11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Small Differences for the Planet Bring a Big Sum of Money to Consumers

An article in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 2 has reported results from a McKinsey & Co report stating that 65% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are due directly or indirectly to American consumer activities, which are the most energy-intensive in the world.

I can almost hear the industry leaders rejoicing, thinking they're off the hook.

And to be fair, there are hundreds of ways that consumers can shift their habits to save energy. But, and as alluded to in the article, consumers can only be as energy-efficient as is allowed by the products they buy. Therefore, there is necessarily a role for industry and manufacturers to pursue innovative ways to improve things like vehicle fuel-economy, appliance efficiency, better home insulation, and the like.

So clearly there is room for everyone involved to contribute to the solution. But why aren't more people acting?

The article argues that although there is substantial opportunity for consumers as well as industry actors to have a positive impact on the future of the planet, the major constraint is costs.

My initial reaction here is to scream at the top of my lungs: "IT WILL COST A HELL OF A LOT MORE TO CLEAN UP THIS MESS THAN IT WILL EVER COST TO PREVENT IT!"

But the costs spoken of in the article have to do with consumers reducing emissions by buying a hybrid car, replacing a refrigerator, or getting new windows, all of which are major--and fairly expensive--investments.

How can anyone think this is a realistic way to save the planet? What about conservation? Well, that word--or any derivative of it--is never mentioned in the article.

I realized that part of the reason this movement isn't catching on with "Joe Six-Pack" and "Hockey-Mom" is that it's being framed completely wrong. Saving the planet doesn't have to cost money. It doesn't mean you have to suffer without air conditioning during the summer. It doesn't mean you have to forego your ski-trip this winter.

When we reframe the issue around conservation, saving the planet can actually be profitable--for families as well as for businesses.

For example, shifting your work routine to a 4-10, telecommuting once a week, or joining a carpool could save the average worker more than $300 per year in gas expenses.
Safely using cruise control on highways can put $80 worth of gas money back in your pocket.

For every 10 incandescent bulbs you replace with CFLs, you'll save $45 in energy costs.

Sealing and weather-stripping the cracks in your doors and windows could net you an additional $120 on your home heating bills this winter.

Turning your computer off at night instead of letting your screensaver take over could save around $100 annually.

And washing and rinsing your clothes in cold water instead of hot water could save you $50 per year. In fact, any opportunities to save hot water will be doubly beneficial, because you'll save water as well as water-heating energy.

Notice that none of these tips required a major purchase. And all saved a rather significant amount of money. So let's stop talking about how expensive it is to deal with climate change, and start giving regular people real incentives to make some simple, yet profitable, shifts in their habits.