Archive for the 'consumerism' Category

Items of Note: Life, Choices, Life Choices

Remember how Planet Earth was/still is completely amazing?  Discovery/BBC (the same people who did Planet Earth) is doing another series in the same vein, with incredible nature footage, impressive feats of film-making, ants catching a fungus that explodes their heads (or at least I hope- That’s my favorite episode, hands-down.  That and the shark that eats the seal in mid-air).  It’s Life, and you can watch clips and an explanation here (after a commercial). Oprah is narrating, and it’s a pleasure to hear her calm voiceover as this Komodo dragon tries to eat a water buffalo.

If that clip didn’t make you hungry enough to stop reading and go get a snack, check out this article from the NYT’s Green Inc column.  It summarizes a study of the behavior of consumers who are given green shopping choices, and who buy environmentally-friendly things.  The gist is, viewing ecofriendly shopping options makes us more altruistic.  But actually buying green stuff makes us smug, thieving jerks:

“People do not make decisions in a vacuum,” the researchers concluded, adding that “while mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.”

The experimenters attribute this to a “single-action bias”, which leads people facing big problems to rationalize making one small responsive action as ‘enough’ to then consider those problems solved.  I’m not sure how that progresses to petty theft (read the article) but perhaps green consumers feel they deserve a little extra for their troubles?  I recognize myself in the single action bias description, for sure. I’ll check for the other part later this week (I need to stock up on recycled TP- will it cause me to cut off an old lady in the parking lot?  Stay tuned!)

Third noted item is also scholarly. I’ve got all the responses I want from graduate programs, and I’m deciding between the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I welcome opinions to flavor my other research.

Plane Tickets: Putting the Guilt to Use

While sick and babbling at you the other day, I mentioned my tickets to New Zealand.  Not just the ravings of a madwoman:  I have plane tickets to New Zealand.

I’ve always wanted to get out and see the world, but I wanted to pay my own way, and go in as untouristy a manner as possible.  So I waited, saved, and assumed a better time would come along.  It didn’t, but now I have a passport and a twenty-fifth birthday approaching, and it’s now or never.  Well, probably not ‘never’, but definitely later.  I emailed an old friend in NZ for some advice a couple weeks ago, and, having been promised hiking and penguins, bought the tickets Sunday.

Let me digress for a moment to direct you to the new link, Cr!key Creek.  It’s my kiwi friend’s blog on water issues- focus on NZ, but he gets around.  Along with all the other parts of this trip I am completely excited about, hanging out with a  dude who’s done so much work on sustainability ranks pretty high.

But see, now I have a dilemma.  I’m flying halfway across the world twice.  This is a big ol’ suckerpunch to my environmental changes.  According to Terrapass, by flying roundtrip from Washington to Auckland, I’m responsible for 7,120 lbs of carbon emissions.  That’s like driving my car (Civic Hybrid) around for a year (also according to Terrapass).  Actually, hey, I thought it was going to be more like driving a Hummer to the moon.  Not feeling quite so guilty now.

Well, either way, that’s a pretty big negative impact on the environment, which I need to do something about (blog being all about channeling the guilt to environmental use, yup yup).  But what!?

Rhetorical, I’ve already decided what I’m going to do.  But first let’s talk about the “not going” option.

The simplest way to not rack up this carbon guilt is to not go to New Zealand.  Stay home, find some pictures of it online, and email the kiwi when I want to chat.  Going to New Zealand to bum around and walk on mountains is purely a privileged, selfish act.  Money would be better spent donating to local food shelters while I spend the two weeks volunteering to muck out the Anacostia.  This is all true.  But I don’t feel guilty about that at all:  I’m stoked about every part of this trip.

Mine is not an abstemious sustainability.  Perhaps you guessed from the frequent Salvation Army trips.  I want to do as much and live as well (according to my idea of well) as I can with as little as I can manage it on.   I get that lots of environmentalists aren’t comfortable with that balance, and why, but I am. So let’s recap the guilt nuances:  trip to NZ, sweet, impact of ghg emissions, lame sauce.

Here’s how I’m going to use this:  first, I’m going to offset my carbon.  Yup, can’t buy a green conscience, but if I can afford the tickets, I can afford to support serious emissions-reduction programs.  I will look for programs that actively remove emissions and donate enough to cover my flight.  I’ll report back, of course.

Second, my time in NZ will be spent environmentally.  Start with supporting the local economy- no chain hotels or restaurants, no ‘Made in China’ junk for the folks back home.  I’m researching B&B’s to stop in along the way.  I’ll tread lightly on the mountains- pack in, pack out, pat the trees soothingly, etc.  I’ll use public transport as much as possible (apparently they have a great national bus system, so no need to rent a car).

And third, I’m using the promise of this trip as a carrot for my efforts.  Literally.  I’m going vegetarian, starting as soon as I’m done with the Sha Cha chicken delivery leftovers, until I get on the plane.  Doesn’t seem so daunting now- though I will draw a line at pizza (I’ll try for all-veg but if it’s plain cheese or pepperoni only, like I’m locked in a room for 12 hours with nothing but a cheese pizza and a pepperoni pizza, I’m eating the pepperoni, but it’s not going to come to that), and food other people make for me in good faith.  If I go home and Dad cooks me shrimp, I’m having some shrimp.  (Dad cook me veggies.  Mom will help.)  But I promise 98.9% vegetarian intake, at least.  It’ll be easier with a reward at the end.

So that’s how I’m going to deal with that.  For the interactive part of this feature:  whatcha think?

‘Tis the Season

It’s already the end of November?  When did that happen?  I would feel lazy if I remembered October at all, really, but this comes as a surprise. So, here you are:

Giving in 2008

It’s a good year for solemn gift guides.  Glitz and extravagance seem tasteless beside rising foreclosures and hunger in the US, plus who has the money to spare these days anyway?  But all this crisis makes it a great year to focus on the purpose and meaning of gifts-another silver lining in the garbage bag containing the international economy.  Basically, making it about money and stuff this year is finally tacky!  Gauche!  Passe! Sooo 2007!  Thoughtful is so In right now.

FIrst, the general approaches:

1.  How you buy it is as important as what you buy.  Start your shopping at thrift and consignment stores, handmade fairs or websites, and fair trade shops.   Etsy is an incredible handmade resource for items beautiful and practical- browse it, support small businesses, and I bet you’ll find something suited for every taste, from bizzaro to cutsy to classic.  You know the arguments for buying fair trade and used already.

2. Do you have friends with skills?  Commission them (the earlier the better) to make your relatives pottery or jewelry or scarves or whatever their specialty is.  Do you have skills?  Give your dad a year of cheerful IT help.

3.  Give time and attention, even if you don’t have giftable skills (or skills you want to gift…).  A year of monthly dinners together.  A year of regular phone calls to relatives far away (ones that actually care to hear from you, for sure).

4.  Do they already have everything?  Give to a charity they (and you) support in their name.  CharityNavigator.org sells gift cards that recipients can give to a charity of their choice on the site (they can research the efficiency and work of the charity at the same site, too).

5. Are you one of those aunts who always give the nieces scented candles/bodywash/bath froofy-do?  I am not here to judge you, but make the candles beeswax or soy wax and the bath gunk biodegradable, if you must continue in this vein.

Ahh.  Enough generalities, now specifically awesome gifts:

1.  Fair Trade Piggy Banks! Saving is cool again.  From Ten Thousand Villages, piggys and elephants and cats. From One World Projects, various pigs and owls. You can search for more online also, but check the creds of the Fair Trade projects you buy from.  In the same vein, with less adorableness, Elders: your young’uns may not understand what a 401K is if you start them one this year, but they’ll thank you with genuine feeling later.

2.  Coffee.  Specifically, coffee from Mesa de Los Santos, a Colombian farm that helped pioneer organic, shade grown, fairly traded coffee.  They’ve grown organic for over 100 years, built a school for their worker’s kids, and reforested their fields, earning a Bird-Friendly certification from the Smithsonian, USDA Organic certification, and a BioLatina badge.  There’s a personal connection, too: my GF is from a branch of the family that’s owned the farm for four generations.  As to the taste, I do not actually drink coffee- but I still enjoy this stuff black.  Still, don’t take my word for it:  reviews (and online ordering forms) are here and here and here.

3.  Gift certificates to local, organic restaurants.  Self-explanatory, no?  Give the gift of a night far away from your loved ones.

4. Potted plants or Garden Tools/Seeds/Composters.  Scale this one to the gardening level of the giftee.  Apartment-dweller or college kid?  Potted plant(s) (or tree!) with very specific instructions.  Do they have a few flower beds?  Vegetable seeds and maybe some books on growing your own food.  Do they always bring up how they grow their own tomatoes?  Up their ante with a compost bin and a thoughtful little charcoal-filtered kitchen bucket for food scraps.

5. Classes.  Vouchers or promises for fencing lessons, sewing classes, cooking classes, metalworking lessons, language tutoring, and basically any other skill you can think of are useful, and not just for delighting your curious and adventurous loved ones.  Sign them up alone or do it with them, for some quality time.  Added benefits: surely a trained cook will make you meals in gratitude?  Worth a shot (fencing lessons are less useful for this reciprocity principle).

Anyway, now you know what my family’s getting for Christmas.  I wish you a stressless holiday full of delicious smells and guilt-free giving.

PS. If none of this does it for you, check out these ideas from CNN/Oprah and HuffPo.

Here, It Matters

I’m late finding this, but check out this article from the WSJ from a couple weeks ago.  According to the McKinsey consulting firm, American consumers directly or indirectly influence 65% of the greenhouse gas emissions our country produces.  That’s over 20% higher than consumers in other countries.  So when we make choices about the way we consume, or change our habits, it’s a bigger deal.

Awesome.  Keep up the good work, it’s helping.

Green Design in my Basement: Part 3

Part the last, mostly dealing with my decision to invest in a minifridge.

Minifridges are great.  They combine fridges, which make wonderful things wonderfully cool, with tiny-and-cuteness.  But:  1) There’s already a fridge upstairs, and 2) I bought it from Walmart.

Now, the fridge upstairs is usually full, and I can barely squeeze in OJ, milk, and a tupperware container or two.  With a fridge in my basement, my food is easier to access, they have more space upstairs, and I have plenty of room to keep beer and leftovers for lunches.  Upstairs, space is not guaranteed.  So, while the fridge was not necessary for survival, it solved lots of potential problems for everybody in the house.

Now, as to Walmart:  Since I decided on getting the fridge, it needed to be efficient.  I did some research on small Energy Star fridges.  Haier makes a 4ft^3 one with a tiny freezer, and it uses 270kwh a year.  That was about as low as I found on the EnergyStar site- Samsung and Sub-Zero also have a few models with very low energy usage.  Most minifridges with EnergyStar ratings use above 300kwh a year.  When I was trying to figure out where to buy it, however, Walmart came back as the area store that actually stocked Energy-Star minifridges, and they had the Haier model available online with free site-to-store shipping.  Go figure.

This maybe should not be a surprise, though.  Walmart has been making impressive efforts to add ecofriendliness to their entire process- pushing organics and CFLs on their customers, installing solar panels on their stores, bullying their suppliers into more environmentally friendly packaging, and so on.  Since they’re the hugest retail chain ever, this is having a massive impact on the supply and purchase of green goods around the country.  I’m all for supporting companies who are actually making big, helpful environmental changes, and I like to communicate my support by buying green products I need from them.

But.  But! Of course, these green initiatives are not without their mistakes.  Plus, Walmart is intensely skeezy to their workers.  I’ve read the Ehrenreich book, I keep up with their latest anti-union antics, and they’re still mostly selling cheap junk from China.  Also, their teen fashion section is terrifying.  I get all the very good reasons to not support them, or the way they run their business.

Here’s the conundrum.  Few places sell the eco-friendly things that I want.  But finally, a nearby store with the minifridge that only uses $24 of electricity a year!  Why does it have to be Walmart that’s providing the stuff I want?

So, there.  I’ve given you the various impulses surrounding my decision, I’ve told you how it worked out (I bought it, and it’s awesome, and having it’s made lunches much easier).  Under the same set of circumstances, I bet a lot of environmentally concerned types would have done the same thing- and many wouldn’t have gotten the fridge at all.  Some people might have searched further afield for it, or settled for a different model.

It’s hard to know the right thing to do when faced with these questions.  The answer lies somewhere between primitivism and consumer excess, and just where depends on what your particular priorities are.  Waste less water?  Buy only reusables?  Make it yourself? Buy nothing?  Recycling fiend?  Some combination of the above?  I think the act of carefully weighing the different impacts of your decisions is about 60% of the way to making a good one.  Which, I hope, is why I spend so much time agonizing over some of mine.

This Is Getting Sick

At St. Ann’s Parish in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the Rev. Edward McDonagh has decided to institute a drawing for a $50 gasoline card at weekly mass.

The drawings are symbolic gestures and not intended to boost attendance, he said.

“When Jesus was at the wedding feast of Cana, the groom ran out of wine, he produced the wine for them,” he said. “In that spirit, we feel that this might be comparable.”

From a Reuter’s article on what people are doing for free gas.  Not that this quote is the most morally awkward part of the article, but in terms of WWJD, that’s a bleak answer.

Window Shopping

My laptop has been sitting around, naked and unprotected from the dangers of her surroundings.  Alone most of the day, completely exposed to the ravages of…well, wayward photons.  I guess.   You see, I’m trying to rationalize my desire to buy an awesome laptop case.  I do need one.  One day, I’d like to be able to leave the house with her.

I’m hoping that my need to protect my investment justifies the amount of time I spent looking for laptop cases today.  Recycled material, fair trade, sustainable fibers, and proper laptop padding are apparently all quite compatible.  I have at least four favorites.  There’s a vertical bag made from recycled mosquito netting at Peaceful Valley, in green and red.  It’s big enough for a 15.4 laptop, but it doesn’t say how the laptop pocket is padded.  But hey, if it’s not padded, maybe I could put it in this slim red leather case with fake purple fur lining from bronwenhandcrafted, at etsy.  Man, with that wrapping, I could stick her in anything and she’d be safe! Or at least fabulous.

But if it’s not a red leather and purple fur day, I could use this inexpensive, recycled plastic bag from Verdant Computing.  It comes in black, sky blue and orangish, and it looks way useful and unassuming.  Like, if useful and unassuming is your thing.  And one I keep going back to is this reclaimed plastic case that’s made from fused waste materials in India, and fairly traded.  The company that makes them, Conserve, has some really gorgeous bags, but the laptop cases come in less exciting color combinations right now.

As much as I liked them all, I don’t like any of them enough to commit right now.  And I’m hoping that, after this weekend, it won’t matter.  I have the sewing machine all set up, and some extra strong canvas and soft fleece, so I could make my own, and that’d be pretty awesome!  Or I could knit a case for it with some of my yarn stash.  Or maybe I should stop looking through etsy and getting ideas about what can be done with my extra fabric and yarn.  But I’m envisioning a canvas case with two shoulder straps and a carrying handle, a medium-sized top flap, an internal divider…

I need a case for real though, so if inspiration hasn’t made my hands swift and seams tight this weekend, I need to buckle down and pick something.  I’m leaning to the mosquito net thing right now.

Hippie Hamlet sums it up:  To buy, or DIY?


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