10 Most Important Ways to Be a Virtuous Consumer

Allow me to indulge my fantasy of sounding omnipotent. By all means, ignore my "commandments" if you think they’re too preachy. (I have three kids — I’m accustomed to being ignored.) But take a spin through the list anyway. It's about remembering that getting greener isn't all about buying green products. And it can help you shift from feeling overwhelmed by our planet's challenges to focusing your attention on a doable set of priorities and ideas.
1. Consider the life cycle of products you buy
Before you make a purchase, consider:• What materials went into making this product? Were the raw materials virgin or recycled? Plant based or petroleum based?• How was this product manufactured? How was it transported and how far?• How long will the product be used? Once, or often over many years?• How will it be disposed of? Is it recyclable? Reusable? Biodegradable?
2. Reduce first, reuse second, recycle third
Recycling uses resources too. So if you don't have to figure out what bin something goes into in the first place, you're ahead. Reduce the number of things you buy, and reduce the eco-footprint of whatever you do purchase by ensuring that it’s the most planet-friendly option you can afford. Reuse what you have in inventive ways, and reuse other people’s stuff by buying second-hand. THEN recycle what can be recycled, and make sure you know what can be recycled in your area.
3. Support your local community
You are doing this when you live, work, and shop to support those around you. Eat food grown by nearby farmers. Purchase from local businesses. Get involved in local politics, even if it’s just to be an informed voter. Just drink it all in: If we appreciate the natural world, we’re more likely to protect it.
4. Use manpower (or womanpower)
Bike, walk, inline skate, or take public transit when possible. Using your own body to get you from point A to point B will not only help the planet but also make you healthier.
5. Buy green power
Don't have solar panels? No problem. Getting green power for your home is a simple yet incredibly powerful in terms of offsetting climate change. A call to your utility company can ensure that the equivalent energy required for your home comes from renewable sources. If you can’t buy green energy, ask about green pricing, which means paying a premium on your electricity bill so the company can invest in renewable sources. At the very least, remove the lightbulb that Thomas Edison invented and replace it with a compact fluorescent that will last ten times as long and use one-quarter of the energy.
6. Be generous
Give what you can, whether it’s your time, your stuff, or your money. Charities need all three. Sometimes they even need your blood. Go on. Blood is a renewable resource — your body will make more.
7. Be kind
Even to the person who idles his SUV in front of your kids’ school. Kindness is a scarce resource these days, and it can transform the world.
8. Be informed (but pick your battles)
Attempting to be versed and invested in all the daily reasons for the imminent the demise of our planet isn't exactly going to inspire you. Zero in on environmental or social justice issues that matter to you in particular. Then spend a little time each day or a few times a week reading or watching news reports about your issue(s). Next thing you know, you'll feel yourself moving on to #9.
9. Awaken your inner activist
You likely wouldn’t be reading this column if you weren’t someone who cares about the future of this planet. And that, my friend, makes you a political force. You might start by creating positive change in your home, move on to your kids’ school, then your local community. You might already know what gets your heart beating faster, what particular issue speaks to your soul. If not, start by having a conversation with yourself … How it ends is up to you.
10. Don’t sweat the really small stuff
Choose green living options that work for you and your family. And don’t pull out the hair shirt every time you slip up. Case in point: my juice box story. Guilt doesn't help your planet any more than it helps you — especially because guilt can also make you feel powerless, which you most certainly are not. Focus on action. Put this list on your fridge — and if you feel guilt start to creep in, scan these "commandments" again and do one of these things.

Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist, mother of three children and author of The Virtuous Consumer.


  1. Sage advice - precycle, reuse, recycle, reengage (in community, etc), be kind, be generous - if everyone behaved this way even half the time the world world be totally transformed.

  2. These are all great suggestions. What personally concerns me most on the environmental front is the lack of political leadership. Without that, there's just so much that individual consumers can do - and frankly, laudable as it is, it isn't enough.

    For example, industry pollutes far more than individual households, and global warming has no chance of being slowed down and perhaps eventually halted until and unless government and big business get serious about energy alternatives.


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead