Thursday, August 28, 2008

Safer Sun

Next on our list:  greening our HBA.

Health and beauty products are going to be a challenge.  My inner cheapskate is adept at sourcing coupons and searching sales to score Pantene, Secret and Suave half-off.  Sometimes better.  And oh golly, do I stockpile!

Concerns about chemicals are part of my motivation, but I'm also influenced by a few other considerations.  The greener the company, the more likely that the packaging is recyclable and/or contains post-consumer materials.  (I'm not looking at my sunscreen, but I believe the tube is around 25% post-consumer content.)  Spending my dollars on a more eco-friendly product is also my way of voting on what ought to exist in the world - in some ways, my purchasing power is the strongest muscle I've got to flex.

So when we finally worked through our backstock of sunscreen whilst at the beach a few days ago - but still needed some for the last gasp of summer - I spent about ten minutes in Target, debating.  The $8 Coppertone or the $15 Burt's Bees?

This time my inner Greene beat out frugal Fern, and we tried it.

The most important thing?  Neither Freddie nor I have a tinge of red on our fair skin, even after a long day splashing in the water and doing all the other crazy things that a preschooler gets up to in the late August sun.

It's a little thicker and trickier to spread than our previous products.  And it's yellow - something that amused Freddie.  The smell is divine, however, and the fact that it's chemical free?  I felt perfectly confident slathering it on us both.

While the Cosmetics Safety Database gives the product a 3 out of 10 - moderate hazard - it was by far the best choice available locally.  California Baby and Trukid both make slightly safer alternatives that earn a "Recommended" green light.

It's worth noting that not every higher-end product receives a better rating.  While the CVS brand that we were using scored a dismal 7 out of 10, as did our Coppertone, a few widely available brands - like Sea & Ski - came out well in the ratings, even though I don't think of them as particularly green.

Maybe best of all?  When I was re-applying the "yeltow" sunscreen to Freddie, another mom took note and asked me about my choice.

So while Burt's Bees sunscreen could be a smidge safer - apparently, it's that delightful, added fragrance that raises the danger level - it gets a thumbs up from me.  And the fact that I can buy it right down the street?  Total bonus.

Now if I could only work through all those bottles of Pantene ... 

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Seaside Heights ... of Excess

It's one of the only constants in my life - the annual summer escape to the Atlantic Ocean.  And as pleasures go, it's simple.  Sand, surf, a little bit of sun if we're lucky and Franklin, Freddie and I are happy as can be.

So happy, in fact, that we break a bunch of rules while away.  While we do stay in a hotel that recycles, uses CFLs and takes part in a few other green-minded efforts, we also engage in practices that are banned in our everyday life - most significantly, I buy Freddie juice boxes instead of refilling sippy cups.

The waste worries me, but I figure it's the equivalent of buying those mini boxes of cereal - my mother's concession to staying sane while in a hotel with small children.

But what bugs me - and yes, I'm still tense enough that I can be bothered by these things - are the sundries shops on every corner.  Heck, they're on both corners and mid-street, too.  You could arrive at the beach with nothing but the clothes on your back, and in a matter of minutes, have an umbrella, beach chair, boogie board, flip-flops, inflatable toys, sand buckets, oversized sand shovel, a swimsuit or three, towels, tee shirts and cover-ups, a henna tattoo and pretty much anything else you could imagine.

Franklin points out that we buy something at one of these shops nearly every year.  Sand toys for Freddie in 2007; a beach volleyball in 2008.  Like I said, we relax our rules as soon as we can hear the crashing of the surf.

So I'm trying not to judge lest we be blah, blah, blah.  But what really crazes me is the highly disposable nature of this stuff.  I've seen umbrellas tossed into garbage cans; beach toys forgotten in the sand; broken bits of shovel handles strewn about.

A few years back, Franklin and I owned one of those beach umbrellas.  It cost about $8, and the frugal part of my brain thought, well ... we're use it more than two days, and renting an umbrella costs at least $10/day, so we're quite likely to get our money's worth.

Only thing is that the umbrella broke about three uses in.  We replaced it, and the new one broke, too.

Now we mostly make do with our old Mexican blanket, whatever towels have been pressed into service and a bunch of other well-worn Greene Family items - our battered Siggs, a collection of sand buckets.

Still, I can't help wonder ... who's buying all of that junk, and how much use are they getting out of it before they need to replace it?  And why can't we have durable, practical and safe outdoor toys?  Hm?  Hmmmm?

I'll be right there when you're ready.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Our Eco-Footprint

So I took the Ecological Footprint Quiz over at Redefining Progress, and there's good news and bad news.

The good news?

In terms of every category, our lifestyle is well below the national average.

The bad news?  Even our reasonably restrained, lighter-on-the-land lifestyle translates to:

3.13 EARTHS!

In other words, if everyone on the planet consumed as we do, we'd be seriously short the resources required to sustain life.

The area where we need to do the most work is our Food Footprint.  It looks like we've reduced it the least, but when I consider how often we used to eat out, it may in fact be among our most significant lifestyle changes.  More on that in a later post.

For now, take the quiz yourself.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Green: The Color of Imagination

I may be the only aspiring eco-blogger out there to read the Wall Street Journal.  My husband brings a spare copy home from the office because, while I've never worked in anything remotely connected to finance or industry, I find it fascinating.

Anyhow, in Friday's edition, Stephen Moore took on the recycling movement, calling the environmental benefits minimal, noting that we'd never run out of landfill space in the US and predicting that the proposed cap-and-trade anti-global warming system would save a lone polar bear and bring the global economy skittering to a halt.  He is not a fan of Lexus liberals, people he suspects are more into green as a means to feel good than saving the planet.

And you know what?  Some of his accusations are valid - especially that bit about people who freak out if you fail to recycle your Evian bottle while visiting their 4,000 square foot starter castle with the three-car garage.

But what baffles me is the implication that we should just stop with all this nonsense.  Should we fine people for failing to separate their trash?  (It's been proposed in San Francisco, and it's what set Moore on his screed.)  Maybe.  I have worked in local government, and the thought is not dazzling in its absurdity.  What's more interesting, though, is the possible world waiting as a result of bigger greening technologies.

There's a fortune to be made, folks.

I've been reading Brian Dumaine's The Plot to Save the Planet and what comes through loud and clear is that creating solar panels or windows that can turn the average home from an energy-consumer to an energy-producer are not far away.  Odds are that any company that can take it to market will make money - oodles and sacks full of coin - on a green innovation.  After all, even the most die-hard anti-consumption type probably has solar panels on their wish list.  That's just one of Dumaine's many examples of how green greed could allow a visionary entrepreneur to make a bundle while doing good.

It's already happening.  How many of us regularly trek to Whole Foods with our reusable shopping bags and feel just great about paying top dollar for more responsibly produced products?  Odds are that some of us drove a Lexus to the parking lot, sure, but let's not overlook the bottom line:  we're buying better and the business model works.

When I think of a greener planet, I think of one that is also healthier, saner and more productive.  We might have less stuff, and our stuff might be made of different materials, but that's not the same as saying we'll all be foraging for berries on self-governed communes talking about the bad old days of indoor plumbing.

As Franklin said, plenty of people dismissed electricity as a passing fad.  If we could go back far enough, a couple of cavemen probably scoffed at fire.  Green technology isn't just the province of a couple of aging hippies dreaming of Woodstock - it's the new world, and it represents a powerful, profitable opportunity that should not be dismissed.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Can This Suit Be Saved?

As I type, Franklin is off to the other side of our sprawling metropolis, to visit a reputable tailor said to be able to reweave men's suits.

Among those who go green, I often feel like the Greenes are an awkward fit.  I'm married to a guy who is a little bit Wall Street; a $1000 suit is not an indulgence, but a staple of his work wardrobe.  He bought this particular suit in an end-of-season sale from an upscale local men's shop - by our criteria, it was both frugal and fit our definition of responsible shopping.

Anyhow, this immaculately tailored creation met a sorry fate.  Franklin sat down at an event on a folding chair, and when he stood up, discovered that he'd caught - and torn - the jacket.

Some searching turned up a tailor with a reputation for repairing such mishaps.  In between identifying the tailor and this morning's trip, an opportunistic moth family snacked on the poor jacket, which we'd stored in our spare closet, which is apparently a smorgasbord for hungry heterocera.

Reweaving is not the kind of thing that most people do.  (And it might not be possible, given the damage.)  Suit jackets routinely get tossed in garbage bags, I'm sure.  But we're willing to give it a try.  We have also re-soled shoes and re-lined jackets.

The trick is that in order to make the investment in repair, you have to have made an investment in the first place.  You have to believe that the effort to fix something outweighs the ease of replacing it.  It's a shift in thinking.

But it reminds me of the mantras repeated in Aldous Huxley's distopian Brave New World.  Ending is better than mending.  The more stitches, the less riches.  Repair was contrary to the happy little consumer culture in which the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons lived in their biologically pre-determined castes.

It's a little scary to think that repairing your clothing - and that buying classic clothing worthy of repair in the first place - is a subversive act.  But it's amazing how often we don't consider it a choice.

At the end of my son's nursery school year, I noticed that his lunch box was much the worse for wear.  I contemplated replacing it - but after about 10 minutes with my favorite Seventh Generation dish liquid and a sponge, it looks just about new.  What possessed me to consider tossing it in the garbage can?  I guarantee it would've taken far longer to get a new one than to clean up the current - and beloved - Stripey the Tiger lunch box.

Let's hope the tailors have good news for Franklin.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Flaw in the Plan: Should We Buy More?

On the list of People Likely to Go Green, the Greenes are far down the list.  I base this on Franklin's profession - he's a highly compensated attorney who works mostly in financial services for a well-heeled, white-shoe law firm.  Statistically speaking, we are probably more likely to own a Hummer than a hybrid. 

But that's not the whole story.  Franklin has a passion for kayaking.  Spend five minutes on the average river in Metro DC, and you'll be an environmentalist, too - excited by how close we can get to the natural world in the midst of a huge urban area, revived by how great it feels to connect with the natural world, but worried about the impact we're having on such vital waterways - and disgusted by the amount of garbage swimming with the fishes.

So the Greenes have been going green - not bright, stark, off-the-grid green.  But green.  And it turns out that this is a funny balance to strike.

We can buy a flex-fuel vehicle - but we'd have to drive about 15 miles to find a station where we can fill it up.  That's about as many miles as we travel by car many weeks.  Because so many of us who go green manage to cut our car use to almost nothing, who will drive the desire for alternative fuels?

We don't often buy towels.  When we do, we want to get the greenest possible version.  But because our not-green counterparts are buying around six bath towels every year, without regard to their eco-credentials, when we do buy our six bath towels for the decade, we'll be harder pressed to find substitutes.

If we want there to be greener products available, should be shopping more?

I always remind myself that even green products take energy to produce and transport and sell, so even the greenest purchase is not without impact.  But surely we don't intend to shutter the consumer economy and buy nothing ever again?

Do we?

Okay, I don't.  

So how do we get greener products more affordable and more widely available?  Hmmm ...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Progress Report, August 2008

Last month, I wrote about How We've Gone Green.  It's nice to look back and realize that we've done quite a bit to reduce our carbon footprint.  To recap:
  • Unless we're headed on a trip, we rarely drive more than 50 miles a week - in fact, we're often right around 20 miles per week;
  • We clean greener - more rags, mostly eco-safe products;
  • Everything but our dryer is an EnergyStar appliance;
  • We cook at home, eating out infrequently instead of daily and consuming lower on the food chain than before;
  • We recycle diligently and have cut our weekly garbage output to around one kitchen-sized garbage bag;
  • We carry cloth, reusable shopping bags everywhere;
  • The paper products we do use are as green as possible.
There are a few other changes we've made:
  • Our water use remains low - about 40 gallons per person, instead of the average of more than 70;
  • Even in humid DC, we keep our AC set no lower than 78 degrees, and normally it's around 80.  We make up the difference with ceiling fans;
  • We're buying more of our shoes - one of those things that I find nearly impossible to get second-hand, especially for our toddler - from companies like Simple and Keen with sound eco-practices;
  • We're just plain not buying much!
But I've also written about our Top Ten Eco-Sins.  Maybe they're trivial in relation to our sweeping lifestyle changes.  But every little bit helps, and so we're taking on the following challenges for the next few months:
  • We'll be using cloth diapers combined with Seventh Generation disposables when baby Fiona arrives in October.  Yes, yes, I know all about how it really isn't necessary to change out of cloth for a trip to the library, but I'm not feeling quite that brave - yet;
  • We're going to start using a drying rack for at least some of our laundry;
  • I'm going to continue to cut down on my use of disposable cleaning products, especially those pre-moistened wipes.  I mean, do I really pay $2 for 40 little pieces of paper wet with chemicals?  Am I crazy?
  • We're continuing to spend more of our grocery budget at our local farmers' market.
We've talked about a few other changes, but with a new baby on the way, I think that's about what we can tackle for the rest of the year.  Wish us luck!

All Dried Up

Here's the Challenge of the Moment in the Greene household:  I've lugged home a drying rack from Target.

I was inspired by a post over at Green Baby Guide.  A million years ago, I had a drying rack of my very own.  It was one of those mysterious items on the "must-have" list to go away to college.  Did I ever use it in my dorm room?  Maybe.

But as a broke grad student relying on the coin laundry in my basement, I used it constantly - until it collapsed.  I didn't replace it.  By the time it broke, we were in a house with a washer/dryer, so it seemed silly.

I should have, actually.  Because I've always had enough delicates that require hand washing and drying that I used to turn our bathroom into a giant maze of hangers and such.  And that was when we had just the one shower.  Remembering Franklin's irritation at shuffling around half-damp sweaters and pantyhose, I hesitated to consider air-drying to save the world.

Then I read the post, and thought about it again.  What sold me was this:  a dryer uses the most energy in our households, on an hourly basis.  The only appliance in our entire house that is not EnergyStar rated, as it happens, is our dryer.  I'm not sure if it is possible to replace it with a more efficient model - we have a stacked unit, and there aren't as many models available.

Even if it were possible, the bottom line is this:  our washer/dryer is located on our top floor, which is sparingly used.  I could easily set up the drying rack in the guest bath, or on our roof deck.

Franklin agreed that it wouldn't make him completely crazy, and so here we go:  The Next Green Experiment begins.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Material World, Consumer Culture

I came across an offhand comment in a book the other day - it was a novel set in Paris.  The line talked about how the French love material objects, but aren't consumers in the American sense.

A light bulb immediately appeared over my head.

If there's something that has always irked me about Going Green, it's that it sometimes means Going Ugly.  One frugal friend comes by her eco-cred via a very small income.  While there's nothing wrong with the clothing she and her kids wear, there's also not a lot of choice.  Their budget dictates the thrift store and hand-me-downs.  I've also known families who are simply crafty and artistic - they could sew dish towels into couture, could make garage sale castoffs look like a room from Architectural Digest.

We're not broke, and we're not good with our hands.  And we do truly love some of our material possessions.  I think that makes us fairly average, actually - able to afford some luxuries, unlikely to craft superior substitutes and unwilling to go without every single time.

Maybe that's part of the key, though.

Let's dish.  Actually, let's talk about dishes.

At 20-something, I moved into my first apartment.  So did my husband.  We each acquired dishes - mine, a set of cheap Correlle; his, a marked-down set of Sango from a discount store.  Other dishes found their way to our homes - four dessert plates on clearance at Pottery Barn; soup bowls from a French onion soup making phase; new cereal bowls bought on sale.  I eventually purchased a set of "good" plates.  Then we married, registered and received a whole new set.

About three years ago, we looked up.  With the exception of the Correlle, we still owned pretty much all of it.  And none of it worked.  We wanted a set of dishes that we could add to, enough to serve six, possibly eight, maybe even more.  None of our sets were easy to augment.

After some thinking, we settled on Fiesta Ware.  At the time, we lived fairly close to the Fiesta Ware factory, so it was pretty common to see it around.  We decided that it met all of our needs, as follows:
  1. It is well made.  While it's not fine bone china, it's sturdy, serviceable stuff that can withstand daily use.
  2. It will likely be available into the indefinite future.  If we break one dinner plate, we replace one dinner plate - not the whole set.  As our family grows, we can add another few dishes.
  3. It is reasonably timeless.  While colors come in and out of vogue, the overall look is Basic Dinner Plate - nothing exciting, but with a bit of fun thanks to the vibrant mismatch of colors.
  4. It has a secondary market.  If we did decide to get rid of our Fiesta Ware, it would find a good home.  If we keep it until we go to that Grand Perhaps, then it's just as likely to find a home.
I get pleasure from noting which new colors are being released and from plotting which pieces to buy next.  We hosted Thanksgiving dinner last year and got to buy a gravy boat.  It's just about time to add a few more dessert plates to the collection, and I'm scanning our shelves to see which colors we don't own.

It's a modest acquisition, and one that isn't green by its own merits.  It's green because it passes a test for longevity.  Odds are it will be in our cabinets for the next 50 years.  Plenty of families probably go through five or six sets of dishes in that time span.

And so I start to wonder - what if we can flip the conversation so it's about buying better quality?  Spending more to get something that you'll want to keep for decades, not just a season?

It's not a popular way of thinking, but as we've bought many of our more recent purchases, it has informed my thoughts.  Freddie's Svan high chair, for example, is such a lovely thing that I anticipate it may well be a high chair that serves my grandchildren, or at least my nieces and nephews.  The wood fits in just fine with our dining room - you don't know there's a high chair in our big open space until you're watching me plunk a kid in the seat.  The same can't be said for all of those white plastic and vinyl contraptions on the market.  Yes, the individual chair costs $70 - a third of the Svan's price tag.  But it isn't likely to have as long a useful life - and so there's a price to consider in that sense, too.

Modern life is necessarily a material one - we sit on chairs, we work at desks, we eat from plates, we wear clothing.  Material goods are not inherently bad.

Perhaps it's time to separate brainless consumption from intelligent materialism, and embrace artistry and craftsmanship - and to stop feeling guilty about loving the built environment.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Square Footage

Yesterday we visited friends who live in a not-quite rural part of neighboring Pennsylvania.  They're lovely people, thoughtful and kind.

And their new house is my Worst Nightmare.

While it's not an obnoxious size, it does measure in at about 2300 square feet - according to NPR, just a tiny bit shy of the national average of 2,349 square feet.  This does not include their 3-car garage or sprawling basement.

Our home comes in at about 1700 square feet, sans basement and with a modestly-proportioned single car garage - and seems impossibly big most days.  Still, our entire main living/dining/kitchen space would fit in their football-field of a kitchen.

Part of it is location.  Land is cheap out there; so are houses.  It might not be possible to find  comfortable family home that wasn't super-sized - or maybe 2300 square feet is considered exactly that.  In Metro DC, house costs remain stratospheric, so it's easy to find builders touting "luxury" amenities like granite and exposed brick in a compact footprint.

MSN Real Estate reports that back in 1950, the average American home came in at a petite 983 square feet.  Plenty of families grew up sharing one bathroom and would view either of our family homes as palatial.

We've lived in a modestly-proportioned, early 20th century home with one full bath and a tiny half bath tucked into an (unheated) attic.  I'll admit that it made mornings hectic, and the thought of sharing tiny cupboard-like closets and one pedestal sink with a family of four set my teeth on edge.

But when we went to buy our new home, I was astonished to discover how far we've come.  We wanted 2.5 baths - one in the master, one for Freddie and Fiona and a half-bath off the living area.  Instead, we found ourselves with 3.5 baths - one for every floor of our tall, slim townhome.  It appeared to be the smallest number of baths available in new construction.

Just as gas-guzzling SUVs are out of vogue at the moment, perhaps houses, too, will find themselves put on a diet.  And there are good ways to green any home, even one that tops 4,000 square feet.

But wouldn't it be easier to just opt for more function, less footprint?

While we didn't knowingly follow Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House principles - I stumbled across the book just weeks before we closed on our new home - it's informed my thinking about whether these 1700 square feet are our starter home or our family homestead.  Susanka wisely points out that making a home bigger doesn't automatically make it more comfortable.  In fact, I found it disorienting to step into the foyer of our friends' home and see bunches of doors in an empty hallway - to the garage, the basement, the powder room, closet after closet.  She also notes that by reducing our square footage, we can often invest in higher quality - and more sustainable - materials that make our home far more beautiful and inviting than a yawning cavern of space.

And so that's how we're thinking.  Never say that you'll never move - life is long and surprising.  But if we do, it simply will not be because we really need a media room or a wine cellar.


Our home is a wonderland of pre-packaged foods.  With the exception of bananas, eggs from the Farmer's Market and perhaps the odd tomato, mushroom or onion, virtually nothing enters our home in a mostly unprocessed form.

It strikes me that there is a fairly simple explanation for this excess:  I don't know how to cook.  

For more than a century, Big Food has teamed up to help women cook better, faster, healthier - though, of course, many of those vaunted health benefits were illusions.  

Today, when so few of us grew up tutored in the domestic arts, we aren't just looking for Big Food to show us room for improvement - it's the only way we know how to do it at all.

My (foreign-born) mother-in-law, if handed apples, can make applesauce.  I suppose I might manage an approximation, given a limitless amount of time and some incentive.  But since 1930, Mott's has canned and sold their applesauce in a convenient, ready-to-eat jar - no peeling or coring required.

For the past year, we've been trying to eat healthier - more veggies and fruits, less red meat and far less fat, salt and the other culinary big bads.  This is certainly somewhat greener.  Cosmos Magazine sites a Japanese study that equates producing one kilogram of beef with driving for three hours and leaving all the lights on at home.  (Hmmm ... is that driving a Hummer or a Prius?  And are those CFLs in your house?)  An American Chemical Society article reports that while buying local does reduce your household's carbon footprint, buying less red meat is even better - they argue that distances food travels are less of a factor than production concerns.

So while our health-inspired trip lower on the food chain has some positive environmental results, I can't dismiss the fact that I've miles to go before I could consider our food footprint petite.

Because deprived of the premade (and whole grain breaded) chicken nugget, frozen bagged veggies and vegetarian chili mix, my family would likely starve.

Or at least complain a lot.

Friday, August 8, 2008


Friends of ours recently attended a 4 y.o.'s birthday picnic, families included, for a guest list of about 35.  My friend - I'll call him Z. - reported that they did the whole party without any disposable plastic wear or paper plates.

This seemed noble, at first, but it transpired that the hosts did not, in fact, own enough reusable anything for all of their guests to eat.  So mid-way through the festivities, a few party-goers leapt in and started hand-washing dishes and utensils so that others might eat, and of course, in order to serve the birthday cake.

Apparently, the father felt that he'd already made a big concession by buying paper towels.  Z. said that he made much ado over "having to ask which aisle they were kept in."


We don't have a dog, but it wouldn't take a GPS for me to find the Puppy Chow.  And I'm sure the family buys toilet paper, which is almost universally stocked mere steps away from the paper towels.

It's one of those Greener-Than-Thou moments.  I'm guilty of them myself - sanctimonious, smug episodes where we trumpet our sacrifices to Save the World.

I completely respect the hosts' desire to avoid landfilling paper plates.  But it is simply poor planning - and lukewarm hospitality - to expect to serve 35 people on two dozen plates. 

As Z. described the family's digs, it was also noteworthy that they lived out in the middle of nowhere, a lengthy commute to, well, anything and everything.  Nor was it a small home, despite the fact that just two adults and one child lived there.  They might be making some planet-friendly choices, but I'm not buying the Staunch Environmentalist pose.

Anyhow, I've been keeping Z.'s tale in mind myself.  I think it's important to make better choices, but I also can't help think that we need to recognize that most of us are imperfect creatures, forced to choose between a host of factors.  And sometimes, it's best to simply buy a pack of paper plates and keep mum about how you're saving the planet.

If you want to brag, get a blog.  ;)

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Riddle me this:  how do American households produce so much garbage?

We have twice weekly pick-up and average one or two 13-gallon bags per week.  Granted, we don't have an infant in the house, and there are only three of us.

Our service supplies huge, 50-gallon garbage cans, which is laughable.

To me, anyhow.  The house across the street regularly fills their garbage can plus puts extra bags on the side.  They don't own a business or work from home - in fact, I rarely see them come in or out of the house.  What are they doing to generate 300 gallons or so of garbage every week?

Really, I'm puzzled.  

I do note that they don't put out a county-supplied recycling bin - nor any container, our recycling service isn't fussy.  And yes, we do to some lengths to recycle paper, cardboard and other items that many households trash.

But still, it's enough to make me want to sneak over in dark of night and undo their Hefty bags.  Because you really, really wonder.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fall Frenzy

As a kid, I think I started begging to go back-to-school shopping sometime around the Fourth of July.  Everything about the process thrilled me - I'm still a sucker for a bulky sweater and a fresh composition book.

While my mother was a reluctant shopper and always argued for delay, most years I ended up with pretty much everything I wanted, from Kangaroo sneakers to fancy pencil cases to Jordache jeans.  When I left for college, I had the same level of madness:  a drying rack, a plastic shower caddy.  Never did I consider myself anything but overindulged.

And yet I'm overwhelmed by the number of products on the market - and the fact that many are required purchases by our children's schools.

Target allows schools to publish supply lists online - a brilliant move, I think - and has them available in-store, too.  Many teachers are deliberately modest, keeping their supplies to around $10, which a savvy shopper could probably cut in half.  But I've counted a few lists that go closer to $50, and contain items that I consider pure madness.  More than one list requested stretchable bookcovers.  At $1.50 each, even six wouldn't be a huge financial burden, but it is $10.  What ever happened to brown paper bags and masking tape?

Some of the requests reflect tight school budgets.  Markers and scissors used to be supplied by classrooms; now teachers are relying on parents to fill up their supply bins at the start of the year.  The same goes for tissues and hand soap, items we regularly buy for Freddie's nursery school.

At the same time, I was reading interviews with shoppers in neighboring Virginia, the recipients of an annual tax holiday for back-to-school shopping.  The interviews detailed their purchases and their cautious attitudes, and I must say - to my ear, they didn't match.  One mom purchased six shirts, five pairs of jeans, a dress and a sweatshirt - all for one 10 y.o. child.  And this was their second day of shopping.

I'm truly puzzled.  Costs are up; income is down.  Even less-than-liberal folk agree than environmental issues are real.  But instead of just not buying, the solution for many seems to be bargain hunting - hitting Target instead of Macy's, or the outlets instead of the mall.

Of course, I don't have a 10 y.o. daughter - I have a 3 y.o. son content to roll in dirt and wear his sandals on the opposite feet.  Who knows what life will be like when Fiona is old enough to read the circulars and lust after the 2018-equivalent of a Camp Rock lunchbox?

I don't have an answer; I'm not even sure I have a question.  But I finally understand why my mother greeting the waning days of summer with groans of frustration.

It's Fall Frenzy time, and opting out feels impossible.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

American Idiots

One way or another, much of my life has been spent around first generation Americans and recent immigrants - in fact, Franklin's parents came here to escape communism in the 60s.  I don't understand it firsthand, but I do have some sense of the attitudes, hopes and fears that color newer Americans' experiences.

Here's what baffles me.

If there's anything that seems characteristic of the American experience, it is a wild and unrestrained excess of freedom.  I can say whatever I please.  My religious, political and other personal convictions are not subject to review or persecution.  I have a reasonable expectation of safety, too - that there are no marauding armies likely to knock on my door in dark of night and take me away.  A colleague once called it "freedom from the sound of jackboots marching."

While a college student myself, I tutored a group of women recently arrived from an African nation known for conflict and unrest.  Their English was good and they were hard-working, but they struggled with essay questions.  Why?  As one explained to me, having an opinion can be dangerous.  We want to say what we think you want to hear.

That stayed with me.  I see it with my husband's family, people who tend to never say what they think.  Some of it has to do with notions of civility, but I suspect it also reflects a deep-seated sense that keeping your opinions private is a good way to keep your family safe.  Decades after slipping past the Iron Curtain - decades after the Iron Curtain crumbled - they're still politely disinclined to share an opinion about matters weightier than a favorite flower or a possible vacation spot.

It seems like arriving on our shores ought to be an invitation to open your mouth.  To create.  To discover.  To build.

Once upon a time, I think it was.  My immigrant grandfather, while not a Great Intellectual, was an intrepid entrepreneur - the typical small business owner of a generation past.  What's more, he wrote poetry in his youth, in the days of the Great Depression.  At a moment where most had little, being American meant being resourceful, creative and industrious.  Even in her 80s, my grandmother never hesitated to tell her family where she stood.

When did the dream change so dramatically?

Today it feels like the American dream - for newcomers and long-time Americans alike - is no longer about the chance to paint, to talk, to scream if we're so inclined.  

Today, it's about the opportunity to amass huge amounts of stuff and house it in the largest house possible.

The American dream is no longer characterized by freedom, but by consumption.  You've made it when you turn the key to the door of your McMansion, with SUVs in the attached 3-car garage and wall-size flat screen televisions throughout.

Peace and plenty have always been linked, of course, but our definition of plenty used to be a lack of hunger, not access to dozens of sit-down restaurants prepared to offer up a 2000-calorie mega-feast whenever you've got a hankering.  The kinds of meals that we eat on a regular basis were once the stuff of holidays and celebrations.  Now they're just another Tuesday night.

Freddie and Fiona are coming into a world of material overabundance and spiritual, intellectual and creative poverty.  I'm trying - desperately - to encourage them to see a world rich in possibilities, even if their paths don't lead them to material success.

This is challenging.  And in our neighborhood, where so many families are new to our shores, I worry that it's all being lost.  We take our freedom so very much for granted, we take futures rich in possibility and squander them in favor of another cartful of stuff from the MegaMart.

It is not the dream I believe people die for; not the dream I believe my ancestors crossed the oceans for; not the dream I want any of my children or my children's classmates to dream.

Thneed Nominees, August 2008

Any good greenie knows Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.  And any good green parent can probably recite the host of ills that come to town when the Once-ler moves in and starts hacking down Truffula trees to manufacture a multi-purpose thing-a-ma-bobber called the Thneed: no more fruit for the brown Bar-ba-loots; fish driven out of their pond by industrial gunk; birds chased away by the smog.

At story's end, of course, the conclusion is that we don't need Thneeds; we need trees.  And the boy listening to the tale is entrusted with a few truffula seeds in hopes that he'll regrow them.

Still with me?  Here are my Top Five nominees for Thneed Status, starting appropriately, with Thneeds for Babies and Children:
  • The Bath Luve & Buddy:  Available at for a mere $12.95, this handy dandy frog-shaped blanket allows parents to dip it in the warm bath water, then cover baby - all to make bathing a little more pleasant.  Look, I've washed a screaming infant in the dead of winter and know that it's not a fun task.  But it does not take a mighty brain to dip a regular old washcloth in the warm water and accomplish this same act.
  • Potty Training Targets:  These might've escaped my wrath, save that they market themselves as eco-friendly.  I sympathize with parents who want their sons to aim true - cleaning up Freddie's misfires is not my favorite way to spend an afternoon.  But do I really need to spend $12.95 plus shipping for an assortment of animal shapes to place in the potty for my son to pee on?  They may be made up of nothing more than twenty layers of colored tissue paper, but they're manufactured, packaged and shipped.  My aunt accomplished the same goal 20-plus years ago with Cheerios.  Creating an uber-specialized uni-tasker?  Convenient, maybe.  But eco-friendly?  Never.
  • Wipes warmers:  If you're very green, chances are you're not even using disposable wipes.  At the other end of the spectrum are the parents who have made a wipes warmer one of the most popular registry items over at Babies'R'Us.  Beyond the manufacture of the product, there's the electricity required to run this puppy.  Yes, it's minimal.  But is your baby really so sensitive that a cold wipe will scar him for life?  I'm baffled.
  • Shopping cart covers:  A ear-nose-and-throat doctor friend of mine - who spends much of his working day dealing with allergies - ensures me that there's such a thing as too clean.  I suppose that parents of preemies or other vulnerable newborns must be hyper-vigiliant, but what's with the rest of us, putting our hale'n'hearty 18-month olds in the shopping cart only after plunking down one of these jobbies?  Some parents defend them by noting that you can attach toys to the cover.  But I've managed to attach toys to the good ol' fashioned bar of the shopping cart, thanks to those linking rings.  Worst of all?  According to Consumer Reports, there's no evidence that they cut down on getting a cold.  Your best bet?  Wash your hands - and save your $50.
  • Beaba Babycook:  Parents make their own baby food for a host of reasons; saving money is often cited as one.  But blow $139.95 on this "French baby-food maker that has won praise throughout Europe" and you'd better be feeding two sets of triplets if you expect to recoup the investment.  Why on this green and verdant earth would you buy a specific item, when a blender or food processor does the job just as well?  And if you must buy something, why not a mini food-processor that will go on to make pesto and other foods?  It takes less space to store, you'll have it for years and it costs about $35 - a quarter of the price of the Beaba.
We all need stuff, and parenting is one of those moments when we're especially tempted to buy solutions in sweetly-decorated packages.  It's important to remember that not every problem is best solved by a purchase.  Some of these things really are Thneeds - they ain't green, there's no way to make them green - save to simply not make them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Fate of the Fork

Three or four years ago, a public garden near our (then) home concluded a major renovation and unveiled, among other expansions, a truly delightful cafe.  Because the gardens sat betwixt a pair of major universities and just blocks from the city's main library, it was often a convenient spot to meet a colleague.

The garden cafe featured many innovations - a vegetarian-friendly menu, inventive cuisine, interesting beverages - but one of the first to capture my notice was the use of biodegradable disposables.  Being a garden center, they were willing and able to compost like mad.  Even though I'd barely had a green thought back then, it seemed logical - and noble.

Lately I've noticed those same items popping up elsewhere, often in civic-minded public venues.  Only trouble?  They're going into the regular garbage.

I scratched my head and did a little bit of digging.  Apparently, most cornstarch-based cutlery will biodegrade in a matter of months in normal composting conditions.  But regular old garbage does not break down - be they egg shells or engine parts, the landfills that hold most waste prevent most items from breaking down - possibly ever.  We're tossing out 195 million tons of garbage every year, and it's just sitting there.

So why, I wondered, switch to cornstarch-based forks only to never let them meet their destinies?

The good news:  most disposable plastics are made out of petroleum-based materials, so cornstarch is automatically a notch or two better.  As oil prices rise, that means that cornstarch based products appear more affordable.  Making the switch to a greener product is always easier when it requires less financial sacrifice - and some people with no green agenda will do so if they can save a few nickels.  It's perfectly possible that my compostable fork was just plain  cheaper than whatever it replaced.

I've also seen potato starch and sugarcane-based substitutes, so there's no shortage to innovation in the category.  If someone is unhappy with the performance of their greener cutlery, it's easy enough to swap it out for something that will serve.  

What is in short supply is a handy place to compost these puppies, and that's the bad news.

Twenty years ago, the idea of having household recycling pick-up seemed like a long shot.  My mother was openly annoyed by the idea of having to sort our garbage; Franklin remembers his parents telling him not to bother, especially because he was running the water (and upping their utility bill) to wash out those cans.  Today, it's second-nature to most of us, and is a big part of the reason why we're not landfilling more than 200 million tons of garbage every year. 

The next step, I think, is to figure out composting at a municipal level.  While many people can - and do - have compost bins in their homes, it's not functional for everyone.  In the Greene household, it remains a subject of ongoing debate, especially given our relatively small outdoor space and lack of a garden in which to use the results of our efforts.

But would we happily segregate our compostables and leave them out for collection?  With gusto.  It's something I'm going to push our Homeowner's Association to investigate when our trash collection contract is up for renewal.

In the meantime, I'm not sure what to do.  We've been trying to avoid fast food and quick service venues that don't use regular flatware.  But it's not practical in every case, and I'm not ready to carry a set of my own utensils.


Exactly *How* Not Disposable, Hmmm?

After a year of going greener, I'm wrestling with an unexpected issue:  exactly how long-lasting are my reusable purchases?

In the past week, I've discovered that the handle of my Method o-mop is about to snap.  After a solid year of using it to clean virtually every floor in my 1700-square foot townhouse, I'm not shocked, but I do think it is too soon - after all, the omop is not recyclable.  So while I'm not overly fussed about springing for another $20 mop, I am concerned that I'll be putting one in the trash every year.  That just can't be.

As it turns out, the Method website notes that other users have reported a similar problem, and invited me to "call or email for resolution."  We'll do that, and report back.  After all, I believe the company is sincere in making greener products and keeping me loyal.

I'm less convinced of mega-coffee chain Starbuck's commitment to Mother Earth.  While I don't find the chain as inherently evil as some, it's hard to overlook the 2.3 billion paper coffee cups we're landfilling every year.

But when faced with abandoning my chai latte addiction or greening up my act, there was a simple solution:  I dropped $10 on a refillable to-go cup.  Since I got my first drink free, that drops the purchase price to about $7; factor in the dime-off per use, and in a mere 70 refills, I'll have broken even.

Only problem?  I've used it only about 60 times and the rubber ring in the lid is coming loose.  I was able to push it back in place with a toothpick, but will the seal hold long enough for me to break even?  More importantly, will the seal hold long enough for me to feel that I've justified the purchase and use of a bigger, plastic, probably-not-recyclable (though it has a #7 on the base) item?

My friendly barista today mentioned that they're encouraging customers to use their in-house ceramic mugs and shared my concerns about the sustainability of all those paper cups marching out the door, hour after hour.  I was delighted to hear his comments, but reluctant to leave my personal cup at home.  After all, they remember to serve my pastry on a plate instead of a bag only about half the time; I suspect the rate for cups versus mugs would be no better.  What's more, I've really come to enjoy my confidence that no one else is taking my drink - a chronic problem on busy mornings.

I don't expect my coffee cup to last forever.  But I figured it would be good for two or three years, even considering the harsh use it gets traveling in my bag with a laptop, or tucked underneath the jogging stroller.

But this is the tricky math of green:  is my refillable cup merely a feel-good status symbol, or have I actually done lasting good?  I'm inclined to believe that there's some positive impact, but surely there's more good done if my reusable items are around for a while.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Here's a funny negative to adopting green behaviors:  Being accused of shoplifting.

Yup, you heard me right.

Let me back up.  We live just outside the limits of Washington DC, very much inside the Beltway, in a 'hood that isn't exactly the 'hood, but is by no means upscale.  Our tiny enclave of townhomes is very nice.  But we're not the hippie chic quasi-commune rich with food co-ops and progressive recycling programs, not by a long shot.  That's fifteen miles - and tens of thousands of dollars in property values - farther up the road.

So it's somewhat unusual for a customer to walk into a store with her own bags.  Goya and Kashi compete for shelf space at our local grocery; brands like Cascadian Farms and Seventh Generation are only starting to make inroads.  Organic apples are not available - in fact, very little organic produce is available, save for the weekly farmer's market.

One of the first times I told a cashier that I had my own bag, she asked me, "Aren't you worried someone will think you stole this?"  And I replied, "But it's an Old Navy top, and you're giving me an Old Navy receipt, right?"  She shrugged.  Retail in poorer neighborhoods, apparently, presumes guilt.

But I shrugged it off.  I'm affluent; I'm honest; I'm friendly.  Hey, I'm married to a lawyer.  And what's more, since only buying what you can carry means shopping more often, well, I'm a regular at my local Target, Giant, CVS and Rite Aid.  The Target security guard has long since stopped checking my receipts.  (Another fixture of lower-income neighborhoods - security guards, and they're not there to protect the shoppers.)

Anyhow, basic green behavior is as follows:  
  1. Walk to the store.
  2. Make a small number of eco-savvy purchases, the amount you can carry home.
  3. Pay for them, and put them in your own bags.
If you have a stroller, of course, you can carry more, but you'll need to fit your purchases into the stroller basket.  

It just so happened that I went into Rite Aid this afternoon, about an hour after leaving Target.  We'd been to the library in between.  When I walked into Rite Aid to buy a bottle of Coke Zero (I know, not very Fern Greene of me), I forgot that Seventh Generation dishwashing liquid and Method Wood for Good were riding under my stroller basket, along with six library books.  In order to fit the books and the liquids, I'd taken them out of my reusable bag and positioned the bottles so they wouldn't tip.

After the Rite Aid cashier rang up my soda and I swiped my debit card, she said, horrified, "OH!  What about those things?" and pointed to my stroller basket.  Confused, I replied, "Oh, no ... they're mine.  I've already been to Target this morning."  

She huffed.  "You have to tell me that."

I blinked.  "Why?  You don't even sell these brands here."

But she was already calling over a manager to make sure it was okay.  The manager - a young girl with more tattoos than me - took one look at my "The Hell" expression and said, "It's fine, don't worry about it."

Had there not been a long line behind me, I might've gotten more worked up.  The cashier, too, was eager to make her case against me.  And if the manager hadn't been handy - and sane - it might've been worse.

After all, I also had a large tote bag on my shoulder.  Did she want me to dump it out and somehow prove that my Burt's Bees lip balm wasn't lifted?  That I hadn't been secreting ball point pens and post-it notes in my bag?  And what about my cheap sunglasses?  Should I have been sporting a "paid" sticker on the frames?  What about my refillable coffee cup?  Did she want proof that it wasn't somehow cleverly slipped into the back pocket of my jogging stroller whilst their cameras were directed elsewhere?

It irked me for a dozen reasons.  She's a cashier I see at least once a week; she's a cashier who watches me put my own things into my own bag every single trip.  Her line was miles long, and I'd already been waiting to check out for nearly ten minutes.  I'd spent twice as much time waiting to check out as I'd spent shopping.  My toddler son was fussing - he'd taken off his sandals and was trying, unsuccessfully, to re-insert his feet.  Some of that's not her problem.  Okay, the fact that we were late for our lunch and I was sweaty and annoyed at the wait?  Not at all her problem.

But the fact that a cashier can't distinguish between someone trying to cut down on the number of plastic bags she takes home and a shoplifter?  

Yeah.  That's her problem.  That's a problem for retail everywhere.

Because it's not a crime to bring your own shopping bag.

The Trifecta

I'll admit it:  going green was a by-product.

When we radically changed our life a little over a year ago, I ended up adopting three principles, in conversation with my husband:
  1. Is it frugal?  We were giving up my income and moving to a very expensive urban area.  While my husband's new salary more than made up for those changes, we needed to think carefully about how we intended to live going forward.  We'd paid off virtually all of our debt during our move.  Our goal was to live way below our means, and to have money in the bank, instead of owed to the bank.
  2. Is it simple?  Most days found us stressed and exhausted in our old life.  We weren't happy, and it was bad for our marriage, our child, our healthy, our sanity.  Simplicity meant less stuff, more time.  Less stress, more joy.  It's the hardest concept to articulate, but when you're in your life, you almost always know the right choice.
  3. Is it green?  Believe it or not, being frugal and simple and sane actually leads to being green.  First, you've got the time and energy to think about it.  Second, many of the activities we chose now that we had time pushed us to be more in touch with the natural world - kayaking our urban rivers, taking long walks through our local parks.  And lastly, since this all happened along with us having a young child - soon to be children - it's hard to not think about the world we're leaving for them.
And so while our Green Quotient has gone up - way up - in the past year, it's only part of the picture.  Many of our choices - walking and relying on mass transit whenever possible, for example - actually have to do with #2.  Rather than fuss about getting to the gym, both Franklin and I easily walk two miles a day without thinking about it - it's how we get from A to B.  So we're getting a minimum of 20 minutes of daily activity.  It allows Franklin time to decompress from work, connects us to our neighborhood and gets us a daily dose of Vitamin D - sunshine, the natural mood lifter.  Since we often walk together, it also allows us time to connect as a couple.  

The fact that it's frugal factors in, too, and when I need encouragement?  Well, it's green.  And that keeps my feet on the pavement, even in the heat of a Washington DC summer when I'm heavily pregnant.

So that's the trifecta - hard to pull off, but incredibly fulfilling when it happens.

Smarty Pants: The Cloth Diaper Debate

I've done the research.  We want baby Fiona to be green.  And cloth diapers are, while not without some impact, by far the greenest of the options.

Still, I've determined that an all-cloth approach would be doomed to failure.  We spend a lot of time outside of our home, and I couldn't haul back a messy cloth diaper with the groceries.  Remember, we're avid pedestrians, and the basket under the stroller is only so big.

So we would use Seventh Generations when we were out, or in a pinch during laundry loads.  But the rest of the time?  Cloth.  Why not, I figured?  We have our own washer/dryer.  We could always put a soaking bin in our large master bath, steps away from our daughter's changing table.  And I'm not fussed by getting stains out of laundry - I've potty trained the World's Most Reluctant 3 y.o., after all.

And yet, it seems like this is harder than it should be.  Here are the obstacles:
  • Cloth diapers aren't cheap.  Sure, they are if you use the old-fashioned squares with diaper pins.  But that would be a recipe for failure - I know how easy it is to velcro on all those lovely, disposable tabs, after all.  I'm considering using bumGenius diapers, which cost about $200 for a dozen - which seems like the absolute minimum to get through a day and create a load of wash.  We'd need to use each of the cloth diapers at least 60 times to save money compared to Seventh Generations.
  • Cloth diapers aren't all that easy to launder.  Apparently, they can't go in with the regular laundry, even the regular baby laundry.  That means either a) running partial loads, upping the eco-impact or b) having dirty diapers around until we've collected a full load.  They sometimes require a re-washing, and sometimes need to be set out in the sun to bleach.  We could do that - our laundry machine is right next to our townhome's roof deck - but again, if we've got them sunning themselves on the Ledo Deck, they're not available for use.
  • Cloth diapers aren't accepted by our childcare center.  And I completely understand their reasoning - they already regularly store soiled baby togs, and with space limited, it's tough to contemplate keeping all those diapers on hand, too.  Plus, we'd have to buy a second set of diapers to have on hand for changes at childcare.  They don't mind if we send her in the morning clad in cloth, but she'll be coming home in disposables.
That last hurdle means that our potential uses per cloth diaper go down, down, down - way down.  Even though our daughter will only be in care 3 days/week - about 20 hours - that's still a lot of diaper changes that we won't be doing.

And here's one last consideration:  I'm terrible with my hands.  You wouldn't know it to see me type, but that's the only place where I have anything that resembles manual dexterity.  The rest of the time, I'm a mess - fiddly, clumsy, sloppy.  All this argues for using the sized cloth diapers, which are basically just like disposables except, well, not.  But that cuts down on the odds that our cloth diapers would ever be a good financial investment.

My husband worries that we're taking on too much to cloth diaper - he remembers the early daze of having a newborn at home.  And while we're better positioned this time - less clueless about infant care, closer to family, supportive neighbors at the ready, I'm not working outside the home, he was four weeks' paid paternity leave - it's still gonna be a slog.

He also points out that successfully breastfeeding and making our own baby food, coupled with using greener disposables, would be a big improvement on our last go-round as time-stressed, crazed and clueless rookie 'rents.

Still, we could afford $200 for diapers.  If we don't break even, it's not the end of the world - we'll have kept garbage out of the landfills, and that's consistent with other choices we've made, where we accept greater expense in the name of the greater good.

And so it really comes down to this:  when the only benefit that I can identify is the Green Factor, making the choice becomes so much harder than when it's Green, Frugal and Simple.