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I sit at the table deciding whether to use Earth Balance or butter on my vegan waffle.

You see, I’m lactose intolerant. I’m also soy intolerant. However, soy-free EB doesn’t contain soy, and butter doesn’t contain lactose. We compare the nutritional value of the two containers:

Earth Balance Butter
Serving size 14 oz. 14 oz.
Fat 11g 11g
Sodium 110mg 110mg
Vitamin E 10% 0%
Vitamin A 0% 10%

The difference is vitamin A or vitamin E. The butter contains cream, whirled and processed until only the milkfats are left. EB contains: Palm oil, canola oil, safflower, flax, and olive oil. Water, salt, natural flavor, pea protein, sunflower lecithin, lactic acid, and annatto for color. The butter comes from Pennsylvania. The palm oil in EB comes from Brazil and Malaysia.

Palm oil is actually this whole issue. Much (85%) of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. It is also from Brazil, Columbia, New Guinea, Ghana, Borneo, and Sumatra. Plantations are sites of burned rainforests, destroyed for palm oil agriculture. Animals that are threatened, endangered, and critically endangered due to this profess include: Asian elephants, tigers, Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran orangutans. (The Orangutan Project)

But! EB doesn’t get their palm oil from those sources, so it’s all cool, right?

The question between Pennsylvania Butter and Global Earth Balance rapidly becomes more complicated once it moves beyond the fauna v. flora debate of sourcing. If we look at our scope beyond the daily life and relative suffering of a Pennsylvania cow and a Malaysian tree, the tree definitely has the better deal. We start looking at environmental effects–grass and orangutans, dairy farm workers and field hands, pollutants, CO2 production rates, the ability for me to pick which is better (or, let’s be honest, less bad) gets overwhelmed by internal debates of environmentalism, globalization, and moral economics. Nutrition (which should be my highest priority because taking care of myself ought to be my base metric for what I do (even though it’s not) is not an issue since the two substances are, basically, nutritionally identical.

I stop looking at the stick of butter and tub of earth balance and do the most reasonable, rational thing I can think of: douse my pancakes in Michigan maple syrup.

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Conscious

I needed new bedsheets. Need is a strong word, I wanted them. I wanted them because the old ones were pilling–or whatever it’s called when they start to get little fuzzies on them. I wanted to brighten up my room and begin to consider the possibility of decorating (we just signed a new lease, so I guess I’m really living here). I was at brunch and wanted to stop at Target on the way home. I looked at the more independent stores (all smaller chains) and they’re prohibitively expensive. (I can’t afford to spend $400 on bedsheets.) I could go to the Goodwill, but, I’ll be honest, the idea of having bedsheets I -know- a stranger had sex in kind of squicks me out. (I lie to myself about hotel sheets.) I could order on line, but the shipping costs, wait time, inability to -feel- the sheets before purchasing them, and our neighbor’s arguments against ordering online (it in actually no way benefits the community), make it hard for me to justify going to Amazon. Target it is!

We were discussing the best way to get to there. Specifically, we were considering the worth of going there through the front of the back and various routes to either of these ways. Then someone said “Target? You must hate gay people.”

He was being tongue-in-cheek with that comment. He wasn’t seriously accusing me of hating gay people (I don’t), but he was talking about Target’s monetary hatred of gay people.

In 2010, Target donated money to a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who, among other things, said that a marriage is between “a man and a woman.” At least, that’s what the news stories said. In truth, Target donated money to Minnesota Forward, which created an advert for Emmer, the gubernatorial candidate in question. Emmer, among other stances, supports a high speed national rail network and lower taxes, has a “general hostility towards clean energy,” (Grist, 2010), and has made a bit of noise about pro-business legislation.

I like to think that Target, a Minnesota based company, donated to a pro-business Minnesota candidate rather than an anti-gay Minnesota candidate, but I can’t prove that. Regardless, that’s generally not considered to make a difference. They supported a candidate is against something that a lot of people I know are for.

Whole Foods is a lot like this as well, though no one I know talks about whether or not we should shop there. I sort of don’t like them because they began this Seafood Rating program once upon a time. They rate how sustainable the wild caught seafood they have is. One of their options is “avoid.” However, they still sell these things that ought to be avoided. Their meats are step rated usingThe 5-Step™ Animal Welfare Rating Standards. Not all their meat is at the highest standards, and price, obviously goes up. I think it’s sort of hypocritical of them to talk about these things being important, but still offering “less good” alternatives.

Luckily, I don’t eat meat.

I do, however, eat vegetables. And help buy groceries for a house of seven (plus) people. Every time we make a purchase, we weigh the cost of being environmentally friendly, being friendly to what we (a bunch of variously employed hippies, technohippies, and hippie like people) can afford, and our desires. “Local” usually means “North East” during the summers with a goal for “US” during the winters. We cheat and buy avocados year round because we all love them so. We are beyond capable of consuming bananas like crazy, much to the chagrin of one of our more aware members.

Don’t even get me started on trying to pick good versions of good options.

Our massive soy consumption is fueling the international soy trade, which tears down rainforests and displaces people in order to grow enough soy. So we have to make sure we get soy that was grown in the USA, but a lot of that comes from factory farms. Earth Balance, a vegan alternative to butter, is good because it’s vegan, but is uses palm oil, which is bad for the same reasons international soy is bad.

A lot of things which appear “good” have these insidious underbellies of consumption. (Does that phrase look as ridiculous to you as it does to me?)

“Plug in” electric cars would save on batteries and be cool and all, but the power would still be coming from -somewhere-. The U.S. Energy Information Administration cites in their Annual Energy Outlook for 2011 that the majority of US energy comes from liquid (petroleum, liquids from coal, natural gas liquids), and, overall, “renewable” sources are the second smallest minority, eclipsing biofuels by quite a bit. Nuclear, barely surpassing renewable resources, is expected to be overtaken by more “green” (not toxic green) energy well before 2035.

In short, even if you have a plug in electric, you’re still likely powering it through that stuff we’re supposed to be using less of.

Being a half-awake consumer is really easy. It’s not hard to keep up with a few things going on, but to be a conscious, fully awake and ready to run consumer takes a lot of work. I can’t keep up on all of these things–it took me nearly forty minutes of reading papers and googling just to find out about electric batteries, the plug in plan, and the way we actually get most of our plug in power.

I spent about a minute googling “target gay controversy” and then another find to find out how the money really flowed and then three more looking up what else Emmer said, because, let’s be honest, it’s damn near impossible to find a candidate with whom you agree on every issue. I was hoping that maybe while he was against gay marriage, he might be down with abortions or helping the homeless.

My written manner of thinking about how overwhelming it feels to try and “vote with my money” doesn’t so much talk about a point as it does illustrate it: being feet on the ground running conscious is hard. It’s not just enough to be awake and be aware of what is going on–or at least it doesn’t feel that way. When everyone has a cause, merely picking one and dedicating yourself to it isn’t enough when it comes to all the other causes people you have to interact with.

This isn’t to say being a conscious consumer isn’t something we should do. No, we should all strive to think about where our things come from. We should think about, and be aware, of what the costs are in our food and cars, what it means to purchase from someone who donates money to a political candidate (-any- political candidate). Wikipedia has a list of consumer watch organizations to help make this process easier. The Consumerist is a popular website that does this as well, full of user accounts. (It informs me of Target’s anti-union activities.) But sometimes all the effort feels overwhelming and I want to give up and eat an avocado, lettuce, tomato, tempeh, and veganaise sandwich in the winter. And sometimes I just want new bedsheets.