The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 4, 2010

Disagreeing on Green Values: Why Michael Thinks I’m Ned Flanders

A few weeks ago, my husband Michael forwarded me the NY Times article, “Therapists Report Increase in Green Disputes“:

As awareness of environmental concerns has grown, therapists say they are seeing a rise in bickering between couples and family members over the extent to which they should change their lives to save the planet.

In households across the country, green lines are being drawn between those who insist on wild salmon and those who buy farmed, those who calculate their carbon footprint and those who remain indifferent to greenhouse gases.

Wondering if Michael was trying to tell me something by forwarding that article,  I cornered him one Sunday afternoon while he was minding his own business and quizzed him on his feelings about my plastic-free ways and whether or not he felt I judged him. Here are just a few snippets of our half hour conversation.

[This video uses YouTube’s new Closed Captioning feature.]

Michael’s an awesome guy. And it turns out, we really don’t have many disputes in the green arena, just different areas of concern and opinions on how to tackle green issues. But I wondered about other couples. So I questioned a few green blogger friends and even a few of their partners. But first, I wanted to follow up with one of the interviewees in the actual Times article because, as it turns out, she lives not far from me in Marin County.

Chrise de Tournay is the founder of the EcoMom Alliance and was more than happy to add to her comments published in the NY Times. She said that while her husband is out in the world working to make big changes to address pollution from the maritime industry, he feels that the small changes she is making in their home, like insisting that containers be recycled properly or setting up a gray water system, are unimportant on a large scale and that he really doesn’t want to bother.

But for Chrise, these changes do make a difference. As a full-time mom, there are a few things she can do on a public level: support environmental legislation, write letters to the editor, vote with her purse. But it’s in the home where she has the most influence, and she’d like her husband to back her up on green measures that affect their family. Chrise says,

If I weren’t running a home, I might be out doing huge environmental policy work, but we have to start where we are. These small changes add up. I’m a mom. And I want my home to be a teaching home for our children….

What he sees as little, I see as doable. I like to feel I have some power.

She also wonders if asking her family to recycle or to turn off lights and faucets is any different from asking them to pick up their shoes and socks. In a home, there will be power struggles whenever one partner asks the other partner to change.

From my experience, making green changes myself doesn’t lead to arguments. It’s when I ask someone else to change that power struggles ensue. This seems to be the case in other homes as well. When I put out the question on Facebook, I got a terrific reply from my Facebook friend Jesse, who told me that to get her partner to adopt new practices, she tries to make them fun, and he “gets swept away” by her enthusiasm.   Jesse decided to interview her partner and emailed me his responses.

He says she makes it easy to want to make green changes because she “wasn’t a downer.”

She wasn’t like: “Oh I used 4 kilowatts of energy today! I’m such a bad person! It’s the 11th hour!” She made it fun, like “Guess what! I found a used table at the thrift store, so we don’t have to buy a new one! And I want to try tilapia, I hear it is better for the environment.” It’s nice. When she says it like that I am happy to try tilapia.

He also says that Jesse’s learning about environmental issues has been gradual, and he’s been involved in the process all the way. And he goes on to say:

I do the green living stuff because it is important to her, because I want to make her happy. But even when I am away from her I try to be more green because it is now ingrained in how I go about my day. Like at the office I do double sided copies to try to save paper. And I wash out my lunch containers and bring them home. And I pushed my boss to have a recycling program at work. And I come home and say ‘I did this good green thing at work today’ and she is happy and hugs me and tells me how great I am.

Michael actually said similar things during our conversation. And in fact, he has been the one spearheading all kinds of recycling at his law firm. In addition to setting up and monitoring the recycle bins in the office, he has also signed up for the Terracycle program, which he mentioned in the video, as well as Tyvek envelope recycling. See? I really am proud of him.

Putting the question to the green blogosphere, I found another woman who had interviewed her partner. Karen Cannard, who blogs at The Rubbish Diet, learned that her husband sees both benefits and drawbacks to his wife’s waste-free lifestyle. For example, he never has to take out the trash anymore. But a few issues bother him, for example the clutter of stuff she refuses to throw away:

Well, I find it really annoying that things destined for the black bin are snaffled away and relocated to a corner of the house in a way that resembles a mini waste-transfer-station, and that they are then left to hang around on a long-term promise of being taken off to a charity shop.

I’d better not let Michael see this article. He forgot to mention that little issue during our conversation. You should see the growing pile of stuff in our front room and back hall to be returned to stores or taken to Goodwill or the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. It’s never-ending. And I don’t even buy many new things anymore!

Lisa Sharp, from Retro Housewife Goes Green, allowed me to interview her husband Justin. He also sees pros and cons to his wife’s green lifestyle. While he writes with a *grin* that she is an “eco-friendly pain-in-the rear,” he also says that he’s happy she gets to do something she loves. While he hates having to give up using paper towels, he does appreciate some of the green changes that he sees as benefiting him:

anything that affect me personally health wise and my well being. Some examples are organic food, especially taking HFCS and conventional meat out of my diet, not using chemical cleaners, and reusable water bottles. Reducing energy costs is also something I have seen as beneficial.

In fact, saving money seems to be a benefit of green living that many partners appreciate. Nancy Baldwin from Surviving and Thriving on Pennies writes that her green enthusiasm was harder for her partner at the beginning of their relationship, but in the ten years they have been together, they have practically become of one mind. Here’s her description of an incident that occurred early in their relationship:

One day I decided to string up some wire so I could hang up some towels to dry. When my boyfriend (not married just yet) came home, he wasn’t happy about it. I explained to him how this could save us a little money by hanging them to dry but all I got was a funny look on his face. So he explained to me it wont save us much money, looks really bad, and I used his stereo wire that was super expensive so my saving money idea really ended up costing us. This was the beginning of our green life.

But over the years, he has enjoyed making the green, money-saving changes, buying an energy-efficient car, riding his bike to work, buying furniture on Craigslist, and to use his handyman skills to repair and refurbish the things they have rather than buying new.

Jenn Sturiale from Tiny Choices wonders if women, in general, are greener than men.  Perhaps men are no less eco-minded than women, but like Michael, have different priorities or different ways of viewing what living green means.

If you and your partner are at odds about what green living standards should be practiced in the home, all is not lost. Sierra Black from ChildWild, in response to the NY Times article, has come up with a great list of tips for how to negotiate those issues. In addition to setting a time to talk, being specific, and starting small, she thinks it’s important to be realistic.

You and your partner have to live together, but you’re not the same person. It’s appropriate to ask your partner to cooperate on household items that affect you both or require resources from both of you. It’s important for each of you to be able to make your own choices about issues that are more personal.

And Courtney from The Greenists says that the best thing we can do is lead by example:

…while this is important work we’re doing here, there’s no need to start fights with people about it. As someone whose boyfriend recently rained down The Shame upon her for owning an electric blanket, trust me — everyone will be happier if you practice a little restraint.

Remember: You can’t control what other people do, you can only control what you do.

What kinds of issues around green living do you face in your home? Are there other issues that those in same-gender relationships or non-traditional living arrangements face? And what methods do you use to navigate this sometimes sticky subject?


Here are a few other bloggers who responded to the NY Times article with thoughts of their own:

Lisa from Condo Blues: Going Green: What Happens When Your Family Doesn’t Agree?

Jenn from The Green Phone Booth: Greening the Spouse: Welcome Challenge or Hopeless Cause?

Jenn Savedge on Mother Nature Network: Drawing a green line in the sand

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Betsy (Eco-novice)
12 years ago

I loved reading this post, Beth. I wrote a little while ago about going green with a reluctant spouse:

Now I love hearing my husband explain to other folks why eating organic , etc. is important. He’s much more evangelical than I am (I am sort of closet green, except on my blog, of course).

12 years ago

Beth, This was so great to read after my little “cry in the night” moment. This morning my husband is joking about the plastic-wrapped banana argument from last night — and throwing in digs about acupuncture (which I’ve never had but would like to) while he’s at it. And I loved your video–so sweet! You were right, that was a great place to stop.

Wish I’d seen this blog dicussion when it happened — I might have been a little more sensitive to how to manage the green thing at home — but at that point, I was only barely discovering your work and the PPC. Anyway thanks Beth and everyone else who commented — onward!

13 years ago

I so relate. While we mostly manage OK, the one thing we do have problems with is food. I made the decision to cut down on my meat eating to two meals a week because of it’s environmental impact. Big problem living with a big meat eater!! While he doesn’t eat meat for breakfast most days, all of his other meals usually have some kind of meat in them. While we respect each other’s choices, it has made it really difficult to share the responsibility of meal making. Even though he doesn’t say as much, he hates my meals, he hates beans, lentils etc. And if either of us cook just veges so he can have his meat on the side, then I am probably missing out on the protein I need. It was me that made the decision to change, so I do feel responsible for making things work. It is just quite a hard one to make work, but sure we will get there.

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
13 years ago

I love the video Beth! And this a great subject. :)

13 years ago

I am definitely the one in my home making the environmental decisions – my husband goes along with most of them. But before I make a change that would affect him, I run it by him and based on his opinion I may or may not make the change. Paper towels are a good example – we still use them, though very infrequently (3-4 rolls a year). I asked my husband if he would be ok switching to reusable cloths instead, which we already use for most cleaning, and he didn’t want to, so we’ll keep the paper towels. They ahave a high recycled content, and we use so few that I’m ok with it and it makes him more comfortable. He does sometimes feel like I change the rules, but I think there are so many eco things we try to do at home that he does occassionally forget the rules. He also hates it when we’re out, get a drink in a recyclable bottle, and I will carry the bottle with me all day to bring home and recycle if we don’t see a recycling bin. That drives him crazy, but I don’t mind and I’m the one carrying it. Many green changes can be justified financially, so he’s ok with those (like keeping the a/c at 75 in the summer). All this has definitely made him more environmentally aware as he tells me of all the green initiatives his work is doing, and asks the right questions about what his company is doing, what eco features make new buildings LEED certified, etc. A few years ago he wouldn’t have even known about the topics to be asking questions, so he has come a long way and I am very proud of him for that.

13 years ago

I’m fortunate that my husband agrees with me. He’s from Sweden where green living had early devotees. What I find frustrating is when green principles get blindsided by one member of a town’s Board of Health. That’s what happened here on Cape Cod. We are threatened by NStar’s spraying up to six herbicides under the power lines, where vegetation must be controlled per Federal law. Our Select board wanted to stop all herbicides in town, but this one influential member of our town family protested that we should not rile the company that provides our electricity. Suddenly all the green supporters of opposition to NStar capitulated. I know this is a bit off-subject, but it demonstrates different shades of green in a larger context. So frustrating!

13 years ago

Well, I am a single mom so I make ALL the decisions about how environmentally aware our home is. I recently started making my own laundry soap, to avoid phosphates and plastic (bottles or scoops) and my son thinks it looks disgusting. (He is right, its not aesthetically pleasing but it does work great!) However, he is only 10 years old so he knows that he is going to use whatever Momma makes/buys. I am hoping that seeing the decisions i make will have a long term effect on both of my kids.

I won’t buy them kids meals because of the plastic toys but if they choose to spend their allowance on that, I don’t forbid it either. I guess I want them to think about these decisions but I don’t want to be a dictator about it. They are very aware of recycling, turning off lights, not wasting water; as are most kids their age but i think that they are more aware of issues like the damage caused by plastics, meat consumption, animal cruelty in food production and organics vs non-organics.

As I continue to learn and make positive changes in my daily life I can only hope that they will learn to do the same.

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Raven, it is important to me to have this blog accessible to as many people as possible. And since this video was very talk-heavy, I realized I needed to do the captions, so those who are hearing impaired or don’t have sound on their computers could understand it. But I have to say, it’s not easy for me. I type pretty slowly with a lot of mistakes and can only do about 10 words at a time, stopping and starting the video. So I can’t promise to do captions for every single video. But where the video would be impossible to understand without captions, I will definitely make a point of doing.

It’s cool that Youtube has this new feature. You don’t have to match the caption to the frame yourself. You just upload the transcript and it figures it out for you. Sometimes it’s not quite right if someone is not talking loudly or slurring their words. But it mostly gets it.

Apparently, Youtube is experimenting with automatic captions that will save us from having to type transcripts. THAT will be awesome for me!

David Leonhardt
13 years ago

Yes, the question of do small green changes at home really matter vs. creating change at the corporate or political level. I see that they are all one and the same. San Francisco could not have deemed plastic bags illegal without the awareness and support of the public. Where did that awareness come from?

Some years back I thought plastic bags and water bottles were just fine. If I had been asked to sign a petition to get rid of plastic bags back then, I wouldn’t have been bothered and would just write it off as an extremist group trying to change everyone else to their way of thinking.

And then I saw a glass straw in the shop where I worked and an idea started and then snowballed, and to make a long story short, the simple steps I took: glass straws, reusable bags and food containers, etc, I now see things very differently and when (not if) someone asks me for support on an environmental issue, I’m there!!

Mendocino County is now considering banning plastic bags and it would never happen without the public support of the people at the grassroots level. Awareness by many such as Gail and I, even though we may not have had a direct hand in this is the moving force behind this initiative. Indeed, to suggest otherwise would be to display ignorance.

So, as I see it, environmental policies, whether at individual, corporate or political levels, all go hand-in-hand and one would not be sustainable without the others.

But back to the question at hand: Gail & I both do some same, some different things when it comes to being sustainable. Neither of us is perfect and we are able to allow each other to grow at our own individual pace.

The Raven
13 years ago


What a great interview, and subject! Your partner is such a sweetie.

I want to thank you SO MUCH for doing the captions! Thank you, thank you!

13 years ago

OK, my first comment doesn’t really have anything to do with your post…but I just have to say it anyway, since it was the very first thing that came to mind. You don’t sound ANYTHING like I figured you would (not that I could described how your voice sounded in my head, but it wasn’t like it is.) It’s kind of nice now having your real voice. :-) But, for that matter…Michael really kinda sounds exactly like I would have imagined.

On the subject of this actual post…Generally there isn’t too much conflict in our house. Though I am definitely the green one. Travis for the most part just goes along with it. Some of it he sees the value in for it’s own merit, some of it he doesn’t see the value in but believes enough in my concern to do it for my sake and every once in a while he thinks I’m just full of it or he just doesn’t get it.

Sometimes, I have to do things if I want them done (recycling in this parts is really annoying. We have to remove labels, rinse, sort and deliver to the center all ourselves.) Travis moved here from Seattle, where you could just dump it all into a bin and put it out front. So, he sees the point in recycling, but he has a hard time following all the rules that are necessary here and he doesn’t really see the point. As a result, I end up doing most of the things like rinsing, removing labels and sorting. But, I’m ok with that.

13 years ago


I echo a lot of what has already been said here. I’m the one who has taken our first “green” steps and my husband is mostly along for the ride. There are days when he amazes me and I think that I finally have him fully on board (like the day we watched “Flow” and he was incredibly moved and talked about getting his office to stop stocking bottled water) and then there are days that he lets convenience and desire overtake these sustainable urges (the several times a month when he uses said office bottled water). Mostly, I feel fortunate in that he’s willing to let me take the lead in making most of the sustainability “rules” for the household (which makes sense; I do all the shopping, meal planning, cooking, and bill paying) and I’ve agreed to respect his right to make personal choices that are different from my own and he does the same for me. For example, I refuse to eat factory farmed meat no matter where we are, whether that be home, at a restaurant, or at someone else’s home. He enjoys the organic ethical meat that we eat at home, but won’t “make a fuss” if we are out and about. I don’t give him a hard time about this and he is helpful in helping me find vegetarian alternatives in these situations.

If I had to sum it up, I’d say that he is appreciate and supportive of my efforts at home, but when it comes to being out in the “real world” it’s still too hard to make that extra effort to abide by our values. My hope is that with time, the habits that we’re developing at home will become so ingrained that he won’t even think twice about following them all the time.


13 years ago

Hi Beth,

So far my husband has been tolerant of my green changes. I’m trying to take small, manageable steps. Hubby doesn’t care for my homemade cleaning products, but he also hasn’t gone out and bought commercial ones. I also try to pick my battles carefully…for example, I think he uses too much water when rinsing the dishes, but I’m not about to tell him to stop doing the dishes!

I also wanted to thank you for introducing me to GlassDharma…I got my straws in the mail yesterday and I love them!

And finally, I wanted to thank you for your post about turning t-shirts into reusable bags. I have a number of free shirts from various volunteer events, and I’ve been wondering what to do with them!


13 years ago

Great post! Husband and I are on generally the same plane as far as eco-thoughts and actions go. We currently have different focuses though, his is water and mine is waste. It’s nice because it helps balance us out.

Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me
13 years ago

Great post, Beth! I found this really interesting. I definitely drive things at my house, but my husband is fine with most everything, and super-on-board with others. For instance, he loves to eat meat, and he is 100% supportive/takes initiative with purchasing organic/humanely raised meat almost exclusively (the occasional restaurant meal excepted). He also took the initiative with not replacing our second car, and instead he buses or bikes to work.

13 years ago

My husband and I don’t agree on anything eco unfortunately. He will occasionally recycle but I also find recycling in the garbage quite a bit. I have just quit discussing it or reminding him. I do my own personal thing and leave him to do his personal thing. If I find recycling in the garbage, I just take it out.

Sierra Black
13 years ago

This is a great article! Thanks so much for including me in such illustrious company.

I’m noticing a trend here, reading so many couples’ stories, that matches my own experience: the women tend to be interested in, and invested in, very small personal changes at the household level, while the guys are holding out for a bigger prize by working for large systemic change out in the world.

As you say, ultimately we need both.

13 years ago

This is so interesting…my hubbie and I are both pretty much “green”, having met at an environmentally-focused college, but our perspectives are different. I’m trying to reduce plastic in our home, but he is an energy-efficiency professional, so he makes a living off filling people’s homes with plastic (in the interest of saving oil, gas, etc.). Once you’ve recommended spraying uretane foam into wall cavities of a dwelling (which, btw, our home is also filled with), the plastic bag you grab to stuff the broccoli in at the store probably doesn’t seem very significant (I try to save and re-use the bags; he puts them in the recycling, but I’m sure that “recycling” means they get sent to China to be burned). When I’ve gone on a “buy nothing” jag, I apply it only to myself, hoping that I’ll influence my husband and children through example (my husband doesn’t buy much household-wise anyway, but I cringe at some things he buys for work–like vinyl tablecloths!!)…he started it anyway when he declared a few years ago that we should buy nothing made in China (this seemed an unfair burden, since I did most of the buying for the household and children, but that’s what got me really reading labels and thinking about things, and led me to a “buy a whole lot less and only when sustainable” lifestyle. I do think that “green” living can weigh more heavily on the female half of the couple. My husband used to do most of the grocery shopping, but when I decided we should try the hundred-mile-diet one summer, it was me who ended up driving to all the farms and cooking everything from scratch (it was my idea, after all), but he never did go back to doing the shopping!

13 years ago

My boyfriend and I have the same concerns and principles – on paper. In reality, I’m a bit more task oriented – focused on exactly here and now and what I’m doing. He’s a bit more philosophical, his mind spends 99% of its time wandering on a higher plane that I know is there, I just never visit. And by “a bit” I mean completely.

We tend to have a “discussion” once a week or so, where it starts off lousy, accusational, and petty, and ends up with us both figuring out (again) that we’re going in the same direction, just via different routes. A monk once told me that relationships are difficult like that, but they work best when both people realize they’re both weeding in the same garden, but usually he’s way over there and I’m way over here and we can’t always tell what the other is doing or where they are. But it takes a certain amount of trust (and love) to believe that, despite what we may see, everything will come out in the wash.

We also have “discussions” over the rate at which change happens, I prefer instant changes and he likes to warm up to ideas. That drives me nuts to no end, but without rocks in my shoes, how would I know where my toes are? :D

Condo Blues
13 years ago

I think it’s like any issue in a relationship between two people – find a common ground. For my husband and I that is reducing waste and not wasting what we do have. We may go about it in different ways, but as long as I keep the big common goal in mind, I don’t think I should be such a grinch if his way isn’t always my way.

I tried the link to your post on BlogHer. It didn’t work.

13 years ago

Awesome! Thanks for sharing such a personal conversation with us! I can absolutely relate to all of it. Once my husband and I were at a show, and he got up to get a beer, and came back with a bottle of water for me, thinking that was a really nice thing of him to do for me. I was like, WTF did you do that for??? Now *I* have to be responsible for what happens to that plastic. AND you paid $3 for it! I could have killed him. And he was just trying to be thoughtful. Made me think we were from completely different planets.

13 years ago

Negative musings from a person with a bad sinus infection:

Sometimes I see that we are all living in appalling wealth, greedy for an unsustainable lifestyle that is inevitably at the expense of other humans and all life forms. Differences seem minor in the big, long view.

People play along with my no plastic thing to an extent, but “draw the line ” at – what they want anyway. Nobody’s actually giving up anything. Our garbage is broken crockery and plastic. Mind you, it’s one plastic shopping bag (snatched from some “recycle” bin) every two weeks, but it’s still gonna be landfill forever.

On the other hand, I had a potluck last week and no one came with takeout containers – no one!

I don’t think we can stay in relationships where values differ too much.

13 years ago

What a great video Beth (or should I say Ned :-) ). Michael reminds me of my own husband – I know there have been times when he’s done something that I wouldn’t have done. However I hope that as time has passed, I have made things a lot easier for us as a family. It’s great to have the opportunity to discuss and reflect the changes with your partner. I found it very helpful indeed when I talked to my husband about the changes that have happened in our lives. Thanks for the mention in your article…wait till I tell him he’s gone International. :-)

13 years ago

Judy will do things that I wouldn’t do that I don’t think are a good idea taking the environment into consideration, but I don’t say anything because I think the number one key to success in a relationship is to enable the other person; to let them be who they are. The most destructive practice is to nit-pick. Living with another person allows one to see every little thing that can be used for nit-picking. Enviro-conscious behavior is simply a subset of what a person does (or not) each day.

There is a whole field concerned with influencing others. It’s called rhetoric. Rhetoric unfortunately has a bad popular vibe as “hot air” but it really the art of persuasion. These days we are swamped with verbal combat (talk radio for example) from folks who don’t have the vaguest notion of what persuasion is all about. The study of rhetoric would benefit everyone. It’s not about getting folks riled up but about getting them to see things in a different way. Good rules for public speaking can literally be taken home and practiced everywhere, with individuals or groups in everyday living. There are known ways of most effectively bringing people to change their views. Coercion and nagging not being among them.

So I think the big rule above all with one’s mate and others is – let them be themselves and distinguish the topic of dispute from the disputees. If something is good (or bad) to practice, it will become obvious.

13 years ago

I’ve also led the sustainability charge in my hetero relationship, but my partner’s been pretty receptive so far. he didn’t freak when I switched the yellow dish detergent for dr. bronner’s bar soap (though my mother did, lol), or when I cut up old shirts to use for cleaning purposes and napkins. he uses the stainless steel water bottle & lunch box I bought him religiously. he hasn’t, however, been keen on washing his hair or deodorizing his pits with baking soda, but hey, I’m not keen on giving up my plastic bottles of Proactiv facewash anytime soon, so we both just do what we can and don’t make each other feel bad for our less-than-eco habits.

13 years ago

Watching your interview with Michael, I think we operate on kind of the same level in our house. My husband definitely makes greener choices because of my influence, and because of his own concerns. However, he also sometimes does things behind my back to avoid conflict.

We’re all just doing the best we can, and I think that we have to be OK with that. In parenting I found that having some basic values and boundaries that we shared, and then letting the rest go, was helpful. I would say the same think about living sustainably. Obsessing over every little thing is just not going to help anyone.