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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004

OUR PLANET EARTH

DO YOU FIT THE SUV DRIVERS' PROFILE?

Good stuff, people and advice on how to tailor your consumption


It's back-to-school time again, and whether you are going back, sending your child off, or just getting swept up in the streams of backpack-wielding kids, change is in the air. Time for new books, new people and new gossip, and time to clear the desk even if only for a place to rest your head.

In the spirit of getting back to school, this column includes three items I have wanted to share, all related to consumption.

The first is a small book, packed with information, and priceless; in fact, it's free. The second is about a woman recently honored for her tireless efforts to help the planet. And last, a mildly scandalous look at how the U.S. auto industry views those who drive sport utility vehicles, or SUVs.

'Good Stuff'

First the book. It's called "Good Stuff," and it tells all about the problems of consumption without resorting to fire and brimstone environmentalism. It's easy to read and upbeat, and it's only 31 pages long. It's also free online, so you can read it through, then print out the parts you want.

From cars and chocolate to shrimp and plastic bags, "Good Stuff" looks at 25 different consumer items and answers hundreds of questions, including many you haven't even asked yet. For example: "How many Pizza Hut restaurants does China have?" or "What percentage of our annual methane output comes from livestock belching?" Each item takes up only one page, but for each there are interesting bits of trivia, "success stories," "simple things you can do" and Internet links that provide in-depth information.

"Good Stuff" also includes a glossary of terms, such as "green procurement" and "product life cycle," and a Consumption Manifesto titled "Top Ten Principles of Good Consumption." But don't worry, this list is meant to inspire thought, not guilt: Two of the principles are "Enjoy what you have" and "Don't feel guilty."

"Consumption is one of life's great pleasures. Buying things we crave, traveling to beautiful places, eating delectable food. .EE But too often the effects of our blissful consumption make for a sad story. .EE But there's no need to swap pleasure for guilt. With thoughtfulness and commitment, consumption can be a force for good," the manifesto states. The booklet ends with a quiz and a challenge page to help readers focus how shopping choices affect the planet. In short, for students and teachers in search of discussion and research ideas, "Good Stuff" is great stuff.

Good Stuff is offered online by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to building an environmentally sustainable and socially just world. For more information, visit www.worldwatch.org

Fair Trade Co.

Earlier this month, Safia Minney, a resident of Tokyo who works worldwide to promote socially responsible consumption, was named one of the world's most "Outstanding Social Entrepreneurs" by the Geneva-based Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

Minney is the founder of the Fair Trade Company, Japan, (FTCo) and People Tree Britain, which have proven that fair trade can be successful, even in the highly volatile fashion industry.

Based at a shop in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo, Minney and her staff have used bold and colorful info-catalogues to expand business in Japan, and more recently to Britain. By informing consumers, the People Tree brand has been able to move from its fair-trade niche into the broader fashion market.

Fair trade means paying producers a fair price or wage for their products, and providing them a secure and safe work environment. The FTCo, for example, is pioneering the use of organic cotton, through paying a 30-percent premium to Indian cotton farmers. As "Good Stuff" notes, "Each 100-percent organic cotton T-shirt you buy eliminates the use of 150 grams of agricultural chemicals." And that's better all around Efor farmers, producers, consumers and the environment.

The FTCo works with 150 producer groups in 20 countries across Asia, Africa and South America, and in 2003, sales reached $5.6 million.

Minney is particularly hopeful that Schwab's acknowledgement will boost promotion of fair trade. "It is very exciting that the Fair Trade movement in Japan and the development of Fair Trade fashion in Britain is being recognized," Minney said. "We hope by joining the [Schwab] network we will be able to support thousands more artisans and farmers to earn a livelihood with dignity, and escape the poverty trap that they and their children face daily."manif

SUV drivers

And finally the gossip. Apparently the drivers of those large sport utility vehicles that are so popular in America are less outdoorsy and community-minded than you might think.

According to Russ Kick, author of "50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know," the U.S. auto industry has come to "some unflattering conclusions" about SUV drivers.

Kick quotes the writings of an investigative reporter, Keith Bradsher, a specialist on the SUV phenomenon. "They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighborhoods and communities," reports Bradsher.

Auto-marketing executives have also found SUV drivers to be "more restless, more sybaritic, and less social than most Americans are. They tend to like fine restaurants a lot more than off-road driving, seldom go to church, and have limited interest in doing volunteer work to help others," according to Bradsher.

As for those who have criticized Bradsher's reporting, Kick is quick to note that "Bradsher isn't the one slamming SUV owners Eit's the auto industry itself."

Which seems to raise the question of whether biting the hand that feeds you is bad consumption. I'll see what "Good Stuff" has to say and get back to you.

Stephen Hesse can be contacted at: stevehesse@hotmail.com



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