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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Wednesday
Apr202011

Eco-Travel Part 1: Avoiding Greenwashing and Exploring Transportation Options

Spring has officially arrived—and with it warmer weather, longer days, and the anticipation of vacation travel.  

I have long been aware that my wanderlust may be my biggest obstacle in a quest to live a more eco-friendly life.  Hotels and resorts are known to have huge environmental impacts.  Travel to destinations (especially those off the beaten path) often require very carbon unfriendly means of transportation.

As I have begun to plan and embark on my travels this year, my search to discover green travel destinations was both encouraging and sobering.  The issue of global warming has become a reality for many industries, including tourism.  Over the next few weeks, I will dive into the eco-travel world, share a few good resources, and profile an incredible solar-powered resort I had the good fortune to recently visit. 

Before You Book… Be Wary of Greenwashing

Across sectors, “green” or “eco” branding has become a lucrative business.  Consumers are now more conscious of environmental issues and want to feel good about their purchases.  Marketing and advertisements inundate us with product claims, comparisons, and green promises.  More information, however, does not always mean better options.  The abundance of green products that are not what they claim to be—called greenwashing—is problematic in almost every consumer driven industry.  This is particularly true of the travel industry, where advertisements for eco-friendly lodging and experiences are prolific.

Unfortunately, not every destination that touts its environmentally friendly offerings actually lives up to its claims.  My solution to this problem—don’t take an eco or green label at face value.  Do a bit of digging.  Find out the true environmental implications.  If a place or product truly is green, the reasons why should be transparent and readily accessible.  If there is a void of information, be skeptical—this could be the result of greenwashing.

Getting Where You Want to Go: Transportation Costs

Transportation is typically the first consideration for any vacation planning.  Yet getting where you want to go can be one of the more environmentally costly aspects to travel.  Below are a few of the tips and suggestions I’ve collected in my own vacation planning process:

1.     Stay close to home

The most intuitive solution to the transportation problem is simply to travel less.  Generally, the closer you stay to home, the lower your carbon impact.  Local travel is often more affordable, provides an opportunity to understand the history or engage in the cultural offerings in your area, and benefits your local economy and businesses. 

2.     Travel low-carbon

Airplanes are the carbon costliest means of travel.  Cars are also high carbon emitters.  Trains and buses are better options—whenever practical, I try to forgo air and auto travel and explore rail, public transit, or bicycles. 

3.     Offset if necessary

Sometimes, planes are a necessary evil of our travel plans.  I recently learned about several of the organizations that invest money in carbon beneficial projects to offset air travel.  I use carbonfund.org whenever I fly—although there are a number of reputable companies to fit your offsetting preferences.

4.     Stay longer

One of my favorite tips I’ve seen comes from Rough Guides travel books, which simply recommends that you fly less and stay longer.  It makes sense—the longer you stay, the more value you get for the carbon costs of your travel.  Aside from my sheer love of travel, this also gives me a little added incentive to prolong my vacations and learn even more about the places I decide to explore.

Thursday
Mar312011

Fashion Footprint: Negotiating the Eco Fashion Landscape

Coco Chanel once said that "fashion is not something that exists in dresses only.  Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening."  For some, clothing is a form of expression.  For others, it is merely a necessary evil that one faces before stepping out into the world every morning.  Either way, most of us do not consider how our clothes are made, the source of their materials, or the energy required. 

Navigating the constantly changing fashion world can be confusing: new trends, old trends becoming new trends, and hundreds of different companies.  Factor in the environmental implications of our wardrobe, which requires a life-cycle analysis of production, distribution, and durability, and the industry seems impossible to understand.  This facet of my life has always been one that lacked clarity and that I hoped to gain a better understanding of in the process of this journey.  Here is what I have found:

There are several companies and resources emerging that clarify the footprint of clothing on a broader level.  Global Action Through Fashion is a great place to start and facilitates ethical fashion by providing educational and informational resources for consumers and producers in the fashion industry. 

In the UK, a company called Carbon Continental Clothing has launched a line of clothes that provide the carbon footprint of the entire lifecycle of the item—including raw materials, manufacturing, consumer use and disposal.  However, most of the fashion industry has a long way to go before it approaches an acceptable level of product and material transparency.

The setbacks are many: multiple ways of calculating carbon and environmental impact; a lack of standardization for quality; and little incentive (e.g. consumer pressure) to change.  Raw materials are often responsible for much of the environmental impact created by clothing and shoes, as a comparison of leather hiking boots to synthetic flip-flops shows (about 150-200 pound carbon footprint versus between 20-30 pounds).  Yet, we rarely know what goes into our clothes.

Fortunately, there are companies making fantastic, climate friendly products.  Most of these offer information about the source of their materials and their environmental impact.  There are also savvy and beautiful eco-fashion web-based magazines, like Coco Eco (visually stunning and informative) and Eco Fashion World’s brand guide, that add clarity to the confusing world of eco fashion.

Through these resources, I have discovered a number of great designers and companies at a wide-range of price points.  Below are a few of my favorite brands—all make great clothes in an environmentally responsible manner. 

—  Nau: With a motto to unf**ck the world, how could they not be cool?  Nau not only makes beautiful and beautifully fitting clothing out of recycled products, it also donates 2% of every purchase to an environmental or social/humanitarian organization of your choice.   

—  Patagonia: The original heavyweight and leader in the sustainable outdoor gear world.  Environmental stewardship seems synonymous with Patagonia’s brands, which has helped push it into the competitive ranks of its larger, more traditional competitors.  Patagonia was one of the first companies to bring environmental issues into the consumer dialogue and offers insight into their production decisions on the their website in a section called The Footprint Chronicles, which maps material travel distance, energy footprint, CO2, and details the good and bad of the product.  However, Patagonia sometimes decides cost concerns outweigh environmental impact and source traditional rather than recycled materials. 

—  Beau Soleil: uses bamboo fabrics, vegetable dyed organic cottons, vintage, tencel made of eucalyptus trees fibers and antique and recycled details. They promote fair trade labor practices and maintain a simple, chic women’s line.  Their price point is a bit high—although some pieces are more affordable—but their business practices are admirable.

—  TerraCycle: takes waste and turns it into consumer products.  TerraCycle has created national recycling systems and collection systems in 11 countries, with 14 million people submitting waste.  Their goal is to eliminate waste by creating collection and solution systems for all trash.

—  Timberland: Leather, by nature, has terrible environmental implications, which is what makes Timberland’s move to label all of its products with carbon footprint labels scoring their impact surprising and commendable.  Timberland also has its own climate strategy.  While the company's calculations are subject to debate, at a minimum they elevate the role transparency plays in consumer goods—never a bad thing.  

With companies like these, we can now express who we are, and what we represent, in a more environmentally responsible way.  Style is its own language and the statement we make—in choosing what to wear and how it is made—can be powerful (and of course, still look fabulous).  

Sunday
Mar202011

Tackling the Grocery Store: The Impact of Food - Part 2

Last week focused on the grocery store behaviors that impact our carbon footprint.  Equally important and the topic of this week's post are the food decisions we make and their impact on the environment.

The health benefits and risks associated with food are widely discussed, albeit not always understood by the general consumer (check out summertomato for tips on healthy eating).  However, the ecological impact of our food is not the first thing that comes to mind when choosing what to buy.  Our shopping habits and biases often lead us to choose the most visually appealing, familiar, or cheapest option.  To overcome these shopping biases, I have found it helpful to consider the following general rules:

1.   Buy local

The greatest carbon impact of many foods comes from its transportation.  A tremendous amount of energy is required to ship food and keep grocery stores stocked with the variety we have come to expect.  In places with short growing seasons, like Britain, up to 95% of fruits and more than half of vegetables are imported.

The U.S. is the second leading importer of food, behind the European Union.  While the cost of food has increased—with the value of fresh fruit and vegetables doubling in the U.S. from 2000 to 2006—current food prices do not reflect the environmental costs involved in ensuring its delivery to our local store.

In Europe, this misalignment might be changing.  The European Commission announced that all freight coming into and out of the EU will require permits under the emissions-trading program by 2012.  The U.S. is slow to promulgate environmentally based regulation, but this does not mean that one day the cost of our globalized foods won't more adequately reflect the distance of its travel.

The best solution to this problem: buy local, seasonal products rather than those that have been shipped across the country or halfway around the world.  The footprint from transportation of local food is bound to be less, and you have the added satisfaction of supporting local growers.

Note: some foods that travel long distances may have less environmental impact than local products, if these products are grown in energy-intensive greenhouses.  Buying both local and organic ensures that travel and energy costs are minimized.

2.   Pick fresh over frozen or canned

Freezing and canning both require quite a bit of energy.  Canned foods also pose a health risk due to the high BPA content of the lining (even higher than plastic water bottles).  This is frightening considering that the FDA estimates 17% of the American diet comes from canned foods.

Look for fresh produce alternatives and consider canning your own fruits and vegetables in glass jars.  If you do buy canned foods, buy from companies that offer BPA free cans.

3.    Minimize refrigerated products

Storing frozen and refrigerated food also has a surprising impact on the carbon footprint of a product.  Take beer, for example.  In a recent study, New Castle brewery found that the greatest impact on the footprint of a six-pack of its beer, which is about 7 pounds of carbon, came from its refrigeration in stores.

Encourage your local store to minimize its refrigeration section and seek out enclosed rather than open-air refrigerated products.  Open-air refrigeration pours cool air into stores and eats up large amounts of energy in the process.  Most beverages do not need refrigeration.  Instead, buy beverages at room temperature and store them that way until they need cooled.

4.    Avoid the cow, and other meats if you can

If you are really serious about your carbon footprint, you might want to reduce your meat and dairy consumption.  Dairy and beef production requires a lot of water and energy.  Cows need land to graze—land that is plowed, fertilized, and sometimes loaded with pesticides; feed, which is often heavily processed; and energy and equipment for slaughter and distribution.

The average cow produces the equivalent of four tons of CO2 annually, mainly in the form of methane, which is 25 times as damaging to the atmosphere as CO2.  The carbon footprint of a single gallon of milk (in a plastic container) is somewhere between 6-7.5 pounds, although recent studies have found it might be closer to double this amount.

Beef has a carbon footprint estimated at anywhere from 10:1 to 20:1 ratio—that's 15 pounds of CO2 for every pound of beef on average.  Pork and chicken produce less CO2 but still far more than fruits and vegetables.  It has been estimated that a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on in your home.

Despite these grim statistics, I still enjoy the occasional piece of meat or exotic fruit.  Moderation is my new mantra—I will not give up my cheese addiction and I am not a vegetarian, but I am more conscious of the source and quantities of the foods I purchase.

Sunday
Mar132011

Tackling the Grocery Store: Plastic Bag Rehab & Shopping Tips - Part 1

Grocery shopping can seem overwhelming—shelves of similar products in various shapes and sizes, rows of frozen and canned foods, and a mosaic of brightly colored fruits and vegetables available regardless of the season. 

Added to this confusion are a few entrenched (and environmentally problematic) shopping tendencies: (1) the use plastic bags and packaging; (2) thinking the cheaper choice is the better choice; and (3) not thinking about where our food actually comes from.  Fortunately, variety means other equally viable options also exist. 

Each of these shopping habits has a number of simple, climate responsible, alternatives.  Here are a few of my shopping solutions (later posts will follow to address our food decisions):

1.  Bring your own produce bags…

or better yet, avoid using plastic bags entirely.  Why do apples or oranges need separate plastic bags?  Most of the produce we buy can be purchased without packaging.  For those items that may need a bag (including bulk items), consider bringing your own bag with you.  Reuse produce, bread, or old shopping bags.  If you are forgetful, as I am, keep a couple handy in your car or bike bag.

2.  Bring your own grocery bag

For the last decade, plastic bags have been the target of many local initiatives.  San Francisco banned them in 2007 and is considering expanding this ban to all merchants.  Designers started anti-plastic bag campaigns.  By now, most of us are aware that plastic clogs our landfills. 

The carbon footprint of plastics varies but has been estimated at 6 kg of CO2 per kg of plastic produced.  Certain plastics have also been linked to various health risks.  The alternatives to disposable grocery bags are many—and come in all shapes, colors and fabrics.  They are portable, and like produce bags, can be stored in a convenient place for any grocery or shopping run.  

3.   Buy in bulk 

Buying larger quantities of non-packaged goods will reduce your trips to the grocery store and cut down on your overall packaging (and hence environmental) footprint.  For those serious about their carbon impact, consider bringing in your own bulk containers or a reusable bag, as described above.

4.  Packaging—less is more

Think about the amount and type of packaging of the food products you purchase.  Not all packaging has the same impact.  As I will discuss next week, the canning and freezing process requires a lot of energy.  Consider buying fresh fruits and vegetables (and local produce). 

Products with less packaging, or compostable packaging, reduces waste and the amount you send to the landfill.  For certain products, look for refills (like personal care and cleaning products). 

If you still find that layers of packaging in certain products as troublesome as I do, use your voice, or purchasing power to let companies know how you feel.  This can be an effective advocacy tool, especially given that retailers and consumer products companies rely on you for continued existence.

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This blog is a space to consider environmental issues and our impact on the natural world.  Sometimes, the world shows us just how powerful and unpredictably it can impact our lives.  This is also a personal blog, and as such I encourage anyone who can to donate money or send thoughts to those suffering in Japan in the wake of the recent earthquake, tsunami, and pressing nuclear concerns.  There are a number of reputable charities doing great work (for a list, click here); I personally turn to MercyCorps to do what I can.  Every act of generosity, no matter how small, matters.

Saturday
Mar052011

Keeping it Clean and Green: Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Products

Growing up, my mother aptly called me “Miss Messy”.  My habit of being outside seeking the muddiest activities only confirmed this characterization.  I also avoided what I thought were mundane, needless tasks like sweeping, dusting, and mopping.  After all, things get dirty again and cleaning just wasn’t, well, cool. 

My younger self would be shocked to see that a clean living space has become one of my priorities.  I have also discovered that there are some really cool, green, and dare I say sexy cleaning products available. 

No longer are Clorox and Ajax the only options.  The problem with these and other traditional cleaners—they use toxic, dangerous chemicals that persist in the environment and linger on nearly every surface in our homes.  In fact, indoor air is 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor urban air.

Much of this pollution comes from conventional cleaning products, which produce some of the same chemical pollutants as smog.  This includes formaldehyde air pollutants and other free radicals linked to cancer.  Cleaning and personal care products also often contain phthalates—linked to asthma and abnormal development—and triclosan—found in antibacterial products and known to disrupt our endocrine systems.  Scary stuff!

For a product category so ubiquitous, isn’t it strange that we don’t know more about what we are putting on our floors, eating surfaces, and bedrooms?

Fortunately, there are several eco and health friendly alternatives.  My favorite for sustainability, creativity, and overall aesthetic reasons is method (in full disclosure, I have close personal connections at method).  Method’s products are beautiful, smell lovely, and do not contain nasty toxic chemicals that contribute to indoor air pollution and health risks.  They are also affordable, equally or more effective, and are not the result of more staid brands greenwashing.  Bonus—they are pretty darn good-looking too.

Some of method’s products, like their lighthouse laundry detergent, use far less water and packaging, which means a greatly reduced carbon footprint.  Another climate friendly alternative is to make your own cleaning product, using a combination of vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda

My call to action for you this week: take a look under and beside your sink.  Find out if your cleaning products are bio-degradable, non-toxic, and healthy.  The Household Products Database provides a list of the most harmful products.  Most major companies should also have a disclosure list of ingredients (what’s inside product __ to find out).  

If you, like many, have more conventional cleaning products, your house and its cleaning products may well need a makeover.   The environment and your health will greatly benefit.