EcoMom Challenge #3: Shop Fair Trade (part I of III)

This week I am writing about EcoMom Challenge #3 as part of the EcoMom 10 Steps to Living Sustainably. Challenge #3 imparts us to: Shop Local, Fair Trade and Organic. I have a lot to say on each of these subjects, so I’ve in fact broken this element of the series into three parts. Today I will cover shopping Fair Trade.

What is Fair Trade?

From their own Website this is how the Fair Trade Federation explains their purpose:

Fair trade is a system of exchange that seeks to create greater equity and partnership in the international trading system by

  • Providing fair wages in the local context,
  • Supporting safe, healthy, and participatory workplaces,
  • Supplying financial and technical support to build capacity,
  • Ensuring environmental sustainability,
  • Respecting cultural identity,
  • Offering public accountability and transparency,
  • Building direct and long-term relationships, and
  • Educating consumers.

History: Fair Trade may be something that seems to have just popped onto the horizon as yet another politically correct catch phrase; however, the first Fair Trade shop Ten Thousand Villages in fact opened its doors in 1958! The International Fair Trade Association was founded in 1989 and the groups that ultimately formed into the Fair Trade Federation in 1994, began to meet and exchange business ideas in the 1970s. (Fair Trade Federation website).

Why Buy Fair Trade?

Buying Certified Fair Trade ensures that your purchases (whether they be coffee, food, clothing, jewelry or crafts)  were made in safe, sanitary, sustainable conditions and without the use of child labor. No other certification can make this guarantee when you buy imported goods. Note that they key here is certified Fair Trade. Many businesses are attempting to jump on this band wagon, even making their own Ethical Trading statements and such, but can they really be trusted?

How is Certified Fair Trade Better?

Fair Trade sounds great, but if you are like me you may wonder how the process is regulated and if it is really a label you can trust. Personally, I have great faith in the Fair Trade label, which I know to be a trustworthy and carefully regulated system. Why can I say this with confidence? Because, I have friends who run a little business that was recently Certified Fair Trade and I guarantee you that it is not an easy process!

In college I spent a semester in Madagascar and since that time I’ve managed to stay in contact with a few people I met in Madagascar and the tiny Malagasy community in my area.  Local Malagasy friends in fact  helped to start a women’s weaving cooperative about 5 years ago near the Ranomafana region of Madagascar. The Naturary co-op employees adult women who are expert weavers in making handbags, hats and other items from locally grown Raffia fibers. The Raffia Farmers and the weavers are all paid fair wages and work in safe and healthy conditions.

From its establishment Tropical Items Madagascar, which overseas the business has on principal operated from Fair Trade standards. The owners (Fanja & George) even gathered community members in Colorado to start a non profit (Hope for Madagascar) that carries out education and environmental projects in the area to further benefit the community.  A portion of all the proceeds earned by Tropical Items is donated to Hope for Madagascar. Projects both finished and in progress of the non-profit include building green schools, planting trees and gardens, and most recently working with Engineers without Borders to build a well.

In other words, Tropical Items Madagascar is a small, family run business that genuinely cares about their roots, respects the artisans, and gives back to the community (and the planet) in a big way. You’d think that with such a resume  that being certified Fair Trade would be an easy thing. And yet, Tropical Items had to complete a difficult application, spend the money to fly in inspectors, and all aspects of their business were scrutinized in order to become certified Fair Trade.

So, the next time you are trying to decide on a bag of Fair Trade Coffee Beans priced at $8.50 or a regular beans priced at $7.50 please know that the extra dollar is not just going to line some rich corporations pockets, but to in fact ensure that the adult (not child) laborers who brought you that coffee are paid fairly and work in healthy and safe conditions. And, that the business model behind the coffee likely also includes treading lightly on the planet and elements of sustainable development!

EcoMom Challenge #2: Drive More Efficiently

As an EcoMom Leader and green blogger I am writing a ten part series covering the 10 Steps to a Sustainable Future recommended by the EcoMom Alliance. This week the topic is how to Drive Efficiently and cut down on your green house gas emissions.

1) Drive a more fuel efficient vehicle: for many of us this is often a difficult choice to make. In the Green Me Household, we may not drive a Prius or an electric car (yet!), but both of our cars are fairly fuel efficient compared to similar cars in their class. In our case our vehicles fuel efficiency is not an accident, but a significant factor in our decision to buy both vehicles. If you are in the market for a new vehicle, definitely make fuel efficiency a top consideration!

The car that my husband generally uses to commute to work is a 2005 Toyota Corolla, which averages about 33 miles to the gallon. His commute is often stop and go, so this mileage is worse than it was when I used the same car to commute a different route a few years back. At that time the Corolla usually maintained at least 35 miles to the gallon.

Our second car is a 2007 RAV4 that gets about 23 miles to the gallon. This is clearly worse than the Corolla, but better than similar cars in its class, so it is not too shabby. At the same time, since we have become more fuel conscious we tend to take the RAV4 less and drive the Corolla to run family errands on the weekends and in the evenings. If you have two cars and one is more fuel efficient you can save money and pollution by planning trips around using the more efficient vehicle. Ideally, wed be a one car family   wed love to see a Prius Wagon with room for storage, optional all-wheel-drive and great fuel efficiency!

2) Avoid short trips: Did you know that 90% of emissions come from the first mile of travel? Wow. If you didnt have a good reason to avoid short trips before, you do now!  However, if you are like the Green Me family this is one of the more difficult steps to take, even though it is easy to walk or bike to the Grocery Store, Target or Home Depot. Part of the challenge (at least in our case) is psychological, because these stores are so close by we tend not to feel bad if we need to pop over for some extra eggs, a different kind of screw or the prescription that we forgot to pick up earlier. Even the phrase pop over implies that a short trip is no big deal, but the fact that 90% of emissions come from the first mile of travel means that the pop over is indeed a big deal!

One way that we are working to avoid short trips is by combining multiple trips into one. For example, on Saturday we needed to hit the grocery store to pick up a few extra items for a brunch we were hosting on Sunday. We also wanted to attend the wine tasting at the liquor store next door that was between 4 and 7 pm. We almost went to the store after lunch, but instead we held off until wine tasting time, so that wed only have to make one trip. Ideally, we would have even walked or taken the bikes and bike trailer, but unfortunately between baby naps and dinner plans, we didnt have the time.

Another way we reduce pop overs and multiple trips is by planning errand circles. For example, on Friday evening or Saturday morning well make a list of all our wants and needs on a to-do list. Then we will map it and decide that we will start on the south side of town, making our first stop at the Human Society Thrift Shop (drop off goods), this might be followed by a run to the recycling center (drop of sticks/weeds at the tree limb center and corrugated cardboard and other stuff not taken at the curb). Next we will head north and return some books to the Library, maybe taking some time to stroll down Main Street. Well finish up our trip with a visit to the Natural Grocers and the hardware store next door. Combining our trips like this not only saves gas, but it also saves time and money, and makes running errands more fun sort of a family adventure!

3) Use Public Transportation: Depending on where you live this may or may not be a good option. In my hometown the bus system was awesome and I had an EcoPass (free bus-pass through work), so riding was essentially free. Between my EcoPass, my bike, and my two feet, I got around fabulously for many years sans a gas guzzling car. Now I live in a town with a miserable bus system and it is expensive – last I checked a ride was $1.25 each way. Now gas has gone up, but not enough to spend $2.50 and precious time (time is money) walking to and from the bus stop, and waiting at the various transfer centers to actually get where I want to go.

Now, the first thing I should really do here is admit that my harsh criticism of our local public transportation system is based on theory, as I have yet to actually try it out. Back on Earth Day, I in fact pledged to try the bus system out one time per month for the rest of the year, but to-date I have avoided trying the bus out. So, Ill make a deal with you – this Thursday (when Baby Green Me goes to daycare). I will run an errand by bus and report back on Friday.

Have you tried your local public transportation out or are you like me? Do you keep putting it off, making the argument that it is just too darn inconvenient? If so, why dont you take the time to give it a try this week? If you have older kids (or no kids), a husband or significant other, why dont you make it an adventure? In other words, rather than having your first experience be a stressful run to work, just go for a ride and see how the system works. Maybe stop somewhere to have coffee or lunch and then come home.

4) Carpool: This is also an option that has been difficult for our family. As single (or at the least childless) folks this was much easier, but now that we and many of our friends have small munchkins in car seats, this is more difficult for us. 4 adults and 2 babies in car seats dont fit in the average car and definitely not in either of ours!

On the other hand, my husband would carpool to work, except that weve had trouble finding him a carpool partner. However, this may be changing soon as we just learned that a neighbor got a job at the company across the street from my husbands office. Hopefully, in the next week or so they should be able to work themselves out a carpool arrangement, at least a few days per week!

If you drive to work carpooling is a great way to save gas, save pollution and build community. Earlier this year I wrote a post highlighting benefits of carpooling and listing links to carpool databases around the country.

5) Dont idle (ever!): If you drop kids off at school or pick them up or if you wait for someone to run into the store, the post office, or the dry cleaners – dont idle! Idling creates more pollution and cause engines to run less efficiently than stopping and starting your car. In addition, new cars dont need to warm up prior to driving off and in fact it can be bad for your car to sit and idle. Furthermore, studies show that idling to warm a car up on a cold morning actually takes longer to warm the engine than starting cold and driving off.

Along these same lines, be careful of your acceleration/deceleration habits being first off the line at the stop light, and the first to arrive at the next light will not get you anywhere faster, but it will cost you more gas and create more air pollution than starting off slowly! If you are up for a challenge and your really want to learn to drive more efficiently, perhaps you are a good candidate for Hypermiling!

6) Keep Your Tires Inflated: Properly inflated tires help your vehicle to get better gas mileage thus improving your cars fuel efficiency. Period. Check one-time per month (or at the least at every oil change).

7) Bike and or Walk: These two options of course save fuel and thus reduce pollution. Most importantly, when you walk or bike you are not only helping to keep the planet healthy, but also your own body and that of your children! A little extra exercise is great for your heart, your spirit, and your cholesterol levels!

You may not be able to walk or bike everywhere, but you can probably do more than you think.  Start small and continue to expand your trips. Walk to the park instead of driving. Make some short trips into bike rides. And, on nice days get out and exercise outside instead of driving to the gym. The fall is a great time for outdoor exercise!

If you live near to your kids school and you’d like to walk, but don’t have the time every day, maybe you could start a Walking School Bus with other parents. This way a few parents could take turns each day getting a gaggle of kids to and from school. My son is not yet old enough for school, but this would work really well in our neighborhood, because there is a bike path that goes from the neighborhood park all the way to the nearest elementary, middle and high schools!

In conclusion, ways to drive more efficiently include: driving your most fuel efficient vehicle; combining trips; planning ahead; hypermiling; and, eliminating car trips by using public transportation, walking or biking!

EcoMom Challenge Step #1: Change a light

CFLs (compact fluorescent bulbs) have been in the news for the last few years. In fact there is a good chance that you already have a few in your house or you’ve at least considered making the switch. Hopefully after reading this post you will take the time to budget and plan your way into eliminating all incandescent lights in your home and replacing them with CFLs and possibly an LED or two!

Some folks are turned off by the word fluorescent and wary of buying a light that they think will flicker, hum or give off a glaringly white light. Other folks are concerned about the upfront expense of a CFL bulb, which can cost several dollars more than an out dated incandescent. And a few are concerned about the mercury content of CFL bulbs. I will address all of these concerns below, as well as, giving you some facts and tips on energy usage, buying less expensive CFLs and even info on LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights, which use even less energy and have a longer life span than a CFL! And, lest you think that Green Me only talks the talk, but doesnt walk the walk, I finish up with a complete summary the Green Me household light bulb situation!

Decreased Energy Usage: Incandescent & CFL Facts:

  • Lighting is responsible for 5% to 10% of home energy usage.
  • 90% of the energy used by an incandescent light is lost as heat!
  • A CFL bulb uses 75% less energy than an incandescent bulb and thus saves $30 in energy costs (on average) over its lifetime. (Update: according to this post a CFL may save you much more than $30, especially if you switch out a bushel of them!)
  • The average CFL bulb lasts 10 times longer (or 10,000 hours longer) than an incandescent bulb.
  • The cost of a CFL bulb averages about $3 more than an incandescent bulb, but it lasts 10x longer, so over its lifetime you have to buy fewer lights, and it use less energy, so you pay less to operate the bulb!
  • If a CFL bulb stops working in a few months you can often return it as a faulty bulb weve done this a couple times with good results.

CFL Concerns ( the first 4 items have been gratuitously cut and pasted from US News):

  1. Ive heard that CFLs dont really last as long as they say.
    Turning a CFL on and off frequently shortens its life, which is why the governments Energy Star program says to leave them on for at least 15 minutes at a time. Also, if you have dimmable light fixtures, make sure to buy CFLs labeled dimmable. All CFLs that carry the governments Energy Star label are required to carry a two-year limited warranty, so contact the manufacturer if your bulb burns out prematurely. The Energy Star website has a good FAQ on CFLs. (Keep track of where you buy your CFLs, several of the bulbs we bought early on at Costco & Home Depot burned out in a few months, my husband was on top of this and took them in to complain, both times they gave us a replacement bulb, no questions asked.)
  2. I dont think that I like the color of the light from CFLs.
    When they first hit the market, CFLs had a limited range of tones. Now, manufacturers offer a wider variety, but there is not an agreed-upon labeling standard. The Energy Star program is working to change that. But for now, look for lower Kelvin temperatures like 2,700 to 3,000 for redder light, closer to old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, while bulbs with Kelvin temperatures of 5,000 and 6,500 provide more blue and intense light. A good photograph illustrating the difference is shown here.
  3. Ive heard that CFLs have mercury in them—isnt that bad?
    Consumers are rightly concerned about the toxic substance mercury that helps CFLs produce light. Even though the amount sealed in each bulb is small—one old-fashioned thermometer had about 100 times as much mercury—contact local trash collection for disposal instructions. Environmentalists agree that more work must be done on bulb recycling programs. Right now, you can return any CFL to any Ikea store for recycling, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Earth911 have sites you can search for other recycling programs near your home.
  4. But if you break a CFL, youll have a toxic spill in your home.
    Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has developed the best advice on the procedures to follow if a CFL breaks. Don’t use a vacuum. Maine officials studied the issue because of a homeowner in that state who received a $2,000 light bulb clean-up bill from an environmental hazards company—a story that has circulated around the country and increased consumer concerns about CFLs. It turns out that the company’s advice was overkill, and a subsequent analysis showed no hazard in the home. But the bulbs must be handled with caution. Using a drop cloth might be a good new routine to develop when screwing in a light bulb, to make the clean-up of any breaks easier.
  5. If I cant toss it in the trash, what do I do with a used bulb? Ikea, Ace Hardware and Home Depot now accept used (not broken) CFL bulbs for recycling. Many cities either take CFLs at their drop off centers and or they have hazardous waste drop off centers that are open daily or on specific days where you can take whole and or broken CFLs. If you are concerned, collect broken bulbs in a large zip-lock bag until you have a few for recycling.
  6. They are expensive to buy, especially the dimmable kind! Check and see if your city or region has a partnership with local businesses to discount the price of CFLs. For example, in Longmont, CO where we live, the City subsidizes CFLs thus reducing their cost to a dollar or two for a two pack. They are also sold in bulk discount packs at warehouse retailers such as Costco and Sams Club. And, keep in mind that a dimmable bulb may cost you $10 today, but it may save you $30 dollars or more in future energy costs! Think of buying CFLs as an investment in your future and the planets health!

Green Me Light Bulbs

Weve lived in our home for just over two years and over time as our bulbs burn out weve replaced them with CFL lights. So far weve made the following changes:

  1. Kitchen: In our kitchen we have 7 recessed canned lights, all of which weve changed out for CFLs.
  2. Family Room: We have 4 dimmable recessed canned lights in this room and weve changed out 2 for CFLs. Note that in the pictures our regular CFLs are spiraled and the dimmables are 3 pronged.
  3. Entrance & Hallways: We have 8 recessed canned lights, of which we’ve changed out 3 for CFLs. The 3 that we’ve changed are in our laundry/garage hallway that we use on a daily basis. The other 4 are in our main hall, which gets excellent day lighting and night time lighting from other locations, so we rarely use these lights.
  4. Living & Dining Room: We have 9 light bulbs in three separate fixtures in these rooms. Our dining room chandilier takes an odd size dimmable bulb, for which we’ve been unable to find replacement CFLs, so these 5 bulbs remain energy sucking incandescents. Someday we may change out the fixture, but for now we try not to use the chandelier unless absolutely necessary. Our other two fixtures contain CFLs, which are now over 2 years old and still burning bright (these were our first CFLs, bought at our old home).
  5. Bedroom: We have two standalone lights and one ceiling fixture making up 4 lights, all of which have been changed to CFLs. Two of these lights came with us from our former home and so are also over 2 years old. The bedside table lights are also CFLs of the warmer spectrum, which makes reading in bed more cozy and less bright as day.
  6. Master bath and Closet: We have 9 lights in these two rooms, none of which are CFLs, and all of which we should really make an effort to change over. The thing is we dont run these lights very often, so they are being buggers about dying!
  7. The rest of the house: We have 24 more lights in the basement, office, my sons room and 1.5 baths 5 of these are CFLs. Most of them are recessed canned lights and about 50% of them dimmable. These other lights are not used very often, but we are currently working on switching all of our dimmables (10 of these lights) to CFLs.

Total bulbs in our house: 72 (Wow!!! Have you ever counted all of the individual light bulbs in your house!?!)

Total CFL bulbs in our house: 38

So, just over half of our bulbs are CFLs, although all of our most commonly used fixtures (kitchen, bedroom, and living room) are CFLs. Our house may have more lights than the average house as the previous owners were apparently canned lighting fiends and had finished the basement themselves.

And, remember this tip from the EcoMom Alliance if every household in the United States changed out just 5 incandescent bulbs with CFLs the energy (and pollution) saved would be the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road!!! Imagine if every house in the US changed out 35 bulbs for CFLs that would be equivalent to taking 35 million cars off the road!


Last but not least, I wanted to touch on LED lights as they are 6 times more efficient than even CFLs although at present they are still quite price prohibitive and difficult to come by; however, by 2012 when the US (by government regulation) begins to phase out incandescent bulbs, I imagine that LEDs will have hit the mainstream consumer market. The best and brightest (pun intended) aspect of LED lights is that they are meant to lastas in once you buy and LED light it should (almost) never burn out! And, they dont waste energy by creating heat and they dont heat up your room with their energy either. Talk about resource efficient!

Read more about LEDs behind this wikipedia link!