Thursday, December 02, 2004

Environmentally Conscious Consumption

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If you have wondered about the environmental impact of your consumer choices, but find yourself without the time or energy to pursue such issues, let me introduce you to the seven rules of responsible construction. I’ve adapted these from a book called The Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Choices, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The point of these rules is to help concerned citizens focus their attention on the things that really matter, and stop worrying about the things that don’t.

1. Pay special attention to major purchases. Our biggest impacts on the environment stem from our biggest decisions—how large a house we live in, how we heat and cool that house, whether we drive and what kind of vehicle we drive, whether we spring for energy-efficient major appliances. If you make environmentally sound choices on these questions you have already done most of your work.

2. Liberate yourself from anxiety about unimportant decisions. Every once in a while we become obsessed with small choices—cloth versus disposable diapers, paper versus plastic grocery bags, that sort of thing. In these cases it is possible to make distinctions based on the raw materials and energy used to produce items, or the problems associated with disposing of them. But there are always tradeoffs involved, and we’d do better to focus our attention on more important questions.

3. Pay attention to weight. If you’re unsure about the environmental impact a decision might have, think in terms of how heavy the product in question is. Other things being equal, weight’s a rough indicator of how much thought you should devote to the purchase or disposal of a product, and heavy things deserve more attention than light things.

4. Think Quantitatively. If you want to conserve water, start where you use the most. The average family of four can save more than two thousand gallons of water a month by running the washing machine only when it is full, and a comparable amount by installing a low-flow showerhead. Since these are the largest uses of water in the typical home, it makes sense to begin conservation measures with them.

5. Lead. If you can be the first person on your block to an exceptionally fuel-efficient vehicle, do it. If you can makeover your yard to eliminate the need for watering, pesticides and fertilizers, do that. Most people are open to learning about ways to help the environment.

6. Buy things that help the environment. When you choose to buy recycled products you help to maintain the market for recycled materials. When you buy things like water-saving faucets and showerheads you conserve and important resource for years to come.

7. Buy thoughtfully. We’re continually surrounded by messages to buy stuff—at this time of year more than ever. Yet when we give ourselves time to reflect, few of us believe that the possession of more stuff equates with a more meaningful life.