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Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy
Alex Steffen, 26 Mar 07
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BUY A BETTER FUTURE. That was the motto plastered everywhere at last weekend's EP!C sustainability expo in Vancouver. I was there to give a talk, and the talk went well, and we met a bunch of great people and saw some clever green products, but the whole time that phrase kept rattling around in my head, "Buy a better future."

It stuck in my craw, and here's why: You can't.

You cannot buy a better future, at least not the sort of bright green future we talk about here at Worldchanging. That sort of future -- a sustainable one, a future that itself has a future -- is not available for purchase: It doesn't yet exist. You can't find it on shelves, and you can't even order it up custom, no matter how much money you're willing to spend.

You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it's essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won't get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won't get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend -- from your local roads to your nation's army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill -- are still profoundly unsustainable. You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint. The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction.

The reality is that only massive systemic changes offer us the chance to avoid the catastrophes looming ahead. Stuffed animals with recycled filler and natural exfoliating creams are not really leveraging much change in the system. Indeed, the vast majority of the green products around us are, at best, a form of advertisement for the idea that we should live sustainably, a sort of shopping therapy for the ecologically guilty.

There was a time when that was great -- back in the early days of the Viridian design movement, when we were out to strike a blow for the cause of proving that green and stylish could be synonymous. But that was a decade ago, when we knew less and could do less. Now, the point's been made. Even worse, the glut of green shopping opportunities is overshadowing the most basic message of all, which is that the most sustainable product is the one you never bought in the first place.

So, should we give up on trying to spend our money in ways that could do some good? Absolutely not, but we need to start getting better at buying in ways that make an impact. We need to begin to practice strategic consumption.

What makes consumption strategic? Multiplied leverage.

The ideal is to buy products that not only do their job more sustainably, but send market signals back through the economy that are likely to result in more meaningful systemic changes.

If we want to see these changes, we should pursue five strategies, listed in order of increasing importance:

1) Defaulting to green: When relatively equal alternatives exist, routinely choose the greener one, even if its impact is only minimally better (for instance, choose recycled toilet paper whenever possible). This may not produce massive change, but it helps solidify the gains of greener products. We ought to be working to put obviously dumb products -- like bleached, pulped-forest toilet paper or toxic chemical household cleaning solutions -- out of business. That'd be a pretty clear market signal.

2) Lengthening our time horizons: A great number of costlier green products are smart investments when viewed from the perspective of long-term cost. This is true of everything from more efficient home appliances (which can pay for themselves through energy savings) to low-flow shower heads. These are big-ticket items, requiring substantial industrial investment to manufacture. Buying them represents a wise investment and speeds up the process of higher standards being more widely adopted, but it also requires spending more up front -- sometimes a lot more. (It'd be easier if we all adopted the Japanese approach of requiring today's best performance levels to be the minimum allowable a few years hence.) This kind of sustainable consumption makes good sense.

3) Greening our geeks: One of the best ways to pursue sustainable innovation is to have millions of people working to make their special areas of expertise and passion as green and socially responsible as possible. Gardeners, for instance, can plant native species, harvest rainwater, build rain gardens and create backyard habitat, transforming what once was lawn into an oasis of living creatures and good sense. The same thing's true for home improvement buffs, amateur chefs, travel hounds and all sorts of other enthusiasts: We can take the thing we love and make it better, something that's not only satisfying to do, but satisfying in its consequences. As Bruce says:

I don't believe in "average people" doing anything. People ought to support mitigation and adaptation within their own line of work, no matter how un-average that is. I mean: if you're butcher, baker, ballerina, banker, or a plumber, envision yourself as the post-fossil-fuel version of yourself, and get right after it.

This is true even, perhaps especially, for pursuits which are now incredibly destructive. I'd love to see a bunch of NASCAR enthusiasts and amateur mechanics put their brains together and prove that motor sports have a carbon-neutral future by assembling some really smoking fast cars that get, say, 330 miles per gallon. I'd love to see an X-Prize motivate teams of engineers around the world to find a greener alternative to current jet engine design. Heck, I'd love to see some golfers green golf.

4) Being truly strategic in our consumption: A whole different level of committed consumption comes into play when consumers send major market signals by choosing to make big purchases that may not, strictly speaking, be rational, because we are confident that it will help shift an industry's practices. Hybrids, organics, green power, ecotourism are all prominent examples, but let's push even further. Electronics are a gigantic social and environmental problem: E-waste creates horrific social and environmental problems all around the world. Better standards are starting to emerge, including the EPEAT standard here in the U.S. (which aims to become the LEED of electronics), but progress has been slow -- for instance, no product has yet met EPEAT's Gold standard.

But sooner (hopefully) than later, a laptop will become the first to earn that gold star, and when that happens, a good strategic consumption move would be to make sure that laptop (assuming it works well) is a commercial success, by buying it ourselves, talking it up online, at work and in our community, and generally doing everything we can to see that laptop manufacturers everywhere see it as a profitable trendsetter, not a failed experiment. It may not make great economic sense for us to take that risk on a new product, but it makes terrific sense if we want to be strategic consumers and we can afford it.

5) Tilting the playing field: If we really want to make big change happen, we've got to engage with movements designed to shift institutional behavior. We've got to lobby for better regulatory policies, investment in responsible companies, boycott bad players, destroy or reinforce companies' brands and influence the media. We can't achieve these results single-handedly, but we can work together with others who share our values to exert enormous leverage on the marketplace. And, paradoxically, that may end up being the most surprising result of strategic consumption: Shopping, that traditionally most narcissistic of consumer actions, may actually lead us to civically reengage.

Front Image: The FLOW Institute

Creative Commons Photo Credit (inside image)

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Comments

We can't buy our way to a better future.

But we can ban our way there.

Years ago I said "we'll know when people are getting serious about global warming when governments start to ban incandescent lightbulbs" and, as you've seen in the news, that time is now.

Consumers did not shift. Even though it made financial sense, even though it was undeniably good for the planet, consumers did not shift. How many of you have 100% CF bulbs in your house?

Not many, I'll wager.

So, no. The forward move is things like CAFE standards and banning outdated, inefficient technologies. You might choose to tax them out of existence rather than just outlaw them, because you know in a Bruce Sterling sense, incandescent bulbs are going to become fashionable contraband... smuggled, used for lighting art... "he's a real collector of the past... **incandescents**"

But we're going to get progress here by chopping off the past, not by purchasing the future, I think.


Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 27 Mar 07

I'm sorry, but I've gone back and forth on lightbulbs and the incandescents just look better. I've found that my family and I are just too visually sensitive to the harsh tone on the light in CF bulbs. So, to the innovators out there, make a CF bulb with the warm color spectrum of an incandescent and I'll replace all my bulbs in my house immediately.

To the point, don't just chop, INNOVATE your way out.


Posted by: Dean Pajevic on 27 Mar 07

Another thing to consider is whether the latest and greatest is really what we need at all, and even whether alternate economic models may encourage us along greener paths.

Bringing up the prospect of a green laptop is an important one and also a worthy goal. But how many people make anywhere close to full use of the power of a modern computer? Watching the steady flow of computers and other electronics through supposed obsolescence is a depressing sight, especially when much of it is still highly useful and would suit the needs of the vast majority of people.

Free Geek, an organisation in Vancouver, BC, based on a model from Portland, OR, is doing ethical computer recycling and reuse. For 24 hours of volunteer labour, helping to sort used computers and parts into the reusable and the recyclable, you can walk out the door with a complete computer system, easily capable of handling the most common tasks. Along the way, you'll learn as much about computers and how they work to keep your system running until it actually breaks down.

No time to volunteer? They'll even sell you one of these rebuilt and fully tested machines... cheap.

All of the Free Geek computers go out the door with the Ubuntu Linux operating system installed, along with all of the Free and Open Source software most people will need to perform any task they need. Not sure whether Linux would work for you? The CBC thinks it will.

The fact that these computers are still useful is constantly undermined by an underlying societal mantra, consistently droning about the speedy obsolescence of electronics. Contributing factors aside, this belief is at least partly driven by our dependence on proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, a key example being the resulting upgrade requirement that Windows Vista imposes.

But Linux will still run these old computers and run them well, extending their lives well beyond the currently accepted 'best-by' date. Just by choosing the right operating system you can help to reduce the level of e-waste while encouraging the creation of community around the development of software tools.

That's leverage.


Posted by: sean on 27 Mar 07

Consumption is the root of our problems -- Why are you promoting it? I think this is the main flaw of the Viridian philosophy. Tecno-fixes won't save us -- getting back to living WITH the Earth offers a much better chance of success.


Posted by: Gryphon on 27 Mar 07

Finally! A statement about the fact that we can't buy our way out of this mess. And what we need to do is build better and not more...


Posted by: Francesca on 27 Mar 07

Good column, Alex.

That said, didn't you end up at the same place you initially said you were moving away from? You gave us suggestions on how to buy our way to a greener future, but choosing to leverage our spending wisely. Small point, and I get the distinction you were trying to make.

Is consumerism the culprit? In many ways, yes. But, to label it as such, we have to narrowly define consumerism to mean that which we don't think others should be buying, but exclude those items that we buy. I love the ideal, but to think that the world is going to stop buying things is naive. That's not to dismiss those who go completely off the grid, but they are now and will be pioneers in the wilderness for a long time to come.

In the mean time, I'm happy to begin shifting my consumer spending to wiser decisions, while I simultaneously being to consume less.


Posted by: Timothy Killian on 27 Mar 07

Great piece.

I grapple with this everyday, as my company sells solar energy systems. In order for renewables to succeed and replace fossil & nuclear generation, we need to sell alot of solar, at higher prices, to bring this technology to scale and make it an affordable alternative. The fact is, you do have to buy & sell change or we stay stuck with what we have.


Posted by: janey on 27 Mar 07

I like what Alex says and...there are 2 additional priniciples to put into practice here.

1. Rethink product versus service.
Goods become not just whats but hows...
The take, make waste model is dying. This sustainable economy focuses on regenerativity. The focus shifts to the care and maintenance, the personality (literally) of the product. Its about developing relationships and healthily satisfying needs.

2.Reflect on real versus perceived needs...
or hypnotically implanted needs by the cultures that consume us. We need to be wiser than the traps of "consumer driven self-worth." In a sustainable economy the value you bring to the world is not how well you follow orders and consume your way through, but how well you innovate and adapt to change. Emotional intelligence will supercede the brute force of buying power. (Lets get those taxes shifted from human labor to careless producers)


Posted by: cari b. on 28 Mar 07

I think one way forward is to buy better long-lived iconic products that also can be inherited by our children. Timeless pieces with great aesthetics. Quality concerning both material and design have to be better. We are living in a world crowded by bad design....


Posted by: David Carlson on 28 Mar 07

Alex, this article felt like it helped answer some of the questions coming out of the discussion on materialism a few days ago. I have a much better picture now. I was going to comment in that article on the necessity of not dichtomizing "de-materializes" versus "strategize consumption". You made hints that way, and I'm under the impression that you don't see this as an either/or situation, but its not always clear.

Cari, your extra principals do a nice job of bringing in some of this de-materialization business.

Gryphon, I basically agree with you but we have to acknowledge that we can't get back to Eden.


Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 28 Mar 07

Related to D. Carlson's post above, what about "no more cheap shit" as a rallying cry? I am so tired of having to search and search for well-designed, well-MADE things of all kinds. One case in point: a home espresso-maker (ok, self indulgence) I'd had for 12 years recently gave up the ghost. I replaced it with same well-known brand, similar-looking machine and yes, it was half the price of the original but it's useless! My mother had the same vacuum cleaner for 20+ years -- I'll be lucky if mine lasts five. I've been trying to convince nieces for years not to shop in buy-it-wear-it-once-and-throw-it-out stores like Old Navy. North Americans are buying up this crap made abroad at ridiculously low prices so more Chinese can buy cars and afford shark-fin soup? No offense meant to the Chinese and other developing countries because they're being sold the same bill of goods we bought. But how nutty is that?


Posted by: Shelley on 29 Mar 07

I really appreciate your ideas Alex, and the discussion. I'd like to add two points.

First, I think we have enough preaching-to-the-choir; we need to invest heavily in education for everyone living in willful ignorance. I'm talking about formal classroom and e-learning programs that teach not only the issues but also how to engage neighbors, families and friends i.e. sales.

Second, Bill George, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, is advocating a graduated schedule of write offs on the Capital Gains tax. He thinks corporate crime (and, by extension, problems like planned obsolescence, shoddy products and pollution) is the result of short term thinking and investment. Encouraging or forcing industry to take a long term perspective may help our situation. You can view an interview with him on the PBS show, NOW: I really appreciate your ideas Alex, and the discussion. I'd like to add two points. First, I think we have enough preaching-to-the-choir; we need to invest heavily in education for everyone living in willful ignorance. I'm talking about formal classroom and e-learning programs that teach not only the issues but how to engage neighbors, families and friends i.e. sales. Second, Bill George, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, is advocating a graduated schedule of write offs on the Capital Gains tax. He thinks corporate crime (and, by extension, problems like planned obsolescence and pollution) is the result of short term thinking and investment. Encouraging or forcing industry to take a long term perspective may help our situation. You can view an interview with him on the PBS show, NOW - available at: http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/311/index.html


Posted by: Chris on 31 Mar 07

I just have to say I think this is an amazing site and everytime I come read an article I am filled with hope and happiness to know that there are other people like me out there and that we are going to make a difference. That said, this subject is something I have been struggling with for many years. I wish I could just go to place where everything was sustainable and carbon neutral and wonderful, but sadly as Alex points out, it doesn't exist. Right now I am in the middle of reading an excellent book that deals with this issue. "The Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping" by Duncan Clark. Given the fact that we can't completely withdraw from society and start over (because we all rely on it everyday) it is a very good and indepth look at what we can do and how big the problem is.


Posted by: Sarah Herman on 31 Mar 07

Consume away, because we cannot reinvent the wheel with our affluent habits. This is the way we live and I am happy that most of us agree upon that. We will not be able to buy our way out of this ecological catastrophe, but we need to find a way to fight for our survival as a planet. It is the only place we can call home. I am proud of many of our achievments and hopefully, have learned something from our failures.

There are many technologies that are being brought back from history and it is often the simple solutions that have the greatest impact. We must become aware of what we do and develop a universal value. For example a tree has a lesser value than a technology for carbon sequestration.

Unfortunatly, the establishment a true value for the items we buy will hurt the average consumer. However, some pain today will prevent a catastrophe in future. Value is becoming more recognizable today, whereas, we realize that sustainable materials are limited; Reducing, reusing and recycling will become necessary. Afterall, there are over 7 billion people on the planet and that means a lot of Value Villages.

We need a lot of energy for this, because it won't be easy. Check out some of the products I am involved in at www.niagarawindpower.com
These are decentralized energy systems, which utilize existing spaces with the potential to produce extra for the grid system to use. A system of trade must benefit the average home owner. Decentralized energy will create some of that needed leverage against our rising utility costs, as more people hook up together. Alternative energy systems are some of the few products on this planet that actually pay for themselves. Not immediately like a used car salesman will tell you. It is an investment; spending a little more now to protect ourselves and our future.


Posted by: ChopS on 31 Mar 07

I really enjoyed the article and want to add a few thoughts to the discussion.
-The word materialism should be reclaimed such as to imply a deeper consciousness and consideration for the material impact of daily decisions. A materialist is someone who walks or rides a half mile to the market or public library instead of driving...someone who hangs their clothing to dry on a line instead of using a dryer...turns off their computer at night...someone who understands and owns the material impact of daily decisions.
-Re-assessing our sense of time and value: this has to do with the idea of paying more up front for things that will save us more money over the time like more eficient appliances, windows, better made longer lastinc appliances...but should be extended to include discourse about a deeper truer cost and value i.e. a Big Mac might only cost the end consumer 1.99 in cash but it externalizes other social environmental costs onto the communities that produce it and then has the health costs that will affect the end consumer later in life such that it costs way more than 1.99...I wonder if behavioral economists are looking at such things.
-pace of life: along the same vein of thinking in terms of longer scales of time, can there be efforts to socialize our society to re-think how long activities should take...clothing should take several hours to dry and not minutes, food should take hours to shop for, prepare, consume, and clean up from rather than the minutes of dialing take out, eating, and throwing out.
-Check out the book "Made to Break" for an interesting historical reading of the notion of technological obselescence.


Posted by: Jordan on 31 Mar 07

A friend recently pointed out that "Anyone who says they're an environmentalist and has children is lying."

You're all neglecting the root cause here. Overpopulation=Overconsumption. The US is the ONLY developed country with a seriously increasing birth rate. Other developed countries are filled with women who have better things to do. As long as the US continues to exponentially increase its birthrate, it will continue to be the world leader in consumption. We can all do the future generations a big favor by not adding to their numbers.

Flame suit on.


Posted by: pinkyracer on 31 Mar 07

@pinkyracer: I think you and your friend need to tone down the accusatory rhetoric. It's these kinds of blanket statements ("Anyone who says they are an environmentalist and has children is lying.") by those who've gotten drunk on the kool-aid that turn people away from any movement, be it environmentalism, political parties, religious groups or what have you. How much better would it be to engage them instead?

I am a parent and an environmentalist. Our beliefs have influenced our decision-making with regards to having more children, and we are raising our daughter in accordance with those beliefs because it is her planet for longer than it will be ours. It motivates us every day to try our hardest to be good stewards of the planet.

Many aspects of parenting lead you to look for shortcuts and time-savers, and much of childrearing has been designed without environmental concerns in mind (see: diapers).

It's easy to say if you're dead or were never born you consume less than if you are alive, but telling people that procreating kicks them out of a movement is not a solution. At least, not one that works in a democratic society.

There's many ways to work at reducing our footprint on an individual, local, state and federal level. If you feel overpopulation is an issue, why not volunteer at Planned Parenthood?

Finally, do those women in other developed countries truly have "better things to do" or is it simply difficult for them to imagine a future for their children in their crowded and depressed economies?

We have more land that is less developed (and used far less wisely) than Japan, England, Germany, etc. If that is your point, great. The implication I drew from reading your comment is that having children qualifies you as a second-rate citizen. This is nearly as pejorative and unhelpful as your friend's comment.


Posted by: Jason on 2 Apr 07

Excellent, thought-provoking post, Alex. Echoing Jordan's comments above, I think it was the British cultural theorist Raymond Williams who observed that our problem is not that we're too materialistic, but rather that we're not materialistic enough. Which is to say that the predatory capitalism we live under values cheap low-skilled (probably abused) labor, obsolescence and disposability over skill, craft and durability. And we as "consumers" have forgotten how to appreciate the labor, pride and skill that is embodied in a truly well-made product. This is another of the casualties of globalization: the skills of the local machine shop, for example, have been lost to the shoddy anonymity of consumer capitalism.

Products we buy should be designed and built as much with the idea that they will endure a lifetime, if not generations. Such products would cost more up front -- probably much more -- but the embodied energy and labor would be spread over generations, rather than wasted in a landfill. The high upfront cost would encourage thoughtfulness over mindless consumerism -- you'd think twice about whether you really need the item. In our house our philosophy is "buy it once." If we can't be confident that something will last the rest of our lives, we avoid it. We cook with a cast iron skillet that my grandmother used, and in my mind it's priceless.


Posted by: John Baxter on 3 Apr 07

The point is to make sustainable choices in everything we do. The most sustainable choice is not to buy anything. The next choice is to make/grow your own items. After that you could buy or barter for something used that still has some usefulness. The worst option is to buy new things at the store. Even if it was made in a sustainable manner, it still has loads of packaging and traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, was probably assembled in a sweat-shop or grown by workers who are being paid slave wages, and all of the profit is going straight out of your community into the pockets of CEOs and investors who don't give a crap about the environment.

The article has an interesting message, but the underlying assumption seems to be that we will continue to consume beyond our ecological footprint, so the best we can hope to do is nudge everyone else into slightly better purchasing habits. I find this very uninspiring. I agree with previous posters, that we are a nation of consumers and that the corporations relish in selling us cheap plastic crap that will need to be replaced three days after the warranty expires. But that is only half the problem. We just buy way to much crap, period. I'm sorry your espresso machine is a piece of crap, but do you really need it anyway? And no, they don't make vaccuum cleaners like they used to. But there are still people who will repair or sell you a refurbished vintage vaccuum cleaner that will outlast anything they sell at walmart. And don't even get me started on the billions spent on junk food and disposable cleaning products and all the crud that we don't need or could buy non-disposable replacements for.

Americans in general have bought into the fallacy that we need brand new things to make us happy. Do we need Blue-Ray or HD-DVD? Did we need VHS? Why do people spend thousands on DVD collections of shows that all of their friends also own and are still being syndicated on TV? Computers are even worse. Every few years microsoft or apple comes out with a must-have operating system. Have you seen windows vista? It blows. And it is a horrible resource hog. Today's top-of-the-line computers can barely run it. But microsoft is going to stop selling and supporting previous versions of windows, so everyone will have to upgrade their systems. God forbid they download linux for free and continue to use their old systems to do everything they do now.

So what do we do? I'm not advocating neo-primitivism or anything crazy like that. But we need to stop buying what they're selling us. We don't need brand-new plastic-packaged things to make us happy. I'm glad someone is working on a gold-standard for sustainable PCs, but your old computer is already capable of so much more than you need. Hybrids are nice, but taking the bus or riding your bike is better.


Posted by: Conscious Citizen on 3 Apr 07

I can't afford to buy recycled toilet paper which is more expensive than non-recycled. My butt can't afford to buy recycled toilet paper which is much rougher than non-recycled. On Compact Flourescent Bulbs - they do cost more initially, but they save money in the long term - so when my current incandescents die, they will be replaced, one by one, with flourescents (they do come in warm, incandescent-like color temperature now, and a few are even dimmable).


Posted by: Jay Stiider on 3 Apr 07

I totally agree with your sentiments, ubiquitous consumption and sustainability living are an incompatible.

But to apply this, in day to day life, you have to use your $$$ as your vote!

If one focuses on the core principles, one can change the system from the core.


Posted by: tim on 3 Apr 07

Nice piece Alex.

I would also point out that we are all more than individual consumers. In other words, we have influence beyond the choices we make for ourselves.

First, we can influence our families to make better choices especially our children.

Next, there may be opportunities at work where one can influence choices, yes, some of us are mere surfs with no power, but many are not and can improve corporate choices immensely.

And there are schools and other organizations we may belong to or have influence over. I got elected to the school board of my local school and have thus far had energy efficient lights installed in the entire school and I am currently working on a grant to get photovoltaic solar panels installed. I also belong to the local humane society and had energy efficient lights installed in our clinic, and solar panels are on the agenda.

One's influence extends far beyond individual shopping choices.


Posted by: Tavita on 3 Apr 07

CF bulbs may burn less energy, but what of the unseen costs? They are larger and have many more components. What extra resources are used to produce them? Do you dispose of them in the trash? Who recycles them? Aren't there more toxic materials in them?

But, on a personal note, CF bulbs make noise! They make this faint to not-so-faint buzzing that drives me crazy! I can't use them. I won't use them. And I am hearing talk of banning incandesents! Oh No! My ears! I will have to horde them!


Posted by: irecycle on 3 Apr 07

In answer to some of the questions concerning CFLs.

First, CFL burn a lot less energy, 70% less than incandescents. Using a CFL instead of an incandescent light bulb can prevent 750 lbs of coal from being burned.

Next they last much longer, 5 to 7 years so while CFLs use more material initially they save the material equivalent of 6 to 8 incandescents.

You can dispose of them in the trash, if you do it is recommended that you wrap them in a plastic bag because they do contain a very small amount of mercury.

However, according to the USEPA,

"CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury emissions from entering the environment because they help reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. A coal-fired power plant will emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL."

(Even adding the 5 milligrams in the CFL to the 3.3 milligrams from use this is still less mercury in the environment than is released from using an incandescent light bulb. I.E. 8.3 compared to 13.6).

They also note that,

"Even in areas without significant coal-fired power generation as part of the electricity mix (e.g., Alaska and the Pacific Northwest), there are other, equally positive environmental impacts from saving energy through the use of CFLs: reduction of nitrogen oxides (which cause smog), and prevention of substantial quantities of CO2, a greenhouse gas (which is linked to global warming), as well as other air pollutants."

It is also recommended that you recycle them, for information on where to recycle them go and other informtion concerning CFLs download the pdf below,

http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf

As far as, the light hue and noise, in my experience these are old problems. There are now soft light CFLs and the 14 CFLs in my house don't make any noise.


Posted by: Tavita on 4 Apr 07

I enjoyed the article and the thread and just wanted to add a thought.

I have made the decision to purchase less and when I do, I buy quality and environmentally sound products whenever I can. This works for me but for the majority of the people in the US who are on a tight budget buying quality or green is not an option.

Most green items are too costly for most of us. On a tight budget a more expensive green light bulb may not be a choice when bulbs offering long life at a cheap price are available. Many just want their savings now and are not worrying about savings in the future.

Just look at the success of discount stores. Most items in there are poorly made,just garbage waiting to happen and more than likely made with no concern for the environment.

If you see something that you want or need at a cheap price and you know that a higher quality item is out of your price range, you're probably going to buy cheap. The cheap prices mean you can buy even more making you feel like you don't have to live without.

Sure purchasing less is an option but I think that is a choice that is more appealing if it's by choice and not out of necessity.

I am encouraged by the increased interest in caring for the environment. And also frustrated because I want to do more but can't afford to. I wonder if we can implement large scale changes when so many of these changes are more accessible for those with more money.

How can we convince the majority of the population that they need to consume less, buy quality and make purchases that are environmentally sound when they don't think they can afford to? It's understandable that their immediate needs are going to come before the environment.


Posted by: Pamela on 10 Apr 07

"How can we convince the majority of the population that they need to consume less, buy quality and make purchases that are environmentally sound when they don't think they can afford to? It's understandable that their immediate needs are going to come before the environment."

This is a tough one and I don't have all of the answer, but a part of the answer is to give people tools so they can see that they can't afford to make unsound environmental choices.

Here's a simple example. I recently came across this energy cost calculator,

http://members.tripod.com/~masterslic/appliance.html

I then looked at my coffee maker. A typical 10 cup coffee maker uses 900 watts. I would usually make coffee in the morning and leave the coffee maker on to keep the coffee warm until an automatic shut-off switch would turn it off after two hours. Calculating this usage it turned out that I was spending $13.92 a month or $167.23 a year to keep my coffee warm. In order to correct this I bought an inexpensive plastic and glass thermos carafe ($6.00) (it works fine) and started to put my coffee into the thermos after it was brewed. This allows me to turn off the coffee maker quickly. It takes about 15 minutes to brew the coffee and get around to putting it into the thermos; my costs were reduced to $1.74 a month or $20.90 a year. That's a savings of $12.18 a month or $146.33 a year.

My $6.00 investment was more than paid for in month. In addition, I will continuely save money and my carbon emissions are down. (Not to mention that the thermos carafe ensure that my coffe never gets that burnt taste from sitting on the warmer too long, and it is more convenienent because I can take the carafe outside to the picinic table and I don't have to walk back and forth to the house to have more coffee.)

Your results may vary depending on if you drink coffee, how long you have been leaving the coffee maker on, and how high a price you pay for a kilowatt hour of electricity (electricy for me is very expensive at .25 cents a kilowatt hour).

But the point is that if people use this or similar calculators for the various electronic applicances they have, as well as light bulbs, they will SEE what the actual costs are for them. And given concrete costs, rather than being told they will "save some money in the long term," people will be more likely to take action.

In addition, some of the things one can do are free, such as consistently turning things off when one is not using them, pulling the plug on things that are on "standby mode" when they are not in use, turning the temperature down on one's water heater, and turning the water in the shower off when one is soaping up. And if one knows how much one is saving by doing these free things, then one can more easily justify buying those more expensive CFLs or the low flow shower head to save even more.

Of course, to follow up on Alex's point about design, it would be better if all coffee makers came with a thermos carafe and they did away with the hot plate thing to begin with.


Posted by: Tavita on 13 Apr 07



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