Whether you are an avid wilderness hiker or an urban bird lover, you have surely noticed disturbing changes in the natural landscape. The losses and threats to our environment are evident from coast to coast. Countless farms and streams are forever gone. Fresh water is growing scarce in parts of the American West. Forests from Tennessee to Oregon have been logged at an alarming rate and air quality is below EPA standards in many urban areas. Climate change, and its capacity to disrupt natural ecosystems, looms ever larger.
We all know the bad news. But what do each of us know about how personal consumer choices can contribute to the problem … or the solution?
First the problem: The Earth is out of balance and our consumption of resources is a root cause of the problem. It seems everything but the planet is getting bigger: television screens, houses, vehicles, bathtubs, burgers, candy bars, waistlines and credit card debt. Meanwhile wilderness areas, grasslands and underground aquifers continue to shrink.
There is a connection. With just 5 percent of the planet’s global population, Americans consume some 30 percent of the world’s material resources and 40 percent of the gasoline. If everyone consumed like the average American, some scientists predict that we would need at least four more planets to provide the necessary resources and absorb the waste.
Our work-and-spend consumer lifestyles not only contribute to the decimation of planetary resources, they also contribute to personal and family stress. Consumer spending has been rising for decades. Yet polls indicate that we are not getting any happier. Indeed, after a certain level of material security is achieved, there is little correlation between expansive lifestyles and increased contentment. Nowadays, a typical couple spends 12 minutes a day in actual conversation, apart from getting laundry done or talking logistics. Average working parents spend just 40 minutes a week playing or being with their children in a non-goal or task-oriented way. In short, many Americans have more stuff … but less fun.
Last year, some 1.6 million families went too far with the “buy now, pay later” approach to life and had to declare bankruptcy. Nearly one-half of all Americans don’t get enough sleep and, each year, Americans on average work 350 hours – nearly nine weeks – more than Europeans. Three in five Americans report feeling pressure to work too much, and in an August 2004 survey, one in two Americans reported that they would willingly accept less money in exchange for more time.
Now the solution: When we are bombarded with messages telling us to consume more, to get ahead and to make our mark, it can be challenging to resist. But we might all be better served if we focused less on the material world and more on those aspects of life that actually sustain us: getting outdoors, spending time with a long lost friend or just relaxing at home with a good book.
The initial step in seeking balance is often to simply be still and listen to your own inner voice. First, ask yourself, “What really matters?” When we’re quiet, listening to the wind, wading in a stream or digging in the dirt, we often rediscover our whole selves – and maybe the pull of something larger. We reconnect not only to the land but to our authentic dreams and hopes. Instead of heading to the mall, we might grab a friend and head for the woods. Instead of cleaning, rearranging and storing our possessions, we might be inspired to volunteer in our communities, do something creative or just spend more time with family.
Beyond personal change, there is work to be done to change the system. In today’s global marketplace, we rarely see what is behind the stuff we buy. Where does a particular product come from? What impact has its manufacture had on the natural environment? On nearby communities? What are the working conditions for the person or people who created it? We all want products that are a good value, safe for the environment and promote the well-being of people around the globe. It’s not always easy to find the answers. It often seems the deck is stacked against us – even when we want to do the right thing, the right thing isn’t always obvious, or within reach.
But change is possible. According to a recent national survey, American consumers care more than ever about conscious consumption. Last year’s Natural Marketing Institute’s annual survey of the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) marketplace found that nearly one-third of U.S. consumers (68 million adults) are concerned about various environmental and social issues and take those concerns into account when making purchasing decisions. A burgeoning movement of responsible consumers, businesses, investors and local governments is beginning to turn things around, to turn away from disposable goods made with disposable labor and seek out sustainably produced goods and services.
Industries are taking note. The organic food industry has skyrocketed with growth rates of 20 percent or more per year – the fastest growing sector in the American food market. This translates to vibrant family farms and improved human health. In December, mega-office-supply chain Office Depot launched The Green Book®, the industry’s first catalog consisting entirely of environmentally preferable products – over 1,000 items from paper to greener machine supplies. The catalog itself isn’t just talking the talk, either. It’s printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled content paper.
The High Winds Energy Center, a state-of-the-art wind farm, will soon get cranking in California. The turbines will produce nearly 20 times the energy of turbines 20 years ago. Slower, more flexible (they turn to face the wind), and less lethal to birds, these turbines represent the future of wind energy and a model for overcoming obstacles that have kept wind from blowing away fossil fuels as the energy source of choice.
Investors and shareholders can also make a real difference. The As You Sow Foundation is working from within to nudge companies toward social and environmental responsibility. The foundation helps companies analyze the business benefits of going green and improving labor practices. It also helps powerful shareholders join grassroots activists in filing shareholder resolutions at company meetings. The California Public Employees� Retirement System recently invested approximately $200 million into companies developing renewable energy technologies. And this year a record number of shareholder resolutions will call upon oil and gas companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address global warming liability issues. With coordination from the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies, large pension funds and investment firms, collectively representing more than $250 billion in assets, are getting into the business of filing resolutions calling for action on climate change. This sends a powerful message to Wall Street that solutions to climate change are both needed and expected.
Local governments are responding as well. The state of Massachusetts recently purchased new nontoxic cleaning products for all state facilities, removing two known carcinogens and improving worker and environmental health. Nearly 13,000 miles of biking and hiking trails have been built by local communities over the past decade in urban and suburban areas across the nation, displacing the need for cars and improving quality of life.
Ultimately, we must usher in an economy that provides everyone with material security, a healthy environment and fulfilling lifestyles. When consumers seek out socially responsible and environmentally friendly items and investors demand corporate responsibility, they help conserve resources and sustain people at the far end of the production line. In time, we may find that we don�t need all those extra planets...just one healthy one.