Initially published as a column in the AM News on Friday January 30, 2015. 

I had forgotten my reusable bags at home that time and had to choose between plastic and buying another reusable bag. Too much plastic as it is, I thought, so I chose the latter.

After I got home I realized that the reusable one had a plastic insert on the bottom. Right. To keep things steady and prevent the usual crowding of groceries and falling on top of each other. A first world problem indeed. The insert, made from ordinary plastic bearing no recycling sign, defeats the very purpose of it all.

I was misled and felt uncomfortable. No one likes that. More so when the buying of something I believed greener than a mere plastic bag (many of which are recyclable, not that that makes it better) turned out to be the wrong decision. Greenwashing at its best.

Here’s the thing. Ever since we open our eyes to the world of commerce, we are being told that the customer’s wishes are the merchant’s desires. If only that’d be true. Once upon a time it was.

One cannot notice that things have shifted sideways for a while now. The merchant, backed up by crafty marketing gurus designing the offer, present it to the customers and the rest unfolds. The customers, minds ripe with commercials, promises of this if you buy that, expectations, not to mention the ominous ‘buy now, pay later’, well, it’s easy to fall into the trap (it really is one.)

It is truly scary and overwhelming to try to imagine the amount of goods – excluding food – that are being offered in all stores across the North American continent. Add Europe and Asia and Australia to all of that and it get nauseating.

After the buying comes the garbage and if applicable, recycling. Then, we move on to the next spree of things we do not need but buy anyway to fill spaces that cannot be filled that way anyway.

I am not here to deflate any bubbles, though maybe secretly that is the idea. I just cannot wrap my head around why the merchandise one can find in today’s stores often include completely useless items made from questionable or downright toxic materials, many of which are geared towards children (who are learning to equate happiness with being able to buy one more thing.)

At the same time, garbage grows, people complain of unhappiness and busy schedules, working long hours that deliver the means to buy more stuff we do not need, while stealing away any hope of spending time doing what we love and matters. Ultimately, ‘having’ just doesn’t deliver what the flyer promised.

We are, in many ways, at a crossroad. Climate change is more of a subject (and reality) than it has ever been, there are battles over approving and/or regulating products, including foods and chemicals that end up in our homes or around them, and there are debates over pipelines and mines and fracking.

It is enough to give one a headache. In some ways we seem to have lost our way while faced with so many opportunities to get rich (for some), to buy more (for many) and, should guilt or that little thought that says ‘I have enough’ ever come begging for attention, we have entertainment to chase them away.

Yet reality and truth have the annoying habit of showing up in front of us. Not always civilized and ready to spell it out for us, but rather aggressively throwing it in our faces. Pollution is high in many parts of the world, and because of it the health of many suffers, children and the elderly most of all.

The oceans carry more plastic than ever and more is coming, because we buy and throw more plastic, and more pristine land is being sacrificed to grow palm trees, create feedlots and extract natural resources. Hardly respectful towards the blue planet we all hail as unique.

We are at an important crossroad. We need to assert the power to do exactly what we were once told (and many times over since) we can do: have our wishes satisfied by those who are benefiting from our needs.

It is so. With every choice we each make in how we buy or not buy things, in what we buy and what refuse to buy because we think it unethical, toxic, unhealthy or environmentally wrong, we force the big river called consumption steer a bit in a better direction.

We might have to forgo a few things along the way. Simplicity is a beautiful thing. It helps us make time for what matters. It helps fill the spaces that cannot be filled with anything else.

It helps us help the world get cleaner, our kids breathe easier, have fewer chemicals around to absorb and ingest, and it will remind us of some of the reasons we’re here. To make every day count, to make a difference, no matter how small, to leave the world a tad better than we found it; to know, most of all, that is it up to us, to each of us really, to make good things happen.