In my last post I observed that a shifting cultural perception of material reuse is driving more sustainable consumer behavior. On a related note, cultural perceptions of hygiene protocol also affect human behavior and have important sustainability implications. Hygiene etiquette has changed dramatically in recent decades along with consumer behavior that favors few-use, disposable items. This behavioral shift has benefited the manufacturers of those disposable goods while increasing our society’s environmental impact. So, are manufacturers driving or responding to this cultural departure from multi-use durable goods?
Shortly after returning to the U.S. with our returned Peace Corps Volunteer budget and mentality (read: broke), my wife and I purchased a cheap set of pots and pans from Sear’s. In the two years that we’ve owned them the performance of this cookware’s been lacking and they’ve already begun to show their wear, prompting us to recently invest in our first cast-iron skillet. While time will tell just how durable and effective of a skillet it is, the reviews for Kentucky-manufactured Lodge cookware on Amazon are incredible and the skillet we purchased was the top seller in its category.
Curiously enough, I don’t know many people that use cast-iron cookware much and I would attribute this to people not knowing much about its unique maintenance considerations. In contrast to the ubiquitous non-stick coated cookware, cast-iron’s performance is dependent on a “seasoning” that builds up over time and is eliminated with soap. In my view, our modern germaphobic culture is less likely to embrace this soapless cookware habit despite the fact that high-heat cooking is known to kill germs. My perception of previous generations is such that this wouldn’t be an issue with them—I don’t see granddad having any problem with cast-iron cooking.
In a similar way granddads seem to be the only people I notice routinely using handkerchiefs. While younger generations’ eschewing of this simple but effective habit has benefited Kleenex, it doesn’t do the environment any favors. Are there practical health benefits to using Kleenex over handkerchiefs? As Brett and Kate McKay point out, not really so long as a handkerchief is only used by one person and washed each day.
Brett and Kate are champions of several old-fashioned habits, many of which have positive environmental implications. In one of their blog posts they implore men to “shave like your grandpa.” The use of a beautiful old double-edge razor (or for the truly brave, the straight razor) cuts way back on the consumption of disposable razors and their multi-blade cartridges that seem to become outdated with increasing frequency. Replacing aerosol shaving creams with natural soaps has its own eco-merit.
So, what do Granddad’s Clothes and Granddad’s Habits have to do with the Carbon Efficient City? Regarding the book, very little, since it intentionally and wisely avoids much discussion of cultural reform. After all, public policies aimed at influencing culture are frequently lambasted as social-engineering and fail as a result. But regarding the development of a more sustainable society, culture is inextricably linked to consumption and the economy, and so cultural change inevitably must be part of the solution. What actors are best poised to lead cultural reform–Macklemore? Perhaps, but my feeling is that this is a very complicated question deserving of its own book.