Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Green and Fabulous

If you want to be green but can’t face wearing hemp, if you get frozen in the supermarket deciding whether to buy the organic Italian apples wrapped in plastic or the non-organic apples that are loose and local, and if you feel guilty every time you let the tap run but still have to bath now and again, then Christie Matheson’s book Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style is the book for you.

As Matheson says in the introduction, ” … we need to embrace the fabulousness of green living. And it is fabulous. Being green can help you look gorgeous, have a killer wardrobe, feel amazing, travel in style, create a home that’s an oasis, host fun parties, eat incredible food, and drink phenomenal wine, all while feeling more connected to your friends, family and nature.” She says that while buying an eco-friendly cashmere jersey will not stop global warming, it is the change in mindset, in starting to become conscious consumers, that will help us to reduce our individual contributions and encourage systemic change.

This week I bought some clothes for my kid, who needed shorts and T-shirts for summer. I have heard that you should wash new clothes before wearing them because of the chemicals shops spray on them to make them hang nicely, but I had never believed it until now. He put on one of his new T-shirts and within an hour had a rash across his neck. Cue parental guilt and vows only to purchase organic cotton tees from now on. Green is clearly not only good for the planet, but good for our health too.

Matheson’s book is clearly divided into useful chapters, from being green at home, to eating and drinking green, beauty, fashion, transportation and travel. There’s even a chapter on how to throw a green party. When I read blogs on the environment, like the No Impact Man or wonderful books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, my main reaction – apart from being grateful that there are people out there who are actually doing something about the environment – is to be intimidated and then feel guilty. Although in many ways we are a fairly green household, there is still room for improvement: we run two cars, still sometimes buy food in plastic wrapping, drink bottled water, forget to switch our computers off, even (aargh, pains me to admit) use paper napkins sometimes. Once I feel guilty, I get overwhelmed and can’t imagine how I could even start to change these things that prey on my conscience.

What Matheson does so well is to praise the baby steps. She’s not saying we all need to get solar panels tomorrow, but she is saying that we should be aware and start to make small changes in our lives. Very kindly, like a lovely big sister, she points out the small changes we can make. Here are some that resonated with me:

* Time how long your standard shower takes and then challenge yourself to cut it down

* Keep a full fridge (if you don’t have a large family like mine, fill it with organic wine instead of food) and only run a full dishwasher

* Avoid PVC in any form – it is evil

* Choose local and non-organic over organic food that has travelled a long distance (but long-distance organic is better than long-distance non-organic)

* Eat more whole food – it puts less strain on the environment than processed food (bye-bye chilli rice cakes … sniff)

* Cut back on meat – it is also a strain on the environment

* Use chemical-free lipsticks – the chemical ones contain a long list of hideous ingredients which we eat since they are on our lips. Yuck!

* Edit your closet so that you only shop for clothes you need

* Buy organic rather than conventional cotton, which is the most pesticide-intensive farming in the world

* Drive smoothly (no abrupt braking) and stick to the speed limit

* Switch the car’s air conditioning off and open a window

* Use the car wash instead of washing it yourself (or you could leave it dirty, like mine)

I have cherry-picked (ahem, nature pun alert) the tips that I can actually imagine myself doing, but there are many more which might resonate with you in this excellent book. For US readers, Matheson includes a long list at the end of her favourite eco-friendly retailers, many of whom have websites.

To celebrate all that is green, I would like to offer Green Chic to one of my fabulous readers. Just put your name in the comments if you’re interested, and in the course of this week I will draw a winner.

Now I’m off to town (on foot) to return some books to the library (borrowing, not consuming)!


The EcoJustice Challenge

Today, as many bloggers have noted, is Earth Day. I have been guiltily noticing some of the bad things I do, including the environmentally not-friendly practice of driving to the gym in order to run on the treadmill. Bad Charlotte.

Then I chanced upon Emily’s EcoJustice Challenge, launched today! It’s a challenge that hopes to get us to change bad habits like the one mentioned above. I quote verbatim:

So, here is how this challenge will work. The first step is for anyone who wants to participate to pass the link onto at least five other people (or even if you don’t plan to participate, if you like the idea, please pass it on). If you have a blog of your own, this can easily be accomplished merely by linking to this site in a post on your own blog. Below is a list of things you can choose to do. Once every quarter between now and April 21, 2009, I will add to this list. Your challenge is to choose something from this list, to experiment with it, and to post about it here. Or, if you’d rather not post, that’s fine. You can just choose what you want and leave comments on this blog. You can choose to implement as many or as few from the list as you would like. You can choose to stick with one (or more) for an entire quarter, or you can mix and match (one — or more — this month, a different one next month, etc.). My hope is that by the end of the year, at least one item from the whole list will have become a way of life for you and your family. And if you’re already doing some or all of these things, come up with others you want to do, share them with us, and post on them instead.

To join the blog as a posting member, please send an email to: ecojustice08 AT gmail DOT com with your user name and the email address you’d like to use for the purposes of this blog. I will add you to the list of users. Also, please post on your own blog, if you have one. That’s it. And now, here are your choices for this quarter:

1. Choose one day a week in which you will not use your car at all (barring a major emergency, like having to drive your spouse/child to the hospital for stitches). Before you immediately dismiss this one, because you have to drive to and from work every day, please think about it. Is there no one with whom you could carpool two days a week? If so, the day you’re not driving would be the perfect day not to use your car at all.

2. Choose one “black out night” per week. All lights and all electrical appliances are off by 7:30 p.m. and don’t go on again until the next morning. What will you do without lights, television, your computer? Well, the weather’s getting nice where many of us live. Sit out on the porch/deck and tell stories. Read by candle light. Write letters by candle light. Play games by candle light. You know, people did this sort of thing for thousands of years. My guess is that if you have kids, this will be an exciting and fun challenge for them.

3. Choose two days a week in which you are only going to eat organic and/or locally-grown food. Do you know that inorganic farming is one of the best examples of evolution that we’ve got going these days? All the pesticides that have been used to grow our food have helped to create “super bugs” who are becoming more and more resistant to our chemicals. We’re definitely losing this battle in more ways than one. Talk to the people at your local farmer’s markets. Many of them are growing their food organically anyway; they just aren’t certified, because it’s a difficult and expensive process to be so. Buying locally, of course, cuts down on the oil used to transport food long distances.

4. If you need to go anywhere that’s within a 2-mile round trip radius of your home, walk or bike. Where might this be? The first place that springs to mind for me is your children’s school bus stop. Perhaps the post office is close to your home. The library? For me, it’s both the post office and the bank. If you’re super lucky, maybe you have a farmer’s market that’s close by. Or maybe you don’t live close enough to anything, but you do work close by to that deli, say, where you always drive to pick up lunch.

5. Read that challenging book about the environment that you’ve been putting off reading, you know the one you don’t want to read, because it might make you a little uncomfortable (e.g. The World without Us, Diet for a Small Planet, Affluenza). Read it. Post about it. Maybe implement an idea or two based on what you’ve read.

6. Buy only those things sold in recyclable packaging and make sure you recycle that packaging.

Hooray for Emily. My plan for this quarter is to do 1 and 6. I will choose and commit to a non-driving day (and jog out from house rather than on a treadmill) once a week. Also, I plan to read and post about Affluenza and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, both of which I already own.

Please post about this, pass it on and commit to one or two of Emily’s challenges. Together, we can do it!


Blog Action Day

Today is:
Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

The idea is to get as many people as possible blogging about the environment. Today. Right now.

(I was alerted to it by Lia.)

I’m not an good environmentalist. I do bad things: use plastic nappies, forget to switch my computer off sometimes, leave a bathroom light on at night for kids who are scared of the dark and I love a full, deep and very hot bath. However, since it’s Blog Action Day today I thought I’d note, for my conscience, some of the environmentally-friendly habits I have got into:

1. Recycled loo paper: I have bought recycled loo paper ever since it’s been on the market, or since I became a householder, whichever came first. It’s scratchier, but we’ve got used to having a little less loo-time luxury.

2. We use fluorescent light bulbs.

3. We allow daisies to grow in our grass for the bees to enjoy and don’t use any chemicals in our garden. We are happy to share it with nature and enjoy the company of a variety of birds, lots of bees, a few hedgehogs and a parliament of owls.

4. We participate fully in the local recycling schemes available in our corner of Germany (monthly glass recycling, separation of rubbish into compost, recyclables (paper, metal etc) and compost). We return empties to the shop for a small financial incentive.

5. We share bath water. The kids always share a bath, together or separately, and I either add some hot to that for my own luxury soak or offer my husband my bath water later. Romantic, no?

6. I use my car infrequently. I try to walk wherever and and whenever I can. All kindergarten drop-offs, play-dates, extramural activities take place per leg power. We are also teaching our kids to love their bikes, trying to inculcate the good German value of ‘why drive when you can cycle?’.

7. We’re teaching our kids to love nature. Ollie attends a forest kindergarten, where he spends three hours a day outside. He is learning that a stick and a tree and some chestnuts make good toys, just like cars. They also love technology, but we believe that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

8. We try to shop local, going to the markets and consciously choosing products made closer to home. It’s not always easy because it’s hard to resist the delicious Italian or French products that turn up, but we are being more conscious about our shopping decisions.

It’s very small in the grand scheme of things but the words that should be highlighted are: participate, consciousness and habit. That’s the very least that we can do on an individual level – develop good habits, be more conscious of how our decisions affect the environment and participate in any local schemes available.

I’d love to hear what you are doing.


Italy Unplugged

(Written sometime in August …)

I’m writing this post on paper with the plan to transcribe it when I get home in – oh – a few days’ time. I’m not missing my computer or being permanently plugged in to the information tsunami, but I do miss the regular writing.

We are staying in a lovely campsite on the Italian coast, above Rome and below Pisa. The weather is mild – warm enough for beach and pool but not hot enough to require the air conditioning in our mobile home. It’s dry and dusty here – testament to the heatwave we have missed – but the campsite is situated in a lovely forest of parasol pines with tall trunks and gracious canopies that provide shade.

One of the many joys of being in Italy is the food. Why does everything taste better here? A salad of beautiful Tuscan tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella anointed in olive oil tastes like heaven, whereas in Germany it tastes like it’s trying too hard. We’ve enjoyed fine slices of Parma ham, chilled sweet melon, olives with a bite of chilli, olive paste on grissini, baby yellow tomatoes, succulent grapes the size of plums, spicy Tuscan sausages, calamari and daily doses of creamy icecream. Make mine a pistachio.

This part of Italy – Livorno – is supposed to be one of the centres of the Slow Food movement. I don’t have Google so I can’t check that for you, but it certainly feels that way. Aptly enough, while enjoying very slow food, I am also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful book detailing her family’s attempt to spend a year eating both seasonally and locally. She defines local as within a 70 mile radius, but in the end the family grow and harvest most of their own food – even chickens and turkeys.

In the West, we have grown so distant from the source of our food, that just to witness Kingsolver’s attempt feels like watching a miracle. Not that I imagine for a second that I could “harvest” my own chicken or remember to water the vegetables that would feed my family for a year, but the work they do in conscious eating is inspiring.

Kingsolver is knowledgeable about the state of the protein production line and it does not make for easy reading, but it does make me want to never buy any factory farmed meat again. She is voiciferous on how farming corporations have undermined American farmers, forcing them to grow single crops in order to stay solvent. She decries non-seasonal eating, saying that food flown from China or other far-off lands merely to satisfy appetites costs not only the environment in terms of fossil fuels but also our bodies, because by the time it reaches our plates it is no longer nutrient-dense. She talks openly about how obesity is a function of capitalism:

No cashier ever held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough. But humans have an inbuilt weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them.

She makes an interesting point about the gap left in kitchens when women went out to work, and how corporations happily filled that gap with non-nutritious, calorific ready-meals. These full-time jobs that women now gladly have are:

… organized around the presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack – filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home – but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance … Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health.

Kingsolver says cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad. But the pressure to find the time to select (or as she does, grow) ingredients, plan a meal, cook it with joy and not under stress, and then eat it in a civilised and peaceable way with your family is great. I feel that pressure on a daily basis, and I do malign myself when I slap down another meal of fish fingers and peas in front of my sweetly uncomplaining children. However, what her book is doing for me is making me feel more committed to making better food choices for my family when I get home and continuing the journey of more conscious eating. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in doing either or both, or who would like to witness one family’s bold attempt to go against the grain. There are also some great recipes, which I am going to try out. I may not actually make my own cheese, though.

Now where’s the buffalo mozzarella? I’m feeling peckish.


The Green Meme

I am worried about the weather. It is weirdly mild. Still no snow. We’re wearing anoraks instead of coats, seeing spring flowers nosing out of the soil and having autumnal temperatures. While I’m happy not to be freezing, I’m uncomfortable with the strangeness of the weather and not entirely sure what I can do as an individual. Newsweek recently published ten achievable tips for green living, and because I can’t help being derivative and can’t think up my own memes, I’m turning their tips into my own Green Meme. Feel free to play too.

1. What do you for the birds and the bees? According to the report, we need to plant a pollinator garden to counteract the effect pollution, pesticides and habitat destruction are having on birds, bees and insects. Bees, for instance, like yellow, blue and purple flowers.

Hmm. I’m a fairweather gardener and prefer to tend my herb pots in summer and ruthlessly ignore them in winter. The bees definitely like my lavender and roses. They love the daisies that grow in the lawn when “we” are too lazy to mow it.

2. Household products. Chemical or organic? Household chemicals contribute to indoor and outdoor pollution.

Thus far, chemicals. It’s obviously time to buy those scarily expensive organic products or get handy with the vinegar, lemon and salt.

3. Do you junk?

Junk mail has not only broken the latch to our postbox, but it also kills trees. I pledge to buy those “no junk mail” stickers for the postbox tomorrow. As for catalogues, I’ve stopped the paper versions and only use online ones.

4. Air-dry or tumble-dry? Line-drying saves money and stops carbon emissions.

In winter, I almost always tumble-dry, but in summer I’m quite good about hanging clothes out. I love the smell of clothes that have dried in hot summer air – it reminds me of my African childhood. We do have an eco-friendly drier that doesn’t pump steam out of the house, but requires frequent emptying.

5. Old gadgets. Recycle or toss ’em? According to the report, we have to find a way not to fill up landfills with electronic objects.

Here’s my current solution: fill up the cellar instead. Germany has pretty good recycling schemes and if I were organised enough, I’d fill out an online form and have the recyclers come and take the gadgets away. We can take batteries to one of the local supermarkets and we’ve done a great job of filling a packet, but haven’t got any further. I have even kindly provided a home to unwanted electrical goods when their owners are leaving the country. That’s recycling, isn’t it?

6. Lightbulbs – incandescent or fluorescent? Fluorescent light bulbs use 70% less power and last ten times as long.

I’m so pleased to be able to say that my green credentials are finally shimmering here – we are busy changing over to fluorescent light bulbs. Yay us. However, being Africans used to sunlight, we are bad, very very bad, about switching lights off. And worse about our computers, frankly, because we love being addicted connected.

7. Meat or veg? Meat production is energy inefficient. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

Okay, we do meat in this house. But scientists say that if every household had one or two meat-free days a week, it could have a huge environmental effect. We could do that. It’s also important to eat local, so keep an eye on the labels of the food you buy and go to markets. Check, check. We do that.

8. Loo paper. Virgin or recycled? The paper industry is the third largest contributor to global warming. If every U.S. household replaced one toilet-paper roll with a roll made from recycled paper, 424,000 trees would be saved.

When it comes to bottoms, we are SO green. It’s recycled all the way. Our only recent exception was a house-guest buying us some virgin Christmas-tree bedecked bog roll by mistake. While we all found it a LOT more comfortable, we’ve stuck with our tree-friendly paper. However, my household of aspiring artists draw on lovely virgin paper. Note to self: find recycled drawing paper, if I can.

9. Tap or bottled water? According to Newsweek, it takes a lot of oil to make and ship water bottles, and most end up in landfills.

We buy six bottles of mineral water a week, and recycle the plastic bottles back at the shop. When those are finished, or for those who prefer it, there’s tap water. Germany is excellent about recycling bottles – there’s the once a month glass collection and every supermarket takes returns. Green halo shining here.

10. Dating – metrosexual or ecosexual? Newsweek says two recyclers are better than one.

Well I’m already married to a tap-water drinking, fluorescent-lightbulb installing, daisy-friendly, vegetable-loving ecosexual who takes the bottles out. Between us, we’re doing our best not to further overpopulate the planet. (And I even know someone who met her partner on a vegetarian dating board!)

I see I have room for improvement, especially on the chemicals and electronics front. My green halo could still do with a bit of a polish, but it has not completely rusted away.


In Which Ollie and I Seek To Reduce Our Environmental Footprint

Oh, the nappies! Three children, three hideous amounts of nappies packed into various landfills in England and Germany and South Africa. I try to squash the thought down, just as I squash down the lid of an over-flowing nappy bin. One day my kids are going to accuse me of despoiling the environment and I’m going to have to join an environmental group and pick up litter every day for seven consecutive years to compensate for the planetary karma I have incurred.

Convenience is such a weak excuse for using disposables. And we use them for so much longer than our mothers used cloth nappies because they hold everything so much better. One woman of my mother’s age had three sons in five years and each was potty-trained by the time he was eighteen months old because she needed the terry-cloth nappies for the next baby. Received wisdom now says babies should be potty-trained between two and three years old, which means we give the nappy-makers another eighteen months or more of our consumer Euros. And that’s not to mention the four and five-year-olds who are still in night-time nappies. It seems that we become addicted to the disposables just because they are too damn convenient, right along with Big Macs and frozen pizzas. Being convenient doesn’t make them good for us.

I really wish I’d had the resolve and the energy to take on reusable nappies. I so admire people who do. It takes a commitment that I have had not had. And if you are a terry-cloth nappy user, you will also tend to potty-train your babies earlier, which is also an astonishing commitment.

So my eighteen-month-old fella, who is a really quick learner, is showing “signs” as the books and his grandmothers say. He is intensely aware of what’s going on in his nappy, and always tells us afterwards that he’s got a “bum-bum”. If I said that potty-training is entirely my very worst part of child-raising, even worse than not sleeping for a year, I would not be exaggerating. I just loathe it, and frankly, you can train and train all you like, but they are not potty-trained until a certain synapse connects with another synapse in the brain and goes click. Up till then, it is just good timing and good luck.

So the question is, do I have the commitment, energy and resolve to try to potty-train a baby who is showing the signs, but who could remain in the training phase for another eighteen months? Hmmm. Not sure. I would dearly like to reduce our environmental footprint just a little, but I just don’t know if I have the stamina.

So for now, while I percolate the topic, we are trying to be more environmentally sound in other ways. For instance, we walk a lot. Our town is compact enough that we can get almost everywhere by foot: school, kindergarten, ballet, music, friends, play-grounds, the river, the pool. Lily and Daisy are big enough now to ride their bikes and Ollie and I and the stroller trot along behind. The only things I need the car for on a weekly basis are the supermarket and swimming-lessons, which are in another town.

So, this week, Ollie and I tried going to the supermarket by foot. The round-trip only took an hour! Ollie slept throughout, I enjoyed a great walk, and I when I got there I only bought exactly what we needed (no treats, no extras) because I couldn’t carry more. So we had exercise, saved money, breathed fresh air, and released no carbons. We still put five nappies in a landfill, but we did something good to compensate for it. And I’m still thinking about the potty-training.