Years ago, one day after a lesson on sustainability, a student said, ‘This is so interesting Austine, but I have to be honest with you, what does it mean for my life or my work as an elementary teacher?’ Suddenly, it came crashing down on me that in educating about sustainability, I had been showing these beautiful examples of a Platinum LEED certified building, the initiatives in Pudre School District to build a geothermal energy source, and the story of Nick Chambers with Choke Cherry farms in Crestone living off of the land and off grid with his family, but they weren’t practical examples for everyone. This simple question revolutionized how I wanted to start thinking about my work as an educator teaching about the environment, sustainability, and the small important activist role we play every day in creating a new relationship with the world we exist within.
The lessons started from the source I knew so well, my life. The first lesson came one day when I was shopping at Sunflower Market, now called Sprouts. There was a “green” lunchbox hanging on the endcap of the aisle, it had this little green leaf on the tag. At that time my son was in the fourth grade and I packed him a lunch every day, as a consumer my interest was piqued. He didn’t really need a new lunch box; I had bought one from Target at the beginning of the year…but this one was “green”. Then I had this thought, what made it “green”? I looked on the tag, it was made in China, the materials were the typical of every other lunch box. It said it was reusable…wasn’t every lunch box, aside from the old school brown bags, reusable? The questions started streaming through my mind…
What kind of effect did the process of making the plastic lining have on the earth?
How much fuel was spent to get it from China to the grocery store in Denver, CO?
How many and what kinds of natural resources were used to grow the cotton for the canvas shell?
Who sewed the seams and the zipper to close it? How were they treated? Were they paid well?
What kind of conditions do they have to work in? Were they children?
Did the creation of this product and the consequence of its creation justify the price, a mere $9.95?
How many more resources do I consume by virtue of needing more than one lunchbox for one child?
This personal story about my shopping experience in the grocery became the first lesson in my environmental science class on product awareness and greenwashing. My teaching about sustainability transformed to include the subtle yet collectively powerful role we play every day with our consumerism from the products we purchase, to the companies we support in making that purchase, and the destructive or compassionate processes engendered within them? What brands are we loyal to, what value do the things we buy have in our lives or in the world we want to create? It’s a decision made in an instant, often fogged over by the endless messages marketing us to jump in and buy! It’s also a decision that has consequences and/or contributions on a much larger scale to the kind of labor economy, environmental health, and and culture that we produce and pass on to the children in our communities. What kind of consumerism do you support? What kinds of questions do you ask in the purchase moment? Let’s build a new connection to this world that we want to create!!!