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Getting to Sustainability: I Have Seen the Enemy, and He is Us

By Nick

This piece was originally published on BrightSpot Social

I recently wrote about why consumer behavior matters in response to Annie Leonard’s piece on why good citizens are more important than good consumers. Without rehashing that piece, I argued that good consumers help change our consumption culture and invest in sustainability, and that’s exactly what we need to get to a sustainable society.

To be frank, despite all of our “eco-consciousness,” we’re actually not doing very well in our pursuit of sustainability. I argue that this is, in large part, due to our reluctance – and in most cases, near inability – to consume less, even while we succeed in efficiency by making each thing we consume less damaging. A good case for this is California, where legislation has regularly increased our energy efficiency requirements for appliances. They have been very successful, but energy usage per capita has remained approximately constant – it hasn’t decreased – for the last few decades (compared with rapid growth in the rest of the U.S.). The laws met their purpose, but we have filled in our savings with increased usage in other areas. That is, we increased consumption, even as we reduced the damage of consumption. This savings is still quite good compared to where we could be, but we need to reduce our impact much further if we hope to meet our social and environmental goals.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, because are we not the best people to reduce our own impacts? A poignant comic strip said over four decades ago now, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” At least we understand our enemy. But anyone who has ever tried to go on a diet knows that changing your behavior isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Your own body chemistry is working against you in the form of your habits and expectations. In most of our cases, we have to undo an entire life’s worth of training– both subconscious and explicit – that consumption is the key to our happiness (Hint: It’s not).

We have a clear moral imperative to act – and not wait for someone else to act on our behalf using technology or policy, even if those will help. So the next step is how. The Internet has a dearth of information on what to do, and you have now heard why – as if you hadn’t before. But “how” is frequently lacking, in part because you will be most successful if you find the best method for you. The good news is that groups such as the Center for a New American Dream and my own Environmental Consumer are working on helping us all to kick our consumption habits. Still, most of us don’t know how to change our own behavior, so I’ll list off a few strategies I use and that underlay much of the work I do.  Take these with a grain of salt, because I can’t say that they will work for you, but they have helped many people I know to be more responsible consumers.

Set Goals
Have you ever participated in a weight loss program? Played a videogame with “achievements?” Been involved in a company’s reward points program? The strategy of setting a goal – even an artificial one – is used all the time to get you to consume, so why not to help you avoid consumption? Set an ambitious, but attainable goal. You don’t have to meet it, but simply trying to each time an opportunity arises will spur you toward better decisions in the long run and help you to form new habits of consumption.

Spend your Money with Companies you Support
When you do make purchases, spending money with businesses that work hard to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner is a clear winning strategy. You have probably heard the phrase “vote with your dollars,” and you have the opportunity to do so every day. Buying from companies like this matters because it’s the only way that you can make your money keep working for you – instead of against you – once it leaves your hands, and that is pretty powerful. (And, as a side note, if you tell the company you stopped buying from that they lost business, the impact is amplified)

For now, I will stop there because I want to make these three things clear and memorable:

  1. We, as individuals, must reduce our consumption if we want to reach sustainability
  2. Setting goals works, and I encourage you to start one
  3. Buying from responsible companies helps you reduce your impact even when you consume

So, I’m encouraging you to challenge yourself and set a goal. Right now. Not later. Now. If you need inspiration, the ideas have been well-covered. If you need some help figuring out what is best for you, ask Environmental Consumer’s helpdesk and we will get you set up. My goal is that this month I’m going to bike, walk, or take public transit for all places I go under ten miles – and some further places. What’s yours? Please share in the comments!

What Does Environmental Consumption Look Like Internationally?

By Nick

From time to time, we’ll be highlighting questions we receive from our “Ask our Helpdesk” program that we think have broad relevance. Have a question of your own? Send it our way.

A reader asks:
“I would like to know if there is an article about the environmental conscience around the world. If there is a country where the people are more careful than the others and why. If enviroconsumer could give that information I would appreciate. Also, it would be nice if the site had a “news section” that shows articles about the subject. Looking forward to an answer. Thank you.”

Thanks for your question. I’ll do my best to respond, but I think in this case, definitive answers may be lacking. International environmental consumption is also a broad issue, so if you want me to help you narrow in any more, feel free to let me know what you’re looking for. Are you looking for research in a scholarly journal, or are you more looking for a discussion? Generally speaking, consumer trends often follow two competing lines. As societies and cultures gain more wealth, their consumption generally goes up, but as segments of those societies gain more wealth, their environmental awareness tends to increase as well, but not enough to offset the overall culture’s increase in consumption.

On the consumer side, National Geographic does a survey in many countries then rates them based upon the responses. You can access their Greendex, as they call it, here: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/greendex/ – that’s probably the best consumer side resource we could find. Unfortunately, it leaves out the least developed countries, so its analysis is incomplete. Another study also attempts to understand these same trends, but is targeted at policy makers – you can find it here: http://www.naaee.net/sites/default/files/framework/EnvLiteracyExeSummary.pdf

On the government and institutional side of things, Yale’s Environmental Performance Index is excellent: http://epi.yale.edu/ as is their Environment 360 for news – http://e360.yale.edu/

If none of those hit the issues you’re looking for, just let me know, and we’ll see what else we can find. Also, thank you for your suggestion. At this time, we don’t see news as our role because we have very limited resources and think that many other organizations cover the news aspect pretty well (Treehugger is one example in the United States – I’m not as familiar with the news sites for environmental culture in other countries). At some point in the future we may expand into that role, but for now, our blog and slideshows are as close as we’ll get on that front.

Thank you to Sarah Sugar and ThienVinh Nguyen for their help in preparing this answer.


Reducing your Impact with Product Substitution

By Kate

Kate LinEditor’s note: When we started Environmental Consumer, we swore we’d never do a top ten tips list or anything like it. In the course of developing a new initiative, this information came together as a natural set of items to work on. We’re going to be digging much deeper soon, but we hope this helps in the meantime.

The first step for every environmental consumer is to make the easy swaps in your everyday shopping habits. These swaps, or substitutions, make the transition to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle easier by lowering your impact per item you buy. You’re likely already doing a lot of this substituting if you’ve changed your lightbulbs or your cleaning materials. These are good things, but we want to help you identify substitutions and make the process of substituting a more environmentally friendly product for another product an easy, low-barrier habit.

Where to Start

Product substitution is relatively easy and something most of us are tuned into when two similar products have different prices – now we’re working with two products with different environmental benefits and costs. General themes to look for are environmentally preferable companies instead of conventional brands, reducing waste by getting products with less packaging, and sourcing as locally as possible. Here is a list of 6 things to get you started!

  1. To make product substitution easier, switching up your go-to grocery store can do the trick! Conscious retailers like food co-ops do most of the hard work for you by sourcing environmentally preferable products. Find a food co-op near you! If you don’t have a co-op nearby, the act of going to a different grocery store is often good enough because it will get you into a new context easily re-evaluate your choices outside of your current habits. We’ll be going through more strategies like this in the near future.
  2. When possible, buy in bulk. This doesn’t mean buying many packages at once – some stores (like co-ops and Whole Foods) sell products in bins so that you can buy just the amount you need and reduce wasteful packaging.  This is good for things like grains, beans, nuts, granola, and more! Oftentimes, this route is actually cheaper than buying the same product in conventional packaging. Plus, by bringing your own reusable containers, you can seal them for freshness.
  3. When possible, buy produce that is organic. Check the list of the top 12 foods that have the most pesticide residue, which you may want to consider substituting out first for the greatest impact on your health and environment.
  4. Kick your bottled water habit, and treat yourself with a good quality reusable bottle instead. Look for one that is BPA-free and spill-proof, and from there let your inner creativity come out and find one that fits your style and needs! You’ll be minimizing water waste and energy use as well as reducing your solid waste in one swoop!
  5. Swap your household cleaning products for non-toxic, environmentally preferable alternatives. Diluted vinegar solution in a spray bottle does wonders for eliminating odors and cleaning spills!
  6. For paper products (printer paper, binder paper, paper towels, napkins, etc.), go for choices using recycled content. It saves more than 40% of energy sources, uses less water, and the amount of chemicals to re-process recycled paper is significantly less compared with virgin trees. Even better, where available buy postconsumer recycled content – recycled waste that has already been used in a product and which more commonly ends up in landfills.

Use these as your starting point and keep your eye out for effective substitutions. Try going to a different grocery store once and see if it helped you make more switches when you return to your normal store. When you’ve given a few of these a try, please let us know how they worked for you and what helped the most. If you need any help getting started, or have any questions about a substitute, send a question to our helpdesk from any page on our site.

Environmentalism Can’t Succeed Without Good Citizens and Good Consumers

By Nick

Nick SantosGenerally, we try to focus Environmental Consumer’s work on your power as a consumer to reduce your impact and change business practices by voting with your dollars. A discussion arose recently on the effectiveness of that, and Nick chimed in. This piece was originally posted at Next New Deal, but has been crossposted a few other places as well. We feel it is appropriate for this blog and hope you do too. Please respond with your thoughts in the comments.

Individual action alone won’t solve our environmental problems, but neither will giving up on responsible consumer habits.

Story of Stuff” creator Annie Leonard has posted a new video, titled The Story of Change,” in which she argues that it’s not responsible consumers but good citizens – those who vote, participate, take action, and generally show up – who create environmental change. The video is quite good, but I disagree that one is better than the other. In fact, for us to get the changes we need, we’d do best to vote with both our dollars and our ballots. Leonard says as much, but the video and her recent piece in the New York Times’“Room for Debate” series send a mixed message that discourages individual-level action. The argument environmentalists should be making loud and clear is that we must have good individual consumption habits and civic participation if we hope to succeed.

The central argument reflected in the video and by all the Times debaters is that individual actions are a tiny piece of the puzzle and that consumers who take individual action are more likely to feel an “illusion of progress” and think they have done their part without having any significant impact on the larger environmental problems we face. These are important considerations, but sending the message to consumers that their contributions “don’t add up” is dangerous both for our environmental impacts and for the viability of our civil participation. Consumers who take individual action are invested in the movement – an advantage that should not be overlooked. In addition, the environmental problems we face are ultimately linked to consumption, and we must address consumption in order to adequately fix them.

The first problem, as any climate change organizer can tell you, is that getting people to make the leap from individual economic and social impacts to grassroots organizing is no simple task. Leonard is right that making a connection to a larger movement is incredibly important, but the crux of organizing remains the individual – individuals who are so convinced of the problem that they take time out to show up and participate. To get to that stage, individual action is critical – it keeps us focused on the problem and raises awareness of the solution. Still, we can and should still tie these personal efforts to effective campaigns and political action. For an example of this done right, look no further than 350.org, whose organizational voice and message, as seen in the staging site and resources it provides for local organizers, strengthen the movement’s foundation and inspire people to engage their community on the ground.

The second issue is cultural. We have a serious consumption problem that legislation cannot eradicate, even while it can significantly reduce the damage of each bit of consumption. In reality, we have to buy less, not just buy smarter, if we want to do our part. So while taking action and demanding better government regulation tackles many of the problems associated with producing and disposing of products, environmentalists and consumers in general need to go much further in addressing the consumption problem itself.

This is where individual consumer purchasing adds up. In addition to reducing impacts, making real shifts in corporate behavior, and setting examples for other conscious consumers, individuals who make responsible purchasing decisions literally and figuratively invest in the sustainability movement. And we need that if we expect people to show up, vote, talk to their neighbors, or otherwise take civic action. Enough of us already profess to support issues like climate change, but when we don’t feel like it’s a part of our lives, it can drop off the radar. Participating in individual purchasing keeps these issues front and center in the public consciousness.

Some of these consumers are at risk of considering their purchasing to be their entire contribution to the movement, as the debaters contend. But if they do, then that’s our failing as environmentalists in not making the appropriate connection between civic and economic action. Leonard is trying to correct these problems, and I applaud her for it, but it won’t work if consumers get the impression that they should stop their personal investment in sustainability, as Leonard’s message often suggests. We need to help these two types of critical action work together if we want either of them to have a chance of success.

What we’re about

By Nick

There are a lot of blogs on the Internet, many of them environmentally focused.  As a drop in the bucket, I feel like I should tell you what we’re going to write about and why this one might be worth your time – and give some background on the organization in the process.

I started the Environmental Consumer in late 2007 with the idea that it’s really hard to know how to be friendly to the planet in our everyday lives. Most of us (in the United States, at least) are taught how to live successful, prosperous lives without considering environmental constraints. To be environmentally friendly, we are essentially relearning the most basic functions of our lives – and that’s really hard. The organization was meant to provide information to people in transition – those who want to be environmentally friendly, but know nothing but consumption. As I’ve made this transition myself, I’ve realized how much more information needs to be available in order for others to do the same.

Today, the goal remains the same, but our approach is slightly different than our initial intent – in part due to increasing environmental awareness by U.S. consumers; however, we’re still trying to put you in the driver’s seat by providing databases and tools that make environmental choices and decision-making possible. As it stands, it’s often difficult and time consuming, if not entirely impossible, to find the information that you need to make socially responsible choices. We’d like to change that and provide it in one place.

In that vein, on the site, look for:

  1. Tools – The first web tool, which helps you quickly convey your concerns to large companies (we take care of the annoying parts), is already available at http://www.enviroconsumer.com/tell – we’re busy making it better and building more tools and systems like it.
  2. Databases – We want you to be able to find information on socially conscious companies and facilities in your area. We’re preparing the first one now – look for it in the coming months.
  3. Reports – Occasionally a database isn’t enough information to help you make the right choices. When we see something that needs expert analysis, we’ll research it and provide it to you in an easy to digest form.
  4. Some fun – Sometime soon we’ll be posting slideshows of the more interesting and ridiculous trends in consumer goods. You can also expect our first shirt, printed with “Buy Recycled,” soon. It’s printed on previously used shirts so the impact is low and every item is completely unique.

Similarly, what you can expect on our blog is:

  1. Updates on our progress – Sometimes projects take time and we’ll want to let you know in the interim some interesting findings or give you some information to build excitement – and we want you to be as excited as we are. Similarly, when we release something new, we’ll tell you about it here too (à la Google’s blog)
  2. Tips – It seems like there are a half-million places on line to find a listing of ways to live sustainably. We’re not trying to duplicate those. Instead, we’re going to provide strategies for you to change your thinking and point you to other helpful resources.
  3. Analysis of major events – This isn’t a news blog – if you want green news, you should probably check out Treehugger (and dozens of other sites). They fill a different niche than we do. However, occasionally something will happen on consumer issues that warrants discussion and commentary – and you’ll be able to find that here.

So that’s what we have coming up!  We’ll let you know (or keep checking back) as these projects come together projects come together. We’re pretty excited and hope this helps you understand what you’ll be able to get from this site. Should you have any questions, you can reach me via email – my address is “nick” (minus quotes) at this site’s address. Thanks and happy reading.

Principle #2 of Environmental Consumerism

By Nick

Principle #2: The gains of fuel efficient vehicles are lost if you drive more often because you have one.

Hybrids are a great step toward fuel-efficiency and better transportation, but they need to be combined with driving less whenever possible if you wish to reduce your carbon footprint and your oilprint. If you get in the mindset that it’s ok to drive more places because you’re using less gas per mile, you’ll end up using a similar amount of gas as if you had a less fuel-efficient car, but drove less.

This is part of our series on principles of being an environmental consumer

Principle #1 of Environmental Consumerism

By Nick

Principle #1: If an environmentally friendly product doesn’t work, don’t assume the same of all environmentally friendly products.

Just as you would only assume any other brand’s performance only reflects on the brand, assume the same for environmentally friendly goods and services. If a product doesn’t work, try a different manufacturer, and if you repeatedly run into poor products, write the manufacturers a letter telling them you need their products to improve.

This is the first in our series on principles of being an environmental consumer

Principles of Environmental Consumerism: Intro

By Nick

In addition to a planned series on strategies for getting in the mindset of using less, we’re going to kick off a series of very short blog posts of principles to guide you as an environmental (or socially-responsible in general) consumer.  These will be tips to help pass by misconceptions and overcome small barriers.

This series will come out as we think of them, so the number on each post won’t have relevance to its priority in your life. Take them as you will and incorporate them as you can.


By Nick

Hi all – you’ve stumbled across our site in the middle of it being rebuilt! There’s not much on the blog yet. You can click here to return to the site – come back soon!