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Real Green or Just Hype?

By Leah Kaminsky

Take a stroll down any aisle in your local supermarket and you’re likely to encounter a wide range of “green” products. It’s in other places, too, from hotels boasting their “environmentally friendly” laundry policies, to energy companies claiming to be “clean.”

But surely, not all these companies could have grown an eco-conscious overnight. In fact, there’s even a term for companies that spend more time and funds on promoting their green deeds than actually working to be green: greenwashing.

So just how can you tell the real green from the fake?

1. Look at the ingredients list. Companies are quick to promote a single natural ingredient and ignore the rest. Just look at all the cleaning products that put phrases like, “Clean with natural enzyme action” on the front just because they use baking soda, forgetting to mention that they also phthalates, sodium sulphate, and so forth. Unless you’re a chemist, bring your smart phone or tablet along to the grocery store so you can look up each chemical on a database like the one provided by the Environmental Working Group.

2. Insist on specificity. While many companies feel comfortable slapping “all natural” on their product, it’s far more likely they’re telling the truth when they use a specific claim like, “Made with 100% organic oranges.” The more specific the claim, the easier it is to check its validity, the more likely the company will feel the pinch to tell the truth.

3. Research the company. What are consumers saying about it online? For that matter, what does the company website say about its products? Does it explain its claims and define its terms? Because there’s no standard definition for words like natural, eco, green, nontoxic, and even biodegradable (yes, while biodegradation is an agreed upon scientific process, add an “-able” onto the term and who knows what you’ve got), each company will have their own definition of what those terms mean. Make sure you agree.

4. Avoid flashy packaging. Product packaging has always been designed with buyer psychology in mind, and greenwashed products are no exception. Just because a spray bottle has a flower on it, doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment than the plain bottle next to it. In fact, companies would be all the more green with plain packaging, if they invested the cost of designing and printing complicated packaging in green efforts instead.

5. Verify with seals of approval. While there are certainly green products that don’t bear seals from trusted green organizations, having one never hurts. Look for the EnergyStar logo, the USDA Organic Seal, the Green Seal or the Forest Stewardship Council logo on appliances, cosmetics, produce and paper products.

The green industry is still very new, which means it’s something like the Wild West. If history is any indication, we’ll have better guides and oversight as time wears on. Until then, these five tips should help dye your eco-efforts a true green.

Top 5 Green Resolutions for the New Year

By Leah Kaminsky

Happy Near Year! We may be well into 2013, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to add a few green resolutions to your list. (And, hey, if you’ve already broken a few of your other resolutions anyway, why not make room for a few more?). Whether you’re already a Green Queen or you consider washing out an old shampoo bottle for the recycling bin a big accomplishment, here are just a few great green resolutions for the New Year.

1. I will stop using plastic bags. All of them. Type “fashionable reusable shopping bags” into Google and you’ll find a wide range of fun and funky bags that are just as much of a fashion statement as a purse or clutch. I actually enjoy picking up new bags wherever I travel as a souvenir – certainly makes grocery shopping more fun! If you find yourself consistently forgetting to bring your bags into the store, look for ones that can fold up small and fit into your purse or pocket.

2. Forget the bottled water. If you turn to bottled water for filtration, switch instead to an on-top water purifier or a jug you can keep cold in the fridge. Most of the bottled water you buy really isn’t as pure as you might think, and there’s little you’ll find in them that you can’t achieve via a more sustainable filtration option – one that doesn’t require petroleum to make bottles, carbon emissions to ship and deliver the product, and recycling.

3. Bike or walk to work. If you’ve also resolved to get into shape in the New Year, then this is the resolution for you. Try starting small by resolving to bike, walk, run or hey, pogo stick to work at least once a week, and build the number up from there.

4. Put an end to your paper habit. Do you really need a printed version of that document? How about a printed book? Take a look at your paper habits, and propose an accomplish-able reduction. You may, for instance, resolve to go from ordering printer paper once a month to once every two months, and reuse printing mess-ups as scrap paper for notes. You could also begin using an e-reader, buying only used books, or borrowing books from friends or the library.

5. Buy local, in-season produce. In the global food market, we’ve gotten used to being able to eat whatever we like whenever we’d like to, regardless of the season. But those strawberries you purchase in the middle of winter are at the very tail end of a long carbon emissions chain. Instead, buy local and make it a creative endeavor to cook in-season.

Do you have a few green resolutions of your own? Tell us all about them in the comments below.

Natural Bee Removal

By Leah Kaminsky

On a sunny Tuesday morning, I laced up my running shoes, shut the front door behind me and stepped out into the front yard to stretch. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Just the chirping of birds and the slight hum of insects in flight. Then I turned back to the house to make sure the door was locked and saw this:

A bee swarm so big, the Terminix guy wouldn’t even touch it. “They’ll kill me!” he cried when he stopped by our house the next day. “I’m calling the man with the bee suit.”

Naturally, being the green advocate I am, I logged onto Facebook and updated my status with a panicked remark about being on pins and needles while the exterminators blasted my Alfred Hitchcok-esque swarm out of existence. (We all have our limits, and mine just happens to be bees).

I expected my friends to empathize with me, but instead I received a steady stream of comments about the colony collapse disorder, along with pleas to call a beekeeper for a humane removal. If you haven’t been keeping up with the honeybee crisis, this is the widespread dying off of honeybees, attributed in part to pesticides and genetically modified crops. This is bad news for the food chain and therefore humanity.

As I soon learned, a much more humane option than extermination is bee removal, which can be performed either by a professional service or by any one of many eager beekeeping hobbyists. Many beekeepers will actually do the service for free, as they need bees to sell local honey.

Here’s how it works:

  1. When the beekeeper starts work, you lock yourself safely in your house, especially if you’re in an area with large populations of hyper-aggressive Africanized bees.
  2. The beekeeper lures the bees from their hive or swarm and into a hive box, a container in which the bees can nest.
  3. The beekeeper will then remove any honeycomb or nest from the wall and seal any entrance holes, so it doesn’t rot and attract more bees in the future.
  4. Without a home or a queen to lead them, any remaining worker bees the beekeeper can’t capture will die in three days to a week (kind of sad, I know).

Voila! Bees gone, carried away to make honey in someone else’s yard. In the end, I was happy we did it the humane way and to have done my part to safeguard the ecosystem. And I was really happy not to have a massive swarm of potentially angry bees hanging off the side of my house. Phew!

What in the World is a CSA?

By Leah Kaminsky

Whether you’re the Queen of Whole Foods or the King of the farmer’s market, there are many ways to stock your kitchen with fresh, local produce these days. Still, too often these resources are a drain on your wallet, and it’s not exactly as if you walk away from the cash register feeling like you have a better sense of the farmer. Enter the CSA: an affordable solution that’s been spreading like wildfire over the past two decades. Here, I’ll break down just what in the world a CSA is, and why it might be a good option for you.

WHAT: CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. If you sign up for a CSA, you’ll pledge your support to a local farm for a certain growing season at a pre-paid rate, generally based on how far in advanced you sign up. You’ll receive a box of the latest harvests on a set day every week throughout the subscription period. Produce is always in-season and local because it’s shipped right from the fields to your door or to the local pick-up site. Some CSA programs also sell other types of add-on options, like meat and dairy.

WHY: CSAs are great for farmers because they put some of the risk on the consumer. If, for instance, there’s a drought and certain crops don’t grow, they still have your guaranteed subscription for that growing period (though they do generally try to make up for lost produce). They’re also better able to cut down on wasted produce by planting according to subscription numbers.

This guarantee allows farmers to keep their prices relatively low, so it’s generally worth it to consumers. Other consumer benefits include (of course) eating locally and organically, as well as learning to cook in-season. In many CSAs there are added community benefits, including shared recipes and the opportunity to work on the farm in lieu of a subscription fee.

WHO:

Families and community-minded singletons who want to share with friends.

The only downside about CSAs: in good years, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with produce. Be ready to give some of your food away, or for long days spent cooking and freezing so none of it goes to waste. That way, you’ll always have “fresh” produce no matter what the time of year.

CSAs are a fun way to get involved and stay healthy. Type your city name and “CSA” into Google and see what you find!

Gift Giving Guide for the Super Natural Relative or Friend

By Leah Kaminsky

Last week, we took a look at several eco-gift giving strategies for your decidedly non-green friends or relatives. But if you’re green-minded, you probably run in a green-minded circle, in which case you likely have a super natural friend for whom gift buying can be just as difficult.

The Profile:

The super natural friend transcends all demographics and locales. He or she could be:

  1. Your flower power father who’s been fighting for Mother Earth since the early sixties. Dad wears Birkenstocks and all-vegan clothing and is the sole reason the word “granola” is a synonym for tree hugger.
  2. Your green architect friend who lives in the Pacific Northwest and won’t hesitate to plunge her hand into the work trash can to fish out a food-stained take-away carton and transfer it to the compost. Where it belongs.

The Gifting Challenge:

If you’re environmentally conscious but not, say, the non-cartoon embodiment of Captain Planet, chances are whatever green gift you choose will be something your super natural friend has already heard of, bought and moved on from. Giving a green gift to a friend or relative who lives and breathes environmental consciousness is a bit like giving the first Harry Potter book to an avid Harry Potter fan; chances are, they’ve read that one.

The Solution:

There are only two options to giving a good green gift to the green god or goddess: buy the newest, most innovative product out there, or let the greenie choose for him or herself. Here are a few ways to go:

  1. Give the gift of giving. Does your recipient have a favorite eco-charity, like the Sierra Club or the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)? Make a donation in his or her name.
  2. Promote eco-tourism. From wild jungles to barren deserts, buy your friend or relative an eco-tourist vacation – or at least a portion thereof. He or she will visit beautiful sites along the way with minimal impact and return with a new cause to fight for.
  3. Plant seeds for tomorrow. Your super natural friend will love a membership at a community garden or a share in a Community Supported Agriculture. Or put together a gardening gift basket, complete with seeds and tools.
  4. Watch your materials. From toys made of organic cotton to soy candles and free-trade chocolate, give a gift sourced from sustainable materials…and let your super natural friend know they’re there.
  5. Empower a green lifestyle with cool technology. Sure, your super natural friend or relative probably bikes to work already. But does he or she use a solar-powered pod to listen to music? Look for new and cool green gadgets, and you’re sure to impress.
  6. Give the gift of…choice. If you’re really at your wit’s end, just buy your friend a gift certificate to his or her favorite organic store or restaurant and call it a day.

It is possible to wow your super natural friend or relative. All you need is a little thought, a little creativity, and willingness to try something new.

 

Reused and Reusable New Year’s Decorations

By Leah Kaminsky

Every year on December 31, partygoers the world round gather to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. But starting fresh doesn’t have to mean going back to square one with your decorations. It’s easy to stay green with a few creative DIY ideas…and a willingness to rethink just what those holiday decorations from earlier in the month can do.

1. Decorate Your Door With Timely Snowflakes

If you’re missing that holiday wreath, there are plenty of ways to decorate your front door. As demonstrated here, turn those holiday snowflakes into the perfect New Year’s decoration by stenciling the year onto a burlap sack and attaching it to the front of your snowflake. If you don’t have a snowflake hanging around, cut your own out of paper and use an exacto knife to cut the shape into thin white foam board. To hang it from your door, all you need is hot glue and a magnetic clip.

2. Get Festive with Wrapping Paper

Think wrapping paper is the ultimate in waste? Think again when you turn that paper into streamers or confetti. All you need is a good pair of scissors and a love for tearing things up!

3. Light Your Way to a Lucky New Year

In southern climes and beyond, black eyed peas are the traditional New Year’s good luck treat. Fill a candle holder with uncooked beans, add a nice soy candle and light your way into the New Year. Caveat: You can reuse the beans from year to year (they last a long time), but eventually you will need to replace them. And definitely don’t plan to eat them.

4. Make a New Kind of Tree Tradition

Just because the holidays are over, doesn’t mean every kind of tree must be banished from your home. These ornament trees are as festive as can be, and they’re much more sustainable than cut flowers. Even better, they’re easy to make. Just gather a few sturdy sticks, place them in a vase, and hang your ornaments. Though you can use whatever ornaments you please, try sticking to silver and white to pay tribute to the Times Square ball.

5. Keep Track of Time With Tinsel

This is one of the few times of year when your party guests will actually want to stay keenly aware of time’s passing. String yarn or ribbon across the mantel, shape and staple tinsel into the numbers for next year, and hang them from your string.

Reusable New Year’s decorations are well within your reach. And what better way to usher in the New Year than with a little bit of a green tinge?

Gift Giving Guide for the Non-Green Relative or Friend

By Leah Kaminsky

For the green consumer, holiday gift shopping can be a stimulating opportunity to flex their green problem-solving skills. Sick of wasteful wrapping paper? Use newspaper. Tired of cheap, throwaway clothing? Give organic.

That’s well and good when giving gifts to friends and family who have a bit of an eco-bent, but what’s a greenie to do when giving gifts to someone who’s staunchly non-green? Let’s do some strategizing.

The Profile:

  1. Your relative who grew up during WWII, when canned goods were practically a patriotic duty. “We ate beans from a can and we liked ‘em that way!” Warning: This person may not be a big consumer, but they’re likely clinging to chemical-laden housewares.
  2. Your shop-a-holic friend who cares only about more, more, MORE, regardless of where “more” comes from. Warning: May be a fan of saying, “That sounds delightful, darling. Just delightful!”

The Gifting Challenge:

The Non-Green Relative or Friend either pays no attention to green trends or actively despises anything that disrupts their regular patterns of consumerism. The green movement may make them feel guilty, which can spark a visceral reaction against anything interpreted as being eco-friendly.

The Solution:

There’s only one way to give green to the non-green friend: don’t let them know you’re doing it. Such gifts could include:

  1. A cookbook…that just happens to slip in tips on buying local produce.
  2. Jewelry…that’s sustainably made and purchased from a small, local vendor. Who needs to know?
  3. A bicycle…with an electric boost. This will be especially good if your gift recipient is into gadgets.
  4. Everyday goods made from BPA-free materials…that distract the recipient from their inherently green nature. For instance, this reusable coffee mug, which features a major youtube meme, will have any pop culture fan in hysterics before they realize you’ve tricked them out of using paper coffee cups.
  5. Products they’ve asked for…but with a green spin. If, for instance, you find “books” on your recipient’s holiday list, swap a new book with something secondhand, or buy them an e-reader.
  6. Products you present as being cool new trends in generaland not just to the cool green movement.

Voila! With a little creativity, you’ll turn this time of consumption into a time of sustainability. And your decidedly non-eco conscious friend will be none the wiser.

Natural Nails

By Leah Kaminsky

It doesn’t take a genius to guess that nail polish is filled to the brim with nasty chemicals. All you need is a nose and a closed room.

In fact, most nail polishes contain what is called the “toxic trio”: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde. Together these chemicals have been associated with asthma, developmental and reproductive problems in lab animals, hormone disruption, dizziness and increased cancer risks.

But for those of us who love the sight of cheery, polished nails, there are a few key steps we can take to mitigate the risks.

1. Polish at Home

While professional manicures might feel good, all that time your fingers spend soaking in chemicals is sure to add up. Whether it’s methacrylate chemicals in gel polishes or acetone in nail polish remover, you want your interaction with these chemicals to be short and sweet. Polish at home to control your exposure.

2. Go for Water-Based Polishes

Water-based nail polishes can be removed with nail polish removers that are less harsh.

3. Ventilate

As much as you may love painting your nails in the privacy of your own room, it’s best to polish outside when you can, or at the very least in a room with a window and/or a fan.

4. Try a Natural Polish

While the natural label isn’t a guaranteed chemical-free experience, natural nail polishes are worth it if they’re from a brand you trust.

If all else fails, just try to go longer between touch-ups. Painting your nails every other week will cut your yearly exposure in half without significantly affecting your style.

Green Your Holiday Celebrations

By Leah Kaminsky

There are few times of year quite as homey as the holidays. From the smell of ham roasting in the oven, to the sound of latkes crackling in oil, to the warmth of kindling roaring away in the fireplace (or at least on the TV), it’s not hard to look forward to all the holidays have to offer. Yet, take a look at any post-holiday trash bin (or, more likely, bins plural) and it’s easy to see this isn’t the greenest time of year – despite how that Christmas tree or wreath might make it appear.

But not to worry. There are plenty of ways to keep your eco-conscious clear so you can enjoy those holidays and still keep your eco-friendly morals high.

Buy local and organic. Look to your neighborhood organic food supplier for delicious holiday produce, using classic holiday spices to give non-traditional holiday produce the right feel. More good news: turkeys are native to just about every climate, so you’re sure to find a sustainable turkey farm near you. The same goes for sustainable pig farms. Find your farm first, research its philosophy, and order early, as they tend to have a limited supply.

Forget the wrapping paper. Newspaper, fabric and magazines have much more personality than traditional wrapping paper. Even old paper calendars will do the trick.

Buy energy-saving holiday lights. Many stores now offer LED holiday lighting, which offer substantial energy savings over traditional lights. Good for the earth, good for the wallet!

Make your tree just a little greener. Buy from an organic, pesticide-free tree farm as near to your home as possible. And when the holidays are over, search for a tree recycling program rather than dragging the tree to the curb. Many cities will gladly turn your tree into mulch or wood chips.

Rethink holiday cards. Holiday cards are a great way to show your friends, family and colleagues that you care, but let’s be honest here: how long does anyone keep all but the most important cards before chucking them into the trash can? Rethink your strategy by reducing the number of cards you send, opting for a paperless e-card, or buying cards made from materials you know can be recycled…even if that means saying no to glitter.

With a little forethought, having a green holiday is entirely within your reach. So green your traditions and enjoy all the season has to offer!

Fitness Options for the Winter

By Leah Kaminsky

I’m an avid runner. To me, there’s nothing more rewarding than that post-run feeling, when the endorphins are still pumping high and my muscles feel that oh-so-good kind of sore. But when the weather gets cold and the sun takes its sweet time rising, there’s nothing more miserable than the thought of swapping my warm bed for the dark and cold. There’s only one way to keep that winter fitness high: get strategic.

  1. Take full advantage of the gym. Whether it’s sticking to the elliptical or checking out that spin class you’ve been meaning to take for years, now might just be the best (and warmest) time to do it.
  2. Embrace winter sports. When you open your door to find a thin sheen of snow masking half an inch of ice, running is the surest way to break an ankle. But cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and trekking in boots can be just as heart pumping, and a good way to mix up your routine.
  3. Dress warmly. Long johns, waterproof pants, thick socks, head warmers, gloves, thick jackets, whatever. Just make sure to keep it warm. Even better, dress in layers, removing your outer shell when you get too heated. This will decrease your chances of developing sweat-induced chills.
  4. Multi-task. There’s no getting around it: that initial plunge into the cold air will be disheartening no matter what. Get warm quickly by moving more than just your legs, strap weights to your arms and incorporate them into your exercise routine. Another multi-tasking trick: listen to podcasts or audiobooks to keep your mind off the cold.
  5. Have fun. Maybe it’s a skate around the rink after work, or a weekend trip to the mountains. Get your family and friends in on an active vacation or event and you’ll be much more likely to follow through.

Maintaining fitness in the winter is possible but you may have to trick yourself into it. And really, there’s no better feeling than finishing a good workout in the cold and stepping into a warm house for a steaming shower. Now that’s motivation.