05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The products we buy change us and our world

Every product comes with a story.

Once we buy a product, its story becomes part of our story. It's especially important to keep this connection in mind as America emerges from the recession and we begin to spend again.

We have an opportunity to encourage product makers and marketers to supply us with responsible products that do not harm the earth or its inhabitants. As our purchasing decisions surge through the supply chain, these values will drive commercial initiatives.

The choices we make will drive change, as illustrated by the following story about creating mahogany furniture from sustainable forests. The outcome improved the lives of farmers in Indonesia and provided American consumers with quality and affordable environmental choice.

The story begins a few years ago in the forests of Java when furniture factories bought mahogany from middlemen traders. The traders obtained the wood from family farms. They aggregated the logs and delivered truckloads to the factories. The system was inefficient and expensive, but it worked--at least for the traders.

The farmers sold their mature mahogany trees reluctantly, and for relatively little money, to subsist. The factories paid the traders well and passed on the costs to their wholesale and retail customers. Consumers paid a high price, both literally and in moral capital because each purchase affirmed and perpetuated supply chain practices that exploited local farmers and rewarded deforestation.

With financial support from a large U.S. home furnishings retailer and other organizations, and guided by TFT, a non-profit consultancy, the farmers formed a cooperative and replaced the traders. Today, members of the cooperative, known by the acronym KOSTAJASA, grow and harvest mahogany trees and deliver sustainable wood to the factories themselves. Removing the traders and their fees from the system has yielded more profit for the farmers and savings for the factories, driving lower prices for wholesalers, retailers and, ultimately, consumers.

Unfortunately, responsible products still are missing from most product categories and retail channels. Supermarket shelves are filled with everyday items that contain palm oil, which too often comes from plantations carved out of rain forests. Similarly, rain forests are turned into grazing land for the cattle that supply leather for our shoes and other apparel. Because rain forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, their depletion accelerates global warming.

As consumers, we can increase the availability of responsible products by buying them where they exist and by asking for them where they don't. Here are these three practical steps:

1. Learn the sourcing policies of the stores where you shop. Major retailers require their suppliers to meet specific environmental and labor practice standards. Find out if their standards meet your standards.

2. Read product labels and ask about the origins of palm oil and other ingredients that can negatively impact the environment. Store managers may not have immediate answers, but they will remember the question.

3. Become familiar with certification marks. In wood products, for example, look for the FSC trademark of the Forest Stewardship Council, which assures that wood came from responsibly managed forests.

In the developed world, we see the negative impact that our consumption can have on people living on the other side of the globe. And they witness our sense of entitlement. Regardless of where we live, our actions either help our planet or contribute to its destruction. They enhance or diminish our stories.