Lesser Evils: A Practical Outlook for Living Naturally

August 18, 2014
natural products aisle

Shopping for natural products is the ultimate feel-good experience, but it can also make you want to run and hide.

We’ve probably all experienced at one time or another the mania that ensues from scrutinizing nutrition facts or ingredients on food labels. This is why most short-term diets fail: the task of keeping track of every gram of fat or sugar, or the precise comparing of where “wheat bran” falls in the ingredients list of two loaves of otherwise-identical bread, is exhausting. It makes a person want to give up entirely, to find the nearest slab of chocolate cake and devour it mainly because there are no words or numbers stuck to it to make it anything other than delicious–and easy.

I recently had such an experience, though not in the aisle of a grocery store. I was at CVS, holding two large bottles of shower gel. The one in my left hand was bigger, 10 cents cheaper per ounce, and on a better sale than the one in my right; it also boasted on the front label “100% Natural Moisture, Paraben Free, Hypoallergenic.” The one in my right had slightly better scent options and a label that read “No Parabens, No Sulfates, No Gluten.” At my feet was a basket full of other odds and ends I’d recently run out of and needed to replenish, unfortunately all at once.

What’s a Peaceful Dumpling to do? Choose price or health? I ultimately returned the bottle in my right hand to the shelf, leaving the store with a few more dollars in my wallet than I would have had I chosen the other bottle. But for the rest of the day, I dwelled on this decision, imaging the fish somewhere far out in the ocean who would die because I would soon be depositing sulfates, via the Manhattan sewage system, into his little body with each shower I took.

Such dilemmas are common for environment- and health-conscious people, especially vegans. By making the conscious decision to avoid animal products, vegans can get into a practice of saying no to categories of ingredients and materials that are in any sense unnatural. In many ways, there’s nothing at all wrong with this mindset: it’s commendable and noble. But it’s also impractical for most people, both in terms of time and money, and the guilt that ensues can threaten to bring someone to a metaphorical table filled with slices of chocolate cake.

Rather than insisting upon an all-or-nothing natural lifestyle, being okay with doing one’s best can be the most sustainable and satisfying middle-ground option. To make the smartest purchases, think about the products you buy most and how many of the natural choices you can comfortably make within those categories. Focus on those good decisions, and don’t try to make up for it by introducing a new set choices for something you wouldn’t ordinarily buy even if it’s “more natural.”

For example, throughout the summer apples and blueberries are staples in my refrigerator. I could buy organic of both kinds of fruit, but that would leave little money left for the rest of my groceries. So, knowing that apples have one of the highest pesticide levels of any produce, I seek out the organic apples and opt for the less expensive, non-organic blueberries. I also don’t even need to worry about the cost difference between organic and non-organic peaches, because I’m not interested in buying them. Things can change, of course, if one week my organic farmer’s market stand has a good deal on blueberries, or apples and blueberries at a reasonable price, or if the organic peaches are less than the organic apples. And hey, I’m buying local, so no matter what I get I’m saving somewhere on greenhouse gas emissions and supporting small, local business. I haven’t done everything I could to help the planet, but I’ve done a lot, and I can feel good about that.

The same can apply to the shower gel situation: maybe I’m buying something with sulfates, but at least I’m not getting the brand with sulfates and parabens (and many other unnatural chemicals) that’s even cheaper. And, a larger container will last longer, thereby saving plastic, pollution, and production costs somewhere in the manufacturing world.

A natural lifestyle is supposed to elicit good feelings all around, not negative or guilty ones. While we should all work together toward an ideal of doing the least amount of harm to the planet and our bodies as possible, every degree of lessening the collective harm is worthwhile.

 Also by Jennifer: What You Should Know About Microbeads Ban

Related: Organic and Natural Beauty Labels Decoded

Organic or Local – Which is more important? 


Photo: lavender-skies/flickr commons

More Stories

Features Editor Jennifer Kurdyla is a New York City girl with Jersey roots and a propensity for getting lost in the urban jungle. An experienced publishing professional, yoga instructor, home chef, sometimes-runner, and writer, she adopted a vegetarian lifestyle in 2008 and became vegan in 2013. She has written for The Harvard Review Online, The Rumpus, and Music & Literature and maintains a wellness-based website, Be Nourished, which features original writing and recipes. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram @jenniferkurdyla, Twitter @jenniferkurdyla, and Pinterest.


always stay inspired!