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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Entries in science (7)


Style and Sustainablity: The Environmental Impact of Handbags 


When I received a request to research the sustainability of handbags, I had two reactions.  First, I felt a surge of guilt, knowing that the leather handbags sitting in my closet are far from eco-friendly.  Second, I thought information and alternatives to traditional products would be easily found.  Nearly every woman I know owns at least one handbag.  Surely, this must mean that information on the issue would be prolific.  I assumed incorrectly.  As I’ve discovered, there is little transparency in the fashion industry.  Unlike other products, there appears to be little push for eco-friendly handbag substitutes and consumers seem content with mainstream design.  I must confess that I have been guilty of purchasing based on aesthetic whim rather than considering looks and environmental impacts.  While the impacts of individual products remains unclear, here is what I was able to learn and what will now inform my future handbag decisions:

The Impacts of Leather

Most designer handbags are made of leather.  Leather requires cows, and raising cows creates impacts due to their grazing, the land needed to raise them, and the carbon emissions they produce.  Leather manufacturing also has environmental costs, at all stages of the three-step process: preparatory stages, tanning, and crusting.  Dehairing during the preparatory stages uses chemicals such as sodium sulfide, sodium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, arsenic sulfide, calcium hydrosulfide, dimethyl amine, and sodium sulphydrate.  This process creates air pollution (hydrogen sulfide during dehairing and ammonia during deliming).  Chemicals are also used in traditional tanning processes, and the amount of energy required to create a usable leather hide is 20 times greater than what is required to produce synthetic materials.

Leather biodegrades, albeit slowly for a natural product.  The 25-40 years it takes for leather to decompose is much shorter than the 500 or more years it takes for petro-chemical derived materials. Where leather production occurs also affects its environmental impacts.  For example, India is the third-largest producer and exporter of leather.  Its lax environmental laws, however, allows tanneries to create far greater amounts of hazardous waste without repercussions.  Producers have dumped wastewater directly into waterways and wetlands.  This occurs in other countries with loose environmental regulations, and at times in those with more stringent laws.

There has been a move by local artisans to use vegetable and naturally tanned organic leather, which greatly reduces the toxicity stemming from the traditional process.  This does not eliminate the ethical and animal-cruelty arguments against leather's use, and the reasons designers like Stella McCartney refuse to incorporate it in their products.  Vegetable tanning also uses the same energy intensive process as its traditional counterpart.

Alternatives to leather are discussed below.  Bear in mind, however, that petro-chemical based materials have vast environmental impacts.  The use of plant-derived or renewable fabrics is on the rise, which offers a promising shift in the handbag industry. 

Environmental costs of traditional production

There has also been a move to place a monetary value on environmental impacts by large corporations.  PPR, parent of upscale designers like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Girard-Perrecaux and Sergion Rossi, claims that it will incorporate the impact of ecosystem services in its reporting by 2015.  This means that monetary costs will be associated with the environmental impact of these companies' products.  Puma, also a PPR brand, recently estimated its ecosystem costs at $196 million a year.  These costs cover water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and land use costs.  Half of these costs are related to raw materials.  Louis Vuitton has also implemented a carbon inventory to measure its footprint and reduce carbon emissions.  They have also agreed to donate 15% of online sales to The Climate Project, but admit that eco-friendly materials are not a priority in its product lines. 

What does this mean for the impact of individual products?  First, that the environmental impact of raw materials—like leather, cotton, and rubber—are not only drastically underestimated in current production, they aren’t a factor at all.  While the promise to estimate impact by these high-end designers is admirable, these costs do not affect companies’ net earnings and are currently not addressed in most corporate reporting.  This means that the impact of a product-line, much less an individual product, is often not calculated.  If it is calculated, it need not be transparent.  Little information exists about these products because such information is not required.  This also means, when selecting an individual product, material matters.  Eco-friendly handbags are made out of eco-friendly materials.  It’s that simple.

Eco-friendly Handbag Materials:

What are eco-friendly materials?  Look for organically grown fibers.  Traditional cotton, for example, requires oil for production and use of pesticides and fertilizers needed for cotton.  Alternatively, organic cotton is durable, washable and reusable and does not rely on pesticides. Bamboo is also an excellent substitute for traditional materials.  Organic fibers are biodegradable and do not require the bevy of chemicals often used in synthetics, or traditional materials via pesticides. 

Recycled materials are also popular in handbags.  Foil wrappers, seat belts, and other recycled materials are repurposed into fashion items.  If you like the look, Ecoist makes an array of recycled handbags.  It’s worth considering, however, that even recycled materials have impacts.  Recycled vinyl, for example, will take 500 years to biodegrade in a landfill and will leach its chemical contents into the ground.  This may make naturally tanned leather preferable. 

As well as being functional, handbags are often a reflection of style, an individual statement used on a daily basis.  For those wishing to make a statement about their commitment to renewable energy, they can invest in a solar powered bag.  Others may wish to choose organic materials or plant-based bags.  In the past, solar bags have meant a sacrifice of style.  Yet the handbags made by Noon Solar are attractive and functional.  They can charge your electronic gadgets in a matter of minutes.  Each is made with vegetable tanned and dyed leather with an interior of organic hemp and cotton hand-dyed with natural pigments.  The hardware and panels are also removable so the bag is fully biodegradable should you ever wish to part with it.   Noon Solar’s collection includes non-solar bags made out of natural materials, including organic hemp, cork and cotton.

Buy Local, Used, or Nothing at All

Before purchasing a new handbag, stop, look in your closet, and consider if you really need a new one.  If you are like me, you probably use the same one or two bags most of the time.  If you are going to get a new bag, you may want to visit a second-hand store.  You can find great vintage or well-loved bags there, and sell or trade one of your own underused bags at the same time.   If you are looking for a unique, new bag, turn to local artisans first.  A simple internet search will turn up many, or visit local craft fairs and ask the vendor how he or she makes their products.  This is a link to a local designer I found in the Bay area.  Local purchase also reduces the impacts from manufacture and transport of large brand-named bags.  Finally, any bag you purchase should be one you intend to use.  Environmental impacts aside, finding a versatile bag will allow you to get more use out of the bag, offers to weather ever-changing trends, and prevents additional purchases and an accumulation of unused bags. 


Greening Your Laundry Habits Part II: Natural Alternatives and Efficient Products

photo credit Jefferson Sisters blog

The environmental impact of laundry is considerable.  In fact, between 75 to 80 percent of the lifecycle of our clothing comes from its washing and drying.  Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives to conventional laundry habits that can significantly reduce your laundry’s eco-footprint.  In addition to reducing the temperature of the water used while washing, as discussed in my last post, ecological impact can be reduced by line drying, purchasing concentrated and eco-friendly laundry detergents, and being smart about the kind of appliances we purchase and use.

Reduce Dryer Use, or Better Yet Line Dry

The dryer uses enormous amounts of energy.  It ranks second in energy use for household appliances, right after the fridge, and accounts for approximately 6% of home energy consumption In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 88 million dryers, each emitting more than a ton of carbon dioxide a year.  On average, this also adds over $70 to your annual energy bill. 

You can save energy, lower your utility bills, and improve your ecological footprint by simply reducing your use of the dryer.  Try line drying all or part of your laundry.  Like washing with cold water, line drying is better for your clothes and increases their longevity.  There are excellent resources that provide tips for line drying, including how to avoid clothes becoming too stiff and products that make line drying easy.

Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergent

Conventional household cleaning products, including laundry detergents, often contain ingredients that are toxic to the environment and human health.  Phosphates—found in some laundry detergents—can wreak havoc downstream on marine life and aquatic habitats.  Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives that are phosphate free and biodegradable.  Look for a detergent that has plant or vegetable derivates rather than being petroleum based. 

In addition to being eco-friendly, your detergent should also be super concentrated.  These detergents come in smaller bottles, which means less packaging and reduced transportation costs (fuel, air impacts, etc).  I use method’s Lighthouse, which is eight times more concentrated than traditional detergents.  There are other concentrated detergents, and the trend towards soaps that contain less liquid is on the rise.  Most of these detergents can be used in cold water cycles, which as we have learned dramatically reduces energy use. 

For the do-it-yourself crowd, making your own laundry detergent is an option—and several sources provide recipes and instructions.  Fabric softeners also should be avoided.  Instead, trying adding a cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle, which naturally balances the pH of the soap and leaves clothes feeling soft. 

Maximize the Efficiency of Your Appliances

The kind of washer and dryer you use is also a factor in the environmental impact of your laundry.  For example, switching to an Energy Star washer reduces energy use by 50% and can save up to 7,000 gallons of water each year.  Treehugger estimates that over an 11-year lifecycle, that is enough water to provide a lifetime supply of drinking water for six people.

Your dryer choice also matters.  If you can’t live without a dryer, use one with a moisture sensor to optimize efficiency.  Clean out the lint filter after every use, which will improve the performance of the dryer.  Like fabric softeners, avoid dryer sheets if possible.  They contain toxic chemicals and actually wear out fabrics

The proper load size is also important for a machine’s efficiency.  Small loads waste water and fail to maximize a washer or dryer’s space.  Conversely, large loads are hard on the machine’s motors, which lead to energy inefficiencies.

Finally, the carbon neutral fanatic can always use a handcrank clothing washer, which reduces energy use—aside from your own—to virtually nothing.


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.


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.   


In the News and a Question on Wealth Distribution

Sometimes living life gets in the way of learning and reflecting on the journey, which is simply a more poetic way to say that that things can get pretty hectic in our lives.  This week has been busy.  The free time I have had—on planes, trains, and in hotels—gave me time to think about a lingering question that keeps coming up as I explore the issue of climate change.  My question: does environmental protection cost too much?

While learning and testing ways to reduce my ecological impact, I continue to wonder why anyone who must truly worry about day to day survival would consider the long term environmental implications of their actions.

The paradox of resource depletion and wealth is complicated.  On a global scale, this is caused by a conflict between developed and developing countries.  Wealthier countries consume more, create more environmental impact, and often export the costs (environmental or otherwise) due to an increased demand for products.

Poorer countries, which tend to create fewer emissions, may exploit natural resources in response to this demand and yet suffer the effects of climate change more intensely.  Because developing countries lack the infrastructure to protect themselves from severe natural disasters, as we have seen in Haiti and Indonesia, the impact of climate change is greater.  These countries have and will be forced to adapt to a climate largely due to consumption of wealthier countries.  What can be done about this disparity?  Who should be held responsible?  There are no easy answers.

Individually, the problem is played out in access to information and the ability to make and afford greener choices.  True, there are a number of easy solutions that improve quality of life at little to no cost, but the choice to live sustainability can be costly.  I welcome any thoughts or comments on the issue.

My travels also afforded me time to do some reading.  There is no shortage of great resources and articles on climate change already available (although there is still much I want to write about).  Below is a roundup of few of my favorite recent articles.

Everyday Products & Some Inspiration

For the body hair aware, Slate recently compared the carbon impact of an electric versus a disposable razor.  While there was a slight difference between the two—the electric razor saves roughly the same amount of CO2 in a year that driving a car for 16 minutes produces—the article did make the very good point that shaving in the shower versus the sink is where the biggest energy difference is found.  A mere three days of shower shaving accounts for the same amount of energy used by shaving an entire year using the sink.  The takeaway: saving water saves energy (thanks Jesse for the tip).

To e-book or not to e-book, which is better for the environment?  If you read at a normal pace, an electronic book reader is a better decision.  Bear in mind that the greatest impact for the e-reader is at the manufacturing level.  Another excellent choice for book reading is to walk or bike to your local library.

Good news in Britain!  Total UK greenhouse gas emissions dropped 8.7% in 2009.  I have not seen any numbers for 2010 yet.  The bad news, it seems that the recession lowered the electricity and fuel use that drive these numbers.

Global News & The Big Picture

The Guardian recently concluded its “green blog festival”.  The two-week festival featured a blog a day from a different country.  You can catch up on local issues from India, to Brazil, to Canada, Russia, and Australia here.

Speaking of other countries, by now I am sure most have heard about the China versus India debate in a number of contexts.  This article compares the two countries to see which is “greener” and which could do more environmental harm.  My favorite line: “blaming China for climate change is a bit like blaming your chauffeur for using so much gas.”  This speaks directly to my question of demand (ours) and impact (everywhere) discussed above.

Here at home, legislators are addressing climate change with proposals to slash EPA’s budget (by $1.6 billion) and bills to prevent regulation of greenhouse gases.  The “Barrasso bill” would overturn the EPA’s 2009 finding that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are harmful to public health and the environment.  Brilliant.  A “frontal assault” on fundamental environmental laws.

Finally, a recent NY times article looked into how climate change will affect already endangered animal populations.  I like this article because it steps away from discussions about humanity and thinks about the many other animals we share our planet with.

And a Bit of the Random

A quirky, somewhat funny article argues Genghis Khan’s reign of terror has reduced human carbon emissions in the long run.

And to conclude (and as a Valentine’s Day tribute), here is a Huffington Post piece on “green” birth control choices.  Of course, the obvious answer offered is simply not to add another carbon emitter (a.k.a. baby) to the ever growing population, but the article also explores what goes into the making of various contraceptives (hormones, synthetic estrogens, plastics and other nasty chemicals that end up in the water system).  Funny.  Controversial.  Plus, who knew fair-trade condoms existed?