Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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In Vino Veritas: The Carbon Footprint of Wine

I am a wine lover.  As a San Francisco resident, I live near one of the world's most productive wine regions.  Many of our local wines are fantastic, but I also enjoy the occasional glass from other parts of the world.   As I was sharing a bottle of wine with friends a few nights ago, I began to wonder about the impact of my favorite wines.  Does it matter where they came from?  How the grapes were grown?  How the wine is bottled?  From a purely environmental perspective, should I be drinking Bordeaux or California cabernet? 

A study published in the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE)—a niche I never knew existed before this week!— explored the carbon impact of wine production from the vineyard to your wineglass.  The study considered the carbon emissions of four factors: (1) the cultivation of grapes, including production of agrichemicals and use of fuel; (2) the fermentation process; (3) the production and transport of barrels and bottles; and (4) the shipping of the final product.     

Land, Air, or Sea?  The Method of Transportation Matters

It turns out that transportation is the single largest contributor to the carbon footprint of wine.  The authors of the AAWE study, an NYU professor of wine and a sustainability expert, discovered that the method of transportation dramatically affects the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine.  Their findings led them to create a “green line” dividing the U.S. and running roughly through Ohio down, through Southern Texas. 

For wine drinkers West of this line, it is more carbon efficient to drink wine trucked from California—where more than 95% of the wine in United States is made.  To the East of the line, it’s more efficient to consume the same sized bottle of wine from France or Australia, both of which travel via more carbon efficient container ships, followed by a shorter truck trip.

These surprising results come from the dramatic difference in the carbon efficiency of transportation.  Unrefrigerated container ships are the most efficient—although they use very dirty fuel and emit other nasty pollutants in great volume—followed by trucks, and finally airplanes.  Air cargo can be delivered in a matter of hours, compared to the lengthy time required by container ships, but have over 11 times the carbon emissions

This means that it is more carbon efficient for a New Yorker to drink a glass of Bordeaux or Australian Shiraz than a glass of California wine.  In fact, wine traveling from Sydney to New York has less than a quarter of the carbon emissions as one trucked from California.  The efficiencies of container ships extend even to Los Angeles, where it is slightly more carbon efficient to drink wine from Chile or Australia than it is from Napa, where wine must travel over 400 miles by truck.  Below is a chart, put together by TreeHuger, which illustrates the study’s findings:

French Wine Best for East Coast USA If you live in New York your options, best to worst, are:

  • Bordeaux, France (which are shipped via ship) = 0.3 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Chile (also sent by ship) = 0.4 pounds
  • Sydney, Australia (ship, again) = 0.9 pounds
  • Napa, California (driven by truck) = 4.4 pounds

French or Chileans Top Chicago Choice Here's Chicago's break down (it’s ship and then truck for all of them, except California which is all truck):

  • French wines = 1.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Chilean wines = 1.6 pounds
  • Australian wines = 2.1 pounds
  • Californian wines = 3.2 pounds

Los Angeles’s Surprising Choices Chilean wines (very) slightly better than Californian:

  • Chilean wines = 0.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent
  • Californian or Australian wines = 0.6 pounds
  • French wines = 3.0 pounds

Of course, if you live in the Bay area as I do, the choice is obvious—Napa, Russian River, or Sonoma wines have a very small footprint compared to all of the calculations above.  It is also worth noting that transportation by train, if available for wine producers, provides a vastly more carbon efficient alternative to truck transport—trains emit about a quarter of the CO2 that trucks do.   

Other Considerations

The study also considered other factors in wine production, as noted above.  Globally, fertilizers have a notable contribution to green house gases.  However, for wine production, the study concluded that the impact is minimal—although fertilizers contain damaging pollutants.  Similarly, the fermentation process accounted for a small portion of the total carbon emissions associated with wine making. 

Packaging also played a key factor in transportation efficiency and thus, the overall footprint of wine.  Glass is heavy and requires more fuel to transport.  Some winemakers have begun to turn to alternatives to glass and heavy packaging—lighter glass, boxed wine, tetrapacks, and even plastic.  In fact, several producers now package their wines exclusively in tetrapack.  Apparently, these wines can be quite tasty, although I have yet to confirm this for myself. 

For those who cannot seem to let go of the experiential aspect of uncorking a glass bottle of wine, bigger is better.  The larger the bottle, the less its carbon impact.  A magnum has a smaller relative footprint than a standard bottle, which has a smaller relative footprint than a half bottle. 

So… what does all this mean?

If you are trying to “green” your wine drinking, choose larger bottles of wine—preferably organic—that have traveled fewer miles via truck.  For some wine enthusiasts, however, there is more to wine than its carbon footprint.  Sometimes, you might want that glass of French wine in San Francisco or California chardonnay in New York.  And wine’s footprint compared to other agricultural products or factors, has a relatively small impact.  The “green line” is simply another tool to use when considering our environmental impact.


Is Going Green Too Girly? Part 2—Bridging the Green Gap

Last week's post focused on a phenomenum in the environmental movement that is best described as the green gender gap.  Men appear to be shying away from environmentally minded choices because they associate certain green activities and products with femininity.  Conversely, much of the current green branding successfully appeals to women.  Assuming this disparity between genders exists—and ample evidence indicates that it does—how can we narrow the gap?

The Green Gap

Ogilvy Earth set out to understand and provide solutions to the Green Gap.  Their study found that green branding has been missing the largest demographic—the massive middle-of-the-road consumer (or middle greens as the report calls them).  These are individuals who are neither climate change rejectors nor environmental advocates.  To many in the middle, green feels too niche, too crunchy, too girly, or too expensive.  Green products, they might argue, are specialized.  Their preferences reside in the known and mainstream.  Comfort and financial concerns often win out over sustainability.  So how do we appeal to this group?  How do we reach the many men in it?

Bridging the Green Gap: Appealing to Men and the Middle

There are several approaches for bringing men—and the middle—into the eco-lifestyle fold.  One solution is to make products align with more manly pursuits.  Companies that have succeeded using this approach include Patagonia, Clif Bar, and Tesla Motors.  They market experiences, rugged outdoor activities, adventure, and a fast ride.   A green future should be cool, and should be driven less by guilt and more by excitement.  As one of the Eco Knievel panelists aptly called it—we should strive for a form of “sustainable hedonism.”

There is also the “throw-down” approach.  In theory, this tactic offers an eco problem for a man to fix.  Sustainability issues are seen as a throw-down or personal challenge, with the green solution being the way to fix environmental issues.  Certain collaborative environmentally minded technology groups—like SQUID Labs—have taken this approach where the mantra is do not just think.

Finally, there is the hide-the-green-behind-the-product approach.  This form of branding focuses on the product itself rather than its environmental benefits.  It may come in the form of traditional marketing—selling taste, design features, or quality.  The downside in this approach is the assumption that environmental benefit has no consumer value. 

Far preferable, at least in my opinion, is to make green truly mean better—superior products, improved way of life, and preferable experiences.  Perhaps this is not realistic…yet.  I hope that environmental benefit can one day be a value add for mainstream products and experiences.  This may require a cultural shift.  Until this time, maybe its better that marketing focuses on channeling behavior rather than belief.  Maybe the solution lies in some combination of both.  What do you think?


Is Going Green Too Girly? Part 1—The Green Gender Gap

I recently attended a panel discussion—called “Eco Kneivel”—that focused entirely on how to make “green” more masculine.  The panel, comprised of men discussing how to infuse machismo into the green movement, had a predominately female audience.  The fact that the event drew a crowd of mainly women seems symptomatic of the issue that the program sought to address—how to attract men to a cause, lifestyle, and space seemingly dominated by women? 

The event forced me to ask if the environmentalist movement has taken on a feminine persona.  If so, why has this occurred?  Can “green” be gender neutral—or does green branding need to take into account gender differences?

The Green (and Girly) Facts

It turns out that women really do care more about environmental issues—or at least their stated concerns and consumption makes it appear that they do.  A recent study found a gender disparity in climate messaging and green choices.  This is made evident by the fact that over 80 percent of Americans think that going green is more feminine than masculine. 

This gender divide also contributes greatly to a “Green Gap”—the discrepancy between consumers' stated intentions to live more sustainably and their behavior indicating otherwise.  Many men admit they refrain from green activities like driving a hybrid car or carrying reusable bags because they feel too feminine or self-conscious. 

Men also seem less concerned with climate and environmental issues, although only minimally.  A recent analysis of Gallup Poll data revealed that women are slightly more likely to take global warming seriously and believe climate change poses a threat to our way of life.  Yet both genders are responsible for significant CO2 outputs, especially in the U.S.  The average single American woman is responsible for 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and the average single American man 32 tons.  The difference is largely due to driving habits.  However, the similarity—our large carbon footprints relative to the rest of the world—is where the focus should reside. 

Green branding may have succeeded in helping the average female consumer reduce her carbon footprint, at least somewhat.  For men, as many including the Eco Kneivel panelists advocate—sustainability marketing “needs its Marlboro Man moment.”  But perhaps the message, for both genders, has been wrong all along.

Stay tuned for the next post, which will discuss solutions offered to to narrow the green gender gap.


Travel Profile: Prana del Mar—A Solar-Powered Oasis in the Baja Desert

During a time of personal transition, I traveled with a good friend to the Baja Desert in search of a bit of bliss and a few days of quiet from the chaos of daily life.  We were fortunate enough to discover Prana del Mar, a gorgeous environmentally-minded wellness center where we spent a beautiful week practicing yoga and exploring the surrounding area. 

Prana del Mar is a relatively new wellness and retreat center, located about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast.  The property is encircled by beauty—the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains glow purple at sunrise, the ocean sparkles below the fiery sunset sky, and desert cacti pepper the space between.  The design—inside and out—is meticulous and sublime.  Golden buildings blend with the soft sand of the dunes abutting the property.  Outdoor space is cultivated to nurture contemplation—a labyrinth of pale grey stones invite meditative walks and Zen gardens complement cacti and aloe plants.

The rooms are equally beautiful—clean white organic bedding juxtaposed by sleek teak furniture and decor.  As soon as we arrived, my friend and I ran from end to end, exploring our spacious suite that had not one, but two balconies with sweeping views of the ocean to the west and the mountain landscape to the east.

In addition to awe-inspiring aesthetics, Prana del Mar also offers a sustainable, environmentally mindful vacation experience.  The retreat center strives to reduce its impact through environmental stewardship.  It capitalizes on one of the areas greatest natural assets—the sun.  With over 300 days of sunshine on this part of Baja, solar power is the smart and obvious source of power.  All electricity supplied at Prana del Mar comes from on-site solar panels.  The outdoor pool is heated by hot desert sunshine.

Guest options are geared towards conservation.  Linens and towels—all organic—are laundered only when requested.  Upon arrival, we were given reusable metal water bottles—a nice eco-friendly touch.  Drinking water is filtered and placed in ceramic pitchers throughout the facilities and in each suite.  Waste water is treated and reused for irrigation.  Shampoo, soap, and personal care products are supplied in dispensers rather than single use containers and cloth towels and napkins are provided instead of paper. 

We feasted all week.  The food at Prana del Mar is magnificent.  Every meal creatively incorporated local produce and vegetables grown on the property’s organic garden.  Most meals were vegetarian, although several meals featured fresh caught fish.

But the highlight for me—and our purpose for coming—was the yoga and the beautiful room we practiced in.  Our incredible teacher, Jocelyn Krasner, led us through two practices a day in the elevated, sunny yoga room constructed out of strand woven bamboo with a high ceiling palapa style thatched roof.

During the week, Prana del Mar also facilitated our visit to Todos Santos—a local artist community, horseback riding, and surfing at Los Cerritos Beach.  In our free time, my friend and I explored the natural beauty surrounding us, running through the desert hills, walking the beach at sunset, and enjoying an evening hot tub underneath a blanket of stars.  The week, the yoga, the like-minded women I met, and the accommodations at Prana del Mar exceeded my hopeful expectations.  The experience is one that I will carry with me always and proves that we do not have to sacrifice anything to have an environmentally mindful vacation.


Eco-Travel Part II: Lodging and Mindful Consumption

Last week, I learned a bit about greener transportation options for travel.  In addition to how we get to our destination, the place we choose to stay and what we do once we get there greatly impacts our vacation ecological footprint.  Depending on your budget, travel style, and accommodation needs, you can find lodging and activities that suit your preferences while remaining mindful of your ecological impact.

Resources: Where to Stay

What I look for in my travel accommodations is what I strive for at home: energy efficiency, the use of green cleaning products, reduced water consumption, less waste, and food offerings that are local, organic and sustainable.  However, after a fair amount of research, I remain mystified about the environmental certifications and claims of many hotels and resorts.  There are a few programs and rating systems are more transparent and widely accepted. 

Certain certifications, like LEED or Energy Star, provide independent verification of environmental design or energy consumption.  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) looks at the actual design, construction, and operations of a building and uses accepted benchmarks for its certification process.  Energy star is a U.S. government backed program that promotes energy efficiency and rates products and buildings.  While not all eco-friendly hotels and resorts have such certifications, their presence indicates a consistent set of principles and values.

Hotel associations with an eco-friendly mission help travelers navigate the planning process.  Green Hotel Association covers much of the U.S., Canada, a several areas in Mexico, South America, Europe and Canada.  It is member-based, which has drawbacks for smaller, off-the grid locations, but it does provide reviews for its member hotels. 

Other resources include Environmentally Friendly Hotels, which is akin to Trip Advisor for green hotels.  Properties are rated by the number of green trees they receive (as opposed to stars).  There is also Eco Hotels of the World, which is an independent guide that uses a green star-based rating system and profiles hotels throughout the world.

Finally, you can always opt to plan to camp rather than stay at a hotel or inn.  There are hundreds of campsites in beautiful locations that offer a truly intimate way to experience your chosen destination.

Maintain your eco values while you are away

Like many travelers, I like a bit of removal from my reality and reminders of the memories I create during vacation.  A few things I’ve learned that help me embody my core environmental values while in an unfamiliar place: 

­1.   Be a Mindful Consumer

Souvenirs are big business in most vacation destinations.  However, many of these are manufactured miles from where they are sold and don’t really represent the place you’ve traveled.  Instead of buying manufactured trinkets or t-shirts, consider purchasing souvenirs that are made locally.  These include handcrafted artisan work—jewelry, crafts, and art—which often benefits the local community. 

2.   Utilize Technology

Skip the morning paper and get your news online.  Take digital photos instead of film (unless your artistic urges necessities traditional photo processing).  Store maps and itineraries in your electronic devices rather than printing them out on paper.

3.   Opt for the Optional Towel and Bedding Programs

You don’t wash your towels and sheets everyday at home, so why would you need this while on vacation?  Many hotels provide the option not to launder towels and bedding on a daily basis.  While hotels greatly over promote this cost-saving initiative as a form of environmental credit—resulting in greenwashing—taking this option can reduce your water, energy, and laundry detergent consumption. 

Of course, there are many other ways to consider your ecological footprint while traveling.  For me, I’ve found simply remembering my goal—to reduce my ecological impact—helps me make more informed choices and enjoy my time away from home with less worry about the carbon costs.