Finding Balance between Consumerism and Conservationism

August 28, 2008

Early pioneers of the green movement must be conflicted: Their message has been heard and the green movement has seeped into every facet of our lives, from cars to buildings to food. But with the movement’s popularity has come what many see as a hijacking of green sensibilities by people and companies who are trying to sell their products, many of which are either only marginally green or completely unnecessary. If the goal is to leave a smaller carbon footprint, to reduce waste, or to conserve energy or resources, we should buy fewer products, not more.

Let’s not start demonizing the corporations, especially those who have advanced conservationism through energy and fuel saving technologies, new environmentally-friendly products at lower prices, and new ways to recycle. It’s no coincidence that the popularity of the green movement increased dramatically when corporations began to adopt – and promote – green practices. Conservationism cannot be seen as the enemy of consumerism, but rather a lens through which to view it.

When doing nothing is the greenest thing

As the green building director for a kitchen and bath dealer, I am often asked what are the best green kitchen and bath products out there. I’ve written about some and will continue to feature them in this blog, which I hope will help those looking to build a new green home. But if the customer is remodeling his or her current home, I always advise (much to the chagrin of my boss) that the absolute greenest thing he or she can do is to reuse the existing cabinets, countertops, and, for the most part, appliances. Cabinets can be painted with non-VOC paints and doors can be removed or refaced for a new look. Countertops can be, depending on the material, buffed, resealed, or relaminated. Drawers can be repaired. You don’t need to toss it all out to have a green kitchen. In fact, doing new and interesting things with your old kitchen or bath is far greener than getting the hottest new green kitchen and bath products.

The one exception is refrigerators. recently explored the energy and cost saving benefits of replacing your old refrigerator. The ENERGY STAR program has helped refrigerator manufacturers cut energy usage dramatically since its inclusion of home appliances in 1996. So if your refrigerator is over ten years old, consider an upgrade. Do not, however, fall into the trap of putting that old refrigerator in your garage or basement for beer and soda where it can suck up even more energy and money.

But that’s just un-American!

Wait a second, you say. This country’s economy is dependent on consumerism. If people just stopped buying new things and reused their old stuff, where would America be then? To that I’d say that nothing is going to stop Americans from spending their money on whatever they want; we are consumers. But when conservationism is wedded to consumerism, the question becomes, “is this product doing more harm than good?” America is actually in a great position to handle a new, more environmentally responsible consumerism. Already America has made the shift from goods to services, and with the meteoric rise of green-collar jobs it will be Americans who provide the services and technology needed to help people convert to a greener lifestyle and a greener world.

Talk to Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II and you’ll hear stories of finding ways to make food last, of stretching whatever money there was to last longer, and of creating new and innovative ways to convert packaging into household items. How many had grandparents or great grandparents who used coffee cans for storage or crates in interesting ways? They conserved not for environmental reasons but economic. But with the exuberance of post World War II America came a rejection of the frugality of earlier times. We became a throw-away society, and we were happy about it. It meant we were doing well. Products were made to be cheaper, and lasted only long enough for us to grow tired of them and seek an upgrade. But it’s long past time to pull back the reins and find that middle ground between conservation and economic prosperity, to begin the new American era of environmental consumerism.

The first step is to reconsider if the product you are about to buy is really necessary.

Related Posts:

Check out a new post by Dave Conrey over at titled Don’t Believe the Hype. You DO NOT Have to Go Green.

Image: Damian Searles via Stock.xchng