If you follow the news, you might believe that Americans are deeply divided about issues like protecting the environment and combatting climate change. The fact of the matter, however, is that there’s a broad consensus in this country about the importance of greening and cleaning the planet.

There’s just one problem. While most agree that we should all take steps toward a cleaner world, many of us don’t act on this conviction. For example, 88 percent of Americans think recycling is important, but only 56 percent actually recycle. Seventy-six  percent believe trading our car commute for walking or biking is a good thing, but only 15 percent actually do so.

There are any number of ways to help close the gap between what we say we believe in and what we do in real life. Policy surely plays a role (it’s hard to bike for work, for example, when there’s no bicycle transit network).

The Northwest Earth Institute takes a different approach. Founded in 1993, the organization operates on the firm conviction that simple, everyday choices can stack up to momentous change, and they’ve built a series of programs designed to empower and encourage individuals to do so.


One example is the group’s annual EcoChallenge. Rooted in the notion that “change should be fun,” the EcoChallenge encourages groups (families, office pools, neighborhoods, etc.) to change just one habit that not only benefits themselves but also the planet.

The program provides social-media-style sharing of these actions, which can be picked from a list of categories or invented by the participants. As the two-week EcoChallenge unfolds, teams earn points and prizes while they also track their own—and the entire event’s participants—impact on the environment. Learn more at https://ecochallenge.org/.

The EcoChallenge is only one way that the organization has had an impact on regional and national sustainability movements. Based in Portland, Oregon, Northwest Earth Institute has played a key role in pushing the state to the forefront of the environmental conservation and sustainability movement.


The group provides programing and courses in neighborhoods, colleges, churches and workplaces. Topics include food and ethics, sustainability, climate change, and voluntary simplicity. And while these may sound like abstract socio-political topics, the approach is anything but. Instead, the emphasis is on personal values and individual choices.

This focus results in some pretty remarkable transformations that have a political impact as great as the personal. One former pilot, for instance, was inspired to found a lumber reclamation business; another participant was inspired to lead her corporation in a process to integrate sustainability into the company charter.

“I have always considered myself to be very ‘green’ and proactive in making responsible environmental choices, but this course challenged me to think beyond my ‘environmental box,’” says another participant, Teri Jacob. “The problems and challenges we face in our environment can feel overwhelming, and sometimes the hardest part in creating change is taking the first step and feeling like we make a difference.”