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Are Consumers Falling Off The Green Wagon, And Should We Care?

A Newsweek columnist laments, “I’m so tired of being green” and admits to tossing a gooey peanut butter jar into the trash because she doesn’t want to rinse it out before recycling.

The New York Times warns “That Buzz in Your Ear May Be Green Noise” in a recent Fashion & Style Section story that ponders over glass versus paper milk containers, and whether “to Nalgene or not to Nalgene.”

Even I – in the middle of a recent vacation in Mexico – allowed pangs of guilt to creep up for not offsetting my evil air travel, and for going through heaven knows how many plastic bottles of water (between margaritas of course).

Call it “green noise.” Call it “green fatigue.” According to more and more news reports, people are starting to tune out the environment.  Is that really the case? If so, we must ask ourselves why. Is it the economy, or is it us?

First the economy. Recycling every peanut butter jar doesn’t cost anything extra, and frankly it’s not going to “save the planet.” That leaves us – business. We’re the ones responsible for green marketing messages, and we’re the ones who have the greatest potential to effect real environmental change. Whether it’s recycling glass or choosing milk in the lightest container, consumers can only do as much as infrastructure and the marketplace will bear.

In a recent interview, my business partner and I were asked to “Riff on 16 Household Eco-Dilemmas” fired in staccato succession: paper or plastic, gas grill or charcoal, disposable or cloth diapers? These quandaries are surprisingly complex, and we have far from succinct and not always environmentally honorable answers. (Kevin grills with gas, I use charcoal, and apparently gas takes the eco-edge but just barely. I always wash my laundry in cold water, but I happen to know Kevin would just as soon lick the floor.)

Now I ask myself: How would the above exercise unfold, having to riff on business eco-dilemmas. It might go like this: Styrofoam or washable coffee cups. Pretty simple. How about recycling versus disposal; steel or aseptic packaging; offsetting or emissions reductions; hybrid or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle technologies; allocated versus auctioned carbon caps?

On July 8, the U.S. and other G-8 nations committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. Some say that’s too little, with no short-term goals, but still it’s something. Regardless of what exactly happens next, or who will be our president come January, change is coming and the implications are significant.  So what can we do about the future, realistically?  Smart businesses will anticipate and be ready for what change is inevitable. Great businesses will lead the way, with big ideas that make a huge difference — and perhaps save or make money. Some of these ideas may even be worthy of a consumer marketing campaign that makes sense and is relevant to everyone.

So, do consumers really need to sweat the small stuff when it comes to the environment? Sure. Drive efficiently, don’t drown your lawn, turn off the lights. And to the Newsweek columnist: next time, put the peanut butter jar in the dishwasher (full loads only please) and then into the recycling bin.

Valerie Davis is president of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting.

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