which should you choose? eco-friendly? sustainable? nontoxic? natural?

wooden dish drainer

One of my favorite quotes by Stephen King goes like this:

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

My home and life care philosophy is pretty similar. I prefer sustainable and energy-efficient options as my finest choices, but if I can’t find or afford them, I will try to use something natural. And if I can’t find something natural, I’ll try to use something nontoxic. Or something like that.

To be honest, I find that the whole “green” scene is fraught with difficult choices. The most natural or nontoxic option might also require huge resources to process, and need to be shipped thousands of miles around the world. What’s the best choice then? Recyclable plastic that’s manufactured down the street from you, or sustainably harvested and chemically processed bamboo from China?

These kinds of decisions are so difficult, in fact, that I believe that most people avoid thinking about green and sustainable issues because no matter which choice they make, it’s somehow wrong. A lose-lose scenario.

I prefer to think of my choices as gradients along a scale. Can I make a better choice (or a choice I feel better about)? And I move in that direction. Some of my choices look dubious in a black and white, toxic or nontoxic, natural or plastic world. Those raw, fair trade cocoa beans from South America? That plant-based detergent in the plastic bottle? Those clothes sewn from recycled fabrics and brand-new dyed poly-cotton thread? That iPhone that I nurture along for 2+ years? My six-year-old laptop? My 10-year-old economy car? They’re the best choices I can make, in my unique circumstances. And I reserve the right to change my mind if better information comes along.

So here’s my eco-sorting mechanism – my current criteria for discerning earth-friendlier purchases and choices. This is an incomplete list of what works for me, for now:

  • Does it cause me physical discomfort? (I have multiple chemical sensitivities.) Then try to find an option that doesn’t. Preferably natural.
  • Is it sustainable? Consider it first.
  • How much does it cost? When I can, I try to invest more in something that’s sustainable but will last. But if the sustainable option is beyond my budget, I try to find the next best option.
  • Is it natural? (Understanding that natural may not be nontoxic, or sustainable, or resource-friendly.) Consider it first before non-renewable sources such as petrochemicals.
  • Does the green / sustainable / eco-friendly option do the job I want it to do? If it does, try to choose it first.
  • Can I get it used? Do I even need it at all? Can I do it another way? (These options should probably be higher up my list, but the truth is, sometimes I really want new. And I really want what I really want. Conundrum.)
  • Would I wince when trying to explain my choice to future generations who have to live with the planet I leave them with? Try to do the thing that causes the least harm.
  • Does it feel right? (Understanding that this is way subjective, and supremely hard to qualify.) Do it.

How do you make decisions about purchases and choices that have an environmental impact?