Haute green couture. Eco-mansions. Green gadgetry. Green retail marketing was incredibly hot just a few years ago, but it really doesn't make sense. Overpriced luxury goods posing as green consumer products aren't serving the environment or our budgets. Nor is the inevitable backlash from shoppers jaded by dicey environmental claims and premium pricing.

There's nothing like an economic downturn to focus your priorities. For most people, the sharp reality of recent tougher times bumps posh items such as $5 chocolate bars and $1,000 organic bedding sets right off the green radar. That's not necessarily a bad thing. While we all have a responsibility to make wise purchasing decisions, the idea that we can shop ourselves to a greener society is a lot like thinking we can lose weight by piling on the calories.

Green meets frugal

Economies are cyclical, and we suddenly find ourselves on the skinny side of an impressive — though ultimately unsustainable — period of growth. This has left even comparatively well-to-do families with difficult lifestyle decisions, including ways to stretch a paycheck. Some have been quick to proclaim the bursting of a green bubble.

This is, of course, not the case. The recent economic downturn is simply forcing us to confront a basic fact: A greener world won't come through eco-getaways, environmentally friendly products or clever marketing. It will come through reducing consumption.

Leaner is greener. Complex global issues won't be solved entirely through personal action. Each of us has a pocketbook stake in the development of an economy which goes lighter on the planet's limited natural resources and our household budgets.

Where to start?

If you're reading this, you may already be well down the path of rethinking how you live, what you spend and what you really want out of life. But if you're just getting started, a good place to begin is with a family meeting — even if it's just you, a notepad and a cup of coffee.

We've outlined five areas for you to think about as your evaluate your priorities. So jump right in!

young couple cooking

Photo: Jean-Philippe WALLET/Shutterstock

1. Cut back at home. Food and shelter probably represent the lion's share of your budget and use of resources. They are also your most essential expenditures. Start with a basic question: Are you in too much home? There's a direct relationship between your environmental footprint, monthly budget and the square footage of your living space. The point is probably moot for homeowners struggling to make a mortgage with property values in the tank. But if you happen to be renting, could you do with less? Take a hard look at the money you spend on food. Like most people, you're probably too dependent on eating out and convenient prepared foods from the grocery. Relearning the gentle art of meal planning and cooking at home is the fast track to saving money and healthier nutrition.

2. Reduce the amount of energy you use. Here's more low-hanging fruit as you trim your monthly expenses. Our site is stuffed with energy-saving ideas, and there's plenty more available from your power company and other websites. The obvious things include eliminating unnecessary lighting (particularly outdoors); refitting with CFL bulbs; installing water-saving shower heads and giving your water heater the once-over; and sealing energy-robbing leaks around doors and windows.

man bicycling to work

Photo: Dragon Images/Shutterstock

3.Trim your transportation. Thanks to the economic slowdown and reduced demand, gasoline prices have cooled off sharply since last summer. We're seeing some of the lowest prices in four years. Seasonal increases should start kicking in around March. In the meantime, you can save a few dollars and reduce your overall footprint by leaving the car in the driveway whenever possible. If you're not already familiar with your community's public transportation, find a bus or train schedule and see how mass transit might fit into your weekly routine. Better yet, start walking or cycling your short errands. Bicycles are much cheaper to operate per mile than automobiles, and the health benefits of regular light exercise will save you money in the long term, too.

4. Ditch the disposables. The word disposable in a product description should be a red flag. Paper plates, plastic knives and forks, disposable pens, paper towels, throw-away food storage containers — opt for reusable items, instead. This will take some thought and discipline on your part, but giving up a little convenience can save hundreds of dollars a year. While you're at it, try to buy in bulk (as storage allows) and reduce the amount of packaging in your waste stream. Now that reduced demand has kicked the bottom out of the recycling sector, you'll also be doing your local sanitation department a favor.

herb window garden

Photo: Carlos Amarillo/Shutterstock

5. Grow some food. During the Second World War, about 45 percent of all vegetables consumed at home came from victory gardens. It's time to revive this practice. Not only will you save money, you'll reduce the energy expended to bring food to the table. Obviously, not everyone is in a position to start a few rows of beans and tomatoes in the back yard. But consider at least growing your own herbs or a few small vines in pots and window boxes. Your community may also have a few shared urban gardens. The folks at local plant nurseries will know.

6. Talk, share and communicate. Perhaps the best thing you can do is talk to others. We've spent decades becoming a society of isolated consumers, slowly forgetting the skills which got previous generations through tough times. Do you know how to sew? Teach someone else. Cooking from scratch — not just warming up something frozen from the store — has been lost on the microwave generation. If you need a refresher, locate a cooking class or start helping an old hand in the kitchen. Learn to fix things: Your local community college probably offers carpentry courses, and home improvement stores frequently host weekend classes on all kinds of useful skills.

Ask questions and share what you know with others. Together, we'll get by. And we'll help build greener and more sustainable communities for the future.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2009

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