As someone who works in the sustainability field, I get asked one question very frequently: “What’s the most impactful thing I can do?”
It’s actually a much harder question to answer than it sounds. First, the answer depends on who is asking the question. If it’s a CEO or senior executive, my response will be entirely different than if it’s my neighbor. Second, the answer depends a lot on what the person or organization is already doing. If they are already well down the path of being more sustainable themselves, it might involve advocacy and influencing. If they are just starting out, then the answer would be something in their direct control. Third, it depends a lot on what your “footprint” actually is. Where do you have the opportunity to make the greatest impact?
The fact that there is no one thing, and that it’s complicated, might be one of the many reasons we haven’t made the progress we need to on climate change. As humans, we function better when we can hone in on a single action that will have a major impact. For example, there are many things that influence traffic deaths. However, we honed in on wearing seatbelts as one of the most impactful things we could do to prevent them. In 1983, only 14% of Americans used them regularly. Over the next 25 years, we ran campaigns, enacted “click it or ticket” regulation and stepped up enforcement. By 2016, 90% used them regularly. The 25 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet lists are interesting, but at best diffuse energy into stuff that may not matter that much or worse, overwhelm us into inaction.
As a result, some incredibly smart people have tried to make the choices simpler and more prioritized. Project Drawdown did incredible scientific work to prioritize 80 solutions. The Brands for Good initiative (of which WeSpire is a member) did work to identify from those solutions the nine behaviors that matter for consumers. Rare’s Center for the Behavior & Environment has gotten it down to seven key behaviors, ranging from flying one less time to adopting a plant rich diet, which is 50X less carbon intensive than eating meat.
So whether you sign yourself up for green power, purchase carbon offsets, eat more plants, show up by volunteering or voting, or reduce your food waste through composting or better meal planning, every single one of these choices will make a difference. The only bad choice is no choice. So what did I pick this year? Get my family to eat more plants.
It’s been a multi-year journey to reduce the amount of meat in my own diet. First, it was to cut back on red meat frequency. Then I went meatless for Monday lunch. Then for lunch everyday. However, I recently decided it was time to face the daunting task of reducing the impact of our family dinner. It’s doubly daunting because Mr. Stevens is our very talented family chef and a big time carnivore. But, as many of you family chefs out there can attest, the pandemic has dramatically increased the workload. So, I offered to take on the cooking one night a week with a caveat – it would be vegetarian. Mr. Stevens was skeptical, but ultimately supportive. The mole enchiladas were a hit. The soy chorizo paella was a dud. But Meatless Monday dinner is now a thing in the Stevens household. If we can keep this up for a year, it will be equivalent to avoiding nearly 1,400 miles of driving and saving the water equivalent of 8 years of showers in our household.
I’ve also learned that when asked the impact question, it’s a disservice to say “well, it’s complicated.” I now default to a simple question: Personally or Professionally? If the answer is professional, I ask if they have done an ESG Materiality Assessment. If it’s personal, I ask whether they’ve switched to green power for electricity. Most people haven’t and are grateful for the suggestion. However, If someone says yes to that one question, I also know they are well along on their sustainability journey. And now, I have a great opportunity to start swapping Meatless Monday recipes or to commiserate about composting.
So as we prepare to celebrate the 51st anniversary of Earth Day this week, what’s your one green thing going to be? If you aren’t sure, let me ask you: have you switched to green power?
Quote of the Week: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.”