Saturday, January 10, 2009

Use your own bag but don’t shove it down my throat

I spent close to an hour arguing this point on Facebook last night (aaah, social networking, you have me discovering new ways to waste time), so I decided to bring it up here since many of this blog’s readers and writers are environmentalists.

Last evening on my way back from work, I walked into Whole Foods in pursuit of some much-needed food. At the checkout counter, this cocky saleswoman asks me if I’d brought my own bag. This is one of the few times I’ve shown up at the store without a bag. I specifically tell her I don’t because I’d forgotten to bring one with me. Instead of going ahead and bagging my stuff in a paper bag, she proceeds to ask me if I would like to purchase one of the store’s reusable bags that are available for sale. I decline with contrived politeness. She finally bags my stuff in a paper bag, and wishes me a good night.

I’m glad she thinks I can sleep after having committed the atrocity of using a paper bag instead of sparing a couple dollars for a green bag - in addition to the overpriced charges I already pay for my food.

My problem is this: if I want lessons on the environment, I will tune into the Discovery channel, purchase a copy of Thin Ice, or watch An Inconvenient Truth. I don’t have to get them from the salesperson at my grocery store. I don’t want to get them from the salesperson at my grocery store. Or the government for that matter.

Now, I care about the environment as much as the next person, but I am also a staunch libertarian, and I don’t think anyone should be imposing his or her environmental practices on me. If I want to run into a store to buy a few things, pay for them, and choose to use store-provided bags to carry them in – it’s really my choice.

This is complicated by the fact that I am aware that lifestyle changes can actually prove to be very good for the environment in the long run. When I was growing up in India, grocery items never came in plastic bags for financial reasons, so people always carried their own bags. Takeout food and coffee were too expensive for the average person so lunch was carried in reusable containers, and beverages in thermoses (now, of course, India luxuriates in its westernization and flaunts its paper bags and takeout Styrofoam with aplomb).

But a choice that is made out of a necessity due to personal economics or lifestyle is very different from a mandate that is imposed on people on account of someone’s philosophy. Moreover, there is a time and a place for such education. I go to a grocery store to buy their goods, not to be preached about the environment. Imposition and self-binding often work, but they cannot be mandated. How many people stopped driving when gas prices shot up last year or vowed to shop less this past holiday season on account of the economy? It works, but only when people have a reason to make those choices themselves.

Moreover, when Whole Foods spends all that fuel importing out-of-season produce from Mexico, and organic tomatoes from Chile when you could get them from New Jersey, I don’t think they should be worrying about my carbon footprint.

The store gives a 5 cent credit for the use of a reusable bag, and there is a sign on the checkout counter that says as much. So, I already have all the information I need without the salesperson having to give me a holier-than-thou sermon on global warming. If I want to get those 5c, I will bring a bag the next time, and therein ends the store’s stake – and say - in this matter. If you want to give me an incentive for bringing my own bag (though a measly 5c is hardly that) that’s just fine. But don’t roll your eyes and don’t tell me how to live my life.

Trader Joe’s - Whole Foods’ far-less intrusive colleague in the green revolution - has a cheerful sign over the counter that announces raffles for people that bring their own bags. They also have reusable bags for sale at the counter.

But a salesperson hasn’t once told me to buy one, because frankly, it’s none of his business. Now they don't tell me to buy vitamins because they are good for me, do they?