Better Gifts for a Smaller Footprint

presents

The holidays present a whole different set of circumstances compared to daily life, so they also come with a whole different set of sustainability challenges. Top among these after  travel and food (see my previous post) is gift-giving. Recycled wrapping paper or reusable gift bags are great, but be sure the gift in that wrapping takes sustainability into account too.

Here are some tips for carbon-smart gifting:

Start early!
Early planning alone can save both carbon and money. By giving ourselves time to work out good options in advanc, we can avoid unwanted or wasteful gifts as well as rush shipping and other flailing around. In this instance (and many others, as it turns out), organizing and planning make for more affordable, more sustainable presents.

Make sure your gift will be used
In measuring the emissions of a gift in proportion to how much happiness it brings, the biggest loser is a gift that isn’t used at all. We’ve all gotten (and given) them: whether a seemingly genius idea that didn’t pan out or a gift bought at the last minute in desparation, a present that isn’t used damages the climate without helping anyone. Even a returnable present often feels bad to the recipient while creating more travel and/or shipping, which has its own footprint.

Some ways to ensure a gift isn’t a duplicate or a misfire include discussing it with someone else close to the recipient, erring on the side of conservative gift-choosing (for instance, with gift certificates), or even involving the recipient in the gift choice. I know it’s traditional (and fun) for gifts to be surprises, but both as a gift giver and a gift getter, personally I’d be much happier about a gift that’s a hit but not a surprise than a gift that’s unexpected but a flop.

The driving gotcha
Think twice about gifts that involve much driving, whether it’s you getting the gift or the recipient using it. On top of the gift itself, the extra driving creates a bigger negative impact on carbon footprint that’s easy to miss or discount. Since travel is the number one source of emissions for individuals and households, it’s entirely possible to give a gift that has a much bigger impact in terms of driving than is embodied in the gift itself.

Of course, not all driving raises a gift’s impact. For example, if you pick up a gift while driving but are combining that errand with others, the extra driving attributable to that particular gift is lessened or eliminated. Similarly, if the gift-getter is already going to do the driving your gift would entail (for instance, you buy a ski pass for someone you know already plans to go skiing), driving again stops being an issue.

Types of presents
Some categories of gifts, such as electronics, tend to have a much worse impact than others. Even some seemingly-harmless gifts, like clothing and shoes, can come with a heavy climate toll. Here are some ways to approach more sustainable gift choices:

  • Favor gifts that will be used more. An item that is seldom used, even if it’s enjoyed when it is used, is contributing much less for its cost in carbon than something that’s used regularly.
  • Favor gifts of necessities over luxuries. A gift that solves a problem is not only welcome, but also does a much better job of justifying its climate impact.
  • Steer clear of upgraded replacements. For instance, a slightly newer, slightly better smart phone as a gift wastes much of the carbon cost of manufacturing the phone that’s already in use.
  • Prize quality. With so many things so easily replaceable these days, we tend to think of quality as an indulgence. In fact, a durable, high-quality item will often pay for itself much better over time than a cheap item that will wear out and need to be replaced.

Used = more delight for the recipient, less trouble for the climate
My son is interested in animation, and for his recent birthday we bought him a high-quality graphics tablet, the kind of device animators connect to computers and draw on to create their art. There’s no way we could have afforded it if we’d tried to get him a brand-new one, and the climate impact of electronic devices in general is often terrible. Buy buying him a used unit from a reputable seller, we not only got him a much bigger gift than we otherwise could have–one he’ll have a real use for–but we also avoided buying something that had to be manufactured just for him.

Buying used goods doesn’t usually make for a zero carbon footprint, even if we disregard shipping. It’s always possible that if we hadn’t bought that graphics tablet, someone else would have who instead decided to buy a brand-new one. At the same time, it’s also possible that by buying that graphics tablet, we contributed enough to the demand for used items like that that somebody somewhere took one out of the closet and dusted it off for resale rather than letting it sit unused. On average, the impact of buying a used item will be significantly less than that of buying a new item, just not zero.

It’s true that some people may be put off by getting or giving used gifts. We certainly tend to prize the new and shiny in our culture. However, I think we can consider this more reason to give used gifts, not less. If we want to reduce waste and therefore climate change damage in our culture, we need to get used to fixing things, reusing things, and sharing things rather than insisting that everything we have be the latest, private to us, and previously untouched by human hands. Buying used has its limitations, but by encouraging reuse, we help to change both our own and the gift recipient’s ways of approaching consumer goods … for the better.

Photo by Liz Brooks

Making Teenagers Eat Local Foods

Mutsu apples

My son and I were passing by City Market in Burlington last night and stopped in to get some apples, because Ethan snacks on them pretty regularly. Here’s what happened, more or less–but understand I’m reconstructing the dialog from imperfect memory, so if anything Ethan says sounds goofy, assume it’s my fault.

Our family is just starting to work hard at eating locally (see Is “Eating Local:Too Expensive for Regular Folks?“), so we went to the produce section and looked for local apples. This is something that City Market has really nailed: they had six or eight varieties of local apples–but the granny smiths, my son’s favorites, are from Washington.

“You can get any of the local kinds,” I said.

“What do these taste like?” he said unenthusiastically, pointing to some imperfect-looking, Vermont-grown green apples. They had a name I’d never heard before.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Should we get some and find out?”

“Can’t we just get these?” he said, meaning the Washington Granny Smiths.

“These were transported all of the way across the country, probably on a truck!” I said. I was aware I sounded a little fanatical, but I haven’t figured out yet how to temper that and still get my point across. “They used a huge amount of fuel to get these here.”

“Yeah, but they’re already here. What difference does it make?”

“If we don’t buy them, then it makes it less likely they’ll run out soon and reorder them. We want them to order more of the local apples, so we should buy some of those.”

“Well, I don’t think it makes very much difference if we’re the only ones doing it.”

“That’s true … but if we want other people to buy local foods, we have to be buying them ourselves first. We can’t expect people to do things we want them to when we’re not willing to do them ourselves. We can have an impact that’s a lot bigger than just our family.”

We ended up getting some crisp, local Empire apples, which will probably be fine, but aren’t Granny Smiths.

I realized as we were on our way home that I probably should have gotten a few of those Vermont green apples, and in fact should have gotten a variety of apples so that we could try them all and choose our local favorite. It turns out City Market has a whole Apple Variety Guide page, and looking there, I recognize the apples we saw. They were Mutsu apples, and the flavor is listed as “tart,” which sounds a little like a Granny Smith.

One of the real benefits of changing our diet to much more local foods is that we’ll encounter a lot of new options, some of which are sure to become favorites. Speaking in terms of our enthusiasm for a local diet, the sooner we find those wonderful new foods, the better.

Pop Quiz: 50% of Global Warming is Due to … What?

grass-fed cow

This particular, grass-fed animal is part of the solution, not the problem

When I started digging into the climate change problem in earnest to start learning what we need to do to make the greatest immediate impact possible, I was worried about what I’d have to give up. Did I need to stop driving, something that’s very problematic in an area like mine, where there’s no public transportation for miles and even bicycling isn’t safe for at least a third of the year? Did I need to give up buying most manufactured goods? Was technology and all of the energy going into it the biggest problem?

Put Down the Hamburger … and Back Away Slowly
I still don’t know how far I’ll need to go in those areas, but I have learned that the biggest problem isn’t with the electricity I’m using or even with the gas my car uses (even if I didn’t drive a Prius). The biggest problem is food–specifically, meat, dairy and eggs.

Get this: in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben says “By some estimates, as much as half of global warming gases can be tied to the livestock industry, with its huge demands on our grain crops.”

Certainly there are some qualifiers in there: “by some estimates,” “as much as,” “can be tied to” … but even if 50% isn’t our number, and livestock only account for, say, 30% of global warming gases, that’s still an enormous slice of the problem that we can really do something about–and pretty easily!

Not the Cow, but the Corn
I’ll clarify, as well as I can from my limited knowledge, why the deli turkey or eggs or hamburgers (especially the hamburgers) on our plates are such a huge part of the problem. Of course there’s the obvious impact of all the equipment and energy that go into raising, housing, and slaughtering livestock, and there’s all of the energy and materials that go into preparing, packaging, storing, refrigerating, shipping, and selling the result. What really tips the scales, though, is what we feed livestock in big, factory farms, where the cheap meat, eggs, and dairy products come from: that’s mainly corn.

The corn is subsidized by the U.S. government, so that farmers are pushed toward cultivating huge, corn-only farms, which deplete the soil and require huge amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers, not to mention being extremely susceptible pests so that they require huge amounts of petroleum-based pesticides. Of course there’s a lot of mechanization at these huge factory farms, too, so oil is substituted for people (and jobs) with small numbers of farm workers operating huge, expensive, and polluting machines to raise and harvest the crops.

Then all that corn needs to be processed, packed, and shipped to factory livestock farms where it’s fed along with antibiotics and additives to chicken and cattle–and cattle don’t naturally eat corn or even digest it well, so then there’s all the trouble and waste brought up by that.

I don’t know if this sounds like good news yet, but it is, because that means that if we manage how we eat differently, we can make an immediate and proportionately huge difference in our families’ carbon footprints. What it comes down to is this: we can stop eating so many processed foods and especially cheap meats.

But … Cheap Meat!
I know, cheap meat is tempting. It seems wasteful and stupid to spend, say, twice as much on organic, local meat and dairy products just because they’re somehow “better.” However, products like local, grass-fed beef don’t have the transportation, illness, or corn-growing impacts that cheap meat have. The grass that feeds those cattle doesn’t require huge amounts of oil to grow, and even if the quality of life of the animals, the more healthful product, and the flavor factor don’t sway us, the climate change impact makes the math stupid-simple.

If you’re like me, then your next reaction was “And where am I going to come up with the money to pay for this swanky sustainable meat?” OK, maybe you wouldn’t use the word “swanky,” but regardless, there are several good answers. Here they are:

How to save money while eating more sustainably

  1. Eat lower on the food chain: more vegetables and legumes and maybe fruits and grains, less meat and dairy.
  2. Eat fewer processed foods. They take more energy to make and deliver, and unprocessed foods are much cheaper.
  3. Connect with local food producers: join a CSA and/or go to farmers’ markets. Again according to McKibben, by some estimates 75% of the cost of food in a supermarket goes to middlemen. Buying directly from the farmer saves money.
  4. Grow a garden.

There’s some more information on the oil-food connection in my recent post We’re Eating Oil–Literally.

How Much Meat Do We Need?
We can get by with a lot less meat. Check out this eye-opening chart from the Earth Policy Institute:

meat consumption

First, notice that average meat consumption per person nearly doubled in a hundred years. Even more interestingly, look at the recent trend: we’re finally turning this around!

I was actually a vegetarian for 23 years, after which I started having some health concerns and added back in seafood and poultry (but not red meat). It’s not so hard to eat less (or no) meat: at first it’s a pain in the neck because you’re not used it, but once you’ve found some good alternatives that you like, it’s pretty easy to stay on track.

You may have noticed that these approaches may take more time from us than convenience foods (hence the term “convenience,” I guess). That’s just how it’s going to be. If we’re going to really roll up our sleeves and try to prevent this catastrophe, it’s not going to be free: it’s definitely going to cost us time, even if it doesn’t cost money (it actually is likely to save us money, and may even eventually save us time, but that’s a topic for another day).

One of the most amazing things about changing food buying habits is that we can start making a big impact on our personal carbon footprint this week. The next time I go shopping, I’m going to be buying different things. It’s going to be a pain in the neck, at least for a little while, but I’m not just going to be eating better: I’m going to be sleeping better, too.

Photo by go thunk yourself