Real Solutions for Climate Change from the Spirit & Place Festival

Sunlight shining through trees

Right now Indianapolis is in the midst of the Spirit & Place Festival, an annual 10-day span of arts, religion, and humanities events throughout the city. This past weekend I attended a thought-provoking panel discussion about real solutions for climate change. The discussion not only reaffirmed my philosophy behind this blog and my sustainable events business, but also helped clarify the bigger picture of broad changes that need to happen in order to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change.

Something I vaguely understood before the event was that the current Republican party is a significant impediment to meaningful climate policy. What the event clarified for me is the extent to which the Republican party is possibly the biggest hindrance to preventing climate disaster not only nationally but globally. (Because the U.S. is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, lack of action on our part has effects that reach far beyond our borders.)

The panel discussion opened with a screening of an episode of Years of Living Dangerously, a National Geographic series about climate change. Without being a witch hunt, the episode, entitled Safe Passage, laid out the political reality experienced by Republican lawmakers: Even if they personally believe in human-caused climate change and want to take action, they often face the withdrawal of major support, and even career-ending opposition from fossil fuel interests, if they go public in support of climate change policy. It’s not enough to simply convince Republican representatives of the science; they must also be provided with politically acceptable cover for their climate beliefs and action—that is, until the party changes its position officially.

Enter the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL). This organization, one of the hosts of the panel discussion, takes a deliberate—sometimes slow—but effective approach to lobbying Republicans to address climate change. By training concerned citizens to effectively and respectfully discuss climate change with their representatives, and by appealing to Republicans on values like freedom and market-based strategies, CCL has influenced several Republican lawmakers to join the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which now boasts 30 Republican members.

CCL’s ultimate goal is to introduce the Carbon Fee & Dividend solution as a bill in Congress. This concept would establish a fee for fossil fuel extraction that would be returned to U.S. households in the form of dividends to help offset resulting higher energy bills. The overall result would be a financial disincentive for fossil fuel use, leading to a market-based transition to cleaner forms of energy.

One of the things I like about CCL is their focus on encouraging people to get involved in our representative democracy. This is something I’ve been more intentional about over the last year or two, largely through email and social media alerts from the Hoosier Environmental Council (another presenter of the event). HEC sends periodic updates about pending environmental legislation in Indiana and at the federal level, with clear explanations of why they support or oppose certain policies, and how citizens can advocate for sound environmental policy. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable contacting my elected officials, and even though a few years ago I wondered “Is that something people really do?”, now I consider it a quick and easy way to influence issues I care about.

The panel of speakers included Janet McCabe (left), who served as the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation under President Obama.

A theme that emerged from both the National Geographic episode and the panel discussion was the fact that we don’t have time for an incremental solution to climate change. While many articles about climate change talk about actions that individuals can take (such as driving less or eating less meat), these actions alone will not create the level of change needed to avert the most severe predictions of climate scientists. Change needs to happen faster than one individual citizen at a time—hence the focus on policy-based, industry-wide solutions.

A second, seemingly contradictory theme that emerged from the panel was the power of individual actions: specifically, how individual actions help people realize that they themselves have agency and can make an impact. This realization has the power to inspire individuals to take more and bigger actions, leading to greater change.

A high school science teacher on the panel gave a great example of how she helps her students begin to understand their impact. First she has students complete a carbon footprint calculator, and then she has the students calculate how many Earths would be necessary to sustain the global population if every person had the same carbon footprint they do. While this isn’t necessarily an example of an individual’s positive impact, this exercise helps students see themselves not as insignificant small-town kids, but as participants in a global system.

I see the two themes of the discussion as a natural progression. As citizens and humans, we first need to recognize our own impact on the world, and our ability to change that impact, before we begin to address the ills of the systems that compose society. For example, before someone can question the long-term viability of a consumption-based economy, they first need to consider the implications of their own consumption habits.

The action takeaway from the event was a marriage of individual and larger-scale action: CCL encouraged all attendees to fill out a form letter about climate change concerns (with space for personal comments) to their elected representatives, which CCL will deliver this month at their annual lobbying day in Washington, D.C. Taking this individual action is a building block toward the larger and more impactful goal of policy change—which, CCL emphasized, is unlikely to materialize without a chorus of voices in support of it.

I encourage you to check out Citizens’ Climate Lobby to learn more about their proposed solutions for climate change and to be inspired to contact your own representatives, not only about climate change, but about any issue that matters to you. As idealistic as it sounds, your representatives won’t know you care unless you tell them. It’s your responsibility to make your voice heard, and adding your voice to the collective support of an issue just may tip the scales toward policy change.

Less Than vs. Empathy

Close-up of struggling carved human figures

One night the other week I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic while I ate dinner (as is my nerdy custom), and I was struck by a passage in an article about the conflict in Central African Republic. It was the account of a teenage girl who had been sexually abused by a French peacekeeping soldier. The girl and her mother had taken refuge at the Bangui airport, which was protected from feuding militias by peacekeeping troops. She claimed the soldier promised her food in exchange for sex and threatened to beat her if she cried; the girl was five months pregnant at the time of her interview.

It’s probably naive of me to be shocked by this story, which I’m sure is no surprise to those who avidly protest human rights abuses (and indeed, I’ve found with some quick research that these allegations are all too frequent), but it stopped me in my tracks. The idea of exploiting someone who is relying on you for protection is so sickening that I struggle to wrap my mind around it.

I tried to put myself in the position of the girl. She said at first the soldier was friendly. I imagine the confusion and then dread as the situation changed and she realized what she would have to do. I imagine how during and after such an encounter, a person must feel like no one in the world is looking out for them, and that the world is full of unpredictable violence and danger.

I tried to put myself in the position of the solider. What would motivate someone to threaten and sexually exploit a teenage girl, especially one who is under your protection? Notwithstanding the possibility that the perpetrator was a psychopath, I could only think of two other scenarios. The first is if the soldier was embedded in a culture where this type of behavior was accepted or encouraged by his peers. He did it because others did it. Initial hesitation may have been overshadowed by assurance that it would be enjoyable and without consequences. The other scenario is that the soldier actively resented the Central Africans he had been sent to protect and believed himself to be superior in some way, and that he was justified in exploiting the girl. He may have even felt his behavior reinforced the power structure, reminding the Central Africans who was really in charge.

Both of these scenarios boil down to a common theme: the soldier viewed the girl as less than. Either because she was African, a female, or both, the soldier felt it was acceptable to threaten and abuse her, because she was somehow lower, different, other.

In the past I’ve been involved in organizations that fight human trafficking, but beyond that I’ve stayed pretty ignorant of crimes against human rights, mostly because they seem too complicated to do anything about and are too horrifying to dwell on. (Controversy regarding sexual abuse allegations against peacekeeping soldiers has apparently been on the global stage since 2015, despite my blissful cluelessness.) I keep myself similarly unaware of accusations of war crimes and human rights abuses at a political level. How do you even begin to address evil at that echelon? But on the other hand, how can I attempt to be connected to others in the world and not know or care about these injustices?

It isn’t connected or harmonious or empathetic to distance myself from the suffering of others. I don’t want to fall into a white savior complex, but I’m reminded that it’s important not to become blind to these types of atrocities, especially when people of power and privilege are exploiting the vulnerable. (I shudder to think what injustices some American soldiers perpetrate, either by command or in secret.)

There are human rights groups who focus on these issues, but I’ve never been drawn to getting involved with them because it seems so daunting and disturbing. But the daunting and disturbing injustices are probably the most important ones to pay attention to. However, they also get the closest to what one might call pure human evil, which I’m not sure the efforts of an organization can ever eradicate. Stopping human rights abuse seems to me like a Sisyphean task: you can stop one dictator from killing his citizens, but another will rise up somewhere else in the world. I like attacking the root of a problem, but what is the root problem of human rights abuse?

The best answer I can come up with is seeing people as less than. Lack of empathy. Seeing others as “other.” People don’t typically abuse people they view as equal to themselves. They abuse people they believe are inferior, dirty, wrong, immoral, weak, offensive, blasphemous, stupid, evil, unimportant, inconsequential. The wellbeing of the other is not as important as my own wellbeing, so I am justified in exploiting them for my gain.

If I were to stop avoiding human rights issues out of self-preservation (which I hope I have the guts to do), I think the root issue I would want to target is empathy, and support organizations and efforts that aim to foster it. The more I dwelled on empathy today, the more it seemed like the solution to many of the world’s ills: racism, sexism, violence, exploitation.

This probably isn’t a revelation to most of you. “Yes, empathy makes people nicer to each other, duh.” If you had asked me before reading that article what one thing would solve most of the world’s problems, I probably would have landed on empathy after some thought. But sometimes you re-realize something you’ve known for a long time and start to think about it differently, which is what happened to me the other day. And hopefully it deepens my connection to humanity in a way that using a reusable shopping bag doesn’t quite accomplish on its own.

How to Not Use Air Conditioning All Summer

At the beginning of the summer, I made a challenge to myself to see how long I could go without turning on the air conditioning. Now it’s mid-September, summer is winding down, and I’ve only turned on the air conditioning twice. Once was to create some intermittent air movement in the house while I was on vacation for a week (I set the thermostat to 82 so it wouldn’t come on very often), and the other time was this past weekend when I had six houseguests and it was 90 degrees (it seemed like the courteous thing to do).

This lifestyle change was surprisingly easy for me to adapt to. I’m the kind of person who’s always cold, and I tend to think most places are over-air-conditioned in the summer. (I always feel relief when I get to leave a cold building and thaw out in my hot car.) I also live in a one-story house in a climate where the high temperature rarely get above the low 90’s, and I live alone, so I don’t have to balance the temperature preferences of multiple people.

If you find yourself a similarly viable candidate, here are my tips for living comfortably without air conditioning:

Open your windows.

During the day when I’m at work, I keep my windows and blinds closed to keep out the heat. Every evening when I get home, I open the four windows in my living room and two windows in my kitchen, the two rooms I spend the most time in. If I’m working in my office I open the window in there too. Having multiple windows open creates air movement in the house and lets in cooler air as the temperature drops throughout the evening. I keep the windows open until I go to bed. Since my house is one-story, I close the windows at night for safety, but if you have a two-story house you could definitely leave the upstairs windows open to keep the cool night air circulating.

Fans, fans, fans.

I’m fortunate to have a ceiling fan in my bedroom and another in my kitchen. Sleeping in a hot house can be uncomfortable, so having the ceiling fan on at night is key to keeping the air conditioning off. If you don’t have a ceiling fan, a large oscillating fan would probably work well. I use the ceiling fan in the kitchen to help dissipate hot air from cooking, and to keep me cool while I sit at the table and eat.

I realized midway through the summer that the ceiling fans alone are not enough to keep the house comfortable. I got a box fan at Goodwill to move between the living room and the office, and that helped a lot, but what I really needed was a large oscillating fan. I looked for a used oscillating fan for a couple of months with no luck, but I finally found one on a curb alert a couple of weeks ago. I don’t really need it at this point in the season, but it will make next year much more comfortable.

Box fan and stand fan

My biggest fans.

Dress for success.

This is an obvious one: If your house is hot, wear cool clothing. When I come home from work on warm days, I change into shorts and a t-shirt or tank top, and I walk around barefoot or in sandals.

Have a cold one.

A cold drink, that is. I keep a pitcher of chilled water in the refrigerator to help me stay hydrated and cool down when I feel warm. This is especially helpful after I run or ride my bike—I used to rely on air conditioning to cool me down after exercising, but now I drink cold water and hang out by a fan or in one of the cooler areas of the house.

Take advantage of subterranean spaces.

Speaking of cooler areas of the house, my basement is definitely the best one. On the hottest days of the summer, I spent my leisure time in the basement, where it feels at least 10 degrees cooler than the main level of the house. If I didn’t have a basement with a finished room to hang out in, I admit that I probably would have turned on the air a few more times over the summer.

I chose to forego air conditioning to reduce my energy consumption and lower my environmental impact, but doing so had financial benefits too. My electric bill didn’t rise at all compared to my bills over the winter; it has been about $40 consistently for the last seven months.

Living without air conditioning isn’t practical for everyone, depending on the climate you live in, your age, your health, or other factors. But for those in good health living in a moderate climate, I challenge you to push the boundaries of your temperature comfort zone. You may find it’s easier than you think!

I Tried the Guppyfriend Washing Bag

A few months ago I posted about the issue of synthetic microfibers being released from our laundry into waterways, where they accumulate and cause environmental problems. While re-engineering modern fabrics is the best long-term solution to this problem, as a proponent of secondhand clothing and making items last as long as possible, I wanted to do something to mitigate the pollution caused by my existing wardrobe.

Guppyfriend box on top of washing machine

Enter the Guppyfriend washing bag. The bag, created by German nonprofit organization STOP! MICRO WASTE, claims to contain microfibers released during washing so you can dispose of them in the trash rather than through the pipes. I purchased my bag through Patagonia, who sells them at cost as part of their microfiber pollution campaign.

Using the Guppyfriend is pretty straightforward. First, I sorted my clothing made of synthetic fabric and placed it in the bag. I sorted out my polyester, rayon and acrylic garments. For blended fabrics, I put it in the bag if the percentage of synthetic fibers was more than 40 percent.

One complaint I have about the Guppyfriend is that it doesn’t come with a list of synthetic fibers, leaving it up to the user to determine which fibers to put in the bag. This caused confusion for me about what to do with modal fabric, and about whether spandex sheds microfibers or not.

Guppyfriend bag with laundry in it

The Guppyfriend instructions say not to fill the bag more than half full so clothing can move around in the wash. The bag is pretty large, so I’ve been able to fit all of my synthetic garments from each load into the bag without exceeding the general halfway point. I estimate that I can get about 10 garments into the bag per load, give or take a few depending on their bulkiness.

Once the bag is full, I put it in the washing machine with the rest of the load and washed as usual. After the wash cycle, it was clear that the bag had indeed captured some microfibers:

Microfiber residue on Guppyfriend bag

The microfibers are easiest to see after washing darks; I can’t really see them after washing lights. I also realized that some of the fibers visible on the bag are actually on the outside—they’re fibers released by the natural textiles that weren’t in the bag. But there are still visible fibers inside the bag as well. In terms of laundry effectiveness, my clothes seem to have gotten just as clean inside the bag as they did outside of it.

I usually wash two loads right in a row, and I’ve found no problems with loading garments into the bag once it’s already wet. When I’m all done, I hang the bag to dry for next time.

One thing I haven’t totally figured out yet is how to remove the microfibers from the bag. According to the Guppyfriend FAQs, the microfibers will eventually collect in the seams and corners of the bag, where they are easier to remove. I’ve used the bag five or six times and haven’t seen much accumulation around the edges yet. Apparently this is an observation a lot of users have had, because there’s an FAQ response for this as well, pointing out that the fibers are indeed microfibers and some are transparent, making them hard to see. The bag is also designed to cushion the mechanical forces of the washing process, thereby reducing the amount of fibers shed by garments in the first place.

The bag itself is made of polyamide, which the Guppyfriend website says is fully recyclable. It requests that users mail back their bags at the end of their useful life so they can be recycled into new bags.

A second complaint I have about the Guppyfriend is that even though its material construction is addressed in great detail, there’s no information on the website and minimal information on the product packaging about how and where the bags are produced. The back of the packaging simply states: “Product of Switzerland. Sewn in Portugal.” I’ve found with moderate consistency that eco-friendly products often neglect to discuss the social aspect of their production, which to me is surprising and disappointing, since in my mind environmental and social issues go hand-in-hand.

Overall, I think the Guppyfriend is a valid interim solution for stemming the tide of microfiber pollution, and I plan to continue using mine. In addition to using the Guppyfriend, STOP! MICRO WASTE recommends the following other ways to mitigate microfiber pollution, most of which I was already doing:

  • Wash in cold water
  • Use liquid detergent as opposed to powder
  • Wash less often
  • Purchase clothing made of natural fibers

Have you tried the Guppyfriend, or any other methods of reducing microfiber pollution? How has your experience been?

Save the Date for Our Next Swap!

It’s that time again! Our next style swap has been officially set for Wednesday, August 23, at New Day Craft Cider & Mead.

SummerSwap17 promo image

If you’re on the fence about whether a clothing swap is your scene, check out Bethany’s previous post about why swaps are basically the best thing ever. Then head over to the registration page to sign up!

See you at SummerSwap17!

Challenge Yourself to Plastic Free July

Multicolored plastic cups

I recently joined the Facebook group Zero Waste Indy, a forum for sustainability-minded Indianapolis residents to share their ideas and strategies for reducing their personal waste. It’s been really interesting to see everyone’s solutions, and last week fellow group member and blogger Polly Barks posted about an initiative I hadn’t heard of before: Plastic Free July.

Plastic Free July is a month-long campaign being promoted by different sustainability organizations worldwide. The official Plastic Free July website is run by Earth Carers of Western Australia, and the challenge is also promoted by the Story of Stuff. The goal of Plastic Free July is to challenge yourself to refuse single-use plastic in your daily life.

Plastic Free July banner with turtle

Packaging is a major source of plastic waste, and as I started Plastic Free July, I realized it’s harder to totally avoid than I thought. I went to the farmers’ market on Saturday and got produce in my reusable bags as I’ve done for years, but then after I bought a loaf of bread, I was halfway home before it occurred to me that the bread was in a single-use plastic bag.

Obviously, packaging is only one facet of a product’s overall environmental footprint. I’m on the fence about how to handle bread, because there are other bakeries that sell their bread in paper bags, but I’ve found that those loaves of bread get stale more quickly. I don’t want to end up wasting food in the name of reducing packaging. One solution could be to buy a loaf in a paper bag and transfer it to a heavier-duty reusable plastic bag when I get home to help it stay fresh. Ultimately if I wanted the most sustainable, packaging-free bread, it would probably be best to bake it at home. I’m not that much of a Betty Crocker yet, but maybe one day!

Despite the fact that packaging should be considered alongside the other environmental factors of a product, Plastic Free July is still a worthwhile campaign to bring awareness to the myriad pieces of plastic we use unthinkingly throughout the day, which add up to a significant plastic waste problem. A recent article in the Guardian provides an in-depth look at the world’s plastic waste crisis. Growth in the use of disposable plastic has far outpaced the capacity of recycling programs to keep up, so curbing our use of plastic is just as necessary as recycling what we do use.

One thing I would like to do intentionally starting this month is to more actively refuse plastic straws at restaurants. Right now if the server hands them out, I leave mine on the table, but I don’t know if it gets picked up to be used by someone else or thrown away. When I order my drink I’d like to get in the habit of saying “No straw, please.” Other ideas I may try include carrying a fork in my purse to use when only plastic cutlery is available, and investigating buying olive oil in bulk to avoid the use of a plastic bottle.

Plastic Free July badge "Choose to Refuse"

What plastic do you notice yourself using on a regular basis? What can you cut out of your routine during Plastic Free July? Share your answers in the comments, and use hashtags #plasticfreejuly and #plasticfreeindy to share your progress on social media all month long.

Tips for Buying a Used Lawn Mower

Remember when I used to write about cute things like shoes and dresses and DIY projects? Now that I’m a fancy grown-up homeowner, my life revolves around glamorous subjects like ant control and backed-up drains. More than anything this summer, my life has revolved around learning how to maintain a lawn.

One of the things I really liked about my house when I was thinking about buying it was that both the front and back yards are very small. I’m deeply relieved that I went for a house with a small yard, because even the postage stamp-sized patches of grass I do have take more attention than I anticipated. (Did you know that in the spring, grass grows fast? This was news to me.)

Small front yard with two trees

My li’l front yard

Small back yard with large tree

My li’l back yard

From the start I wanted to choose an eco-friendly lawn mower, but I wasn’t sure exactly what kind I should get. I researched powerless reel mowers, which would be the ideal green option, but I read several reviews saying they tend to get stuck on sticks, and my trees drop a copious amount of twigs. I also read that they don’t work well if the grass gets too long, and I think we all know how frequently I was prepared to mow. (Not often.) I would definitely be interested in trying a reel mower at some point, but it seemed intimidating to try as a total lawn newbie.

I decided to pursue an electric solution instead. For me there were both practical and sustainable benefits to an electric mower over a gas mower: I didn’t want to have to keep gasoline on hand to power it, I didn’t want to smell like gas every time I mowed, and I didn’t want the mower to be noisy and produce air pollution. I’m also a member of the green power option with my local utility, so even though Indiana’s electricity is produced by polluting coal-fired power plants (boo), the electricity I use is matched by renewable energy certificates (RECs), which help offset conventional electricity generation by supporting wind farms. And of course I wanted to get a used mower if at all possible, to extend the life of still-useful equipment and eliminate the environmental impact of manufacturing a new one.

For the first couple of months of spring, I actually cut my grass with a hand-held electric trimmer (much to the chagrin of my neighbors). At first I was experimenting to see if my yard was small enough to even need a mower at all. While the trimmer solution technically worked, it did take about twice as long as mowing does, and the trimmer makes a loud, shrill drone that I didn’t think was fair to subject the neighborhood to for an hour every week. I decided it wasn’t a viable long-term solution and that my little lawn did in fact call for a real mower.

Mower #1: Lawn Hog = Fail Whale

My first lawn mower purchase was a fail but a valuable learning experience. I had noticed an electric lawn mower for sale at the pawn shop where I get most of my music equipment, and having always had good luck with pawn shop purchases in the past, I decided to give the mower a try. It was a corded electric Black & Decker Lawn Hog. I quickly turned it on next to the store to make sure it worked. Nothing seemed remiss, so I bought it (and thankfully the $2 warranty) and took it home.

I got about a third of the way through mowing my back yard when the mower suddenly stopped cutting—it continued to spin but was no longer cutting the grass. After some disassembling and Googling, I discovered that the fan blades were all broken off, the blade wasn’t securely fastened, a couple of key components were fused together, and the motor itself was completely unattached from the body except for a few thin wires. I learned a lot about small motors that day, and I also learned that there’s more to vetting a lawn mower than just making sure it turns on.

Mower #2: Crushing It with Craigslist

I kept up the search for a few more weeks with no luck. But over Memorial Day weekend I checked Craigslist again and lo and behold, the perfect mower was for sale! It was a cordless Neuton brand electric mower being sold by a local couple. The price was right ($55!) and the sellers turned out to be incredibly gracious and helpful. The mower itself is a dream—no cord, easy to push, quiet enough to talk over, and it can do both the front and back yards on a single charge. I actually enjoy cutting the grass now, because it’s just like taking a series of very short walks in my yard on a nice day.

Full image of Neuton electric lawn mower

Say hello to my little friend Neuton.

Close-up of Neuton electric lawn mower

I think Neuton kind of looks like a turtle.

Tips for Buying Secondhand Tools & Equipment

The seasoned homeowners among you (or people who have ever done lawn care in their lives) are probably scoffing at how long I took to choose a mower, and I admit that my learning curve about lawn care was probably steeper than it should have been. However, I learned a lot through the process, and for those of us who are beginners to home maintenance and want to avoid buying a lot of new gadgets and tools to take care of our homes, I have a few important tips to keep in mind:

  1. If you’re going to buy used tools or equipment, don’t expect to find exactly what you need right away. It may take days or weeks for the type of equipment you want to come onto the secondhand market, or the available items may be in poor condition or unfairly priced. Be prepared for the shopping process to take time.
  2. Always test used equipment for its intended purpose before buying. Just because a tool powers on doesn’t mean it works properly. If it’s a mower, cut some grass. If it’s a drill, drill a hole in something. Five minutes of testing will save you the grief of getting home and finding out your purchase was useless.
  3. It’s better to buy directly from a person if possible. What I learned from comparing my two lawn mower-buying experiences is that at the pawn shop, I had no sense of how well (or badly) the mower had been taken care of. I didn’t know how old it was, I didn’t have the manual, I didn’t know if it had any quirks; I was buying it pretty much blind. None of that occurred to me at the time, but when I bought the second lawn mower from Craigslist, the difference in the experience was like night and day. The sellers described the ways they took care of the mower and provided helpful background information about the battery and the attachments, plus they gave me the manual and an extra blade. They also suggested I test out the mower on their yard before I could even ask. Obviously not all Craigslist experiences are this stellar, but buying from a person at least gives you the opportunity to ask questions and get a sense for how well-maintained the equipment might be.

With what I’ve learned from this process, I think I’ll definitely feel more prepared when buying secondhand the next time I need a new tool for my house. Have you ever bought used tools or equipment for your home? How did it work out? What kind of lawn mower do you use?

Eco-Friendly Bedding: Organic Sheets & Mattress Protector

Organic Sheets & Mattress Protector

Check out part one to learn about my quest for a flame-retardant-free mattress.

Having recently upgraded my mattress from a full size to a queen, I found myself in need of new sheets. Like shopping for a mattress, this was new territory for me; the sheets I had been using were nearly as old as the mattress itself.

I looked exclusively for fair trade, organic cotton sheets. My primary reason for preferring organic cotton is that the growing process is less chemically-intensive, and therefore hopefully safer for farm workers. As far as I know there haven’t been any studies about the long-term health effects of organic cotton farming to definitively prove it’s safer, but there have been multiple studies linking pesticide exposure to negative health effects, and conventional cotton is one of the most world’s most chemical-intensive crops.

Sol Organix sheets on mattress

I found this sheet set offered by Sol Organix, and it turned out to be the least expensive organic and fair trade option I came across—other brands can be upwards of $200 for a queen set. Sol’s sheets are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which prohibits the use of various toxic inputs and sets social criteria for the entire production chain. The cotton used by Sol Organix is also certified by Fair Trade USA, indicating that the cotton was produced in accordance with fair trade principles including fair prices and credit, safe working conditions, and the absence of forced or child labor.

(One aspect of Sol Organix sheets I would have liked to see more clearly addressed on their website is the working conditions and wages for the workers who actually produce the sheets. Their website claims that the company believes in “total transparency, from farm to factory to fabric,” but they don’t provide much information about anything after the farm stage. However, social criteria for manufacturing can be found starting on page 28 of the GOTS documentation and is actually much more robust than I expected.)

Upon receiving the sheets in the mail, I was delighted by their packaging: instead of coming in a plastic zipper bag, the Sol Organix sheets came in a reusable fabric bag complete with a long strap, side pocket, and button flap.

Cotton bag used as Sol Organix sheets packaging

Granted, the bag is made of the same fabric as the sheets, so it’s not terribly sturdy, but props to Sol Organix for being super-intentional about the reusability of their packaging. I’ve actually already used the bag twice, once as a laundry sack for dirty clothes on a weekend trip and once to keep a fancy scarf segregated from dirty shoes that were sharing the same luggage. Versatile!

The sheets are incredibly soft and I love the ivory color. One minor downside is that the fitted sheet is designed to accommodate a very deep mattress, up to 17 inches. My mattress is only about 11–12 inches deep, but after washing there actually wasn’t that much excess sheet to deal with, and it all tucks away nicely under the mattress.

In addition to the sheets, I decided to cover my mattress with a waterproof mattress protector. Using a mattress protector was recommended by Holder, the company I bought my mattress from, and until then I didn’t even know waterproof mattress covers existed, other than full-on plastic sheets for children. However, in the mattress shopping process I read a lot about the dust mites and allergens and mold that can accumulate in mattresses over time. Since I intend my mattress to be a 20-year investment, I want to protect it and keep it as clean as possible. I had a brief ethical crisis about using a product that adheres polyurethane to fabric, which I assume negates any recyclability either of those materials might have had on their own, but ultimately I decided that using a small amount of eventual-trash-plastic was worth it to extend the life of a product with a much larger environment footprint (the mattress).

Naturepedic mattress protector in box

I went with Naturepedic’s organic waterproof mattress protector. As with the mattress, the major selling point for me was the absence of flame-retardant chemicals. I’m happy with it so far—it didn’t change the feel of my mattress, and I haven’t noticed it make the bed dramatically warmer (causing a bed to “sleep hot” is apparently a flaw of many mattress protectors, I learned in the shopping process).

As for the rest of my bedding, the fair trade Guatemalan quilt that I’ve written about previously was in fact queen-sized, so it still works with the new mattress just fine:

Bed with Guatemalan fair trade quilt

Have you gone organic with any of your bedding? What are your favorite sources? What’s the best reusable packing you’ve encountered, for bedding or any other type of product?

Eco-Friendly Bedding: Shopping for a Flame-Retardant-Free Mattress

Close-up of mattress quilting

I’ve been vaguely intending to get a new mattress for a couple of years. My old one was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old, first having served as a guest bed for a few years, then as my bed since I was about 10. She was trusty and sturdy but starting to get saggy. After moving into the house I decided it was finally time to do the upgrade from full to queen and treat myself to a more supportive night’s sleep.

Obviously for such a large purchase I wanted to make an ethical and sustainable choice, but I wasn’t totally sure what that meant for a mattress. The three factors I pondered were:

  • The presence of flame-retardant chemicals (I wanted a mattress without them)
  • Use of sustainable/renewable materials
  • How and where the mattress is made

Another caveat for my buying process was that I wanted to be able try out the mattress in the store before ordering. This requirement ruled out the many eco-friendly mattress brands available online. (If you’re less squeamish about picking a mattress without trying it, The Good Trade has an excellent rundown of sustainable online brands). My final requirement was staying within a budget of about $1,200 for a queen-sized mattress and box spring.

The mattress I ended up choosing is the Celebrity Soft Top from Holder Mattress:

Celebrity mattress from Holder Mattress

Ignore the bad lighting and focus on the pillowy quilted goodness.

Celebrity mattress label

Celebrity: No longer just *NSYNC’s mediocre final album.

If you haven’t heard of Holder Mattress, that’s because to my knowledge it isn’t a nationally-distributed brand. When I first heard about the company a few years ago, what intrigued me was that Holder has its factory and headquarters in Kokomo, Ind., about an hour north of Indianapolis. In terms of getting a locally-made mattress, you can’t get much closer than that.

Since mattresses are so large and heavy, I like that these finished products aren’t shipped all over the place before reaching their final destinations. Holder has a showroom in Kokomo and another in Carmel, which is the one I visited. I tried out one of the floor models, and then they made my mattress to order and delivered it to my house. Each mattress is handmade, and in addition to the minimal-shipping factor, I liked supporting a fairly small and family-owned business.

As with food, I assume the transportation footprint of a mattress is relatively small compared to the footprint of its production overall, so I don’t wave the local flag as a huge and definitive sustainability win. Rather, I consider it a positive factor that combines certain environmental and community benefits. Following my purchase, I learned that there are in fact many mattress brands that manufacture within the U.S. Holder still seems to be the closest to Indianapolis, but if you live elsewhere you likely have other local mattress options.

The other factor on which Holder Mattress won me over was the fact they don’t use flame-retardant chemicals in any of their mattresses. Why did I want to avoid flame-retardant chemicals? First of all, it’s not 1960; I don’t smoke in bed (or at all). Second, as our guest blogger Travis Nagle briefly touched on in his post about eco-friendly furniture, flame retardants have been questioned as ineffective precautions that are also linked to a variety of health problems. A new study out this month finds an association between certain flame retardant chemicals and thyroid cancer.

One of my early furniture-buying regrets is that I let the salesperson who sold me my sofa talk me into a stain-resistant chemical coating. I hate to think what invisible chemicals it’s been off-gassing for the last five years. I definitely wanted to avoid any unnecessarily chemicals in a mattress that I plan to sleep on every night for the next 10–20 years.

The sustainable characteristic I didn’t really get with this mattress was the use of natural materials. The Celebrity is one of Holder’s lowest models, so it contains less-expensive materials such as polyurethane padding and polyester fabric. I initially felt strongly about getting a petroleum-free mattress—people used to make mattresses before we turned liquid dinosaurs into fabric and foam; why can’t we now? But ultimately, cost is what deterred me from pursuing a more natural mattress. In its higher-end lines, Holder does produce mattresses using wool fabric and latex foam, but their most natural option was $3,600 for a queen set—three times my budget. Depending on the brand, queen sets using latex foam appear to start around $2,000 and go up from there.

I’m about 80% satisfied with the mattress choice I made, but If I were to do this process again, there are a couple of things I would do differently:

  1. Attempt to find a latex foam mattress to try in-store. One reason I was hesitant to order a natural mattress from an online brand is the fact that I haven’t encountered a latex foam mattress in person before. I don’t know if I would even like what it feels like to lay on one. However, this type of mattress is becoming more popular. I could have tried one in-store (such as the high-end Holder version), and then perhaps felt more secure ordering a less-expensive latex mattress brand online.
  2. Do more research about the benefits of natural materials in mattresses. Once I found a flame-retardant-free mattress I could try out in a store and that was within my budget, I didn’t really pursue any further research into natural materials. In hindsight, I wish I would have done more research about both the individual and systemic benefits of using renewable materials in mattresses, and used that information to decide how much I was willing to spend on it.

Responsibly Disposing of Old Mattresses

Another reason I initially wanted a mattress made of natural materials was to give consideration to the eventual end of the mattress’s useful life. When a mattress is no longer supportive or comfortable to sleep on, what can be done with it? Most mattresses today end up in a landfill, and my thought was that a mattress made of natural materials may be easier to recycle. However, after some light Googling, I’m not immediately finding any programs that claim latex mattresses are any easier to recycle than conventional mattresses. Latex mattresses are indeed recyclable, and so are the majority of components in a traditional mattress. The tricky part is actually finding a facility that will pick up and recycle your mattress.

The challenge of responsible mattress disposal is also one of the reasons I was hesitant to try an online-only mattress brand. Most of these brands offer some version of the “try for 100 nights” plan where you can return the mattress if you end up not liking it. However, I think “return” is a misleading word in these programs, because once a mattress has been in use for 3+ months, the company can’t turn around and re-sell it to someone else. I discussed this briefly with my salesperson at the Holder showroom. Holder also has a try-and-return program, and the salesperson said the company used to be able to reuse the inner components of a returned mattress, but now if a mattress is returned they throw the whole thing away. I’m not sure if this is due to a specific law, concerns about bedbugs, or both, but the fact remains that at a minimum, a significant portion (if not all) of a mattress goes to waste if you decide to return it after trying it.

After being unable to find a local charity that accepts mattress donations, I decided to keep my old mattress and box spring as a combination of lounge seating and a guest bed in my basement (which I affectionately refer to as “the tacky den”). After I set it up I actually got giddy about how awesome it is. Behold the majesty:

Mattress seating in basement den

*cue angelic choir*

I threw my old college bedding on it, and boom! A relaxing and decadent seating area only enhanced by its wood paneling backdrop. The height is perfect for seating but not too awkwardly low for a bed. My roommates John Cena and Frodo approve.

If you aren’t blessed with a room free-spirited enough to have a mattress couch, I did come across 1-800-GOT-JUNK in my research, a company that will pick up old mattresses and purportedly recycle them if possible. You can also check out this directory of mattress recycling locations; however, the facility in Indiana no longer appears to be in operation.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, in which I delight in the eco-friendly features of my new queen bedding.

Have you purchased an eco-friendly mattress, online or otherwise? What brand did you go with, and how did it work out?

Upstream or Downstream: How to Solve Microfiber Pollution

Large school of fish near coral reef

I’m far from a serious student of the philosophy of ethics, but I did pick up one principle a few years ago in passing that has stuck with me. The principle is from Immanuel Kant, and in simplified terms it states that an act is only moral if you would wish all other people to behave the same way (for it to become a “universal law,” in Kant’s words). I don’t apply this to every action in my daily life, but when I’m making a new decision I do often think about what the collective effects would be if everyone in XYZ group did the same thing I did. This is how I formed my general philosophy about waste—just me throwing away one bottle instead of recycling it isn’t a big deal, but if that’s what everyone did, we would have millions more bottles in the landfill. It’s also this philosophy that reminds me that our individual actions make a collective difference.

This week I was checking out a new campaign from the Story of Stuff Project, and I was intrigued by their philosophical approach, which seemed to turn mine on its ear but also made a lot of sense. The campaign is called the Story of Microfibers, and it aims to address the issue of microscopic plastic pollution from synthetic fabrics in oceans and other bodies of water. Here’s their video that provides a general overview of the issue:

While reading their page of proposed solutions to the microfiber crisis, I was caught by this explanation of their approach. After listing several consumer-end solutions like washing machine filters or mesh laundry bags, author Michael O’Heaney states:

…these interventions require universal adoption to work… As our founder Annie Leonard puts it, when it’s hard to figure out how to fix a problem on your own, or the fix is onerous or expensive, that should serve as a sort of metal detector for flaws in the system; it should encourage us to look further upstream for a solution.”

Basically, he’s saying that if the solution to a problem requires the universal adoption of a certain behavior by consumers, that typically indicates the presence of a flaw at a higher level of the system. To me, this makes a lot of sense and addresses the inherent flaw in my default moral structure, which is the fact that my action may be beneficial if multiplied by a hundred or a thousand or a million people, but in all likelihood the majority of other people are likely not willing or able to make the same choice.

For the Story of Stuff, this philosophy led them all the way upstream to clothing manufacturers. Their recommended action is for consumers to call upon apparel companies to invest in research and development for new fabric technologies that will prevent the release of microfibers into the environment.

In the long term, I think this is a fantastic solution. I’m a huge supporter of companies being held responsible for the environmental impacts of their products. However, as an avid secondhand shopper with a tendency to keep my clothes for as long as possible, I’m resistant to the idea of buying an all-new wardrobe made of microfiber-free fabric. (Kant urges me to think of the implications if everyone did this universally!) Plus, it could be years before these new technologies are developed, tested and released into the marketplace. We would be remiss to dismiss the solutions aimed at addressing the microfiber pollution caused by clothing already in circulation. (Side note: Someone please keep #RemissToDismiss in your back pocket as the hashtag for some future social justice campaign.)

These are the consumer-based solutions discussed on the Story of Stuff page:

  • Wear and wash synthetic fabrics less often
  • Choose clothing made of natural fibers like cotton, linen or hemp
  • Use a laundry accessory designed to minimize microfiber pollution, such as the Guppy Friend, soon to be available at Patagonia (I also found another microfiber catcher in development from the Rozalia Project)
  • Install a washing machine filter to capture microfibers (such as this one)

In my research I found surprisingly little information about opportunities to support ocean cleanup efforts to reduce the amount of plastic already in the water system. For now the conversation seems to be focused heavily on prevention.

I appreciate the Story of Stuff Project’s strategy for spotting red flags for systemic flaws, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see me apply that line of thought to more topics in the future. But as I sit here in my cozy fleece jacket made of recycled bottles that will surely release hundreds of thousands of fibers the next time I wash it, unsure of the timeline of technological advancement in fabrics, some degree of consumer-based solution seems necessary to me alongside high-level systemic change. While consumer solutions may have a comparatively low adoption rate and not fully stem the tide of microfiber pollution, they can be a stepping stone that reduces pollution while we wait for more comprehensive industry action.

My final pondering about the microfibers issue is where it will end up ranking in priority with other critical apparel industry improvements, such as ensuring safety and living wages for factory workers. I haven’t seen these issues addressed jointly yet, but hopefully manufacturers will realize the need to take responsibility for the impacts of their products at both the start and end of the lifecycle, and not ignore one in favor of the other.