The real cost of being green: time. And energy.

Whenever someone claims that it’s expensive to be green, my first reaction is to get a little huffy and then start in on all the ways in which going green is in fact cheaper than the alternative. Reusables cost more at the outset, but pay for themselves over time. Same with renewable energy, hybrid cars, etc. And then there are the steep hidden costs of the seemingly cheaper option — the species driven extinct by palm plantations, the pollution caused by third world factories, the unseen human rights abuses.  It’s true that some upfront costs are more. Organic, local food usually does end up costing more. But my conclusion is always the same: not finding a sustainable way to live is the ultimately the most expensive option at all.

That’s not to say that being green is cheap. And I’ve been realizing lately that its primary cost is not in dollars, but in time and energy. You can either spend more money (buy green products) or spend more time (make/grow green products). As a cheapskate and occasionally obsessive DIY-er, my preference has always been for the latter. I cook my food from scratch, line dry my clothes, mix up my own moisturizers, bake my own bread, and even fold my own kitty litter bags out of old newspapers.

All of these good green habits were initiated before I had a two hour commute, an eight hour work day, and a forty hour work week. Trying to squeeze my whole life — including all my green DIY projects and some freelance work — into the peripheries of my work week has been a challenge.  I suddenly feel more sympathetic to Americans who get home from work, flop on the couch, and turn on the TV. There’s no headspace left to care about something as abstract as the planet once you factor in the next big project, the difficult client, the micromanaging boss, the office politics, the marriage, the kids, the mortgage. And this is normal. Baking your own bread is aberrant. Being exhausted and preoccupied out of your mind is status quo in our culture. If you’re not stressed, it’s like you’re not really American or something.

We have a major problem when asking people to live more sustainably is essentially asking them to buck cultural norms and choose a path that adds to their considerable workload. No wonder green is a tough sell. It’s hard to adopt that mentality when you’re stuck in the standard American adult existence with no socially acceptable way out except retirement.

If I hadn’t established my lower impact practices before getting a so-called real job, I don’t think I’d have much energy to start now. As it is, I’m hanging on to them at the cost of other activities. My blog community, for one. Twitter, for another. (This is an apology, by the way, for my absence. I can’t promise things will improve, but I’m still hopeful.)

I read a long time ago that hunter gatherer societies spend a lot less time working than industrialized ones. For all our indoor plumbing and dental care advances, I’m a little jealous. I think we were totally on to something with the twenty hour work week.

What are your thoughts on the costs of being green? Are you optimistic that we can make the leap to being a green culture?


30 responses to this post.

  1. It can feel disheartening. I’ve often thought about this subject.

    I believe that’s why busy/tired people (myself included) can start with the little things, find time to do the few things to make a difference. It gets the ball rolling, feels good and connects us to the movement.

    I’ll be back when I have more time …


    • Hi Renee,
      I agree that the little things are a great (maybe the only) way for busy people to start lowering their impact, but I have to wonder…will those same busy people ever have the time to make the bigger changes? Or are their lives already so full that there’s just no give? Some people eventually rebel against the system and go live off grid in the wilderness, but most of us don’t. I guess what I’m wondering is whether a green revolution is in any way compatible with our present culture. I don’t really shop, I don’t have a major social life, I don’t have kids, and I’m still finding it tricky to juggle working full time and keep up with my green habits. I’m not a high energy person, but that still doesn’t bode well for the rest of our society.


  2. To me the cost of being green is well worth it. Spending time outdoors with good food and friends, and making things from scratch feels satisfying to me. I’m grateful when I have that opportunity. I’m optimistic that as I share this with friends it will shift our culture in a way that is more fulfilling to all Earthlings.


    • Hi Em! I definitely agree that living life fully — and slowly — has its own attraction. I’m just not sure its allure is stronger than the need to pay rent. Broken system and all…it’s so crazy that we can be so smart and come up with all these inventions to supposedly make life better and easier and end up more miserable than ever.


  3. Personally, I don’t think that the “normal” American life is compatible with green living. I also think that it’s inhuman. Have you read the book “Your Money or Your Life”? I may have pontificated about it in the past, but it was a real life changer for me. There’s a section in the book where it shows you how to calculate your “real hourly wage”. The real wage takes into account all of the hours that you spend commuting for work, worrying about work, dealing with work from home (phone calls etc.) and it also takes into account all of the extra money that you have to spend – buying work clothes, transportation costs, paying to have things done for you because you don’t have time to do them yourself, etc. I found it to be an eye opening exercise to say the very least!

    The way I see it, you can either spend your time working for someone else, sitting in traffic and generally being miserable (at least it made me miserable) or you can find ways to make some money on your own, and have more time to do things for yourself. I have chosen the latter path and am SOOOO much happier for it.


    • Hi Eco Cat Lady,
      Who is the author of Your Money or Your Life? I’m seeing a couple books by that title at the library and on Amazon. I’d love to talk to you sometime about what you did to get out of the rat race. It’s encouraging to know that it can be done!


      • The original book that I read about 15 years ago was written by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. The original system advocated getting your expenses down to a minimum, packing away as much money as possible into Treasury Bonds and then living off of the interest. Of course, this was at a time when you could pretty much count on getting 7 percent interest… those were the days!

        Anyhow, Joe died some time back, and Vicki sort of re-wrote a chunk of the book to reflect the new economic reality. I haven’t read the new version, but I think she advocates finding non-employment sources of income rather than trying to life off of interest (which would be pretty much impossible these days.) That’s essentially what I’ve done.

        I’ve been meaning to write some posts about my financial story, but I can’t figure out how to separate it from my personal story, and I fear “over-sharing” if you know what I mean. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable telling my story, I’m just trying to figure out how to do it tastefully. I have started about 10 posts on the subject, but I just feel like people don’t really want to read all of the gory details of my dysfunctional childhood… but it’s hard to explain how I got here without some information about where I came from…

        Any thoughts?


        • EcoCatLady – Since discovering and reading your blog, and the few things you mention about not having full-time employment, I’ve been curious about your story too. I have read YMOYL, as well as blogs of people who “retired” from full-time work in their 30s (early retirement extreme is one), but despite racking my brain I can’t figure out a way to leave full-time work in a way that would suit me. Totally understand your concerns though; there’s something about sharing financial and personal details that just feels way more personal than most blog topics.

          Could you just mention some of the outcomes of your childhood that apply without getting into specifics if you don’t want to?

          If it helps, I do a lot of writing and editing at work, I’d be happy to give specific thoughts on a draft.


        • Hi Eco Cat Lady,
          Kevin picked up a copy of the book, and just from leafing through, I think I’m going to like it. I wouldn’t worry about oversharing, though maybe you can start in the middle of things and then mention relevant components of your childhood as they come up?


  4. You pointed out a real problem here. Our current 40-hour work week lifestyles simply aren’t compatible with sustainable living. I started my adventure while I started my day job. At the time I wasn’t working full-time just yet, since I was in training. So I had extra time to play around and I was also super inspired to do it. But after work picked up to full steam, it was way way harder to keep up my green habits.

    I think when you’re working full time, it’s really tough to learn new green habits. But if you’re able to take some time off and develop a little expertise in it, then it’s probably easier to incorporate into a full-time work schedule.

    Honestly, having to work a 40-hour work week is incredibly depressing. It means the majority of my peak performance hours are spent doing something I don’t care about, leaving me little time and energy to pursue my true passions. I’m pretty sure I can’t go back to such a schedule, unless it’s for some eco/social justice cause.

    I’ve missed you on Twitter! Don’t work full time 😛


    • Hey Lynn,
      I’m looking forward to catching up on your blog, since it seems like you really have opted out. My one real hang-up is that I want a house, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to buy one (at least in this area) on my freelancing. If that’s the major issue, I guess I should consider leaving the area once I have enough saved up for a downpayment elsewhere. I’ll be back on Twitter soon!


  5. Posted by Emily on 06/29/2011 at 16:22

    The people who think that being green is expensive must think that buying green products makes one green. Only a consumer (most likely American) thinks this way. The greenest people, of course, are the poorest people. Studies show Americans and Europeans produce the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases even though the majority of the world’s population is concentrated in Asia. Buy all of the organic food and all biodegradable laundry detergent you want, but the person who eats little and has only one shirt on her back has less of an impact on the planet than the “green” middle class suburbanite.

    Sorry to hear that your full-time work is leaving you with less time for DIY projects. All you can hope for is to work hard and save up now, then perhaps buy a little, energy-efficient home and retire early.


    • Hi Emily,
      I’m not positive I’m green enough to embrace poverty for the sake of the environment, but you’ve definitely got a point. Doing without or making your own is almost always the lowest impact way.

      I can see how part of my unwillingness to give up entirely on Responsible Adult Existence has to do with parental expectations and things like health care and retirement funds. They’re not unreasonable, but are they worth it? I don’t know.


  6. I just discovered your blog recently, and as I read every post I’m nodding along and clapping in my head.

    I totally agree it’s hard to be green and work full time. There are some smaller changes you can work into your schedule that, once they become a habit, aren’t such a big deal. But that’s where I’m stuck, small changes. Like you I’m not going to give up my car because taking the bus takes much longer, and is much more inconvenient for me.

    I’m almost finished reading The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living by David Wann. It’s very interesting. And he totally gets into this point, that in order to truly live sustainable lives we’ll need to rethink everything, including how much we work.

    I hope society will make these changes, but based on how things are going so far…well, I’m more than a little worried it won’t happen in time.


    • Hi Candi,
      Welcome to the blog! I just dropped by yours and look forward to keeping up with it. I haven’t read David Wann’s book, but I agree: the little changes are fine to start, but won’t make much of an impact unless they lead to more consciousness and much bigger changes.


  7. What an interesting issue Jennifer. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to fit it all in. I agree with Emily-being green doesn’t always translate into dollars. It’s a way of life and an awareness that becomes habitual over time. I do think we will become a green culture-out of necessity-or our planet won’t survive. Every little, or big, green action counts. We all do only what we are able to do and that’s OK.


    • Hi Lori,
      I wish I shared your optimism, but I keep thinking: the planet will be fine. It’s a ball of rock. It’s life as we know it that I think is worth protecting. In Collapse, Jared Diamond points out that being wealthy just means being the last to starve — and sadly, I think we’re capable of ruining our planet first and then wondering what we’ll eat on a planet where the biosystems we depended on are destroyed.

      How to get that idea into our culture and policy is another matter entirely.


  8. Yes, the irony is not lost on me: because everything is priced incorrectly (the more environmentally destructive and socially unjust, the cheaper) I end up feeling pressure to take a job I don’t want that pays more so that I can support the companies I believe in – and it’s important to do that as often as we can for the items that we’re still in the habit of purchasing, because eventually the market will shift and increased demand fo green products will bring their cost down.

    Not to mention, as long as I keep insisting on getting a job that I actually want (in the environmental sector), I’ll remain unemployed because there are so few paid positions available at the moment… so it’s unsustainable for me to work towards sustainability. Argh!

    This is so wrong. All of it. Having to conform to these norms just to live a comfortable life is what got us in this mess in the first place. But I’m about as persistent and hard-headed as I am pessimistic (a weird mix, I know), so I’ll find a way, and I want to silence my critics: family members who think it’s foolish for me to have abandoned a promising career in search of a green job. But I have to stand up for my values and act in line with my beliefs. Yes, making the leap to a green culture won’t be easy and may not end up happening, but we have to try.


    • Hi Andrea,
      Argh! is right. I would love to have a green job, but I think I’m going to have to settle for a writing job that pays the bills and leaves me enough time and energy to do the things I’m really interested in. I think this is me, giving up on the idea of finding a career that pays well and is personally important to me. If only the uninteresting jobs didn’t take so much damn time.

      I’m having issues with family approval, too. I was brought up to want a stable, full time job with benefits and a retirement plan, but I’m really starting to question if that future is compatible with what makes my life worth living.


  9. As always, Jennifer, you offer us thought-provoking posts. I’ve totally enjoyed this discussion.

    The “American Dream” convinced a lot of people that having a 40+ hour a week job and owning a mortgage equaled success. So a lot of people worked hard … so hard that parents didn’t have time for kids and things like cooking at home and having a garden got left on the side of the road. The harder people worked, the less time they had … and interestingly, the harder it became to get the mortgage and all the trappings of success. Perhaps that happened because the harder we worked and the more money we made, the higher our expectations became … now it wasn’t simply owning a home, it was owning a home that reflected our position in life … a kind of status symbol. I was part of that “rat-race” for awhile … and I wasn’t happy. It never made sense to me that I had to forfeit all that I truly valued in life just so I could get and maintain someone else’s idea of success. So I walked away from that 40+ hour a week job (which I had for over 20 years) and went in search of a life that made me happy and one which allows me to live according to my values. I had to re-think the definition of success … was it really having a retirement account, a home and a new car every 3-5 years? I decided that it wasn’t. Of course, my friends and family look at my life now with a mixture of happiness that I have time to do the things which they wish they had time for … and sadness that I can’t afford to do the things which they see as activities of the “successful”. In the end, we each have to decide what’s really important in our life and pursue it … not what we’ve been taught is important but rather what, after searching our innermost heart, we come to value. Because the one absolute truth is, we don’t get a second chance at life … if we aren’t happy today, that day is lost forever.

    As for whether we (the global we) will be able to live sustainably while pursuing that job, etc. … I’m not so sure we can. While I believe in the small actions, I honestly think that there needs to be a collective shift in attitude. Unfortunately, I think that will happen, not because we choose it, but because the actions which have been set in motion will force us to it.


    • Hi Small Footprints,
      I agree with Emily — well said (with the voice of experience behind it, too). I admire you for leaving a stable job and taking a different path. I think I’m already old enough to tell that I will never need a lot of money to be happy, so it’s a matter of taking the time to tally up my expenses, reduce them as far as I can without feeling deprived, and find a way to work that gets me enough money for what I need and enough time for what I want. Your life sounds wonderfully fulfilling. I hope I’ll get there.


  10. Posted by Emily on 06/30/2011 at 17:02

    Well said. You hit the nail on the head about the “American Dream.” I also left a professional job and currently work part-time doing odd jobs. Like Andrea and Jennifer, I struggle approval issues, too. My income is low and I don’t own a house or much else, but I feel good knowing that my odd jobs are ethical and I have time to garden, makes things for myself, and get outside pretty much every day to enjoy the world.

    I certainly understand your need to get a full-time “real job,” Jennifer. I dream about owning land of my own one day to homestead on, but I’m certainly not saving up money now for it by doing what I’m doing.


  11. Greetings Jennifer,

    Your articles are so well articulated and thought provoking. The American 40-hour work week is insane. Workers should at least push to have a more sensible work week as they do in Europe with far more vacation time too.

    We are so far from green living and green living is so not compatible with this culture in so many ways. I have serious doubts that we will be able to undue the mess we have gotten ourselves into and little hope for the survival of our species.

    Still, I think it’s important to act with integrity and continue our efforts for a more sustainable life style. I tend to agree with Emily that simplicity is key to any significant change.

    I miss you on twitter too. But I also care about your sanity and want you to take care of yourself.


    • Hi Sandra,
      I’ll be back on Twitter soon, I promise! It’s almost like I can’t do just a little Twitter, though. I’m either on it, or I’m not, and I haven’t figured a way to engage a little without plunging back into the time suck. Maybe I should set a timer. 🙂

      I agree that our culture has some major growing to do in order to accommodate a sustainable mentality, and I’m with you on being uncertain it will happen on the time scale that it needs to. A while ago, I read a book called The World Without Us, which was a weirdly optimistic look at how quickly the planet would recover once humans were gone (assuming we didn’t take everything down with us). One take away from it was that the planet is resilient and adaptable — perhaps more than we give it credit for. The catch: it may not adapt to something more comfortable for humans. So be it.


  12. Totally true. I find my bloginess is suffering too, as are some of my green practices that I held dear. For example, I stopped baking bread for 2 months due to a considerable amount of work in the garden. Then the menu planning fell by the wayside, and we didn’t eat as local or as well. Boo.

    As for a 20 hour work week, I am totally with you on that one. We need it to destress our lives. But we also need it to actually spread more jobs around. A green economy where people don’t consume as much, is not full of jobs, let’s face it.

    I for one, work in a professional type job, only 25 hours per week! I still feel busy (kids, house, greeniness), but would not have it any other way.


    • Hi Sherry,
      It’s true — in a green economy, there would be fewer jobs, fewer hours, and less material stuff to go around. It could be a pretty bumpy transition! One of my biggest concerns is that our population, which continues to grow, will not be compatible with a green economy (not enough jobs, not enough resources to husband them carefully, etc.). I guess we’ll see how that pans out!

      I can only speak for myself, but I imagine that there’s a bit of that two steps forward, one step back thing in most people’s attempts to live more sustainably. Our own time and energy are scarce resources, too.


  13. I found a blog which I think you might like and which speaks to this issue:

    Hope you’re enjoying this long weekend!


  14. This is such a great article. I loved it. I completely agree and relate. In fact, I started my new, greener lifestyle after being (voluntarily) unemployed for 3-mos. And I am all but certain I wouldn’t have had the where-with-all to have done it otherwise. Perhaps it’s an idea to try and reach folks who are unemployed to encourage them to make changes and keep themselves creative, but that’s a pretty big project in itself.

    I’d love to see how you make your kitty litter bags…if there’s a post already on it, I’ll see if I can find it.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.


  15. […] no sugar-coating it – trying to live sustainably is hard, the main costs being time and energy. Doing the right thing may be the initial motivator, but once you’ve fallen off a good streak, it […]


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