by Belu-Olisa Sarkissian, Brown University
How We’re Using the Wrong Hygiene Products for Our Planet
The U.S. is a top polluter in the world and is contributing vastly to the climate imbalances we are seeing ever encroaching on our planet. We prioritize hygiene, and staying clean but we aren’t aware and we aren’t acknowledging where our waste is in fact going and how in our efforts to be clean, we instead dirty the planet with our consumption products and choices.
We live on a planet that is self-sustaining, that operates within closed-loop cycles—an environment that cleans itself—where the earth and bacteria envelop our waste products that are biodegradable in order to create something new—life is born from decay, a tree grows where fruit had once rotted. Our waste can and is supposed to act as fertilizer for growth, and in human societies we mimic this balance we see in nature through practices like permaculture and upcycling.
The model of circular consumption practices that mimics the balance of natural cycles is a model that societies throughout the world and many indiginious communities have utilized for centuries. Low-income communities and other communities that have low importation rates throughout the world have also built sustainable consumption practices through the repurposing of waste products or ‘trash’—creating self-sustaining communities.
One waste product that naturally can not exist in harmony and equilibrium with Earth’s natural cycles of decay and rebirth is plastic—an intrusive material Western human societies have introduced into environments and communities and produced at such rapid rates. Single use plastics have proven to be disastrous to our livelihoods and to our health and harmony on this planet, our only home to which we are responsible.
It is becoming harder and harder for our planet to clean itself, and create life from decay—for the products that we use, especially the plastic we consume almost daily sits and breaks down in our oceans and soil, not in a way that is regenerative but in a way that infiltrates even our own bodies—for it is a foreign substance—not one that can exist in equilibrium with the natural cycles of our planet and it’s regenerative abilities.
Hygiene products, because of their frequent use have most often been packaged and produced in single-use plastics making them a large generator of waste, waste that can not be regenerated for future use. Our recycling system in the U.S. and throughout the globe is practically non-operational due to a lack of infrastructure and companies committing to using recycled material for production. Thus, in order to resurrect the natural cycles of regenerative systems in society and on Earth—a step in that direction is greatly decreasing our plastic consumption and using products that work with our planet, not against it.
How Old Consumer Behavior Patterns Can Affect Vulnerable Communities
The pollution that our consumption practices create have real consequences for vulnerable communities throughout the world. While large-scale systems change is essential for creating new relationships with the environment and creating a more equitable future—there are things that we can do as consumers to manifest the reality we wish to see. By investing in products and companies that are prioritizing the environment and communities in their designs, we are investing in a future reality we want to create.
World-building requires real intention and energy being put into the world we want to see, rather than passively existing and complying in a world we don’t agree with. The biggest lie that large corporations have told us is that we don’t have agency in changing our reality and the one around us. Many large corporations have used tactics such as green-washing to cover up and distract consumers from the mass responsibility and continued destruction that these same corporations, which prioritize profit over people, are causing.
For example, the concept and the popular online measuring device for calculating your carbon footprint was actually popularized by big oil, and strategically used as a tactic for individualizing blame around climate change. The guilt this blame provokes only creates paralysis and feelings of eco-anxiety and doom in consumers since they are exposed to so few options for making more ethical and eco-conscious purchasing choices. Also, the matter of convenience often ends up being a priority when consumers purchase goods and the brands that are most convenient to purchase are often not brands that are eco-minded.
Because of long working hours and the high-stress lifestyle that consumers lead in daily life, convenience becomes a crucial aspect when making purchase decisions. The ultimate consumer is created from this high-stress, high-demand lifestyle of Western societies—and low-cost, convenient products are created to enable this lifestyle. It is not necessarily the fault of the consumer that within the mode of work our society prioritizes and demands they do not have the capacity to make more ethical and aligned consumption choices.
For example, I had the option of shopping at a Whole Foods or a natural food cooperative near my house when I lived in Providence, Rhode Island as I completed my senior year of college last year. At the start of the school year I would bike to the food cooperative, and even though some of the food was more expensive,I would try to purchase most of my food items there. It was an additional effort to do this since I didn’t have a car— and I would end up carrying all my groceries in my backpack and trek 20 minutes back across town and up a hill on my bike in order to get back to my apartment. Once the school year was really rolling, I got so overwhelmed and exhausted that I started heavily considering shopping at Whole Foods because it was only a few blocks from my house.
The effort and additional time-demand of that 40 minute round trip bike ride and when I was over-stressed and felt continuously like I didn’t have enough time to do the things I needed to, made shopping at the food cooperative feel like a very inconvenient option.
At the time, I didn’t want to support Wholefoods because of the Amazon boycotts and I preferred to support a local community organization and business anyways—but the matter of convenience began to become a crucial factor when considering where to shop.
I found myself in a dilemma in which I felt pressured by my lifestyle to compromise on my ethical motives in the name of convenience and practicality. There were moments where I felt paralyized by this decision. I would still prioritize going out of my way to get products from the cooperative, but eventually it reached a point where it became so cold out that I could no longer bike to the cooperative and my only convenient and practical option became shopping at Wholefoods.
I became so overwhelmed with work at some point in the year so I began to even order groceries online to be dropped off from Wholefoods to my front door. This level of convenience allowed me to maintain my high-demand lifestyle, and was in a way necessary for the maintenance of my physical and mental health at that moment in time. The additional stress of going out of my way or finding access to a different purchasing choice would’ve felt like an impossible burden when already dealing with so much and trying to juggle so many things.
Now, I am privileged in many ways to even have access to the convenience of Whole Foods delivery and to afford those services and products. The example I give is to demonstrate the way convenience works its way into our high-paced society’s lifestyle and is in many ways necessary. Not everyone is so privileged to even have convenience as an option. Especially in food deserts, there are vulnerable populations which due to price points can not even afford supposedly ‘low-priced’ convenience products let alone hygiene products.,
Being aware of our carbon footprint is important so that we can make choices about consumption that align more with our principles and have less harmful impact on the planet, our environment and vulnerable communities!
At the same time though, the intention behind our choices and consumption choices must go deeper than that. It isn’t just about minimizing our own individual footprint, but rather minimizing the negative effects our society has on the planet and one another. We have to make choices that don’t just make us feel less guilty or responsible but also choices that directly contribute to systems change. We have to be building and modeling our own personal world by making purchasing choices that are not only just zero-waste in our own households, but also affirm the progression of a society becoming zero-waste as well, a society that is balanced with the natural cycles of decay and rebirth.
We have to understand the deeper implications of our actions, not in order to feel guilty but in order to feel empowered—knowing we can make choices that are having a direct, positive impact on our health and households as well as our society, systems, environments and the planet at large. A step in this direction is investing in companies that are producing affordable zero-waste products informed by a philosophy and product-design model that prioritizes circulation over stagnation, equal access over discrimination, and systems change over the status-quo.
What are Convenience Products and Which Ones Should You Buy?
So what are convenience products? Convenience products are products that are most frequently purchased, like hygiene products—they are generally placed in easily accessible locations like corner stores and supermarkets…but of course access to these convenience products depends on which communities a company prioritizes serving.
Convenience products are supposed to be widely distributed, conveniently located and affordably-priced—however, the reality of access to convenience products is much more complicated than that. The issue is that due to the reality of food deserts in low-income communities—many families have to choose between convenience or affordability when it comes down to purchasing convenience products and/or hygiene products.
Food deserts are defined as areas and communities where there are very limited options for the purchasing of fresh foods, groceries and basic household items. These food deserts are also referred to as food swamps due to the vast saturation of fast food restaurants that achieve high volumes of customers due to the lack of other affordable food options. People who live in food deserts may have to travel far outside of their neighborhood to purchase affordable healthy foods and products, which is not always possible due to long-working hours or lack of affordable transportation options. Often too, corporations and stores take advantage of the lack of options and purchasing power of people in low income communities and sell their products at a higher price point despite people having less money to spend in these areas.
What counts as convenient and what counts as affordable is highly relative to a person’s financial situation, and low income communities and people who do not have access to a car or an extra few bucks may not be able to purchase these so-called convenience products at all.
Examples of convenience products include hygiene products like laundry detergent and toothpaste. These typical convenience products can have large environmental costs while also being inaccessible to at-risk communities. Because the purchasing of a convenience product is supposed to be of minimal effort for the consumer, affordable hygiene products are often designed from a human-centric design perspective that has a linear model of production that creates non-regenerative waste. While some hygiene companies are successful at making affordable hygiene products, most do not design their products with the environment or vulnerable populations in mind.
Generation Conscious produces affordable hygiene products, like tooth tablets and detergent sheets that utilize 97% less carbon and 97% less water to make. Also by partnering with Universities to install refill stations on college campuses, Generation Conscious cuts out packaging for their products, creating convenient plastic-free hygiene products. While there are examples of organizations and missions that allow individuals to donate hygiene products to vulnerable populations, Generation Conscious’ method for systems change holds the institutions it partners with responsible for providing hygiene products to those students that can not afford it.
The act of installing infrastructure—onto a college campus or in any high-density, high-traffic environment—like water refill stations allows individuals to conveniently make eco-conscious choices that minimize plastic usage. The example of water refill stations incentivize students to carry around their own reusable water bottles because they know they can easily find somewhere to fill it up when they run out of water, plus they save money in the long-run by not buying single-use plastic bottles every time they need water.
Generation Conscious’ refill stations that dispense plastic and package-free hygiene products like laundry sheets and tooth tablets in high-traffic areas resolve cognitive dissonance a student may feel towards having to choose between affordability, convenience and eco-consciousness since Generation Conscious’ hygiene products and refill stations achieve all three factors.
Personal hygiene is essential for many who want to achieve and feel their best, and finances should not be a barrier to maintenance of basic hygiene!
Five Easy Ways You Can Revolutionize Your Personal Hygiene Routine
Let’s talk about a revolution! The world we want to see is plastic-free!
Start revolutionizing your personal hygiene routine by buying plastic-free products!
Practice real hygiene hacks, ones that hack the system of waste, like avoiding products with microplastics such as face washes with microbeads, for these plastics are quickly digested by marine life and ultimately end up back in your belly and body one way or another.
Revolution requires rebuilding faulty structures, and lifting up oppressed voices! Buy your personal care products from companies that are investing in low income and vulnerable communities whether that is through affordable pricing, providing access to non-toxic products and/or providing jobs and mentorship opportunities.
Buy from companies with an ecosystemic-design model. What this means is that you should buy from companies that are thinking on a systems level, companies that are committed to including ecosystems and the planet as stakeholders when designing products.
Purchase products that choose conscious non-toxic and biodegradable ingredients for their products! Whether this means organic, natural or just minimal simple ingredients—the less harmful chemicals and unknown substances a product has the better! It’s better for your skin and your health but also for the environment itself!
When you use toothpastes, soaps, laundry detergents and other hygiene products they are often having some kind of contact with your body whether through the mouth or skin-contact, and harmful chemicals can be absorbed or irritate your body’s natural rhythms that way. Even if you don’t mind chemicals affecting your body—the products you consume don’t stop there and can have large reaching impacts on wildlife and especially aquatic life.
Since most hygiene products are water soluble, any chemicals that your products include will end up in the waterways and could be absorbed or ingested by aquatic life, altering the chemistry of aquatic environments themselves. Our water now is hardly tested for all the chemicals that make its way from our waste and break down in the water, like pharmaceuticals, hard drugs and more. While the dosages are small and have little effect on us, cumulatively we do not know how it will affect us in the long run but also for smaller wildlife the effect can be much quicker and stronger. Read the label when you buy a consumer product and consider yourself and the environment you are a part of before you make your purchase!
When looking for items like the best affordable laundry detergent, consider all of these ways that you can revolutionize your personal hygiene routines and utilize your purchasing power in constructive ways for our shared society and environment!
The best self care products are those that have your best interest in mind! Self care products should represent caring for the whole self, and the self extends past our individual interest and encompasses the whole environment and earth itself. If we neglect the intricate systems that we are a part of we are not truly taking care of the self, because when these systems collapse we suffer as well.
Buying cheap self care products shouldn’t mean we have to compromise our health and the health of the systems that support our wellbeing. Having healthy ecosystems is essential to our mental, physical, emotional wellbeing, our hygiene as a society and our fundamental essence and inner-harmony—self-care requires us to think and make choices that really support our wellbeing, and support systems, initiatives and actions that will support the essentiality of life itself on this planet.
A Much Needed Systems Change for Climate Justice and Equality
While we can continue doing green solutions, and making small-impact through ethical and eco-friendly consumer choices—to combat the Climate issues our world currently faces, our society will be required to make large-scale systemic changes. That is why a company like Generation Conscious is setting the tone for a future that champions both systemic and individual changes as solutions. By changing the model of a consumer-product model to one that prioritizes eco-centric design and closed-loop systems versus waste, and by working with students and institutions to require and enable affordable access to hygiene products—Generation Conscious is tackling many birds with one stone.
How You Can Support Generation Conscious’ Health Systems Change
Combatting hygiene poverty, and providing students and employees of partner institutions with a reality and sense of hygiene security is a priority of Generation Conscious’ mission when distributing their eco-systematically designed, zero-waste, plastic-free, non-toxic hygiene products. In an effort to change health systems—by giving free hygiene products to low-income students, institutions can support their students’ performance, and overall mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
Public assistance programs like SNAP, a food assistance program, do not cover the costs for hygiene products putting vulnerable populations in a position of hygiene poverty where they are unable to purchase basic personal care products. Self care products are essential in our society for emotional wellbeing as well as financial success and without access to these essential hygiene products, making one’s way out of poverty becomes an even greater challenge. Hygiene poverty also perpetuates an increase in vulnerable populations in healthcare, especially during challenging times where access to hygiene products like soap for dis-infecting purposes becomes of even greater necessity.
The tools are all there for us to make systemic change, and with companies like Generation Conscious on the rise—our purchasing power can make even more of a difference and help shape the world we wish to live in. We can choose to live in now, and that choice will grow a society and a world for us all to share in the beauty and abundance of regenerative, conscious systems that exist in balance with environments we naturally are intrinsic within.