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.