Eco Etiquette: 4 Things I've Learned

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Well, my greenies, Miss Eco Etiquette is going on an extended hiatus to pursue other projects, so this will be the last bit of advice I'll be dispensing for at least the near future (in public, anyway). It's been a privilege to have been entrusted with your conservation-related conundrums these past three years, and I have to say that the research I've done in the quest to answer them all has been enlightening for me, too: I've certainly gained some wisdom of my own since my first column that sparked the series. Here, my eco etiquette epilogue:

1. Eco crayons aren't sustainable if you have to use three Magic Erasers and half a bottle of Soft Scrub to get the scribble off your walls. Vegetable-based laundry detergent isn't worthwhile if your clothes fade after three washings. We eco-minded folks love to buy "green," but look at the big picture: Sometimes it's the conventional choice (e.g., petroleum-based washable Crayolas) that uses less resources in the long run.

In writing this column, I have tested out a lot of eco products, and the truth is that many either aren't up to snuff or are guilty of greenwashing. So I refuse to feel bad buying a conventional dishwashing detergent that actually works: What's the point of using the "natural" one if I have to waste water and electricity running the dishwasher on a longer cycle or even twice to get my dishes clean? And I don't care how many pairs of slip-ons one altruistic company donates to shoeless people in third-world countries; I'm not going to squander money and materials buying yet another pair that will disintegrate after a month of wear. If you really care about the environment, you, too, will value effectiveness, durability, and refurbish-ability over a label that claims "green."

2. If you want to change minds, politeness will only get you so far. When I first began writing this column, I was convinced that leading by example would be enough to bring my not-so-sustainability-minded friends and family over to the green side. I didn't want to be one of those elitist eco-nags, after all; surely everyone would just notice all the cool green stuff I was doing and want to copy my sustainable style, right?

In some cases, that approach worked. My plastic-water-bottle-addicted friend, for instance, finally admired my reusable glass version enough times to adopt one of her own. But when it came to other, not-so-obvious issues -- why she should avoid GMOs in her baby's formula, for example, or why my mom buying kosher meat was not the same as buying organic -- I not only had to explain why these things were important, I had to broach the topics myself.

Was I annoying sometimes? Probably. But I care about the health of the people I love, and most of them aren't mind readers. Lesson learned: If you want to be heard, well then, speak up. And while we're on the subject of how to speak up, here's another nugget...

3. Know that most people don't care about going green for green's sake. While I do believe there will always be people (You! Me!) who care deeply about saving the planet, nature, overpopulation -- all the heavy stuff -- I've found that for most, these concerns will usually be overshadowed by more immediate and tangible needs, like: How am I going to pay the bills? So if you want to make a convincing argument for going green, curb the carbon-speak and show how it's going to save green. (Pocket $100 a month in gas money by biking to work! Buy delicious local veggies at the farmers market for cheaper than the sad-looking ones at the grocery store!) Framing an environmental argument in terms of one's personal health (plastic = yucky carcinogenic chemicals) can be pretty persuasive, too.

4. If you want a completely green household, be prepared to run it yourself. My husband is environmentally minded. He drives a hybrid car, he likes eating organic. But let's face it: If left to his own devices, he'd be bringing home groceries in plastic bags and ordering takeout in Styrofoam containers three nights a week. It's not that he doesn't care: It's just that being organized (e.g., keeping the pantry stocked with bulk bin goods) and planning ahead (e.g., remembering to bring reusable bags to the supermarket) are my strong suits, not his. And that's OK. You can do your best to enlist your wife, partner, children, roommate in your quest to go green, but heed my advice: It is so not worth destroying a relationship over a compost bin.

Wishing you success in your eco endeavors!


Got a question that can't wait? Check to see if I've already answered it in the Eco Etiquette archives, here.