Forum 2015: Thinking upstream of recycling

February 10, 2015 | by Scott Hennelly and Jill Sakai

With an emphasis on “greener” lifestyles and sustainability, growing numbers of people know to recycle items when possible rather than send them to the landfill. However, far fewer think farther upstream to consider what motivates and shapes their consumption habits.

At the 2015 Sustainability Forum, academic, industry, and nonprofit leaders will strive to go beyond the rhetoric of the “three R’s” to examine the reasons for and impacts of our everyday consumption habits, focusing on our use of food, clothing, shelter, and personal electronics.

“Rethinking Our Consumption: Beyond Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” will be held 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 26, in Union South’s Varsity Hall. Free and open to the UW community (with pre-registration), four sessions during the day will address how and why we consume things, the impacts of our consumption choices, how to identify sustainable choices, and how our individual choices can shape the future.

A short keynote address will introduce the topic of each session, followed by a series of rapid-fire talks presenting different viewpoints, angles, or case studies related to the topic. The audience will be invited to engage with the speakers during a panel discussion at the end of each session.

Liad Weiss
Liad Weiss

Liad Weiss, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, will open the first session with a talk about how owning products affects the ways we perceive both those objects and ourselves.

“People perceive their own personal traits as similar to traits of products they own. For example, a person owning a taller (vs. a shorter) coffee mug may feel taller,” says Weiss. Through his research, he seeks to understand these underpinnings of person-product interplay and the complex ways that our devices have become extensions of our perception of “self.”

The session will continue with a series of talks exploring the factors that contribute to consumer decisions related to food, energy, clothing, and other material goods.

In the second session, author and leading carbon footprinting expert Michael Berners-Lee and several UW-Madison researchers will explore ways to think about the environmental impacts of everyday items and actions, such as the selection and disposal of food.

Gary Zimmer
Gary Zimmer

After a specially-selected low-carbon lunch, industry and academic experts will address how to identify sustainable choices through examples drawn from agriculture, textiles, the food industry, and more. Biological farming expert Gary Zimmer will open the session with a discussion of grass-fed beef and the connections between healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy livestock, and healthy humans.

The fourth session will focus on how individual decisions can shape the future. Talks will include UW Athletics’ progress in reducing waste at athletic events and efforts by a local start-up and non-profits dedicated to helping people reduce their environmental impacts through choices such as reducing water use and biking or walking instead of driving.

The day will conclude with a Weston Roundtable lecture by Berners-Lee, who will discuss the climate impacts of our fuel consumption in a talk called “Burning Questions.”

Mike Berners-Lee
Michael Berners-Lee

Berners-Lee says that tackling climate change – what he calls a fascinating and multi-dimensional problem – will mean abandoning current reserves of fossil fuels worth trillions of dollars, at least until we have the technology to return carbon into the ground.

“The world needs to leave the fuel in the ground,” Berners-Lee says. The burning question, he adds, is whether this is possible.

The Forum will also feature a poster session, viewable throughout the day, featuring work related to the Office of Sustainability’s annual theme of “Forward to Zero Waste.” Researchers interested in presenting a poster should apply here.

The Sustainability Forum is organized by the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability with support from the Wisconsin Energy Institute, the Morgridge Center for Public Service, and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

For a full program and speaker information, visit