Lesson 4
Products, the Environment and Consumer Choices

"Students should learn the difference between the final goods and services that any economy produces and the productive resources, including human resources, capital goods and natural resources that are used to produce these final goods and services."

California State History/Social Science Framework


When something is bought in a store (as most everything is), the purchaser rarely thinks about the chain of events that made the item what it is. Yet a given product is essentially linked to LIMITED NATURAL RESOURCES and has undergone a number of complex processes before it reaches the consumer. To better understand the connection between economics and the environment, it is imperative to become aware of the life cycle of the products we buy. This cycle includes the materials and processes involved in making a product and its delivery to the marketplace, as well as the disposal of the product after its use. Students should be aware of the life cycle of the products they buy and any natural resource depletion and pollution caused by the production and disposal of that product.

Secondly, consumer choices drive the market. In a market economy, consumer decisions about which goods and services to purchase determine resource allocation. The role of the consumer in our economy however is often under appreciated. To put it simply, if a business has no or few consumers, it will not survive. Therefore, businesses must respond to the demands of the consumer. This is known as consumer sovereignty. Students can use knowledge of product life cycles to determine what they buy and consequently influence what businesses produce and how they are made. Intelligent consumers can positively influence the quality of life and our environment. This awareness can lead to

changed consumer habits and products that will better allow for a sustainable economy.


This lesson helps students better understand how and what land, labor and capital is used to make the products they buy. With this knowledge, they will better appreciate the concept of consumer sovereignty, or the power they have as consumers to effect change.


Students will brainstorm the product life cycle of newsprint. After this discussion, they will be presented with a detailed model of how newsprint is actually made, compare it to the class ideas and assess the impact on the environment of the life cycle of newsprint.


Students will first learn the status of our forests and the connection to the consumption of wood products. Then, there will four different readings addressing consumption habits to promote forest conservation and alternatives to wood. Students will read and become an expert on one of the four readings. Each student will then share their expertise with students who did different readings (groups of four). In the end, students will assess all these choices and how they may impact the product life cycles. To follow up, students will track their own use of wood products for a week and how they did or could reduce that consumption.


In the final activity, students will research the life cycles of products they have selected and the companies that produce them. They will give a presentation based on this research, arguing for or against buying their selected product. Research can be done on

the Internet, and presentations can done with multimedia software such as Power Point.


The focus in activities one and two will be on wood products. Wood products clearly bring to light how consumer choices can and have led to depletion and the pollution of natural resources. Consumer choices aimed at reversing this trend also demonstrate how consumers can use their power to preserve and protect valuable natural resources. This is largely true since wood is a RENEWABLE RESOURCE (one that is replenished through natural processes). Thus when grown and harvested properly, forests have a tremendous potential to regenerate. It is important to make the point that products from other natural resources such as minerals and agriculture also have complex life cycles and their over or misuse can be detrimental to ecological health. Changes in consumer habits can bring about needed changes that will better protect our natural resources.

The current level of demand for wood products, roughly 3 times greater than it was in 1950 worldwide, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid "irreparable damage." (Rainforest Action Network, "The 8th Annual World Rainforest Week Organizer's Manual.") Most approaches to forest conservation have been aimed at setting aside forests into reserves and trying to regulate logging companies. Any realistic solution cannot simply deal with the supply side but must address our own consumption of wood.

By changing habits to conserve wood and using alternative and recycled fibers to substitute for wood in various products, wood consumption could be reduced dramatically. Rainforest Action Network estimates 75% reduction in wood consumption could be achieved by these measures. Looking at just one alternative, Rethink Paper estimates that converting 1% of our nation's farmland to industrial hemp (NOT marijuana) would be enough to meet paper demand in the United States. In terms of consumer behavior, habits that would help to conserve wood include: reusing scratch paper, using e-mail rather than paper to communicate more, printing and copying double sided, fitting more on to one piece of paper, using less wood in construction, recycling all wood products, etc.

Most every wood product can be recycled or reused, especially paper products. Newsprint, office paper, junk mail, magazines, wrapping paper, cereal boxes and so on can all be recycled. One ton of recycled paper can save 50 cubic feet of landfill and 17 pulpwood trees. (Microsoft Encarta, "Recycling") Your local recycling organization should have information on the what, how and where of recycling wood/paper products.

Today in the United States, more than 95% of paper is made from wood cellulose. (Microsoft Encarta, "Machine Papermaking") Until the late 1800's, agricultural fibers, rags and hemp were commonly made into paper. This changed with the integration of the timber, pulp and paper industries. (Rosemarin, Heather; "The Paper Challenge", Positive Alternatives, Summer 1997) Changing once again, today's consumers can buy paper products that have been recycled (ideally 100% post-consumer waste) to create the market for recycled goods and close the recycling loop. Or they can buy paper made from non-wood alternatives such as agricultural waste (wheat straw, etc.), banana stalk, kenaf, flax, organic cotton, hemp, etc. Consumers can also build houses and other structures with non-wood alternatives such as straw bale/ agricultural waste, adobe, rammed earth, etc. (Agricultural waste should be seen as distinct from other materials like kenaf and hemp that are grown "on purpose" that is with the intention of using it as a raw material for products. Because Ag waste is a by-product of other production that is typically burned or sent to landfill it should be seen as environmentally superior.)

There are also papers that are available chlorine free and/or free of other chemicals typically produced in the production of paper. Chemicals are used to remove impurities (especially lignin: a glue-like substance) from wood to make it easier to process into lumber, paper and other products. Chlorine is used to bleach paper. These chemicals can pollute water near these paper and wood processing mills and the air (especially the by-product of paper mills, dioxin). Soy ink is also available to use for printing on paper as a more environmentally safe ink.

Finally consumers can promote forest protection by buying wood products, if they are made from "certified sustainable wood." Sustainable wood comes from the practice of "sustainable forestry" which ensures that the rate of timber harvest does not exceed the rate of timber growth. Moreover, "sustainable wood" companies promote the long term health and productivity of their forests, wildlife and water quality protection, and lasting community employment.

Practices by these companies generally include selective logging (removing only certain trees in a forest to preserve habitat for species, protect forests from disease and insects, and reap a sustainable harvest), avoiding clear cutting, where all timber is removed and remaining vegetation burned, having a buffer zone between logging and waterways and designing roads to minimize erosion among other procedures. There are organizations that certify these companies so consumers can identify their products. (See Activity 2.) Of special note, major corporations involved in logging often claim they are doing their part by replanting. While it is better to replant than not, trees that are replanted are generally one species and are cut as quickly as possible. Essentially, this creates a tree farm rather than regenerating a forest ecosystem.

Despite all these potential alternatives to wood products made from unsustainable logging practices, it is difficult to compete against wood. This is because wood is relatively CHEAP. Several reasons explain why the cost of wood remains low. First, despite the substantial reduction of forestland, wood is still treated as a relatively abundant resource. Secondly, the timber industry is subsidized on public lands. Not only are timber companies sold trees off public land at below market value, the government helps finance logging roads. The Wilderness Society estimates that in 1996 alone, US taxpayers subsidized the timber industry with $242 million in below-cost timber sales. This figure seemed to include $100 million for road building. (There are close to 400,000 miles of logging roads in national forests. That is eight times more miles than in the entire Interstate highway system.) Critics suggest that the USFS has become a middleman dedicated to working with the logging industry rather than serving as a steward of our forests.

Third, costs such as reduced water quality and lost fisheries revenue (caused by erosion from irresponsible logging) are not factored into the prices. Other costs such as lost wildlife are hard to quantify but important to note. Fourth, alternatives to wood generally do not have the infrastructure to produce at a level to bring down costs. Greater demand, along with changes in government policy, is necessary to increase the infrastructure of these alternatives to bring cost down, which will bring prices down and stimulate further demand.

In considering the impact of mainstream products or alternatives, it is important to consider the sustainability of product life cycles. A product life cycle may not be sustainable for several reasons. It may not be sustainable for its own future production. For example, a forest of redwood trees harvested rapidly to make lumber may be depleted if the rate of harvesting does not decrease. Secondly, the rate of harvesting may be slower and sustainable, but the logging methods may be damaging critical habitat for forest wildlife and causing erosion that runs into streams ruining fisheries. In this case, the forestry is sustainable for timber but not for wildlife and the fisheries. When students assess a product life cycle as sustainable or not, it is important to view sustainability from many economic and ecological perspectives.

As citizens and consumers, students can learn to press for change, especially where consumption is leading to natural resource depletion and pollution. If students are taught where material goods truly begin (not the store), they can form a knowledge base that leads to an awareness of the interconnectedness between what we buy and the natural world. This sense can lead to a belief that their actions can make a difference and serve to empower students.

Questions to Explore:

What can we learn from studying a product's life cycle?

How can a product life cycle become more sustainable?

What are the best ways to protect forest ecosystems?

What products have a life cycle with a substantial negative or positive impact on people and/or the environment?



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