Taking stock of our stuff
If I were to ask you, "How much stuff do you have?" how would you respond?Skip to next paragraph
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Do you think in terms of everything inside your house or apartment - your clothes and furniture, your collection of Van Morrison records, the letters from Mom, and all the other essential belongings? Don't forget your car, plus the camping gear and ice skates and gardening tools. (Not the cat. We're talking just inanimate objects here.)
OK, now throw in the personal stuff in your locker at work, and that should be about it, right?
Not hardly. Let's be really hard-nosed about this and include everything you use up in a day, everything that defines you as a "consumer." There are the obvious things - newspapers, toothpaste, the wrapper around your morning doughnut (and the donut itself, however briefly). Then there's the one-day's worth of big-ticket items you own, say 1/8,000th of a washing machine that lasts 22 years.
Add your portion of the wood, concrete, steel, and other stuff it took to build your dwelling, plus the waste created in the process.
But you can't stop there. You also have to include your share of the material that went into the road you drove to work on and the building you work in, not to mention the factories that made your stuff and the stores where you got it. Oh, and the coal, oil, or whatever energy source it took to make them.
Tote it all up, divide by how many days it lasts, and it comes to more than 200 pounds a day. Tomorrow, another 200 pounds. By the end of the year, 37 tons of stuff has your name on it.
Feeling a little weighed down, are we?
We have the Worldwatch Institute to thank for this cheery bit of material accounting. The private research organization in Washington, D.C., recently published a report called "Mind Over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in Our Lives." It notes that Americans as a group consume nearly 10 billion tons of material every year, 18 times as much as we did at the turn of the century.
But before you look in the mirror and see a walking landfill, know too that individuals, communities, and businesses are finding innovative ways to make do with less, and in the process improve economic performance and quality of life.
"Groups as different as neighborhood associations and corporations are discovering economic well-being is not necessarily linked to using vast quantities of materials," says Gary Gardner, a senior researcher at Worldwatch. "In fact, getting more of what we want through smarter use of materials is a winner for the bottom line and the environment."
And it's not just "green" advocates like Worldwatch who are saying this. So are sharp-pencil economists and profit-conscious business leaders.
University of Oregon business professor Michael Russo has found that having a better environmental rating is "a consistent predicator of profitability."
Dr. Russo and Paul Fouts of Golden Gate University tracked 243 firms and found that "environmental performance and economic performance are positively linked.... It pays to be green." Among the companies included in the study were such biggies as Microsoft, Boeing, Weyerhauser, Ford, and Amoco.
These researchers concluded with a warning: "Managers who instead resist and contest pressures for environmental improvement risk not only a profound loss of productive energy, but also a bottom-line loss of equal proportions."
While big business frequently is seen as the enemy of the environment, today's generation of corporate executives do not accept this role.
Arthur D. Little, a consulting company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., finds that 83 percent of business leaders surveyed in North America and Europe believe that they can derive "real business value" from implementing a "sustainable development approach to strategy and operations."
"Many companies are still focused on short-term and efficiency-driven environmental initiatives because they know how to do them extremely well, and they are relatively easy to implement," says Stephen Poltorzycki, vice president of Arthur D. Little. "These include proven ways to cut back on energy and water use, reduce emissions, and monitor facilities for compliance."