The Recession's Green(back) Lining

The overuse of a word tends to dilute its meaning, but what if this recession really causes us to change? Like, really. The signs point to a fundamental transformation in our way of life: We are buying less, wasting less. But will these habits stay with us? Or will we slip back into our old ways once the economy improves again?

Some argue that we have no choice but the former—like Thomas L. Friedman who wrote this in a March 7 column in the New York Times: “We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ... We can’t do this anymore.”

I agree. We can’t.

I don’t make myself out to be an expert in environmental science or global economics, but it doesn’t really take one to see we can’t go much further down the road we’ve been traveling. Unless we make an effort to conserve and renew the planet’s resources, they will run out. They are finite. Our waste, not so much.

This new-found focus on all things green might strike some as bad for business. And if Americans really do change our wasteful ways, it will be bad for some businesses. Businesses that make plastic grocery bags, for example, or five-tray electric food dehydrators.

Case in point, a survey last August by eBay found that 90% of Americans have at least one unused item lying around the house, and unused electronics items can be found in more than 70% of households. If this sort of behavior stops, manufacturers and retail stores that produce and sell the crap we buy will be hurt.

But here’s the question for skeptical capitalists: Isn’t this the market at work? Aren’t we a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs?

Consider this: We will still need to buy stuff. We will still need clothes and cars, and I don’t see anyone giving up the good old refrigerator or television anytime soon. But maybe we’ll buy less stuff, better stuff that lasts longer and is designed to run on less and/or greener energy.

And maybe the company that produces plastic bags will retool itself and become a company that produces other types of plastics we don’t throw away everyday, like the plastic parts we’ll need for the seats in new public transit systems. (Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?)

It all comes down to the simplest of economic theories—supply and demand. If we spend less, spend more selectively, and we change the way we consume and dispose of the consumables, the companies will follow. They’ll have to, because if they don’t evolve to meet the needs of the new market, they’ll disappear. The market at work.

So back to my original question: Will our new habits stay with us after the economy rebounds? No one knows for sure. But I’ve been around long enough to know something about human nature. We humans almost always ignore problems until they become too big to ignore, until they affect us directly, and then we leap into action.

And the problems we face today are right up in all our faces.

Like Friedman and his sources, I believe 2008 was a pivotal year, a year when, as he puts it, “We hit the wall—when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more.’” 

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marire sani We just can live forever buying and wasting less.

Posted by: kim p | February 4, 2012 10:59 AM