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Buy Green? Or Buy Less?

| Wednesday April 29th, 2009 | 0 Comments

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of hybrid vehicles I see driving the streets here in Boulder, Colorado. Maybe it’s just a heightened awareness due to those special “alternative fuel vehicle” parking spaces now in place at the new 29th Street Mall shopping area; but at times, it seems to me that I encounter at least one Toyota Prius at every stoplight.
This observation got me thinking: how environmentally-friendly is it to replace a perfectly functional vehicle with a brand-new car (albeit a hybrid?)
This issue was previously discussed on this site via a July 2007 post, which looked at the Hummer H2, the Toyota Highlander (both regular and hybrid), and the Toyota Prius, comparing the energy consumed by each vehicle during the manufacturing process as well as throughout the estimated life of each. The conclusion? “Continuing to drive an older car with poor fuel economy is less environmentally friendly than getting a new car that gets drastically better fuel economy.”
Based on the vehicles used for these particular calculations, I absolutely agree with this conclusion. However, what about a comparison between a new Toyota Prius and a smaller, older vehicle, say, a 1992 Honda Accord (my ride for the past 15 years.) Would we still reach the same verdict? According to many of the follow-up calculations and evidence provided in response to the original post, it seems that the answer may be “no.”


Which brings to mind a more general question. Instead of helping the planet by buying green – the term “credit card environmentalism” comes to mind – wouldn’t we be better served to focus on buying less new stuff?
Along these lines, I have recently been increasingly attuned to two simple and unoriginal – yet often overlooked – things to add to our own personal “10/25/100 ways to help save the planet/environment/earth” lists.
1) Use the stuff other people don’t want.
I’m certainly not the first to recommend websites like www.craigslist.org and www.freecycle.org for finding great used items. Thrift stores and yard sales are terrific as well. But sometimes the best source for good stuff is often your friends and family: don’t be afraid to solicit them for hand-me-downs. My home is furnished with a dining table and chairs from a relative who upgraded, two unwanted televisions from friends, a coffeemaker from my sister who didn’t like it because it didn’t have an “auto-start” feature… sure, being a graduate student and being unmarried both help the cause. But, before you go out and buy that new toaster, check around – chances are your neighbor, your co-worker, or your buddy’s buddy has an extra one lying around that they’d be willing to sell to you on the cheap.
2) Use the stuff you already have – longer.
If you can fix that rip in your jacket, do you really need to buy a new one? It’s so easy to fall into the mindset of thinking “replace” instead of “repair” – I’m definitely guilty. But extending the life of your existing stuff through proper care – wherever possible reducing the need to purchase replacements – is such an easy thing we as consumers can do to help reduce our impact. Just today, I discovered the vacuum cleaner repair store: broken (hand-me-down) machine fixed for just $11 in parts. Both the environment and my wallet are winners.
The “buy less” mentality certainly won’t win big points from those in the retail or consumer products sectors, or from anyone trying to stimulate this sagging economy. But, from my perspective, it’s one of the most under-utilized ways for us to be green. And when my 17-year-old Honda Accord finally rusts itself into the great salvage yard in the sky, I’ll take one last look at the selection of shiny, new hybrids at the dealership down the street before driving away in a family member’s decade-old, newly-replaced Honda Accord. Tape deck and all.
As of last Friday, Beth Jensen is halfway to receiving her MBA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her focus is on exploring new ways to define and raise the bar on sustainability within the outdoor products, real estate, and natural products industries. Beth can be contacted at beth.jensen@colorado.edu.


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