The Best And Worst Of The World’s Most Harmful Products

Photo courtesy of Brad Aaron via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

By now, most of us are at least tangentially aware of the environmental wreckage some of the products we use everyday cause.

And whether we care deeply or not at all about eco-unfriendly habits, so to speak, some of the worst things remain unavoidable: fuel, food, and clothing, to start.

For those who are concerned with ethical and environmental harm but aren’t quite ready to give up cheeseburgers, this guide is for you. Here’s how to navigate a world of harm by picking the best of the worst.

Don’t feel like reading? Watch our minute-long explainer below.

Fossil fuels

Why it’s bad: According to climate scientists, fossil fuels are largely to blame for climate change, the planet’s warming, and the consequences that may come with it.

Why you still need it: As much as we’d be on board for a solar-fuelled world, in this day and age 84 percent of energy is derived from oil, gas, and coal for everything from heating, to electricity, to transportation.


The best: Not all fuels are created equally. Natural gas, and petroleum specifically, is the cleanest fossil fuel. Though those driving may not have a huge amount of choice in the matter, diesel is regarded as more energy efficient than gasoline, and biodiesels even more so.

The worst: As a recent report makes clear, tar sands are by and far the worst form of oil; coal is the most harmful of all fossil fuels, and any fuel that takes large amounts of energy to extract is bound to be bad.

It’s next to impossible to pick and choose between them, though, as services like electricity and heating are typically provided by public utilities — which often waste more fossil fuels than they deliver.


[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”vY7Vnh6tPX7Z0RI5XGQwTZYN238eHFXe”]Why it’s bad: Plastics are nonbiodegradable waste products, a majority of which, if not “downcycled” (recycled into a lesser plastic), end up in landfills, polluting land and sea, or being shipped abroad to be burned in open air.

Plastic production also accounts for about 8 percent of the world’s oil production

Why you still need it: Plastic is ubiquitous, and though sometimes environmentally hazardous is useful for manufacturing, recycling, packaging, and keeping food fresh.

What’s the best: Luckily, plastics are typically labelled by numbers that correspond to environmental merit.


Safe plastics include:

  • Plastic #1: PETE or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): Clear plastic that makes up soda and water bottles; can be recycled easily
  • Plastic #2 – HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) Opaque plastics that make up milk jugs, shampoo bottles, etc; can be recycled easily
  • Plastic #4 – LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) Lightweight plastic found in squeezable bottles and shopping bag; can be recycled easily.

What’s the worst: The dirty counterparts to good plastics, obviously, aren’t quite so friendly:

  • Plastic #3 – V or PVC (Vinyl) Plastic used in food wrap and plumbing pipes; linked to numerous health issues including miscarriages and liver issues, and is difficult to recycle.
  • Plastic #6 – PS (Polystyrene) Polystyrene is styrofoam, which is difficult to recycle, bad for the environment, and may leach toxic chemicals, especially if heated


Why it’s bad: The livestock industry uses up more land than any other human activity, is one of the largest contributors to water pollution, and is a greater emissions source than most types of transportation, combined.– and that’s not to mention wide criticisms of inhumane animal treatment.

Why you still need it: Certainly, vegetarians get along just fine. But meat is still the most convenient and popular source of protein out there, and not everyone has the luxury of wholesome local alternatives. Plus, bacon, am I right?


What’s the best: Chicken, turkeys eggs, and fish are the greenest meats. Smaller animals like chickens, which only have one stomach, take up less space and reproduce quickly, generate only a fourth the emissions of their red-meat counter parts.

Even just eating less meat and general is a step in the right direction: it’s estimated that if Americans went one night a week meatless, it would be equivalent to taking tens of millions of cars off the road.

What’s the worst: Beef, beef, and more beef. But also lamb, bison, goat, and to a slightly lesser extent, pigs. But it’s cows in particular that require 28 times more land, 11 times more water, and six times more reactive nitrogen than other animals on average — not to mention, it takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of grain-fed beef.


Why it’s bad: A majority of major brands and retailers sell garments made under unethical conditions (any factory that violates two or more labor laws is considered a sweatshop, typically characterized by low wages and poor working conditions).

Even American Apparel, which built its brand around its “Made in America” byline, has faced controversy for multiple cases of sexual harassment and a staunch anti-union policy.

Why you still need it: Unless you’re a nudist, you need to wear clothes. There are very limited alternatives if convenience, affordability, and style are important to you. Though more than half of people say ethical clothes are important to them, few understand the conditions their clothes were made in before making a purchase.

The best: Brands like Gap, H&M, and Levi’s were named the most ethical apparel companies in 2014. These brands, however, are marked with criticisms on’s shopping guide, which provides more trusted alternatives.

The worst: Stores like Walmart, Target, and Macy’s have declined to sign an agreement that would legally guarantee worker safety, one governed in part by worker representatives, in favor of an unenforceable “worker safety” alliance between large corporations.

Originally published on March 27, 2015. 

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?

Jennifer Markert