Saturday, March 31, 2007

What a cool recycle idea...

Tired of plastic seedling pots, well Brown Thumb has a great idea to use newspapers to create seedling pots. You can do the same thing using toilet paper rolls. Earlier posts have been exploring the different uses of TP rolls, the Economist, writes about San Francisco's plastic bag ban and notes that "much more landfill is taken up with packaging". It looks like easily compostable packaging would be in the cards, and a lot safer too.

Carfree Parking....

The other day I went to a faux downtown in San Jose to grab dinner for a friends birthday dinner. Since it was the tail end of rush hour, I was able to get there fairly quickly (yes, I did drive alone, the mass transit is horrendous) but once I got there, I spent about the same amount of time circling for parking, and my blood pressure rose. I was tempted to do valet parking. To mur surprise the next time, the New York Times sensed my pain and published an editorial about studies that reveal that an unexpected amount of traffic is not caused by people going somewhere, but when they get there. Public zoning, requires for new construction that a certain amount of parking spaces are dedicated per X amount of retail. But what a waste of space. When I drive through office parks, it amazes me how much space is just dead. Makes me wonder if I could live above my work place like in many cities? What a great commute!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It's Official...

Gosh I love this city, the main headline on the S.F. Gate Web Page (that's the web presence of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper) is Plastic Store Bags Banned I was hoping for something more creative like "Petro Pouches Panned, Plastic Bags Banned" but that's too many characters. In their coverage, there is an editorial telling the big stores to get over it and go biodegradable. There is also a person in the street piece asking "how many bags do you have"? Lots of people use the things for doggie diapers and toilet paper. Lots of people do use it for trash bags, something I do as well. I would like to see fewer bags, the cashiers treat them like water and keep giving them to me. How many bags do you have?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Carbon-Less Eating....

"We are all made of star stuff..." or so says the late astronomer Carl Sagan. I'm not sure I'll wax that poetic about my next topic which is less carbon gastronomy. Now, I love food, but what is amazing now is how we've confused good with abundant, especially in food portions. Last night I went out to a Southern Indian restaurant in San Francisco called Dosa, and it was pretty good, but the portions were huge. Not just for my friend and I, but at almost every table. It was just too much, and this is a fancy pants restaurant. Somehow we've become focused on quantity as a measure of quality.

In today's New York Times, there's a great article on the experiment that TGI Friday's is doing with marketing smaller portions. Everyone in the biz thinks it's suicide, since people are condititioned to think that big portions is your best value -- BAD CHEESECAKE FACTORY, BAD CHEESECAKE FACTORY. But, TGIF thinks with enough marketing it'll work. Maybe these smaller portions will be a great way to tackle the "Mindless Eating" that is happening, where if you put popcorn in a larger container, you'll eat more even if the same amount of popcorn is put in a smaller bowl. Hmmm.

So what does all this have to do with Less Carbon living, well, I'm not sure we are made of star stuff, but from High School biology (OK, and a whole heaven help me biology major -- but you don't need all that), we're made of carbon. Food is made of carbon and it's why we make Carbon Dioxide, we burn the food just like we burn gas. (Or make gas after a particularly aggressive burrito.) So if we consume excessive amounts of food, it's not just bad for our waistlines, but also for our planet as it takes more fertilizer to make more food, more gas to transport more food, more gas to dump and throwaway the food we don't eat. So this whole supersizing thing is not just about our health, it's about our Mother Earth's health.

Oscar Wilde said "A cynic is someone knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.." Ok, it's ok to go to the French Laundry now, just be sure to carpool.

Friday, March 23, 2007


This is REAL CARBON FREE Living... I can't even do it justice, not even going to try. Click here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Finally Some Sense emerges.

In an article in today's San Francisco Chronicle, it highlighted that Chez Panise, the standard bearer for many of the cuisine trends has announced that they will use regular tap water at the restaurant, because the cost to the environment for shipping water across the ocean from Italy just didn't make sense. Human beings are funny things, in that we take something as basic as water and make it a status item. When we make our eco-decisions it's important to consider the whole life cycle of the product.

One time I heard a lecture from Architect William McDonough of Cradle to Cradle fame, and he talked about a Chinese refrigerator manufacturer building their wares in the U.S. instead of China. When asked why, they went "It's mostly Air, why would I want to ship that across the ocean?"

Monday, March 19, 2007

We gather here is praise of good bags.....

It finally happened, all good things must past, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This weekend the half-pound Peet's coffee bag that I had been using over and over for the past few months has said I can take no more, it's seams are tired, it's wire doo-hickey is spent and broken, it can no longer hold that blessed coffee anymore. It served a good life, bringing that sustenance of the gods caffeine into my daily routine. It gave it's life valiantly and repeatedly, but now it is tired and done. I had to throw it away, it no longer had the strength to go on.

The Peet's bag was one of many soldiers, the hardest working. Most times I'd get my $0.25 discount and a free small coffee (Peet's is amazing about that, it's about the little things, sort of like an iPod) in it's service. At Trader Joe's in addition to using the Canvas bags, I would reuse the paper wine bags, they seem to be holding up. Thankfully I drink more coffee than wine, otherwise I might be entering a 12 step program given the amount of coffee I drink. Plastic bags for veggies are sometimes called to service, but for some reason find it hard to reuse use those, probably because they are wet often.

But we are here to honor the little Peet's bag. The Peet's bag is dead, long live the Peet's bag.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Paper or BYOB?

Well San Francisco has done it again, and shaved it's head. Oh, no never mind, it still manages to get tons of media attention with bold little moves. In recent weeks, the San Francisco legislative committee has been mulling over banning plastic grocery bags at stores within San Francisco. The proposed ordinance would require merchants to offer customers only bags made of recyclable paper, plastic that can be turned into compost or sturdy cloth or plastic that can be reused. When I bring my bags in, I often get a few cents off, but I'd rather see bags be charged for, since it brings it up to the forefront in people's minds.

CNN Money has a great run down on why plastic bags are dangerous, but on the flip side paper is no saint either. The solution of course is keeping a stash of reusable bags. I've been to enough trade shows in my life to have gotten a huge number of canvas bags. My favrorite came from O'reilly' Mac OS X conference (I am showing my geek cred here in spades) where the schwag bag they offered was manufactured by a company called Morningstar Trading where they have the "Round Trip" line of Canvas bags made out of recycled canvas. They have individual bags available for Earth Day, my favorite being the "Enviro Shopper Tote" and "Medium Tote Bag" which both have a flat bottom meaning you can put cans and other items like a conventional paper shopping bag.

Keep a few in your car, and you're always ready.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mind Boggling Numbers.

Artist Chris Jordan has done an incredible job helping us visualize the amount of consumption in the United States in an exhibit called "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait". Using a pointilist motif (one of the images is an homage to Seraut) Jordan effectively illustrates the amount of consumption that goes on. It's to be honest, mind boggling. What is more distressing is that each image illustrates a different time scale, when you read the fine print, it's even more amazing.

One of the images that hit more close to home is that of paper bags and plastic bags. I've really tried to limit my bag usage and I'll blog about that more later. When you go shopping, it's amazing the number of bags you acquire throughout the day. Everytime I ask not to have a bag, I get a blank stare.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

If we can (blank) we can surely (blank)....

I'm so excited! I just can't hide it! It's March Madness!!!! The time of year when I care about 63 teams I really don't care about. Well actually there is usually one team I root for out of Conference Pride (and it's a long shot kinda pride) and one team that I'm sort of rooting against out of family allegiance and just plane absurd envy.

In a change of spirit, I have not made my obligatory throw away pick of choosing the Ivy League team to win in the first round. I've gotten smarter than that, disappointment can only happen so often, and I've had a little disappointment this year so far from you Penn, dump me once, I dump you next time. Hah! As for the Cardinal, all I can say is Give it Up!

One of my fondest memories from my days at uni was frighteningly during O-Chem Lab. Now O-Chem effectively destroyed any hope of me ever going to med school, placing me in the underachieving bracket known as the California division of my life known as high tech, so what fond memories might come out of that?!?! Well if you had ever been to the Chem Labs in Baker Hall, four floors underground. Yes there could be a nuclear armageddon, but we'd still be synthesizing indigo down in the basement oblivious to the world above. Except for during March Madness.

Each of the labs had a TV installed where we would watch the pre-lab safety instructions. Now supposedly these were closed-circuit TVs, or so we were told. Somehow through the miracle of ingenuity, our TA managed to figure out how to get NC2A tournament on the tube!!!! OK, I have no rememberance of what we covered in that Lab, but I can still remember our shock and awe of watching Georgetown and thinking Princeton almost actually beat these guys...

So if we can figure out how to get the NC2A on a chem lab TV set, we can surely figure out a way to stop Global Warming, in fact it might be a TA from the bottom of Baker Lab who figures it out.

Good Day Sunshine....

This is the reason I live in the weather was amazing. With the added bonus of Daylight Savings Time kicking in earlier than usual, it meant that the sun set later. So taking advantage of the atmospheric convergence I decided to ride my bike to work today. It was a little chilly with the breeze, but that which does not kill me usually means that there isn't a lot of other cars on the road.

By accident, I ended up with a completely carfree day. I was tempted to go out and have dinner impromptu with a local friend, but alas no one was around. Poor planning on my part, meant leftovers. But is also meant I keep some carbon credits for another day. I'll be the carpool driver for this weekend when I go see the Musical "Jersey Boys", so some more "carma" points coming there, and I'll need them since I'll be heading to the East Bay for some hiking fun Sunday, driving solo -- but alas if you remember my "Capitulation" post you know why. Must get more carbon credits. We'll see if my motivation holds up for biking tomorrow.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Going the extra 10 yards...

You have to love the CFL. Familiar enough that you can understand it, but quirkly different that you know it's different. A little off balance putting you somewhere in the middle, but just off slightly. A little elongated and curvy, but still you know how to use it. No, I'm not talking about the Canadian Football League, I'm talking about the Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb.

They are finally getting good enough and affordable enough to start replacing them all around the apartment. When you think about them, you would think they would just be stubbie versions of the long tube fluorescent lights like those at the office, but no, they are all squiggly like a coiled snake, they really are just like neon lights just not. And these don't bite (or at least until you throw them away - bad mercury!).

The only functional downside still is that even though they are instant on, they aren't instant full power, meaning it takes a little time for them to warm up.

So my landlord's solution, and it works quite well, split the difference and meet me half way (which would be the 55 yard line) and use one CFL and one incandescent light bulb if you have dual fixtures and you get the light that you need, when you need it. And you can use all that energy you are saving to go that extra ten yards.

I got my first pack of two CFLs (equivalent lumens to a 75 watt bulb) for only $5. Think of it as buying the earth a beer, the planet and your gut will appreciate it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Oil on My Mind.

In Today's New York Times (sad to say, this has become my local paper, where I find out more about what is going on in my backyard then I do from my "local" papers) There is a book review of Oil on the Brain by Lisa Margonelli. It explores where dino juice really comes from, a brief history and politics of what we so rely on. Gas is now over $3 here in the bay area, sadly between the housing implosion, there's going to be a whole lot of hurting going on around here.

It sounds like a more light hearted sequet to Daniel Yergin's The Prize which I just moved to another shelf in my house yesterday. The book review is full of interesting facts. Did you know that the average American uses three gallons of gas a day! I wonder if that is just auto gas, or does it cover equivalences of heating, cooking and electricty gas as well?

A very timely book, but not with a hopeful prognosis. When I go to work, I see that people don't get it, and these are the people who are the better and more educated, it's business as usual. Oil is to us, as water is to a fish, and any transition will be incredibly difficult. (Just ask the fish). Peter Ducker, the famed management professor, once talked about the future that has already happened (such as demographics - if you have a spike or drop of babies 20 years ago, you're dealing with it 20 years from now, the question is how not whether). Are we in a future that has already happened?

It's interesting that Daimler's horseless carriage would own the world. Did you know that Mercedes was the name of the daughter of the supplier who created the spark plug?

Bored Buying...

This is my last post on why we buy, I didn't get a chance to catch "Maxed Out" this weekend, but if over-consumption is one of the contributors to excessive carbon consumption. (You ever notice that the word "Consuption" is the same word used for wasting away "An old and once common term for wasting away of the body, particularly from pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). Other old TB terms include the King's evil or scrofula (TB of the lymph nodes in the neck) and Pott's disease (TB of the spine)." from MedicineNet).

One of the reasons I buy, is that of as a lowest energy alternative to doing something else. Sometimes i know that i can go browse and not think, even less thinking than watching a movie or god help us television (I actually have to pay attention). We are a tired generation, and I think that is part of it. Shopping in many ways is the mental equivalence of grazing, just like a cow, wandering the aisles looking for something. I tend to do this with computers and electronics, but most of us have some sort of weakness in this area.

Sadly, sometimes buying is just desultory divestment of my hard earned dollars.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The it's such a good value buy...

I talked last post about the good deal buy, a deal so good that you can't pass it up. Though really you should. This post focuses on the just in case I need it for the future post. Also, affectionately known as the "Costco Buy" I have a lot of single friends who are costco members, and to be honest I don't know why. How much do you really save by buying Toilet paper in 96 pack bundles, or whatever quantity it is. You probably shouldn't buy the megabag of chips, even though it is a good value. But you do, because it's a good value. This sort of plays on fear, but I'll need it in the future and the price of it will be more expensive. But if you are living in a high cost area, all that storage ain't cheap either. So the trade off is who's real estate to store stuff, mine or theirs?

I think marketeers pray on our fears, our fears of inflation, our fears of being without. Do we really need to buy so much of things we can get later. It's a fair question, depending on the time value of money in your life. Is sinking the money on a bushel of TP that you will definitely use, better than spending the money on a martini at the bar. Our is the money not spent until you need it sitting better in an ING account tough to tell.

Now toilet paper is easy, the volumes of DVD blanks and spices is less clear.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Just too good to pass up reason to buy.

I guess this is where I get confessional (confessing on a blog -- imagine that!) and that's buying stuff because it's cheap, or just too dang good a value to pass up. This is the kind of buying where you see something on close out, or loss leader special pricing and can't not pick it up. I see this with technology all the time, something goes on closeout and you just buy it because it's so cheap, erh value priced. But the kicker is you don't need it, you buy it just because you think it'll never get cheaper. But of course it might, or it truly is a good deal but you won't use it meaning it's a bad deal. Or else you think it's so cheap, I'll figure out something to do with it. But you never do.

Marketers know there are people who just can't pass up a good deal. The other trick of accumulating too much is when you "buy to bonus" either in the form of buy one get one free promotions, or special gift with purchase kind of behavior. You think what a great value it is and it sucks you in. Guilty.

I probably exacerbate this by visiting sales sites like

Ways to not get sucked in to the compulsion to buy because it's such a steal...

1. Become conscious of what you truly need and want. Advertising can create Beach Boys shopping "Wouldn't it be nice..." feelings in you. One way is to never buy without asking, if I never saw this ad, would I have even imagined buying this to solve a problem or want I already had that existed. Chances no. I do this by keeping a "buy list" on my computer and in my wallet. Everytime I think I want something, I'll write it down. And only when I see myself coming back to it in different contexts will I approve it and buy when it's on sale or when I really need it.

2. Think of the last yard sale you visited, imagine you hosting that yard sale. Yeah, scary.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The you're worth it argument....

A lot of buying is hopeful buying, that if I get X, Y or Z that I'll be a better person. Usually, X, Y and Z all take a certain amount of practice, boredom and frustration to be any good at. This usually happens at the beginning of the year when you make new years resolutions (note I have never made resolutions at Chinese New Year, nor ever heard the suggestion, something to wonder why --- later!) It's usually, let me get a new bike, or a treadmill or a guitar, or something else. And as you start shopping, you start convincing yourself that if I just get a nice one, I'll be more eager to do it. It'll sound better, I'll have more fun. Whatever, but in the end, 99 out of a hundred times, X, Y or Z will sit unused.

In truth, you're probably worth it, but you might not be doing what's best for you. I'm always amazed by the people who walk into an apartment and see a guitar laying around, even an old crappy hand me down, start tuning and make it sing. A person who loves music will play on a bad guitar as much as a great guitar, someone who hopes or dreams of making music may treat a nice guitar as like a gift certificate making it mandatory that they play since they invested so much, but it turns out that just like so many gift certificates, they go unused. The guitar does not get better unless i practice, i do not become fitter unless I ride the bike. It's hard when we play games with others, it's often worse when we play games on ourselves.

So how do we not give up before we start. Beg, borrow or be humble. Craigslist and the classifieds have the remnants of so many abandoned good intentions. If you buy frugal and it works out, you're farther along than you started since you discovered something you really love. If it's another dead end, you're out less money and can use the money you didn't spend to find your real passion. Things on the low end get sold cheap, you can't get much cheaper so you usually come out about even. Think about used cars, if it works it never drops below a certain price.

If you buy used, you're compacting, and most of all you're really finding out about that most elusive thing. yourself.

A sense of control....

OK, this is the big thesis post about why we buy. I originally was going to create the grand taxonomy of reasons why we buy (I was trained as a biologist, and biologists are all about taxonomies, we like order, structure, gooey slimy stuff that crawls, mostly so we can put it into the gooey slimy part of the family tree). I'll explore some of the reasons that we buy, but in thinking about this more and more yesterday I came up onto an insight that I think is worth sharing.

Modern consumerism is a natural outgrowth of industrial society, and the transformation of autonomy. In the past, you basically spent your time providing for your needs. If you could do it quickly, you spent a lot of time with your family, or just hanging around. But basically your real needs and nature dictated your schedule.

With industrialization, our rhythms transformed to that of "the Man" now you worked according to an industrial schedule, and all your needs required you to work to get money, to meet those needs. We disintermediated our life needs. Now, lets say you made a big score, you'd still need to show up to work since getting a job is a pain and incurs a lot of cost. But I also believe this loss of control, contributes to shopping. Hear me out....

A friend of mine once lost her job, wrong time, wrong place and it was happening to every company kind of thing. Even if it isn't your fault, it still sucks. She mentioned to me that she was going to indulge in some retail therapy, and I realize that I did the same (though for different items). As I deal with my incredibly mind numbing job that is destroying my IQ daily (my blog posts may become more incoherent --- more you ask, they're there you say to yourself). I realize that most of my unhappiness with employment comes from lack of control. In my job it's seeing crappy products get out of the door, or bad decisions that will hurt later and not being able to change it.

So even though we are less likely to freeze, starve, be eating by tigers, we feel we have less control over our lives. Except when we shop, and the credit card industry has a lot to do with that. Think about the times you were in college and you had no money, you felt pretty helpless. But when you have credit card, you can feel powerful and in control.

One of the most powerful things about shopping is that at the point of sale you are in control. There are few things in life where you get to make a decision and in shopping you get to make the decision. You are in control over the poor sales person. That momentary sense of power, I think is an incredibly powerful narcotic. Shopping gives one the illusion of choice and control, and in a life where increasingly we feel we have less, explains a lot of the appeal of shopping. The irony is short term control can mean long term out of control if debt is involved.

As our lives feel more obligated, shopping is a place where we feel we have control, we can research, we can play alternatives off of each other, we can deny, we can choose. The urge to buy may be a manifestation for some control of our lives. It explains a lot of why we buy worthless things. Most of the people who are most in debt, are those whose jobs give them the least amount of control, it's the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Most of the people at the top, lead incredibly uncluttered lives when you look at the pictures of their homes in those expensive magazines. (like where do they store their magazines, I have them all over my coffee table).

That's my big epiphanie, we often don't buy for the stuff or experience we get from buying, we buy for the feeling we get in the act of buying.

I'll examine some of the (self-)rationalizations for why we buy in the next few postings. The Car(bon) free lifestyle takes great courage and strength, because you have to feel in control somewhere, otherwise you will see control elsewhere (in buying)

Why we keep....

There is an amusing story on the New York Times website about the increasing use of storage units. People are increasingly buying more and more stuff, and lacking space in their homes (or more amusingly the desire to appear living a pared down life) renting storage away from their home. It explores the pathologies with hoarding that exist. One of the interesting points is that some people ascribe more sentimental value to items than others, I know that I have a tendency to hoard because it just seems so wasteful to throw it away in the landfill. A form of buyer's remorse kicks in as well, a great quote in the article was “I’ve put so much money into it at this point, I’ve got to use these things.”

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

He said it more incomprehensibly...

My last few and next few postings are going to focus on consumption, assuming that it has an impact on the planet when it is wreckless and destructive. Like how much stuff do we need, aside from endless amounts of chocolate.

Jean Baudrillard just passed away. The French Social theorist was a strong critic of consumerism (never really thought of it as an -ism, like communism) as noted in his New York Times obiturary "He was also a fierce critic of consumer culture in which people bought objects not out of genuine need but because of the status and meaning they bestowed."

I was going to explore this angle some more in my post, as I realized that many purchases these days are not necessary, but are bought for their positional value -- or where they place you in the hierarchy. Modern economics describe these purchases as "signaling" mechanisms. The twist is in the past, economic goods conveyed true economic capability, but with easily available credit, it can now be faked. But then getting the girl isn't faked so it might be worth the effort.

Even though we live in more abundance, the one thing that never changes is that there are only a few places at the top. And we do measure ourselves relatively, and there are only 10 places in the top 10. So the value for pursuing those goes up. The other thing that afflicts us is that we become acutely aware of what is available in the world, and then we want it. As the old saying goes, if I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Why Buy the Second...

So now we've covered the true essentials, what do we spend on beyond that core?

I think the next thing we tend to lump into the buying equation, are what I call societal needs. These are the items that allow you to function in society, whatever that society might be. In most of the U.S. one could argue that cars are the next level of need. You don't absolutely need a car, but as my experiment in carfree life, it does quash your effectiveness tremendously. But even cars run the gamut beyond simple transportation, which I'll explore there.

Other things that you might need to function as part of society that are not strictly necessary include telephone, perhaps internet, and maybe a computer. Not being connected definitely cuts you off from the rest of the world. Whatever your local world might be. It's sort of like the people who live on the ground in "Batman Begins", you're living but your out of most pictures. And as they say, with most people it's out of sight, out of mind. Sadly that's true. I remember going back for my 10 year reunion and seeing the names of those classmates no longer with us, and a chill of recognition hit me with some of the names.

If a person falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does anyone care.

So we buy to exist apart, and then we buy to exist together. Our technology goods, let us exist together apart more easily now. The simplest way to drive this buy is to obsolete one form of communication for another.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Why Buy the First....

Now this blog is about reducing the impact of cars and in a broader sense, reducing our carbon footprint. The next few posts as I've outlined in my eNotebook are going to explore why we buy, especially when we potentially have so much more than we need (chocolate, wine and coffee excluded of course). The gist behind these next posts is that the act of consumption necessarily increases our carbon footprint, not just in the goods we buy, but also in the energy to obtain those goods. I often drink coffee with a guilty conscience, but don't most addicts feel guilty about something.

The most obvious reason we buy, is need. I'm going to say that food, clothing and shelter are standard. We get hungry, we buy. We need a place to live, we rent or buy. We get clothes. I'm not going to parse it out further but the word need is a catch all, and highly negotiable. Do I really need that iPod, hmmmm. Yes. But before I go to far off the edge, let's talk about real and perceived need.

A real need is something that allows you to be here tomorrow, insulin to a diabetic is a real need, food is a real need, shelter from the storm is a real need. but we really go beyond that quite quickly in the U.S. at least, but define real need according to your conscience. But real need is a real buy, what about the rest?

Mandatory Currency and the compulsion to buy...

In my last post I talked about that the problem that we have is not too little in life, but too much. Or more correctly, too much of the wrong thing through some very perverse incentives. This has become clearer to me as I struggle with my gift certificate and FSA problem. Lately I've been receiving more and more "gift cards" as presents. (In full disclosure, me and my lazy ass have been giving an increasing number of gift certificates lately as well). The premise is that they are easy and convenient to use, and in many ways they are. It has eliminated the tackiness of giving cash (which if you are Chinese is not considered tacky at all but de rigeur with those little red envelopes), yet freeing the giver the hassle or pressure of making a decision or giving the wrong gift.

But what does it do to the receiver, well it basically forces the receiver now to go shopping. This is particularly difficult for me as I'm a terrible shopper, not knowing what I want (this is the root of much unhappiness), parsing out the information about the best buy. (Have you tried to buy a light bulb lately, I'm converting 50% of my lightbulbs to CFLs and what use to be an easy purchase decision has become absurdly difficult -- but I digress).

The dilemma becomes this, I the receiver has virtual money, it's not real money because it's not legal tender that's exchangeable. One way to think about it, is that a gift certificate is like going to a foreign country for vacation and forgetting to spend all your money and coming home with a pocket full of souvenirs. Except the foreign country is Barnes and Noble, and basically you have to head back Visa in hand to redeem them. So back to the gift certificate, right now I have a souvenir, unless I use it. And here is the problem, most souvenirs end up as clutter, and I'm not into clutter.

So the alternative is I NEED to spend the gift certificate, but what do I want or need. And can I get that at the place of the gift certificate is issued. So what do I do instead, I buy things just to buy things. Result more clutter. Arghhh! I can either flush the gift certificate, or go shopping. Consumption is built into the system.

The same thing happens every year with those Flexible Health Spending Accounts, we buy a Tax Free gift certificate for health stuff at the beginning of the year, and at the end, we need to spend in order to not waste it. Consumption is built into the system.

Now, I have to say that some people probably do need to spend more money, need to live it up. One of the gift certificates I got, ended up getting converted to some nice casual shoes, I would not have bought on my own. It's a way of motivating people to buy something "nice" for themselves, so gift certificates can be a good thing. That's probably a minority report.

I think that we have a larger gift certificate problem in our society, the feeling that we have to spend. I'll go into that more in the next couple of posts as I try to figure out why I (and perhaps others) buy.

It's interesting to see how people feel about gift certificates. Sitting Pretty talks about the same things, and refers to the freakanomics guys.

In a more wonkish note, extending the currency metaphor. It is interestng to see how on eBay people are trading a selling gift cards and you can end up seeing the buy - sell spread on different merchants. It would be interesting to look at how the different vendors are looked at in terms of cash equivalence as a measure of company perception. I just did that and for Best Buy and Circuit City. You basically pay 90% of value for Best Buy card and 80% for Circuit City cards, so people in effect feel that Best Buy is a more safe place to buy something. What's interesting is for the seller, there is a high cost between market making fees of eBay and the spread to convert a gift card into cash. Another argument for giving cash.

Last comment is that some locales are setting up their own local currency to encourage shopping. Ithaca, New York their Ithaca Hours is probably the most well known.

Long post, but it's not hard to see that sometimes we feel forced to shop. If consumption is carbon foot print, let's explore why we consume in the next few posts.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Confusion over "The Compact".....

OK, I've signed up for "The Compact" mailing list, but I haven't signed up for "The Compact" of not buying anything new for a whole year. More on that later. Now, the TC (not to be confused with the "OC") is one of the most prolific mailing lists I've ever subscribed to, and it seems to confuse minimal impact with frugality, not that the two aren't unrelated. But for me the posts were getting a little shrill, and questions about recycling maxi-pads and tampons are a little much (I'm sorry to bring the topic up, but even in context, it doesn't get better, trust me on this one).The same issue of all or nothing that plagued the Car Free mailing list seem to be afflicting the TC as well. The problem is a focus on denial instead of generativity.

Architect William McDonough, talks about sustainability being boring, he wants fecundity. In short, he wants life. His philosophy of "Cradle to Cradle" product design where you choose materials that can be recycled and reused when it's finish. Buy, Throw Away, Recycle, Remake, Rebuy. And that's what I originally thought about when I read about TC in the New York Times, it's not about denial. But what it is about is conscious consumption and active choice in life. The TC is about avoding mindless materialism, and in a clever part of subterfuge pumping the service economy. (Restaurants, Massages, Maid Service, etc)

Now why do we have too much mindless materialism, and I would argue a large part of the problem is, is we really don't have too little in life, but we have too much. I call it the gift certificate problem....

More on that later.....