Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Closing the Loop with Cheap Reads: Half-Price Books' B(eco)meGreen Program

On a recent trip to friendly chain reseller Half-Price Books in Indianapolis a couple of weeks back, I had the pleasure of visiting their bathroom for the usual reasons. While there (besides finding out that Batman had been there) I noticed a sticker on the paper towel dispenser that said, “R(eco)gnize these come from trees, use only what you need,” and directed you to a website, B(eco)meGreen.

No idle graffiti, but a coordinated campaign--when I left the privy I noticed some of the employees wearing similarly designed shirts bearing the B(eco)meGreen logo--the site is sponsored by the bookstore itself as an initiative to get people to take part in conservation measures. As they point out, the reselling of books is an environmentally friendly practice. There’s a long list of tips with interesting information attached and a research/news library. Additionally, there’s a glossary of environmental and ecological terms to catch you up on the lingo used in environmental writing so you’ll know what the experts are talking about—do you know what assimilation means in the ecological sense? There’s also an obligatory merchandise page. All in all, lots of info about environmental awareness.

My favorite thing on the website is the Freebies area. While there aren’t too many of them available (yet), they take the opportunity as a teachable moment. Under the Screensavers heading, the site brings up a message reminding you that screensavers don’t save electricity, and that if you are going away for more than a minute you should turn off your monitor and put your computer to sleep. Here giving away disposable media turns into a useful transfer of knowledge and consciousness spreading.

It’s this attention to awareness that this site does best. As Bill McKibben pointed out in The End of Nature (and in the shorter introduction to his annotation of Walden), environmental issues are not technological problems. If they were, all we would have to do is fix the problem, like replacing the head gasket on an ailing car. The real issue is attitudinal, that business as usual no longer plays. People, McKibben argues, have to figure out how to make smarter choices about the things they want and how they go about getting them. That’s not to say that technology doesn’t play a part, but that technology isn’t the end solution—we can’t wait for the Great Leap Forward to save us all. McKibben’s line is an iteration of what David Brower was putting out there thirty years before—“What kinds of growth must we have?” and “What kinds of growth can we no longer afford?” Neither deny that we can continue to grow—a happy rejoinder to otherwise conservation-unfriendly economists. And, though worded differently, these focusing questions beg for the same shift in thinking. Instead of pointing out what is wrong—the band aid approach—they take a kind of macro-scale view of figuring out how to change behavior and perceptions of the human connection to the world.

Like the above questions, B(eco)meGreen points toward the ways people interpret the world around them. Instead of simply asking for someone to use fewer paper towels, the sticker about remembering that paper towels come from trees looks at processes. At the bottom of the process is the idea that if you can get people to close the loop, so to speak, in their thought processes, then they will make better decisions. (Obviously, this means that there is some absolute standard of right and wrong, but that’s not the point; this seems like a good idea.) People go to dry their hands, they remember trees, that trees are a good, and then will reduce their consumption—or better yet dry their hands on their pants.

The same process works, as a colleague in climate change policy told me, when in Japan power companies install power usage meters inside subscribers homes (as well as some participating companies' offices). Closing the loop here means putting up the tangible evidence of power use—the meter—to remind them of the effect of their actions. The monitor or television stays on overnight, it will be reflected on the meter. The most amazing part of the study was, however, was that at no point was anyone notified. The users apparently were motivated only by seeing the numbers increase. By making a cyclical thought, the pieces slide into place. It was like when I was a kid--to walk out side door to our house you had to go by the spinning meter. I knew when it was going faster, we were using more power. On the way back in, I would see it and read in the dark. (Well, mostly dark.)

Another thing the program has going for it is placement. A corporation has every right to call itself environmentally responsible if they send out a memo explaining what employees can do to save resources. But those messages are soon forgotten (and the memos often not recycled, I’m sure). Using stickers with a quick-read message pops up every time a person dries their hands. Sure, some people will manage to ignore the message, but I suspect the program will do more good than harm. It’s a cold bastard that hates trees. What's more is that this program extends even beyond the employees and effects the customers as well.

All in all, the program is a good idea. I’d love to see it extend outside of the Half-Price Books chain. That said, did I mention you could buy the stickers on the website? Too bad only the easily-stolen magnet version comes in packs of 100. That's a hint, HPB.


MBQ said...

The idea of putting the power meter on the inside is genius because it makes your use of electricity tangible and immediate.

Plus, and this is the real genius, most people won't see it as an environmental issue but an economic issue. There's no coincidence that the recent push for hybrid vehicles and alternate energy sources is happening at a time when gas prices have never been higher.

thevegster said...

On the Leonard Lopate Show (WYNC), the "Gurus of How-to", Al & Larry Ubell, mentioned wireless power monitors that show the cost of your power instead of kilowatt hours used. This could encourage even cheap people who don't care about the earth to use less energy.

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