Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Emma Maersk

For anyone who is concerned about environmental issues, the christmas holiday is the most difficult time of year to get through. It seems that all of our efforts to bring to people’s consciousness the value of living lightly on the Earth, quickly gets discarded as streets and highways become packed full of cars heading for super malls to buy plastic gifts made in China.

I’ve mentioned how my family does its best not to get caught up in these throws of consumerism. We enjoy the holiday season very much, without ever setting foot in a Wal-Mart. We look forward to having a great family meal, using many vegetables that were grown in our gardens – the rest of the veggies and meats are bought at local Farmers' Markets and butcher shops. Joanne and I celebrate the ‘Spirit of Winter’ by decorating our house with images of snowflakes and snowmen/women/person, instead of religious totems – we celebrate God and Creation everyday, in all the things we do. In the seventeen years that Jo’ and I have been together, we’ve bought each other small gifts maybe just three or four times – usually unique, locally crafted items.

This year, Jo’ and I received just a few small presents that brought joy into our lives and those of others.

Joanne’s mom likes to collect old sewing machines. She repairs them, cleans them and then uses them to make things for her friends and family. Last year, Jo’s mom made us a quilted placemat setting for our dining table. Last spring, Jo’s mom found an antique sock knitting machine – ‘nuf said!

My mom was inspired by the gift that one of our friends bought for us last year. It was a simple card, and the profits from the purchase were used to supply rice for families in need. That was our present, this year, from my parents. Not only did they purchase a ‘Card of Hope’ but they donated an additional sum of money so that one family would receive food for an entire month.

This year, our family had one more reason to celebrate. Joanne’s sister and husband had a baby! Now, even though Jo’ and I rarely buy gifts for the christmas season, we made an exception for our little nephew.

Joanne came home from her shopping experience, very frustrated. She told me that she tried really hard to find ‘eco’ gifts but, for the most part, all she could find were plastic toys made in China. She visited many shops and was surprised to find that the store employees were surprised when she asked about ‘eco’ friendly toys made in Canada. After this experience, we’ve learned that in the future we will have to spend more time actually making gifts for our nephew, since so little is available in the markets. Had I realized how difficult this task was going to be, I would have made a better baby’s rattle, that wasn’t packaged in plastic and cardboard – even tho’ this cardboard was made with post-consumer paper materials.

This musical duck is covered in self-advertising stating that it is an ‘eco’ friendly product. Jo’ and the sales girl read all the info on the product and concluded that it was made in the USA. She figured that at least it wasn’t shipped across our oceans from China, and so she bought it.

The duck is still made of plastic and I didn’t really like that. They say that this toy is ‘eco’ friendly cuz it doesn’t need batteries – so that is a plus. The packaging is made of post-consumer paper products, so that’s a bonus as well. When I took a look at the duck and flipped it over, I found that the duck itself was actually manufactured in China. This toy company – found in the USA – had designed a plastic musical duck that didn’t need batteries, that was made in China then shipped to the company in the USA where it could be put inside a box made with recycled materials, thus becoming an ‘eco’ friendly product. Joanne groaned with disbelief when I discovered the true nature of this false advertising.

They say ‘Remember, not all toy companies are the same!” and they are right. Most don’t hide the fact that their products are harming the World’s environment, while their company sugarcoats reality to trick consumers!

One of my greatest ‘wonders’ is wondering why most people seem unable to realize why it is not a good thing to shop at Wal-Mart, Costco, Zellers, Canadian Tire or any other large consumer chain. This fact seems so obvious to me.

To create a product made in China, resources are needed. Many raw materials are imported to China to be used, but a significant fact is that China is destroying – at an ever increasing speed – its own environment to extract these resources. Large scars litter China’s landscapes – caused by mining and clearcutting. Waterways are becoming so polluted that entire villages are being wiped out, forcing these simple people into shanty houses and underpaying jobs working for these companies.

The ‘kicker’ in all of this is the Emma Maersk…

This is the largest ship in all of the oceans. This is the first one of its kind and two more are presently being built and are expected to be operational in the year 2012.

Each one of these ships costs $125, 000, 000 to build.

Because this monster can make an ocean voyage in just under five days, we can expect a massive increase in the amount of perishable food items making there way into our grocery stores…very soon.

These ships are actually commissioned by Wal-Mart to supply the 91% of all its products that are manufactured in China.

Special docking systems had to also be built – I’m not sure of their cost but you can see that this is a very elaborate system – with 11 cranes that can unload the entire ship in just two hours.

The Command Bridge is higher than a 10-story building and a crew of 13 runs the entire operation.

This ship will travel back to China empty.

It’s absolutely mind-boggling to me, how the fact exists that products made in China are cheaper than if they were made in North America. Over ½ a billion dollars will be invested into these ships in just a few years and that doesn’t include operational costs, fuel supplies and all of that kind of stuff. Can we not manufacture plates, cups, party hats, board games and garden hoses here in North America?

Will our societies continue to blindly follow consumer advertising promises of bringing fulfillment into our lives by buying their plastic toys, thus ensuring the collapse of our Natural world, or will a people begin to act as true leaders by initiating local, sustaining economies, thus ensuring a future for mankind?



evaemilie said...

Thank you for a very interesting post! You are so right we could do much better, and it's so sad that we have to be investigators to buy a small present because it's almost impossible to get the proper information of the material used or where the item has been manufactured.
It's also shocking how much artificial and weird ingredients that's in the food we eat. Someone asked me the other day if I really believed it was true when stated that a certain product was organically grown! It's a bit like the "eco-friendly" duck - we can only do our best and hope that if more consumers would be asking questions and asking for better products we would have more choices. The few organic fruits and vegetables I can get in the local supermarket all come from USA - so I ask myself don't we grow organic crops in Quebec!?

Hans-Jörn said...

----- sorry, my comment was too long, so I split it up ------

Hi Jim,

great post. I totally hear your frustration. I thought I'd give you some insight from the view of someone who tried hard in changing some of this.

I am the former of owner (well, I still own it, but I don't do business as such anymore). I used to make building wooden building blocks, which were sold in stores across Canada. Unfortunately, I was not able to live of the business (although it was eating me up alive) and so I pulled the plug. I often still toy with the idea of reviving it in a different form.

On the hole journey of running this business, there were some really interesting observations I made:

1. people usually only care about price. My blocks were priced very competitive ($54/set of 50 hard maple blocks, that beat even European and American competition), and people still found it much too expensive.

2. green washing is very unfortunate, but it happens all the time (ie: your rubber ducky you found)

3. I had to change my mind on plastic vs. wood. I love wood, and there are some really nice wooden toys out there (trust me, I have some of them, check out the marble runs by Cuboro, I've got one, simply beautiful). In my opinion wood is a great material, but very hard to manufacture large quantities of high quality products. Injection molding (used in plastic toys) is much easier to form into really crazy shaped items, and since most people go for flash and not for sustainability and "playability" (a lot of the plastic toys are single use toys, no imagination, the thing is only one thing and never also something else). I think if you read the book "cradle to cradle" you will understand what I mean. In our house, one of the most played with toy are Lego's: plastic. But if the plastic is the "proper stuff" there should be nothing wrong with it. I know you will cringe at this, but I used to be a hardcore enviro nut and hated plastic, but there are extremely useful and environmentally friendly ways to deal with it.

Hans-Jörn said...

4. shipping from China can actually use less oil than trucking within North America. Shipping expenses are ALWAYS in direct correlation to the amount of oil/energy consumed during the trip. I was talking to a guy who imports toys into Canada (and yes, he imports eco friendly wooden toys from the US, and the shifty stuff from China). He says it costs more to ship a container by truck from Oklahoma to Ottowa, than it costs to ship a container from a Chinese factory to Ottawa. This means that less energy is being consumed per container on a boat from China than on a truck or train from Oklahoma. Joanne didn't buy the rattle (made in Nova Scotia by the Toy Maker of Luneburg) because it was wrapped in plastic, which probably uses less oil than what is used for shipping from China.

Which brings me to point 5. It is so hard to figure out what the actual foot print of any given item is nowadays, that it is really hard to compare different items with each other. Every step along the manufacturing process needs to be audited, and every person needs to be held accountable to do the best as far as sustainability goes. But not everyone cares. There is no way with how open our borders are to crap coming in from abroad, that we can ever figure out how eco friendly stuff is made.

7. China is so far advanced as far as manufacturing techniques go, that we cannot even catch up to it anymore. The mainly get their high end machines from Germany, and use it as efficiently as they can (sadly under very inhumane circumstances). There is no way that I was using less energy in making my building blocks (although they were at least made from green energy, with local lumber, packaged in cardboard boxes).

The problem of unsustainability is very deep routed and cannot be fixed that easily. Unfortunately, as the world becomes more and more entrenched in materialism and consumerism, money is the only bottom line that dictates almost any action in our society.

This is a hard fight up the hill, and will only change once the economic forces of the destruction of the environment catch up with the entire system.

Let me know what you think. It's been a hard process for me to accept what is going in, especially since I invested so much time and money into my little endeavor.

Cheers, Hans