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Making sustainable living choices

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Making Sustainable Living Choices

Al Waller: When you think in terms of the world's sustainability, it's actually kind of a complicated matter, and at the end of the day, it can be a real challenge to know where to begin. For instance, you may be wondering which items carry the largest impact. For example, should we only opt to purchase “eco-friendly” labeled products? Will this effort even make any sizeable difference to the planet – or for that matter, benefit my health?

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With us today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for Transamerica Institute, and she is here to offer tips for beginning your sustainability journey, deconstructing those terms that are often used to describe products—words like “natural”, “cruelty-free”, and “eco-friendly” will be covered. She will also discuss what this means for our health.

Before we begin, I’d like to remind you that if you have any topic ideas you’d like to hear about, please reach out to us at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you!

It’s a pleasure to have you back, Mihaela.

Mihaela Vincze: Good to be here.

Al Waller: To start, could you help us understand why making a commitment towards sustainability is important for our health?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, to have healthy communities, we need natural resources, clean air, and an environment that’s not toxic. According to the World Health Organization, 13 million deaths annually and nearly 25% of all diseases worldwide are a result of environmental causes that could be avoided or prevented.

Al Waller: No good news there. For those wondering, how might someone go about getting started on their sustainability journey?

Mihaela Vincze: There are a few steps you can take. For today’s segment, I’d like to touch on some sustainability practices you can begin now, which can make a big difference long term to both our planet and health. I’d also like to touch on misleading greenwashing terms– these are marketing words that imply sustainability, which are false and meant to increase sales, not reduce environmental impact. And lastly, I would like to spend some time offering resources where you can go to learn more.

Al Waller: Let’s begin with your first point. What can listeners do today to begin reducing their ecological footprint?

Mihaela Vincze: Avoid single-use products (e.g., plastic bottles and plastic bags) whenever possible. 79% of all plastic is sitting as waste in a landfill or lost in the natural environment, and 12% has been incinerated. Most plastic items are not biodegradable, meaning they do not decompose. Instead, they break down into micro particles that contaminate our environment. This can cause problems in the human body like cell damage and endocrine disruption. Therefore, it is important to make intentional substitutions for common single-use items when feasible.

Al Waller: I couldn't agree with you more, as my family has made a conscious practice of carrying cloth bags whenever we go to the supermarket versus those plastic bags. In that same vein, we ditched those plastic water bottles in favor of our trusty companion – the stainless-steel water jug. It's important indeed – but I'll bet you have quite a few more tips to recommend for using fewer single-use products, right?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, for instance, you can pack your lunch in a reusable container or bag—you are actually more likely to make a healthy choice this way. Another tip is that you can use a razor with a replaceable blade instead of a disposable razor. Now, these are often higher quality than disposable types.

Lastly, you can even make your own cleaning formula and put it in a reusable bottle. This will be less toxic and also, eliminate the need for multiple plastic bottles. Now, I know that these are just a few tips. If you're looking for more ideas, check out the Green Education Foundation's Tips to Use Less Plastic page.

Al Waller: Those tips should be easy swaps for most – especially, say opting out for razor cartridges…and who knows, you might even get a smoother and closer shave. What else do you recommend?

Mihaela Vincze: Only buy products when you need to. Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we do not see that with green consumption, according to a 2019 study conducted by the University of Arizona. The key is to not buy “green” stuff but to reduce buying in general. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Do you really need this product?
  • Can you buy a reusable version instead of the disposable products (tote bag vs. plastic bags)?
  • Can you rent a product when you need it rather than buying it?
  • Can you buy a used version of this product?
  • Can you repair this if you already own it, rather than replace it?

When you do make a purchase, try to buy the sustainable option.
Al Waller: Interesting—how can someone go about making a purchase that is the sustainable option?

Mihaela Vincze: They can do this by purchasing quality goods that last longer and allow us to make purchases less frequently. This preserves resources and reduces the volume of materials we discard.

Al Waller: I think you make a good point there, Mihaela, which illustrates how consumers really do play a pretty important role. Now, could you expand a little further on why our sustainable products are so important for our health?

Mihaela Vincze: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, using sustainable products can help with a wide variety of potential human health and environmental impacts, including toxic exposures, ecosystem damages, and general pollution, which can negatively impact our health.

Al Waller: If I hear your correctly, those are some pretty serious incentives to purchase a product that is better for the environment. How can consumers go about putting this practice into play?

Mihaela Vincze: Well, ecolabels are a good first step. These are a tool to help us easily navigate products that are better for the environment – just know that it's important to be wary about the labels on products, since they are just not regulated in a way that requires them to substantiate claims.

If a brand does not provide a clear definition of what a term means to them, then the language is subjective and could be exaggerated. This practice is known as “greenwashing” and often it benefits companies but not necessarily our ecosystem or our health.

Al Waller: So, greenwashing is not unlike whitewashing – I get it – which has me wondering about some of the common terms we see on packaging. Perhaps, you could start by dissecting the accuracy of the term – let's begin with “eco-friendly”, which appear on product labels. Are they authentically friendly for our environment?

Mihaela Vincze: According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of eco-friendly is: “not environmentally harmful.” When it comes to product production, everything has some type of negative effect on the environment (think of the energy use, water use, waste, etc.), and that means there really are not any products that fit the definition of “eco-friendly” — unfortunately, this label is considered a greenwashing term.

Al Waller: Well, I guess that term would appear to be a “lock” for admission to the greenwashing hall of fame, right? Now, another term that is thrown around pretty liberally is “natural” – what exactly does that mean?

Mihaela Vincze: A company may use language like this to indicate that their product is wholesome and free of chemicals, compared to competing brands. They could be. However, companies are not required to substantiate these claims.

Al Waller: That's pretty fascinating. Well, you've done a nice job of identifying what words to look for and what words to avoid. So, I'm thinking, this will make it easier for our listeners to make choices that are better for the environment. Now, how about this one – what about “cruelty free”?

Mihaela Vincze: You often see this term, “cruelty-free”, on cosmetic products and it is also not regulated, so it is important to be mindful of these claims. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms”.

Al Waller: Sounds like a lot of “snake oil” being pushed around out there these days, Mihaela. At the end of the day, we as consumers should be mindful about the limitations of these labels when making our purchasing decisions.

Where can our listeners turn to learn more?

Mihaela Vincze:

  • There are helpful browser extensions like Ethical Shopper and Neutral, which can help you navigate products online.
  • If you want an easy and reputable way to identify greener cleaning products, check out the EPA’s Safer Choice program, which certifies products that contain safer ingredients for human health and the environment.
  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has created its Green Guides to help ensure that marketing claims regarding the environmental attributes of products are accurate.

Al Waller: Great intel, Mihaela, and thanks again for joining us!

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes on the health benefits of music. And, don’t miss our recent episodes on the benefits of socialization and interest rates explained.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.