As it turns out, helping to change the world isn't that hard. It begins with one simple decision -- to unplug a charger, to trade paper napkins for cloth. These small acts become habits that create a chain reaction. As they gain momentum, soon you're not doing just one thing; you're revolutionizing your life in a way that can, in fact, save the planet.
The days of environmentalism as a fringe cause are long gone. It's everyone's responsibility. "It's more important than ever to do all that we can right now," says Martha Stewart, whose embrace of Body+Soul three years ago reflects her own ongoing commitment to sustainable living. "I recycle, compost, use long-lasting light bulbs. And I encourage everyone to take baby steps. Imagine what kind of world we'd have if we each did just one little good thing as often as we could. We could really make a difference."
Download our Going Green Checklist to post in your kitchen, office, or anywhere.
Turn Off the Lights
As the former vice president and the man behind the compelling documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore is one of the most influential leaders of the green movement. Yet his advice sounds surprisingly like something Dad used to say, usually right around bill time. "Go through your house every single day and turn off any lights you're not using," he states. "That's a big way to save energy." In fact, two-thirds of all the electricity used in the residential sector of the United States powers lights and appliances. Considering that electricity production generates more than 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, a simple flick of the switch seems as good a place to start as any.
Stop Idling in Your Car
As environmental activist Laurie David, a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," will attest, an idling car is a complete waste of energy. In fact, she says, 10 percent of all our fuel is wasted on idling. "Parents leave their cars running for 2 to 20 minutes while waiting for their kids -- and many don't realize they're wasting gas and adding CO2 to the atmosphere," says David. She worked with her children's school to create a "no-idle" zone and suggests that others establish similar areas at their schools, churches, and temples. "If you turn off your car in one place, chances are you'll do it in another. You can start a no-idle revolution."
Thanks to the designer-water trend, Americans pay up to 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than for regular tap. "Maybe we've given in to the hype that it comes from pristine springs and lakes," muses Wendy Gordon, 50, publisher of "The Green Guide," a bimonthly newsletter that provides eco-savvy info on food, clothing, and more. "But sometimes it's just bottled tap water." Aquafina, for instance, contains water from 16 different municipal water supplies, Gordon explains, "including ones in Detroit, Fresno, and other cities. So why not bring your own?" Gordon chooses to sip from her favorite reusable bottle, a sleek stainless-steel container from Klean Kanteen ($13.50, greenfeet.com). "My bottled water habit is one I am determined to break," she says.
Buy Shade-Grown Coffee
Every time we make a purchase, we're confronted with a choice: protect the environment or contribute to its destruction. It all starts with the morning pick-me-up. "If the coffee you drink was grown on clear-cut land, you're contributing to deforestation," says Chris Flavin, 51, of the Worldwatch Institute, an independent environmental research organization. Most commercial coffee beans fall into this category, requiring greater use of pesticides and fertilizers. Beans grown under the rain-forest canopy, on the other hand, preserve trees and, thanks to pest-eating insects and birds, need fewer pesticides. As it turns out, making the right decision is often more convenient than you'd expect. You'll find shade-grown beans at the grocery store or the nearest Starbucks.
Spread the Word
It's true: Governments and big businesses do have enormous power to make decisions that affect the environment. But never underestimate the tremendous potential of one voice. "Talking with your family and friends about the environment is one of the more effective ways to raise national consciousness, and it's something everyone can do," says L. Hunter Lovins, 57, founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, a nonprofit that educates communities, companies, and countries on issues of sustainability. "After all, people tend to listen more to those they know than to experts and news media." Sharing your concerns sparks communication -- and reminds us that we're all in this effort together. (Plus, you never know when you might speak with someone who's in a position to make a decision with wide-ranging impact.)
Seal Up Your House
What's the easiest way to increase your home's energy efficiency? Plug up those holes, says Kim Master, 30, who coauthored a book on sustainable home design, "Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time." "Energy conservation isn't just about putting up solar panels," she says. "You can do so many little things that make a huge difference." Apply weather stripping to windows and doors and caulk other leaky spots. They might not seem like much, but a 1/8-inch gap along the threshold of the front door is like having a 2-inch hole in the middle of the wall. Home sealing can also drastically reduce your energy bill -- even by 10 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Buy Recycled TP
Believe it or not, recycled toilet paper can change the world. "If every household in the U.S. bought just one four-pack of 260-sheet recycled bath tissue, it would eliminate 60,600 pounds of chlorine pollution, preserve 356 million gallons of fresh water, and save 988,000 trees," says Jeffrey Hollender, 52, whose company, Seventh Generation, offers a range of environmentally conscious consumer goods. Using recycled paper products saves manufacturers a trip into the forest and doesn't require the energy needed to extract pulp from trees. Plus, a four-pack of the recycled kind costs about the same as conventional. You can effect change, Hollender insists, "one roll of toilet paper at a time."
Use Clean Energy
"The time is now to make changes," insists Edward Norton, the 37-year-old actor and founder of the BP Solar Neighbors Program, a partnership between the Enterprise Foundation and BP, an alternative energy supplier that works to help low-income families use solar power to reduce their utility costs. By having solar panels installed on your home, he says, "you help the environment and save money." BP can set you up with solar power in California, New York, and New Jersey (visit bp.com). If you're not ready to commit to solar, however, you can still offset your current energy use by supporting clean energy programs. Find out how at smartpower.org.
Use Greener Cleaners
As many as a third of Americans have an adverse reaction to common household chemicals. Annie B. Bond, 54, was one of them. The author of "Better Basics for the Home," she became a leading advocate of natural home-care products after an exterminator visit to her apartment building landed her in the hospital with chemical poisoning. In her online newsletter she provides recipes for natural alternatives (care2.com/healthyliving). "The environment isn't 'out there,'" she says. "It's inside you." Safer products can save you money, too. While furniture polish will set you back about $4, cleaning with 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar and a few drops of olive oil costs mere cents.
If you can't avoid driving to work every day, you can at least offset the damage. Carsten Henningsen, 46, chairman of Portfolio 21, a global equity mutual fund that invests in environmentally progressive companies, does it by buying offsets for the carbon dioxide he contributes annually to the atmosphere. You can, too. Go to carboncounter.org and calculate how many tons of CO2 your household emits each year (factors include the size of your house, utility bills, and type of car), and then donate to an organization that works to reduce carbon emissions, such as climatetrust.org or carbonfund.org. (Henningsen suggests giving $12 for every ton.) "By donating based on how much CO2 you contribute," he says, "you become more conscious of what you consume."
Eat More Veggies
What's good for the planet is good for you, too. That's why Frances Moore Lappe, 63, author of "Diet for a Small Planet," champions a vegetarian diet. "Eating low on the food chain is one of my core lifestyle choices," she says. While a meat-centered diet deepens our ecological footprint and contributes to pollution, a plant-centered diet requires fewer resources and supports long-term health. Research shows that vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer. You don't have to go completely veggie to reap the benefits; try gradually shifting the emphasis of your meals from animal-based proteins to plant-based ones like soy foods and beans.
Pass on the Paper Towels
No matter how you look at it, paper towels create waste -- even if you stick to recycled brands. "You use them once and throw them away. Most end up in landfills," notes Danny Seo, 30, green-living guru and author of the "Simply Green" series. In his house you'll find only reusable microfiber towels, which grip dirt and dust like a magnet and don't let go, even when wet. Paper towels, he says, "just push dirt and bacteria around." When you're finished toss the towels in the wash and reuse. (You can find Seo's favorite brand, Method, at Target and Office Depot.) "Next time you wipe your counter or clean a mirror with a reusable microfiber towel," he says, "you can think of the trees you're saving."
Find New Uses for Old Things
Reduce, reuse, recycle. We hear this credo all the time but often limit its practice to cans, bottles, and newspapers. Rick Fedrizzi, 52, founding chairman of the U.S Green Building Council, wants us to expand its application. "There's this pervasive mentality that everything's disposable. But we should be reusing things or finding ways to let others reuse them." Many retailers, such as Radio Shack and Best Buy, provide in-store drop-off bins for recycling cell phones, while items such as clothing, toys, and computers are "things that small nonprofits, shelters, and rescue missions would love to have." (Visit goodwill.com and sharetechnology.org.) Through donations you not only relieve pressure on landfills, you contribute directly to your community.
Vote for Change
As a former employee of an oil refinery in Louisiana, Jerome Ringo, 51, witnessed firsthand the pollution caused by factory emissions. Having to evacuate his home during Hurricane Rita underscored the very real consequences of global warming and the kind of weather it can create. Now chairman of the board at the National Wildlife Federation (the first African-American to head a major national conservation organization), he believes we each hold responsibility for environmental stewardship, regardless of income, ethnic background, or education. This includes choosing the right leaders. "One of the greatest things we can do to support energy issues is to vote," he explains. Find candidates who share your stance on important issues, and elect them to office.
Get on the List
If there's one thing you can do right now, says actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, 32, it's call your mayor. "Tell your mayor that you care about global warming," he urges. DiCaprio supports the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement initiated by Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle. Signed by more than 375 mayors from 50 states, it's a pledge to meet or exceed the Kyoto Protocol's emissions-reduction goals. "Make sure your city is on that list." (Visit seattle.gov/mayor/climate.) DiCaprio is currently working on "11th Hour," an environmental documentary due out this year. The film, produced by Tree Media and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, will feature eco-insights from more than 60 experts, including Stephen Hawking, Ph.D., Kenny Ausubel, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
You won't find any bags of store-bought, chemically tainted topsoil at Nell Newman's cottage home in Santa Cruz, California. The president of Newman's Own Organics (that's her next to "Pa" Newman on the label of Ginger-O's cookies) saves nearly every kitchen leftover for her compost, including coffee grinds, eggshells, and even paper bags. Not only does composting cut down on trash, explains Newman, 48, it "encourages you to grow more, and that's always beneficial to the environment. "If you don't have a garden, use your mixture for container plants. "You can grow all kinds of healthy things in pots," Newman insists. This readily available source for natural soil doesn't cost a dime. To learn how, visit epa.gov/compost.
From the production of petroleum-based fertilizers to the cross-country distribution of seasonal fruits and vegetables, the modern food system accounts for 10 percent of U.S. energy consumption. And yet as Michael Pollan, 52, points out, "We have at least 30 million acres of front lawn sitting around doing nothing for anybody." The best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" suggests converting this abundant, idle land into a personal produce section. "If you take a 6- by 6-foot piece of your lawn and turn it into a garden, you'll be amazed at how much food you can get out of it." You'll not only save money; you'll be eating vegetables at the peak of their nutritional value.
Spend More Time Outdoors
Environmental stewardship is grounded in love, rather than anger, says John Passacantando, 45, executive director of Greenpeace USA and nature's ultimate ambassador. "If you find yourself spending less time outdoors, go back quietly and listen," he says. "What you hear will make you act." Choose an activity, such as hiking or gardening, or revisit your favorite outdoor spot. Passacantando favors the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., which he frequently visits on his way to work at night to view the amazing sunsets; he also goes to the river on his days off to kayak with his wife and two daughters. Once you find the place that motivates you, spend time there regularly. Let it remind you of what's at stake.
Take the Bus (or Train)
Adam Lowry, 32, is a chemical engineer who has helped the environment by creating Method Home, a maker of chic, nontoxic household cleaners. But he also helps out with daily "ecoadventures" -- another name for taking the bus, train, or subway. By doing likewise you help minimize your impact on the planet. Of course, even Lowry, Method's "chief greenskeeper," sometimes drives, and to offset the consequent emissions he pays for clean energy projects through TerraPass (terrapass.com). "It's a great near-term solution," he says, "but it's guilt management." To create lasting change, Lowry suggests getting involved with urban forestry projects, which use strategic tree planting to help provide climate control, prevent soil erosion, improve air quality, increase property values, and elevate the quality of life (communitytrees.org).
Think Big Picture
"When millions upon millions unplug charging devices, recycle all they can, and shop locally, the benefits add up," says Robert Redford, 69, actor, director, and founder of the Sundance Institute. He suggests joining an environmental organization such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (nrdc.org) or the League of Conservation Voters (lcv.org). By uniting people behind campaigns for clean energy, wildlife conservation, and toxic-waste cleanup, these groups hold critical sway over national policy. For Redford, thinking big isn't just about numbers, however; it shapes his personal philosophy. "It's always important to look at the big picture -- the global picture -- and see how it relates to your life," he says. "But it's more important to look at how it relates to the lives of generations to come."