Tag Archives: Sustainability

Do you unplug your HDTV?

According to Bob Elton of BC Hydro, newer TVs consume four times as much electricity as the older technology TVs.  Furthermore, if you have a digital box that’s plugged in all the time, 90% of the electricity consumed by your TV occurs when it’s not even in use.  Many of us have more than one TV in our homes.  Many of us are watching less TV and surfing the internet more.  With the release of ever-newer entertainment technologies, out plug loads are getting higher and higher.  Plug loads for consumer electronics have tripled over the last couple of decades and can make up almost 10-20% of our household energy consumption, after lighting, heating and cooling loads.

Knowing this and knowing that energy prices are set to continuing soaring in the foreseeable future, would you consider unplugging your TVs and computers and appliances when they’re not being used?

Environment not high on the list of concerns

According to a study conducted by the market research firm Yankelovich, only 13 percent of Americans are passionate about environmental issues and 29 percent have virtually no interest at all. Green products represent only a “niche” opportunity, according to the report. Gallup’s annual Environment poll found that only 28% of Americans report that they’ve made “major changes” in their lifestyles to protect the environment.

So, contrary to popular belief, concerns about the environment haven’t yet made it into the hearts and minds of the mainstream population.  Furthermore, environmental concern usually declines when the economy is struggling. The way to get people to buy green still seems to be to focus on saving money or improving health.  For example, most people buy Energy Star rated products, not because they’re greener, but because they save money by using less energy.

The lack of perceived objectivity and validity of environmental claims being made in the marketplace are an increasingly visible barrier to reaching the hearts and minds of the consumer.  We may already be fatigued by all the stories of greenwashing and we’re throwing our hands up in the air, not knowing where to turn to make better choices.  Maybe it’s time to blog about something else already.

Consumer attitudes won’t change overnight.  The opportunity is for marketers (who are brave enough) to generate greater awareness and implement the processes and systems essential to objectively demonstrate the benefits of making the right choices for environmental sustainability.

Exposing the hypocrites

I see a lot of chatter from so-called environmentalists complaining about the apparent hypocrisy of high-profile advocates (i.e., celebrities) and their hyper-consuming, carbon-spewing lifestyles. 

Just one of many examples:

Chris Martin (Coldplay):  He is vocally involved in the fair trade movement and, less vocally, on the environmental side.  It’s been pointed out that his band flies on a private jet between gigs and that he flies home between gigs to spend time with his family and sometimes he takes his kids with him to gigs.  So the tree-huggers are saying that this makes him part of the problem, definitely not part of the solution.  They say that they would never fly anywhere because of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with flying.  My intent here is not to debate whether he is or isn’t helping the cause. 

My response: 
Sustainability is not just about environmental sustainability. It’s about economic and social sustainability as well. If we all stop flying because of the associated GHGs, the world as we know it will cease to exist. Environmental choices that are not economically sustainable are not sustainable at all.  If parents are not making an effort to spend time with their kids, that’s not socially sustainable at all.

The idea is to educate ourselves to make increasingly more sustainable choices, wherever possible and do things that will reasonably offset the impacts of our choices wherever possible. It’s not about sitting in our caves in the dark and sending the quality of our lives back to the stone age.  It’s not about blindly restricting consumer choice.  It’s about making trade-offs between options that, taken collectively, minimize the negative impact or have a positive overall impact on the planet.  And it’s not always black-and-white and it’s not always easy.

My dream is to fly a lot, to help vulnerable communities around the world and help them implement simple and profound practices and technologies that can dramatically improve their quality of life, in a sustainable manner.  My hope is that the impact of my flights, etc. are more than offset by the positive outcomes.


The importance of life cycle thinking for sustainability

The main objectives of sustainable living choices are to minimize the depletion of resources (energy, water, raw materials) and prevent adverse impacts to human health and the environment, while maintaining and enhancing the quality of life for existing and future generations.

Typical approaches to promoting environmentally preferable products usually make a big deal of one or a few isolated attributes, or broad generalizations that don’t always lead to the best choice, despite the appealing but often misleading marketing hype and claims.

A focus on the life cycle of a product or service involves looking at the environmental, economic and social impacts of upstream processes such as extraction and transportation of raw materials, manufacturing, and so on, the end-use and the possible disposal or reuse options at the end of its useful life. The known and unintended consequences of short term actions as well as competing impacts over the full lifespan of the product or service need to be better understood. We need some assurance that addressing one environmental problem doesn’t just end up giving birth to another unexpected problem elsewhere, in some other form.

Some examples to think about:

  • bio-based, rapidly renewable materials (e.g., bamboo) are not necessarily more environmentally friendly; increased fertilizer and watering requirements, and transportation distances need to be considered
  • the US administration’s policy to promote biofuels, such as ethanol from corn has already led to widespread disastrous consequences, including using up prime agricultural land that has contributed to soaring food prices
  • recycling is not automatically a good choice, depending on the material, transportation distances to recycling facilities, and whether the process may actually be more intensive than using virgin materials (e.g. burning newsprint for its fuel value may be the better option)
  • plastic Christmas trees don’t look like such a green option when you consider the resources and emissions associated with their production and the fact that they stick around in our landfills for a very, very long time, and compare them with the environmental impacts of harvesting rapidly renewable “real” Christmas trees from a farm where they are being grown like corn for this specific purpose
  • so-called “clean” technologies may not be so clean (yet) when you look at the overall environmental impacts in terms of the resource consumption, high capital cost and infrastructure investments involved in making them available (e.g. hydrogen fuel cells)

A systematic analysis and understanding of life cycle trade-offs and benefits is usually a highly complex and data-intensive undertaking that’s beyond the capability of the lay person. There are very few “one size fits all” solutions.

At the end of the day, we should all strive to make more informed choices by increasing our general awareness and understanding of the trade-offs between alternatives so that we’re less likely to get fooled into thinking our choices are sustainable, while the reality may be exactly the opposite.

If you have some eye-opening examples of the trade-offs between product and technology choices, object violently to an idea presented here or just have some questions that you’d like to explore further— please join the conversation!

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