Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I got into grad school! I'll be starting in January in a Masters in Environmental Science and Policy program (part time).

My first semester this spring I'll just be taking some intro classes that are prerequisites for the program, so I'm not sure there will be anything blog-worthy for a while. But in due time, I think this will be good for sincere green. We'll all learn together.

Woo hoo!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Buy Nothing Day Anyway.

Happy Buy Nothing Day, everyone.  

For almost 20 years, Buy Nothing Day has been celebrated by environmentalists and activists around the world in response to Black Friday and the gluttonous season of shopping that begins around this time each year. This year, getting the word out about over-consumption is made more difficult at a time when the lack of "consumer confidence" is blamed for the downward spiral of our economy.  At work when I asked to put up a flyer in the lunch room about Buy Nothing Day, I was told no.  Any other year would have been fine, they said, but this year when so many retailers are suffering, it's just not ok to tell people not to shop, they said.  And let me remind you I work for an environmental organization. 

So I've been wondering what other challenges this year's Buy Nothing Day has found due to the economy.  Like after 9-11 when Bush called for Americans to go shopping as if it were the ultimate patriotic duty, consumers are being called on now to save our economy by going back to the stores and spending their money on things they don't need and can't afford. And this frustrates me to no end, as if these retailers are really what need saving.  I'm not denying that putting retailers out of business won't affect people in a  negative way.  Job loss and cities full of abandoned buildings are terrible for society, but I just can't believe that this disastrous economic climate isn't waking more people up to the dysfunctional pattern of mass consumption that Americans are trapped in.  I would hope that rebuilding our society and our economy to promote a more sustainable way of living, and encourage a more fulfilling pursuit than the pursuit of stuff, might be the goal for more people right now, instead of saving retailers.

Well this morning, I was happy to check my email and see a message from AdBusters, the originators of Buy Nothing Day and other positive culture jam campaigns including True Cost Economics.  The email from Adbusters acknowledged the state of the economy today and that this economic climate makes a whole new set of challenges for Buy Nothing Day.  So, they say, let's confront the economic meltdown head-on.  To quote Kalle Lasn in the press release:

 "It's our culture of excess and meaningless consumption -- the glorified spending and borrowing of the past decade that's at the root of the crisis we now find ourselves in."

Yes, Adbusters, I couldn't agree with you more.  They go on to describe the economic meltdown as an opportunity to start a new era, "the age of Post-Materialism" wherein everyone lives within our means.  Imagine that.  So, I encourage everyone to buy nothing today despite the suffering economy.  There is a bigger goal here than saving any one retail chain, and if we really want to save society from the ailments of a dying economy, we need to revise our habits, today and every day.  

Sunday, September 28, 2008

More than "made in china"

My weekly emails from worldchanging.com always bring a bit of information and hope to my Friday afternoons.  This week, they introduced me to an effort that I want to applaud by Patagonia, the clothing company. 

It's called The Footprint Chronicles, a website created by Patagonia that explores the origins of various products made by the company.  Click on a product (ranging from backpacks to shoes to strappy dresses) and the site brings you to an interactive map of the world, highlighting the origins of the product's materials and source of labor used to compile the materials and manufacture the product.  The full article from worldchanging admits that the site, and even Patagonia as a responsible company, are not perfect.  There are gaps and limits to how detailed you can get.  But it's a start, and I'm really happy to see the effort being made.  

Imagine if every company offered this service for every product.  Imagine if consumers cared enough to demand it.  Imagine if it were required by law.  The accountability and transparency this sort of thing brings would do wonders to address the externalities that are so easily ignored today.  It was only recently that food products sold in the US were required to have nutrition facts and ingredients listed.  And since these requirements took effect, it has taken a bit of time for consumers to really take advantage of it, but now you can see how listing these ingredients has affected consumer markets.  

At the grocery store I recently saw a loaf of bread that advertised on the front of its packaging that it didn't contain high fructose corn syrup.  I also saw an ad in a magazine recently that asked consumers to check their facts about the high fructose corn syrup, arguing that it was no worse than sugar or other sweeteners.  This kind of dialogue is important, and healthy.  Consumers have more information, and while industries can do their best to persuade consumers the positive or negative implications of those facts, it is still empowering for the consumer to be able to make these more informed decisions, and to hear that a debate exists about the ingredients of their food.  I'd like to see the same type of exchange for all products.

I'd like to see information made easily available about the source of the materials, the location of the labor, and the social and environmental costs of the ingredients and manufacturing methods.  Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles gives us a glimpse of what this information could look like.  I hope that other industries follow suit. As a consumer, I will support those who do. 

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Economic Theory

So the economy is still crummy.  Unemployment is up.  Gas prices are a little lower than they were but still higher than a year ago.  The government-issued stimulus checks helped stir up some hot consumer action for a little while early this summer, but didn't create any lasting results (who's surprised?) and now people are freaking out because the back-to-school shopping was a disappointment for anyone who was counting on new sales.  They are expecting equally sour results for holiday shopping. 

I like to think that the poor economy has not lead to a society full of hesitant consumers, but rather that the slowdown in consumption came first, and then the economic slowdown followed as a result.  This chicken and egg theory of mine, if true, would make a huge difference, no matter what reason consumers had to change their habits, as long as there is a conscious decision behind it.  

Possible reasons (besides a bad economy) to consciously decide to stop shopping:  
  • consuming a lot of material goods is bad for the environment. Consuming less is better.
  • the 80s and 90s were a time of overabundance, and maybe people are just sick of it.
  • the sharp realization that there is a difference between want and need.
  • the realization that what you already have is good enough. 
  • the desire to save money.
  • pure rebellion.
Any combination of these reasons (and countless others I haven't thought of) that result in a  slower consumer-driven economy would make me happy.  It means that people made the choice to consume less, rather than being forced to do so by higher prices and a bad economy.  That choice means that these changes are lasting, and that the economy had better adjust. The possibility of this economic theory having any truth makes me hopeful for society...  something today's economists are having a tough time feeling.  

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Baby Steps

A couple days ago No Impact Man posed a question: 

Since Monday, over 120 people have responded to the question with their advice and opinions.  It took my a while to decide, but finally I contributed:

"Re-evaluate the word 'need' and shop accordingly."

Other contributers offered more extreme suggestions like "go vegan" and "stop using your car for journeys less than 2 miles- walk or bike" and I'll admit that those actions might have a more immediate impact than mine.  But if you're brand new to making green lifestyle choices, I think it's better to start basic.  In order to make your green habits last, it's best not to over-commit yourself if you're not sure how much you're willing or able to do. 

So for a first step toward going green, I would encourage someone to just sit down and think long and hard about the word NEED.  A few things to start with:
  • What does 'need' mean to you, and how does that definition differ for other people around the world? Or just a few generations ago? 
  • Make a list of everything you truly need. Compare that list to what you actually own.
  • From the list of true needs, how are those needs met?   
  • Pay attention to what advertising is telling you about needs.  How often does the word come up in ads?  Or the concept?  (Think planned and perceived obsolescence!)
  • Before you started thinking about it, who defined your needs for you?  Where did you concept of need come from?
  • An important part of this transition is watching your language.  You can curse all you want, but watch your use of the word 'need.'  How often do you say it?
  • What do you mean when you say need?  Strong desire?  Entitlement? True necessity?
  • Think about what it feels like when a true necessity isn't met.  
When you're able to separate your needs from your wants, you are already doing something good for the environment.  It makes you think twice before buying anything frivolous.  It makes you appreciate things in a different way, and it's hard not to act differently after such a mind shift. There's a difference between not wanting something in the first place because you understand that you don't need it, and pining after something intensely but resisting because you're told that refraining is better for the environment. If you're only holding out for the environment, you'll eventually snap and go on a spending spree.  But if you can evaluate needs and wants and differentiate between the two, eventually you start prioritizing differently, and you start wanting less.  Trust me.  It's a liberating realization.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Getting to know you....

Thanks to some of the blog directories that list Sincere Green, especially Best Green Blogs, I'm getting a little more traffic lately, and that means that a lot of my readers are strangers. And with the help of other great sites like RSS hugger, which helps bloggers promote their sites through an RSS directory and the wonderful world of viral marketing, I'm hoping for even more readership. Otherwise this feels a little like talking to one's self.

So, for the sake of being optimistic that I'll start getting new readers with the help of all these bloggers' aids, I thought it might be nice to introduce myself to those of you who are new, and give you a little insight into why I'm here.

I'm 24. I live in Washington DC now, but I grew up in New Mexico and went to college and most of high school in California.

I moved to DC after I graduated from college and have been working at the international headquarters of a large environmental/conservation organization. In college I created my own major combining sociology and environmental studies to study the cause/effect relationship between media, consumerism and the environment, and that topic continues to be my passion today. My life goal is to address the social and environmental problems with over-consumption and mis-consumption, but I'm still figuring out how best to do that. The trendiness of the green movement started just after I graduated, but boy would that have been a great thesis topic.

What am I doing personally to address my environmental concerns? Well, in addition to working for a good cause 40+ hours a week, and spreading the good word through this blog, I try to make lifestyle choices that let me tread lightly in every way I can. When I moved from Southern California to Washington DC I gave up my car (I donated it), and I rely on the DC metro system to get everywhere. So I don't own a car, and I live in a lovely little apartment with my charming boyfriend Mike. When we do need a car, we try to always get hybrids from Zipcar. We don't own a TV and we took out the AC units from our windows to enjoy DC summers al natural. No small feat, I assure you. We use homemade science projects involving vinegar to clean the apartment instead of store-bought cleaning products. We bring our own bags to the grocery store, we recycle everything that can be recycled, and we reuse everything that can be reused. Our drinking glasses are old salsa jars and the vast majority of our furniture was used when we acquired it- all but two items, in fact. We're serious packrats, and we tend to fix or find new uses for broken items instead of throwing them away.

We're not perfect, and there are many life changes I have yet to make to be even more sustainable. Some of my green goals include:
  • To be better about shopping for only locally-sourced food. I go to the farmers market a couple times a month, but I don't go as often I could or should, and at the grocery story I could be much better about the things I buy. (I do buy mostly organic, but organic food from Chile or Australia is probably ecologically equivalent to non-organic food from Delaware based on the carbon footprint of getting the food from producer to consumer. I think.)
  • Growing my own food. I've got a tomato plant, a small fig tree, and several chili pepper plants growing in the apartment, but so far they don't really produce much, and it's quite challenging to do more than that without any sort of outdoor space of my own. I am on the waiting list to join a community garden near my apartment, but I know that won't materialize for a a few years at least. I would love to have a yard.
  • Tied to the point above, I wish I had a place to compost. I know there are apartment composting kits out there and I've tried homemade makeshift equivalents, but in the end I had no use for the end product, so it was a moot point.
  • Eating out at restaurants and air travel are the two biggest contributors to my carbon footprint, so I need to cut down on both. I'll be posting more about these in the near future.
  • Eat less meat. I was raised by a vegetarian so I've never eaten a lot of meat, but I still eat some and I know its not good for the environment.
  • I'm planning to go back to grad school next year for environmental science and policy. I'd like to understand the science behind my environmental convictions, and I think being more informed in that way will make me a more effective environmental steward, so there's a goal.
Ok, that's all for now... it's nice to meet you, and welcome to Sincere Green!


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Kudos to Credo

Working Assets, the friendly do-gooder phone company that sends you Ben & Jerry ice cream coupons for your business, has evolved its wireless franchise into Credo Mobile, a do-gooder cellular offshoot.  Naturally, I'm intrigued.   At the risk of sounding like an ad for Credo, allow me to divulge what I've learned thus far.  

First of all, they're making an irresistible offer: switch to them from your current cell carrier and they'll pay your early termination fee, up to $200.  Then they'll send you a new phone for free. AND you can keep your current phone number. They also have a free recycling program to deal with your old phone. Hot diggity!  And of course, the biggest bonus of switching to them is that 1% of your bill goes to good causes and progressive nonprofits.  

1% might not be a lot, but it's way more than all the other guys will give you.  And from what I could tell on the Credo website, the same plan I have at Verizon is actually cheaper at Credo, so I'm paying less and donating more.  Cool.  I do wonder, though, if Credo does well for itself going forward, will the 1% perhaps increase to, say, 2% some day?  Or 5%?  I'd very much like to see that.  

I would also like to see them encourage people to use their phones longer than the standard 2-years that people do now.... it's such a waste to get rid of a perfectly good phone after only two years, just to upgrade to new unnecessary bells and whistles or a sleeker style.  So I sincerely hope that in their effort to be progressive, Credo points out to its customers that if your phone isn't broken, it doesn't hurt to hold on to it as long as you can for the good of the planet.  

I'd also love to see them address how cell phones are made and what goes in to them.   I'm not sure if there is a way to avoid the need for Coltan in new cell phones, but you should know that mining Coltan is a serious threat primates in western Africa according to the Worldwatch Institute.  I first learned about this problem at a talk by Jane Goodall videographer, Bill Wallauer that I attended a few months ago, and Bill convinced me that this is a huge problem.  If anyone is in a position to address this problem, it's Credo. Rather, if there's anyone that gives me hope about addressing this problem, it's Credo.  

In both of the mailings I've received about Credo (one via mail directly from Credo and the other via email from Co-op America) they called out AT&T for being particularly bad for having links to Dick Cheney and his cohorts.  Well I have Verizon, and there was no mention of how Verizon stacks up.  Does anybody know anything to good or bad about them?  I've got some research to do.  


I'm back!

Sorry that I've been a neglectful blogger for the last (eeeak!) month. I've got a collection of excuses I could list here, but I'll keep this brief and just say that I'm glad you're still here, and please know that I am too.  I am now home with time to spare and without bloggers block.  Yes, I've got some things to say, and I'm once again excited to say them.  So I'm gonna get started on those posts, and beg your forgiveness for neglecting my readers the past few weeks.   


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

bad economy = better earth

More good news today about our failing economy.  As I've written before, I don't mean to make light of financial hardship, but I'm pretty excited by how much the economic slowdown that America faces today is instituting a conservation ethic amongst many Americans.  Today's topic: bottled water.

On my way to work this morning I read an article about how Americans were turning away from bottled water, back to tap water, because the cost of bottled water is simply not worth it anymore.  You can read the same article here.  As people have begun to look for ways to cut costs in the face of a bad economy, many are waking up to the fact that bottled water adds up to a huge annual expense, especially if it's your main source of drinking water.  

The article only briefly mentions the environmental implications of this changing trend- but of course that's what I'm most excited about.  It's not just eliminating the waste of the plastic bottles, but also the production process of those bottles, toxic chemicals involved, the transportation of getting filled bottles from production to consumers, and the draining of certain water resources being tapped by major industry bottled water.  Household filters have become very easily accessible (yes, they've got their environmental footprint too) so Americans no longer have the excuse of their local tap water not being quality enough to drink.  The article points out that a reverse osmosis water filtration system that costs $200 every 18 months for maintenance is still much cheaper than an annual supply of bottled water. 

While I'm celebrating this small victory for the environment, I'm nervous that free and seemingly unlimited tap water does nothing to encourage water conservation. Despite the high cost of bottled water, I suspect it made water conservation habits worse by allowing people to disregard the quality of their local freshwater systems and believe that as long as there is safe drinking water somewhere in the world, they will always have access to it through their wallets.  With tap water, Americans are still largely allowed to take their drinking water for granted because they are so removed the original source of that water, and the process required to get clean water to their tap.  There is much work to do to ensure the sustainability of clean water for future generations and for the global population, but in the mean time I am thrilled to see hints of the beginning of the end of the bottled water market. Let's hope it lasts. 

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Oh, things.

I came across an article today in Time Magazine called How to Live With Just 100 Things.  As a self-identified anti-consumerist/pack-rat, I was naturally drawn to the title, which led me to the story of a guy named Dave, who has committed to narrowing down his possessions to just 100 items by November 2008, and will continue to live with only those 100 items for one year.  He counts some collections (like socks, or books) as one collective item, and has given himself permission to bend or break rules as needed down the line, and I don't blame him for that. Making your goals realistic is the most important part of setting goals, especially when your goals involve drastic lifestyle changes that need to last.  Even with these allowances, the 100 Thing Challenge is certainly a challenge, and it's left me looking around my apartment, wondering what number my many belongings add up to. 

A main goal of the challenge, as I understand it, is to change one's relationship with things. It isn't just about de-cluttering, as Dave explains, but about breaking a deep-routed addiction to stuff.  I can relate to that desire.  I might abhor shopping, but I still love things. I collect and save stuff more than most people I know, and I find great joy in the things I keep.  (Free things are the best, found things come in a close second, and sometimes, I'll settle for purchased things--preferably used, but that choice isn't always possible.)  There are many types of pack rats, and I'm the type who sees a usefulness in everything.  Everything is either a tool or a piece of art in my book, and my home functions as the tool shed/museum for these treasures.  

I admit, though, that things can be a great burden too. First of all, you have to find a place for all of them.  The more stuff you have, the more room you need or the more organized you need to be.  I'm short on space and organization, but puttering with my things is one of my favorite past times, like a puzzle that constantly resorts itself and is never quite finished.  Secondly, possessions can be a burden in their tendency to own you as soon as you give them more weight than they are worth. That can be dangerous.  If freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, then stuff is another word for something else to worry about.  

Materialism is fascinating. The relationships between people and their belongings develop from such strong feelings as desire, dependency, and love.  The appeal of consumption and advertising is both a product and a cause of those relationships, and a cycle is formed where things begin to fulfill 'needs' that are much more complex than survival, and the pursuit of those things leaves new emotional gaps, which evolve into new material needs.  As an environmentalist, mass consumption and materialism are some of the most pressing issues challenging sustainability and the environment. And as a pack rat, I am frustrated by how much I am attached to my things, and how seductive new things can be, despite their burden.  

During college, I studied abroad in Samoa to immerse myself in a culture with a wildly different take on materialism than the one I was raised in. For the most part, people don't really "own" things in Samoa.  They merely "use" things.  It sounds like a matter of semantics, but I assure you, this lack of material attachment was one of the biggest cases of culture shock that the group of Americans I was studying with had to tackle when we arrived in Samoa, myself included.   The Samoan word for "give" and "take" is the exact same word.  Wealth is not defined by what you own, but rather what you give away.  These were valuable lessons for an American who previously thought communal living was a thing of the ancient past, and that Western notions of materialism were universal.   

It is a life-long goal of mine to continue to address my love-hate relationship with materialism.  I wish Dave all the best with his 100 Thing Challenge, and I applaud him for taking this difficult challenge head-on. If I ever get around to counting my things, I'll be sure and let you know how this anti-consumerist pack rat stacks up.  



Saturday, June 14, 2008

Stimulating bad habits

I've been wanting to write a post about the economy, well, since before I even had a blog really.  Reports that the US was slipping into a recession early this year came to most Americans as bad news.  I don't mean to glorify financial hardship, but I was genuinely excited about the recession and what it might imply.  Predictions of the recession were based largely on statistics showing that Americans were shopping less.  The government's solution was to send stimulus checks to taxpayers, hoping the tax refund would inspire more shopping, and thus pump enough money back into circulation for the economy to prevent a true recession.  

My secret hope for the existing economic slow-down was that it had nothing to do with how much money Americans had access to, but that Americans were changing their shopping habits out of a growing awareness of the environmental and social repercussions of consumption.   My optimistic theory was supported by several news articles about generation YAWN (young and wealthy, but normal) who live well below their means for conscientious reasons.   I was hoping that stimulus checks would result in no visible increase in spending habits, and that we'd see further proof that Americans were finally learning the true meaning of "simple living."

But alas, the AP has reported otherwise this week.  The article says that consumers stepped up their shopping in response to the stimulus checks that were sent out last month, and that economists feel more secure as a result of the recent increase in retail sales.  

I'm a little disappointed that my theory about the economic slow down did not hold true, or at least has not proven to be true so far.  I'm still holding on to some optimism about high gas prices and the possibility that they might inspire lasting changes in American's energy habits; not just driving but electricity consumption and consumption overall.  I'll keep an eye out for other clues that support or deride my theory on the American economy and the possible rise of in environmental conscientiousness, and in the meantime I'll keep a little faith that consumption patterns can change based on environmental or social awareness.  

Sincerely, Amelia 

Saturday, June 7, 2008

There is no away, only a waste

The society I live in doesn't just waste- it fosters a culture of wastefulness; it encourages waste; and it profits off of waste-at least in the short term.  As for the long term, there isn't much concern for it when it comes to our habits with waste.  Consumer culture, from an economist's point of view, is much better off with waste in the picture.  And from the consumer's perspective, waste is out of sight and out of mind. 

The ability to profit off of waste is made possible by the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is when something is produced in such a way that it will fall apart and need to be replaced for some functional reason. There is a careful balance of being well enough made that the consumer still trusts the producer to buy the same product again, but poorly enough that they feel the need to replace the original product altogether.  Kitchen disposables are an example, but this category has grown to include more and more types of products.  A lot of new clothes are made now to last just long enough to get you through a season, and by the time the style is out of fashion, the clothes have also started to fall apart. (Think H&M, a popular clothing store with essentially disposable clothes.) 

The style factor is what's known as perceived obsolescence.  Items that are in perfectly good condition might be considered garbage simply because they have gone out of fashion.  This allows producers to target the same consumers with new 'needs' constantly and indefinitely.  Clothes aren't the only thing that go in and out of fashion, though.  Cars, furniture, electronics, even houses go through phases of popular design changes, and consumers are encouraged to keep up with the ever-changing standards of what is 'in.'  

As long as every consumer is either forced by function or encouraged by form to shop more, the economy has little incentive to shift its habits away from this culture of wastefulness. What's worse, consumers are so far removed from the waste they produce that it is rarely even an after thought.  While proper waste management is an important aspect of the solution needed here, true sustainability calls for a shift in the world's mindset towards waste. 

From the producer's perspective, this means waste=food.  I don't mean eat shit, I mean recycle and reuse contents of old items to make new and improved items. It's been proven by many pioneers of industry (Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. is one such hero), but it hasn't caught on by the mainstream just yet. I am optimistic that eventually it will be widely understood that this model of production is the only way humanity can sustain itself as we face new limits of nonrenewable resources. 

From the consumer's perspective, this means getting to know your waste, and changing your relationship with it.  Find out what happens to your trash after the garbage man takes it from your curb.  Find out what waste is caused by your consumption upstream from you, in the production, packaging and marketing process of the items you buy. Go visit your local landfill to see what "away" really looks like.  

The most fundamental way you can change your relationship with waste is to stop thinking of it as going "away."  Incinerated garbage produces toxic air pollution.  Landfill garbage piles up eventually, (look what happened to Naples, Italy) and puts chemicals into the ground and water. Toxic chemicals in my drinking water is not what I have in mind when I say waste equals food.  

Simply put, there is no away.   Our language about garbage should reflect this fact.  Rather than saying "I am throwing it away" imagine if we instead said "I am wasting it."  This shift in language habits would have a great impact on how we think about our trash, and eventually, how we act with trash.  A better awareness of the consequences of consumption and waste opens the door to new actions. Consumers have the ability (and the responsibility) to choose higher quality, longer lasting products, and products that follow the model of waste=food.  

If you'd like to learn more about this, I'd recommend the book Cradle to Cradle- check it out in my recommended reading list on the right.  

Another nice recap of this concept of closing the loop of waste and production is the video The Story of Stuff

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

not a paper cup, but not perfect either

Strolling through Whole Foods this weekend, I came across an interesting new consumer product:  a ceramic cup, made to look like a paper cup.  

The concept is innocent:  one reusable item that can be purchased to replace countless disposable items, cutting down on waste and minimizing use of natural resources.  In early January when the eco-trendy-blog-world first caught wind of I am not a paper cup, the product was praised for being smart and having a great sense of humor. At the risk of appearing to not have a sense of humor myself, I'll admit that I'm totally irked by I am not a paper cup. Luckily I too have a blog on which to vent about it. 

First and foremost, why must it look like a plain paper cup?  I congratulate the designers at DCI, who created the porcelain base and silicon top to identically match a nondescript white paper cup and a white plastic lid.  But what message does this give?  If I saw someone drinking out of this cup, I would have no idea that they weren't drinking out of a paper cup.  Half the excitement of environmentalism being so trendy right now is how easily you can wear your values on your sleeve, spreading the good word of green far and wide.  But if it looks like you're using a regular paper cup, someone else with a real paper cup will just blend in, and not feel any pressure to switch to reusable alternatives. I hate to advocate guilt tripping as a method of spreading environmental ethics, but you have to admit it's been effective in the past.  

Beyond the lack of guilt it assigns, using something that is eco-friendly but in disguise as something harmful seems to defeat the purpose of leading by example.  Of course there is value in doing something good and letting it go unnoticed.  But while cultural support for environmentalism is still young and fragile I think it is important and necessary to foster that support by proudly showing off every choice to go green, big and small. So why make a reusable cup that is indiscernible from a disposable cup?  I would at least have liked them to plainly say "I am not a paper cup" on the cup itself to get the message across more clearly.  

The second thing that irks me about these cups is that they each cost around $20.  If there's one way to ensure that the green movement remains a fringe trend, it is to make it inaccessible to the masses.  I'm sure it was expensive to make, but twenty bucks for something that looks like a piece of trash is a bit absurd.  It's right up there with those pre-torn jeans.  On top of that, everyone I know who goes to coffee shops regularly and leaves with disposable paper cups in hand is guaranteed to already have plenty of reusable mugs at home that they are choosing not to use.  So what great service is this new trendy cup offering? Are the consumers of this product actually more likely to use it than any other thermos-type mug they may already own, or could purchase just about anywhere for less money? Most other reusable to-go mugs I've seen are larger, more sturdy and durable, and more versatile than this one.  Somehow I'm skeptical that spending $20 on something that looks like a small paper cup is actually going to do the trick of impacting the planet for the better. 

My suspicion is that this trendy gadget will be a popular gift among affluent consumers, and that because the product itself doesn't say "I am not a paper cup" anywhere on it except for on its (plastic) packaging, owners will choose to keep it inside said packaging, resting on a shelf, and will never actually put the object to use.  If that's not a royal waste of materials, I don't know what is. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


We all know that green is in.  It has become trendy enough that even the least green markets are able to capitalize on it.  Sweatshop-produced clothing can now be found with cutesy phrases about nature, loving your mother, and going organic.  While the content of these messages might be green, the contradictions and hypocrisy in how that shirt came to be are a bit unsettling.  (I personally love this image as a symbol of how far the trend has gone.  Thanks to Keith at the Unsuitablog for this image and other great subverts.)  I call this Individual Greenwashing.  

As individuals make the shift toward green living- whether sincerely making changes in their daily habits or just buying into the trendy and high-profile opportunities to look green, businesses and brands are finding a high profitability in aligning themselves with the green movement as well.  Part of this is hopefully a true shift in priorities for industry, based on the recent realizations that business has an impact well beyond what is immediately visible from corporate headquarters.  But a good part of it is still just for show.  Like an individual who slaps a "save the polar bears" bumper sticker on their SUV and hopes that no one notices their carbon footprint, a company that brags about being green (but has little to show for it) is dangerous for a gullible society like ours. 

Hunter Lovins was recently interviewed by Sustainable Industries, and when the topic of greenwashing came up, she said that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing.  "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change" said Lovins.  I see her point, and I agree that trying to look good is at least acknowledging that being good is something to strive for.  She goes on in the interview with some examples of companies like GE that started out with blatantly misleading claims of being green. Upon seeing how profitable the green-looking programs were, they decided to do more to actually become green, in order to capitalize on the trend further.  So we've got that to celebrate.  But are companies today being rewarded for actions they aren't taking at the Earth's expense? You betchya. 

As consumers, we can avoid greenwashing by becoming familiar with various certifications, and then shop accordingly.  "All Natural" and other vague claims on food are usually examples of greenwashing.  If the food actually meets any green standards, it should be certified organic, which is available internationally.  Paper and wood should have the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, and you should only buy it if it does. The US Green Building Council has done wonders to standardize a certification process for eco-friendly construction, so you can look for proof of LEED certification from any company that is either remodeling or constructing, in order to tell whether or not they are actually walking the walk.  Reeve Consulting from Canada has done a nice run down of other things consumers should think about and look for to avoid supporting greenwashers.  They also point out the EcoLogo, which started in Canada and is now being used more widely in North America, and Fair Trade Certification, which is internationally recognized.  

These are just a few examples of ways to weed out the greenwashers from the sincere green businesses.  I'd like to note that sometimes even these certifications can be abused.  If a company is environmentally harmful in most of its actions but prints its annual reports on FSC certified paper, they should know that this one good action is not enough.  After all, you can't slap a "save the polar bears" bumper sticker on your SUV and hope that no one notices your carbon footprint.  

If you have other tips or suggestions for folks on ways to avoid supporting greenwashers (or to at least be aware when you are supporting them), please feel free to comment.  


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Roots in the soil

I heard a great story recently during a talk by Bill Wallauer, a videographer for the Jane Goodall Institute who has been living in Gombe National Park in Tanzania for over a decade.  It's not really a great story, it's a very sad story, but it's a great metaphor. 

The local people who live outside of Gombe are mostly farmers on steep inclined hillsides.  Slash and burn is the common method used there to clear the land for new agriculture: the farmers burn sections of the forest and, once everything else is gone, they plant crops in the remaining soil.  Problem is, this method kills all vegetation including root systems, and for the farmers who used the method on hillsides, it had some very serious side effects.  Shortly after one series of prescribed burns, there was a mudslide that caused the death of several children; I believe he said that seven or eight kids died in the massive landslide.  Afterwards, local conservationists came to the town where this happened and asked the farmers if they knew why the mudslide had occurred.  They didn't.  

Bill Wallauer used this story as an example of how crucial environmental education is.  The local people who had been living there for generations had no idea that the roots of the plants they had aimed to obliterate were essential to holding the soil together.  By killing the plants, they weakened the root systems that held the hillside together, and without those deep roots, the hillside collapsed into the homes below.  

The metaphor occurred to me a few days after hearing Bill's talk, that the human race as a whole is doing the same thing.  We are only beginning to understand that many natural catastrophes are direct impacts of our actions.  Like killing the roots that hold up the very hillsides we live on, we live recklessly with ecosystems, climate, and natural resources which we depend on. We lack the proper education and discourse to show that our mundane lifestyle choices have such a vast range of side effects. 

Even in the most developed places where education is so prevalent, environmental education is still not as established as it needs to be.  Such an education must link individual consumption, waste disposal habits, eating habits, travel and transportation habits, and energy use, which have been acceptable for many generations, to the large scale environmental degradation that we're seeing around the globe such as climate change and habitat loss.  Only when we understand these linkages, and I'm glad that the connections are starting to be made more and more often, will we be willing to change our habits and lifestyles.  Education is the first step toward this change. 

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cutting Costs

I'll admit it.  I think my environmentalism comes from being cheap.  I also think my creativity comes from that same frugality, as does my skill set as a bona fide pack rat.  They all compliment each other quite well, and I'd have a harder time living by my environmental convictions if I were as spend-happy as the average American.  Yes, I do have the rare but existent impulse buys and hypocritical purchase cravings that I occasionally give into if I can't fight them off, but by and large, it's great to be a cheap environmentalist.  It's a bit of the 'chicken or the egg' phenomenon: I could easily say that I am thrifty in order to lighten my ecological footprint, and that is mostly true today, but my preferred lifestyle choices are certainly conducive to "simple living" in terms of low-consumption and low-impact, and in that sense I know I'm lucky.  I'm lucky because living by my ideals usually isn't a struggle for me.  

Let's take a few steps back to see what I mean.   Something in the house breaks (say a wooden stool) and I don't want to throw it in a landfill or deplete the Earth's resources by purchasing new item to replace it?  Great, we have a craft project!  Notice I didn't even mention the money I saved by not buying a new one, but there was a point in my life where the cost factor would have been a bigger deal in my decision-making process.  Regardless of what drove the decision to fix the broken stool over chucking it and buying a new one, the decision we made there was cost-effective and environmentally sound. 

Mike actually gets credit for this craft project. (Not only is being thrifty conducive to an environmentally friendly lifestyle, but having a thrifty and crafty boyfriend is too!) 

The stool top is made of several pieces of wood, and they were coming apart (that's what happens when you find used stools in alley ways).  So Mike took an old Altoid box and screwed both the top and bottom over the crack on the bottom of the stool.  The other metal piece in the middle is from a broken electric stapler that we took apart a long time ago. I had saved this metal scrap because it looked like an exclamation mark and I thought it would be a nice touch for a mixed media/collage piece, but function over form called for a new use.  Anyway, after screwing the Altoid box pieces and metal exclamation mark right over the crack on the bottom of the stool's seat, the stool is now as good as new.  Voila!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Welcome to Sincere Green

I'm a little late jumping on the blog band wagon, and part of my hesitation in being here is the concern that maybe I don't have anything new to say or unique to add to the environmental movement today.  As I wrote in the description of this blog, Green is 'in' right now, and it's a dream come true for me to see it be embraced by the mainstream.  On the flip side, I am terrified of how trendy it has become, for fear that this flame will burn out as quickly as it was lit. I'm also admittedly disappointed that my beloved cause has become another consumer category.  Buying green is an excuse to buy more, and to me that largely defeats the purpose. 

My goal for this blog is to share with you ways that I've found to live green, partially to show how easy it can be.  I've always been an advocate for leading by example.  I try sincerely to do that, and I realize that a blog on this newfangled world wide web will make the reach of my example much further, and will allow me to share my insights and experiences with more people.

I'm also two years out of college, and find myself yearning for the reading, writing, and discussion opportunities that an environmental studies undergraduate program once offered me. I'd like to use this medium to explore ideas I have or learn about relating to the environmental movement.  My undergraduate degree was actually in an interdisciplinary field that I developed, pulling in environmental studies and sociology to look at consumerism and the cause-affect relationship (read: harm) it has on people and the natural world.  You'll no doubt see my passion for this topic come out in future entries, and you'll also see the sociologist in me trying to break everything down in sociology terms.  

Lastly, I am really hoping to find some readership to this blog for the sake of starting a two-way conversation and hearing your feedback to my ideas and ponderings.  So please, leave a note if you feel so inclined, and let me know what you think.