Commentary: Can American Consumers Make Real Change?

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 12.01.2005


A National New Year's Resolution


Remember the song, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth” so popular years ago? Well this year, all I want is some indication that we as a nation have the willingness and understanding that we can make a difference in the world if we really want to. I'm talking about eliminating the fatalism that we can't make a difference anyway, so we just keep behaving as we always have, regardless of the impact on the environment and people of the world.


Oh, I will admit that I am as guilty as anyone else. Environmental issues really only bother me when they impact me directly, and I have a difficult time changing my behavior when it seems my individual ability to make a real difference is so small as to be meaningless. I know all the arguments about how every little bit helps, but for me there is a bigger question and it is twofold. Could Americans really make a major reduction in the volume of goods we purchase and Could we do this without having a dramatic negative impact on our quality of life?


First, is it possible? The good news is that Americans have been able to significantly reduce (by greater than 20%) their consumption of materials for short periods, five times since 1900. So it can occur! The bad news is that these reductions were called World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Oil Crisis, and the Recession of 1981-1982 (which some have argued was actually a depression for key segments of the economy – e.g. construction). So although we have demonstrated the ability to decrease consumption, it was hardly pleasant, or done willingly. However, since this was completely unplanned, the question remains, “could we, at least theoretically, purposely reduce our consumption by greater than 20% in a manner other than through a war or a depression?”


In looking at general consumption trends in recent decades it can be seen that while the U.S. population grew from 203 million in 1970 to 281 million in the year 2000, consumption of materials grew virtually in lock step with population, going from 2 billion metric tons in 1970 to 2.8 billion tons in 1995. Recycling of paper and metals has played an increasing role during this period, such that recycled metals accounted for 47 percent of total metal usage in 1995 resulting in a decline in the percent of primary metals used even as total metal usage increased. [1] Paper recycling has experienced a fourfold increase since 1960.


It is also valuable to look at where the average household spends its money, in order to get a sense for economic capacity to do something different. According to the 2003 U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average American household expenditures break down as follows:


31% on housing,
20% on transportation (including about 1% on public transit),
13% on Food (40% of that away from home),
11% on Social Security, pensions and personal (e.g. life) insurance,
7% on energy (components of housing and transportation) Note: Gasoline and electricity costs represent over 80%  of average energy costs,
6% on health care,
5% on entertainment, and
2% on education.


So when you look at our ability to reduce our consumption of “stuff,” it is pretty obvious that transportation and housing are critical factors, and categories in which people should have both the money and the motivation to try new options.


As a holiday gift to you the reader, here are some examples of how we might reduce both our housing and transportation material usage by greater than 20 percent:


Housing options (single family new construction)


  • Reduce average house size from 2500 square feet to 1500 square feet
  • Reduce average number of bathrooms from 3 to 1.5 (there are only 2.5 people in the average household unit)


Comment: By spending more on up-front, personalized design (5%), and applying design principles such as those discussed in The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka, it is easily possible today to come up with a nicer, more comfortable home with more amenities, while using significantly fewer materials. Remember we are talking about the average house here not all houses. Surely large families may need larger houses, but the goal is to build homes to a human scale rather than to some image of real estate salability.


Note on business construction: You know how to cut the cost of building offices? Eliminate them! With today's technology not only are large office spaces expensive but unnecessary. If we can order hamburgers at the drive-up window at MacDonald's in Brainerd, Minnesota, have the order processed by someone in Fort Collins, Colorado, and do this more quickly with fewer errors on average than doing it locally (all true today), then why can't we work from home? The answer is, we can. Some airlines are already experimenting with customer service people operating out of their homes. In the future we may only need access to meeting rooms on a regular basis, and do all the rest of our business from a fully integrated workstation in our custom-designed 1500 square foot home!!


Transportation (lots of possibilities here!!)


  • Buy a smaller car (4 passenger maximum – yea convertibles)
  • Buy a more efficient car (30 mpg minimum, 40 mpg preferable)
  • Keep a car longer (instead of 3 years keep it 4)
  • Share travel with someone else (carpool)
  • Share the purchase of a car with someone else (e.g. spouse)
  • Use public transportation (taxis, buses, trains, planes)
  • Don't go anywhere (see office at home above!!)


Comment: Actually, the most successful approach is to combine the above. For example, buy a smaller, more efficient car, keep it longer, and share the purchase with a family member, neighbor, or fellow worker, and use public transportation when your travels don't align with your fellow owners. Sound crazy? Maybe, but even thinking this through as a possibility requires consideration of a series of very different behaviors, the first of which is the choice of where to live.


Please note in all this I never mention the word “cheaper” in any part of this discussion, and I in no way refer to the process of “giving up” anything or sacrificing in any way. I am not suggesting that we reduce quality of life in any way, only the quantity of materials we use in that life. For example, what if, instead of buying a $300,000 house that is 2500 square feet (I know those of you in California are weeping at the possibility – but bear with me and think proportional!) and two Chevy Tahoes that you keep for 3 years each, you buy a $300,000 house with 1500 square feet and all the latest technology, and a Chevy Cobalt and a small Volvo wagon both of which you keep for 4 years? Your financial outlay would be about the same, but your total purchase of materials would go down as would your monthly usage of gasoline and heating oil (or gas). The net in this case is about a 20 percent reduction in materials usage by weight.


For me personally the problem rests in the fact that everyone tends to focus on incremental improvement, in the same manner we improve efficiencies at a big corporation. But I am not a big corporation and I don't get an emotional kick from shaving a few percentage points off my usage. This doesn't mean I don't try many of the tried and true tricks to mitigate my consumption, especially of energy. It just means I don't feel that I'm having a real impact and that this frustrates me and makes me want to give up. Yes, some days I just take a long hot bath out of rebellion.


But I have decided that in 2006, I am making my New Years resolution count. That's right, I am publicly resolving to trade in my 3000 square foot house for a 1500 square foot one with all the bells and whistles, trade in my 1989 Chevy pick-up truck for something small sleek and sexy (with at least twice the gas mileage), and work from my home at least one day a week. And I'm going to save food by going on a diet. This is the kind of sacrifice I am ready to do for my country, and the global environment!


Dr. Jeff Howe

December 2005


[1] Rogich, D.G., 1993. Material use, economic growth, and the environment: Nonrenewable Resources, v. 5, no. 4, p. 197-210.