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HOW TO WATCH
WHAT YOU BUY

Look carefully at your big purchases.

The decision to buy a big, expensive, out of the ordinary item is the moment when you can most easily and dramatically change your overall environmental impact-either positively or negatively. Choosing a home, a car, or a major appliance provides you with an opportunity to help the environment. By selecting a home near your work, for example, you can significantly reduce the huge environmental impacts of commuting by car. A new, efficient refrigerator can reduce the amount of coal and other harmful fuels that are used to generate electricity. And, when it comes to choosing a car, you will normally find at least a 50 percent difference between the efficiency of the best and worst vehicle in a given class, such as mid-size cars or station wagons.

You'll also want to pay close attention to big purchases for recreation. Buying a snowmobile, a powerboat, or a swimming pool commits you to activities with large environmental impacts from pollution or water use.

Watch the weight of what you buy.

In general, a large, heavy object has more impact on the environment than a small, light object. Primarily this is because there's simply more of it-more to produce, more to transport from manufacturer to market, and more to dispose of when it wears out. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't ever buy heavy objects, but you should give those purchases special scrutiny. Is that 300-pound clothes dresser made from wood from an endangered tropical rainforest or was the lumber produced more sustainably?

Consider especially the cumulative weight of things you use in quantity. For example, by comparing the total weight of all the gasoline you use each year in your cars (more than 5,000 pounds for a typical family) to the weight of the video games you buy (perhaps five pounds), you can see where to focus your attention if you want to reduce your environmental impact.

Add up how much you use.

We rarely look at the actual amounts we consume. Exactly how much gas, electricity, water, beef do you use over a day, a week, a month? When totaled up, the numbers may surprise you. But they'll also show you what changes could make the most difference.

For example, you might be able to save a gallon of water a day by using less water while you brush your teeth, but replacing the showerhead with a low-flow model might save 18 gallons each time someone in the household showers. If you have a family of four, you could save several hundred gallons each week--without having to persuade them to change how they brush their teeth.

Don't worry or feel guilty about unimportant decisions.

Focus your attention and your concern on the decisions that matter most. If you use a few paper cups occasionally, don't agonize over it. If you've heard conflicting advice from environmental experts about whether using a diaper service or disposable diapers is worse for the environment, make the choice that suits you and put the question out of your mind. (Actually, the Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices shows the diapering dilemma to be a nonissue. The difference between the overall environmental impacts of each option is insignificant.) Save your concern and your deliberation for the choices you know make a difference--like how you get work, what type of car you drive, and how to reduce pesticide use in your yard.

Be a leader.

You can make a big difference to the environment by taking opportunities to become a leader. And you don't need to preach to do it. If your neighbors see you catching the bus each day, they'll notice. If you install solar panels, they'll ask you about them.

But don't confine your leadership to your personal choices. You can make an even bigger difference if you change the consumption of an institution or organization. Introducing paper recycling at your office, reinsulating your church, or reducing meat consumption at the luncheons of your social club will all provide large benefits to the environment. Plus they'll set your colleagues and friends to thinking about the consumption/environment connection.

Buy more of those things that help the environment.

Advice on consumption often focuses on buying less. But sometimes you can be a greater help to the environment by buying than by not buying. If you buy a microwave or replace an old appliance with a new one, your energy use will drop. If you buy recycled paper, you decrease the pressure on forests. If you buy a computer, fax, or answering machine that lets you telecommute, you cut your biggest impact on the environment--travel. And if you're one of the first to buy a new, environmentally sound technology, you'll help build a market so that the industry can get off the ground.

Think of other reasons to reduce your consumption.

In a society that bombards its citizens with 3,000 advertising messages each day, you may lose sight of the extent to which these messages influence your actions. You may find it worthwhile to stop and reflect on where consumption fits into your goals and values. For example, recognizing that you would like to spend more time with your family may provide the incentive to make the adjustments necessary to telecommute or to decrease the time you spend commuting.

For more information about limiting the environmental impact of your purchases, see UCS's Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.

Provided by: Union of Concerned Scientists

Union of Concerned Scientists
2 Brattle Square, Cambridge, MA 02238-9105
617-547-5552, ucs@ucsusa.org


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