The 80/20 Rule for Going Green

>> Monday, April 27, 2009

I was surrounded by waste and excess: styrofoam cups, plastic straws, paper wrappers, thin plastic placemats, and plasticrap toys. Across the table, First Son and Second Son were filling their toothy grins with french fries (deep fried) and chicken strips (probably full of antibiotics and hormones), eager to finish eating so they would have time for the indoor playground.

It was Second Son's birthday, and we were at Chick-Fil-A. My boys were delighted, and I was weighed down with guilt.

I didn't plan to have Second Son's birthday dinner at a fast food restaurant. We were there because of poor planning on my part, and that was partially the cause of my guilt. But these days I feel guilty about a lot of things. Not just anytime I step foot inside a fast food restaurant, but also when I forget to take my cloth bags to the grocery store, or buy a Coke at the gas station because I forgot my stainless steel water bottle, or make a trip to Target because I've searched in vain for a used belt and can't justify to myself spending $40 on a belt made from recycled materials.

And I spend more than my fair share of over-thinking-it time, like when my flip flops broke, and oh, crap, good shoes are really hard to find at a thrift store, but where am I going to find affordable flip flops made from sustainable materials by someone who's not getting screwed for being born in a different country?

This is the curse of being a Conscious Shopper, and it's at those moments that I can understand why some people say, "It's better not to know" and others say, "I try not to care."

But I have a solution...It's during those extreme moments of guilt and over-thinking-it that it's time to turn to the 80/20 Rule.

The 80/20 Rule Defined

You may have heard of the 80/20 rule of dieting that suggests that if you eat healthy 80% of the time, it's okay to blow your diet the other 20% of the time. Put in practice, this means that if you eat healthy Monday through Friday, you can scarf down a burger and fries on Saturday night and indulge in some ice cream on Sunday.

But the 80/20 rule can be used for much more than just diet. Rephrase it a little, and it could say, "If you live green, 80% of the time, it's okay to blow it the other 20% of the time.

Used in this way, the 80/20 Rule can give you some room to wiggle as you transition to a greener lifestyle.

The 80/20 Rule in Action

A few months ago, I mentioned the 80/20 rule as a Jogging Stride suggestion in my post about using fewer paper towels: 80% of the time reach for cloth first. The other 20% of the time, use paper towels made with recycled content.

Here are some other examples:

  • If I try to feed my family healthy, made-from-scratch meals 80% of the time, it's okay to indulge in fast food for the other 20% of our meals.
  • If I am able to purchase 80% of our food from organic or local sources, then 20% of the time, it's okay to eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.
  • If 80% of our clothes are from the thrift store or other eco-friendly sources, then 20% of our clothes can come from Target.
  • If we try to live sustainably 80% of the year, it's okay to take some vacations from green living the other 20% of the time.
The 80/20 Rule of Not Being Too Hard on Yourself

Some people might argue that an 80% effort is not enough. Perhaps they are right...

But as I sat at Chick-Fil-A, unable to turn off my eco-conscious conscience, I could sense an encroaching environmental burnout. And it's at those moments that the 80/20 rule is essential.

80% of the time I give 100%, but 20% of the time, I give myself a little slack.

Can you think of any other examples where the 80/20 rule could apply to green living?

Photo by ebruli


Frank Ladd's Water Treatment Blog April 28, 2009 at 1:16 PM  

As they say on one of my favorite work out videos, "Do your best and Forget the rest".

Guilt is totally unproductive and leads to burn out and backsliding. Instead just forgive yourself and think of ways you could do better the next time.

Busy people don't always have time to plan everything ahead of time to the 10th degree. You do what you can.

Another idea is buy buy quality clothes or other items that will last a long time. If you buy new shoes and they last for years, it has a lower impact than new shoes that last a few months.

Also you can do positive things to offset your impact, like sharing ideas on you blog to help others reduce their impact.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper April 28, 2009 at 7:19 PM  

Thanks, Frank! All great reminders and suggestions!

Maren Hansen April 28, 2009 at 7:53 PM  

Man, your best post yet and so timely. I hate that I'm feeling guilt for trying to use up all the cleaning fluids we inherited with the house. Or eating out. Or eating more meat than I need. I love your 80/20 idea. Thanks for a great goal. I also like to think in my life, that I am doing the 80% thing overall, and if we need to have the house cooler this summer while I'm preggo, we can cutback elsewhere... :)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper April 29, 2009 at 10:43 PM  

Maren - Pregnant women definitely get allowances!

Carrie May 3, 2009 at 12:36 AM  

i love this post. i've been trying to figure out a way to express how what you do that's green most of the time balances out some splurges other times. your post describes my thoughts exactly

Erin aka Conscious Shopper May 4, 2009 at 10:26 PM  

Carrie - I'm glad you like it. Thanks for visiting!

Linda May 8, 2009 at 2:29 PM  

The 80/20 rule for going green is such a great idea, would definitely help to keep me accountable to do my part for the environment. Always start good, but then slack off.

What about other ideas, specifically for investors to look into green businesses. I came across a company called e3bank today ( Something to look into, I guess.

Ezra May 21, 2009 at 5:30 PM  

I feel the same way about recycling. I get most of my packaging and all of my newspapers and boxes in the recycling bin, but I fall short of ripping the plastic windows off of bills If I have a single scrap of paper and there's a garbage can next to me, I'll throw it out.

tangledhair September 9, 2009 at 3:10 PM  

This reminds me of the book, "The Church of 80% Sincerity", which in large part is about trying to figure out how to be a good person when you have to deal with bad things and bad people. I'd never thought to apply it to green living, but I'm going to think about it now.

BTW, I knew Michael from college at MTSU and just found him on facebook... he referred me here. I love this blog. I'm going to link to it on mine. Have a great one!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper September 9, 2009 at 9:30 PM  

@tangledhair - Hi, old friend of Michael's! Sounds like an interesting book. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for it.

Melinda October 9, 2009 at 3:10 PM  

@Ezra I recently read that you don't need to rip the windows from junk mail envelopes anymore before recycling them!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper October 9, 2009 at 3:17 PM  

@Melinda - I'm pretty sure that policy differs from area to area depending on the recycling program. It's important to check your local guidlines.

ladygish October 9, 2009 at 3:46 PM  

@Erin aka Conscious Shopper Actually, I believe this is everywhere. Most of these windows are made out of water-soluble paper fiber and are consequently fine. If not, recycled paper pulp passes through a series of several screens that will filter out any impurities. It can't hurt to check with your local facilities, but I have yet to find any source that says one should remove these windows.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper October 9, 2009 at 4:48 PM  

@ladygish - I've don't know of any recycling programs that dont accept them either but I've seen lots of people mention on various blogs that they remove them. Whether they're just ignorant or they're removing it for other reasons I don't know, but when in doubt it is always best to check your local guidelines. For example, my area doesn't accept paper egg cartons, which are accepted in most areas. They also don't accept bottle lids though some places do.

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