A Blueprint for Becoming a Green Consumer

Us_news_jpegOriginally posted March 26, 2008
By Kimberly Palmer, US News & World Report

If you’re convinced that going green means spending more for less, Diane MacEachern is prepared to convince you otherwise. In Big Green Purse: Using Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World, she explains how environmentally friendly products are often healthier, of higher quality, and even cheaper.

MacEachern also provides tips at the Big Green Purse blog. U.S. News spoke with her about how to start shopping in a way that’s more sustainable for the planet.

What gave you the idea to write this book?
After watching how long it takes to pass legislation and how tough it
is to enforce regulations, I was looking for an alternative, something
that would make me feel like I could still make a difference…. I was
watching what was happening in the marketplace. [It] was going crazy.
Every day there were more and more products that were marketing
themselves as being more environmentally responsible. I realized: Women
spend 85 cents of every dollar in the marketplace; we have so much
clout, and consumers generally have an enormous amount of clout. I
figured, "Why don’t we take the message directly to manufacturers?" We
can easily do that every time we push that shopping cart up to the
checkout counter.

What kinds of environmentally friendly things do you do in your own life?
I’ve been buying organic food and organic milk for a really long time.
That’s a no-brainer for me because I have two kids at home and we drink
a lot of milk, and it seemed like that was a really important step to
take. But I’m just like a lot of other consumers. I’m looking every
time I go shopping for a greener alternative. So the other day, I
noticed in my traditional, conventional supermarket that I could buy
toilet tissue that’s made from recycled paper products [and] I can buy
cleaning products that have fewer dangerous chemicals in them.

I redid my house; I painted, put in new carpeting. And the carpeting
we put in is made of 100 percent recycled soda bottles, and the paint
had no VOCs, or volatile organic chemicals, in them. Those are all
things that any consumer could consider, at least.

Do you think there’s any loss of quality with those products?
At least in my case, I felt that with the paint, the quality is
definitely just as good as the more toxic paint, and I would argue that
it’s better because it leaves no odor.

Organic anything can be pricey. Is there anyway around paying more?
I encourage people to look at their entire household budget and find
where you are wasting money. For example, people complain about the
high price of organic apples but then spend $10 to $15 on bottled
water. Or they’ll say they can’t afford paper towels made out of
recycled fibers, and yet they’re still spending $10 to 15 a week on
throwaway paper products, when in fact they could buy a sponge that’s
going to last three or four months. So there’s actually a lot more
leeway in everyone’s budget than we realize.

In the long term, if you can’t find an extra $10 a week for products
that are really going to protect you and the environment, then you need
to step back and think about how you’re spending your money overall,
because there is a lot of cushion in most of our budgets.

So it’s about prioritizing?
It’s about prioritizing and also being aware. A real issue for men and
women is time. We’re just really busy. Sometime it feels like it just
takes more time to make that decision, but once you get in the habit,
honestly it takes no more time to buy a compact fluorescent light bulb
than an incandescent that you’d be throwing away much sooner.

And sometimes you say it makes sense not to purchase anything at all.
The very first step is always to reuse what you have or reuse what
somebody else has. There’s a long tradition in this country of having
yard sales and swap meets, and now with the Internet, it’s actually
becoming really easy to do that. There’s something called freecycle.org. Find it online; inevitably somebody else is going to want [what you have].

What changes are companies making?
Companies are really watching the market very carefully, and they are
jumping on this bandwagon like never before. There are some leaders in
the marketplace like Whole Foods or Wal-Mart and even Target that are
really trying to put a lot of organic and sustainably made products on
their shelves, and a lot of companies are just responding to consumer
demand. In 1999, no hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States, and
now we’ve got 13 models to choose from.

You make the point that if a million consumers pledged to
shift $1,000 of their spending to greener products, it would have a $1
billion impact.

A lot of people don’t know how to get started. It often does boil down
to money, because we’re talking about using your clout in the
marketplace to make a difference. People will say, "I don’t know how
much to spend or what to buy first." So I suggest you earmark $1,000 of
money you’re going to spend anyway. Everybody spends much more than
$1,000 on groceries, home furnishings, clothing, and so on. Find $1,000
of that that you can intentionally shift to products and services that
will protect the planet.

For example, $10 of your weekly grocery budget would be half the
$1,000; it would be $520 a year. I was at Target the other day, and I
bought bamboo socks and they were $6, so it’s actually pretty easy to
get to the $1,000. It’s a way of getting consumers to consciously
realize that they can use their money to make a difference. And it’s a
way of infusing some of those industries with even more capital to do
the right thing.

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