Get Real

What Kind of World are YOU Buying?


By Mara Rockliff

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Can you change the world with your wallet?

You already do.
In this frank, teen-friendly manifesto, Mara Rockliff reveals what you’re really buying when you spend your money on a cell phone, a cheap t-shirt, or fast food — and shows the way to better choices, both for people and the planet.

Start seeing the world for real, and discover how you can make a difference. You’ve got buying power — now let’s see you change the world for good! GET REAL has been selected as an Honor Book in the Nonfiction category for the 2011 Green Earth Book Award.


To Doug, for everything

Copyright © 2010 by Mara Rockliff
All rights reserved under the Pan-American
and International Copyright Conventions

Printed in China

This book is printed on 100% recycled paper using
soy-based inks.

The printer of this book is certified by the ICTI or
International Council of Toys Industry. One of ICTI´s
mandates is to ensure that toys and related product
are produced in safe and humane environments.

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, in any
form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and
retrieval system now known or hereafter invented,
without written permission from the publisher.

Digit on the right indicates the number of this printing

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Number

ISBN 978-0-7624-3745-0

Illustrations by Ryan Hayes
Designed by Ryan Hayes and

Frances J. Soo Ping Chow

Typography: Archer and Verlag
Edited by T.L. Bonaddio

Running Press Book Publishers
2300 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-4371

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Why it matters where your money goes.

ou’re going to be on TV!
You’re a contestant on the
new show Real Deal.
They’ve slathered you with
makeup, told you how to smile, and pushed
you out to face the cameras. Sweat dripping
down your neck, you squint into the lights
and tell yourself, Relax! It’ll be fun.

“Welcome to Real Deal, where what you
see is what you get—and more!” the host
announces. “Today, we have a special treat
for you. Our young contestant here will
choose between two chocolate bars. Don’t
they look good?” He drapes an arm around
your shoulder. “Which one will you pick?”

You check out the chocolate. One bar is
your favorite brand. The other bar costs

more, and it’s a brand you’ve never heard of,
with a bunch of fancy blah blah blah on it
about “organic” and “fair trade.”

Duh. This is way too easy.

As you grab the cheaper chocolate bar,
the host grins widely. “Excellent choice. But
wait! Before you take a bite, let’s see what
else you get.”

He whips aside a curtain, and a boy
steps out. He’s about your age, but smaller.
He looks like he hasn’t eaten in a week.

“This boy has never tasted chocolate in
his life,” the beaming host informs you.
“But he works in the cocoa fields every day
from dawn till dark. Sometimes he’s so
tired, he just falls down. Then they beat
him until he gets up again.”

The Price Is Wrong7

What is this? All you were supposed to
do was pick a candy bar . . . right?

The host goes on, “His family lives in a
distant country. They’re extremely poor,
and they sent him away with a man who
promised he would earn good wages. Actu-
ally, he doesn’t get paid at all. He’s a slave.”

A slave? Wasn’t that over a long time ago?

Spreading his hands, he smiles. “That’s
what it takes to make chocolate so cheap.
Sure, the company spends millions every
week on advertising. But they need to do
that. Otherwise, how would they get to be
your favorite brand?”

You look down at the chocolate bar, then
at the boy. He stares back at you. Suddenly,
you don’t feel so hungry.

“Go ahead,” the host urges. “Unwrap it.
Eat it. Oh, but first—”

Strapping a tank on his back, he points a
metal hose at you and starts spraying.
Clouds of white powder rain down on you,
the half-unwrapped chocolate, and the boy.

“Don’t worry about him!” the host yells.
“He’s used to it!”

Choking, you gasp out, “What is that

“Poison,” he says cheerfully. “They spray
it on the cocoa plants to kill the bugs. Of
course, it’s not so good for people, either.
But don’t worry. You won’t taste it.”

This is insane. “Okay!” you say. “I change
my mind. I pick the other one!”

But the host doesn’t hear you. He’s
already running off the stage.

A moment later, he comes roaring back—
behind the wheel of a giant bulldozer. Lean-
ing out, he hollers, “Hop in, kid! We’ve got a
lot of rainforest to flatten!”

As he hauls you in the open window, the
camera zooms in on your kicking legs, and
the show’s theme song booms out: On Real
Deal . . . you get the real deal!


Okay, it’s outrageous. It’s
ridiculous. (Though not
a whole lot more outrageous than some
stuff they really do show on TV.) And
probably, you’d never sign up to be on a
show like this.

But here’s the real deal: You’re on right
now, like it or not. We all are.

Buy a pair of sneakers, and where does
your money go? Maybe it goes to pay the
guy who runs the company. He rakes in a
multi-million-dollar salary—thousands of
dollars every hour. That’s a lot of sneaker
sales! Of course, he doesn’t actually sell—
or make—the sneakers. In fact, he may
never even see the Chinese factory where
they are made. But his flunkeys push the
factory owner to sell them sneakers at a
low, low price. Then the company sells
you the sneakers at a not-so-low price,
and pockets a nice fat profit. Everybody’s
happy . . . other than the teenage girls who
toil in a fume-filled sneaker factory for
eighteen cents an hour.

8 Get Real

Order a cheeseburger at the drive-up win-
dow, and what are you really buying? What’s
between the buns is bad enough—greasy
ground-up mystery meat mixed up from
hundreds of different cows, with a bunch of
chemicals thrown in to give it a fake yummy
taste. But your burger also comes with a
super-sized side of trouble: everything from
fat, unhealthy kids to poisoned rivers to
global warming that is being
made worse by
(believe it or
not) cow farts.

your birth-
day money
on a video
game con-
sole, and
you get a
lot more
than you
for. What you
pull out of the
package con-
tains only about 5 percent of all the raw
materials it took to make the product and
get it to you. Five percent! The rest is waste.
And when it breaks or a new version comes
out, the console will be waste too. Toxic
waste, chock-full of killer chemicals that
end up in our air and water.

Is any of this your fault?

Does it matter?


Can you do anything about it?


Lots of young people—and older people,
too—are taking a hard look at where their
money’s going. Some call it “ethical con-
suming” or “socially conscious shopping.”
Some just call it “buying better.” Whatever
you like to call it, it’s definitely
on the rise. People are
sick of squeezing
their eyes shut
like baby birds
and letting
stuff who-
into their gap-
ing gullets.
Instead, they’re
asking ques-
tions like Who
made it?
What’s in it? and
What’s it doing to
the earth, to other people, and to me?

Buying better just makes sense. Of
course we want to buy things that don’t
make us sick, or ruin other people’s lives, or
trash the planet. And most Americans
really do care about these issues. For
instance, in one poll, nine out of ten teens
said they would switch brands to help a
cause. In another poll, at least three people

10 Get Real

out of four said they were willing to pay
more for products made under good work-
ing conditions. But how many actually did?
Just one in four.

What’s stopping them?
What’s stopping you?
See if any of this sounds familiar:

It’s my money. Why shouldn’t
I buy what I want?

Go ahead! But first, check out the hidden
costs of out-of-control consumerism in
chapter 1, The THING That Ate the World
(page 13). Then turn to chapter 2,
Scammed! (page 23), for a look at how
smart, savvy kids like you get tricked into
buying a bunch of junk.

Come on, it can’t be that bad! And even
if it is, it’s not my problem—is it?

Well . . . yes. And yes. Take a deep breath,
hold your nose, and jump into reality with
chapter 3, And All I Got Was This Lousy
T-Shirt (page 31), chapter 4, A Peek
Between the Buns (page 41), and chapter 5,
Trash Talk (page 49). Warning: might make
you a little queasy.

I just buy what’s at the mall. What else
am I supposed to do?

Glad you asked! That’s what this book
is really all about. You’ll find plenty of

outside-the-big-box choices—and their
pros and cons—in chapter 6, So Long,
Frankenfoods (page 57), chapter 7, Buys
in the ’Hood (page 67), and chapter 8,
Sweeter Treats (page 75).

Okay, I know I should buy better, but it
just doesn’t sound like fun.

Oh, yeah? Check out the cool designs in
chapter 9, Makin’ It (page 81)—taking
green to the extreme!

All the companies say they’re helping
people and taking care of the earth. How
do I know who’s telling the truth?

It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Chap-
ter 10, Green Warriors vs. Greenwashers
(page 89), helps you tell the good guys
from the phonies. Power to the people!

What you won’t find in this book is a
“buy better” shopping list of brand-name
products you should spend your money on
and companies you can support. (Though,
at the end of each chapter and at the back
of the book, you’ll learn where to go to
find out more.) Instead, you’ll get the big
picture: where your money’s going, why it
matters, and what you can do to make a

Can we really change the world with our
wallets? We already do.

What kind of world are you buying?

Let’s find out.

The Price Is Wrong 11

Chapter 1

Stop it before it consumes us all!

icture the world as a big,
round, yummy-looking pie.
Blueberry, maybe.

Now picture twenty kids
standing around the pie.
“Me first,” says one pushy kid, and cuts a
whopping slice. It’s way bigger than one-
twentieth of the pie. In fact, it’s more like

The other kids crowd forward, grabbing
what they can. A few get nice fat slices.
Most walk away with a lot less than their
fair share. Seven or eight kids are left
standing at the table, staring at one single
skinny slice of pie.

That pushy, greedy kid who took so
much? That’s us.

In the year 2000, the United States
and Canada had just over 5 percent of
the world’s people. But their consumer
spending—all the stuff families buy—
added up to nearly 32 percent. Meanwhile,
the purchases of all the people in South
Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—more
than 37 percent of the world’s population—
totaled less than 5 percent.

What does this mean? A lot of kids
aren’t getting what they need: warm
clothes, enough to eat, a roof over their
heads. Over a billion people live on less
than one dollar a day. That’s one person
out of every six!

Meanwhile, some of us have so much
junk we don’t know what to do with it.

The THING That Ate the World 13

Houses today are twice as big as they were
fifty years ago. And yet, thousands of new
self-storage places spring up each year to
catch the spillover of stuff Americans
aren’t using, have no place to put, and
probably should never have bought in the
first place.

Obviously, not having enough is a huge
problem. But aside from a crammed closet,
what could be wrong with having too

Here’s something we all know but may
not think about too often:

Everything we have comes from the earth.

Not just things like tulips and potatoes.

No, iPods don’t grow on trees, and you
can’t plant a flip phone in your garden.
But what they’re made of does come from
the earth.

Plastic, for instance, is made from oil—
just like the oil we use to fuel our cars. Like
potatoes, oil comes from underground.
But while spuds grow in a few months, oil
takes a little longer. Millions of years, in
fact! The oil we are using now is older
than the dinosaurs. Once it is gone, there
won’t be any more. And we’re burning it
up at the breakneck pace of eighty million
barrels a day—a quarter of that in the
United States alone.

How much is left? No one is sure. But it
is running out.

So why are we wasting our precious oil
on plastic cling wrap? On junk mail CDs?

On trashy toys kids play with once or
twice, then throw away?

You know those flimsy plastic bags they hand out at the supermarket? Americans throw out 100 bil- lion of them a year—and they can sit in landfills for a thousand years!

Sixteen-year-old Daniel Burd was sick of plastic bags raining down on him every time he opened the closet door. So he got to work discovering bacteria that nibble plastic. With their help, he demon- strated how a plastic bag can break down in as little as three months. Daniel’s project won the Canada- Wide Science Fair and netted him a $30,000 prize.

Some resources are “renewable.” Rain
keeps falling. Trees grow. Every spring, the
birds build nests and lay their eggs to
hatch new baby birds. But “renewable”
does not mean “limitless.” If people pump
water from the ground faster than it’s
replaced, after a while there isn’t much
water left. If we chop down forests faster
than they can grow back, pretty soon we
run out of wood. And if we destroy the
places birds and other animals live, it won’t
be long before the animals all disappear.

Let’s go back to the pie. If one kid
gobbles up more than his share, then less
is left to go around. For everybody in the
world to consume as much as North
Americans do, we’d need five more planets
just like this one.

A bulldozer pushes waste into a landfill.
Image © Serhiy Zavalnyuk / iStock

The THING That Ate the World 15

There are no more pies.

Want to know what happens when we
take too much? Just watch the news.
Armies fighting wars for oil. Miners ripping
up tons of rock to reach an ounce of gold.
Native people driven off their land so
that big logging companies can gobble up
the rainforest. Peaceful protesters tortured
and killed.

None of this is any fun to think about. It’s
a huge bummer. And to make it worse, now
you’re supposed to give up everything you
like and never shop again, right?


Here’s the crazy thing. Some folks out
there are hurting other people and wreck-
ing the planet so that they can sell you stuff
that you don’t even want. Not really. Not if
you think about it even for one minute.

Take bottled water.

Healthy. Refreshing. Convenient. How
would we ever do without it?

Actually, we would do a whole lot better.
Bottled water is terrible for the earth. It’s
bad for the people who live near the bot-
tling plants. And it’s not particularly great
for all the thirsty kids plunking down their
allowances on something they could get for
free. But it’s fantastic for the water bottlers,
who sell it at a higher price than soda, milk,
or even gasoline!

Americans drink bottled water by the
billions of gallons. Making all those plastic
bottles takes a million and a half barrels of
oil. That’s enough to gas up 100,000 cars

for a year! Then every single bottle gets
on a truck, ship, or plane and travels from,
say, Maine to Oregon (3,500 miles) or the
island of Fiji to Florida (over 7,000 miles),
burning lots more oil on the way—which
adds to global warming. Altogether, so
much energy is used on bottled water
that one scientist compared it to filling
each bottle up a quarter of the way
with oil.

Must be pretty special water, huh?


A group of scientists from the Natural
Resources Defense Council spent four
years testing over a hundred different
brands of bottled water. Here’s what they
learned: Bottled water is less safe and pure
than water we get from the tap.

How can this be?

Tap water is checked regularly to meet
rules laid down by the Environmental Pro-
tection Agency. Bottled water, on the other
hand, doesn’t get tested very often. Put
bubbles in it, and the law says it doesn’t
have to be tested at all! So if you open up a
bottle of water, you don’t know what you’re
getting. But those scientists do. When they
looked at bottled water, they found lots of
scary stuff, from arsenic (a poison) to “fecal
coliform” (also known as poop).

The Environmental Working Group in
Washington, D.C., ran its own test in 2008.
In ten brands of bottled water, they found
thirty-eight different chemicals, including
the radioactive element strontium. (“Buy

16Get Real

Plastic bottles clog Bicaz lake, Romania.
Image © Stéphane Bidouze / iStock

our water! Quenches thirst and makes your
guts glow in the dark!”)

The good news is, at least a quarter of the
bottled water sold in the United States is
just as safe to drink as tap water. How do
we know? Because it is tap water, drawn
from public pipes and run through filters.
But you’ll pay up to 10,000 times more than
if you filtered it at home.

What’s “PWS”? Not too long ago, those three mysterious letters appeared on every Aquafina water bottle, along with a pretty mountain-sunset logo suggesting the water came from a clear mountain stream. But under pressure from the watchdog group Corporate Accountability International, the company agreed to spell it out: Public Water Source. In other words, Aquafina is filtered tap water.

doesn’t end at the cash register. Few plastic
water bottles ever get recycled. The vast
majority end up in landfills, where they’ll
take thousands of years to decompose. Or
they are melted in incinerators, spewing
toxic chemicals into the air. (That is, any
toxic chemicals that didn’t already peel off
into your water.) Or they just lie around lit-
tering public parks, beaches, and sidewalks.

From a thoughtful shopper’s point of

view, bottled water is worse than worthless.
But that same water is priceless to the peo-
ple who live near the source.

For their cable TV show, the performers
Penn & Teller took over a fancy restaurant
in California. They printed menus charging
up to seven bucks a bottle for imported
water with elegant-sounding names like
“L’eau du Robinet.” Then they filmed
restaurant patrons sipping water, compar-
ing different brands, and praising their
“clean” taste. What these people didn’t
know was that the waiter had filled all the
bottles from a garden hose out back. L’eau
du Robinet
is French for “tap water.”

The high price we pay for bottled water

Check out this Starbucks offer: Buy a bottle of Ethos Water for $1.80, and they’d give a nickel to “help children around the world get clean water.” Hmm . . . How about we fill our bottles from the tap, then donate the whole $1.80 to a group like the Blue Planet Project, which fights for water justice against greedy corporations?

Ask the people of Plachimada, a village in
the southwest part of India. They had all
the water that they needed, until Coca-Cola

18Get Real

set up a bottling plant and started pumping
millions of liters a day. Soon wells ran dry


On Sale
Nov 1, 2011
Page Count
112 pages
Running Press Kids

Mara Rockliff

About the Author

When she’s not spreading dangerous ideas, Mara Rockliff can be spotted loading up on books at her town library, biking to a nearby farm for fresh ingredients for homemade ice cream, or fixing yet another mug of fair trade tea. In real life, she lives in eastern Pennsylvania with her family.

Learn more about this author