Q. Dear Umbra,

I’ve been wanting to buy a Volkswagen TDI for a long time, thanks to their amazing mileage. But alas, the recent scandal has exposed “clean diesel” as something of a myth. But supposedly the recall will fix that — and they still get great mileage. I’m wondering if I should go ahead and buy one while the prices are low, or if that would be an environmental sin. What do you think?

Darren L.
Durham, N.C.

A. Dearest Darren,

Sometimes these questions are a little easier to grapple with when we change the faceless corporation into a person: Would you buy a cheap car stereo from a guy off the street if you were pretty sure it was stolen? Go to a bargain-basement mechanic who’s dumping motor oil into the creek out back? Buy fruit from a farmer you knew was abusing workers?

In each case, your money would add to the profits of an unethical person doing illegal deeds — deeds that directly or indirectly harm other people. Just how much blame you deserve, as a patron of this kind of person, is one of those fascinating moral questions that keeps armchair philosophers up at night. I’m not suggesting that these scenarios are exact parallels to buying a Volkswagen, of course. But considered in this light, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, doesn’t it?

In the VW case, we have some hard facts: The company has admitted to equipping 11 million diesel vehicles with software that let them cheat on emissions tests. When the cars were on the road, that software turned off their emissions controls, resulting in 10 to 40 times more polluting nitrogen oxides (NOx) being belched into the atmosphere. (NOx? More like NOx-ious, amiright!) VW did this on purpose to preserve their diesel cars’ prized acceleration and impressive gas mileage while still appearing to meet emissions standards. In short: They duped us, pretending to be a greener car manufacturer while actually polluting in a big, big way.

Since you’ve brought ethics into the equation, Darren, I’d ethically have to advise you against supporting this kind of corporate flimflam — from VW or any other company. In a world that can often seem overwhelming in its challenges, one of our most reliable weapons is our own dollars, and how we choose to spend them. We might not be able to take on all the environmental threats facing our planet by ourselves, but by golly, we can still decide where to buy our milk, our cleaning products, our clothes, or our cars. (And if that doesn’t sway you, keep in mind that the gas mileage on those VW diesel cars likely won’t be as good after the recall.)

Dearest readers, this is as good a time as any — now, with the dying embers of 2015 all around us, and the bright new flame of 2016 right around the corner — to resolve to be even more thoughtful about our buying habits moving forward. Some companies truly are striving to put out more sustainable products in more sustainable ways, and whenever we can, it’s great to support those efforts. Whether that’s buying more local, organic food; or choosing nontoxic beauty and cleaning products; or looking for minimal, recycled packaging; or seeking out neighborhood businesses trying to do the right thing, voting with our wallets is the best way to encourage more of the same.

But as wonderful as conscious consumerism is, it’s second to — you guessed it — reduced consumerism, or the old-fashioned practice of buying less stuff. In the season of pressure to Buy! Buy! Buy!, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves if we really need that new item in our hands. New stuff requires resources to make and ship, after all, and it all too often poses an extra disposal problem. Simply not purchasing it (when we don’t really need it) is one of the earth-friendliest decisions we can make on an everyday basis. This goes double for brand-new vehicles we don’t absolutely need, I should add — even fuel-efficient ones.

One final thought for all the giant corporate CEOs out there: The rest of us can’t put this into practice unless you’re straight with us about your own practices, both environmentally and ethically. May I suggest a New Year’s resolution just for you? I will not lie, cheat, and sneak my way to faux environmental bona fides.

Honestly,
Umbra