Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shopping for the Environment: Big Green Purse

I don't know about you but I make most of the purchasing decisions in my household. Not that my husband cannot do it, but come on, he does not want to buy clothes for the kids, groceries, etc.  And I am not alone, women purchase or influence the purchases of 80% of all consumer goods -- trillions of dollars per year.   That is a lot of spending power!  So how can we take this purchasing power and save the environment?

Well, for years, environmental writer, Diane MacEachern, has been loosing an uphill battle fighting for a better environment.  She decided in addition to fighting to get Congress and companies to adopt better business practices to reverse global warming, and speaking across the country about environmental issues, she would go shopping.

Shopping?  How can shopping help save the environment?

 "Women have a whole planetful of power in their purses," states MacEachern in her new book, released this week, Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World.  

But really, how can my spending help environment?  MacEachern put outs this pledge. If one million of us (men can do this too!) pledge to shift $1,000 of our annual spending on green products, it would create an impact of $1 billion on the market place. That is a lot of influence on companies.  

Her book Big Green Purse guides readers through every section of the marketplace -- beauty, cosmetics, personal care products, cars, food, household clears, clothes, jewelry, garden and lawn care. kids and baby items, lights, appliances, electronics, and home products -- 25 commodities where our dollars can have the most impact. 

In the market for a new diamond ring or necklace? Shop at antique stores, estate sales or yard sales.  If used does not do it for you, buy diamonds mined in Canada that miners rights are protected and the diamonds are mined under stricter environmental regulations than Africa or those that meet the Kimberley Process Certification, non-conflict stones. 

Love clothes? Search out those made of organic cotton, recycled soda bottles , hemp, and bamboo.  Buy clothes with less color and dyes and shoes made out of cork and recycled rubber. 

Big Green Purse is not just a list of things you should buy or avoid, rather MacEachern explains in detail the current marketplace, the issues and what the impact of buying these green purchase will make on the environment.  

For example, the section on foods, because we know I am obsessed with food, entitled "We are what we Eat,"  goes into detail on the impact of eating beef, poultry and pork has on the environment.  The difference between certified organic, natural and grass-fed meats. How to choose sustainable seafood.  How to afford organic foods.  There is even a section on which you should use plastic or paper bags.  (Answer:  reusable bags!) 

So I've begun to shift my $1,000.  Who's joining me?  

BTW, kudos to the publisher of this book for publicizing Big Green Purse via a "paperless PR campaign!"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Whole is More than the Sum of its Parts.

So I finally finished Michael Pollan's most recent book In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto, a follow-up to  The Omnivore's Dilemma. In this new book Pollan explores what we should eat now and sums it up in seven words -- Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

However, more important than his conclusion of what to eat are Pollan's discussions of "The Age of Nutritionism." Nutritionism, coined in 2002 by the socialist, Gyorgy Scrinis, is a reductionist look at food -- understanding food in terms of its nutritional content.  

Many years ago I saw a movie called Mindwalk, one of the most philosophical and thought-provoking movies I have ever seen. The movie is based on the teachings of Fritjof Capra, a physicist and system theorist, and his book The Turning Point where he discusses the flaws of reductionist, Cartesian dualism, Newtonian paradigms and shows how modern society needs to develop holistic theories to solve today's problems. Basically the movie shows us that the way society looks at everything (global warming, deforestation, water pollution, etc.)  is by taking the issues apart piece by piece, mechanistically, and that we need to look at social issues as a whole rather than the sum of its parts.

Well, we are seeing this type of thinking with the rise of 'nutritionism' in the food we eat, and the way food science is trying to get us to think.  For example, walk down the aisles of the supermarket and you will see hundreds process food packages touting some nutrient or lack of nutrient claim -- now with antioxidants, vitamin rich, calcium added, low fat, no sugar added, low carb, no carb, low sodium, no trans fats...the list goes on.   (For a great commentary on these claims, read Mark Sisson's Daily Apple post on Ridiculous Health Claims, Mark's Daily Apple goes to the Grocery Store.) 

As Scrinis states, "Processed foods are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, or stripped of some of their fat, to enable such nutrient-content claims to be maid.  Nutrient claims on the labels of processed foods and drinks conceal the fact these foods are typically high in added fat, sugar, salt, chemicals, additives and reconstituted  ingredients, and have often been stripped of a range of beneficial micro-nutrients and food components. " (Sydney Morning Herald, Op-Ed, 2006

Our society has completely reduced the way we look at food into the nutrients or micronutrients -- whether good or bad.  Doing so has blurred the distinction between whole foods and processed foods.  A perfect example is Diet Coke Plus, diet soda with added nutrients.  Come on, diet soda with nutrients?  Who are they trying to fool?  So now we are getting our nutrients from a no-calorie drink?

We are now looking for processed foods for our "nutrients!"  Have we have completely forgotten how food grows?  Why fresh food, from the ground, grown without petroleum-based pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers is better for us than processed junk?

We need to remember the lessons of Capra and systems/holistic thinking.  Its connectedness and relationship to the earth, soil, sun, water, humans, etc.  It's a system that works as a whole and cannot be reduced to its smaller parts. Humans, plants, animals and the environment are a community that all work in concert with each other.  When we change one part, we change the perfect system. 

As Pollan state, " reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not but each of them dependent on the other, all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight. ...the relationship between the plants and the soil, between the grower and the plants and animals he or she tends, between the cook and the growers who supply the ingredients, and between the cook and the people who will soon come to the table to enjoy the food.  It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by." (In Defense of Food, pp. 200-201)

So the next time you go to the supermarket and are about to buy Baked Lays or Kellogg's Whole Grain Pop Tarts, think about it for a moment before putting it into your cart.  Think about the provenance of the pop-tart.  Think about its components.  How they got there, how they were processed.  Think about all the energy needed to make something that's not "natural."  And finally think about if you want you, your family, your kids and your community to to be eating this stuff.

If have not had a chance to read In Defense of Food, read The New York Times Magazine, Unhappy Meals by Michael Pollan that is basically an overview of the book.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Owns the Organic Food Companies?

Did you know that many of your favorite organic foods are owned by some of the world's largest food producers?  Kashi is owned by Kellogg, Seeds of Change by M&M Mars, Health Valley, Arrowhead Mills, Earth's Best and 16 other brands are owned by Hain Celestial who have a strategic alliance with Heinz. 

I knew about a few but discovered the depth of the ownership when reading the March issue of Good magazine that included a chart entitled "Buying Organics" created by Phil Howard.  The piece diagrams 11 of the the top 30 food processors in the North America and their organic holdings.  My initial reaction to this chart was "wow" I did not know that Green & Black's organic chocolates were owned by Cadbury Schweppes.  Then I said to myself, what is Phil Howard trying to say here? So I did some research on him.

An assistant professor of Community, Agriculture and Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University, Phil Howard, has been creating visual charts tracking buyouts in organic food industry since 2002 when USDA implemented the Organic Standards.  Comparing his 2002 chart to the most recent update in January 2008 (both showing  food processors and organic brand acquisitions, organic brand introductions and strategic alliances) the consolidation of the industry is scary.  He even created an animated version of the consolidation of the organic food industry from 1997 to 2007.  (Click here to view.)

In contrast to the chart in Good magazine, these charts do not need much explanation to the implication on the organic farming community.  A once tiny niche in the food industry, organic foods have become a more than $20 billion a year market.  As Howard states in his paper Consolidation of Food and Agriculture published in CCOF, "The trend (of consolidation) raises concerns about how this power (of ownership) is exercised, as most corporations are accountable to their shareholders, not to the communities in which they operate." "Consolidation in food and agriculture has many negative consequences for the majority of those who grown, harvest, process and eat food.  These include lowering incomes and purchasing power, limiting choices, harming humans, animals and ecosystems heath.  However the importance of food makes it likely that as more people become aware of these consequences, the power of the corporate agribusiness will be more effectively confronted."

The consolidation of the organic food industry has become big business sometimes indistinguishable from industrial agriculture.  But do not get me wrong, there is a lot of good that has come out of the organic movement.  The organic standards prohibit genetically engineered and irradiated ingredients, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers with sewage sludge. Animals are not allowed to ingest synthetic hormones or antibiotics.  And the more widely available, the lower the price for the consumer.

So what is Phil Howard saying? 

The consumer must be aware of how the organic industry is being consolidated and push our government and corporations for more stringent organic standards.  As he states, "As the industry evolves, we'll need to advocate the next level of criteria one way or another.  These must address concentration in the industry, where food comes from, how far it travels and by what means, packaging and waste, a living wage for farm workers, preserving farmland and keeping farmers on the land, and continuing to be the front line for sustainability."

More of Phil Howard's graphs and charts can be viewed on his web page on the Michigan State University site.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Organic Produce Delivered to Your Door

So now that I am committed to buying only organic and locally grown foods, in addition to limiting my families intake of process foods, I noticed that shopping has become more difficult and more expensive.  

The main supermarkets near my house are Whole Foods and ShopRite.   Although Whole Foods is widely considered the market to purchase your organic fruits and vegetables, I have discovered that only a small percentage of the produce sold there actually is organic.  Just yesterday I went to pick up some fresh produce and hardly anything was organic -- grapes, berries, tomatoes, garlic and eggplant, to name a few -- all conventional industrial produce. 

So through a suggestion of a friend, I joined Door to Door Organics -- an organic produce delivery service.  They offer customers different size produce boxes depending on your needs from the Itty Bitty Box that contains 4 fruit types and 5 vegetable varieties for $25.00 per week to a Large Box for $60.00 that includes 5-6 fruit types and 9-10 vegetable varieties.  I decided that I should start with the Itty Bitty Box and so far it is perfect. Every Friday I get an email from the company telling me what fruits and veggies will be included in my box which will be delivered the following Wednesday.  I have the weekend to decide if I want to substitute anything from the box from a long list of choices they offer.  I can also add additional fruits and veggies to the box.  

So far I love it.  We have fresh organic fruits and veggies all week. The company also tries their best to include locally grown produce as much as possible in addition they reuse the boxes and packing to limited the amount of materials they use. 

Organic delivery services seem to be a growing market.  Door to Door Organic has four locations: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado and Ohio River Valley.  A quick Google search for "organic delivery services" came up with dozens of companies all over the country.  Prior to signing up for a service, I suggest that you check all the companies policies and if they strive to buy locally and deliver with the least impact to the environment.  I noticed that one company in Austin, TX called Greenling Organic Delivery provides its customers with a reusable plastic insulated box and New Root Organics in Seattle uses reusable rubbermaid containers with lids. 

No matter where you live you should be able to find a local service in your area. However, for those of you who live in warmer climates, the other options are food co-ops and local farmers markets. And for those who live in Manhattan, even if the weather is bad, there are farmers markets all over the city that sell locally grown and organic foods all year round.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The truth about Whole Foods "new" 100% recycled bag initiative

In January Whole Foods announced that it would stop offering its customers plastic bags by Earth Day 2008 (April 22).  While I initially commended the company for taking such a great initiative to reduce our landfills and stop clogging our waterways of plastic, they are now proudly offering their customers 100% recycling paper bags.   100% recycled? You mean the bags are made from the paper we put on our curbside?  

Whole Foods, let's be honest. Yes you are a great company, and sell great products, but this claim is deceptive to your consumer who think of you as the authority on everything good for you and the environment. 

As child of a printing family, the 100% recycled paper bags now offered at Whole Foods got me thinking. Growing up, I used to go to my dad's printing plant and see paper scraps left over from the printing process being sent back to be recycled. This was standard practice.  

So when I went food shopping recently at Whole Foods and saw the paper bags, I had to question it.  100% recycled, really?  What percentage is really from waste from the consumer? Or curbside recycling?

Well, according a Whole Foods public relations representative, the recycled fiber content is 40% post consumer and 60% post industrial (waste).  She stated, "we (Whole Foods) are excited to be moving away from any virgin fiber materials in our paper bags."

Post consumer? Post industrial?  What does that mean?  Well, listen-up.  

Post-consumer waste is paper that has been purchased and used by the consumer (you and me) and recycled by the municipal and private sector recycling system -- curbside recycling. What we the public accept has the definition of recycled.

Post-industrial waste is otherwise known as pre-consumer waste.  It is the reintroduction of manufacturing scrap (trimmings from paper production) back into the manufacturing process. Basically it is the paper made out of paper trimmings and scraps left over from the manufacturing process. Just like I saw in my dad's printing plant more than 20 years ago.  

Pre-consumer, or as Whole Foods calls it post-industrial, is used in the manufacturing industry and in the traditional sense, is not considered recycled. For decades, pre-consumer paper waste has been recycled.  The paper was never marked recycled because manufacturers never got credit for it. But in the 1980's when the demand for recycled paper began to rise, producers began to claim pre-consumer waste as recycled fiber.  However, there had been no change in their manufacturing practices.   

Paper grocery bags are customarily made of pre-consumer (post-industrial) recycled paper -- from 40-90% of the material.  So in reality, Whole Foods is not doing anything new.  It is basically a "green" public relations stunt to make them look better in the marketplace.   This is a practice known as "greenwashing" and as a committed environmentalist, I find it a bit offensive.

Forty percent post-consumer waste, that is it?  A company like Whole Foods who has based their entire brand and position in the marketplace as being better for you, better for the environment, can do better or a least be honest about their claims.  Nowhere on the bag does it reveal any of this information.  

Come on Whole Foods, give us the Whole Truth.

To learn more about federal guidelines for the use of environmental marketing claims go to the Federal Trade Commission site.

Friday, February 8, 2008

What do we eat now?

I recently finished reading the book by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Yeah, I know I am a little behind the times. The book was released in 2006 but a figured it could be revisited because his newest book came out last month and is a follow-up to Omnivore's Dilemma.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan investigates the American food system to find out what we should have for dinner. He examines both industrial and organic foods in addition to hunting and gathering for food. Pollan visits the corn farm in Iowa, the feedlots in Kansas, organic farms in California, a pastoral farm in Virginia, a free range chicken farm and even a fast-food restaurant to learn the difference between industrial, organic and pastural farming and ultimately finds out what goes into our food.

Although, Pollan does not end with a definitive answer of what we should eat (he saves that for his next book, In Defense of Food: A Eater's Manifesto, which I have not finished yet), you are left with such a distaste for the American food system that you have trouble eating anything without throughly examining its ingredients, origins and process by which it was produced or farmed.

Never in my life did I read a book that has forced me to make changes in my eating and shopping habits. Until this one.

So what did I learn? What can you take away from me reading Pollan's book? A few key things:

1. Corn is evil. Well, not exactly. Corn on the cob is still good. But most of the corn grown in the U.S. is either fed to animals which where not meant to eat corn in the first place or made into high fructose corn syrup, corn oil or a derivative and then used in some highly processed food such as soda. Laboratory analysis as reported by Pollan revealed that soda from McDonald's, a.k.a. Coca-Cola, is made of 100% corn!

2. Avoid industrial beef as much as possible which is fed a mixture of corn and antibiotics. Cows stomachs cannot digest corn so they are given antibiotics to ward off bacteria in the gut and other diseases from living in such close quarters. Chickens are no better.  

3. Free-range chickens do not exercise their option to roam free. They are given two weeks to exit their living quarters through tiny doors on each end of their home the size of a football field. None of them do.

4. Our food system uses way to much fossil fuel. For every calorie of process food it takes 10 calories of petroleum energy. A McDonald's meal for Pollan's family of three was a total 4,510 calories. "To grow and process those 4,510 food calories took at least 10 time as many calories of fossil energy, the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil." *  Petroleum is used from the start of the food process at the farm, for fertilizer, transport and then processing and cooking to serving.

5. Organic foods are the lesser of the evils.  Although organic farmed food is much better for the environment and our health, many of the organic foods travel a very long distance to get to our grocery stores from farms in South and Central American and other far off places using a lot of fossil fuel to transport.

6. Locally grown foods seems to be the way to the way to go.  The best organic foods are the ones grown closest to home.  It is estimated that some food travels more that 2,000 miles from pasture to plate.  Eating locally grown food means less fossil fuels burned in transport and preparation.  Better for the environment, better for your health, and better for the community.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Aluminum Foil: Reynolds vs. Recycled

For years I have been recycling my aluminum foil and pans. I assumed that they were made from recycled aluminum. Then I noticed that Whole Foods sold recycled aluminum foil. So I did a little investigating to see what aluminum foil is made of and the difference between the well known Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil compared to If You Care recycled aluminum foil.

I discovered that aluminum, unlike plastics, can be recycled over and over again without loosing quality. In addition, mining bauxite, the basic building block of aluminum, is very taxing on the environment. Additionally, producing new aluminum consumes a lot of energy per pound. Recycled aluminum uses 95% less energy to produce.

According to the EPA, there is 3.3 million tons of aluminum in the municipal waste stream, a.k.a. the landfill. That is equal to almost 100 million soda cans or 20 million rolls of recycled aluminum foil.* That is a lot of BBQing.

Reynolds, as boasted on their website, is 98.5% aluminum and "contains no recycled materials." Alcoa, the makers of Reynolds Wrap foil, is the world's largest producer of aluminum. On the flip side, If You Care is made of 100% recycled material aluminum.

How does the recycled foil compare to non-recycled in the kitchen? Well, you can definitly tell the difference in feel right out of the box. The recycled foil is much thinner, however, for cooking it made no difference. You can still cover your food the same way.

So do I like it? Would I recommend it? Yes, I'd recommend it. Its not as sturdy as Reynolds Wrap, but it does the job. And for me, the most important thing is the long-term impact of my buying decisions on the environment. So am I willing to forgo a bit of tensile strength in my aluminum foil for a better world? Heck yes. And you should too.

Recycled aluminum foil can be purchased online or in most supermarkets like Whole Foods.

To read more go to Grist.

*Calculated by my husband who is not a math wiz.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Green Reading 101

I recently discovered Grist, the environmental news site.  Grist provides up-to-date information and commentary on environmental news.  My favorite is the Ask Humbra column in which "Umbra" answers questions to our everyday questions about the environment.

Do you want to know which presidential candidate or companies are the greenest? Check out Grist.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Pesticides revealed...go Organic

A few years ago, I read a book by Seattle Times reporter, Duff Wilson called Fateful Harvest. The book revealed how hazardous waste from America's industrial plants are made into fertilizer. This fertilizer is then applied onto the food we eat.  Crazy right?  How can this be? Well the book was published in 2002 and it is still happening!

A study published this week in the Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that "harmful pesticides are found in everyday foods."  As reported by the Seattle Post Intelligencer, children eating conventional foods from the grocery store, urine and saliva tested positive for pesticides.  However, when they ate organic foods (fruit, veggies and juices), no signs of pesticides were found.  The study also discovered that "within 8-36 hours of the children switching to organic foods, the pesticides were no longer detected."

I have to admit that I have fallen victim to sticker shock in the grocery story when organic blueberries are $5.99 for a small container.  Well, no longer.  I am convinced that organic is the way to go.  

Where to start?

Lately I have been spending a lot of time thinking about ways we can make the world a better place.  I decided to get my thoughts down and see if there were others that were thinking the same way I do.  I may ramble one day and review products on others.  Comments are welcome!