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Shopping Less and Enjoying Life More

Your neighbors are expanding their house, the driveway across the street is starting to look like a luxury car lot, and your kid’s room is filling up with video game cartridges, $150 sneakers and bean-filled toys. A Time/CNN poll says 80 percent of people think children are more spoiled today than the kids of 10 or 15 years ago. American CEOs now make more than 400 times what their average workers make, and "the top 20 percent of American households earns nearly as much as the bottom 80 percent," write John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor in Affluenza.

To obtain such material affluence, the average employed American is now working more than 47 hours per week and far more hours per year than employees in other industrialized nations (including Japan), according to the Families and Work Institute. "Instead of using some of that productivity for leisure," says Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), "we shuffle back to work so we can afford more stuff that we don’t really need."

CNAD says America's growing obsession with acquisition is taking a heavy toll on the environment. According to the group, since the U.S. consumes more energy, water, paper, steel and meat per capita than any other country, at least four additional planets would be needed to provide the American lifestyle to every person on Earth. Meanwhile, old-growth forests are being lost at alarming rates, farmlands and wetlands are being engulfed by development, species are disappearing, and the atmosphere and our oceans are being polluted.

In 1996, CNAD grew out of the Merck Foundation and a conference on sustainable economics. Based in Tacoma Park, Maryland, the Center's 15 employees observe a four-day workweek designed to cultivate a healthy, progressive atmosphere. The 4,500-member organization avoids mass mailings, and Taylor is "cautiously optimistic" about her group’s budget of $1.7 million.

Alisa Gravitz, executive director of Co-op America, says CNAD's clear, specific programs are excellent ways for people to establish the links between consumption and the environment. CNAD's Step by Step program promotes letter-writing and consumer action campaigns to pressure businesses and institutions to become more sustainable. Participants of the Center’s new, web-based Turn the Tide program follow "nine little actions" to reduce their personal impact on the environment. CNAD estimates that if 1,000 people pursue the program for one year, 48.5 million gallons of water, 170 trees and 12,250 pounds of sea life will be saved, and four million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions will be prevented. The actions include eliminating lawn and garden pesticides, eating one less beef meal a week, not eating shrimp and installing efficient light bulbs. "Most people want to make a few changes in their lives, and they want to know that their changes matter," says Taylor.

Taylor says one-fifth of America's spending is done by the public sector, and she hopes her organization can serve as an information clearinghouse on responsible procurement. Scott Case, CNAD's director of procurement, says he is helping around 30 state and local governments with technical assistance and support. "Many government personnel want to green up their policies, but they have no idea how to get started. Other government employees are buying hybrid vehicles and pushing for biodegradable materials because they believe in making a difference. We want to help everyone make good choices," says Taylor.

To counter children's growing lust for too many toys, gifts and gadgets, Tracey Fisher is leading the Kids and Commercialism Campaign. A poll conducted by CNAD found that although two-thirds of parents claim their children care about the environment, more than 70 percent of parents say their children don’t think buying too much stuff will degrade the natural world. The Center's campaign presents action plans for parents, including how to protect kids from excessive advertising. Americans are now bombarded by more than 1,500 commercial messages a day, up from 560 a day during the 1960s, according to CNAD. Considering the $3 billion spent each year on ads directed at kids, more than 20 Times the amount spent a decade ago, it is not surprising that nearly half of parents say kids ask for brand names by age 5, writes Time.

CNAD charges that advertising has moved beyond the original purpose of gaining market share to creating a whole desire for more stuff. Ariane Herrera, communications manager of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, takes exception. "That is a long debated, purely philosophical argument," she says. "Companies are just trying to get their products out there any way they can."
Some scholars are critical of the Center's goals and methods. In an article for the Capital Research Center (a nonprofit group that studies philanthropy and charitable organizations), Daniel T. Oliver describes the "extremist" CNAD as "trying to tap into feelings of dissatisfaction that we all feel from Time to Time…. to ban or severely restrict our consumption of nearly everything." Oliver argues that CNAD tries to coerce people into needlessly changing their lifestyles through guilt and self-denial. He says there is no evidence that Americans are less happy or more stressed than ever, and he claims that many of CNAD’s recommendations (such as for organic food) are insensitive to poor people. Oliver writes, "When it comes to Christmas, CNAD thinks like Ebenezer Scrooge and acts like the Grinch."

But Ian Vasquez, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Project on Global Economic Liberty, and Ray Bruce, president of the Consumer Protection Association of America, say they support CNAD’s efforts to help consumers use their buying power to reflect their own personal values. Taylor and Gravitz say CNAD's programs are designed for people who can afford to do them. They believe decreases in consumption will lead to greater economic equality in the future. Taylor says her group hopes to "shift consumption away from the most destructive industries and toward beautiful, satisfying, sustainable products that create good jobs."

According to Gravitz, the biggest challenge facing CNAD is the difficulty of change for people. "It will take time for people to accept that sustainable economics will give everyone better paying jobs, better satisfaction, more money and more free time," she says.

Brian Howard is managing editor of E Magazine.

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