There is much debate these days about global climate change, whether it is a legitimate concern, and if legitimate, whether it is a result of humanity’s environmental impact or not. Regardless of the outcome of these arguments, we, as the dominant species on Earth, have a responsibility to have as little impact on the planet as possible, preserving it and its resources for future generations, whether they have a similar climate to ours or one vastly different. M. Lee and Marlanda English, in “Green Consumerism Sells Shopping as an Environmental Solution,” write that many companies and groups have stepped forward, seemingly to claim they have the answer to the environmental question. These companies imply that by buying their environmentally friendly, energy efficient, renewable resource product, you have done your part to “save” the planet. But, alas, there is no easy, purchasable answer. Reducing our impact on the earth will require more than buying the right product or shopping at the right stores: it will require sometimes difficult lifestyle changes from us all.
Consumerism, green or not, will not bring about positive environmental change because the purchase of green products does not reduce a person’s carbon footprint. Lee and English observe that after purchasing a fuel efficient hybrid car, American families, no longer concerned about conserving gas, simply drove more and were less concerned about lowering the number of miles they drove a day. They also point out that purchasing an environmentally friendly appliance and tossing the old environmentally unfriendly but still functioning one out means that two appliances were produced, shipped, bought, and installed, when only one was needed. Lee and English argue that instead of lowering consumption of goods (which require resources and energy to produce), green consumerism encourages customers to consume more than they normally would.
Unlike green consumerism, lifestyle change can reduce consumption and thereby lower humanity’s impact on the earth. The three R’s taught in elementary school are still as applicable today as they were when first introduced. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are the most effective ways to positively effect the environment we live in. However, unlike the tips and tricks learned in grade school, lifestyle changes for adults, more often than not, are more difficult to incorporate into day to day life than turning off the tap while brushing your teeth or reusing a glass jar for a pen holder.
Therein lies the second problem with green consumerism. Because green consumerism has become “fashionable,” revealing shoppers to be “ethical, enlightened human beings” while pointedly revealing the depths of their pocketbooks, it garners all the commitment and longevity that other fashions and fads have had. Environmentalism runs the risk of going the way of slap bracelets, crimped hair, and moon boots. Lee and English maintain that when someone embraces environmentally responsible actions because they are “fashionable” or because they are convinced by well-funded advertisements they are “less likely to make a long-term commitment to reducing their impact on the environment” because they lack a true understanding of the issue. A true understanding is necessary if people are going to step away from what is easy but ultimately “ineffective and counterproductive” and step towards effective, albeit hard, lifestyle changes.
Lifestyle changes are hard because they require an increase in work. Lee and English suggest washing laundry by hand and hanging it to dry on a clothesline as an alternative to buying a new energy efficient washer and dryer. For most Americans, busy with work, their children, their children’s myriad school activities, and more, this is not an attractive option. Planting a vegetable garden, while environmentally and economically responsible, is a lot of hard work, provided you have the yard space to plant one in the first place. Reducing fuel consumption is as simple as walking or riding a bike when ever possible – provided that you live within walking or riding distance of the places you need to go, have the extra time it takes to walk or ride instead of drive and it is acceptable for you to arrive at your destination sweaty.
Time is another thing that lifestyle change requires. It takes time to ride your bike to the store. “While most everyone has at least one or two old canvas tote bags lying in the back of a closet . . . ,” Lee and English observe, “thousands are now jumping on the reusable grocery bag bandwagon and buying themselves colorful new shopping bags . . . .” As simple as pulling the already owned bags out of the closet is, it still takes time, as does bagging groceries into non-standard bags. Composting kitchen, garden, and yard scraps is a great way to increase the fertility of your soil without relying on nonrenewable, petro-chemical based fertilizers, but composting takes time. Even if you buy a ready made composter, it takes more time to walk out the door, put the scarps in, and walk back inside, than it does to scrape those same scraps into the garbage. Recycling also takes more time than throwing something straight into the trash. Depending on the recycling policies of your community, you may have to wash out all the cans and cartons and peel labels off cans before they can be recycled. You may have to separate the glossy paper from the plain paper and remove staples from magazines before they can be recycled. This time commitment keeps many households from effectively recycling.
However, there is an upside to the downsides of increased work and time. Environmentally friendly lifestyle changes can have an effect on more than just the environment. These types of lifestyle changes can save households money and, with some creativity, many of the downsides can be minimized, if not removed completely.
While bike riding and walking to a destination may require more time than driving, seeing it as more than just transportation can balance that out. Riding your bike to the gym could replace the thirty minutes you spend on the cardiovascular equipment. Walking to the store could replace your evening walk around the block or the daily walk you provide your dog. Riding and walking could replace a gym membership completely, especially if coupled with a ride to a trail or park that has interval workout stations. Gardening, while requiring time, could save a family a sizable portion of their grocery budget. The time spent in the garden could also be used to work on a student’s science fair project or to work on your tan. It may sound silly and yet, the time spent lying out in the sun or lying in a tanning bed, could be used to positively impact the environment while, in the case of tanning salons, saving the gardener money. Composting requires time but so does buying fertilizer from the store and while composting is free, store bought fertilizer is not.
Lifestyle choices, such as those mentioned above, are necessary if we are going to see a reversal in the environmentally destructive trends of the last century. Some of these are harder than others. Some of them have beneficial side effects that equalize or outweigh the costs. Some of them must be chosen for their altruistic value alone. As Lee and English said in closing, “These kind of lifestyle changes may not be as glamorous, but it is the most effective way to reduce humanity’s impact on the planet.” And, conveniently, none of them require increasing consumption, green or otherwise.