Sundee Kuechle is trying to tread lightly on this planet, for the sake of her four children, and for all children. But when her husband was laid off last year, the stay-at-home mom did turn a lighter shade of green.
"To save money, we pared down on organic foods, and we stopped subscribing to a CSA (community-supported agriculture)," said the 32-year-old St. Louis Park woman.
Is the recession fading the green movement? It depends on your definition of "green." For some people, green means switching to super-efficient appliances, buying hybrid cars and investing in other eco-friendly products. If you're worried about still having a job in six months, you're not likely to purchase solar panels for your home, or even shop at the more expensive, all-natural grocery store. Nationally, for example, sales of hybrid cars are down significantly from last year at this time. (That could also be due to lower gas prices.)
"I think there's a big gulf between wanting and being," said Michael Solomon, a professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia who studies consumer behavior and the marketplace. "It's not that people don't want to do it anymore, but priorities are changing. The bottom line is, if you're worried about cutting costs, and you perceive - rightly or wrongly - that green is more expensive, you might put it on hold."
But, for others, the green way of living - think reduce, reuse and recycle - is really just about being frugal and is perfect for these tough times. The thriving do-it-yourself market is one way consumers are staying green, such as "recession gardens," in which people are growing their own tomatoes, cucumbers and other veggies.
"People are turning back the clock and returning to the basics," said Ryan North, of Twin Cities Green, an eco-friendly home and life store in Uptown. "We're doing a few things our grandma and grandpa used to do, like capture rainwater and use a pushmower instead of a gas-powered motor, or composting food scraps. These things that were the norm 50 or 60 years ago are coming back into vogue. And it's not just because it's cool, but because it's serving a larger purpose."
That's why the eighth annual Living Green Expo, May 2-3 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, will feature more do-it-yourself workshops than ever, such as "Seed Saving from Your Own Garden," "Home Canning and Freezing" and "Composting 101."
If the increasingly popular expo is any indication of the Twin Cities' green barometer, we're not exactly setting aside the idea of sustainable living just because our 401(k)s are down.
"In the fall, we were worried about what kinds of numbers would turn out for exhibitors. We thought we might come up short, but we have 25 to 30 more than last year; we're over 270 now," said Jeff Stuhr, event manager. "There's a waiting list to get in, and I still get calls every day from people who want to exhibit."
The expo, a project of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is a free event that has become an "institution" in Minnesota's green movement, showcasing environmentally friendly products, services and activities of Minnesota businesses and organizations. Last year's attendance topped 25,000.
"I still think people are looking at ways to live differently," Stuhr said. "They've seen how the way things have been done are affecting the environment. They've seen reports like how drywall made in China is making people sick. They've seen the stories about harmful plastics and lead in toys."
The Land Stewardship Project - an expo exhibitor that also organizes the Community Food and Farm Festival at the event - doesn't see any slowdown in CSA subscriptions, in which consumers get a weekly allotment of sustainably grown produce during the growing season. The agriculture organization keeps track of the industry locally with its annual directory of CSA farms that deliver to the Twin Cities.
"The past year or so has been a real difficult time economically, so we were curious if the growth of CSAs would continue, because writing a check for the season is different than going to the grocery store every week," said Brian DeVore, the organization's communications coordinator.
So far, so good.
"Last year, we had 33 farms listed in the directory, and this year, we had 43, so the number of farms grew quite a bit, partially in response to last year, when farms filled up so quickly with subscribers - there's a pretty big demand there," DeVore said. "So far this year, 12 farms are now sold out, which is the earliest I ever remember this many farms sold out."
The Organic Trade Association, whose 1,700 members sell food, fiber and textiles and personal-care products, also reports some promising numbers regarding the continued growth of organic products.
"We just found out we had a 17.1 percent growth rate in 2008, which is just amazing, particularly with what was going on in the fourth quarter, when the world was really starting to feel the recession," said Christine Bushway, executive director of the association.
Although that growth rate is down from the typical 22 percent to 23 percent the industry has enjoyed in recent years, it's still impressive in such difficult times, Bushway said.
"At this point, when a lot of industries are feeling good about being flat, we were thrilled to see that number, frankly," Bushway said. "What that tells us is our core buyers, which is shoppers with families, they might be cutting back on expenses like eating out, but they are still hanging in there with organic purchases. I think it's people who are really committed; it's a whole kind of way of life and when they're buying organic, they're supporting their belief system."
Now that Kuechle's husband is back at work, the St. Louis Park mom is back to supporting her belief system in a dark green fashion.
"We're actually members of Traditional Foods of Minnesota, a buying club, now," Kuechle said. "I can buy locally produced and organic products like eggs, milk, meat, cheese, soaps, honey and lip balm. I just feel better when I shop there. Regardless of the recession, I'm still trying to phase out all things that aren't green, like replacing my light bulbs with compact fluorescents, because, for me, it's worth the money for my family's health and well-being, and for the rest of the planet."
Going Green Goes Frugal: The Recession Changes the Eco-Friendly Movement
By Molly Millett
The Pioneer Press, April 18, 2009
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