Sustainability Isn’t Black and White

over packaging

It was a only few years ago that I became aware of the environmental crisis. I started to change some of my daily habits and had to learn a lot. I began reading various environmental books on how to reduce energy use and pollution, while bring pro-active. In the various books that I read, there was a simple (and cliche) mantra that stood out. It’s one that I am sure you’ve heard before.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

If I am being honest, I had to learn recycling all over again. I am sure that it was covered in elementary school, but seeing as I didn’t grow up in a family that recycled on a regular basis, I had forgotten how it is done. I was an amateur. When I met people who held similar priorities, I would often pick their brain because I had a lot to learn. At the time, I figured that I needed to learn how to do everything. Whether it was starting to use a re-usable mug or water bottle instead of plastic cups or bottles, unplugging the electronics between use to avoid phantom charges, or anything else. I understood caring for the environment in simplistic terms.

I assumed there was a right and wrong. I thought it was black and white. I presumed there was a list of do’s and don’ts. In many ways, there still are within communities that value sustainability, but I am convinced that environmental concern is not that simple. It is much more complicated.

Example 1 – Online vs. Physical Shopping

One of the best examples of the complexity of environmental concern is the increase in technology. As a general rule, technology is supported because it decreases the need to use natural resources (as a lot of what has normally happened can be done in cyber space). It has become so popular, that most people, myself included, order many items from online stores instead of driving to a physical store. Basic logic would assume that it is better to order things online because it erases the need for me to drive my personal car to the store, thereby using natural resources while emitting CO2 into the air. You would think that it would be better for 1 truck (per area) to deliver items to 20 customers than for 20 individual families to each drive to the store and back to pick up one item.

That’s what I thought until last week when I received my new wireless mouse. My previous wireless mouse broke on me and it was time to get a new one. I ordered a new one through Amazon. Saving the environment and getting a good deal on a necessary item. What could be better? When the package showed up on my porch, I couldn’t believe it. The mouse, which is just slightly bigger than my fist, was in a box that would hold 20 average-sized books. My simple paradigm of clear-cut answers was challenged again. The extra packaging that was used to ship the one product made me question which was a more sustainable way of obtaining a product from a store. While there may be a way to analyze the energy use in each process in order to scientifically prove one way is better, this example does illustrate the complexity of the competing values. It’s not always easy to determine which way is better.

Example 2 – It’s Never as Easy as They Make it Sound

Despite the example provided above, there are situations where it is clear which option is more environmentally-friendly. For example, my parents love having a water bottle with them at work. Yet, they hate doing dishes. Their solution is not to buy a re-usable water bottle, but to buy the individual water bottles in bulk. Because they don’t recycle, each bottle is eventually thrown away. While in my eyes, it would be very easy for them to buy a re-usable water bottle and not only get rid of a lot of waste, but also save money, it isn’t that simple. It hardly ever is that simple.

While we may be quick to offer up a solution for someone else’s waste, it’s hard to understand the challenge to change your behavior. Just like how I have become too lazy to turn my computer off every night or unplug unused appliances. It may be easy to say that you are saving the environment with steps A, B, and C, but the actual implementation of these steps are often more challenging than doing them.

It’s Easy to Judge, Hard to Change

It’s very similar to being frugal with your money. If you are keeping track of your finances, you may know that it is better to not go get ice cream on a hot day, but it’s much easier said than done. You may also be able to see ways that other people could save money, but for them, it is too much for them to handle. Whether it is too much to think about in a stressful time or a variety of other things that could make it hard for them to change their lifestyle, who are we to judge? Changing a lifestyle, whether it is caring for the environment or being more responsible with our finances, takes time and we shouldn’t be the ones who over-simplify the change.

What may be easy for one person, may be difficult for another. What may be financially beneficial for one person, may not be the case for the other. While I certainly have a lot more to learn about caring for the environment and managing my finances, the one thing that I know is that neither is black and white. The world is full of shades of gray and we need to accept that.

This is an article written by Corey at 20’s Finances. He writes to educate young adults, helping them make smart financial decisions.

(Photo credit: jeffhurlow)

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