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Friday, February 08, 2008

How Green the Ecopod?

A number of readers weighed in on my assessment back in January of the British-made Ecopod, the stylish but pricey coffin that's making its debut in this country. One of the most thoughtful, articulate, and passionate reactions came from Cynthia Beal, a green burial advocate who sells Ecopods and other funerary products in her Portland, Oregon, shop named the Natural Burial Company.

You can read Cynthia's full response to my blog post here. In brief, she defends the $3,000-plus sticker price of the Ecopod because, among other reasons, those dollars support every person involved in the production and delivery of a beautiful, handcrafted and earth-friendly piece of artwork, from artist to shopkeeper. "A low price in dollars is NEVER the best way to measure true cost," Cynthia writes. "[I]n fact, if you see something that's cheap, that's almost a sign that it has a whole host of externalized costs it's NOT accounting for," including environmental degradation, low wages for workers and the like. Those who can afford the Ecopod support good work with their purchase. Those with shallower pockets aren't out in the cold; they have their pick of other, more affordable and eco-friendly alternatives, from cardboard boxes to pine caskets.

Well, amen to that. Price may matter to the family pocketbook, but Cynthia is right: it shouldn't be the sole arbiter in gauging greenness. When it comes to the planet, sometimes more really can be better. Consider cemetery space. A plot at the local graveyard may go for half of the two thousand dollars that Ramsey Creek charges (mostly because regular cemeteries typically sell plots as loss leaders and make up the difference in vault sales and such). But the higher cost of eternal real estate at Ramsey Creek is simply worth it. Not only does the memorial preserve allow for the natural return of one's remains, but the actual cost of burial there also funds the preservation and restoration of ecologically significant land that's otherwise threatened by the bulldozer. The greater investment may exceed the reach of some families, but the investment is nonetheless one worth making. The same is true of the Ecopod, which, as I wrote in the January blog, is "certainly worth the greenbacks."

Cost isn't my beef with the Ecopod (and some of the other earth-friendly burial goods that are washing up on these shores from abroad, including British-made caskets of willow and bamboo coffins woven in China). It's provenance.

As far as I know, the Ecopod is manufactured solely in Great Britain. The short distance between the Ecopod's ARKA production plant in Brighton and the 200-plus natural cemeteries scattered throughout in the U.K. makes the Ecopod a high green vehicle to the afterlife for eco-conscious Brits. Not so for their American counterparts.

To reach them, ARKA must transport Ecopods thousands of carbon-spewing miles across the great pond of the Atlantic and, from there, possibly across the entire North American continent to its various points of sale. That trans-oceanic and -continental journey freights the otherwise eco-friendly Ecopod with a significant environmental drag that can't be dismissed in the name of aesthetics, particularly when the artwork itself is billed as earth-friendly. A family that spends its greenbacks for the lovely Ecopod certainly supports the manufacture of a good product and of good community. But until the Ecopod is produced closer to its final destination in this country, the plain Jane cardboard box, cloth shroud or simple pine casket would, in most cases, trump it in overall greenness.

That said, it's important to put reservations about the Ecopod into perspective. First, the British coffin's a better deal for the planet, its carbon footprint notwithstanding, than the U.S.- (and increasingly Mexican-) made metal casket that's standard issue in this country. Plus, the Ecopod's carbon footprint may be a temporary phenomenon. I understand that ARKA is considering setting up a manufacturing plant in North American, to service U.S and Canadian customers closer to where they live.

Cynthia Beal, a smart and dedicated environmentalist with a long history in the natural products industry, understands these arguments as well as anyone and is working to address them. One of the many compelling projects she's looking forward to launching involves planting willow trees in this country and then training artisans in local communities to weave the willow into fetching and readily biodegradable coffins. When that happens, Cynthia won't just be producing true green coffins; she'll have established the basis of the kind of truly sustainable economy that, I believe, is the only way we'll thrive in a warming age.

One note about cost and aesthetics. They don't always correlate. The $800 cherry coffin that heads this post is every bit as handsome as an Ecopod or willow or bamboo casket. Same for the cardboard coffin above -- grand total: $35 -- that two Texan women decorated for the grandmother whom they'd helped wake in her own home. Or, frankly, any of the cardboard coffins that children slop over with fat paint brushes. A frugal family that wants to send its loved one off in high, green style can do so on a penny pincher's budget.

So, when my time comes go ahead and "bury me beneath the willow," as the old bluegrass standard puts it and as Alison Krauss, below, sings it. But, please, lay me down in a simple cardboard coffin -- or pine box or cloth shroud. Save your money.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for addressing this bit. And, true to form (and thanks to the timely gift of Google Alerts for your posts in my inbox) I've got a reply for you.

As you know, I am closely aligned with ARKA Ecopod and have been a great fan of theirs since 2005, when I determined to bring them to the States BECAUSE they were such a great company, making a beautiful useful thing out of recyled newspaper. We are doing everything we can to get production over here in the States as fast as we can. And guess what funds that future US production???

Answer: the purchase of a UK-made Ecopod. Used here in the US. From my company. :-)

It's true. The Brighton ARKA workshop has very limited capacity for production (they are a modest outfit, just like us) and time and again the ARKA folks have said to me if I prove there's a demand for it, then someday I'll be able to make them here.

But it doesn't help much to spurn or boycott it until it gets here, especially if spending $3,500.00 on a coffin won't break your bank, (though I don't mean "you" per se, as much as the folks your opinion influences) and if you need one now, and also want others to have a US-made one in the future (and the rest of your daily life is spent consuming things that traveled before they got to you) I think it's still a sensible industry-changing purchase - and don't think we don't have visions of multiple regional workshops someday!

Just like Toyota had to send its low-mpg-cars over here for awhile before local factories made sense to build - and just as East Coasters still get bananas and oranges and grapefuits from thousands of miles across the way, consistently out of season but still eaten from October to June in the interest of health... (nope, wait, you folks don't grow grapefruit there yet, do you??? make that "year-round")... the Ecopod has to travel a bit to get from there to here until we Americans prove we want it -- by buying it, just like we did with fuel-efficient cars.

Telling Ecopod we won't buy it until it's made in the US won't help "them" do it any faster, since it's MY company that has to set up the workshop here, and my company that has to fund that from the profits of selling UK-made Ecopods (unless we get a philanthropist who wants to help us set up a US shop and then the story changes).

While I know it's probably not intended as such - you're simply stating your opinion and have a right to it - it doesn't feel that great to have our items dissed right out the gate for a transportation footprint that's a fraction of what the average person consumes every year (starting with gas).

On top of that, these are little family-companies we're talking about here - 1, 3, 8+ person micro-operations; little weaving co-ops and family workshops - with NO non-profit agencies funding their PR or business planning, and no angel investors helping them produce or grow. Everyone's doing it by the sweat of their brow and the risk of their family's business.

It's a simple fact that the best products for natural burial in CURRENT production and ALSO suitable for a funeral director to offer his or her clients in any meaningful number ARE currently produced in or coordinated from the UK. That's where the experience is. And while it's not rocket science, a new production line just doesn't swing into being overnight. US makers AND consumers have abandoned handmade production for the funeral market, and there's just no way around that right now. The UK does it better than we do. They're number 1.

FYI - there are 9 million containers every year (2006 data) that come through US ports. The annual production of Ecopods would fit into two of them. The rest of America's conventional caskets occupy a relatively small, but still MUCH greater, number -- and we still haven't said anything about the fact that the Ecopod - or a willow casket, or a cardboard box - could even have a tree planted over it, offsetting the carbon it used in its production and transport for years and years to come.

In fact, here are some ROUGH numbers you might appreciate:

A ship uses about 8800 gals of diesel fuel a day. Approx. 8100 20' containers fit on the sort of ship we're on. That works out to a little over 1 gal of diesel per container per day. 1 of our containers holds about 50 coffins, and it takes about 14 days to cross the water. That's just under 1/50 of a gal per coffin per day, or a hair more than a 1/3 of a gallon total (1/50th x 14 days). So, technically, it takes less fuel to get an Ecopod from the UK to the US than to mow your lawn. Granted, there are more carbon costs than this, but the perspective is helpful, don't you think?

Inch for inch, container shipping is just about the most efficient moment of long-distance transport there is, depending on the product and the gains that circulating that item make for the community it eventually arrives in.

That 5 boxes of melons driven in from the local farm, 2 hours away, to sell at the farmer's market, bought by 50+ people who each drove a car to get there has a carbon footprint, too, and the melon-to-mile ratio can get pretty high. But its redeemable social footprint is arguably much, much higher - and not all footprints are bad. Some of them eventually become trails that lead to places more of us might like to go.

Just as the green burial cemeteries' land-purchases are at least partially funded by "non-green" dollars earned doing jobs that had nothing to do with natural burial (lucrative professions in the mainstream; philanthropic gifts from cash-earning maestros and successful speculators' largesse; etc), the natural burial movement - and almost any movement towards positive industrial change in today's world - will be "tainted" by the imperfect transaction conducted in funds with "blood" (or carbon) on its hands.

There is no straight-ahead math in the carbon-footprint equation. If we get too carried away with linearity in the carbon formula, we also risk measuring everything in bad units once again - replacing dollars solely with "trip miles" won't help us get to a better answer as we try to put our consumption into a more accurate balance sheet. Over simplification is just as risky as needless complexity. Using carbon is not inherently bad. Using it at the right time, for the right purposes, is the trick.

The best piece about the environmental movement is that it's already shown itself to be filled with people who actually DO think about these things, so in the longest run I'm sure we'll find that handful of people it takes to buy the Ecopods and jumpstart our own production over here soon enough.

But if the goal of the product-piece of the natural burial movement is to identify the absolutely perfect carbon-neutral product and forgo anything but perfection (which I don't think it is), one may need to look further than thecardboard or cherry wood box. $35.00 doesn't begin to cover the costs of that mill that made the cardboard, or the land devastated to harvest the fiber, or the waters polluted in its pulping (and the jobs lost when it finally closes and moves), and the perfectly "clean" cardboard cremation container isn't here yet. $800.00 doesn't begin to cover the costs of the growing of that hardwood cherry tree, the milling and the drying and curing and planing of it, the cutting and nailing and gluing of it, the finishing of it, (and the environmental costs of the company that made the finishes) to say nothing of the other folks that it took to get that box into the end-user's awareness and hands...

But thankfully, it's not only about the 'counting of costs', is it? Even if we want it to be - and we DO need to get closer to full-cost accountings, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that we ignore them, but only that we understand them - in the end, it's not just about the quantifiable "cost", and it never will be. It can't be.

However, in something as practical as making Ecopods over here, it DOES come down to some simple numbers that are extrapolated from pure dollar costs: if 1/2 of 1/10th of 1 percent of the caskets sold in the US in a single year were Ecopods, I'd have a workshop going over here in no time flat. The bank doesn't care a whit about my philosophising....

I like your personal statement about how you want to be buried. Simple. Simplicity matters. So does art. And elegance. And dignity. Relationships matter. Awareness matters. Every single piece of consiousness you've brought to framing your vision of your particular life's end - and the road leading up to that end - matters (and thank you for working so hard to communicate and share what you're doing - your social footprint is tremendous!! - these are, indeed, "grave matters...") You're fortunate to have the contacts and insight you do.

I think of the 2 million people that die in the US every year however, and I know that they don't have those resources. I think of Lou Jane who just called me from Texas asking how she could get a natural burial - no embalming - for her husband. I think of the guy who wrote me from the prison, wanting one, and folks from cities all over the country who are passing on now. I think of the funeral directors who want to help them, but who need the coffins and can't get $800.00 cherry boxes. I think of the inner-city folks who want something green - what do they do? I only have a relative handful of Ecopods available - they'll go to the folks who can afford them; but what about the thousands and thousands of people who don't want the chemicals, and who want to return simply to the earth, and are passing this year? What about them?
But that's another question, one that I'm addressing with the resources I have at hand, enjoying natural burial's "few minutes of fame" to get the word out and raise every issue that I possibly can.

I don't know how to get around the challenge of importing what we do not have, and cannot yet make for ourselves, other than to import it, stimulate the desire for it, and rally the work it takes to bring it into being in the way we want to see it done.

From my POV it would be wonderful if clever folks could stop trying to out-do each other in the "green meme" and simply settle for "much better" or even just "better", incrementally, across the board. I've watched too many small struggling young businesses weigh the green minutiae and miss the profit-boat completely, trapped by their own idealism as they learn the tragedies of being unable to compete, held to obscenely high standards by themselves and their peers, while their competition walks away with the marketshare they built.

I watch their businesses close after awhile because they never could afford to do it perfectly, even though they were "tops in their field." They sell their equipment and go on to take jobs with more "realistic" companies, becoming employees instead of entrepreneurs, and watch their bosses make the compromises that they couldn't bring themselves to make - or that their customers wouldn't let them. And thus we watch the natural foods arena (for example) bought up by the big guys, willing to make those compromises in order to offer the prices that the general public decides it wants to afford. We whine as we kill off the small guys. We sell our jobs to China. And we did it because we just can't afford to pay our friends and peers to make and grow all our stuff...

If a product is an improvement over 99% - or 90% - of what's out there, can we just give it a break? Do we always have to require it to "dance backwards and in high heels" as Ginger Rogers so famously pointed out to Fred Astaire, before we even let it onto the dance floor?

At the end of the day, perhaps the best we can ever do is simply have an intelligent and ongoing conversation about it, just like this, and - in the end - perhaps we DO get back to buying the Cherry box from the local box maker, or the cardboard from the box factory, or even the UK-made Ecopod from Cynthia -- because the cherry box gave the boxmaker some income, the cardboard gave the ladies great pleasure, and the Ecopod from the UK funded the future Ecopod from the USA...

And, if the logic above still doesn't work - if there's absolutely no rational way that it makes sense to sell 50 Ecopods from the UK in order to fund the building of my first US workshop - what do you think I should do to spur things on - take advance orders and deposits for USA-produced Ecopods and demand the money gods give me some money? (hey, that doesn't sound so bad...where ARE those money-gods anyway???)

Again - thanks so much for indulging me in my wordy defense of spending a little carbon to save a lot more! This forum is much appreciated.



Mark Harris said...

Hi, Cynthia,
Great points and, as usual, well articulated and argued. I'll return with some responses in an upcoming blog. Thanks for checking in and for your work. All best, Mark

Anonymous said...

You write very well.

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