Hard Choices

Elsewhere in this magazine, writer Christy Harrison profiles a cafe owner who struggles to provide a socially responsible sandwich. Multiply that quandary by a thousand and you can imagine what it’s like to be Jill Stapleton, who, with the help of EC staffers and volunteers, runs the Ecology Center bookstore on San Pablo Avenue.
Items are priced with lower markups than most stores to make green products available to the community. “The concept is that the store is part of education,” says Beck Cowles, who runs the EC’s Environmental Resource Center. “It’s a source to help people lead more sustainable lives, not a fundraising effort.”
That policy keeps items cheaper, but it doesn’t always make them cheap. Straddling the line between ecological and social impact and affordability is a daily challenge.
About a year ago, Stapleton and Cowles co-wrote a guide to product selection. Stapleton, who spends about three hours a day researching products, says that environmental impact is just one in a list of considerations: “What’s the product’s ecological impact? What are the labor issues around its production? Does [carrying it] support small business efforts? Is it affordable? Is it sellable?”

Cowles and Stapleton avoid products that seem “over-consumerist” or have “absolutely no use.” Those determinations aren’t always easy to make. “You can be more or less of a purist,” says Stapleton. “Everything’s a judgment call.”
Stocking the shelves is a lot like anything else environmentalists do: it’s full of compromises and hard choices. Reducing dependence on plastics and other petroleum products, for example, has long been a focus of the Ecology Center. So Stapleton seeks out products that can do some of the same household jobs that plastic containers do. “We have this line of 100 percent recycled glass,” explains Stapleton. “It’s refillable juice containers, place settings, and a lot of it is the best kind of recycled glass, because it’s colored. But it comes from Spain.” Shipping items long distances presents its own array of issues, so what’s the lesser evil? Plastic dependency, or the impacts of shipping? This kind of conundrum, says Stapleton, “is part of holding all these considerations in tension. But in this case, we came down on the side of having the product. Because it’s just so essential to get plastic out of the kitchen.”
Those recycled glass containers are  inexpensive and sell well. But there’s no  escaping the fact that eco-and socially responsible products tend to cost more than what you pay at Wal-Mart. “People living on low incomes can’t always afford green products. And that’s really frustrating,” says Cowles. “It turns our center into a place that’s not affordable for some items, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Cowles and Stapleton are doing what they can: the store now offers make-it-yourself household cleaning products, including washing soda, borax, baking soda, potash. “You can easily make an effective, cheaper, better cleaning product,” explains Cowles. “And they’re in bulk, so there’s almost no packaging.”
Stapleton adds new products to store shelves each week, but she and Cowles have set their sights on an even wider selection. “I’d love to have a center where you could get everything you need for your week’s supply that’s not food,” says Stapleton. “But that’s not possible right now.”

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