How to overcome fatalism. Read the labels and annoy the shopkeepers!

Next to the fact that we live in an unbelievably interesting time with all kinds of stunning discoveries, our actual society and its structures are cracking from end to end. Hardly any value from the past is still in good shape and respected; which makes people who are not any more in their young years uncertain and discourages them. When banks start falling over for a second time in only a couple of years, they are devastated. Never did we see such a number of depressions and burn-outs around us.

On the other hand, younger people often have the feeling to stand on a cliff’s edge, over an abyss. They can’t see a path into the future, and when they can see one, it’s uninviting, unpleasant and covered in ashes and debris. What will the future bring – when there is a future at all? They might – and often do – hold the elder generation responsible for this mishap. As they perceive it, there will be less from everything: less work, less money, less comfort, less outlook, less love and surely much less fun. So, why bother? Let’s have a whole lot of the last fun available, as long as it goes, and not engage in anything.

What we mostly fail to perceive, both elderly and younger ones, is that we are neither forced to live with the particracy (partitocrazia) which is running society, as it was nicknamed by political scientist Mauro Calise; nor do we have to agree with industries that plunder the common good which is our planet and leave us with problematic waste, climate change and water and energy shortages. Although this description takes only a few sentences, the thing itself is a quite complex one – “complex” not being the same as “complicated”. There is not a single, bad source for it, and not a single, miraculous solution to it either. But the silly thing is that we can very well start taking action while standing at our kitchen sink, or in front of a shelf in the shop (whatever shop; the one on the corner or a hypermarket). When we would be honest we would have to admit that for most of the stuff we buy and use we don’t know. We don’t know anything: what the raw materials are and where they come from, which processes were used, how much energy and waste were generated, if it’s really safe at use, and how it will behave when we put it down the drain (no, the product is not fully degradable, as is suggested, only part of it might be under certain circumstances, and the waste water plant cannot deal with in a proper way).

What could our action then be? It starts in a very simple way: RTL! Read The Labels! Learn about the stuff you might have going through your hands several times a day and discover what is right and wrong with it. It doesn’t matter what it is: toilet paper, a ballpoint, a jar of marmalade, dish washing product, a rasor blade, … You will – probably to your astonishment – find out that you can hardly get any information. And when there is some, it will be most incomplete and vague, possibly very suggestive (but not true).

That’s annoying: but be stubborn and start to annoy the next in the chain, the shopkeeper and his personnel. He should know – he mostly won’t – and will try to get rid of you. Don’t give up: if a sufficient number of people repeatedly ask for complete and precise information, the shopkeeper will be annoyed and will annoy the next in the chain, the producer; he wants to sell, after all. The producer will probably be most annoyed, because he really doesn’t want everybody to know what from and how his product is made. Meaning that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, as Shakespeare had is protagonist Hamlet say.

Now, this might not work with one or two customers, but imagine that hundreds of users start asking questions; after a while the producer will have to adapt his product to the expectations of the consumer (he should have done that since the beginning). These expectations are not complicated: a choice of raw materials which are not depleting natural sources, processes which are not poisoning the planet, do not use tons of energy and don’t leave mountains of waste, a functional product which is safe at use and doesn’t hamper our health and the environment when it is disposed of.

A reliable sustainability certification or label might come in handy, but all the labels of the world won’t help when the consumer is not Reading The Labels

The expert

Peter Malaise

Ricercatore belga e consulente per la sostenibilità dal 1972, è fondatore e Amministratore Delegato di Meta Consort Partnership, che aiuta le imprese e le ONG a livello mondiale nello sviluppo pratico di prodotti e servizi su base sostenibile. Nel 1976 Peter ha co-fondato Meta Fellowship, organizzazione no-profit per lo sviluppo e la promozione di “soluzioni…


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