Ask the Soapman

by Larry Plesent, a.k.a. The Soapman


Everybody wants to be “green.” But what does it mean? For some, natural is about atoms and molecules. Where did those atoms come from? What was their last incarnation? Carbon, for example, is an element and lasts forever, endlessly changing form. Do you support plant based carbon (“new” carbon) or petrochemical (“old” carbon). Either way those carbon molecules have existed since the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago. I am a plant-based carbon man myself but everyone is entitled to an opinion as to where they get their atoms come from.

For others “green” is about exploitation. Is there blood on my soap? No thank you. In this context green is about being compassionate consumers. Unfortunately, nothing is simple and definitions blur according to one’s perspective. So-called green screens can be tough to quantify and define as we lay our societal expectations and conditioning onto other cultures with very different ecosystems, cultural structures, and expectations. For example, nobody likes the idea of child labor unless it’s getting our teenage kids to do their chores. But what about a country with a 45 year life expectancy where at 9, a child is compelled to help the parents and family every day. The 10-year-old boy working in an incense factory might seem a victim of unfair, exploitive business practices to Westerners, but the child’s financial contribution may be preventing something much worse, such as malnutrition, unwanted pregnancy, or forced matrimony.

Fairtrade America: What The Food Label Means | GreenChoice

And what about Fair Trade? Surely Fair Trade is a terrific idea! Well, yes and no. In most West African villages local shea butter sells for about $1/kilo. If I pay the woman’s co-op $4/kilo (fair trade) what does that do to the local markets? Quadrupling the cost of shea butter only destroys the local market that cannot afford to pay that much. And if one American buyer pays 4x more than the others do, why bother to make and sell it at the lower local price at all? Better to wait around and see if there is another cushy foreign order to fill coming in. And there goes the neighborhood.

For others “green” is about minimizing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals in industrial agriculture. Over time, organic agriculture techniques produce higher yields and better nutrition and build better soil that sequesters carbon, helping combat the unintended side effects of so-called civilized living. Shockingly, big businesses continue to employ industrial farming techniques that poison the fields, farm workers, and even the end-users of their products. This is exactly the opposite of a sustainable (viable into the future) economy. And yet, here we are.

It is important to understand that Green is a process, not a result. The best we can do is to be mindful to minimize the impact on our bodies and the body Earth, mindful to minimize destructive business practices and mindful of the interconnected web of life that links that small child on the other side of the world to our beauty care products. Adios, this is the Soapman reminding everyone to live well and to leave the planet better than you found it.

history of fair trade | Coop coffees

Silverback Larry is the founder of the Vermont Soap Company. Learn more at: .

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