Consumerism With a Conscience

Environment-friendly products catalog may not be final answer, says author, but it's a start

`THIS is not a light bulb,'' says Bruce Anderson as he holds up a light bulb. ``This is an investment,'' he clarifies. Mr. Anderson is making a case to buy ``environment smart.'' The light bulb is a compact fluorescent that he says will last ten times longer than an ordinary light bulb and use one-fourth the electricity. Although the cost is $20, ``it's like putting your money in a bank and getting 20 percent interest every year,'' he says.

As the editor of ``Ecologue: The Environmental Catalogue and Consumer's Guide for a Safe Earth'' (New York: Prentice Hall Press, $18.95), Anderson takes pride in providing consumers with information ``that changes their lives.''

``A lot of people feel overwhelmed,'' says Anderson in an interview. The information to make consumer choices that support the environment just wasn't there, he says, explaining one of the reasons he created the catalog.

The catalog ``touches so many aspects of life, that people really realize that everything they do from their mascara right to their cars and food they buy affects the environment,'' says Anderson, president of the International Environment Group, Inc. and author of ``The Solar Home Book.''

The catalog (printed on recycled paper, of course) reviews more than 600 ``environmentally-safe'' products - from personal- and home-care products to fuel-savers and fertilizers - including cost, company, and consumer comments. Nearly five pages are devoted to diapers, for example. Many pages feature blurbs on ``what you can do,'' lifestyle tips, eco-trivia, and inspirational quotes.

``It's a terrific book,'' says 1990 Earth Day Chairman Denis Hayes, whom Anderson succeeded as chair of the solar energy lobby in 1980. ``It takes a good first cut of looking at products across the board.... If you're going out and buying anything, it would be useful to look at the book and the questions it raises,'' he adds.

Some 50 people worked on the catalog - researching, obtaining products, and contacting hundreds of companies - while more than 30 authors and experts contributed their knowledge and skills. Product samples went to ``friends, neighbors, relatives; and their friends, neighbors, and relatives'' along with a response form, says Anderson, who has referred to ``Ecologue'' as a cross between the Whole Earth and Sharper Image catalogs.

Not every product got positive reviews. ``We quoted our testers in here because they're ordinary people who are using these things,'' explains Anderson.

But are we being fooled into thinking that a few efficient light bulbs or cloth diapers are going to make enough of a difference?

``It's the accumulation of all these little decisions that have created the problem, not any one single overwhelming thing we've done wrong.'' It all adds up, he says. ``There's no question that energy consumption is the biggest issue and the focus on reducing our energy consumption - on cars that get better mileage, insulating our homes, or using more efficient air conditioners, or whatever - that would make the biggest difference.''

Reciting a Chinese saying, he adds: ``A thousand-mile journey begins with the first step.''

While Anderson agrees that some people may not believe their participation or their spending a bit more will make a difference, ``it's sort of like voting,'' he says. ``A dollar is a vote.'' Some people will never believe their vote makes a difference, but those who do ``in some way have even more responsibility to spend wisely to make up for those that won't,'' he explains.

In the long run, such things pay off, not only to the environment but to your bank account as well, says Anderson. (He has used the same rechargeable battery in his dictaphone for 10 years.)

``The one answer really I come back to is loving the planet, loving the earth,'' says Anderson, who has a six-year-old daughter. ``If we love ourselves, we take care of ourselves. If we love our children, we take care of them. If we love the Earth, we'll take care of it, so it really starts there.'' But doesn't a catalog support one of the environment's biggest culprits - consumption?

``There are some products in here that support the concept of consumption,'' Anderson admits. But the point of the book is to help people change their buying and lifestyle habits.

``Ultimately this book is not a catalog of products,'' he says. ``There are 700 things you can do that have nothing to do with consumption,'' he says, and points out the difference between the book and a mail-order catalog. ``It's informing, empowering, motivating, and connected to your consciousness, your attitudes, your ethics, your fundamental value system,'' he says.

Anderson explains his view of the world's environmental problems with the image of a dumbbell. ``At one end are the rich countries and the rich people who are destroying the planet through materialism and consumption,'' he says. ``At the other end of the dumbbell are poverty-sticken people who are destroying the Earth because they can't help it.... We're doing something about consumerism, yet very few people focus on the other end,'' he notes. Royalties from Ecologue will be donated to a not-for-profit foundation that will target ``economic injustice'' in the third world and its impact on the environment.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Anderson about the products they've tried, and offer additional tips, facts, and ideas. ``We will use that information and share it with the rest of the world, giving these people the opportunity to help and contribute their ideas and their thinking,'' says Anderson. Ecologue Updates, to be published several times a year, will contain late-breaking information about new environmental products. With new information and new products coming out, Ecologue II is inevitable, Anderson says.

As an usher down the road to environmental do-goodism, the guide isn't meant to intimidate people. ``We all make our own trade-offs,'' says Anderson, who admits to being not so righteous himself. ``Here I'm living this idyllic life in the country. I put 30,000 miles on my car - that's not ecologically sound. I live in a wonderful house but I don't share walls with other people like people who live in apartments do. And therefore I use more energy in my house than a lot of other people do. I live in the north instead of a milder climate.... So everyone is going to act this thing out differently.... The important thing is to change our consciousness and act on it. Each step you take will lead you in the right direction.''

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