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How Much More Can We Do With Less?
Vinay Gupta, 20 Jun 06

Just how much more can we do with less?

I recently read an article which discussed a company which went to a 32 hour work week with no drop in productivity. (the story is taken from The Time Bind by Arlie Hochschild)

While this example would not scale over an entire economy - a steel mill, for example, is unlikely to be able to replicate it - it fascinates me that a company could cut 20% of one of it's most critical and expensive inputs (human time) and not change its outputs. While not in the same category as Factor Four it is in an unexpected domain. How much more slack is there in the system?

Is it possible that the inefficiencies in our economy are so large that, in fact, we could tighten 80% of our resource use right out of the loop over a period of fifty years, without developing any radical new technologies (although, of course, we will!). The poster child for this idea in my own understanding is a roll of kitchen plastic wrap a friend bought at a warehouse store. This roll is a two thousand square feet and was purchased for around six dollars, replacing 20 rolls of 100 square feet each, with correspondingly larger purchase, packaging and transportation costs. It is an identical product, of identical utility, simply bought in a larger size.

This might seem like a trivial example compared to green buildings and zero emissions polyester factories and so forth. But what would be the net environmental impact if all products simply dropped the two smallest sizes they were available in? The social impact might hit the poor quite hard at first, but lower long term prices might restabilize them in unexpected ways. Could we really cut 5% or 10% of our national environmental impact simply by never buying anything except in the Super size? It sounds silly, but when you start counting trips to the store, and packaging, and use of temporary alternatives when basics run out. If such huge savings are possible from small changes, what kinds of savings would be possible from big changes?

The more I look at the world around me, the more I realize that a relatively small set of behaviors would have to change to solve nearly all of our environmental problems. From the current status-quo those changes look untenable, but they are not: insulate what is heated or cooled, streamline what is pumped, buy the efficient model. These basic truths are repeated over and over again in different environmental frameworks - everybody has their own way of saying "do the right thing."

If one does not look at demand side reduction, it is easy to assume that we are really in trouble. "Use less" has become contaminated with a thrifty penny pinching mindset. But "use smarter so you get equivalent or better service for less energy" - and we need a catchy mantra for that - might be a very simlar world to the one we live in now, just with the waste taken out.

Diesel hybrids, high performance buildings and pervasive industrial efficiency efforts could reasonably half our nation's energy use. Studies at different times estimate the benefit and potential at different levels, but the savings are huge. But somehow the concept of the "negawatt" - a unit of energy saved replacing a unit of energy generated - seems to have failed to penetrate far enough into the environmental discourse to becoming the defining goal of our movement. New wind capacity is many times more expensive than energy efficiency, but because it is a "more" solution, rather than a "less" solution, somehow it gets higher billing than green home construction.

I feel like the concept of "doing more or the same with less" needs a new brand, a new word, a new identity. Efficiency is too cold and doesn't capture the "picking gold up off the sidewalk" quality of doing the same work in 32 hours as forty, and being happy with it, or cutting your heating bills by 75% and being warmer.

I feel like this may be a quirk of human evolution: we are well programmed at the deep levels to be able to identify "more" - more food, more land, more water, more cattle. But identifying an invisible entity like "better insulated" is more subtle. A windmill pumping out electricity is a "tangible more" but a lot full of well insulated houses is an "intangible less." The low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency simply garners less press, less attention, less buzz.

Can we change that by branding? Can we change that with new tools and new markets which trade "less" as "more?" as Amory Lovins and others have suggested? How do we make it as good business to save power as generate power, given that the environmental benefits are as large or larger? These are not new questions.

What I see in my minds eye is a garbage bag full of waste and two gallons of gasoline attached to two thousand feet of plastic wrap, divided up into 20 small tubes. Every day customers buy that product, over and over again, unthinking and unknowing. And we wonder why the waste continues!

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Lets try to hi-jack "Free Energy". I know there are costs in R&D and building it, but people like "Free" stuff.

I think a good way to use taxes to force a system like this is to charge the creators of anything that uses energy for 1 year of its estimated energy use at construction. The same of a toy, phone, oven, or building. If the builder is forced to think about the energy costs then they will improve efficency.

Of course we need higher energy costs, but I think that is being taken care of already. :)

Posted by: Joe on 20 Jun 06

Remember the knight templar in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade's "Choose, but choose wisely.." ?

How about getting a doppleganger of him with "Use, but use wisely..."

Too culturcentric?

Posted by: Kara on 20 Jun 06

My wife suggests "Plenty".

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Jun 06

Nicely put, Vinay.

One thing I'd like to comment on:

"Use less" has become contaminated with a thrifty penny pinching mindset. ...I feel like the concept of "doing more or the same with less" needs a new brand, a new word, a new identity.
I think the underlying problem is a consumerist, fashion-conscious culture - changing the name won't help much. What about a different tack: using the idea to reclaim the best in traditional cultures? Prudence and thrift are values in all traditional cultures. And for a good reason - they have survival value.

Posted by: Bart on 20 Jun 06

Posted by: jefurii on 20 Jun 06

needs a new brand, a new word, a new identity

"Living lightly" is in the right direction.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 20 Jun 06

I love what you are saying on a concpetual level. I am a little frightened though at the thought of giving up on the "use less" concept just because people don't like the stigma attached to it - because in the end, in a finite system, the only real solution we face is to "use less."

I'm not economist or anything, but assuming that the energy is what we as individuals are paying for, the concept of:

"use smarter so you get equivalent or better service for less energy"

is similar to saying

"use smarter so you get equivalent or better service for less money"

Without the concept of "use less" in there somewhere, this in leads to more "disposable" income, which drives production of more (efficient or not, it's *still* more) things for us to spend money on.

In terms of the working less. I love the idea, but I know that if it takes both two coworkers 40 hrs / week each to do the same quality of work, and both figure out how to do it in 32 hours, the one who gets to keep their job at the next downsizing, or gets the promotion and raise, is the one who chooses to work 40 hours, doing 20% *more* work. Competition and humans insatiable quest for *more* -be it tangible goods, or intangibles such as prestige, power, or even "quality" will ensure that we never get to rest on the "same for less" amount. The only way I have found to be happy with working less is to be happy with what I have and where I am in life, to shut-off that voice in my head that is saying "get famous. get power. get prestige. get more experience - so you will be happier".

But what would be the net environmental impact if all products simply dropped the two smallest sizes they were available in?

I think it is safe to say that without some much bigger social, psychological, (and genetic?) re-programming, the net-impact would be a huge increase in waste (as in unused material getting thrown away or being needlessly consumed).

We humans are apparently genetically pre-disposed to consume what we see before us - lest we loose the opportunity to consume it in the future. While this is obvious in the case of food - i.e. why we tend to eat more when we are served bigger portions, I have a hunch that it's true for other things as well. Many people would think less about using more plastic wrap if there was a huge roll sitting on the counter signifying an exaggerated abundance.

I, myself, often don't buy things unless they are in a small enough size that I can be sure I will actually use all of it. Of course, perhaps eating stale peanuts which were bought in bulk a year ago is just a mental barrier I have to overcome.

But it's not just food - it takes me several years to use a small role of kitchen wrap. Usually it starts to get old and a little brittle before I finish it, and I have to buy a new role. If I was forced to buy a big sized role each time, it just means that there would be more going to waste. (Even if the product is perishable, I would also be ultra-pissed if I invest in a big role that will last me ten years, and the next year the new "Ultra-Kling" version came out!)

Another example - in Japan food and drink is usually sold in much smaller portions than in the US. Yet, I don't see people buying 3 portions to equal the same amount as the large one. Instead, people usually just buy the small one and consume a little less. If the only choice is a big size, it either means they get fatter, or they throw more away.

Of course, if the "buy big" idea was coupled with a much more lubricated sharing network, so that my neighbors and I are all sharing the large role of plastic wrap. If that was the case we could use it up within the year and it would be more efficient. How long would it be, though before some innovative company sees the benefit in providing the same amount of wrap to the sharing network, but dividing it up into individual portions so that I can keep *my* portion in my own kitchen instead of knocking on the neighbors door (whom I don't like anyway).

Posted by: Kevin on 20 Jun 06

Nice piece, Vinay - thoughts I've been brewing on for a while. But I agree with Bart: let's not throw out thrift, and being thoughtful about what we buy. Calling it 'penny pinching' does evoke miserlyness, and avoids attention on our consumption practices. If we keep buying stuff we don't need and bringing crap home, however much our homes are insulated will make little difference. Honestly speaking, we just have to start using less.

And what happened to the 'Reduce – Reuse – Recycle' mantra of the 90s? (well, it was briefly here in Australia). Somehow, we've become complacent since recycling became entrenched, and abondoned the other two... (though 'living/treading lightly' is getting wider currency here.) Perhaps we can learn from Schumacher's idea:"Small is Beautiful".

Posted by: Mark on 20 Jun 06

Excellent piece! I've been thinking of ways to cut down on my consumption of resources a lot lately. Two examples that will hopefully give people ideas (neither of them is brilliant, but I hope that they'll get people thinking):

1) Use a mug or other container for all your drinks. If water from the tap doesn't appeal to you, get a filter or, at the very least, but water in large jugs or water cooler containers that can be refilled. Try to get soda, juice, etc. from a fountain (with your mug) or, if that's not always easy, only buy the largest containers you can for home. Doing all these things, I've been able to cut down the number of empty plastic/aluminum containers I generate every day to nearly zero on average.

2) When you go the grocery store, getting paper bags is always good. But to take it one step further, keep the bags you used last time and bring them to the supermarket with you. When you get to the checkout, have them use the old bags rather than new ones. Doing this with plastic bags is ok, since you won't be throwing them out unless they break, but paper is preferred. I'd also recommend using the good, sturdy type of bags that they have at places like Trader Joe's--they're thick and have handles, so they'll last longer.

Anyone else have little things like these to share? :)

Posted by: Bolo on 21 Jun 06

The writer has benefited the reader. We do need a catchy mantra. "Moving on the Planet Upright" copyright 2006, is a good phrase candidate. It could be applied throughout the entire energy chain.

Posted by: Ask on 21 Jun 06

Thanks for all the comments, feedback and ideas.

Recycle has, from my perspective, been kind of disasterous - post-consumer recycling is a lot of effort for relatively low rewards. An incandescent->CF bulb replacement program would have done a lot more good and really could have changed our energy use patterns for about the same cost. But that's a pet peeve and feel free to ignore me :)

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 21 Jun 06

Very interesting post.

I realise it was a quote from the book, but I think the definition of productivity has been mangled here.

"""First, productivity did not decline. I swear to God we get as much out of them at thirty-two hours as we did at forty."""

Productivity is a rate, not a direct measure. He seems to be saying they get the same work output with 20% less input - that's actually a 25% increase in productivity. In those terms it's much like efficiency as a measure ... come to think of it, if office workers were affected, their desktop monitors and computers would have been running for 20% less time as well, using 20% less power ...

Posted by: Adam Burke on 22 Jun 06

Vinay, I accept your point that post-consumer waste recycling has its inefficiencies, and love the idea of low-energy bulbs (which weren't as readily available or cheap here 10–15 years ago). However, the 3Rs helped focus some environmental concerns in the late 80s-early 90s on over-consumption. Unfortunately, that focus dissipated into a concentration on what people did with their stuff after they brought it home from the shops and used it...

It was considered an achievement that people remembered to chuck their aluminium cans, glass & PET bottles, and newspapers into the recycling and put them out on the curb. We forgot about what we were consuming in the first place - resources, things we didn't necessarily need, and the energy used to produce them. And yes, the result was a waste recycling system that is not hugely efficient and lets our continued consumption off the hook. It's the other two of trio that I was concerned have been neglected. 'Reduce' (what we're now calling 'use less') and 'Reuse' (as the comment on shopping bags and mugs points out) are still effective behaviour changes that need attention.

Posted by: Mark on 22 Jun 06

Oh yeah, in response to Bolo's query on more ideas on how to reduce and reuse, I thought these two posts on ideas for re-using children's clothes on would be helpful to those thinking of reusing and reducing:
Hand-me down clothes and
Shopping for second-hand clothes

Common sense? Simplistic? When we consider how much water, energy, and petrochemicals cotton growing and milling require, (not to mention the prevalence of GE cotton), as do synthetic textiles, and how 'fashion' and 'datedness' drives our consumption, these ideas could be powerful in moderating (if not wholy reducing) our consumption patterns.

Posted by: Mark on 22 Jun 06

I have a similar daydream, not about the sizes of items made, but of their quality. Imagine if every company just dropped the item from their product line that was of the cheapest quality. Like the piece of particle-board furniture that looks like the solid wood version, but falls apart after a year, or the (insert any product name here) that used to be made of wood or metal but is now made of plastic, so it breaks right away and you have to buy a new one.

Someone once said, "There is nothing so cheaply made that someone somewhere can't figure out how to make it even worse." The end result is that in trying to save money now we are seduced into buying things that will only cost us (and the planet) more in the long run.

Of course being able to take a long term view of one's own needs takes a lot of strangely painful effort in this short term world. It requires that you can guess what you will need far into the future, which was easier when the world changed a little more slowly, and the next new thing wasn't always making the old thing obsolete.

So for a catch-phrase, I'd suggest something along the lines of: "Less Stuff, More Quality" or "Less Energy, More Done."

Posted by: Jeffrey Rusch on 23 Jun 06

There is a long history of management/organisational behaviour research that support the idea that people can often do the same work output in less hours. In particular, the Hawthorn research in the 1930s led to the 'Human Resources School' of management. An earlier UK report in 1916 found that factories could move from having workers work 6 x 12 hour days to 6 x 10 hour days (72 hrs per week to 60 hrs) and produce more output!

Posted by: Dave-oz on 27 Jun 06

Germans have shorter work weeks (~37.5 hrs) than Americans, but some German companies are trying to change that. VW is one of them, although they are attempting to revert to a 35-hr work week from the current schedule of 28.8 hours over four days, which they've been doing since 1994!

According to the German embassy,
"The great majority of German employees work five days, 37.5 hours a week on average. Many firms and government agencies in Germany have adopted "flex-time" schedules for their employees. Under this system, employees can choose for themselves when they want to start and end their working day, as long as they are at work between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and do not work more than ten hours per day. The original reason for introducing this system was to combat rush-hour traffic congestion, but among the more direct gains are an improvement in employee morale, greater productivity, significant decreases in absenteeism, greater flexibility for women who juggle the demands of work, home and children, and the increased sense of individual dignity that the employees get from having a greater say in organizing their own time."

I support such flexibility for the very reasons mentioned.

Posted by: Nina on 28 Jun 06



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