Everyday decisions

by Carolyn Chase


very once in a while you run across a book that is so obviously needed that you wonder why nobody has done it before in quite that way. The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced such a book: "The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices."

"From apples and armchairs to zinnias and zip drives. Which of all the things Americans buy cause the greatest problems for the environment and which are relatively benign?"

The premise that our everyday choices add up to a huge environmental impact is unquestioned. There has been a glut of advisory and how-to books with 15, 50, 100 and even 1,000 things - simple and otherwise - that individuals can do to reduce or shift their environmental impacts. But who can keep track? And what really matters? How much can a consumer really do?

UCS helps by separating the crucial from the trivial. "Repeated instances in which wrong or misleading information is given can turn even the most enthusiastic green consumers into cynics. Like the boy who cried wolf, environmental activists who loudly trumpet dangers that later prove false or exaggerated risk turning off the very constituents they are trying to mobilize."

First things first. One of the most highly touted questions - paper or plastic? - turns out to be as we always suspected - a trivial choice. "Some consumer decisions, like whether to chose paper or plastic grocery bags, are insignificant," said Dr. Warren Leon, co-author of the book. "Our book shows people how to focus on those environmental choices that make the biggest difference."

UCS developed an economic model to analyze the impact of household spending on the most significant consumer-related environmental problems: air pollution, water pollution, alteration of natural habitats, and global warming. After grouping 134 consumer spending choices into 50 categories (like furnishings, clothing, computers), the authors discovered that most consumer-related environmental degradation is linked to seven basic categories: driving cars and light trucks, meat and poultry production, growing produce and grains, household appliances and lighting; home heating and cooling; home construction; and household water and sewage.

Cars and light trucks (including minivans and pickups) cause the most environmental damage overall, and are responsible for nearly half of the toxic air pollution and more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gases traceable to household consumption.

"Driving less and buying a cleaner car are the best things people can do for the environment" said co-author Dr. Michael Brower, a physicist and expert on energy and environmental issues. "Because cars cause so much harm, even modest changes matter."

Food is second only to transportation as a source of consumer-related environmental impacts. Red meat causes especially high amounts of environmental damage for the nutrition it delivers. Cutting the average household's meat consumption (both red meat and poultry) in half would reduce food-related land use and common water pollution by 30 and 24 percent, respectively.

"Replacing beef with grains and produce, or even chicken , can significantly improve the environment, and people can also lower their personal environmental impacts by buying organic foods," said Brower.

Other consumer activities that are highly damaging - like lawn pesticides, snowmobiles, large powerboats, and fireplaces - did not make the "dirty seven" because they account for very small shares of total consumer spending. But aware consumers should increasingly avoid using these items.

UCS suggests that people stop worrying about choices that involve alternatives whose differences are insignificant. "No one should feel guilty about modest use of such things as spray cans, paper napkins and polystyrene cups." said Leon. Making their "Don't Worry about unimportant decisions" list are: cloth versus disposable diapers, paper versus plastic bags, disposable cups, paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils, spray cans, and styrofoam cups. Non-disposable alternatives are always better, but they have found that people are too often worrying over trivial changes when the same amount of effort could be spent on choices that would reduce impacts much more.

"By focusing on the especially damaging aspects of their consumption, Americans can reduce overall environmental damage dramatically."

Their seven rules for responsible consumption focus on key principles for those who want to make choices that matter. They include: give more attention to major purchases; size matters (in general, the purchase of lighter items has less impact than heavier ones); look for opportunities to be a leader (the early purchase of new environmental technologies and practices helps support successful introductions); and buy and use more of the things that are better for the environment.

On this better-choices list are: microwave ovens, recycled products; water and energy saving devices, and equipment needed to support telecommuting. "If the purchase of a computer, answering machine or fax for the home is the obstacle preventing you from setting up telecommuting from your office, you should feel justified buying these things on environmental grounds." Telecommuting that reduces driving and traffic congestion is one of the most positive environmental trends.

But the burden of environmental impacts cannot be handled by individual changes alone, since consumer choices are often limited. UCS also addresses what you can ask the government to do. They list and discuss the four primary areas where government policy changes are critical: making the marketplace work for the environment; setting high standards; investing in the environment and making land use an environmental issue.

The task of ranking environmental impacts raises some difficult issues. It is easy to name a host of problems; it is much harder to know which are most important to deal with. Like the scientists they represent, UCS does not claim their findings are the final word or that their analysis has no room for improvement. But their findings do provide a much clearer overall picture of the impacts of household spending on the environment. This practical and rational analysis of the relationships between consumers, their spending choices and the environment is an important step forward to help people match their good intentions with actions that count.