Smart Shopping Doesn't Guarantee Consumer Safety

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I admit, I'm not sure I care all that much about cows.

I look for hormone- and antibiotic-free milk because I don't want those chemicals entering my body or the body of my small daughter. I'm somewhat aware that those chemicals are not good for the earth or the dairy cows either, but mostly it's about me.

Author and sociology professor Andrew Szasz says this makes me a fairly typical consumer -- and that worries him.

Szasz recently wrote the book Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed From Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves. (If you're interested, there's a good synopsis on the blog NatureMoms.)

I had a somewhat guilt-inducing conversation with him recently about the pros and cons of this societal evolution.

According to Szasz, Americans are concerned, quite reasonably, about environmental hazards that affect us by way of the food we eat, the water we drink, the products we put on our skin and the air we breathe.

But 30 or 40 years ago, these concerns would spur people to knock on their neighbors' doors, petition the government and rally against corporate miscreants in an attempt to fix problems. These days, people instead shop for things that they hope will insulate them from problems.

If we're scared about pesticides in produce, we buy organic; if we're concerned about the quality of our tap water; we buy filters or bottled water. If we're worried about chemicals in toys or beauty products, we seek out products that don't have them. He calls this trend an inverted quarantine, where people try to create a bubble between themselves and the dangers in their vicinity.

"This is an entirely rational response," Szasz says, but over the long term it isn't a good one.

Rather than rooting out dangers and forcing governments and businesses to be more responsible, we're creating "a stable dual market where a small portion of food is organic and safe and pricey, and the rest is toxic.

Szasz notes that sometimes a loud consumer outcry -- such as the one we saw over unsafe toys during the last holiday season -- will force government to act and companies to act even faster. Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT) and Toys "R" Us won't stock toys that contain phthalates anymore while Target (Stock Quote: TGT), Sears, Kmart and Wal-Mart avoid products and packaging with PVC.

 

And sometimes the aggregated behavior of individual shoppers creates a shift that's sizable enough for packaged good companies to sit up and take notice. This is more or less what's happened with dairy.

While there hasn't been any acute public outcry against artificial hormones, growing consumer discomfort has pressured dairy distributors to source their milk more carefully and has reportedly led hormone manufacturer Monsanto to try to get labels identifying milk as hormone-free removed from containers.

Similarly, enough parents have become wary of bottles and sippy cups made from BPA-tainted plastic that makers are gradually coming out with alternatives.

But this passive protestation of environmental ills isn't the best approach.

For one thing, it isn't consistent. Despite growing concerns about parabens in beauty products, there's been no mass move away from them, and so thousands of products like sunscreens, moisturizers, make-up and cleansers, including those made for babies, still have them.

Moreover, this me-first strategy is completely ineffective at protecting things like tap water, which isn't a consumer product.

Consider, the Environmental Protection Agency decided a few weeks ago that it doesn't need to regulate perchlorate, a toxic chemical used in rocket fuel and fertilizer that's been found in drinking water in 35 states and in the food supply. This is a bad decision, but there has been nary a public peep about it.

Why would the EPA not face a public outcry for such a decision? It has to be in large part because those of us drinking some portion of the more than 9 billion gallons of bottled water consumed in the U.S. don't think we need to worry. It can also be because we've lost confidence in the government to really care.

Szasz observes that this individualistic, defensive behavior has increased as faith in entities like the EPA, FDA and OSHA has steadily eroded. "These organizations have been very systematically whacked away at over the past eight years," he says. "If we feel threatened we can't trust the EPA to protect us," so we do the best we can to protect our individual selves.

But Szasz warns there are problems out there that we can't shop our way through. "We can't put sunscreen on all the plankton in the ocean that are getting fried by ozone depletion."

And we can't completely avoid drinking tap water. As it turns out, bottled water, even that from the likes of Coca-Cola (Stock Quote: KO) and Nestlé, often comes from public supplies anyway.

So the next time you head to the grocery store for organic apples and a six-pack of Dasani, pick up a newspaper while you're there. Read up on what business and Uncle Sam are up to lately and let them know what you think about it.

It's for your own good.

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