Does It Cost Too Much To Be Green?

When someone considers going green, cost is one of the first things that he or she will consider. How expensive is organic food? Can I afford to buy renewable energy? I’ve found a great article from the Open University website that discusses this – see below!

For myself, I’ve been trying to be more minimalist in my purchases, so I feel that I am happier to spend a bit more on buying natural products such as shampoo bars. I’m yet to take control of a lot of household costs and issues – bills, food etc. – as I am living with my parents until next month, but I feel that by gradually reducing unnecessary purchases the expense of going green is actually being lessened. Plus, as the article discusses, there are other, non-monetary, costs to consider if you choose not to be green, such as pollutants and greenhouse gases.

I’d love to know what you think – do you spend more on a greener lifestyle? Or maybe you find it’s actually cheaper?

Does it cost too much to be green?

All too often, looking at the short-term, it seems too expensive to be green. Cleaner hybrid or electric cars, organic foods, energy efficient domestic appliances, and many other green products, all cost more than their conventional equivalents, so the majority don’t buy them. However, if we look at the long-term, it’s possible that it may cost even more for us NOT to be green. There are four main ways that our actions today can damage the world left for future generations.

  • We are consuming non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels at a rate that will make them either very expensive, or not available at all, in a small number of generations.
  • The emissions of greenhouse gases associated with our fossil fuel use are likely to cause major disruption of the climate, making some areas uninhabitable and increasing the risks of major weather-related disasters.
  • We are adding other pollutants to our environment, whose long-term effects on our health, and that of other species, may be severe.
  • In modifying the environment to support our lifestyle, we are changing or even destroying the habitats of other species, with unknowable, but potentially serious consequences.

The costs that these will impose on future generations are unknown, but certain to be large. Should we be prepared to spend a little more now, to ensure that our children and their children don’t have to spend very much more in the future?

Is green really more expensive?

The examples above certainly appear to be more expensive. However, at the other extreme, “greener” actions such as switching off unnecessary lights, turning down heating thermostats or planning car journeys to minimise unnecessary travel, all cost nothing, other than a bit of thought, and provide instant monetary savings.

In between these extremes, there is a whole mixture of costs and benefits: short-term versus long-term and individual versus communal. I would argue that when we take the longer term and wider view, the green version isn’t really that expensive.

Better household insulation, low energy bulbs and other aspects of domestic design may cost more in the short-term, but provide significant long-term savings of both money and pollution. Expensive hybrid or electric cars are at the moment largely irrelevant, but why drive a large, heavy, fuel-guzzling vehicle when a smaller, more fuel-efficient, one could do the same job at a lower cost?

For short journeys, a bicycle is even cheaper! Spurious claims about the safety of SUVs and similar vehicles do little to hide the fact that most of these monsters are an expression of vanity on the part of the owner. Driving a smaller, greener, vehicle and driving it less, is only expensive in terms of the image of the driver.

The same is true of driving smoothly and at the most fuel efficient speed. But the speeding, stop-go driver is sure that his or her time is so valuable that to travel more slowly would be expensive. And there lies the nub of the problem.

It’s a matter of choice

How do we, as individuals, mentally cost our time, our ambitions, our lifestyle desires and compare these with the needs of others, born and unborn? Do we, or should we, consider these other costs when we decide to take a long haul foreign trip, buy a bigger car, or spend on other items?

Many of the goods and services we buy are designed to save us time, so that we have more time to enjoy the additional goods and services we believe we need. Buying the ingredients of a meal and cooking them is seen to “cost” too much of our valuable time, so we spend money on ready prepared dishes that only need to be reheated.

Other purchases are designed to satisfy other desires, such as for status, novel holiday experiences and so on, but all these things cost money. To obtain this money we may even end up working longer hours, to earn enough to buy the goods and services to enjoy in our vanishing leisure time!

It may seem crazy, but this cycle of earning and spending is essential for economic growth, the requirement of liberal market democracies. It’s therefore in the interests of governments, business and the media to keep this cycle in place.

Myths of market economics

Francis Fukuyama claimed in The End of History that liberal market democracies are the final end point of human development, and therefore in some way inevitable. But, as George Lakoff has pointed out, markets are actually designedExternal link 9 and created by humans, and are based on particular sets of rules.

At present, those rules do not allow for the costs of environmental damage, and deem that benefits in the future are worth much less than benefits now, but there is no fundamental reason why this should be so. It is just that we have chosen to set up markets in this particular way. The green product or service voluntarily incurs the current cost of environmental protection, while the non-green one does not.

Until a recognition of these additional environmental costs is built into the rules governing markets, being green will always appear to be expensive. There is an enormous educational and political task here.

In the end, money is only a means of exchange, necessary to obtain something that we as individuals happen to want. In a market economy, there will always be providers ready to respond to these wants, or even, dare we suggest, to create new wants, because that is what provides economic growth. But does it have to be thus?

Are we really such inadequates that our lives are only fulfilled if we drive the latest, largest SUV, take the longest long-haul flights to currently unspoilt destinations, and in the process destroy much of what we, or others, may want? Is that really the cheaper option? We are all part of the whole Earth system, so should we not make decisions that reflect this?

It may not be expensive, but it is difficult!

Being green is only really expensive if we think solely in terms of our current lifestyles and ignore the future and the less fortunate. But even in the longer term, it’s not necessarily going to be cheap, and it’s certainly not simple.

All too often, we can reduce one aspect of our environmental damage, and even save ourselves some money, but in the process, make another aspect worse. The hybrid car illustrates this neatly. Current versions actually emit more carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled than does a modern diesel car of similar size, according to research by Which? magazine. But the diesel puts out more of some other pollutants. So while either is better than the gas-guzzler, which of them is actually the cheaper, greener alternative?

Paradoxically, buying ready prepared meals could be a greener choice than home cooking. Meals cooked in efficient industrial ovens use much less energy per item than the myriad of domestic ovens needed to produce the same dishes individually. Storing these dishes in industrial scale chillers is also better than domestic fridges and freezers.

The trouble is, we need the domestic fridges anyway, and we probably end up making extra fuel-expensive journeys to buy the ready prepared dishes. There is a strong incentive for the food manufacturer always to source the cheapest ingredients, and the distortions of the marketplace mean that this may involve the materials travelling massive distances. So the theoretical environmental benefits of industrial food production are mostly illusory.

If we are prepared to look beyond the short-term in our decisions, we need to be aware of their environmental effects, and of the sorts of complications suggested here. There is a whole range of Open University courses that tackle these difficulties, from the introductory to the postgraduate. If you are seriously concerned about the costs of being green, these provide the information you need to help you.

This article is from the Open University website, and you can find it here. I would love to hear your thoughts on it!

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12 thoughts on “Does It Cost Too Much To Be Green?

  1. Very interesting article – especially the bit about the environmental cost of ready made meals which I hadn’t thought about. I guess it’s about balancing the more expensive (hybrid cars, green electricity, organic food) against the cheaper elements of going green (switching off heating, re-using).

    • Yes, ultimately you have to decide which items you want to spend more on, I think. I’ve cut down a lot on ‘unnecessary’ purchases so hopefully will be able to invest in some of the more expensive things.

  2. Hi Joanna, thanks for the thought-provoking article! It pretty much sums up most of what I have been slowly digesting this past year or so during my green make-over. I have come to strongly believe that thought, is the most powerful action any of us can take before we hand over cash for any item we may think we need. Indulging in a little time to ponder the environmental or social impacts of what we wish to buy is a small step in helping to raise our environmental conscience to a higher level, and hopefully to the point where how much something costs is of lesser consequence than the environmental impact our decision will have.
    Economic growth based on consumerism is only way to gauge a society’s “success” and is more a reflection of an antiquated political system that isn’t in tune with the environmental impacts that that system brings. With that thought in mind, I personally challenge myself every time I think I “need” something to ponder whether its just a clever marketing strategy to make me buy, or whether it’s a genuine need. Either way, I hand over no cash til I’ve made the best decision I can at the time, and do my best to use a “green” option whenever possible 🙂

    • You’re right, it’s definitely what we buy that makes such a difference. I find the focus on consumerism so frustrating sometimes, especially since companies focus on that to the extent of ignoring environmental impacts, as you mention. I’m still keeping my ‘wish list’ to wonder whether it’s a genuine need that makes want to buy something too. Really great to hear you’re doing so well with it too 🙂

  3. “For myself, I’ve been trying to be more minimalist in my purchases, so I feel that I am happier to spend a bit more on buying natural products such as shampoo bars.” This applies to me, too! 🙂

  4. Hi, interesting post! It is often cost that puts people off. Have you thought about doing a post about fireworks as it’s coming up to bonfire night? Are there any greener alternatives?

  5. It is a matter of choice and it is difficult but life itself is difficult at times and there are always choices. I believe in self- governance but it requires discipline. It is my great wish for our times that we all realize this. Great article, Joanna! 🙂

    • I agree, it’s definitely all about choice and I am choosing to spend my money on what’s important to me. I hope more of us realise this even though it will take a long time! Thanks Laura 🙂

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