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Saving the planet might seem like an almost insurmountable task that can only be tackled by governments across the globe and multinational corporations. But consumers can, and do, make a difference every day. Small and deliberate actions do add up, and what can be overlooked is while nations and mega-companies have the ability to make obvious impact to the environment with wholesale changes in their approach, consumers around the world collectively have more influence and clout by sheer numbers.

A Guardian article from a few years ago outlined a number of campaigns where people joined forces, often under the umbrella of an activist group, to create change in policies that made a real difference. For example, Greenpeace undertook a five-year campaign in the early 2000s to get Kimberly Clark to use more recycled and Forest Stewardship Council-certified fiber in its tissue and baby products instead of using material from old-growth forests for throwaway items. The result was K-C increasing its use of environmentally-friendly fibers from 54% to 83%.

“Where consumers can make a difference is using their spending power to influence companies to take action,” says Bill Shireman, president and CEO of Future 500. A couple of years ago, Green Matters reported that 40% of all companies were taking action to improve the environmentally-friendliness of their products. When people make a conscious effort to buy “green” – companies hear the message and adjust their practices to get on the same page as their customers.

“It’s amazing what a letter or a call or a communication with a company will do if you just tell them, ‘Here’s what I’m interested in seeing you do and I will support your company if I see you taking these actions,'” says Shireman. “Companies, particularity consumer brands and retailers, the ones that consumers come directly in contact with have extraordinary potential to save the planet. We have seen measurable advances in saving forests and oceans through the commitments of consumer products companies like Unilever and retailers like Walmart.”

“These mega-corporations have concentrated buying power that can drive change through their entire supply chain,” he explains. How does this change happen? Consumers who actively express their voice to encourage and reward those companies who make those changes.

“These huge companies can damage the environment and they can also benefit the environment,” says Shireman. “It really is the power of consumers to decide which they do. The number one thing you can do is with your consumer dollars make sure the companies that you buy from know that you are an environmental consumer.”

A second area Shireman points to is political action – action that targets both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.

“You can go to your politicians from both political parties and say, ‘We’ve had enough with partisan politics around the environment,'” he says. “Protecting the environment is not a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans may have different ways to do it, but we need them to work together for solutions.”

The important thing to understand – Yes, governments and companies have the power to make great changes in policies and practices that will help save the environment. But all of that change happens at the individual level. Big change comes from people making decisions every day that protect the planet, and by individuals working together to drive change in government policies and corporate practices.

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