You have probably seen terms like green, eco-friendly, or sustainable a lot. They’re tossed around so much that you might wonder if they mean much at all. So let’s look at a possibly less familiar term: eco-conscious.
Eco-conscious consumers know that the simple stuff like recycling is just a start. They tend to spend more effort in reading labels and researching companies than most consumers.
Think of eco-consciousness as a state of mind where you are always aware that the whole earth is one large, interconnected ecosystem. And everything people do in one place has an effect somewhere else.
With this state of mind, you are constantly reviewing habits to develop more nearly sustainable ones. Here are some good general principles to keep in mind.
Curb your impulses
The American economy has run on consumerism for at least the past 70 years. Consumerism means that the economy flourishes or flounders depending on how much money the general public spends.
Spending lots of money and buying lots and lots of stuff almost seems like a patriotic duty. But eventually, it floods our homes. We have to get rid of some of it to make room for more. If it makes our landfills overflow, at least we don’t see it.
Eco-conscious consumers need to be countercultural in some ways. Advertisers always try to portray products as helpful and necessary. If you think you need something because you saw it advertised somewhere, step back and think about it for a while.
Stores have ways of putting attractive products where impulse buyers will find them and snatch them up. Beware of “endcaps,” displays in the middle of an aisle, or at the checkout counter. Online stores have their own ways of encouraging impulse buying.
Try to avoid buying anything unless you think about it and determine that you really need it—or at least that you’ll use it and enjoy it.
And if you need to get something online, get several things at once to minimize packaging. Order far enough in advance that you can use standard shipping. Two-day shipping is an environmental menace.
Beware of greenwashing
Some companies try to persuade consumers of their environmental commitment without actually doing anything about their unsustainable practices. We call that attempt “greenwashing.”
For example, clothing brands with a commitment to sustainability have become popular and successful. Fast fashion, on the other hand, depends on cheaply made clothing that buyers can discard when fashions change. They have numerous ways of cutting costs, none of which are sustainable.
Some fast fashion companies have tried to cash in on the sustainability trend. So they launch “eco-friendly” lines, but they don’t change their fundamental business models.
For another example, the European oil company Eni marketed a biodiesel as eco-friendly, but it was based on palm oil. And palm oil contributed to deforestation and is therefore hardly eco-friendly.
Fortunately, in early 2020, an Italian court convicted Eni of greenwashing and impose a fine of €5 million. Greenwashing has started to become a legal issue with real consequences for violators.
Conserve resources at home
Nearly every American home has running water, electricity, a furnace, and at least one car. Eco-conscious consumers recognize that these resources come into our homes at an environmental cost. Even our cleanest energy sources have some environmental downside. So we need to avoid wasting these resources.
The world has only so much water. We have been using and reusing the same water for thousands of years now. We can’t get any more. The water that comes into our homes has been treated. Water treatment requires energy, chemicals, and manpower. And it’s all wasted when we waste water.
We need to find and fix plumbing leaks as quickly as possible and take steps not to waste running water.
Saving electricity can start simply by turning off lights and such when you’re not using them. Appliances with an oversized black plug probably use electricity even after you turn them off. It’s a good idea to unplug at least most of them.
Assuming your home has adequate insulation, saving on heating and cooling can simply mean letting it be a few degrees warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. A programmable thermostat helps you manage temperatures.
As for driving, it’s best to walk or take public transportation instead when possible. Unfortunately, our neighborhoods seem designed to take away alternatives to driving. Eco-conscious consumers need to know all kinds of ways to save gas. Planning errands to take the shortest routes and reducing idling can save a lot. The easiest way to reduce idling is the skip the drive-thru.
Some green-minded people consider you an enemy of the people if you eat meat and dairy. Going vegan is not a requirement for being eco-conscious. On the other hand, the American diet consumes more meat than is necessary for good nutrition. And the planet can’t sustainably produce enough meat for everyone in the world to eat as much as we do.
It’s good to know how to prepare meatless meals or where to find them in restaurants. It’s also good to know meals in which small amounts of meat flavor large amounts of vegetables.
A larger problem than how much meat we eat is how much food we waste. Food waste has grown at a faster rate than the population for decades now. Restaurants waste astonishing amounts of food.
Consumers may not have much control over commercial and industrial food waste, but we can at least take control of it at home by mindful grocery shopping and eating what we bring home before it spoils.
Consider all the water and land and energy needed to produce the food. If you throw out one rotten apple, you have thrown out all the water the apple tree needed to produce it. You have thrown out all the energy needed to get it from the tree to your home. Eco-conscious consumers make themselves aware of such issues.
Refuse single-use plastics
While we’re on the subject of eating, fast food restaurants and takeout food can waste a lot more than food. Straws, cups, and those little packets of ketchup all use plastic. And when we’re through with them, very little of that plastic gets recycled.
Plastic shopping bags, plastic coffee pods, water bottles, and more add to the mountain of single-use plastic we must discard.
And did you stop to think that the gallon of milk also comes in a single-use jug? It takes longer to empty it, but you probably don’t find uses for the jug when you’ve finished the milk. Plastic bottles of detergent, shampoo, liquid hand soap, and more, are all single-use plastic. Other products, such as paper towels, come wrapped in single-use plastic.
The eco-conscious consumer recycles diligently, of course, but “reduce” comes earlier in the hierarchy of sustainable practices. And reducing plastic means refusing to accept it in the first place.
Some companies have started to make laundry detergent that comes in pre-measured strips or shampoo that comes in bars like bath soap. And they’re packaged in paper, too. So let’s be on the lookout for imaginative products that can help us refuse more single-use plastic than just taking reusable shopping bags to the store!
I have said nothing here about more drastic measures like installing solar panels or starting a vegetable garden. People can go the great lengths to be eco-conscious. But that’s no way to start. Keep looking at your lifestyle to see what sustainable practices you can add to whatever you’re already doing. After a while, you’ll find yourself doing things that maybe a couple of years ago you never would have considered.