For the true green believers, the environment is right at the top of their values list. They give to green non-profits, volunteer for causes, reshape their lives, and support environmental values with the money they spend. When they make purchases, they’re willing to spend more for the greenest product. They have helped the green economy to grow to become over $300 billion in size, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and to expand the influence of sustainability in some of the biggest companies.
The environmental message alone doesn’t work for everyone though. The environmental movement has been pointing its finger at people for many years telling them to change, and overall it feels like the finger pointing hasn’t had the desired impact. Most people don’t like having a finger in their face, no matter what finger you use. A few people give up big cars, big houses, and big electrical bills because of their concern about the environment, but I doubt many did it because of eco-finger pointing.
While a vast majority of people in surveys say they value the environment, where they spend their money is telling. The mainstays of the green world like organic food and solar power have grown immensely, but they are only about 2-3% of the overall economy. It’s not that people don’t mean what they say, but it’s just not the only thing they worry about. They are worried about their jobs, paying their bills, and their kids. In his book Strategies for the Green Economy, GreenBiz.com editor Joel Makower describes consumers’ attitudes this way: “They want to know: What’s in it for me, today?”
When buying things, most people look first at factors like cost, how well an item works, how it makes them feel, what color it is, and also, sometimes, the impact on the environment. The importance of other factors like cost in buying decisions is truer than ever today. The message of the new frugality and sacrifice resonates with many people today, not just because of environmental concerns, but because they are finding it necessary to scale back their spending in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They have seen their income dwindle, their net value decline, and their financial security vaporize.
Out of necessity and concern for our future, more people are returning to the values of a conservative past where nothing went to waste and we spent within our means. I call this shift the “Conserver Economy“, moving away from the consumer economy with its emphasis on spending and consumption. Their motivations are often about spending less money because they simply have less money to spend and are squeezing as much as they can out of every dollar. Many people find their habits changing in a way that may last long after the slow motion recovery slowly recedes in our minds.
The Conserver Economy is green in many ways, emphasizing the efficient, wise, and conservative use of resources. If people make greener choices in their lives just to save money, so be it. The freakonomics of environmental behavior is not that surprising it seems. When the price of gas rose to $4 a gallon or more in the summer of 2008, people responded by driving less, carpooling, and driving smaller cars. The same thing is going on in a broader way today, with people pursuing greener options because of conserver economics.
Whatever the motivations of people, the Conserver Economy is still loaded with green opportunities for entrepreneurs and anyone else seeking a build-it-yourself future. Richard Pickering of PaperBackSwap.com started his business helping people swap books with each other rather than buying new ones, and found that business has picked up greatly during the Great Recession and Not-So-Great Recovery. His clients are probably mainly interested in a low cost way to get books to read, and not piling up books in the closet, but if they happen to help the planet along the way, nobody’s going to complain. The examples like this are many, with people finding ways to maintain a good standard of living by sharing, swapping, reselling, reusing, and renting to make their dollars and our planets resources stretch farther.
Rethinking some of the basic assumptions about what it means to live well isn’t easy, but is probably healthy. All of which doesn’t necessarily mean we are sacrificing anything. Driving a smaller car isn’t necessarily a sacrifice: if you save money and you still get where you need to go, while using less oil and leaving your kids a better world, then where is the sacrifice? We just need to rethink what is really important in our lives.
In the end nature doesn’t really care what our motivations are for greener decisions. And I feel the same way. If we make greener decisions and move toward a greener future just to save money, or just plain out of necessity, that’s okay. The important thing is that it happens, one way or another.
Glenn Croston is the author of 75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference, and Starting Green: An Ecopreneur’s Toolkit for Starting a Green Business, From Business Plan to Profits. He is also the founder of Starting Up Green, green business consultant, and instructor at EZ Green Biz.com, helping sustainability grow.