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Green, Greener, or Green-ish: How Are American Consumers Doing?

Green, Greener, or Green-ish: How Are American Consumers Doing?

The latest Harris Interactive poll on American consumers’ green behavior is out, and the news is mixed.  Participants were asked what activities they had done in the last year, ranging from installing more energy-efficient light bulbs (63%) to starting to pay bills online (46%) to installing a low-flow toilet (16%).  41% had recycled an electronic device, while 36% had purchased energy-efficient appliances.  17% regularly bought organic products and 17% had installed a low-flow shower head. The poll questioned 3,100 U.S. adults between July 7 and September 8 of this year.

With this poll, as always, it is human nature to try to give the most “socially acceptable” responses, and so some of these answers may be more indicative of perceptions of green behavior rather than actual actions.  While some of the suggested actions (changing light bulbs or switching from bottled water to tap) are equally possible in most homes, taking public transportation or installing low-flow toilets is not an available option for many.  One person’s easy fix might be another person’s nightmare: “I’ll pay my bills online and go paperless, but no way am I going to unplug my computer every night!”  “Yeah, I buy local and in bulk to save on packaging and transportation….now you want me to take shorter showers?”

Sustainability is a path, not an on/off switch.  That path is long and challenging, and it will become more challenging as we slowly but surely accomplish the “easy stuff”, and move on to reconfigure how and where we live, to include more than individual actions.  True sustainability will involve conscious change, some of which may not be comfortable:  We may have to cut back consumption, especially as millions in the developing world strive to reach for a “middle class” lifestyle.  We may have to  give up dearly held habits and freedoms, like climbing into a car, even a hybrid, without carefully considering the impact.  But the challenges of going green have inherent rewards: the satisfaction of knowing you’re doing good, a renewed sense of community, and a healthier society.  It’s important to guard against the “holier than thou” attitude that some greenies take…and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve preached the gospel against high fructose corn syrup or for the joys of my wonderful composting worm bin.  Did my sermons inspire change? I suspect a little humility would have been more effective.

Most of us are doing some things that are more environmentally conscious.  All of us could do more. Can we get past preaching to supporting each other, no matter where we are on the path?

Care2 has often written about these issues.  Check out:

Building toward a Greener Future to read more about green buildings         Three US Cities Switch to Paperless Mail  and                                       Healthy and Green Living’s Green 101  (this Causes sister site is crammed with useful information.

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Photo: SilverFox09 from Flickr under Creative Commons license

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3:57PM PDT on Oct 18, 2009

"Sustainability is a path, not an on/off switch."

Great statement. Nobody is perfect, and beating people up (figuratively) for falling short of perfection is usually counter productive. Just because someone uses bottled water or has a car for example doesn't mean they won't be receptive to hearing about other environmental issues, and making other changes, unless we alienate them by expecting perfection.

1:07PM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

How about installing an on-demand tankless hot water heater when your old tank goes? They are expensive (cost coming down) but they saves a bunch over the long term by not keeping all that water at over 100 degrees all day.and night.

10:32AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

What about the big corporations who demand the right to pollute the planet big time and seem to get by with it?

8:54AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Not to reproduce Miss Nancy R's thoughts, but she's dead-on. What's key here is exposure, a certain mindset, perspective, realizing results and above all education.

Complaints though, about doing one green thing but not another, or that it is day-to-day time consuming doesn't wash. Taking care of earth is not a privilege, it is every citizen's duty. In the long run, you're not only giving considerations to your neighbor or relative, you're giving it to self...

7:55AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Something is better than nothing, and we can all do better. Rather than harp on what someone is not doing, praise them for the efforts they're making; it's more likely to cause positive change then attacking someone for not doing what you consider 100% better than what they're doing.

Even if you live off the grid and away from society (and grow your own rice/soybeans/nuts), there's something you're missing (ie socialization for your children).

We do what we can, but know we can do better. It started with baby steps and while we're not "there" yet (and may never be), the small changes become normal and instinctual over time rather than overwhelming and prone to failure.

7:35AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Thanks for all these good points. The path to green is indeed all about education and thinking critically. I found it very interesting that the Harris survey did not even ask if people had decreased meat consumption, let alone cut it out.

7:20AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

I average 4-6 surveys a day,always paying attention to how the survey is constucted and wording of the questions,having a background in education and languages with courses in semantics,the semantics of test writing and test goals and constuction. The surveys you mention that I have seen ask only about the previous 3 month period,occasionaly a year,none question if you already have done so earlier or your ability to do so. CFLs no way to indicate that all of your lighting had already been greened. On-line bill pay is fine if you do not have a mountain of cc debt or do not mind feeding the greed of the finance industry, people are switching to cash it is less expensive.Toilets and showerheads already done or as a renter is it not an option? With electronics and appliances more and more people are repairing or upgrading to save money,also most people do not think of donating as recycling and the surveys do not list donation as an option. Also I suspect the numbers as they are ammo for the anti-global warming regulation groups as indicators of low popular support and the surveys they come from are simply not designed to get as I mentioned the true scope of just how much America has done to go green to the best of their ability and resources.A lot of people happy their families have enough to eat not whether it is green and would be elated to have a place to take a survey from!

6:21AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Better yet: Go vegan. The amount of water it takes to produce a pound of beef is equal to six months of showers. There are multiple levels of transport involved in bringing meat to your store, not to mention your table. And animals' waste and emissions contribute to global warming.

I live in a city, so I don't own a car and take public transit almost everywhwere (my boyfriend will rent if we're going somewhere not accessible by transit).

I carry reusable bags in my purse and try to get my boyfriend not to take so many plastic bags.

He doesn't like the local tap water, so I got a Brita pitcher so he wouldn't keep bringing bottles of water to my place. I figure tossing a filter every two months is far less harmful than all those damn bottles I have to clean up.

He was vegetarian long before I was, so he helped me do something green almost eight years ago.

6:20AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

Better yet: Go vegan. The amount of water it takes to produce a pound of beef is equal to six months of showers. There are multiple levels of transport involved in bringing meat to your store, not to mention your table. And animals' waste and emissions contribute to global warming.

I live in a city, so I don't own a car and take public transit almost everywhwere (my boyfriend will rent if we're going somewhere not accessible by transit).

I carry reusable bags in my purse and try to get my boyfriend not to take so many plastic bags.

He doesn't like the local tap water, so I got a Brita pitcher so he wouldn't keep bringing bottles of water to my place. I figure tossing a filter every two months is far less harmful than all those damn bottles I have to clean up.

He was vegetarian long before I was, so he helped me do something green almost eight years ago.

4:59AM PDT on Oct 15, 2009

"Sustainability is a path, not an on/off switch."

It is a learning process, but each of our failures to do as much as we can within our resources we may have is surely short sighted and and frequently lazy.

Example: When making a one or a very few small purchases, refuse the paper bag with a remark, "That will cost you a nickel, and I'll have to recycle it. Keep the bag." Use CFLs. But replace them as incandescent bulbs fail. Shop for energy star appliances. Install low flow faucets, shower heads, and toilets when you redo the bathrooms. Yes, and take shorter showers. Soap up, turn the water off, scrub, then rinse. Draw a cup of water and turn the water off while brushing your teeth. But I don't turn my computer off at night. I should. Why? I have utilities that eat computer resources but make the computer run so much better in the day time. These run at night.

Every one of us has our peculiarity in this effort, but we must all make the effort.

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