Tag Archives: consumers

Ready to change how we think

28 Sep

Going to business school is a personal decision, based on all kinds of things.  What you do now, what you’d like to do next, what new ideas you have, how interested in business you are, and a host of other factors that shape your thinking through the application and acceptance process.  Notwithstanding this very personal vision, many of the experiences my classmates and I have shared so far have been somewhat “broad strokes”, touching on the traditional areas and sectors that the “typical” business school student is likely to be interested in.

But what if you are not typical? Clearly we all like to think of ourselves as unique, and to some extent we all are. But equally, in a business school setting, there are going to be several people who delight in the idea of 12-hour work days as investment bankers, thrive on the excitement of the trading floor, and leap out of bed at the thought of complex financial modelling.  I’m not one of them, I’ve realised, but figuring out what I don’t want to do early on is a good thing, I think.

What I really want to do is change the way we think about stuff and the people and companies who make it, sell it, use it and deal with it when we’re done.  I’ve written about stuff as a consumer and as an owner, and realised since moving into a small student bedroom that living with less stuff is not only possible, but kind of peaceful.  I’ve been practising my “elevator pitch” to my classmates, and researching companies, organizations and people who already seem to be thinking about stuff differently.

Now, it’s early days on the research front, but I thought I’d share some cool things I’ve found so far.  Some of these may be familiar, while others may spark some new interest.

  1. Look to your right, over there in the side bar.  Click on The Story of Stuff and see with Annie has to say about things.
  2. Check out this blog post by Joel Makower, the founder of Greenbiz.com, and a “guru of green” I think has some neat things to say.  The book he recommends is now officially on my list.
  3. While you’re browsing through the blog roll, stop on by The Clean Bin Project, which chronicles the great things Jenny and Grant did and learned in living “waste free” for a year. I was lucky to meet these two about a week before they took off on a cross-Canada bike tour this summer, and they are doing something special.

So here’s what I’m ready to test through business school, and hopefully get some of the best brains I know (my classmates!) to think through this with me:

  • How do we make better stuff? The kind that’s good for the environment, and for people, and for the companies that make them?
  • Is a stuff vs. services conversation something we’re ready to have? And who should we have it with?
  • How much, and what kind of stuff, is “enough” in a finite world, a closed system with limits on all kinds of resources?

You probably have ideas about your stuff too. Let me know what you think – say it out loud.

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It’s so hard to say goodbye

7 Sep

So heads up – if you thought this was a soppy sentimental post, you can just move on right now. I’m not sentimental today, I’m mad!

Why, you ask? I’m discovering how difficult it is to exit my life. Not the leave-taking of friends and family, familiar places and the like, although I’m sure that will warrant its own post at some point. Right now, it’s the extraction of myself from services that is proving excruciating.

My cell phone provider sold me a plan – a bundled voice and data plan – at a single fixed rate. Imagine my shock and horror when I called to cancel my service and was told I’d be subject to not one, but TWO cancellation fees, one for voice and one for data!  Yup, $400 plus taxes, to NOT have something.  What made this even worse is that when I gave the guy on the other end a piece of my mind, he passed me on to a smooth-voiced calm Englishman (the irony was not lost on me) who was able to placate me with a completely different offer – a stripped-down minimum-charge plan for the remaining 10 months of my contract for $225 including taxes. What a difference a dude makes!

Now it’s not that I don’t expect to pay some sort of penalty to leave a contract early. I read the fine print, and I’m not unreasonable. What made me really annoyed was the completely different treatment and information I received, simply because I challenged the first offer.  What happens if you don’t, I wonder? If you are not savvy enough to push back and say, oh I don’t think so! I guess you get stuck with the hefty price tag, and the poor service.

It makes you wonder too, what else we are putting up with, simply through a failure or lack of inclination to speak out.  What else would we ask for, of whom?  What would get better if we demanded it?

There was some good news today – I can readily extract myself from health care coverage with a single phone call, and I can choose when coverage starts and stops.  Thank goodness some things are simpler than others.

Better programs, better products

19 Jul

Sometimes we can’t help it. Those of us living in the rest of Canada find ourselves shaking our heads at Ontarians. Maybe the record heat is making them cranky, but it seems they’ve been up in arms since Canada Day about so-called “eco-fees” that came into effect on July 1, 2010 to cover the cost of recycling a range of household hazardous materials like left-over paint, aerosols, batteries and the like. This would seem to make sense to me, considering these materials contain pretty nasty stuff that ought to properly disposed or recycled.  But, amid a flurry of complaints, and some pretty haphazard publicity about tax-grabs and confused consumers, the “people” have spoken and today, the Ontario Environment Minister caved and recalled the fees.

It’s a pity, because these types of programs really work. We in British Columbia have had similar charges in place for many products for several years.  In fact, on July 1st, fluorescent tubes, cell phones, thermostats, batteries and a range of other electronics also became part of the province-wide recycling system. It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR, and it’s a policy tool being used successfully in BC, a few US states, and widely across Europe to deal with materials that are hard to dispose of or need special handling.

So why is this important? Producers make products, which we as consumers buy. Traditionally, we would buy them, use them, and throw them away when we were done.  Most often, these materials ended up in landfills which cost a great deal to manage and maintain safely, and were typically operated by local governments and paid for by all taxpayers.  That means that everyone paid the cost of disposal, even if we didn’t all use the product.  More importantly, it let the producers off the hook for being responsible for their products at the end of their useful life.

But EPR is a game-changer.  By sharing the responsibility for the product between the producer and the person who bought it, used it and threw it away, a whole new way of dealing with waste is possible.  First off, people tend to be more careful about what they buy.  Buying just enough paint for your new reno means none to dispose of at the end, and being able to recycle batteries means no harmful chemicals threatening our health.  Producers get in on the act too, making better products that either last longer or are easier to recycle, since it’s now be their job to manage the products once we’re done with them.

So back to the “eco-fees”.  These are the charges attached to the products governed by the EPR policy.  They go to the producers, usually represented by a non-profit organization whose job it is to take back the products and make sure they are disposed or recycled safely.  No money goes to the government, no taxes are snuck into other programs. The producers have to report annually on how much of their products were sold, and how much they recovered through take-back programs for recycling. And producers, especially for mega-brands like Sony and Toshiba, are starting to take this further, trying to figure out how to use EPR to make their products stand out even more to the discerning consumer.

Let’s hope that the retraction by the Ontario government is temporary, and that with a better organized communications plan, they can roll the program out with success.  It’s time to put your money where your mouth is!

In the interests of full disclosure, I work in the recycling business and have been a strong advocate of EPR programs for many years.  I also love to shop.

Where did you buy that?

4 Jun

I need you to do me a favour.  Before you read any more of this post, get up and go look at your stuff. Open your closet, your pantry, your super-duper designer shoe cupboard.  Look at your stuff, take it in.  OK, come back now.

Do you know where your stuff comes from? Who made it, grew it, helped get it from wherever it started to you? If not, you should.  Here’s why:

  • According to the International Labour Organization, there are about 215 million child labourers at work across the globe.
  • Tobacco is one of the main agricultural industries employing children. Children are being poisoned by green tobacco sickness as a result.
  • Multi-generational poverty in some of the world’s poorest places is the main reason that children often need or are forced to work
  • Unless companies understand their supply chains, you could be purchasing items made by children.

The fact is, sometimes a bargain isn’t really a bargain. Does it really make sense that you can purchase a “hand-made” item for as little as $5? Made in some country thousands of kilometres away from your local mall? How far you could you get on $5?

So what to do? Get the facts. There are plenty of brands out there willing to share their supply chains with you. They audit the factories and locations where their goods are made, ensure proper conditions for workers, and work to prevent child labour.  Some of them, like Nike and Gap, made this shift when others exposed their secrets. Today, Nike is embracing transparency and sharing how it continues to work on managing its supply chain. Other companies like Patagonia and Timberland have always focused on producing high-quality items in ethical ways.

Even if you aren’t in the market for fancy shoes, you can still make a difference.  Pay attention. Question the “deal”. Get to know more about how goods are produced.  Get to know the Story of Stuff.

Buy less, but buy better.Your wallet has power. Use it wisely.