Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Earth Day at Arboreality: Go Green Part I

With Earth Day shining on the horizon, the advent of the “Step it up campaign,” and increasing movements in communities worldwide to improve our relationships with the Earth, I thought this would be a convenient time to connect you with some of the great, green businesses, people, projects, and ideas I know, enjoy, and respect.

Today I wrote up a post for you, and then realized it was six pages long. (Doh!) Considering that I have other exciting tree-things to talk about this week, I’ve broken it up into three parts to be published over the next couple days:

Earth Day at Arboreality: Go Green

1) Green Terminology
2) Green Products and Services
3) Green People, Projects, and Ideas

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Green Terminology

We’re going to start with Green Terminology today, because while I didn’t originally write my ideas in this order, I think it makes the most sense to start here.

“Buying green” is becoming fashionable in everything from power for our homes to food for our pets, but for those who did not grow up with a mom who shopped the co-op (hi Mom!), you may not know where to begin when you want to find quality green products that you’ll actually enjoy swapping into your life.

Here at Arboreality, we care about not just the trees, but all the other systems with which they connect. Forests don’t exist in a vacuum. All the choices we make affect the forests and other world biomes. Building an awareness of how and where our goods come from helps us to become conscious consumers. Making conscious choices as consumers affects our ability to protect the world’s diverse environments through informed decisions.

It's tough to make informed decisions with the virtual jungle of "green terminology" to which we pay so much lip service. Every day there seems to be a new, multi-word adjective describing another “green quality” ascribed to a given product.

There’s a good reason for this: consumer awareness is still evolving. So is consumerism. Some of the growing awareness of human effects on the environment is motivating change in the way the world manufactures goods. However, change takes a lot of time (and plenty of rough drafts).

As new terminology evolves, it’s important to take the time to learn what each term means, how (if at all) those terms are enforced by any sort of standards, and why they even matter to you.

Here are a few terms that are important to me as a consumer. I have included my own basic understanding of what they mean. Please feel welcome to share more terms, and/or supplement/revise what I have presented.

Organic – Speaking in generalities only, the term organic means that a given product has been cultivated without the use of synthetic chemicals.

The term organic (as it applies to consumer goods) has been evolving for decades, and unfortunately it’s not quite as cut and dry as the above statement. Today we can find a lot of debate over what the “spirit” of organic means, versus the actual application of organic in our agricultural industries. To learn more about how the organic label is used and what it signifies, check out the USDA National Organic Program homepage as a starting point, or google your region's organic standards.

(Buy) Local – I made mention of the “spirit” of organic. Well, that’s getting back to the co-op days of my childhood. Some of the original impetus behind organics began with the civil rights and youth movements of the mid-20th-century. This era inspired many people to take a long, hard look at the world around them, and consider how things might be better.

If you subscribe to the notion of “organic” as more of a way of being than an attribute like color, weight, and volume, then you can understand how organic refers to a way of living that works with the Earth’s natural processes, rather than against them. From this we get the “buy Local” slogan. The "organics consumer line" has grown so rapidly that not all consumers have had enough time to come up to speed on the spirit of the thing. What good does an organic apple do the Earth if it has to travel 5,000 miles (consuming oil for transportation along the way) in order for that apple to find its way to my fruit bowl?

It’s a really simple idea that our ancestors never even had to think about. (In fact, they’d probably think you’d had one too many if you were to suggest that a fruit from halfway around the world was in any way better than the one grown a few kilometers away).

Buy local is just that: support local growers, farmers, artisans, craftspeople, and businesses by purchasing goods made as close to home as possible. Forget about radius and seatmiles and unfair practices for a moment; get out into your community and see what’s growin’ on. Give to your community by supporting your community.

Fair Trade – Fair trade is another term that is at least simple in concept if not application: it’s about trading fairly with the people who cultivate, construct, and curate our goods and services. It’s about ensuring that all the people involved in bringing me my shade-grown, organic coffee beans are paid fairly for all their hard work, and are able to make a good living for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Social Responsibility – Fair trade and social responsibility go hand in hand. As capitalism has evolved, businesses have changed their relationships with their employees. Social responsibility is a practice anyone can subscribe to: it’s a common sense thing about giving a hoot as to what’s happening to your neighbor, whether s/he lives down the street, or Down Under.

Socially responsible businesses take a measure of responsibility for their employees, their communities, and their consumers. For example, some socially-responsible businesses ensure that their employees have safe working conditions, company-sponsored healthcare, schools, and day cares, and adequate time off for personal and medical leave.

Earth/Environmentally-Friendly – These are perhaps slightly older, and less-concrete terms, but they are also self-describing. A product or service which could reasonably consider itself to be Earth and/or environmentally friendly does not have negative side effects on the Earth’s plants, animals, people, biomes, or systems (or anything in between).

Biodegradable – One common attribute of Earth/environmentally-friendly products is biodegradability. This means that something breaks down freely in the environment into non-toxic constituents within a reasonable amount of time. This is an ESPECIALLY important quality of soaps, cleansers, and other household “chemicals.” Some simple biodegradable cleansers aren’t even marketed as such: vinegar, salt, baking soda, lemon juice, and yes, water are all simple biodegradable products usually found in the kitchen or baking goods aisle of your nearest grocery store. (Just say no to chlorine!) They clean like a charm, and they're affordable too.

Made from/with Recycled Materials – Simple, elegant, and self-explanatory. The more recycled material in a product, the less volume there is piling up in a trash heap or a landfill somewhere. Recycled materials are found in all sorts of products. Look for them!

Eco-harvested – Eco-harvesting is a slightly more ambiguous term, but it’s pretty easy to understand. Eco-harvesting means that a product is cultivated and harvested in a way that is Earth and environmentally friendly, especially with relationship to the space of Earth where a product is cultivated. For example, eco-harvested lumber comes from companies using sustainable forestry practices, successive harvests and replantings, and/or giving careful attention to the both the immediate and the long-term environmental impacts of their agribusiness. In other words - sustainable.

Shade-Grown Coffee – Shade-grown coffee is an important one to mention because so many of us drink coffee. In case you thought coffee came from the coffee fairy, coffee is a tropical shade-loving plant (genus Coffea). More recent sun-tolerant varieties of coffee trees have helped the industry expand beyond its South American origins. However, while this shift generated profits by improving yields, it has had negative impacts on forests and their respective biomes world wide. Shade-grown coffee is important because it works with the coffee plant's natural love of shade by growing with the forest, thereby ensuring habitat for insects, birds, and other creatures, and retaining forest soil quality.

Non-GMO – GMO’s (or Genetically Modified Organisms) are just that: organisms which scientists have deliberately modified at the genetic level to manifest certain non-natural characteristics (such as an improved tolerance for sun or dense growth, the production of certain micronutrients, or rapid germination and ripening). Because genetic modification is such a new technology, many people are concerned about the potential unknown (and known) side effects of GMO’s, which is why organic growers choose not to use them.

Not Tested on Animals and Cruelty Free – I hope this isn’t a new one to you. In the US, you can usually find a little bunny symbol on soaps and cosmetics specifying that the product has not been tested on animals. Do I really need to explain why this one is important to us as humans?

Free-Range and Humane Treatment (including slaughter) – While movements against animal testing have gained a foothold, concepts such as “free range” and “humane slaughter” as still relatively new and not widely adopted. While trying not to dwell on the curious irony of how our current industrial model is what necessitates us to even have to create specific guidelines about the proper treatment of animals...... (ahem) ......I’d like to summarize by pointing out that the labeling for free-range and humane-treatment is spotty at best. Buying local helps you know what you’re buying and how the animals have been treated. If you would like to learn more about the evolution of human slaughtering practices today, I suggest you check out Temple Grandin’s homepage as a starting point.

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All fancy, new-fangled terminology aside, you don’t have to spend money to go green. In fact, reducing your consumption on all fronts is good not only for your budget, but for conserving the Earth’s resources.

Coming up: Part 2, Green Products and Services, and Part 3, Green People, Projects and Ideas

1 comment:

  1. what a great list Jade, very helpful, thanks


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