habit shift: reconsidering gold stars.

March 19, 2019
a wire basket filled with dishtowels and cloth napkins.

I love gold stars. Shiny bits of foil stuck on notebooks and papers. Glittery reminders that I made the right choice, that I did a good thing, that I got an A+. Like acing a spelling a test, I like to know that I’ve gotten everything right when it comes to my consumer choices. That I’ve chosen the very best, the least damaging, the most sustainable option available for my family.

Of course, making environmentally responsible choices isn’t nearly as cut and dried as memorizing by rote the correct order of letters in a word. There’s rarely one simple answer. And wanting a gold star isn’t probably the most ecologically sound thing to yearn for, anyway. (All of that foil that can’t be recycled or composted is edging out space that should be available for insects or earth worms.) But stickers aside, human beings are messing up the planet, daily making this place we call home less hospitable to ourselves and other living things. Gold star consumer habits alone won’t change that.

Still, it’s no surprise that in our attempts to live more lightly on the planet, we often turn inward and scrutinize our individual habits and consumer choices. In a moment when it feels like regulatory bodies aren’t doing nearly enough work to mitigate the effects of climate change on a global scale, it gives me a sense of agency and purpose to think about my personal acts of stewardship and my personal consumption as protective measures against a warming planet. Saying no to a plastic bag, or composting my food scraps, or buying a product made from recycled materials, are all things that make me feel better, and scaled across households, I think that these kinds of small individual efforts can indeed make a significant contribution.

But increasingly, when it comes to the environment (or spelling for that matter), I’m not convinced that chasing gold stars is serving us very well. Do even the smallest bit of research and it’s easy to see how a single product or habit can have both positive and negative impacts on the planet or on ourselves. On one hand you have something that’s biodegradable and recyclable and produced in a closed loop, but the raw materials wreak havoc on our topsoil. On the other, something that uses next to no water, but that contaminates water supply with toxic runoff. The average consumer, myself included, has relatively limited understanding and limited access to information about how even our most-used products are produced, to say nothing of the impact of that production. This doesn’t mean that we can’t make informed decisions, or that there aren’t some choices that are demonstrably or measurably better than others, but it does mean that there’s not always one perfect habit or one perfect choice. This isn’t a test that requires memorization of the right answer, it’s a test that requires critical thinking and an open mind.

In the face of it, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or cynical. I don’t think we need to throw up our hands and declare the whole project useless, but I do think it’s helpful to know that in seeking sustainability, we’re not always going to get it right. It’s wise to acknowledge that the least detrimental form of consumption is to abstain from consuming altogether, but that abstinence isn’t always possible (and not always pleasurable). I guess most of all, I’m hoping to remember that ultimately we’re in it together. Trying to accumulate gold stars for myself can’t be the strategy when the end goal is a planet that’s still habitable for future generations. It’s collaboration and not competition that will forge a path toward a greener planet. I’m not interested in grandstanding, I’m interested in putting my head down, hopefully with a whole bunch other people, so we can find solutions. When we’re given a test without an answer key, I think the only thing to do is to make one for ourselves, which will mean making mistakes, and learning new things, and changing our minds. Over and over again.

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  • Reply Carol March 19, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    You get a gold star for this

    • Reply Begoña March 19, 2019 at 4:07 pm

      I read hope,thanks

  • Reply Anna March 19, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    Great read;) You might enjoy this week’s podcast ep of Still Processing; Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris. talk with David Wallace-Wells about conspicuous consumption and the at-times fallacy of individual attempts to combat climate change. Distressing of course, but all my hope wasn’t totally lost

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 20, 2019 at 9:04 am

      Thank you! So, so good! Adding the link here so folks can find it: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/podcasts/still-processing-circulars-climate-change.html

      • Reply Maryann March 20, 2019 at 10:18 am

        Thank you for this recommendation! I really enjoyed this podcast. Great perspective.

      • Reply Anna Sathe March 20, 2019 at 12:52 pm

        Great! Glad you enjoyed! Putting a library hold on that book too….
        (unrelated, saying hi as a fellow mom from your son’s school, my son just moved up to T1)

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 20, 2019 at 9:21 pm


  • Reply Erika March 19, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    Thank you for this- it’s so easy to get lost in the minutia when it comes to domestic waste (and then for me just black out when I think of commercial waste). I feel as though it is a psychological change that needs to take place at this point- a lot of people have the tools to live with less, and the means (whether financial or educational) to pass these tools along to others. We have the studies and projections that the earth cannot sustain our current level of consumption, but to cut down on that consumption takes one out of a hypothetical rat race of care for oneself or loved ones- a hypothetical scarcity, when the real scarcity lies in our earth’s minerals and ecosystems.

    I know this is a very basic though- it is not fleshed out, and there are so many factors in people’s lives that may hinder how they want to use/waste less (financial hardship, for example)- but it seems that this has become a generational habit, and part of the key lies in teaching in a way that isn’t about how much trash you produce in a year, but accessible resources (free composting services, etc) that make less waste seem more commonplace.

  • Reply Michelle March 19, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    Following on from my comment on your post yesterday, thank you!

  • Reply Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 March 19, 2019 at 6:04 pm

    Love this. To your IG post comment conversation yesterday, it’s critical for corporations to take the lead and (or) be regulated more. And for our part, sometimes I think one of best things we can do is just buy the thing that serves the need BEST. A polyester jacket worn twenty years MAY be better than twelve cotton ones (or one made of learned, depending on one’s values). Treating too many things as disposable (which, trust me, I’m so cuility of!!) no matter how sustainably made, won’t solve anything.

    There’s a 90s Mtv ad I’ll remember forever that asked “when you throw something away, what does ‘away’ mean?”

    • Reply Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 March 19, 2019 at 6:06 pm

      “cuility”? er, *guilty

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 20, 2019 at 9:28 pm

      Yes! The podcast that Anna included above is so great. Well worth a listen!

  • Reply CathyMA March 20, 2019 at 8:33 am

    My husband and I have been committed to a gentle lifestyle for over a decade., and believe me, we got a lot of eye rolls when we started. Our children don’t know a different way of life. My greatest complaint is our work areas. We both work at hospitals (different ones) and the waste I witness on a daily basis is far from getting a gold star. I have asked about recycling systems, but have been told over and over that it is cost prohibitive. Over the years I have seen more recycling happening, but only a very tip of the iceberg. Local businesses, including hospitals should make it a priority to be considerate to our environment. Raising children this way is a great start. As adults who have always lived this lifestyle, they will be more proactive in protecting out environment.

  • Reply Michela March 20, 2019 at 10:15 am

    This comes just at the right time. I started to use today marseille bar soap to wash dishes instead of liquid soap…and man, it stinks! It stinks like petrol, it stinks like very bad for your health. It is not the nice scent I remember from my childhood. Am I doing the right thing? I don’t know. But I’m trying and learning.
    I agree we need to learn to dispose less, I like the comment on the polyester jacket, mine is 20+ years old and still doing her job, I had to throw away my super cool sustainable cachemire coat after 5 years because it was falling apart..what is best? I guess we know little today but one day we will. Thank you as usual.

  • Reply BRI March 20, 2019 at 10:40 am

    I think this is brave. I know other people that are achievement oriented and how challenging this can be, especially when it comes to complex situations, which many are. I think that the only solution is to give yourself one permanent gold star and then consider the rest to be a gift of service – a star for effort rather than the result alone. Given your efforts, you’ve amassed a fortune of stars.

  • Reply Susan Krzywicki March 20, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    The cycle of consumption is only eased when the cycle of reproduction slows down. And when large systems like cement manufacturing and plastics industry are addressed at a local, national and global level.

    Some of our efforts remain small – that is wonderful. It helps us to educate ourselves and the people around us. It gets us in the groove of thinking about these things…and, if we have enough time left, we can educate larger and larger parts of the human race on what steps must be taken: reduce population growth, fix large-scale systems.

  • Reply Rue March 20, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    Yes! I’m an earth scientist, and I find so much of the discussion about individual action/decision-making infuriating. My training is all about interconnection between different systems. You need water for agriculture, and you divert water from the stream, which changes the ecology of the stream, which changes the chemical makeup of the water, which changes how the stream carves into the bedrock… and on and on.

    All our actions cause reactions. Basic thermodynamics tells us that. I find it absurd when (usually commenters, not blog authors) chastise others for a “wrong” choice. Yes, your Target purchases have a set of impacts. But so does your Patagonia purchase or your purchase of handmade soap from the farmers market.

    We have to find a way to remove the moralistic shaming stuff from the equation. We have to find (and can find!) real solutions, and they’re likely going to look like a mixed bag of a BUNCH of stuff, not like one perfect product/path/life.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 20, 2019 at 9:21 pm

      Yes: all of our actions cause reactions! There’s such fascinating suspension of disbelief with this stuff. (I’m guilty too often, too!)

  • Reply Grace March 20, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the tension between not consuming too much and being creatures who, at a basic biological, are consumers and producers of waste (we eat and we poop). I’m also inclined toward minimal consumption, but I’m never sure how that squares with the fact that literally in order to live, we have to consume and we produce waste (although I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that it doesn’t have to be waste, what with composting toilets and all, and maybe that’s the key).

    I’ll admit that I approach this conversation from the perspective of faith: I believe that God created us as beings that consume food and produce waste, and I also believe that God wants us to care for the earth. I don’t know how to reconcile the two. But I figure that the tension carries over even if God isn’t part of the picture: Why would we evolve into beings that consume if that fit so poorly within the ecosystem we inhabit?

    Any reflections on this?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 20, 2019 at 9:14 pm

      I guess I don’t see this as a tension. All living things produce waste of one kind of another, but that waste doesn’t need to come at the expense of other livings things or the very habitat that sustains us. All signs point to the fact that we’ve surpassed a rate of consumption that’s compatible with our own survival and so if I think about it from the perspective of faith, I guess I’d say that I believe human beings are equipped with reason and the tools to the reverse the damage we’ve wrought. Why evolve to be thoughtful, resourceful, and compassionate beings if not to put those things to use for our own survival?

      • Reply Grace March 20, 2019 at 10:36 pm

        That’s a good point, and I definitely believe that we’re not just consumers, we’re also creators, capable not only of destroying the earth but also of coming up with really ingenious ways to care for it. I guess I heard undertones of no-consumption-is-the-best-policy in your sentence “It’s wise to acknowledge that the least detrimental form of consumption is to abstain from consuming altogether, but that abstinence isn’t always possible (and not always pleasurable).” That makes it sound like we’re pitted against the earth, that consuming in order to live is an act of violence against the earth, even if we can’t help it. I’d like to think that our being creatures that consume actually has a place within the larger ecosystem, that some amount of consumption is not only necessary and natural but somehow even good. I just haven’t figured out how yet 🙂

        • Reply mado March 21, 2019 at 7:38 pm

          Grace, I just finished reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and, while it doesn’t offer solutions for our situation per se, the author does explain various ways that native American cultures developed positive consuming relationships with the land – that is, they consumed in ways that protected and even encouraged plant and animal species reproduction and flourishing. Plus it is just a beautiful book, I really recommend it to anyone.

        • Reply Stephanie Moulton March 31, 2019 at 11:15 am

          Grace, as a Christian who did a MA in Environmental Stewardship (to encourage other people of faith to become better environmental stewards), I want to thank you for being mindful of this but also tell you that all of creation, everything that we consider living in the biological sense, consumes resources and produces waste. This isn’t something we can avoid, but we can be more mindful of the resources we’re consuming and the waste we’re producing and change the way we use our resources to have less of an impact on the earth.

          I tell people that we just need to the best we can with what we have. I’d love to buy organic produce all the time, but I can’t afford it. But if there something I need and the organic choice is a better price than the item produced on factory farms? I choose the organic. If you live in an area with awesome public transportation, use that more than you use your car. Use cloth bags for your grocery shopping instead of paper or plastic. But just do your best with what you’ve been given. That means different things for different people because we don’t all live in the same conditions. I don’t think God wants us to think of ourselves as bad because we MUST consume resources and produce waste just to live, but I think God wants us to also do what we can to limit how much damage we’re doing to the planet when we consume and produce. Plant trees, plant a garden, raise bees, reuse items instead of buying new, eat less meat, and do whatever else you can think of that might help the earth, no matter how small it feels to you. Don’t feel guilt for how you were made or what you can’t do, just do the best with what you’ve been given. 🙂

  • Reply Cristina March 20, 2019 at 9:22 pm

    This is perfect and very noble. I love the last part, putting your head down with everyone else doing the same and working together.

  • Reply Samantha Symon-Rabicoff March 20, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    Love love love this! It’s something I struggle with too, particularly because I am a scientist by training and always question things until I’ve seen “the data” to back them up. I also grew up in a very very liberal community where actions based on what made us feel good and righteous took priority over digging into what the impact ACTUALLY is. It’s so very complicated. I encountered this a lot while working in other countries that are the recipients of aid and volunteers, too often without much consideration for what the locals actually wanted/needed and what would do the most good and least harm. My husband recently introduced me to the book Doing Good Better about the ideas of effective altruism and how to weigh decisions about where to put our efforts in making the world better. Arguably not as satisfying as the small personal steps you share in your blog (its not at all prescriptive in its recommendations), but useful for analytical minds that wish to have a template to use for these decisions. Also, there are often actual research papers that give data on impacts of various sustainability choices if one is up for a little digging.

    • Reply Mo September 2, 2019 at 6:24 pm

      Oh, yes! Altruism can be outright damaging when the wants/needs of the locals (or other people affected) aren’t taken into consideration. It really bugs me that so many people can’t seem to grasp this concept. Take the surplus of donated clothes for example, that actually damages the local clothing industries in many countries rather than helping. This makes me hesitant to donate clothes to organisations where I don’t know what happens with clothes they don’t use in their local shops or organisations.

  • Reply Stephanie March 20, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    The most hopeful thing I read this week was Bill McKibben’s most recent article for the NYRB:

    In a nutshell: the people banks trust to analyze their investment decisions are beginning to argue that further investments in fossil fuels won’t yield returns because of the rapid drops in the costs of renewable energy technology. In investment stops, that will trigger a massive realignment of the global economy away from fossil fuels. Will it happen fast enough? Well, that’s another story, but the fact that it is happening at all is a gleam of hope, and there are a few other bright gleams of possibility he talks about, too.

  • Reply Nancy March 21, 2019 at 12:43 am

    I literally drive myself insane sometimes trying to make “good choices,” and I’ve come to think that maybe trying to staunch the flow, so to speak, is the best we can do in some cases.

  • Reply Kate March 21, 2019 at 8:22 am

    Thank you. This post resonates with me. I have gotten to the point where going to the grocery store makes me feel stressed and guilty. Should I buy this local fruit even though it’s in plastic? Should I get this local milk in a returnable glass bottle or the non-dairy alternative that’s in plastic? Information regarding what consumers should do is confusing. Are we supposed to become vegan or have a zero waste household, or both? Or should we never take an airplane again? All of the above is probably the best answer, but of course the hardest. It would be wonderful for some kind of consumer action plan to be created and approved by a body that can accurately access the best steps for consumers to take. As you imply, governments and companies should be taking more action, but clear guidelines for the rest of us could make a significant impact as well. I am not a scientist, but I’m happy to take part in an effort to try to reach this goal of divising a practical list of steps all of us can take.

    • Reply Kate March 21, 2019 at 1:51 pm

      I’m feeling the need to reply to my own comment (sorry Erin! 🙂 Thanks for providing this space! )– I don’t think it’s wrong to eat meat/dairy, but from what I have read about climate change, it would help if we all significantly cut our consumptuon of it for now. If anyone has any knowledge of the most important things for consumers to change, I’d be grateful to hear it!

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE March 21, 2019 at 3:11 pm

        Yes, I imagine we’ve seen the same studies. And yes, I think cutting meat and dairy or significantly reducing it could only mean good things. And still, I’m not sure it’s productive to put an enormous amount of energy into proselytizing the plant-based (insert any pet environmental concern here) gospel from our armchair pulpits on the internet. I do think there’s at least some kind of hierarchy of actions. Like, perhaps, crusading against non-biodegradable dental floss is not where we should be putting most of our energy, but encouraging a mostly plant-based diet really is. I guess I’m partially exhausted by the sanctimonious lens through which these discussions are so often framed. All of us are implicated and folks living in this country probably most of all. Not, of course, a reason *not* to make smart consumer choices, or to cut back on waste, or fly less, or guzzle fewer fossil fuels–I’m still over here eschewing plastic straws in my iced coffee and eating mostly plants–but I’m bummed out about how discussions so often devolve into tiny particulars that make everything feel insurmountable. I really don’t have perfect answers here, but I still think making the best consumer choice that we possibly can and then working harder to invest resources into folks on the ground with power to change the larger/systemic/regulatory issues has to be where the change really happens.

        • Reply Samantha March 22, 2019 at 8:55 am

          Erin, this is what I appreciate so much about your blog! It’s a collection of “here’s what I’m doing, here’s info and resources about stuff I care about/am motivated to do, maybe they will be useful to you too” without making the reader feel like we have to be doing exactly what you are doing to be honoring the world and our values appropriately. Thanks for making that space.

  • Reply Abby March 21, 2019 at 9:08 am

    Yes yes yes to all of this. It’s so easy to get caught up in the cycle of thinking as individuals, we can discover the “right” choice to reduce environmental impact, if only we do enough research/buy the right things (an irony in itself)/work really hard every day. It can be completely exhausting to think this way. We need to hear more of this, that there isn’t necessarily one right answer, or one gold star. I think this mindset could go a long way towards helping many other people feel as though making environmentally friendly choices is easy and accessible, instead of insurmountable.

  • Reply Nicole Shelby March 22, 2019 at 12:45 am

    This is a great post! I saw a quote the other day along the lines of “the people who caused it will be affected last by climate change.” I have been pondering this, especially in terms of how successful governments and large corporations have been in convincing us that individual behavior can solve this problem. I try to keep that perspective at all times – I want to make ethical, sustainable choices, but ultimately we are at the mercy of the same power structures that got us into this mess in the first place. Until we can change that fact, it doesn’t matter how many canvas totes we take to the farmers’ market.

  • Reply Katie March 22, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    Thank you for this. It is soo easy to become overwhelmed when it comes to making sustainable choices and just give up. I’m in the process of renovating a house and and I have personally spent so much time analyzing and overanalyzing every purchase I make for the house to the point where I often don’t buy something that we actually need and that in itself is not a sustainable solution. You are right 🙂 we are all in this together and it’s not a black or white situation. Every small choice and habit shift helps 🙂

  • Reply Alexandra March 24, 2019 at 11:34 am

    Beautifully written and well said! I’m with you.

  • Reply Laura March 31, 2019 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks for the post! Maybe another way could be to reframe your internal story – saving the environment isn’t about getting gold stars (external validation) but you do it for your conscious, and your kids, or -. And so you just do the best you can do. It’s not a religion, so it’s not about guilt, but creating a safe and pleasant environment for every one.
    And doing your best – I have this feeling that because the threat is so huge – ecosystem collapse, climate collaps, plastics.. – we tend to focuse on small doable things. And that’s great , we need to live according to our values. . But we need big solutions, and political sultions, and if our mental energy is wasted on choosing the correct dishsoap – that will not save us. We need both. And we need to act now.
    One example:

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 1, 2019 at 3:46 pm

      Yes, agreed! The reason I wrote the post, really!


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