Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Save the Earth, or save money?

At the homestead, we're decorating for the holidays, and I finally ran out of red light bulbs. So, I head to the corner hardware store, which is a great hardware store. It is the kind of hardware store where you go when you need to fix something and expect to find parts.

At the hardware store, I'm confronted with a choice: Lightbulbs or a new string of lights? Lightbulbs are $1.10 for four bulbs. A string of 25 Christmas lights is $6.20. Doing the math, 25 replacement bulbs cost about $6.88 on a per-bulb basis and 25 new bulbs with sockets attached to copper wire costs $6.20. The cost of bulbs is actually higher, you have to buy 28 bulbs at a cost of $7.70 to get 25 bulbs.

There's a problem here, and it goes deeper than simply setting price points on goods. It is rational for a human to simply go to the lowest cost provider of the goods. Sometimes it's the local hardware store vs. Home Depot, the corner drug vs. Wal-Mart. Sometimes, it's assembled strings vs. bulbs.

There are plenty of reasons this kind of pricing exists, and valid explanations could range from sophistication to ineptitude, but let me suggest this: it is the moral duty of manufacturers, retailers and consumers to optimize dollar and environmental costs of products as best they can. The environmental costs are hard to calculate and are often situational and counter-intuitive. Paper cups, styrofoam or ceramic mug? It depends.

Without a framework to understand the true cost of goods, we simply can't understand what it is we're purchasing, except in cases, like Christmas light strings and light bulbs where, even if we can't clearly calculate the cost, we can assign a positive cost to the copper wire or the sockets, or the human or robot time to screw the light bulbs in.

Now that I've purchased my bulbs, it's time to visit the auto-parts store. My window isn't clear during rainstorms. I need to fix it.

What is that I'm replacing? At the auto-parts store, I'm encouraged to change my wiper blades annually. This should, of course, be done for safety, correct? Not really. While the most modern form of wiper blade is a completely disposable unit, most new and old vehicles still have a wiper blade and wiper insert system.

The insert is the rubber squeegee. The blade is the metal frame which holds the insert. Now that you've been needlessly educated on wiper parts, you should know that good quality wiper blades, like the kind that came on your car, should last the lifetime of the vehicle.

Twenty years ago, wiper refills outnumbered wiper blades on store shelves by a significant margin. Today, the ratio of products has flipped. At the local branch of our national chain auto parts store, there was one brand of wiper refill and probably seven or eight wiper blade products. Of course, you can command a higher profit margin on two wiper blades, but the environmental cost of those blades in the landfill versus a little piece of rubber is high.

I always assumed that it was the chain auto parts store that was causing the problem, but upon returning home to replace my wiper inserts, I found something curious.

Instead of a mechanical latching device on the insert to keep it in the blade, I found the wiper blade crimped onto the wiper insert, rendering the wiper blade to effectively be a single-use product. I hope there was debate at the manufacturer when this decision was made. Again, this is an ethical decision that involves products, profits, customers and the environment.

The only way to ensure you have product choices that make economic sense is to vote for them. Vote with your wallet, your feet and your voice to ensure that sensible products without abnormally high environmental costs are available to the consumer.

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