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A Response to the Wall Street Journal

March 24, 2008

A few weeks ago (Feb 29 to be exact) The Wall Street Journal published a story in its Home Front section titled “The Price of Going Green”.

The author, June Fletcher, reached the conclusion that the benefits of going green rarely outweigh the costs. And she was right, based on many of the examples that she used, but she was wrong in thinking that the only reason for “going green” was to save money.

There are really two types of green improvements: things that save you money and things that are good for the environment. I mean, all green improvements are geared towards reducing our impact on the environment (otherwise they couldn’t really be called green now, could they?), but some include a financial incentive in the form of increased energy efficiency. June’s mistake–which is a pretty common one–was to judge the usefulness of the “good for the environment” group with the economic benefits one can expect from the “efficiency” group.

Energy Star appliances and CFLs are more efficient than older appliances and incandescent bulbs, respectively; as June notes, they also save you money. But June suggests that bigger investments in efficiency, like upgrading to solar water heaters and super-efficient furnaces, are not worth the added investment, even though they do reduce your utility bill. According to the article, the average homeowner moves every 7 years, but it may take up to 10 years for the savings garnered from a solar water heater to outweigh the cost of the purchase. While June is right to make a financial argument in this case, she’s missing a few points. These days, many home buyers are willing to pay a premium for green homes. Also, if you have an oil furnace that chugs through  more than 1000 gallons of oil per year (as is common in the northeast US), it will likely take less than 10 years to pay off the premium on a super-efficient furnace (or geothermal heat pump for that matter). 

Green building isn’t all about efficiency, it’s also about using eco-friendly materials. This is where June’s comment that “some green products, such as bamboo floors, don’t save you money” isn’t really a dirty little secret. No one ever claimed that buying bamboo flooring would save you money. Bamboo flooring, like other alternative/sustainable products are ways in which we can use natural resources in a sustainable manner. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood (from sustainable logging practices) is no different from the wood produced by clear-cut logging, except that the environment suffers a lot more from clear cutting practices and FSC wood is a little more expensive. For those who can afford it, and are looking to decrease their impact on the environment, building with eco-friendly materials will make our environment a little bit healthier–regardless of the lack of “savings.”  

Unfortunately June never mentions the greenest option of all when it comes to green improvements: the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Habitat for Humanity runs a number of ReStores located all across the States and Canada. These stores sell used and surplus building materials at a fraction of the original price. This is the ultimate in green building on a budget. (On a similar note, if you are demolishing part of your home, consider reducing your waste by saving the original building materials either to reuse in your own renovation, donate to a ReStore, sell on CraigsList, or give away for free on Freecycle.)

June (and perhaps her editors too) are really asking the wrong question with “Can a Home be too Eco?” A better question to ask is whether people are making decisions about green improvements for the wrong reasons. Do you want to limit your impact on the environment or do you just want to conserve energy? Some improvements do both, but others are just a more sustainable way of doing business. As long as you think going green is worth the extra money, it’s hard to make your home “too Eco.” 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. tim d permalink
    March 24, 2008 11:57 pm

    The distinction between “earth friendly” and “energy efficient” is a very important one to make. I remember learning way back in Environmental Studies 101 about an economic term call “existence value.” This is the monetary worth associated with the psychological sense of security, prosperity, confidence or warm-and-fuzziness that we each derive from the knowledge that even a geographically removed and potentially lethal species like a polar bear is out there for us to discover one day. In some ways, it’s not so odd that such an intangible value has yet to make it into widespread calculations of personal wealth, GDP, etc. but I’m sort of surprised that more obvious, indirect costs of environmental degradation (increased healthcare needs, for example) are still widely ignored. Anyway, thanks for bringing up the point.

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