Does frugality help the environment?
I think there is an interesting correlation between being frugal and caring for and improving the natural environment. Thinking about this correlation led me to describe the wealth equation in my previous post
Lets be clear. The wealth equation is not an absolute or accurate truth. It is simply a model of the consequences of our actions. I made up this model to give me a framework to think about which actions would improve my well-being in the future. In that framework, I need consider all included variables, but there could be more, hidden variables that I haven’t figured out yet.
With that disclaimer, lets jump in.
A frugal person is a person who tries to minimize the
of their actions, and still trying to keep it lower than their
need. For example, they might decide that they need nutrition, and
buy rice and beans and eggs in bulk in order to keep the cost per meal
A frugal person might go further and when comparing their options for which brand of rice and which brand of beans to buy, they might simply go with the cheapest option. There could be multiple explanations of why a given brand is cheaper than another.
First, the seller profit might be different. By buying the brand with less seller profit, the frugal person helps reinforce market dynamics and to make the product more of a commodity.
Then, there could be different fair prices for the natural
resources. Imagine one brand claims that their product is of higher
quality than the other. In that case, the frugal person determines the
useful need satisfied by both products and will select
the cheaper product, unless the more expensive one really satisfies a
Or, there could be a case where two competing of the same quality
with the same seller profit cost differently, because in the
production of the cheaper one, the manufacturer cut corners and dumped
their dirty water without filtering it out, or used itself a supplier
who cut corners. As a result the end product’s price will be lower,
and it will be almost impossible for the consumer to determine the
reason. In this case, a frugal consumer would buy the monetarily
cheaper option but might incur some
hidden environment cost.
In the last case, a well-meaning frugal person might get tricked into harming the environment.
Does that mean that being frugal hurts the environment? Not necessarily. I will argue that actually, being frugal correlates with being nicer to the environment.
My first argument is that the level of consumption of a frugal person
is significantly lower than that a typical consumer. This generally
means fewer chances to incur
hidden environment cost. Even if the
actions of a frugal person are on average more harmful, they under the
upper bound of the useful need of that person. Heavy consumers on the
other hand would buy a lot of items that they barely use, thus
spending a lot more than their useful need, and being much more likely
to have a higher environment impact.
Another argument is that as the frugal person focuses on reducing the
monetary cost, they constantly re-evaluate and reduce their perception
useful need. They realize they can easily go without certain
comforts and still have a life that is as good as before. So the total
perceived need for them is much lower than the perceived need of the
consumer. This further strengthens the previous argument.
Yet another supporting argument is that everything has at least some
hidden environment cost, so more consumption always means more
environment effect. I will consider a piece of fruit’s fair price to
be at a fair price, if the cost covers all the resources required to
produce the fruit, and then all the resources required to return the
land to wilderness. Of course, most farmers don’t actually return
their land to the wild. The piece of fruit will contain at least some
hidden environment cost.
My conclusion is that frugality generally harms the environment less
than spending does. It is not necessarily beneficial, and it can
reduce overall wealth when frugal people buy products which harm the
environment. Still, it is a small thing to ask of people - to minimize
their spending. People cannot be thinking about all possible
environment impacts when buying toilet paper. Looking at the price and
quality is what all of us do when we buy stuff. The
environment cost is something to be dealt with separately. Just like
we currently have “certified organic” and “certified fair trade” we
can have “certified carbon neutral” or “certified wilderness
Right now the closest we have is the “local” label. But that is bullshit. It means that less fuel was used to transporting this good. But we need to add up all environment cost, not just the gasoline cost. It is a Luddite fallacy.
As consumers we can push for products which reduce the hidden cost. It won’t be the most frugal thing to do, as the early producers will be able to gather up more of seller profit. But eventually, the production level will increase and the environmentally friendlier products will become a commodity, meaning that the seller profit will decrease.
So here is a dilemma. Do we opt for being frugal, or do we opt for
getting the most environment friendly product? I don’t have a clear
answer, but my preference would be optimizing for being frugal. It is
the steady state situation if we ever eliminate the
environment cost. It is also self-serving, so we don’t always need to
face internal conflict of whether to buy the cost effective option or
the “certified pure nature” one. And I believe that frugality
generally induces warmer feeling towards nature. So with the extra
wealth we can gain from frugality, we can spend it on what we feel
like - and we can spend more on improving the environment.