky enough to have all of my grocery and other stores on my route. Now with the increase in fuel prices my savings has slowly come to a stop and acually started to decrease.
    As I have stated, I litterally have gone through every list I can find that has any suggestions on saving energy and done everything that I can afford to do. I should say to Mr. Kemper that I have done everything that I can financially do, morality can’t seem to find it’s way into my paycheck.

    Now I must ask the question “What I’m I supposed to do to save energy that will not cost me an arm and a leg?”

    Every time I ask this question I am given another link to another list that has the same things on it as all the others, or I am ignored completly. I really would like to know how to save energy, gas, and money all at the same time, because it just seems to me that saving the environement is for the rich, and the people who need the financial savings the most can’t afford the materials to get them.

    Please help.

  3. I hear you Robert. I think that at this point, the best thing to do is to conserve. See if you can use less electricity, water, gas, etc. It won’t cost you anything, and it may help offset the increasing costs for power,etc. The little things do add up, but I agree that sometimes it appears that there are socioeconomic barriers to living green. That needs to change.

  4. The article glosses over the major difference between wealthy and non-wealthy families when it come to choosing green: we can all consume less and buying used or driving less or never are great options that helps the whole planet. But to actually see an immediate health benefit in one’s own personal sphere, ie living with products that don’t off-gas toxic chemicals in the house or eating organic foods, one needs a certain amount of cash on hand. I can buy a used crib and feel good about sustainability, but if I want to keep my child from breathing in formaldehyde etc, I need to buy a new pricey one. We can all save the planet; only some of us can afford to save ourselves.

    Hopefully, enough wealthy people buy healthy, sustainable products and the market demand will make them more widely available, and legislators will demand cleaner products and manufacturing processes across the board. Until then, the choices are stark.


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