The Slow Housing movement?

The Mother Nature Network features a slideshow of ten of the world’s smallest homes.

From energy expenditure to building materials, living in a smaller house is one of the best ways to reduce your ecological footprint. Giving up the luxury of space and living more minimally isn’t always easy, but it does come with a few perks: fewer possessions, bigger skies and open spaces! Plus, a smaller house makes it easier to cozy up to your loved ones. Here’s a reminder that bigger isn’t always better: 10 of the tiniest homes in the world.

Reduces your housing expenses too – giving you time, flexibility and further footprint reduction possibilities.

Sustainable Brands 2010: “The Power of AND”

[originally published on]

“The opportunity to make our planet smarter is both real and measurable on one hand, and truly inspiring on the other.” – Sam Palmisano, CEO, IBM, quoted by Lee Green, VP Innovation, IBM at Sustainable Brands, Monterey, California, June 2010

For us, this captures the Sustainable Brands 2010 conference in a nutshell: the sustainability efforts most likely to succeed are those that are both robust and data-driven on the one hand, and joyful, surprising, delightful and principles-driven on the other.

Sustainable Life Media and its flagship conference Sustainable Brands, founded by KoAnn Skrzyniarz in 2007, brings together the brand, design and sustainability communities to catalyze sustainable innovation.

SustainAbility has been a part of the Sustainable Brands community since its early days: executive director Mark Lee serves on the advisory board and has given plenary presentations at the event the last three years, and team members Chris Guenther and Preetum Shenoy have both participated in the conference. This year, Jennifer Biringer facilitated a panel organized by Patrin Watanatada on “Restoring ‘Places and Faces’ to the Global Value Chain”.

Below are the seven key themes we heard at this year’s conference. The first three are perennials – they are why so many of us believe strongly in the connection between sustainability and brands (see, for example, our Five Principles for Sustainable Brands) – while the last four are more recent insights, reflecting lessons learned by brands along the way.

  1. What we value as a society is changing – and the brands that respond will be the brands that win.
  2. Sustainability is (really) good for brands.
  3. Brands are (really) good for sustainability.
  4. Sustainable brands connect supply and demand in innovative ways.
  5. Sustainable brands meet consumers where they are.
  6. Sustainable brands “create the crowd.”
  7. Sustainable brands rely on lots of data – but not too much.

Read on for more on each of these themes…

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Footprinting myself – and my country

If everyone lived like me, we’d need 4.6 Earths to sustain our lifestyles.

This revelation, using the Global Footprint Network’s online calculator, was a punch in the gut.

I’d always assumed my footprint was reasonably small (“other than my air travel, of course, which obviously is a human right”). I don’t own a car. I eat meat extremely rarely. I don’t own a home or appliances or furniture. I seem to be buying less and less in the way of consumer goods than ever before.

Still, turns out I’m the environmental equivalent of the children in Lake Wobegon – suffering from delusions of above average-ness.

“Wow,” I thought. “Is my air travel really that bad? I don’t even fly as much as a lot of people I know.” (Lesson 1: Cognitive biases, like resetting your standards based on what your immediate circle is doing, apply to all of us.)

But when I sadly took my flights down to zero (because I have family and close friends spread over three continents, inexpensive air travel has become the glue of my life), I was “only” down to 3.6 Earths.

“Hmm. I thought air travel was supposed to be by far the worst… Maybe if I never got in a car or bus again?”

But no effect. Wow.

I tried cutting out all dairy (goodbye cheese…) – and increased my percentage of locally sourced, fresh and unprocessed food to “most” (I’d estimated “half”, which I think is probably on the higher side for many people in developed countries). Here came a significant effect – I was down to 3.3 Earths. (Going 100% local and fresh didn’t help, which was good news to me from a behavioral change perspective. Even moderate changes help.)

Another good cut, taking me down to 3 Earths, was never buying another book, magazine or other print publication again (sigh), being scrupulous not only about recycling but also buying only recycled paper, plastic and aluminum, and eliminating purchases of electronics (good thing I returned the iPad then).

But still at 3 Earths. What now?

“I know. It’s my house. How about if I move to an eco-friendly house and buy 100% renewable electricity and don’t use much of it?”

Again, surprise – very little effect – likely because my housing footprint was already calculated as quite low since I rent and live in a dense urban area. But in general, housing, and energy and fuel use in particular, is without question a major consumer of global resources.

In desperation, I unplugged myself from the grid. I stopped eating and moving altogether. Okay – that last wasn’t really an option – but if it had been, I would have taken it. What to do?

And still 3 Earths.

It turns out that one single thing is enough, on its own, to mean I use three times my fair share of the world’s resources. That is the fact that I live in the United States.*

In other words. most of my footprint decisions have already been made by sheer accident of birth. And I continue to support these as I pay taxes and make use of the wonderful and resource-intensive array of public and private services available to me in the U.S. of A. – from highways to national parks, to bookstores to restaurants.

And it’s this stark realization that made it clearer to me than anything else how important policy is – and why the U.S. Senate’s refusal to take a global leadership position on climate change is so very disappointing – and frightening.

*At the time of taking the quiz and writing much of this – back in the UK now, which is slightly but not much better.

The blessing and the curse of choice

Earlier this year, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. This was in part because I’d stopped eating beef for good, and it felt like the right companion thing to do. But I have to admit, what motivated me most powerfully was what for me was the immense relief of reducing possible choices, or as I thought of it, “bounding my consumption universe.” 

You see, I really enjoy shoes. My high school yearbook referenced Imelda Marcos and me in the same sentence, and while I’m very far from that now, I still retain a love of interesting (yet practical) footwear. And faced with the bounties of artsy shoes on San Francisco’s Hayes Street, I decided once and for all that having a rule that instantly placed some 95% of the possible options out of bounds would be a relief to both me and my pocketbook.

I’m by no means alone in my longing for a simpler decision space, and I was reminded by this by an NYT piece a couple of days ago. “Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy,” describes two Web challenges to go on “clothing diets,” started by women who were tired of the time and money they were spending on deciding what to wear each day. 

One, Six Items or Less, asked participants to go for a month wearing only six items (or less) – not including underwear or accessories or sports gear, but definitely including shirts, dresses, trousers, jeans and all of the other staples of the modern wardrobe. The other, the Great American Apparel Diet, asks participants to go for a year without buying any clothing.

2004’s The Paradox of Choice, by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, was one of the first books to popularize the growing understanding that reducing or eliminating consumer choice actually leads to greater happiness. As one participant in the Six Items or Less challenge noted, “Anything that removes complexity or cycles from your day is really valuable. I have freed a lot of bandwidth in my head.” 

Now, obviously: this is what the Twitterverse would call a #firstworldproblem. Too many of the 6.6 billion of us sharing this planet don’t have these choices in the first place. Amartya Sen described human development as freedom: freedom to choose how to think and to live.

But this does not mean that “overchoice” – a term I’ve just made up, playing on the trend to talk about “overnutrition” versus “undernutrition”- is not a problem. Quite the contrary – I’m coming to think that “overchoice” and “underchoice” together capture what lies behind two of the most pressing issues of our future as a society: environmental sustainability and inequity.

[To be continued… I’m posting this partially written, as have committed to a dear friend to post whether done or not and she will scold if I do not. Will come back to this – more to say!]

A few sustainable consumption resources online

Writing a piece on the role of brands in driving behavioral change and sustainable consumption – collecting some resources here:

No longer active:

The valuation of stuff

Programmer-essayist Paul Graham writes clear-sighted, kick-in-the-pants essays on cutting the crap from life in all its variations. From his latest:

Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it’s “worth?” The only way you’re ever going to extract any value from it is to use it. And if you don’t have any immediate use for it, you probably never will.

He’s asking us to look at stuff the way businesses look at capital investments, in accounting terms: the salvage value of most consumer goods is zero and likely less, as it will cost you in time, money or both to get rid of it. And more time and money if you don’t get rid of it and instead continue to clean and store and worry about and move your stuff from place to place.

He closes by saying:

…except for books, I now actively avoid stuff. If I want to spend money on some kind of treat, I’ll take services over goods any day.

I’m not claiming this is because I’ve achieved some kind of zenlike detachment from material things. I’m talking about something more mundane. A historical change has taken place, and I’ve now realized it. Stuff used to be valuable, and now it’s not.

One of the new sustainable business models is to base your offerings on services rather than goods. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way that we could mobilize a bunch of, say, Hollywood movie stars to take up the cause of lower material consumption. Unrealistic to ask people to stop disposing income on stuff, but why shouldn’t it be services rather than goods.

A lot of the US green movement right now seems to be focused on advising people to buy greener stuff: IdealBite, Treehugger. But it’s still stuff, and often stuff that we can do without. Prius > SUV, but public transport > Prius. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Along similar lines: Carbon offsets and biofuels once seemed like a have-your-cake solution, but awareness of their problems is rising and it’s becoming clearer that we just really need to work on using less energy.

More on all this later.