I don't know her real name, so we'll call her Melissa. Her story was told to me last week by a reader. Melissa is a schoolgirl living near Houston.

Melissa attends a summer program for kids. During the afternoon, she gets a free meal and makes craft projects centered around lessons of recycling and reuse. But she spends her evenings at home in the family bathroom, hiding from the Texas heat. There's no air conditioning at Melissa's house, just a block of ice and a fan set up by the bathtub. It's boring in the bathroom, but it's cooler.

Melissa's parents probably don't give much thought to global warming; they worry whether the house will be cool enough at night for everyone to sleep. The family isn't concerned about summertime power bills driving up their carbon footprint. Instead, they'll just try to keep the light bill paid. And they certainly won't fret about whether Melissa's back-to-school supplies are eco-friendly. Sending her to class with the basics will be challenging enough.

Times, they're hard

This Houston family is struggling more than many, but they're not far across the tracks from Middle America. Perhaps you're also experiencing the pinch of a troubled economy. People are being put out of their homes. Unemployment is flirting with double digits, one in three Americans under the age of 65 lives without health insurance, and official metrics fail to measure the real misery index being felt both in the United States and overseas.

With such pressure being brought to bear on household budgets, you'd think consumers would think twice about spending extra for more environmentally friendly products. That's not the case — if what people tell survey companies is to be taken seriously.

In survey after survey, buyers continue to say they're willing to pay a premium from greener goods. While some green business experts — Joel Makower, for one — wonder if these rosy reports more accurately reflect consumer ideals than actual practice, there's no disputing the widespread sentiment for healthier, greener products. Or the higher price you'll pay for the privilege.

Spending our way to sustainability

You don't have to look far to find the engine of all this eco-product enthusiasm. First, people are genuinely concerned about the environment. They appreciate the fact that the world is at a tipping point, and the way we live has to change. They're motivated by the desire to improve their lives, and society as a whole.

But the old ways die hard. Conscious consumerism is still consumerism, whether or not it bears a green label. There remains the persistent conviction that if we just buy the right things, we can shop our way to a more sustainable planet.

Eco-themed websites and publications increasingly read like product catalogues, regurgitating press releases from marketing firms eager to cash in on Green. Madison Avenue has done a good job creating an idealized image of the green consumer: driving a shiny new new eco car, wearing luxurious eco fashions, and sipping $4 Fair Trade soy lattes while prowling the aisles of their local whole foods supermarket.

It's not what you buy

Greener products are a great thing, and they'll become less expensive with availability. But for many, their desirability is tempered by the reality of family economics. The fact also remains that it's not what you buy that makes you green, but what you don't. Hybrid autos are a good green choice, but so is dusting off that bicycle and driving less. Eco fashion is terrific, but so is learning to repair old clothing or buying secondhand.

In a broad society, we're all stepping onto the green path in different places. Every step counts, big or small — the idea is to keep everyone moving. Take the topic of school supplies, for instance. If you accuse someone of being "less green" for choosing a school notebook with some recycled content over one that's more robustly sustainable, you're likely to push them off the path entirely. That's unproductive.

What is productive is reducing consumption. It's a common-sense strategy that everyone can afford, in good times and bad. It's our mission, where living cheap is the new green. And if this is the path you find yourself walking, we hope you'll share with us your daily challenges and victories.

Don't feel guilty for not being able to afford green products
It's not what you buy that makes you green, but what you don't.