Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Decision Dilemma

Ponderings from a too-detail-oriented SustainaMom...

Is our attention to detail impeding our green progress?

I recently went online to order a $20 item. In order to get free shipping, I needed to add another $5 to my order. I had been wanting some more reusable grocery bags as some of mine are wearing out beyond repair. This was the perfect excuse to get a couple of bags. I wanted something sturdy, and I wanted to choose the greenest option.

I looked at canvas bags. I read dozens of reviews and worried over reports that the bags would shrink after washing them. I looked at bags made from recycled drink bottles. I compared sizes. I compared strap length. I compared prices.

I looked at dozens of options. I called my sister to ask her opinion — what is most practical? What is the greener option?

Two hours later — seriously, it may have been even longer — I decided on the perfect bags. I added them to my cart.

They were not eligible for free shipping.

I wasted hours trying to be frugal, practical and eco-conscious.

That is not very practical. In terms of lost time that I could’ve been working or playing with my child, it was not a frugal way to spend an afternoon. And it resulted in my mom buying me bags that are not at all eco-friendly after I complained to her about the waste of an afternoon. (Thanks, Mama, I love them!)

I run into this all the time.

Should I buy the glass jar of peanut butter even though it is huge and we’ll never eat that much? Or is it okay to buy the smaller, cheaper plastic container of peanut butter?

I dutifully bought expensive cage-free, organic eggs for months — and then I started reading that “cage-free” doesn’t really mean what you think it means. And then I saw a list that reported my egg producer of choice was not one of the good guys. (Anyone know where that list is? The link circulated on Facebook a while back but now I can’t find it.) Today, I stare at the egg cartons in distress during every shopping trip, not wanting to pay extra money to a company that is scamming me with its “cage-free” label but not sure what my best option is.

The list of agonizing decisions goes on and on. Buying a water bottle is a week-long research process. I’m not sure I’ll maintain my sanity if I ever have to buy another car.

My decision-making process is inefficient. In part, it is just a personality flaw of mine. I research things to death. In part, I’m still learning how to evaluate what is most important. Like my canvas bags: is it more important to choose a bag that prevents waste from hitting the landfill or to find a bag that is biodegradable?

Did you know there is research about how we make decisions? It is really quite fascinating. Don't Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making over at 99% sums up some of the research.

Apparently I’m a “maximizer,” not a “satisficer.” Even though I spend far more time and energy making a decision than a satisficer, I’m less likely to be satisfied with my choice. I need to transform into someone who can identify the most important criteria and then go with the first option that meets those criteria.

I also do not choose my battles well:
  • That peanut butter that I buy once a year? Is it really that big a deal? I buy it when I’m camping so glass probably isn’t the best bet even though I am trying to cut down plastic consumption.
  • Those eggs that I buy at least twice a month — that is a bigger deal because I do buy buy them more frequently and should try harder to support good farms.
  • Instead of agonizing over canvas bags for hours on end, I should be researching weatherstripping or other home improvement projects that can make an ongoing difference in my footprint.
Do you find that you get so bogged down in details that you don’t make progress or get frustrated? How do you make the most of the time you invest into making green decisions?

10 comments:

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Even before I went green, I was terrible at making decisions. I've called my husband hundreds of times from the grocery store asking, "Should I buy this or that?" I think part of the problem is that there's so much conflicting information out there. For example, Beth Terry and the plastic-free camp would say plastic is the worst choice, but groups focused more on energy use would say plastic is lighter so better for shipping than glass. I think ultimately it depends on your own values and what you consider important.

Rosa said...

I'm totally a satisficer. My partner's totally a maximiser. The result is that he really won't consider "greenness" in decisionmaking, because it's already too hard for him. I'm not surprised you're spending a lot of time on stuff - the combination of lots of information and very little verification is really difficult to cope with.

One way you can short-circuit that is find a group where someone else is making the decisions - when I go to the coop, the decisions are easier because they're between "OK" and "better" instead of "bad" and "worse".

Another way is to make one or two over-arching choices (like, "don't buy things new unless I can't find anything workable at the thrift store") that work to limit available choices. My vegan friends don't have to worry about sourcing eggs or milk at all.

Or maybe only make complicated new decisions on a specific schedule - like, do the research on one thing a month, and if you already did that one change let the rest go status-quo til next time. And I know it's not very helpful to say it, but try not to beat yourself up over old decisions. I know you read Beth Terry - she's got a *lot* to say about being gentle with yourself, and it's very important.

I'm using the thrift store option to get out of having to find "green" raincoats, right now. If I can't find one in the next few weeks I'll have to see if I can find a non-vinyl kids raincoat option, because I have a personal overarching rule against new vinyl. But probably I'll get lucky at the store this afternoon.

p.s. we satisficers really appreciate you maximizers. I get out of a lot of decisionmaking by checking out what someone else who puts a lot of effort into it did.

Secret Mommy said...

I'm a satisfier. I don't fret over decision-making much. I live a pretty green life, but I just try to make the best decision I can each time and then move on. I would say that I'm generally happy with things, too. I do wish we could minimize more, tho...and just not need stuff at all...

Renee @ Loca-faces said...

Hi, I wonder if this is what you are looking for:

http://www.cornucopia.org/2010/09/organic-egg-report-and-scorecard/

I have it listed, along with some related videos, on a blog entry of my own... here:


http://faces-of-local-living.blogspot.com/2010/09/bok-bok.html

Oh, yes... the curse of the over-analyzer! I live that!

Heather said...

I hear you!

Around 8 years ago, I developed a neurological condition that means I have very little energy.  I'm literally only out of bed for 3 hours per day max.  The rest of the time I'm lying on my back, doing more or less nothing.  Almost everything* I do in a day - from reading blogs and writing emails to eating and showering - has to fit into those three hours.
*I can push it a bit on reading blogs and emails, and sometimes even on writing emails and blog posts, but not much and not often. I pushed it a fair bit to write this ;-)

Like you, I'm a details person: I enjoy researching things before I make my choices.  But I've had to learn to make that research effort count.  Maybe what I've learned can help you?

You ask: Is our attention to detail impeding our green progress?

I think what gets in the way is not so much our attention to detail but our not having a clear enough idea of what 'green progress' would look like. I agree that picking battles is important, and it makes sense to work harder on decisions that are likely to have a frequent or ongoing impact.  But I think it's also really important to spell out your over-arching goal(s) so you have a yardstick to determine what is the 'right' choice you.

"Frugal, practical and eco-conscious" is a start, but if you refined it a bit more, then you'd know your own answer to: "is it more important to choose a bag that prevents waste from hitting the landfill or to find a bag that is biodegradable?"

Easily the best example of someone who's done this in the green blogosphere is Beth Terry .  Her over-arching goal is 'no plastic', and every decision she makes gets weighed up against that decision.  If she needed to get shopping bags, any bag that was made out of plastic or packaged in plastic wouldn't even be considered.  I suspect that she'd rapidly be left with very few options to angst over and the decision would be pretty easy!

My husband and I haven't (yet) refined our big goal down to such a simple statement, but we're working on it.  Right now it's a bit of a mouthful:

To live in such a way that everyone on the planet could live just like us and keep on doing so for the next few centuries without anything stopping them.

That big goal has then translated into smaller goals.  For example, to achieve it we have to get down to only using our fair share of physical resources and only emitting our fair share of the amount of greenhouse gases the planet can absorb without warming.  We've worked out what these are for various resources and are gradually working to reduce our use/emissions where we're over that target.  It's also translated into goals with respect to other issues, too - e.g. people couldn't live like us if they were being kept as slaves on a cocoa plantation, so we will only buy fair trade cocoa.

Working out these goals has been a heap of work: it's taken a vast amount of research and thought.  And reaching our targets is very much on ongoing project.  However, it's work that really pays off.  We don't go round in circles when faced with multiple options as we can generally work out fairly easily which one will help us towards our goals the most.  It's also very satisfying having a yardstick to measure our progress by :-)

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

--Heather :-)

Heather said...

PS, if you are interested, you can read about our greenhouse gas emissions targets and how we're doing here and here, and about some of our other environmental goals here.  As part of this we have developed a spreadsheet for auditing our household CO2 emissions in much more detail than any internet calculator we have found.  You can download it from here if you're interested.

--Heather :-)

Brenda Pike said...

I'm definitely a maximizer (the Consumer Reports website is a favorite), but I'm generally pretty satisfied with my decisions once I make them. I know I've thought them through, so I don't have to worry about them anymore. However, it does take me a long time to come to a conclusion.

About the eggs: "Certified humane" is a much more meaningful label than "cage free."

Melissa @ HerGreenLife said...

This is something my husband and I both need to work on! Thanks for the article link.

KathrynHough said...

I am so excited to find this thread! My husband and I are building a green ecommerce startup that exactly solves this issue! In the past, it has taken so much time for me to search for green products that is became exhausting. But I really do want to make a difference! Living in NYC and running around all the time, it can be hard for us. We are starting this company to scratch our own itch. You all might want to check out our site: http://holsiticho.me. We are in development and if you enter your email, I'll send you invites to your beta! Thanks! Great post! Common problem!

KathrynHough said...

I am so excited to find this thread! My husband and I are building a green ecommerce startup that exactly solves this issue! In the past, it has taken so much time for me to search for green products that is became exhausting. But I really do want to make a difference! Living in NYC and running around all the time, it can be hard for us. We are starting this company to scratch our own itch. You all might want to check out our site: http://holsiticho.me. We are in development and if you enter your email, I'll send you invites to your beta! Thanks! Great post! Common problem!

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