You Know ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.’ There’s a 4th Possibility


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The green movement’s anthem of 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' is missing its most important 'R.'

Walk into any major department store these days and you’ll find a broad array of green products. From underwear made with renewable bamboo fiber to reusable water bottles in every imaginable size and design, green is white-hot for retailers.

In this sea of products, I’ve started to notice an interesting phenomenon: Reusable items like shopping totes, insulated travel mugs and similar products change with the season and according to fashion whims.

Sure, it could be argued that perhaps these items are just staying on-trend to appeal to all the first-time adopters of green living. It makes perfect sense to position products in the most attractive way possible so that the eco-challenged among us can more easily transition to a new greener lifestyle.

But I have a sneaking suspicion (based only on observation and very unscientific volume estimates, mind you) that those aisles full of reusable items are mainly getting sold to the same consumers over and over again.

It seems that we consumers — bending to the will of marketers and retailers, to be sure — are adopting certain green habits as part of fashion. And that’s troubling. Not only does this approach fly in the face of what green living is all about, it trivializes its importance and hurts our pocketbooks.

Reduce, reuse, recycle and …

It’s a perfect example of what’s always bothered me a bit about the green movement (at least in its retail application): The movement’s anthem of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is missing its most important “R”: “Refuse.”

When consumers fill their cupboards with reusable shopping bags — two or three for each season, from each store, each with its own novel screen-printed pattern — we are browning our greenest intentions. When our kitchen cabinets are filled with insulated travel mugs from every company we’ve worked for, from every major coffee brewer in town, from every souvenir shop we’ve been lured into on our vacations, we’re saying “yes” to more consumption.

And when we continue to feed our appetite for all-things-disposable with products that are only marginally less devastating to the environment, we are missing the point.

The mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” should lead with “Refuse” because authentic green living begins with a refusal. Though “refuse” is a close cousin of “reduce,” it’s more active and requires more vigilance. We reduce by degrees, but when we refuse, we refuse 100 percent.

At its core, living a greener life means refusing to make environmentalism a fashion accessory, refusing to buy more stuff in an effort to consume less stuff, refusing to replace what functions perfectly well, and, to put it even more starkly, refusing to make the greening of our lives part of a never-ending profit cycle.

If you’re noticing that some of the trends in green marketing seem to be anything but eco-friendly, or if you’d like to refine your approach and dedication to living a greener life, it’s time to practice a bit of refusal. Here are a few ways to exercise your refusal muscle and (truly) go greener at the same time:

Be a discerning consumer

Awareness is the most powerful tool of all. Refuse to be unnecessarily influenced by traditional marketing tactics that position eco-friendly products as ephemeral, trend-sensitive or status-related. Buy what you need, buy for quality and durability, and try to keep in mind the connection between unchecked consumption and environmental degradation.

Don’t participate in a green competition

Going green isn’t a contest. Refuse to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses in this area. Living a more environmentally conscious life doesn’t require a new electric car, a fashionable hemp tote, or a fleet of brand-new energy-sipping appliances. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, they can easily become status symbols that we buy for the wrong reason.

Instead, look around you. What changes can you make now that may be low-profile but high-value? Consider starting a recycling program where you work or a carpooling program. Build a composting bin in your backyard or use a bike for local errands.

Reject buying more to go green

Question the logic that encourages you to lighten your carbon footprint by buying more. Sure, there are amazing technologies out there that allow us to use less water, less electricity and less gas, but these aren’t prerequisites to living a greener life. Refuse the automatic assumption that being eco-friendly takes a long shopping list and a low-interest loan. Look for ways you can use what you already own more wisely, repurpose tools you already have, or create a system of borrowing and lending in your neighborhood.

Remember, it’s possible to make real change without spending a dime.

Buy used when it’s a safe and reasonable option

Refusing to buy new when there are equivalent used options is perhaps the single most powerful move we can make for a greener planet. Rather than promoting the demand for more (trust me, demand for most things is high enough already), buying used taps into the copious amounts of stuff that’s already cycling through our world. From pre-owned cars to used tennis rackets and from secondhand lawn mowers to thrift store dishes, there’s a sea of quality, lower-priced inventory floating all around us. Tap into it.

We all know that our economy is growth-driven and much of what I’ve outlined here challenges that system, at least as it relates to green living. Don’t get me wrong. It’s encouraging to see so many eco-friendly options for consumers these days, but it’s unsettling to notice trends that put those products in a cycle that might not be sustainable or green.

Maybe the answer starts with a refusal — a refusal to consume at our old levels and approach greening our lives using the same questionable blueprint. After all, to refuse is really just to choose differently.

Stacy Johnson

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