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Business Advisor

What’s Vegetarian Got to Do With It?

Selling organic, selling green

My wife’s a raw vegan (vegetarian plus no dairy, plus no cooked food). She is committed to her diet for, well, dietary reasons. In green building terms, she’s like an extreme NZE (net zero energy) home builder! Not for everybody, but you have to admire the commitment!

Me? I’m “only” a locavore, organic vegetarian. You know, no animals of any kind. Most of my food comes from within a 50-mile radius of my home and is organic—no chemicals or pesticides. In building terms, I’m less like an NZE builder and more like a HERS 30 builder. My reasons for eating as I do are both dietary and environmental. Green building translation: My diet choice is based on my concerns for my own health as well as my concerns for the environmental impact of eating corporately grown meat, fish, and fowl.

Ever watch “Super Size Me” or “Food Inc.” on Netflix? If so, you know the environmental impacts of multi-national cattle, poultry, and fish farms are not insignificant. In fact, they are some of the largest land and water polluters in the country. Now, what does this have to do with green building? I hope the dots are easily connected, but in the event they are not, let me explain.

We all know many consumers are focused on the bling they can get in a house—the counters and tile, the big windows and tall ceilings, the imported stone and stamped concrete. Many builders bemoan the fact that they can’t get their buyers to scratch the surface of good building science and think about a tighter envelope, better insulation, radiant barriers, and good caulking. Some still encounter buyers who, when presented with the benefits of a better-built green home, still think it has to come at the expense of the bling. And this being America, some want it all. These select consumers want high performance under the hood and the look of show car all in one package. And why not? I do, too!

When it comes to my diet, I get them both. Good healthy food, free of nasty chemicals. Most of it is all locally grown, so I do not have a big carbon footprint related to the transportation of my food. When it comes to home building, we strive to do the same and to find clients who value what we build.

The last person I am going to convert to vegetarianism is my gregarious, meat-eating business partner. Actually, I’m not trying to convert anybody to my diet. But every now and then someone stops me and asks about my diet. Not just superficial questions but deeper questions, with follow-up. You know the look-you-in-the-eye and hold-their-breath-waiting-for-your-response type questions? And lo and behold, that someone starts taking steps to change his diet. Some people may cut back on their obsolete diet a bit at a time; some change it all at once. Some just go organic and keep the animals in their diet. Others keep the content the same, but they start buying local. But each finds a path that is a little healthier and usually has a little lighter impact on the planet.

In home building, I’m not trying to convert anybody either (well, maybe just a little). But actually most folks are ignorant (not stupid), and they just do not know there are better alternatives to buying an obsolete home, new or used. If we can engage them with facts, science, sincerity, integrity, and enthusiasm, we can get their attention and convert them maybe just a little after all. NZE? I doubt it. But HERS 60 or better should be an easy sell. Once they learn a greener home is a better-built home and it does NOT have to cost more, you watch how quickly they start moving up the green pyramid!

11 Comments

  1. J Chesnut | | #1

    origins and impacts
    Michael,
    I am grateful for your and your wife's compassionate approach to your diets.

    I hope the our web forum learns some important lessons about the building product industry from the shift by many back to an organic diet. The dots connect at understanding the origins of things, how they affect communities, land practices and keeping the air and water clean.

    The advise presented on this website is primarily about strategies for energy efficient envelopes. As important as this is it ignores the other side of the equation - material impacts. We largely do not know where materials come from, how communities are impacted by the products we use, and how the building products industries impacts and the land, air and water.

    A movie Building Inc. would be quite enlightening. I hope GBA will move towards helping us be less ignorant on these issues.

  2. mike eliason | | #2

    omnivore's advocate
    to play omnivore's advocate... there are some health risks associated w/ vegan diets (omega-3 deficiencies, specifically DHA) - so are there supplements? and if so, what is the carbon footprint of the supplements?

  3. J Chesnut | | #3

    carbon footprint and a vegetarian diet
    Here is Matthieu Ricard's (a Tibetan monk of French origin who has close contacts with the scientific community) response to the question, "what do you think is the most important ecological step we can take?"

    We should not live off the death of sentient beings who ask only to remain alive. Although this is not the main reason for my being vegetarian since 40 years, we should not forget that to “produce” one kilo of meat, 15 kg of food are needed, which could be used to feed more people. In addition, it is estimated that the raising of livestock used for our consumption contributes to more than 18% of global warming, i.e., the same level as cars.

    http://www.matthieuricard.org/en/index.php/blog/125questionnaire_de_proust_revu_et_corrige_3/

  4. Michael Strong, LEED Associate, CGP | | #4

    Omnivores & Building Inc.
    I love the Building Inc. film idea J. Big "bad" corporate builders vs. green tree-hugging custom builders! Wow, now that would get some folks attention! But in all seriousness, I think it is a great idea that has merit. We can build better than we have been building and we have got to get more of the production builders on board-they have much greater capacity to change the market than all the custom builders combined. Look at Wal Marts announcement this past week about reducing the sugar and salt content in it's product line. That will have a more postive effect on more peoples diets than every farmers in America possibly can. Is it enough? No, I do not think so but they still deserve credit and its still more right steps in the right direction about give consumers healthier, more affordable choices in their food purchases.

    As for the omnivore advocate, I will let qualified nutritionists take up Mike's point but believe whether vegetarian or not, easting organically, locally grown food (fish, fowl and beef included), is a healthier diet for most of us. Same goes for building homes. Regardless of the shade of green a consumer wants or can afford, most consumers will be more comfartable, pay less for their energy, etc, etc... if they buy a green home certified by an independent, qualified third party.

  5. mike eliason | | #5

    lucky for you i already
    lucky for you i already checked with a qualified registered dietitian (my wife).

    DHA is only available from fish/shellfish. it's necessary for brain development of infants. it can be obtained from microalgae - but it's not 'vegan' and is a commercially produced (not local) product.

    also, this is a misconception floated by lots of folks - there is no correlation between local and organic w/ better nutrition/health. organic is a purchased label, and there are several farms producing to organic standards (or better) - that can't afford to purchase the label. the argument for local is that it is fresher - but imported foods frozen at their peak can be just as fresh and equal or more nutrients.

    local tends to have better taste, better freshness and a better CO2 footprint. and the mere fact we can discuss this shows how fortunate we really are in this country.

  6. Edward J. Palma | | #6

    Michael, excellent article
    Michael, excellent article connecting the different facets of sustainable living while defining some of the obstacles that we all face. Not everyone can be vegan or vegetarian. In contrast though everyone does have the opportunity to buy locally grown and raised meats and vegetables. Here in New England many of the supermarkets are carrying organic meats dairy and vegetables which are from farms in the northeast. During the growing season we have a bounty of local organic growers and organic fed meats to choose from. I personally am an omnivore that eats mostly fish and vegetables,occasionally chicken. No red meat or pork.
    Everybody also has the opportunity to choose a green home over and energy guzzler. The main problem is the love of bling. Size, glitz,and custom materials are the consumer definition of bling in the housing market. Green homes tend to be smaller, a basic point of the philosophy. As we all know most of the land in the past 40 years has been usurped by mass market builders who churned out energy guzzling monsters by the hundreds. Most consumers believe that bigger is better, and chose the inefficient houses as conspicuous display of wealth. Much of the ignorance that you refer to is connected to this attitude. When we change the attitude we will change the efficiency of our building stock and in turn our planet. Ignorance can be changed through proper communication and support which is what we as builders are doing. Once the larger mass builders get on board the change will have a far greater impact. Big Agriculture, and Big Oil, Coal and Gas have some powerfully influential lobbyists also, as do the pesticide manufacturers and most of the corporate polluters. The quest for massive profits takes priority over peoples health and well being, and the health of our planet. Lobbyists control political parties and individuals, so a great change in our political/economic structure has to take place. Government needs to enforce mandates that directly impact "business as usual" and support efficiency in commercial and residential building practices, clean renewable technologies in energy production, efficiency in resource management and materials, drastic reductions in corporate polluting and the exposure of our population to toxic chemicals that attack and degrade our living environment. Food producers need to be strictly monitored as to the way fruits, vegetables and meats are raised and produced, and chemical pesticides need to be totally removed from food related processes and the environment. As a result the health of our population and planet will endure.
    Thanks for inspiring all to think differently and connect the dots.

  7. Michael | | #7

    Super Size Me!
    Edward, your comment about home size inspired me look up a recent press release from the Shelton Group http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2011/01/new-us-homes-get-smaller-greener/1 where she notes according to USA Today "the average square footage of new homes is expected to continue dropping to 2,150 in 2015, down from the peak average of 2,520 in 2007".

    As we know according to many nutritionists we should also be reducing the portions we serve (and consume) at meal times as well. Just another very obvious connection between two dots that the "bigger is better" assumption we make about so much in our lives is being challenged on a variety of fronts. Thanks for the feedback!

    And the organic label Mike talks about is right. Just like the certified green label offered by the NAHB, USGBC and countless other programs many builders, remodelers, farmers and food producers of all types find the labe too expensive or onerous to earn. Ultimately it is the purchaser of food and homes that determines the value of any particular label. In some cases the consumer will go with the local famer or builder to get the wholesome product they want-with or without a 3rd party label.

  8. Troy Farwell | | #8

    Healthy diet?
    Just for the fun of considering it: would a poor diet that caused us to die at a significantly younger age be better for the environment? Old people - especially boomers - take lots of resources to sustain...

    I am kidding here, but it is an interesting thought.

  9. Michael Strong, LEED Associate, CGP | | #9

    old vegans
    Guess it depends on whose doing the deing! Hopefully the productivity and wisdom of the aged would offest the cost of them hanging around longer-help us youngsters better bear the burden of supporting them. :)

    (don't let my dad see this ok!) :))

  10. Troy Farwell | | #10

    RE: Old Vegans
    Here, here! Good point - we are more than the sum of raw materials we use and are made of.

  11. Mike Lancaster | | #11

    "My diet choice is based on
    "My diet choice is based on my concerns for my own health as well as my concerns for the environmental impact of eating corporately grown meat, fish, and fowl."

    First of all, a vegetarian diet does not promote health. Second, How is comparing corprate grown products to organically grown produce a fair comparison? How about comparing apples to apples. Or in this case, organic apples to properly raised live stock. Compare it to this. http://polyfacefarms.com/library.aspx Have you ever read The Plowmans Folly?
    If you liked Super Size Me than watch Fathead, also available on Netflicks, and see how Morgan Spurlock lied about what he ate.

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