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Monday, January 09, 2006

conscientious consumption: sometimes it's the little things...

Like many of you, I’m a fan of toilet paper. In fact, having spent 10 weeks last summer in a region where TP is considered an unnecessary luxury, my appreciation for rolls of toilet tissue merrily spinning and unfurling at my touch has reached a level of fondness that six months ago would have seemed absurd. But two-and-a-half months in which a squatting-and-rinsing routine replaces the more familiar sitting-and-wiping shtick opens one’s eyes in new ways. No longer so dependent upon toilet paper, I can now delight in it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one at Harvard who cares about this kind of thing. In February 2004 the Crimson staff called in vain for a switch in toilet paper brand from Scott, a tissue the touch of which they complain “resembles that of a porcupine,” to Kleenex Cottonelle, a product they hail as “truly the Ivory Tower of TP.” Attempting to justify the increase in cost that such a switch would entail, the Crimson noted that “a University that purports to the best in the world should not skimp on such a basic and essential product.”

The Crimson makes a good point: Harvard has a big enough bankroll to allow it to sweat the small stuff that matters to students. But merely pestering the University to shell out for softer 2-ply ignores other important factors at hand. Perhaps rather than texture, a better criterion by which to judge the quality of our toilet paper would be its content. (more in expanded post)

This year the Harvard Environmental Action Committee (EAC), along with Greenpeace USA activists, protested the use of Kimberly-Clark paper products on campus. Kimberly-Clark, the world’s biggest tissue product manufacturer and parent corporation of brands including both Scott and Kleenex Cottonelle, has recently come under fire by environmental advocacy groups including the National Resources Defence Council for using relatively high percentages of old-growth virgin pulp in its paper products. According to a report issued by Greenpeace, “Between 15 and 30 percent of K-C tissue products fiber originates from the Canadian Boreal Forest…and only 19 percent of its fiber is recycled.” A Kimberly-Clark representative quoted in the Crimson article covering the protest gave a different figure, claiming that the figure is less than 15 percent.

Fear not, friends—no one’s calling for a campus-wide boycott of toilet paper just yet. Whatever happens with the Kimberly-Clark international ruckus, what’s interesting about Harvard’s toilet paper politics is the difference in focus of the two controversies here: The Crimson arguing for a brand with higher tactile appeal while the EAC presses for more environmentally conscientious consumption choices. Both groups are lobbying for a product they deem ‘better’ than the current choice. However, whereas The Crimson’s advocacy is based on our needs and wants as students and people, the EAC’s demands are founded in our needs and wants as students and people in an interconnected world.

Of course, as an organization with a much narrower focus than the school paper, the EAC has a different mindset and agenda in approaching issues of consumption. On the other hand, last year’s special wind energy referendum, which passed thanks to the support of 82 percent of undergrads who voted in the UC elections (according to Crimson reports), demonstrates that undergrads care about environmental issues and want University policies to reflect that concern. And The Crimson itself has consistently come out in favor of creating a ‘greener,’ more environmentally sustainable campus. So why has the Crimson remained mum on the recent TP controversy? Perhaps they no longer find the toilet tissue issue salient. Not everyone is as smitten with the stuff as I. But I suspect that the silence is also a result of the fact that, as an environmental topic, paper product consumption is less politically sexy than energy conservation. It’s more exciting to consider the possibilities for technological innovation that will reduce energy intake, to ponder the potential for futuristic alternative energy schemes when designing for future construction, than to worry about what we’re flushing away on a daily basis. But though mundane, everyday consumption is just as crucial as large-scale infrastructural innovations in creating a sustained awareness of sustainability. Ideally, socially responsible consumption and investing would become as second-nature to us as recycling. While relevant information is not always readily available and, once discovered, the findings can be disheartening, striving to know the production histories and human and environmental costs of our consumables and buying accordingly is an important duty—one with a long legacy in the U.S., and one that we students and the Harvard corporation ought to take seriously. Our criteria for determining ‘better’ products must take into account factors other than what’s most economical (since our wealth allows us to discriminate) and what feels nicer on our behinds.

P.S. Thanks to the folks in my Ec 72 Section who brought the Kimberly-Clark issue to my attention.

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