Change is always difficult when the rewards of a particular behavior are greater than the perceived harm. And even when people understand the harm, big problems often need big solutions that only government can provide.

So how do you make change happen in these situations? First, you need to help people understand the problem and where they fit into it. Even when the needed change is way bigger than the individual, making change happen still comes down to individuals exerting their will. People are the force behind the collective political will that makes significant change happen. It all starts with you.

One good example of how individuals can make a difference in creating a more sustainable future is in purchasing. We vote with our dollars. Don't believe your dollars can count toward making a difference? Let’s connect how you can make purchasing choices that have a direct effect on people’s lives.

Earlier this year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study China’s International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States. This study revealed that westerly winds carry pollutants from China to the western United States. These pollutants have worsened air quality in the western United States. They add to excess levels of smog-inducing nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, as well as black carbon. Black carbon links to asthma, cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung disease. In China, air pollution will cause about 500 million Chinese citizens living north of the Huai River will lose a collective 2.5 billion years of life expectancy.

That’s terrible, but what is the connection to us in the United States? Some of the Chinese air pollution in the United States is because of manufactured goods China exports to us.  These are products we buy and use every day. Outsourcing manufacturing to China does not allow Americans to avoid air pollution. Our purchasing habits are fueling this problem.

In an article published in The New York Times, UCLA law professor Alex L. Wang wants us to think about these findings:

This is a reminder to us that a significant percentage of China’s emissions of traditional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are connected to the products we buy and use every day in the U.S.  We should be concerned, not only because this pollution is harming the citizens of China, but also because it’s damaging the air quality in parts of the U.S.

China's pollution is a big problem, for them and for us. We can alter our behavior to reduce demand for products labeled Made in China. Little else will stop sellers from making bad products. If we provide the demand, the supply will continue. Beyond that, we can advocate with our political and business leaders. Look for advocacy groups to join. When you add your name to the group, political will grows by the group’s number of advocates having grown. Speak out on your own as well. Advocate personally with your political representatives. On the issue of China’s manufacturing pollution, ask them to protect our natural resources and personal health by regulating Chinese imports. Ask importing businesses to use their buying power to get China to reduce pollution. Solving this problem will take both individual and collective will. Why not be part of the change?

How else can you figure out what's good and what's bad? One way is to look for certifications like Fair Trade, Green Guard, or Forest Stewardship Council. On the energy front, labels like EPEAT (for computers and printers) and EnergyStar (for appliances) point you in the right direction. Here's a great article on green purchasing basics.

HERE’S THE FUN PART:  Another way is to use technology like Ethical Barcode or Good Guides when you shop. You use your phone to scan the product barcode and you get information about product sustainability. It's easy, interactive, and empowering! The apps don’t capture every product yet, but they are pretty good. Try them and let us know what you think.