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This is an evolving page. I started it because it seems like the majority of what's promoted as eco/fair trade/socially responsible falls into one of two categories: (1) hard core, as in solar panels and composting toilets or (2) knick-knacks made and traded in sustainable/fair ways, as in candle holders of recycled glass made by a Third-World artisan paid a fair wage.
I have no problem with either of these kinds of things. Some day I want to be in a position to use the hard-core stuff, and I would love to decorate my home exclusively with fairly traded crafts. Meanwhile, though, I spend an awful lot of money on things that fall into neither category, and I keep trying to find ways to spend it better.
This page is not a treatise on how to live sustainably, or an exhaustive collection of "good" companies. I'm aiming to collect examples of companies (or co-ops or nonprofits) doing things many of us are already paying someone else for, but doing it in a better way. And, since supporting local economies is one of the things I believe in, I'm also including ways to help you find options like this near you. My priorities are: things we wouldn't necessarily think of there being a socially responsible alternative for, folks that don't necessarily market themselves as "green" or "alternative," and alternatives that make a significant difference without demanding a radical change in lifestyle (though we need some of that going on too, certainly).
Mention of a company here does not imply that I've done an exhaustive review of all players in an industry. For a more complete list of "eco" companies, visit Co-op America's National Green Pages.
Unfortunately, I don't know of any retail stores that specialize in energy-efficient appliances. The EPA's Energy Star rating is the quickest way to identify what is going to bloat your utility bill the least. The Energy Star Web site offers tips on shopping for a huge range of products with energy efficiency in mind, and it has a store locator that will connect you with businesses that sell and are supposedly knowledgable about the Energy Star products you're interested in (it seems to be a pretty wide net though). It will also list state rebates for which you might qualify.
If you're really serious about comparison shopping, it could also be worth it to get yourself a membership to Consumer Reports onlinebesides giving you the low-down on other questions of quality, they have been known to investigate energy efficiency more closely than the EPA: they report, for example, that the Energy Star rating for dishwashers with "dirt sensors" was determined by running a load of clean dishes! When you actually run dirty dishes in them, different models end up more efficient. CR does not, however, use sustainability as a judging criterion as a matter of course. (Perhaps this should be suggested to them.)
For those interested in taking a step closer to hard core, or wanting to outfit a remote cabin or RV, Real Goods is the way to go. They've been offering things from hand-cranked flashlights and solar-powered watches to full-out solar-power rigs for a good long time, and they know what they're about.
No discussion of energy efficiency can ignore the lightbulb issuethe (justly) famous quick fix to energy hogdom. I have tried a range of energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs over the years, and found it's really hard to predict their quality. They've gotten much more pleasant in generalless flicker, brighter, sometimes warmerbut for those who like really warm/yellow light, they still often fall short. Here are my recommendations:
- Look for "natural daylight" or "full-spectrum" if you're concerned about color rendering and eye fatigue. Look for "warm" (2700K) if anything other than incandescent feels unpleasant to you.
- Also, besides color, some people are sensitive to the flicker from magnetic ballasts--look for electronic ballasts. They may not say--ask, or you may need to test it out. Removable ballasts are usually magnetic.
- Buy one as a test first before you splurge on enough to retrofit your whole house. (Or buy a sampler and pick your favorite.)
- Besides testing how you like the light, test how it fits in all of your fixtures.
- Leave your test bulb on for at least an hoursome bulbs change color after having been on for a while.
- If you think you may be sensitive to flicker, or if you can't figure out why an otherwise green-minded someone in your family is resisting energy-efficient lightbulbs so passionately, you should read this.
There are many sources for energy-efficient light bulbs. the Envionmental Defense Fund has a great online tool for searching for the bulb that meets your various needs, though they don't mention ballast type. It's possible they've only included electronic. Natural Lighting has some good options, in a range of color temps, sizes, and brightnesses. (Pay attention to orders from heremine was "misplaced" at the warehouse for a couple months, though shipped immediately when I inquired.) Real Goods also offers a "warm glow" fluorescent that even got cautious tentative approval from my partner who is most sensitive to fluoresecents, and they've added "warm glow" as an option to their mini fits-in-just-about-any-fixture bulb, which is good news.
There are scores of high-powered executives running screened mutual funds and giving socially responsible investment advice, but what about people who are just looking for a way to get checking and savings accounts without going to Citibank or getting mired in the stock market? Here are a few options:
Community Development Credit Unions have membership based on geography and tend to focus their lending on encouraging small businesses, homeowners, and nonprofits in that area. Some will cut your dividends in tight times rather than harm their borrowers, but most do offer interest like any other bank. The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions used to have a list of their members on line, but they appear to have removed this most useful of tools. Hopefully it will return soon. Ask them to make it return: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also don't forget to check out any credit unions you might qualify for based on your place of employment, union, or church (or that of a family member). While less directly justice-oriented than community development credit unions, all credit unions are co-ops run by members, rather than beholden to shareholders and it usually comes through in customer service, options, and fees.
If you have a little to invest, check out your local community development loan fund as well.
A note on credit cards: There are a number of affinity credit cards out there that make a donation to some cause or causes whenever your you use them. While they are a convenient way to support some good groups, I wouldn't feel comfortable classifiing them as socially responsible unless they are issued by a bank you feel good about for other reasons. (Also, note that if you carry a balance, they often have higher interest rates.)
So Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon are taking over the world, limiting what gets published, putting independent bookstores out of business, etc. (But don't take it from me. See Reclaim Democracy, a relevant New Rules article on chains in general, or Holt Uncensored.) How do you find the independents that are left when the chains are so conveniently placed at the highway exit? Here:
- Search for an independent bookseller near you.
- Bookfinder.com makes it easy to search for new and used books for sale from both big stores and listing services that include small (mostly used) sellers. See who is selling what you want online, and then pick!
- I've found using Powells.com to be just as easy and comprehensive (for books) as Amazon.
And then there's magazines. Buying directly saves independent publications the cuts that middlemen take, and subscribing supports the currently beleagured value of free exchange of ideas. (Thanks to the Paper Project, increasing numbers of these periodicals are published on recycled paper too.)
Speaking of paper: the Canadian printer of the Harry Potter books is printing them on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. The American printer is not. Thought you'd want to know.
Underwear: I mostly buy my clothes at thrift stores and in the fair-trade booths at folk festivals. But that leaves out one of the most important and frequent clothes purchasesunderwear. My favorite brand of organic cotton underwear is Clean Undiescomfy and sturdy. (And there are options for the guys too.)
Other clothes: There's also a proliferation of organic cotton/hemp clothing companies, and a smaller but growing group of sweatshop-free brands, like American Apparel and SweatX. Look for American Apparel's brand names in storesthey make a bunch of stylish T-shirts, shorts, tanks, bras, etc., and kids clothes too. They also have mail-order catalogs and an online store. On the sweatshop-free mail-order front, I'm fond of Deva for sensible, comfy, pretty clothing. You can also search for catalogs and a few retail stores at Co-op America's Green Pages.
Note! FedEx has bought Kinko's, and I have not yet been able to verify how much of the following is still true. Let me know if you've tried recently. As a general rule, I'm in favor of local copy shops when you can find them. But if you're going to Kinko's, you should know that you have some opportunities to make sustainable choices. According to their "Environmental Concerns" statement, you can request that your job be done on chlorine-free 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper or tree-free paperapparently at no extra cost (I'm find this hard to believe, but that's what I was told). The catch: demand is low for this paper, so it's not always in stock, and the desk worker might have to ask the manager what you're talking about. Hold firm! They say that it can be acquired within 24 hours if they're out, so it shouldn't delay you too much.
Another tip: the paper in the self-serve copiers has a higher recycled content (30% vs 10%) than the ones they use if you have them do it (unless you request the good stuff as above).
Many of the other things in the Kinko's environmental action plan seem like no-brainers. Energy-efficient lighting saves them money, and I should hope I get a discount on double-sided copiesI'm using less paper! But there are plenty of companies that don't take these steps, so who am I to complain about somebody doing the right thing?
Whatever we think of deregulation and the way it has been handled, it has given many people the option to choose renewable energy sources for their home electricity. For an overview, check out the Department of Energy's Green Power page.
There is also a wide movement of consumer electricity cooperatives, which operate not-for-profit, and are actively involved in their communities. They have created a national alliance called Touchstone Energy, where you can find listings of cooperatives near you.
An example of both cooperative action and renewable energy working together is the The Energy Co-operative (Philadelphia area).
If you're in New York state, check out NYSERDA's Get Energy Smart program, which will help you finance the cost of energy-efficiency improvements and renewable energy installations.
Hopefully some day this will become just one entry under a broader category called "accessories for low-driving living." But for now it stands on its own and will be preceded by a brief rant.
Folding handcarts are an important part of urban living. If you live a 5 to 10 minute walk from the supermarket and the laundromat, it's clearly wasteful to make a habit of driving there. But that doesn't mean that you can, or want to, carry a week's worth of groceries or laundry all that way by sheer brute force. Wheels are available on things other than cars. Which is why you see so many people in urban areas with handy little folding shopping carts. You would think this would be an environmentalist's wet dream.
But I have never seen them offered in any of the places that so proudly sell all manner of canvas grocery bags and non-toxic laundry detergent. Not in the mail-order catalogs, not in the health food stores. Do they really think all environmentally concious people can fit a week's worth of groceries on the back of a bike? Or is the enviros' distaste for urban living still hanging around, despite all the hullabaloo over smarth growth?
Or could it be the same problem that has kept bus rapid transit from being nearly as popular as light rail? Stigma. By and large, the people who use folding shopping carts are those too poor to have a car or too old to drive. This means two sad things: (1) The carts available in grocery stores and hardware stores are usually crappyflimsy, with huge holes in the sides for things to fall through. It's no wonder 65% of the ones you see on the sidewalk have bent front axles. They are not fun to use. (2) If you look for them online, you often find them under the heading "special needs and mobility aids" or in stores that also sell walkers and wheelchairs (the same crappy ones, but for far more than they cost in a hardware store). Puh-leeze.
Also, even for the decent ones, anyone much over average female height has to bend forward because the handles are pretty low and don't extend. Makes it pretty much unusable by tall men. It's the whole only-for-little-old-ladies syndrome again. Steve Raney of Cities 21, who has actually researched folding shopping cart usage, suggests handle-extenders such as these as a way around this problem.
Initially, my selection was the Versacart. Iit's not cheap compared to the standard metal affairs, but it seemed sturdier, and folded more compactly. Wendy Stone sent a link to a more stylish (though overseas) alternative that looks like large wicker baskets on wheels: The wheelie, from a traditional basket maker in the UK.
Update: June 2007. Cities 21 has a few cool options listed, including this for hanging plastic grocery bags on. Looks like an improvement. My ever resourceful mother-in-law, who can't drive much anymore, found the best one for laundry or other huge loads that I've seen so far: The Wonder Wheeler. Its big back wheels go over sidewalk cracks with ease, it's lightweight when empty, it folds easily, and it can transport a huge amount of laundry without destablizing. I haven't tried it for groceries, but I think it would do quite well, especially if you attached a box or a crate to its bottom. Why didn't I find it before? Well, it's only marketed as a beach/sporting events cart. See above about the stigma. In an ideal world, they would include shopping/laundry by foot as one of its uses, and places like Gaiam would sell them.
Organically grown food is becoming more common in stores, so you're not likely to need my help finding that. But how far it travels and who gets the profits still matter. One great way to support local family farmers is community supported agriculture: you pay for a "share" up front, and then pick up a selection of just-picked, usually organic, vegetables (and sometimes fruit, honey, eggs....) once a week. Your money up front helps family farmers survive, the food is much better than anything you'd get trucked in from California, and it works out to a good deal in the end as well. In New York City, Just Food has a listing of CSAs for dozens of neighborhoods. The Robyn Van En center maintains a national database.
Another good step is to shop atand even better, to join and participate incooperative groceries. Democratic decision-making controls what is offered, meaning that organic and local food usually gets a big boost.
I'm not a very devoted worshipper of the goddess Caffeina, but I would still consider coffee, tea, and cocoa basic life supplies. Or at least not luxuries. Though the field is getting crowded (good!), for coffee and cocoa, my favorite is still the pioneering Equal Exchangea very cool company bringing together fair trade, support of family farmers, cooperatives, and environmentally sound growing practices (organic and shade grown). And it is a worker-owned cooperative itself. What more could you want? (If you are a member of a congregation, they have a special program for coffee hours. Check it out!) For the tea drinkers, Choice Organic Teas has a huge selection of teas that are both organic and fairly tradedand their black tea has gotten the nod of approval from my highly knowledgeable tea-drinking mother. Varieties include decaf, green, chai, and some herbals...
Fair trade chocolate is also becoming a big deal, what with concerns about child slave labor. And for us dark chocolate fans, these companies keep turning out the real real dark stuff. Yeah.
What about caffeine on the run? Some small bits of promising news: All Dunkin' Donuts espresso beverages are now fair trade. There's been a lot of controversy about whether Starbucks should be congratulated for the eensey-weensy steps it's taking, but if you're going to buy their coffee, you should know that their coffee-of-the-day is fair trade on the 20th of the month, and it is supposedly always their policy to brew you some if you ask for it (enforcement of this appears spotty).
Cheapass Games: A brilliant ideawhy do you need a separate set of little plastic pawns, dice, paper money, pre-printed pads and goofy short pencils for every single game? Cheapass games sells only the parts that are unique (board, special cards, rule book), in minimal packaging. Easy on the natural resources, and on your storage space. Their games tend toward the twisted in theme, but the ones I've played have all been interesting, unusual, and satisfying to play. And if you don't have dice and a tub of change to use for counters, they will sell you a set of accessories too. Too bad they can't sell cheap pared-down versions of other people's games. Alas.
You don't need to purchase anything at all for some familiar games. For example, fictionary, the non-commercial version of Balderdash. And as Robin and I recently figured out, thanks to a little rule book for dice games, all you need to play Yahtzee (originally known as Yacht) is the dice.
If you want toilet paper and paper towels with recycled content and no chlorine bleach, you don't have to mail order from some expensive "green" company: The store brands of many large drugstore chains (I've confirmed Duane Reade and CVS) are recycled and chlorine-free. They don't promote it, but it's usually there on the back of the package.
Here's a tough one. I know of two environmentally and/or socially "responsible" long distance companies: Working Assets Long Distance and Earth Tones. Now, there isn't really a way to make the actual long distance service itself more sustainablethey are just resellers along existing lines. But they offer other perks: recycled paper bills, free calls to decision makers, alerts on timely issues, and a percentage of your money going to various causes. The main difference between them is that WALD donates to a range of social justice and environmental groups, and Earth Tones gives only to a small number of conservation groups.
So this sounds good. But I'm skeptical. For full disclosure, I used to be a Working Assets customer, and am no longer, though I participate in another online venture of theirs (Act for Change, which by the way will get you on a buttload of mailing lists. So be careful).
Here are my concerns:
- Billing. Recycled unbleached bills are an obvious improvement over bleached virgin paper bills. But with most long distance companies, you can now get paperless billing, and charge your credit card or checking account. This is lower impact than the lowest impact paper bill, and saves paper checks and postage as well. Not to mention that WALD bills were some of the longest I'd ever seen, with all those alerts and ads for partners included.
- Pricing. Both companies claim to be offering competitive pricing. But at 7 (WALD) or 8 (Earth Tones) cents/minute, they are charging twice what I pay nowand I have no monthly fee and good responsive service (from a company other than AT&T/Sprint/MCI). I'm willing to pay a premium for better productsorganic food, saywhen the benefit is concrete. But twice as much plus $5/month for a recycled paper bill? (It's worth noting that it looks like WA wireless may be more competitive for some people's cell phone needs.) In general, I wish they would admit that their rates aren't competitive and convince me why it's worth it anyway.
So why am I listing them at all? Well, I'm not entirely convinced they're a bad idea either.
- Supporting a "good company." I can imagine that the cheaper rates are partly being achieved by outsourcing labor to places without labor laws. If that were true, and these companies could prove that they did otherwise, I would obviously reconsider. This, however, is the purest speculation on both counts. (Other companies could be offering cheaper rates from the better pay-up rate of requiring that bills be charged to your credit card. Who knows.)
- Ease of philanthropy. There is an undeniable inspiration in helping donate millions of dollars each year to a very impressive roster of organizations. And it requires little effort, is less subject to the vagaries of the stock markets than foundation payouts, and requires less effort on the receiving organization's part than reminding me to send them my donation individually each year. (But is it worth paying 50+% more to have 1% go to charity? Hmmm. Or I could save it in a credit union or spend it on organic food...)
- Empowerment. Bizarre as it is, WALD is really trying to form a community out of its consumers, with the free calls to decision makers and action alerts. I think they are fairly successful, and part of me thinks it would be nice to support that.
So there are the issues as I see them. It's up to you to decide.
The Better World Club was the inspiration for this page. For a really long time, I thought there must be an alternative to AAA, which provides that handy roadside assistance and then takes your money and lobbies against clean air, trains, bikes, and anything else that might foster rational transportation policy. Like AAA, BWC does the roadside thing, offers club discounts, and travel booking. And needless to say, they don't do the nasty lobbying.
They are now getting into car insurance brokering (but if you ask for an online quote, follow up with a call). Plus they throw in some added perks, such as carbon offsets when you book a flight through them, extra discounts on renting a hybrid car, and 1% profits donated to environmental clean up. The hotel discounts are far, far better than the AAA rates, though the network is smaller. We actually had some trouble with the front desk at one hotel because they couldn't believe we were getting such a good deal. And they have a bicycle roadside assistance servicealone or in combination with an auto membership. How cool is that?
User-friendly bus systems.
If it's been a while since you bothered to try to figure out your local bus system, it might be worth while to check out what the Internet hath wrought. For a long time, most bus systems were largely understood only by those who needed to understand them because they had no choice. Even once full-system train maps were online, to figure out what bus you took from here to there still involved guessing or hanging out in bus stations asking people. But that's starting to get a little better. NJ Transit, for example, has a very impressive itinerary planning function on its web page that allows you enter your departure and destination points; it returns a few options about how to make your trip, complete with walking directions at the other end. The only major downside is you need to enter a specific address for a destination, not just a town. Other transit authorities are following suit (even Southern California), not always with such elaborate systems, but always with a lot more information than one could easily get before. It's worth a look at yours.
You don't need me to tell you that bikes are one of the most sustainable transportation options out there. But here are some products that are working to make them more convienent for carrying things other than people (e.g., briefcases, groceries, or a weekend bag). Xtracycle actually changes the bike to make it inherently better designed to haul stuff. BicycleR Evolution makes a haul-behind trailer favored by some of our more dedicated cyclist friends. It's easy to use and large enough for them to do their grocery shopping with. Bikes at Work makes some serious heavy-duty bike trailers for hauling big things with, and great photos of people moving to new apartments using them!
Whether or not you're up for a hybrid, fueleconomy.gov is handy tool for car shopping in general. Run by the Dept. of Energy and the EPA, it lets you simply enter a car's year, company, and model to discover its fuel efficiency.
Even in the most public-transit friendly area, there's no denying the usefulness of a private car for hauling large items cross-town, getting somewhere quickly at an odd hour, or getting out of town. But that usefulness doesn't quite outweigh the massive costs of car ownership. Enter car sharingyou join, you sign up ahead of time for the use of a car, you use it. It's like car rentals by the hour, with a lot less paperwork, and it just might be parked on the street in your neighborhood. Car sharing groups can be either nonprofit or for-profit, and members range from wealthy Manhattanites to residents of DC public housing. It's not available everywhere yet, by far, but it's catching on. To quote the ads from one of the for-profit outfits: "The car for people who don't want one." The missing link in the eco-transportation picture.
Though much maligned, in certain circumstances Amtrak can beat the pants off both planes and cars. Or at least give them a run for their money. I once took Amtrak from New York to Toronto. It was 12 hour tripthe flight would've been 4. But the flight would have also involved getting to and from the airport (extra 2 hours on each end plus cab fare), getting there early for security purposes (extra hour), and dealing with an airport in general. On the train I got superb views, lots of leg room, sufficient oxygen, and ability to walk around whenever I wanted. When I got off I was in the heart of Toronto, walking distance from where I was going. Oh, and did I mention it was 1/4 the price?
There's a range of web hosts now using solar and/or wind power. Check out this listing.
Dotster (Domain Registrar) It was a pretty big challenge to wade through the scads of domain registrars out there and find any reason to pick one over another. Dotster is not exactly focused on being a broadly progressive company. But they are employee-owned, which gives them points over the rest of them. (Also a good deal and helpful customer service.)