How Much Is Enough? Buying Green Edition

I started my “How Much Is Enough?” series back in February, but haven’t quite got to it yet. Until now.

A while back I read an article about how, if you calculate the environmental cost of shipping ceramic mugs and the heat used to make them and the energy used to clean them it actually turns out to be better to use paper cups and throw them away than to tote your coffee mug around with you and use that. (This ended up not being true, but the point is that there are articles out there making such claims.)

It made me want to bang my head on the table. Because, just when you think you are doing the right thing, an article comes out and tells you that, actually, no you are not.

Then there was the article about how doing a search on google somehow uses more carbon than… well, something. The point is, of course, that it doesn’t occur to most of us that doing a google search uses any carbon or does anything bad, right?

And then, there was the fairly traded vanilla at Whole Foods for $9.99. Could that possibly be worth it?

And, there is my recent checking of the “yes I want to use green energy” box on the form when I signed up for electricity in our new home. I got our first bill and realized that this costs about $70 more a month! That is A LOT. And I have been reading articles about how the new light bulbs that use less energy actually cause as many problems as they solve because they have mercury in them which leaks when they are thrown away, poisoning things.

Aaaaaa! What is a green wanna be to do? How much is enough? And how much is too much? When is it “green washing” and when is it really better? I mean, if I buy unfairly traded vanilla for $1.99 and then give the other $8.00 that I would have paid for the fairly traded vanilla to a NGO, isn’t that probably better than spending $10 on vanilla? What about the extra $70 it costs us to get green electricity? We are still debating if we can actually afford this at all – can we buy $70 less in groceries each month? Yet, if we aren’t willing to do that, can we really say we even try to live up to our values, especially if we can afford it if we make adjustments?

I am pretty sure I am not the only person struggling with all of these questions.

Here is my theory on how much is enough when it comes to buying green:

First, take it easy. The reality is that our individual decisions are not going to make or break the future of the planet. What we do is important, but it is important not to inflate the difference we can make. Although I know it maybe sounds a little bit cheezy, I think we can only create peace in our world if we are peaceful. We cannot be peaceful if we are freaked out about every lightbulb.

Second, do what you can. We all have different things we can do/will do/want to do. We should push ourselves to do more than what is just easy to do. We probably can pay extra for the elecricity, even though it is a stretch. We don’t eat meat, but we fly and drive too much. We buy recycled toilet paper, but we can’t bring ourselves to use reusable wash clothes for this purpose as some do. We can’t all do it all, but we can push ourselves to do more.

Third, use some common sense. I know people are all into calculating this and that, but I think common sense probably goes further than we think. If $10 fairly traded vanilla seems absurd to you, it probably is. Biking is better than driving. Apples from your local orchard are better than ones from Australia, even if the local ones are not organic and the Australian ones are. While some things may need to be researched and carefully calculated, the whole reuse, reduce, recycle goes a long way.

Please feel free to leave your two cents in the comments. I would love to hear someone who has figured this out better than me!

7 Responses to How Much Is Enough? Buying Green Edition

  1. kylydia says:

    I totally feel your confusion and pain. I agree with your sentiment to do what you can. I try to remember my reusable grocery bags when I go to the store. I try to combine trips to save on unnecessary gas. I try to take shorter showers and turn off all the lights.

  2. T. Caine says:


    Great post. I think you bring up a good issue to which there is no hard and fast answer–unfortunately I think that contributes to some people doing less.

    On one hand, I agree with your second corollary that people should not have to suffer undue hardship in order to remove every last ounce of carbon from their lives. There is certainly a line and, for me personally, reusable toilet paper is on the other side. There are many, many easy things that can be incorporated into daily schedules that can actually make a big difference. (Though I would say that the biggest difference we can make are actually the result of many individual decisions)

    On the other hand, I believe that sustainability is not a technological fix that allows us to live our lives the same way. Being truly sustainable is a lifestyle change. It is the difference between buying a hybrid and biking to the train station to commute. I think that I lobby for people to do some things that move them outside their comfort zone because, let’s face it, America is a fairly wasteful country.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, T. Caine. I completely agree that, when it comes down to it, “sustainability is not a technological fix that allows us to live our lives the same way.” My politics and beliefs are pretty radical on what we should be doing… it is just that my will and discipline isn’t, so it is hard to insist that we need to do radical changes even though that is what I really think. I do a lot, but mostly because I don’t mind it that much. And I don’t do the big things that I do mind (flying to visit family less). Your comment reminds me of an article in the Times a year or two ago about how if we just make a lot of small changes somehow that will lead to avoiding widespread destruction… (The Energy Diet and really, as much as Times readers (and I…) would like to believe this, the truth is that if we want real change, we have to get WAY out of our comfort zones. And given how radical I would LIKE to be, and how unradical my choices are, I’m afraid it is hopeless to expect people way less radical than me to make lots of changes and live a different sort of life… My only hope now is to mitigate the harm – not make things good. Sigh. What a world we live in.

  4. Meowia says:

    Balance and trade-offs in all things…
    We all struggle with these questions/answers, but it is important to neither give up on the issues nor get overly obsessed with them to the detriment of common sense. Glad to see you blogging again!

    P.S. CF bulbs should NOT be “thrown away” — they must be properly recycled due to the mercury contained within them. I think this is an educational issue, since people are used to just disposing of things in the trash to never be seen again…allegedly…
    In Middleboro, MA, fluorescent bulbs are accepted for recycling at the Landfill/Recycling Center. I cannot speak for other towns, but I imagine others might have similar programs.

  5. severalfourmany says:

    There are several initiatives under way that should help. The goal of these projects is to use technology to perform these calculations. But perhaps even more important, create an environment where it is necessary for all companies to make their manufacturing process transparent so that we have the basis for accurate impact calculations for the entire product lifecylce.

    Earthster ( is developing software that aims to give life cycle evaluation and publishing power to all companies, along with other ways to document and market their environmental and social performance.

    The openLCA project ( is working on a modular, free, open source software for life cycle analysis and sustainability assessments.

    The project that is farthest along is Good Guide ( GoodGuide provides the world’s largest and most reliable source of information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of the products in your home. While the project is still in the early stages of development they do have a workable version available online that you can use today.

    Spread the word about these tools. The more that people know and use them, the greater their impact will be.

    BTW, but we had a conversation about this almost exactly a year ago which, sadly, may have been the last time I saw you. My hope was to build on some of my more environmentally friendly projects and turn them into a consulting practice along these lines. Hope you and Elijah are doing well.

  6. severalfourmany says:

    I almost forgot. That article on the carbon impact of a Google search? It also had most of the story wrong. Even when we start with accurate and useful information, it often turns into something else by the time we finally see it:

    Harvard Physicist Sets Record Straight on Internet Carbon Study

    A Harvard researcher spent much of Monday setting the record straight about his research and how it relates to Google’s energy consumption.

  7. […] Environmental Impact There are several initiatives under way that should help a consumer trying to limit their impact on the environment. The goal of these projects is to use technology to collect and calculate the social, health and […]

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