Smalls steps for a better world?
January 24, 2014 1:52 PM   Subscribe

What changes can I make in my personal life and everyday decisions that will make the largest positive social or environmental difference relative to the cost, effort or time involved?

I work in the social justice advocacy field, and I've often dismissed some of the personal changes I could make for social and environmental good as being less effective than advocating to make large-scale change at the societal or governmental level. But I'd like to start incorporating small changes into my life, and I want to focus on those changes that will give me the biggest "bang for my buck" (the best ratio of actual social or environmental good vs. cost, effort or time).

There's a long list of changes I could make to what I eat, what I buy, how I use energy etc., so I'd like to figure out what to prioritize. If you have any research that backs up the actual effectiveness of the change, even better! I'm looking mostly for small, easy to make changes, but willing to consider ones that involve more significant sacrifices if they have a proportionately large actual impact.

What I've already done: My partner and I don't own a car, we've gone vegetarian 2 days/week, I've stopped buying any drinks that come in disposable containers (cans, plastic bottles), using reusable bags, etc.

I'm pretty dedicated to travel and eventually raising a family, so while I realize that eliminating plane travel and not having children may actually have the biggest positive impact, I'm not willing to go that far.

So what should I start with? Only buy cage-free eggs, go organic only, stop buying from Target and H&M, composting, buy local, take shorter showers? Which will make the greatest positive impact?
posted by purplevelvet to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I know you said you have already gone veggie two days a week, but I think you should focus even more on diet. The number one thing, in my opinion, without a doubt, is to stop eating meat every single day (or every single meal as some do!). We eat, generally, three meals a day. That right there must be the closest and most "real" way to "make a difference". Try to cut down how much meat you eat, depending on where your starting point is. If you eat meat everyday, eat it only 4 or 5 times a week. If you eat it with both lunch and dinner, make one of those meals meatless everyday (without replacing it with cheese which is no better). I eat meat once or twice a month and seafood once every week or so. I limit the amount of dairy in my diet. And when I do eat meat and seafood I look for things like grassfed, organic, and buy sustainable seafood ( like sardines or Wild Alaskan salmon). I try to buy dairy products that are both grassfed and organic even though that has greatly limited what I have available to buy. Of course, buying local is huge too, but I find that is the hardest thing of all, unless you have easy weekly access to a farmers market. But you can make an effort not to regularly buy kiwis from New Zealand, for example.
posted by Blitz at 2:09 PM on January 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Plant a garden.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Go vegan!

Cite, cite, cite [PDF].
posted by divined by radio at 2:49 PM on January 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

You might want to consider "Effective Altruism" - i.e. donating money to the most effective charities you can find.

Give Well is a wonderful organization which assesses charities, trying to identify those which are most effective.

People in the Effective Altruism movement tend to focus on global health charities. Here are some other relevant websites:
posted by HoraceH at 2:52 PM on January 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Go vegetarian every day of the week. No question. Besides the actual meat part, the ancillary effects to other industries, ecologies, services and general world happiness makes it the first thing you should change.
posted by homesickness at 2:56 PM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding the suggestion to aim to go meatless for 2 of your 3 meals a day.

When possible, buy union-made products and patronize union shops. Here's a union shopping directory for California (assuming that your profile location is current).
posted by scody at 3:13 PM on January 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

These are kind of Captain Obvious, but if you haven't already, stop buying incandescent bulbs. (Whether it's better to go CFL or LED or a mix might require some further investigation). The big benefit to me personally was that bulbs ceased burning out and needing replacing (and the power bill dropped markedly), so the cost in effort is actually negative - making the change saves me time and effort, above and beyond the much-trumpeted savings in money/energy.

Similarly, if you haven't already, and your area offers a green power plan (paying a little more per kWhr on your electricity bill requires the utility to increase their renewable power generation/purchasing to cover your kWhrs), that's a super simple way to help move society off coal and boost investment in clean energy. And in my case, the cost increase is dwarfed by the money I save by not bothering with stupid incandescent bulbs any more.
posted by anonymisc at 3:16 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Start a savings account (maybe even with a community bank) and put aside a little bit every week so that when the big-impact decisions come, you can do the "right" thing even if it costs more. For example, when you need to replace your current fridge or washing machine, you'll be able to afford the most energy-efficient and long-lived one on the market. Or when you do take that big trip, you can add in some carbon offsets and stay at the eco-resort rather than the chain motel.

Dry your laundry outside rather than using a dryer, if that's possible for you.

And call your energy company and ask about switching to a green energy product.
posted by girlgenius at 3:23 PM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do not own carnivorous pets such as cats or dogs. Their carbon footprint really is shockingly large.
posted by kickingtheground at 4:23 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

100% green power is available from almost every electricity retailer, reduces your carbon footprint by a huge amount, and for the average full time working couple comes at a neglible cost - e.g for our family last power bill was about 400 bucks, getting that 100% as opposed to 100% dirty added an extra 20-30 dollars to the bill (can't remember, tiny amount). In addition to reducing your carbon footprint it also sends a price signal to the electricity companies, and helps renewable companies grow.

Eating meat, and airfare are generally people's next biggest carbon issues, if they don't drive.

I am signed up to couple of charities I donate to every month - aid orgs love this as the predictable revenue stream allows them to budget better.

Good on you OP - I am a bit like you in that I believe "consumer action" is often not as effective as other types of action, but when the costs are so marginal, why the hell not!
posted by smoke at 5:09 PM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think being as kind, respectful and helpful to everyone with who you come in contact goes a lot farther towards making a better world than anything else. Being cheerful also helps. Butterfly effect.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:24 PM on January 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I love this question. Going vegan seems like the most obvious answer (as a comparison, while a 5-minute shower might use 35 gallons of water, 2 pounds of beef on average takes something like 4,000 gallons of water to produce...not to mention energy use, etc). I recommend a little book called A Consumer's Guide To Effective Environmental Choices, which lays out sound lifecycle analysis for everyday activities. Other than considering flying a little less and changing to green energy, I would recommend trying to buy less in general (and if you need something, buying something used rather than something marketed as "greener").
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:42 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and just to clarify my link above: the list of unionized workplaces to shop at is geared for California (specifically L.A. and San Francisco, though they include some national chains), but the list of products made by unionized workers is national.
posted by scody at 5:56 PM on January 24, 2014

If you shop at Amazon, support the EWG by using the link on this page.
posted by invisible ink at 6:09 PM on January 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I went vegan about nine years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did. It was much easier than I thought it would be. I did it mainly for the animals (I work in animal rescue), but veganism is also really good for the planet and for your health.
posted by alex1965 at 7:39 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding being kind and respectful and helpful, but definitely not cheerful. There is already enough of a moral obligation here to act obsessively cheerful and happy, along with all the pernicious effects such an obligation brings. Being cheerful has nothing to do with being a good person, while the previous three traits clearly do.
posted by Blitz at 10:25 PM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Smart" power strips. They use tech like timers, occupancy sensors, and current sensors so that they can shut off (or shut off the strip's unused plugs) when not in use. They'll only skim maybe 5% off of your total energy usage, but you won't ever notice they're there, and good ones cost about $30. If you like the idea and want all your outlets to do the same thing, there are (plug-in) smart outlets you can buy (about $10 per).
posted by rue72 at 11:20 PM on January 24, 2014

You can't have a butterfly effect without butterflies.
posted by pracowity at 6:01 AM on January 25, 2014

I do a thing I call the "Make the World Marginally Less Shitty for Your Fellow Humans Challenge." (I'm working on the title.) Basically, I have a set of daily/weekly/monthly goals that revolve around being mindful of other people and trying to increase the number of positive interactions I have. They consist of:

Things I try to do at least once a day

-Pay someone a genuine and sincere compliment
-Let someone else go first at a stop sign while driving
-Hold a door for someone
-Say something nice to a person working in a customer service position

Things I try to do at least once a week

-Let someone go ahead of me in line at a store if they have less stuff or look stressed out
-Speak up when someone says something insensitive, sexist, or otherwise not cool
-Strike up an interesting conversation with a stranger

Things I try to do at least once a month

-Come up with something thoughtful to do for a friend
-Make something with results that can be shared (can be anything from baking cookies to writing a piece of fiction)

I don't necessarily achieve all these goals consistently, but making the effort has been worth it for me-- I feel like I'm, at the very least, not making other people's lives more difficult when I don't have to be, and possibly making someone's day a little nicer every once in a while. Hopefully there's an aggregate effect.
posted by nonasuch at 7:01 AM on January 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Kill your air conditioner.
If there is one self indulgent modern amenity we can really live without its AC.
posted by Abinadab at 8:41 AM on January 25, 2014

The original poster said that he or she has gone vegetarian two days per week. If one of your motivations is to be kinder to animals, then you should be aware that there is more suffering in a glass of milk or an egg than there is in a steak. Beef cattle produce a lot of meat per animal, and they're not treated quite as badly as dairy cows or egg-laying hens. I'm not suggesting that you start eating meat instead of eating eggs & dairy products. Rather, I'm saying that perhaps you would consider going vegan two days (or more!) per week.

One other thing: cage-free eggs are largely a marketing scam designed to get consumers to feel less guilty about eating animal products. Cage-free facilities are still plenty cruel.

One of my favorite essays on this general subject is called, "A Revolution of the Heart", by animal-rights lawyer & philosopher Gary Francione.

posted by alex1965 at 11:52 AM on January 25, 2014

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