October 30, 2007

Sustainability vs. Luxury: Are They Really At Odds?

Whatever you personal feelings about Al Gore, he must be doing something right (you don’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, after all, for failing miserably). Thanks in no small part to Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, the American public’s awareness of environmental concerns has grown considerably in recent years. This increased awareness brings with it a fascinating process of learning, questioning, justifying, arguing and, sometimes, changing. Since our industrial revolution, America has been a society of consumers, embracing values of luxury and carefree (careless?) spending. With the advent of the climate crisis, this consumerism is being challenged. But is luxury truly anathema to sustainability? Must we really choose between consumption and abstinence?

Ask the average citizen what it takes to be sustainable, or green, and you’ll likely hear something along the lines of, “Give up the fun stuff.” This model is perpetuated by the environmental movement itself, whose primary motto is “reduce, reuse, recycle,” implying we must reduce our indulgences before anything can be done to save us. Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, of the Living Small blog recently summed up this pervasive attitude rather bluntly in a recent entry for The Ethicurian: “I hate to be the one to point it out, but luxury and sustainability are contradictory values.” Clearly, this belief runs deep, regardless of which side of the fence you shop on.

Is it true, though?

Is it possible to live in extravagance without damaging the environment? Is it possible to thoughtlessly consume without essentially shitting your waste all over the place? Right now, the answer is no. Thanks to an unchecked economic system that has never once factored environmental resources into the cost of doing business, we now have a world of goods made from toxins, that produce toxins, and end up as toxins in landfill.

Just imagine if companies— the building blocks of our current economy—assigned a real dollar value to the cost of natural resources. I’m not even talking about the expense of strip mining, for example, with all its OSHA regulations and heavy machinery. I’m talking about costs like the lost productivity of worker-drones who don’t have access to sunlight and fresh air, or the long-term cost of depleting oil reserves without a sufficient energy source to replace them. These are real costs to businesses of all sizes, but when was the last time you took a hard look at the “waste disposal” line item on your P&L?

The truth is that the products we make and sell and buy are damaging us even as they make our lives easier in the short term. Pesticides that help us produce more food faster actually leach into water sources, for example, then leach into the fish swimming in those water sources, then leach into those of us who eat that fish. Or, on a simpler level, take your latest purchase at OfficeMax: how much of what you just paid for is actually for plastic packaging that you sent to a landfill as soon as it passed through your business’ doors?

It’s not doomsday yet, though.

As I write this, R&D departments throughout the world are racing to find new, better alternatives. At one time, recycled paper was a crappy alternative to virgin pulp paper but thanks to technological development, we now have gorgeous, affordable recycled paper options at our disposal. The Prius is another, if imperfect, example. A process once hidden from the public’s gaze is now snowballing into the limelight. Companies are recognizing that the up-front R&D costs generally pale in comparison to the ROI to be seen down the road. And we small businesses get to piggyback on their innovation.

What they’re working on is really incredible, and incredibly sexy. Cars that run on air (they exist!); treatment plants that clean wastewater using the gas from their own processes (okay, that last one's not so sexy, but it's really cool). These advances have already been made, and now it’s a matter of applying our technological capabilities to their mass production so they become the norm and not the exception. Quickly. And that happens through publicity (cue Al Gore) and the build-up of demand.

It’s a beautiful cycle, isn’t it? And it’s why I believe that luxury and sustainability are not contradictory values in and of themselves. With our current production framework, no, of course they can’t coexist. But our current framework is changing. If regenerative products become the norm—products that add to the health of our environment rather than detract from it—it could conceivably mean that carefree consumption can actually be an environmentally friendly action.

One has to happen first for the other to be true, of course. But the change is happening. So as we continue to demand that the end-user change their habits, we need to also demand—even more strenuously—that the producers change theirs.

[Cross-posted to Blog!]

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July 27, 2007

All Future Cities Will Be Green?

I'm fascinated by the built environment; I blame my father's many architecture books scattered across our shelves when I was a kid (my personal favorite was an Adolph Loos "picture book" that I never got tired of flipping through). The shape of our cities, suburbs, countryside, and so forth have all changed—and continue to change—dramatically as our behaviors and expectations change. This is obvious, but the resulting environment is not so obvious; we are so often oblivious to what we see around us, to how we interact to our environment, and to how our environment actually marks us.

Developers, planners and real estate professionals are starting to recognize this. Some of them are actually taking deliberate steps towards making communities more sustainable and more conducive to human interaction. From folks like Eric Fredericks from the Walkable Neighborhoods blog (he's got an incredible series right now of brief photo-essays as he tours various walkable, and not-so-walkable, neighborhoods around the country), and LJ Urban (who are producing some fascinating community-based developments), are taking risks and challenging our concepts of the typical American city.

Califia ecocityThere is another project that I just caught wind of, and it's a doozy. The Green Century Institute is planning a new city, known as Califia, to house 7,000-10,000 residents within 30 miles of the San Francisco Bay Area. Califia is being called an ecocity: "a living example of an ecologically and economically sustainable urban development that leverages the evolutionary culture of Northern California in a real estate development integrating advanced green design features, network-facilitated community development, and forward thinking partnerships with private, non-profit, commercial, and civic institutions."

And Califia needs you. GCI is asking anyone interested in helping to visualize this new concept city to submit a single sketchbook page to the project depicting your own slice-of-life interpretation. It's a great idea, but what will it look like once it's built and inhabited? Perhaps you can help determine that. Read more about the Califia project and the design competition's submission requirements at GCI's Califia site.

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July 10, 2007

So Much for a Greener Apple

Steve Jobs is killin' me. After a rather lengthy and well-publicized attempt at demonstrating Apple's environmental policies, the computer giant goes and releases the iPhone all bundled up in superfluous packaging. This is a perfect example of not walking the talk.

To wit:
An external box that measures approximately 2-3 times the size of the internal components;

A box inside a box (is that second box actually doing anything that the first box couldn't?);

An internal box made from two separate same-sized components (a bottom and a removable top);

A phone set inside a plastic tray resting on top of...

A set of manuals contained within a folded sleeve resting on top of a...

Plastic tray holding phone components.
I will certainly concede that the overall look is sleek and sexy, but it's screamingly obvious to me that Apple's graphic design team suffers from overdesigneritis. Designers should be asking themselves what we can do to reduce the amount of raw materials used, the energy required to produce and ship our packaging, and the amount of waste now headed to landfills across the country, not what can we do to increase those things?

I get that Apple is known for their sleek and sexy packaging. But this kind of look actually lends itself to the less is more aesthetic, so reducing the amount of packaging "stuff" would actually reinforce that look. I also get that Apple is trying to create an experience out of the opening of the package, as if it were a Christmas gift. But this can be done without multiple layers of materials and unnecessary trays. Self-contained boxes with multiple folds (think a self-mailing envelope) produce this effect, for example.

Us consumers vote with our dollars. Look for the following details when making your purchases, and don't hesitate to demand change from the companies you buy stuff from:
Less packaging overall: Avoid over-packaged items with multiple layers of stuff.

Recycled packaging: Make sure the materials used to package the stuff you buy is itself made from recycled paper, plastic or other materials.

Recyclable packaging: Any packaging that you can throw in the recycle bin instead of the trash is a better deal. I recently purchased orange juice in a plastic container only to discover it was no. 6 plastic (not recyclable in my city); bad move on my part.

Biodegradable packaging: More and more packaging is being made from biodegardable, corn-based plastics. This stuff is AWESOME but it's not always well-marked (Trader Joe's has been packaging a lot of their produce with biodegradable plastic trays).
Finally, I can't speak to whether or not Apple is using recyclable materials in its plastic and paper packaging, so if anyone who has purchased an iPhone would like to let me know, please do.

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July 06, 2007

Yesterday's Technology Today! Beer Bottle Solar Panels

Not everybody gets hot water when they want it. Ma Yanjun, of Shaanxi Province in China, was a farmer with a cold family. So he did the only logical thing one could do in such a situation: he built a solar panel out of beer bottles and affixed it to his roof. Now his family of four can each get a warm shower in the morning.

As The Beer Activist points out, "it's a great example of small-scale sustainable technology." Ma Yanjun managed to solve a pressing problem by using found materials and a little ingenuity. His solar panel depletes no resources, uses "unwaste" that would have otherwise been sent to a landfill, and it has even inspired ten other families in his neighborhood to do the same.

The science behind it is so simple that anyone can make one of these things. I couldn't find a step-by-step tutorial for this particular model online, but I did find instructions for making a hot water heater using reclaimed materials, as well as a great tutorial for a hot air heater. Of course, this might be a little more hands-on than most want to take on, but what a cool excuse to work your way through a case of beer!

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February 06, 2007

Will You Be Eating Cloned Meat?

Cloned meat is on its way but you won't have a clue when it hits your local grocery store. According to the Detroit Free Press, the U.S. government, which passed preliminary approval of the sale of cloned meat and dairy products in December, doesn't plan to require that those products be labeled for the consumer. That means that when sale of cloned meat is approved (likely to be sometime this year), you'll have no warning.

As vegetarian as I may be, I don't intend to rail against meat-eating as a practice (although I will plug independently ranched, grass-fed beef over the typical corn-fed factory beef most Americans eat). But that's another story. So how will you know whether your hamburger was grown in a petri dish, so to speak?

Well, apparently the watered-down organic labeling laws here in the U.S. at least cover this much: any food carrying the USDA organic seal of approval must be clone-free. If you are as worried as I am about ingesting a giant experiment conducted by the nation's corporate factory farms and subsidized by the U.S. government, here are a few ideas for ensuring your meat is clone-free:
  • Search the Eat Well Guide for organic ranches
  • Search Local Harvest for organic ranchers
  • Ask to speak to the manager of your local grocery store and express your concern
  • Ask the restaurants you dine at if they intend to purchase clone-free meat, or label their dishes
  • Send a letter to the FDA expressing your concern with the click of a button

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January 18, 2007

Five Minutes to Midnight

Could we be facing immanent nuclear warfare? Last week I mentioned that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a group that includes numerous Nobel winners, were to make a "very important announcement" and yesterday they did. The conclusion: that we have awoken to the dawn of a new nuclear era.

This seemingly dire announcement has been punctuated by the Bulletin's decision to move the Doomsday Clock forward by two minutes, to five minutes to midnight. Contrary to popular assumption, though, the clock is not a gauge of how close we are to nuclear war waged by our world's politicians.

In fact, the clock reflects “basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age, and will continue living, until society adjusts its basic attitudes and institutions.” This subtle difference is an important one, as it stresses the need for a fundamental shift in our way of approaching the way we live in the world. Is it not suprising, then, that the Bulletin also concludes that "the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons."

The full statement is well worth reading. Most fascinating to me is the report's description of how our nation's administration has relaxed its attitudes towards nuclear weapons, embracing this technology to a degree unheard of since WWII, and the direct influence this has had on today's nuclear proliferation.

But it's not all dire doomsday warnings. Even more important than the current "threat level," to borrow the language of the current administration, are the Bulletin's recommendations. Among the very specific steps that can be taken to reduce the nuclear threat are some obvious ones—begin dismantling the 20,000+ nuclear warheads we've got stored everywhere—and some less obvious ones. These include beginning an international discussion about the ramifications of nuclear energy (particularly salient as nuclear becomes more and more attractive as an alternative energy source), and securing current nuclear materials that are, as of now, dangerously insecure.

All of this nuclear talk can seem so distant to those of us who've never had to duck under a desk. But North Korea's recent testing should start bringing these dangers home to us—hopefully not directly, but at least by impacting our actions. So what can you and I do to influence our nation's approach to nuclear weapons?

We can start by educating ourselves (read the news, dispel the myths) and forming an opinion. Then share that opinion with those whose fingers dangle limply over the Big Red Button. Vote, send emails, start conversations with friends and neighbors. Whatever you choose to do, choose something, please. Don't you think it's time to stop letting others make our decisions for us?

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January 12, 2007

5 Things You Can Do to Reduce Paper Use

Remember the golden promise of the paperless office? Computers were supposed to reduce the amount of paper we had to push everyday, resulting in a clean, uncluttered and unpolluted life. Ha. According to a 2001 report, "Global production in the pulp, paper and publishing sector is expected to increase by 77%" by 2020. And this matters greatly because the pulp and paper industry is the third largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.

As a graphic designer and a writer, I may be one of the worst perpetrators of this increase. No matter how much I recycle, it won't make up for how much I consume. I read books, magazines, newspapers. My office overflows with paper files, records, receipts and notepads. So what's a paper-addict to do? The following steps are easy to implement and can help reduce your pulp addiction:

  1. Use recycled paper!
    Quality recycled paper is now easily available. It's affordable, and looks and feels nearly as good as virgin paper. Most consumers can't even tell the difference. You can buy recycled boxes, loose leaf paper and notebooks, file folders, invitations and so on.

  2. Don't just throw it out—reuse it.
    I have a file folder of scrap paper next to my printer—inkjet paper I've printed stuff on one side of that I no longer need. When I just have to have something printed on paper for my business records (receipts, for example), I print it on the backside of this scrap.

  3. Cancel your magazine and newspaper subscriptions.
    This isn't always feasible, but most major magazines and newspapers publish their content online. You can usually subscribe to these online publications via feed (like the one on our site in the upper right corner).

  4. Get a library card.
    Seriously—public libraries are an essential part of our communities. Support them by forgoing that trip to Barnes and Noble (which eats pulp like it's candy and has huge a huge freight impact on our environment), and instead checking out a book from your local library. They even take requests in case you want to read the latest best seller.

  5. Cancel those catalogs.
    If you get tons of catalogs from companies you never buy from, call 'em up and cancel them.

I'll admit—it feels slightly sacriligious for me to recommend boycotting bookstores. I am an analog girl at heart. I love the feel, the experience, of reading a book and feeling the pages between my fingers. But we've got to start somewhere. We've got to pick and choose. At the very least, we've got to start thinking long and hard about the cost of our paper addiction.

What other ideas do you have for reducing paper consumption? Clearly we need industry reform (here are some statistics), but what about on an individual level?

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January 09, 2007

New Feeds for Sustainable Fans

As readership continues to grow, however modestly, I've slowly been making some improvements to both the usability and aesthetics of Small Failures. My most recent move has been to make it easier for you to subscribe to the blog via either a feed or email.

A feed is simply a way for you to get all the latest updates to your favorite blogs in one place, instead of bouncing from blog to blog (here's a quick explanation). But if you're not feeling the feed, you can always get the same updates via email instead.

Either way, you'll find the necessary sign-ups to your right (at the top of the right sidebar). Go ahead and sign up—you can always unsubscribe later if you don't like it!

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January 03, 2007

Urban Rivers

Work, in Plain English pointed out a remarkable scene recently: a river running through a congested city that actually looks healthy. Penina points out how important it is that an urban river actually engage passers by and should rely on naturally occurring elements to keep it healthy and flowing safely.

City planning in the U.S. should be so good.

Further reading:
More on rivers than you probably want to know.
The abstracted article that inspired Penina's post.

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December 28, 2006

Bulbs and Batteries and Computers, Oh My!

Have you broken the law lately? You have if you live in California (or many other states) and thrown fleurescent light bulbs, outdoor light bulbs, batteries, paint, motor oil, electronics, printer cartridges, or any number of other materials straight into the trash.

That's because these items contain toxic materials that can't go directly into the waste stream. But absurdly, most states don't do enough to tell us about how we can get rid of these materials. It turns out that it's really not that hard:

  1. Identify what you can and can't throw out
    LampRecycle.org provides a list of state-by-state contacts for hazardous materials regulations.

  2. Set aside your items.
    Just keep a paper shopping bag handy in a nearby closet to stow the stuff until you're ready to drop them off.

  3. Drop 'em off.
    You can drop off hazardous items at more places than you think. Ikea and other retail stores, government agencies, and even mail-order companies all offer hazardous materials recycling.

Where to Go For...

Light Bulbs
Ikea: Drop off compact fleurescent bulbs, batteries and Ikea packaging.
LampRecycle.org: Provides a list of companies who say they recycle mercury-containing bulbs.

Computers, Printer Ink, Cell Phones & Electronics
Apple: Get a 10% discount on a new iPod when you turn in your dead one. They'll also recycle any computer brand if you buy an Apple, and you can drop off useless batteries for recycling at any Apple store.
Call2Recycle: They set up collection boxes for rechargable batteries (including power tool batteries and others), and cell phones in retail stores across the continent. Just enter your postal code and find all the drop off locations near you.
HP: Provides free recycling for printer inks, and offers recycling for equipment with some restrictions.
Office Depot: Accepts HP and Office Depot brand laser and inkjet cartridges. Order free recycled boxes (inkjet or laser), then return them to any Office Depot store for free.
Computer Take Back Campaign: Offers a searchable directory for computer recyclers.
Cell Phone Recycling Programs: Maine-focused list of programs that includes many national retailers.

General Directories
Earth911.org: Searchable directory by postal code for all kinds of items.
Green Choices: Offers a resoure list for recycling various materials.
Earth Easy: Another catch-all list of recycling resources.
Waste Aware Business: Directory for Scotland and the U.K.

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