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How to Use Your Wallet to Create Social Change, with Tanja Hester

Presented by Wealthsimple

Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.

For most of us, price is the driving factor behind our spending decisions. But should we be looking deeper into the things we buy? My guest this week joins the show to explain how we can use our wallets to affect change in the world around us.

Tanja Hester retired early from a career in political and social change communications to devote all her time to purpose-driven projects. Tanja is the author of the award-winning book, “Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way”, called “the best step-by-step guide to retiring early” by MarketWatch.

She’s used her leadership position within the personal finance media community to push for more social and environmental awareness. Her upcoming book is called Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save as a Force for Change. Tanja sat down with me this week to discuss some concepts from the new book.

From the outset, it’s pretty clear that Tanja views personal finance with a different lens than your average money expert. We spend much of our conversation discussing the impact that our spending decisions have on things like the climate, and the developing world

Tanja dishes on why buying the cheapest item isn’t always the most frugal choice, the problem with “conscious consumerism”, and why placing solar panels on your roof may be bad for the environment. We talk about Starbucks and Amazon, and why the current trend away from plastic straws is problematic. But there’s good news too. We can make positive changes to our finances and the world around us by reducing our consumption and being careful about our spending choices.

Do you prefer to invest in socially responsible companies? If so, our sponsor Wealthsimple will help you build a portfolio that focuses on low carbon, cleantech, human rights, and the environment. To get started with Socially Responsible Investing, head over to Wealthsimple today!

Episode Summary

  • Why Tanja wrote the book, Wallet Activism
  • How individuals can impact the world around them
  • The problem with the Zero Waste movement
  • When something is cheap, chances are we won’t treat it as well
  • Did you know? Gas appliances reduce indoor air quality
  • There are limits to the changes you can make, don’t stress about it
  • Why solar panels on your roof aren’t great for the climate
  • What’s wrong with Amazon

Read transcript

For most of us, price is the driving factor behind our spending decisions. Should we be looking deeper into the things we buy? My guest this week joins the show to explain how we can use our wallets to effect change in the world around us. Tanja Hester retired early from a career in political and social change communications to devote her time to purpose-driven projects. Tanja is the author of the award-winning book, Work Optional, which was called the best step-by-step guide to retire early by MarketWatch. She’s used to a leadership position within the personal finance media community to push for more social and environmental awareness. Her upcoming book is called, WALLET ACTIVISM – HOW TO USE EVERY DOLLAR YOU SPEND, EARN, AND SAVE, AS A FORCE FOR CHANGE. Tanja sat down with me this week to discuss some of the concepts from the book.

Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Do you prefer to invest in socially responsible companies? If so, our sponsor, Wealthsimple, will help you build a portfolio that focuses on low carbon, clean tech, human rights and the environment. To get started with socially responsible investing, head over to today. Now, let’s chat with Tanja…

Tom: Hi, Tanja. Welcome back to the Maple Money Show.

Tanja: Thanks so much for having me back. I’m thrilled to be here.

Tom: Well, thanks for being on. You have a new book that just released I found very interesting. I went through it and had not considered a lot of what was in it. I want to go through a whole list of things I got from the book so, hopefully, I can make better decisions. Your new book is called, Wallet Activism. And honestly, I didn’t consider a lot of these things when it comes to how I spend money and being a little bit more conscious about that. Just to start us off, why did you write this book?

Tanja: I truly wrote this book because I wanted to read this book. Like a lot of folks, I didn’t like knowing that the money I was spending, potentially earning, giving away, or investing was going to fund bad causes. But I knew, given the way our economy works, that it was. It wasn’t really clear to me how to solve that problem and try to create some change through my decisions so I looked around and couldn’t find any book that was like this. There are a lot of books out there telling you how to save the world or create more social justice, but they are mostly looking at things through a broader lens. Things like the policy action we need or things you need to push your town council to do that kind of thing. There was nothing that actually showed how our money impacts things in the world, in a broader sense. That was really why I wanted to write it. I think the other thing is, we so often do audiences a disservice by talking about money like something that’s value neutral or apolitical—that it exists separately from the rest of our lives. And it exists separately from the world. Of course, that’s not true. You can bring your own view to it in what you think your money should be doing but I just felt we needed to shift the conversation to acknowledge that money is political. When I say value neutral, I actually mean, money has “values” neutral where, how you use your money (or financial power) in the world is an extension of your values. I wanted people to feel empowered to do that and not feel like that’s only a conversation you can have in whispers. 

Tom: A lot of times when we talk about activism, is usually about getting government to act. I don’t always have the most faith in government to actually do anything. And I get it, too. They’re always trying to serve everyone and not everyone is going to want the same thing all the time. This seems like the kind of thing you can do on your own. I’ve always thought of finance as “not” political. And the reason for that was, I thought it was rather personal. But, I will say, personally, I don’t want to be a bad person. A lot of things in the book say you can make this little change or that little change. To me, it’s not about true activism—trying to get government change. It’s just little things you can do on your own to make things better for you, your family, for your town. In that sense, I get it. There is a political connection but it’s something you can do as an individual. 

Tanja: Absolutely. I think a lot of folks relate to the feeling of government moving too slowly, right? Just a couple of weeks ago the COP26 conference happened where we see all these world leaders making decisions on climate change when we know they’re actually unlikely to live up to. Rather than sit here and feel helpless or throw up our hands and say we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do, I also wanted people to feel really empowered to say, “Our leaders aren’t moving fast enough or doing enough, what can I do to really focus on impact,” and not just things that make you feel like you’re not a bad person. Instead, things that really make a difference. The whole thing of, let’s all recycle is pretty cool. We’ve been doing that for 30 years. Have we saved the earth yet? I’m pretty sure we haven’t so there are more effective things we can do and I think that’s really important to bring into the conversation as well. 

Tom: For sure. And recycling is one of these things I feel good about but then I hear stories that a lot of the recycling from here in Canada goes on a boat and around the world then gets sent back to us. And then sometimes it just gets thrown out completely anyway. I guess the best you can do in those cases is still just recycle, and hope. But there’s other things we can do too. Your book brings up the zero waste movement. If you can get yourself to the point where you’re having to recycle less, I would assume that’s good. Again, it’s something you can control yourself instead of just putting it into the blue bin and hoping. 

Tanja: I want to be clear that I have major issues with the zero waste movement. It’s not especially inclusive the way it’s presented. It’s really not doable for a ton of folks, whether it’s because you don’t have enough free time to go shop in a way where you bring your own jars and fill everything one-by-one. That’s an incredibly time consuming thing to do especially if you don’t have a car. It’s impossible to lug bags filled with jars on the bus. There are just a whole bunch of reasons why it’s not great, but I think the idea of focusing on how much packaging you’re bringing home is a really good idea. And to your point about recycling, glass, the metals, and to some extent, paper, are all recycled at pretty high rates. The big issue is what’s not really getting recycled, plastic. You can say, “Okay, I’m going to make an effort at the store not to buy things that are packaged in plastic. I’m going to look for stuff in aluminum, glass, in steel cans, or maybe just loose.” You can often get spinach tied together in a bunch and you don’t have to buy that square box that is not going to get recycled. You can make different choices that make a big impact. One garbage pickup a day may not make you feel like you’ve made a big difference, but over time, that stuff really adds up. 

Tom: Yes. Just being more money-minded than other topics, a lot of times I have this personal worry that it’s going to cost me more. And that’s not always the case. Sometimes it is but there are times where you can actually be more environmental and not pay more. I assume when you’re doing the bulk food into bins, it’s probably cheaper overall. It depends on also some fancy expensive organic things. But if it’s just something as simple as beans in bulk, that’s got to be cheaper to bring your own jar and put it in. 

Tanja: Oh, you would hope so. But in fact, not. For the most part, if I bought something at a food co-op and put it in my jar, I would have to do more work, take more time, and it would cost more than if I just bought them packaged in a bag at Whole Foods or whatever. That’s one of the bigger frustrations, too. It’s really important to me to give advice that’s accessible to everyone, not just the people who have all this free time and the luxury of being able to pay more, whether it’s because they just have a lot of money or that they aren’t super focused on being frugal. But to your point about spending less, one of my biggest issues with a lot of the information out there is we talk frequently—and maybe you’re not as connected to this, but for folks who do focus on climate change or inequality and things like that, there’s a lot of talk about conscious consumerism or ethical consumerism. My issue is that both of those phrases still put it in terms of consumerism. It assumes that the point of our existence is to buy as much as possible to consume. I think we need to take ourselves out of that frame and instead ask whether we should consume. It’s not a question of, “Do I buy this shirt or this shirt?” It’s, “Do I buy this shirt or can I make do with what I’ve already got?” And a lot of the time you probably can. In those instances, there is nothing cheaper than using what you’ve already got. It’s both good for the planet in that case, good for not buying more goods produced by exploited workers or in many cases, with garment manufacturing in particular, where you have forced child labor. I don’t think anybody wants to support that, if they know that’s what’s happening. 

Tom: Well, and yes, that’s a great point, because now you’re helping both sides of this equation of truly how it affects your wallet and how your wallet affects other things. And obviously, if you can make something last longer by maybe buying quality products certainly comes into play here. Your book mentioned fast fashion. I hadn’t heard the term before, but I get the point because I’ve seen it where you get this cheap, almost disposable clothing that just isn’t made to last. It’s only going to lead to tossing it or not even being able to donate it if it’s falling apart. In the end, you’re going to end up spending more money. 

Tanja: Yes. I think one of the important pieces that I’ve seen missing in the conversation is that the garment workers are still making the cheap “disposable clothing” just as well. It’s usually made with a lower quality fabric that isn’t going to hold up to repeated washing. But an important piece that’s missing that I do think we have to own ourselves is that when something is cheap, we are less likely to treat it well. And so often we make things disposable by how we treat them. There is so much research on this. If something is cheap, you perceive it as not being worth very much to you. And if something is expensive, you value it more or you take care of it better. At a minimum, if folks would just take care of things at a level where you treat stuff from H&M as though you bought it at Gucci… Treat it like it’s special. It’s also likely to last longer. And that has to be part of it, too, that we own our role. That’s one of those mental biases that we aren’t conscious of. But once you become conscious of it, then I think you can do better. We all can. 

Tom: Yes. This era we’re in of disposable products is bothering me even from just a money standpoint. Obviously, environmental stuff beyond that but I was looking at new appliances recently, considering if I wanted to get them. Thankfully, I looked at the reviews and it seemed quite common and expected for certain brands that they might last five years. We’re talking fridges and ovens that have all these cool smart home features that definitely attracted me. But when I saw it’s not even going to last more than, why would I spend a premium for these fancier versions when they’re actually only doing their base job of being a fridge or a stove. They’re actually not the best options out there if you want something to last. 

Tanja: Yes, it’s really a big frustration. We’ve experienced this as well. We bought a refrigerator and it died two years later. We had to spend a ridiculous amount of money to fix it. And honestly, it would have been not that much more to buy a new one. Manufacturing this device is a big deal. That’s a lot of resources. It’s almost as expensive to repair it, but we don’t want to make a new thing. It is a good reminder that a lot of these things die but you probably can fix most of them. I do think manufacturers have really moved toward trying to make things as cheap as possible. They’ve used things like energy efficiency standards (to blame) when the quality is bad. They’ll say, “We’re not able to make a fridge that lasts for 20 years anymore because we’re only able to use these less harmful coolants in it.” But that’s not true. You’re just not putting the effort into making a quality product anymore. How many of us remember grandparents who had a fridge or freezer in a garage or basement or something that had been there for many decades and we’re still working just fine? Sure, they ate a lot of energy in a way that the newer ones don’t. But you still figure they’re not creating demand for a brand new energy intensive thing. I do think if we, as consumers, start demanding higher quality and things to last longer that we could potentially get back to a closer place like that. But that’s going to take a lot of uproar on people’s part because right now we’re all still buying the cheap stuff and as a result, they have no incentive to change their ways. 

Tom: And in this case, it wasn’t the cheaper model. It was the most expensive. Not to go too far down the appliances path here, but just for anyone listening and wondering, the tips I was seeing said you’re better off going with late base models. If you want a fridge by a fridge, don’t buy a fridge that has a screen on it, or even a water dispenser. You should buy the thing for the thing you need. And only buy it when you need it. Don’t just buy it just because you want a new black, stainless steel model. That’s the thing now. That’s not the reason I was looking, but it’s easy to go down that path of wanting to the new, shiny, thing. As I’ve moved from house to house, I’ve had whatever appliances came with it and I’ve never actually had to replace any of them. They’re all older—at least 10 years older. I’ve had no problems with any appliances I’ve had. One of the reasons I was looking was this house has a gas stove and I just didn’t want to use it. I wasn’t sure if it was safe for my family and such. But I read in your book that there’s actually health issues I wasn’t even considering in that case. I was just looking at the convenience. I don’t consider myself any master chef that needs a big fancy stovetop so I was just looking at replacing that. 

Tanja: I think your instinct was right on there. I’ve been on the other side for most of my life of thinking, “Wow, it’s so much better to cook on gas. I only want that. I don’t want an electric stove top.” But in fact, the indoor air quality changes when you’re burning gas indoors and it’s really alarming. The American Medical Association in the states is recommending that all indoor gas burning appliances be banned because they create such unhealthy conditions. I saw one stat that said if you had the same air quality outdoors as you have indoors, when you’re cooking with gas or using a gas dryer or any number of other gas appliances, that level of pollution outdoors would be illegal. It would far exceed the permissible levels. And that’s in the states where our levels aren’t particularly safe to begin with. It’s a good thing to think about replacing that, especially if you live in an area where your electricity comes from renewable sources. You could potentially have an electric stove. And induction is kind of a fancy version of that for folks who do care about the cooking quality. That could be using solar, wind, geothermal or hydro electric—whatever the local renewable energy is. A gas stove is inherently always burning fossil fuels, and there’s no way around that. You can’t modernize that as we start to evolve to try to have less climate impact. 

Tom: When we talk about the health issues of these stoves, I was expecting I could this other one because it is a supposedly fancier model and I wouldn’t actually pay that much to switch to electricity. If I go ahead, I guess I still will sell it, but I’ll feel bad about it now knowing that there are these issues. 

Tanja: Capitalism puts us in a big bind. And that’s one good example. 

Tom: Well, I believe I’ve heard of—I don’t want to make this whole thing about appliances, but I believe I’ve heard of people that have literally died from doing things like barbecuing indoors and such. I never once considered that. It’s very similar, obviously. And here we are using it. 

Tanja: Make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector. 

Tom: Yes, exactly. It’s just like what’s in the garage, it’s definitely good. You brought up renewable energy. That was another thing I saw in your book. I looked it up and here the company I’m using does have a renewable option. I did not choose it because, again, I saw one was cheaper than the other. This was a choice I made a few years back. I looked at it and it’s an extra two cents per kilowatt hour for renewable electricity—100 percent renewable electricity. They also have a 25 percent, which is half of a cent. Now, two cents a kilowatt hour doesn’t sound that bad. But it is 26 percent based on the current rates. How do we weigh these? Again, this idea of our wallet versus what our wallet does? How do we weigh these? Obviously, if you can afford it, you can afford it and do better. But there’s obviously people who, the last thing they need is their bill to be 26 percent higher in the summer when they’ve also got air conditioning. It could be quite a bit. 

Tanja: Absolutely. With everything I talk about in the book, my goal is not to make everyone feel pressured to do every single thing. You can’t do everything in the book. That’s impossible. No one can. The goal is to say, what are the things I can do? If you can afford to pay that surcharge, then I suggest you should because we need that investment in renewable energies if we have any chance of averting the worst effects of the climate crisis. And especially if you have kids. You care about the future for them. To me, paying a little extra on the electricity bill is a small investment in ensuring that the next generation has a livable world to inhabit. That said, with electricity, it is important to note you’re not (in fact) getting different electricity. You have one line coming to your house. They have one line coming to your neighborhood. The same electricity is going there regardless. So even if you pay for 100 percent renewable, it does not, in fact, mean that all the electricity coming into your house was generated through renewable sources. What it does mean is you’re helping to fund additional renewable energy infrastructure so that over time they can slowly convert to more. And if more people do it, maybe they can quickly convert to that and get off coal, get off natural gas, whatever it is. Do you know what your source of dirty energy is there? 

Tom: I have no idea. It’s just not something I’ve really considered. You mentioned how it’s not going to be 100 percent renewable electricity. How do we know these companies are actually using this? It’s the same question you can ask of some charities. How do you know that the entire two cents go towards something in the future? 

Tanja: I think with anything, whether it’s with your electricity, utility or with somebody who you are considering working with, doing business within a bigger way, it is completely appropriate to ask what their transparency measures are to be accountable for that. They may very well have reports on their website that you just haven’t found yet that explain how much they took in, what they did with it. But if they don’t, you can demand that. You can say, “I want better transparency. I would be happy to sign up for this, but I need to know that it’s going where you say it’s going, and I don’t see proof of that right now.” That is something all of us should get in the habit of doing more of if we don’t see people being transparent. That could be with a company who manufactures clothing you might buy or manufacturers your phone—whatever it is. Just say, “I want to see what your whole supply chain looks like and to make sure you don’t have factories in Xinjiang province in China where we know weaker laborers are being forced to work because they’re in these re-education camps and are being held against their will.” You don’t want your stuff being made by forced prison labor. That’s that. Asking for transparency in all of these things is always a good measure. Yes, you could ask your government to mandate that everybody has to do that. There have been helpful laws that do that like the California Supply Chain Transparency Act. Everyone in the world benefits from that because just about every multinational company does business in California. Because they have to release all this information about their supply chain, you can just look up the company you care about in California Supply Chain Transparency Act and you’ll get information. You’ll see how seriously they take it. But beyond government action, companies listen to customers. And if enough customers are speaking up and saying, “We want this. We demand this. Otherwise, we’re going to take our business elsewhere…” I know with a power company, you don’t always have a choice, but you can at least put pressure on them in a way that lawmakers can’t always do. It’s important to recognize our power as customers. 

Tom: What are your thoughts on solar power on your own house? Granted, there’s a big cost up front, but here in Canada, our governments have given rebates on that. I don’t know the current status. They exist, then they don’t. But sometimes those rebates reduce the cost. It just seems like something where we can take our own step and in the end, actually save money as well instead of spending more money. I don’t know if there’s any other issues with those I’m not aware of. 

Tanja: It really is so situationally dependent, but I think the biggest thing that everyone should consider, regardless of what your local power source is otherwise, is there is a well-known phenomenon where, when you give people a “greener” option, they will actually change their ways for the worst. If you put solar panels on the roof, they’re now going to use more power than they did before because they have a feeling that it’s cheaper and it’s not hurting anything. But in fact, if we’re all using more power, then we’re sort of negating the benefit of these things. And solar panels are definitely not free or cheap in a monetary sense, but they’re also not free or cheap in the sense of using resources. They’re incredibly resource intensive to produce. Solar panels need rare earth minerals that can only be mined in these really remote mines in generally impoverished countries. It’s a big deal to put a solar panel on your roof because you’ve now committed a whole bunch of resources to this thing that may or may not ever get a return. Some of them are much more efficient than others, and that’s better, but you don’t always necessarily have a choice where you are. If you want to do it and you’re committed to maintaining your power usage at a consistent level, monitoring it and not letting it creep up, that’s great. But we’re also not going to get to our climate goals with rooftop solar alone. We need large scale projects. We need them on the utility scale. It’s a better thing to push your utility to install solar farms than it is to put solar on your own roof. But if there are nice rebates and you’re willing to keep things where they are in terms of your usage, then go ahead and do it. It’s not inherently harmful but it’s also just not going to save us. 

Tom: Well, I’m glad you brought up the mining, too, because that’s something I’ve seen with the whole electric car versus a gas car. Obviously, gas is bad. But if you’re not using renewable electricity, is it any better? But then there’s the whole mining of the battery. And going back to what you said earlier, keep what you have. As much as everybody hates gas and oil usage, I get that. But if you have a car that’s working just fine, not replacing it every three years would do probably a lot more for the environment than weighing out the potential issues of electricity or gas cars. They both have problems, but if you already have something, just stick with it. 

Tanja: That’s true with virtually everything. Using what you already have is virtually always environmentally better. And better in terms of not exploiting workers than buying something new. With cars in particular, I think you can do a few things. You can be determined to drive the car you already have for as long as you can. You can pledge that you won’t ever buy another new or new used (new to you) that runs on fossil fuels. You can say, “Okay, if I need a car down the road, I will commit to buying electric because we are going to need that.” There will come a point when we don’t have gas stations anymore, when nobody’s putting petroleum products into a vehicle that’s going to be essential for climate change down the road. I don’t think that’s going to be soon, but you don’t want to feel attached to an old status quo that’s harmful. You want to be able to move forward. The good thing about electric cars is, yes, your power grid could currently be coal, natural gas or some sort of bad fossil fuel energy but once that switches, then you’re still able to adapt to that and keep going. That’s certainly a better way to future-proof yourself. You don’t want to buy a car and a few years after that it’s not usable anymore because we’re not allowing gas cars. You want to put your money into the thing that will keep you going forever. But it’s even better if you can say, “I don’t need a car anymore. I’m going to make do with public transit or ridesharing,” or things like that. Or maybe your household can do with one fewer cars, things like that. I think it’s looking at the whole picture instead of just putting it as fossil fuel versus electric. Let’s stop assuming that we absolutely need to replace something and stop having this mindset of needing to have “the latest” whatever it is. Keeping what you’ve got is cheaper. It’s good for your wallet in a literal sense, and it’s much better in terms of all the crises we’re facing. 

Tom: Yeah, I agree. The last thing we need is one more car that’s just sitting around wherever it is they put old cars. 

Tanja: You would like to think they can recycle all that stuff, but they found that the way we paint cars nowadays, the paint is so strong that it’s almost impossible to get off the metal and that makes the metal of your car not recyclable. It’s a huge amount of metal, a huge amount of plastic, yet very little is recyclable. 

Tom: A few other things I found in your book that I have been doing correctly (small things) is based on my wallet first. But you mentioned things like bottled water or going to Starbucks. I always found these things wasteful in a financial sense, but they’re obviously wasteful for the environment too. I never saw the point of paying for my water to be in a bottle. I would take coffee to work in a thermos because I didn’t want to stop at Starbucks. It’s even still much cheaper at the cafeteria we had in the building but in both of those cases, there were things I could do where I was reducing my costs. And admittedly, that was the primary concern. But things like that do help. If everyone was doing this, they’d save money and it would be good for the environment. 

Tanja: Yeah, and I am not hating on lattes here, but if only the millennials would give up the lattes, they could all own houses. No, that math is ridiculous. But it’s more the thinking about the packaging. The example I used in the book with Starbucks is that with cold beverages, you get a plastic cup. It’s got a lid on it, similar to a fast-food beverage lid. And then there is a straw. And because of all the pressure for people to get rid of straws (plastic straws) which I also argue was really neglecting to think about people because a lot of disabled people need those straws. Trying to get rid of them and or propose all these other different solutions just doesn’t work as well. We need to keep people in mind, too. But what Starbucks did is they got rid of that setup, and, instead, replaced it with a lid that looks sort of like a sippy cup. Maybe some folks listening have seen those at the store. There is no straw. But researchers measured all that stuff and found out that the new lid that’s supposed to use, “less plastic” actually contains more plastic than the old lid and straw, combined. So that’s greenwashing. We should not be supporting that. My argument is to stop having these stupid things that are fixing a problem that doesn’t really exist that are creating a worse problem instead. The other thing is, if you go get coffee at Starbucks, bring your own cup or go to one of the stores that is now offering the reusable, returnable cups. There are things you can do that just cut your waste all together. Then, have your coffee. 

Tom: A few things here. First, I have strong opinions about straws. When they first got rid of plastic straws in many places and came up with those paper straws, I thought they were terrible. It’s like drinking dry water. They’ve got these straws now I believe are made out of corn or something, and they’re basically like plastic. When companies can make choices like that—yes, they had to evolve beyond the paper straw, but that seems like a better direction. Instead of  something that’s less plastic, go to something that is environmentally better but doesn’t feel like a very awkward paper straw. 

Tanja: The unfortunate thing is, a lot of those corn resin straws include plastic in them. They’re not compostable. A lot of things that say compostable on them are only compostable in an industrial sense. You can’t put them in your backyard compost pile if you do that. That is really misleading and frustrating. The other thing, too, is when you make things out of some sort of food product, then you involve allergy issues. If you’re allergic to corn, you can’t use that straw. I have Celiac so I can’t have wheat. And a lot of the newer things are made out of wheat. One of my coffee shops introduced these new straws that I thought were some kind of plant resin. It turns out they were just pasta, which is like a cool idea. Except now I’ve contaminated my own coffee with the wheat from the pasta. I’m not saying that we can’t find solutions. I know this is sounding like I’m saying everything is bad, but it’s just saying we need to take a broader view of these things. I know that the straw ban is a really trendy thing. People are upset about straws going up, sea turtles’ noses. But if you actually look at the plastic in the ocean, straws are an infinitesimally small part of that. And the bigger problem is plastic fishing nets. They form the bulk of the plastic in the ocean. They form the bulk of the Great Pacific garbage patch. They are a huge problem, but I don’t see any environmentalists speaking up and saying we need to solve the fishing net problem. Instead, they’re going after straws. And that’s resulting in more plastic in the Starbucks lid. It’s resulting in people no longer being able to eat or drink from a place because they’re allergic to the new straw they’re using. It’s just a way of saying, let’s take a broader look at this stuff and consider the impact on the planet, but also on people and do that at the same time. We’re not disregarding one or the other in an interest to do something that honestly just becomes performative. It’s a performance. If we’re just trying to say, “Hey, look, we got rid of straws!” Great! You hurt disabled people and you may actually be using more plastic in the end. It’s just to get us to think about our problems in the solutions a bit differently. 

Tom: Well, and that’s why I like how you’re viewing this. You’re seeing all the layers to it. We’ve talked about the Tesla’s and the plastic straws and some of this stuff can be like almost like a status symbol. You might feel good about it saying, “Look at me. I’m not using this,” but it may not be the bigger issues to fix all the time. It’s just what it holds. Whether it’s media, government—whatever it is, it just seems like sometimes we maybe focused on the wrong things at times. 

Tanja: We absolutely do. We focus on the things that make us feel good and sometimes that works out well. But a lot of the time, it doesn’t. And that’s really my big proposal; let’s look at the things we can do that have the impact we actually intend that don’t have unintended consequences, especially for people who are least able to cope with those consequences. Let’s think about it in terms of what we can personally change or do with friends or family or our communities to create collective impact. There are many, many things, but we just haven’t explored them because frankly, companies, the drivers of capitalism, don’t really want us to feel powerful. They don’t want us to think, “I could choose not to work for you because you are in a bad business that I don’t want to support,” or, “I’m going to choose not to keep my money at your financial institution because I don’t support your practices.” They don’t want you to feel empowered like that. It’s holding people to a higher standard, expecting them to be transparent and holding them to account when they are not, is very much within our power. We need to claim that power and say, “Corporations, you’re not the boss of us. You don’t tell us what we can and can’t do. We decide that.” I firmly believe it’s well within our abilities and it’s something we can do. We can’t fix every single problem in the world that way, but we can certainly make a difference on a lot of them. 

Tom: I’m glad you brought up the companies because one of the terms you said a few minutes ago that I hadn’t heard before, was greenwashing. Never hearing it before, I assume these are companies that are kind of going for the ride on this. If you can convince someone that you’ve done this thing, you’re almost just getting that environmental sentiment where it’s more marketing than environment maybe? 

Tanja: Absolutely. And we’re surrounded by that. A lot of companies who seem to be the best—you have to really take a step back to see if they’re just trying to sell more. I can think of so many recent examples. Right now, in the States, Levi’s is running these ads saying that when we buy higher quality we get things to last longer. And when they last longer, we can buy less. Yes, that’s a really good sentiment. But also, they’re just trying to sell more jeans. They’re trying to convince us to buy their jeans instead of Old Navy or cheaper jeans. It’s important to look at the motivation of the person giving you the message. I’ve seen Glad sandwich bags—the zipper bags. They’re now selling one that’s supposedly a certain percent plant resin instead of all plastic. But it’s still a disposable plastic thing. Sure, some people need that. And if you truly need it, then the version with plant resin in it is an improvement. But for most of us, we don’t need that. You don’t need bags you’re going to toss after one use. It is very much greenwashing. I give some other examples in the book, but it’s something that we haven’t been trained to look for. I think once you learn to spot it, it then becomes incredibly easy to spot. I get ads on Instagram all the time for products that are supposedly sustainable. People just throw these words around and they’re not regulated. Sustainable doesn’t mean anything legally. Eco-friendly doesn’t mean anything. Green doesn’t mean anything. You can slap that label on anything, and people absolutely do. Once you learn to see through that, it becomes really easy to see that even though you’re giving me a valid message, you’re just trying to sell me more of this thing that I don’t actually need. And then it’s much easier to say “no” and move on. 

Tom: We’ve talked a lot about the manufacturing side. What about stores? I always hear how terrible Amazon and Walmart are and that you should buy local. This is one of those things where sometimes I just like my Amazon. I’m more of a Costco fan, which is probably viewed a little more favorably. They pay their employees much better and all that. But support local, whether that’s within Canada, within my town, sometimes I just don’t want to go into certain stores where you don’t get the same selection or you’re paying more. I guess, especially with Amazon, more than anything, where are they going wrong? Hopefully, that doesn’t take too long, but what kind of issues are there with a place like that? 

Tanja: I think that Amazon is actually a great example of where wallet activism has worked. They have seen so much pressure publicly and from customers to do better that they are by no means more perfect. They make it way too easy to buy a way too much stuff we don’t need and to create a lot of packaging and all that stuff. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are in debt because it’s so easy to shop on Amazon. It’s not just about the workers. It’s also about customers and their well-being. But they’ve done a lot to actually improve their pay. Its still not amazing. But I think that in the States, they’re starting everybody at $16 or $17 an hour. They’re giving benefits, which unfortunately in the US, as you know, we don’t get health care from the government, so you need it from work. They’re doing a few other things that aren’t perfect but are a big improvement. They still need to do better besides all the marketing, all the packaging and everything else. And they, like Walmart, put a lot of pressure on factories in Asia and whatnot to produce things more cheaply. They undermine a lot of the people who sell on there in ways that are troubling. Their biggest thing is that people in the warehouses still get hurt a lot. They especially get hurt when things are busier. That’s why I recommend if you’re able not to shop on Black Friday. Not to shop on Cyber Monday. Not to shop during the really peak periods like Prime Day. All of this goes for Walmart as well, because those are the periods when you tend to see a ton of injuries among the workers because they’re being pushed to hustle so hard. They’re not allowed to take bathroom breaks, all the bad stuff that we’ve all heard. If you can avoid shopping then or if you absolutely must, if you can have things ship as slowly as possible so you’ll go to the back of the line and won’t be contributing to the rush where you ordered this item during the busiest time and also expect to get it in one or two days. You can take that pressure off. I know Amazon and Walmart are most people’s best option because most people can’t afford to shop elsewhere. I think we have to have compassion for that and say, how can you shop from those companies but do it in the least harmful way possible? A lot of the times you can say, “I don’t need to buy this thing.” It’s the best answer. I’m sure that all of us, no matter our budget, have bought things that we didn’t truly need or that we maybe wanted, but only used for a short time. Cutting a lot of that stuff out and just giving them less business overall is also a really good habit to get into. 

Tom: The waste of packaging. I’ve had the smallest, little things seem to come in huge boxes with tons of that plastic stuff around it, and inflated things. If I’m buying multiple things, with the Prime subscription we can get this one in two days and this one next week. So, if it’s within reason, I’ll take the option where they all come together. It doesn’t feel as wasteful. It’s also just more convenient, really. Instead of having a package come every single day for the week, you could just get the one at the end that’s actually full. I thought it was going to be all the vehicles running around and stuff that you would bring up, but you mentioned worker injuries, which is something I never considered. I guess my last question for you is how do you stay on top of all this? You’ve got all these manufacturers. You’ve got all these retailers. You’ve got different levels of government. How do you stay on top of this to make these informed choices, which would be different, technically, in every city, province, country? How do you make these decisions and make the most with your dollar? 

Tanja: I am not proposing that everyone read every bit of news every day and dig deep into a lot of these complex issues. One of the first things we do in the book is talk about your values and the most important issues to you. I think that’s really important because I say flat out, our biggest issues are the climate crisis and the inequality crisis, but that means a lot of different things. And you might say within that I care the most about the racial wealth gap. Or I care most about people living in homelessness. Or in Canada it could be that you’re really upset about the injustice against Indigenous and First Nations people. Whatever is the most important thing to you, stay on top of that one. It could be that you follow some accounts on social media that talk about those issues that are really good at presenting new information. It could be that you subscribe to a couple of podcasts on those issues. Don’t try to stay up on everything because it’s impossible and you’ll drive yourself crazy. The other thing too, is I want to stress my goal is not for anyone to read this book and then go to the store and feel like you can’t buy anything and you’re paralyzed. The goal is to make you feel empowered to feel like you can look at this thing and say, “Okay. I’ve always bought this thing and I’ve never thought about it before but what are the other layers to this that I haven’t considered? And do I want to keep buying this thing?” There probably is a bit of a learning curve. At first you’ll have to reconsider some of the things that you’ve been buying or things you’ve been using your financial power on and say, “Okay, I’ve got to learn about this thing.” But then so many of your purchases are repeat purchases. Or how you earn money. That’s something that you aren’t having to think about all the time. You make a decision and then do that for a while. The points when you really have to reflect are spaced out. That will feel a little overwhelming, maybe at first. But you get over that very quickly and then you know, “Okay, this is a thing I’m comfortable buying. This is the thing I don’t buy anymore,” and I recommend that folks come up with sort of a three-part mission statement where you’ve got the things that you don’t buy anymore or don’t use your financial power on. It could be things you don’t invest in anymore, types of work you’re not willing to do any longer. Then there’s the category of things that you will do or buy, but only if you’re able to give them some good consideration. You don’t just throw them in your Amazon cart and check out and move right on. And then there are the things that you let yourself buy and you don’t stress about them. For example, for me, one of those things is books. Books take energy to create. They have to be shipped around. But to me, it’s really important that we have books, and that means that we create demand as customers for books because we have to make it worth publishers while to produce more books. I buy as many books as I want, and I don’t worry about it. It’s great to have that freedom. But if I’m going to go buy something else, then I have to give it a little more thought. It’s creating whatever system in that framework feels right for you. Then you don’t have to stay on top of it all. Stay on top of a couple of issues that are most important to you and you’ll be fine. 

Tom: This has been great. It’s been very, very eye-opening on some of these aspects of this. And speaking of books, can you tell people about your book? We’ve been talking about the topic a lot, but let people know about your book and where they can find you online. 

Tanja: The book is Wallet Activism – How to use every dollar you spend, earn and save as a force for change. It’s out this week, which is so exciting. It’s been a process of many years to bring into the world. I’m thrilled it’s here. Of course, you can get it in all the book places, but I’m asking folks who are interested in buying it to consider doing a little wallet activism in the purchase and trying to buy it from an independent local bookstore, if you can. If not, going with something Canadian is certainly better than Amazon. But ultimately, you’re creating positive demand for more books like this with your purchase. That’s something I really want to stress. In terms of where to find me, my website is I’m also on Twitter and Instagram @our_nextlife. And if you want to see my most embarrassing content, I’ve recently joined Tik Tok @wallet activism. I’m way too old to be on TikTok, but I’m trying to have fun with it. 

Tom: Great. Thanks for being on the show. 

Tanja: Thanks, Tom. 

Thank you, Tanya, for giving us new ways to look at the products and services we pay for. We really can affect change for the greater good. You can find the show notes for this episode at If you have a moment, head over to our YouTube channel and subscribe there as we’ll be getting back to releasing “never before seen” content soon. Search for Maple Money Show or go to and subscribe today. I look forward to seeing you back here next week when Cody Yeh joins us to share his strategy and building portfolio of stocks in real estate. See you next week! 

There is a well-known phenomenon that when you give people a ‘greener’ option, they will actually change their ways for the worse. So, you take someone, you put solar panels on their roof, they’re now going to use more power than they did before. - Tanja Hester Click to Tweet