[21 January 2009]
British journalist Fred Pearce sets out to follow along the supply chains that support his personal lifestyle, and examine some of the larger costs of the cheap goods many in the Western world have come to take for granted. What is the real cost of that $10 t-shirt or the shrimp in last night’s take-out curry? Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff sets out to remove some of the mystery from the global supply chain.
People talk a lot about carbon footprints. But our personal footprints are much bigger than that. And they are social as well as ecological. The trouble is that in our charmed world we know little about what our footprints are. It all happens so far away. The people and the pollution that sustain us are invisible to us.
Writing in an engaging, conversational tone, Pearce judiciously mixes statistics with descriptions of the lives of the people who produce the world’s stuff. The impact of the global market, with its fluctuating demands for various resources and constant attempts to pay less and less to the individuals who harvest or manufacture in far-flung corners, is unnerving.
The first stop on Pearce’s journey is South Africa, and the mine that has produced more gold than any other source on the planet: Driefontein. To Pearce, this mine represents the most likely source of the single object that accompanied him throughout his global journey: his wedding ring. The miners who labor in Driefontein are unlikely to ever see the gold they work for, unrefined as the raw material is when they hack it out of the ground. Yet these miners work and live under terrible conditions, with little hope of finding other work to support the families in their home countries that they send money to.
Pearce describes the frustrations of Tanzanian coffee farmers who can’t afford to send their children to school because even though they grow premium coffee that is marketed as fair trade, they only receive about $1.50 for a pound of coffee that sells for around $12. With small yields, individual farmers are struggling to pay for basic maintenance on their properties, when feeding their families is of primary importance. One farmer in a cooperative that raises coffee on Mount Kilimanjaro remarks that he could feed his family for a week for the price of a pound of coffee in London.
Pearce looks at the social impact of the unsustainable lifestyle many Westerners are living today. For the most part he finds damning evidence of the environmental destruction wrought by illegal logging practices to bring exotic veneers to kitchen cabinets, or the amount of waste produced by the absurd search for precious metals and stones in places with little regard for the quality of the life of local workers.
Today’s ubiquitous cell phone, for example, itself weighing only a few ounces, is responsible for producing around 165 pounds of waste during the mining process for the various tiny amounts of metal ores that comprise its parts. How often do you replace your cell phone? These amounts of waste continue to multiply. Pearce writes that his personal computer is responsible for taking 1.5 tons of ore from the earth in order to get the metals needed to produce it. Perhaps these costs bear thinking about before we decide to replace the devices we use everyday simply because something faster and sexier has come on the market.
Though Pearce spends a good deal of time looking at the sources of raw materials and the manufacture or harvest of the products that sustain the typical Western lifestyle, there is another facet to the production of all this stuff: energy. From unsustainable methods of farming biofuels to the need for proper storage of nuclear waste, Pearce looks at this issue from a number of angles. The most provocative is a description of the energy needs of one of the world’s largest producers of aluminum for products such as beverage cans. Australia’s largest aluminum smelter, with its own massive carbon footprint, runs on coal. The power station that keeps the smelter running has a thermal efficiency of 30 percent. So of the energy potential of the coal that is burned there, less than a third of that energy is actually used. Manufacturing aluminum is a highly energy-intensive process; Pearce writes that “The amount of electricity needed to make one beverage can will run a TV for three hours.”
Luckily Pearce’s findings are not all doom and gloom. He does find pockets of hope in unexpected places where workers’ lives are being improved in some ways. On a trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to look into the sweatshop conditions of the workers who produce cheap clothing for Europeans and Americans, Pearce remarks that he found the poor conditions he expected, in a place where labor is even cheaper than in India. He was more surprised to find that some of the female workers who sleep five to a room and earn a little over $20 per month working in the clothing factories are proud of their situation. It turns out that this work is the only opportunity they have ever had to leave their home villages and achieve some level of financial independence. They are the first generation in the history of the country to choose a life that did not involve simply becoming a young housewife and raising a family, relying on their husbands for everything.
The issues are so complicated, with so many often unforeseeable impacts, that even Pearce gets sidetracked along the way, with occasional awkward transitions in the middle of chapters. For example, chapter 18, cleverly titled “Shock and Ore: Where My Metal Comes From” discusses the many disparate metals that are sourced for electronic gadgets to connect and entertain the world. Suddenly Pearce switches to a summary of his water footprint, without connecting the topic to the metals that were the focus of the previous half chapter. As Pearce previously authored a book called When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century (2006), and clearly wants to summarize the water issue, perhaps devoting a short chapter to that discussion would have made more sense than pasting a few pages on to the end of the chapter concerned metals, with no transition.
As curiosity becomes more widespread regarding the origins of the products we use everyday, what with the nearly constant stories in the news about toxins in this type of plastic or that type of baby food, Pearce’s engaging book is an excellent starting point.