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Ethical Chocolate

When we gave up plastic, it was a massive relief that we could still buy chocolate. Plastic-free bars of chocolate wrapped in foil and paper were our salvation. I’ve tried making my own, messing around with cocoa butter and cacao powder but I just can’t make something that I like anywhere near as much as the stuff I can buy.

Once we started down the plastic-free path I became a lot more aware of the additives, preservatives and other nasties in food, and slowly made the switch to the whole foods approach to eating. I now make most things from scratch, but I can’t make everything, and I want the things that I do buy to be as healthy as possible. For this reason I’m making the switch from milk to dark chocolate, and we stopped buying any chocolate made by Cadbury’s at the start of the year – have you looked at the ingredients list on those bars?!

Now we’ve made a commitment to go one step further. I firmly believe that every time we spend our money we are voting – for the kind of businesses we want to support and for the kind of products we see on the shelves – and these choices define our futures. So we’ve made a commitment to only buy chocolate that is organic and fair trade.

This seems like an obvious choice. But here in Australia, the confectionery aisle is dominated by Cadburys and Lindt, both of which are massive global companies. In the UK, it is much easier to support smaller ethical chocolate brands as they are more readily available. The bigger stores seem to offer so much choice, although it is often only a small handful of different brands, and the choice is actually between which additives (cunningly disguised as flavours) we prefer. Faced with so much “choice” it is easier to opt for whatever brand is on special offer. This is where the big companies (who can afford to sponsor promotions) win and the small guys lose out. We do it without even thinking.

Well, now we’ve started thinking.

We want to support fair trade because it pays a fair price to farmers, and supports ethical and sustainable practices. Child slave labour, exploitation and trafficking are issues linked to the cocoa industry, and supporting fair trade is one way to protest this. The international fair trade logo is something to look out for, but it is worth remembering that suppliers have to pay to receive certification, and smaller companies may not be affiliated due to the costs involved whilst still having fair trade policies – and if they do, they’ll be telling you on their packaging or website!

Supporting organic is one way to avoid additives and preservatives, which are not allowed in organic produce, whilst also supporting sustainable agricultural practices. It’s still worth checking the ingredients list to make sure the cocoa content is high, sugar content is low and there are no cheap fillers like oil that offer no nutritional benefits. Not all producers can afford certification, so for very small companies do your research and use your judgement.

Yes, organic and fairtrade chocolate costs more. Seriously though, how much are we talking? A 100g bar of Lindt costs $2.49 on special offer. Organic fairtrade chocolate may cost you $5. (For readers outside Australia, yes, the prices here are much higher than everywhere else!) Whilst that may be 100% more, in actual money we’re talking a couple of dollars. That extra couple of dollars is ensuring the farmer gets a fair wage. How much chocolate are you eating, anyways? Shouldn’t it be a treat, not a staple?!

Step away from the supermarkets, and there’s better choice. Our local independent grocery store has these to offer:

chocolate

Mmm…chocolate!

Green and Blacks was my favourite brand in the UK. Their Maya Gold bar was the first product in the UK to be labelled fairtrade, back in 1994, and I remember buying their chocolate when it was only available in health food stores. They actually sold out to Cadbury in 2005, however the original owner remains President and it still runs as a stand-alone business. Cadbury has since been sold to Kraft…so whilst it still has great eco credentials, it now lines the coffers of a multinational company.

Alter Eco is a company I only found out about a few months ago, although according to their website they’ve been around for a decade. Their headquarters are in the US. They seem committed to fairtrade and sustainability, but I don’t know much about them.

As for Oxfam, being a global not-for-profit organisation committed to poverty reduction, social equality and fair trade, they probably have the best credentials of all… except their chocolate is nowhere near as nice.

Of course, it would be much more sustainable to not buy chocolate at all, seeing as it all comes from across the oceans. I’m not ready for that yet. Small steps, eh?

Take one thing you do that’s not sustainable, and make it a bit more sustainable. And then move on to the next thing. And just keep going.

An accidental break from blogging…and some holiday snaps

As my parents are visiting, I’ve been making the most of the opportunity to have a holiday and I’ve taken them to some beautiful places in Western Australia over the last two weeks. Firstly we went to Rottnest Island for two nights, and then came back for a day before heading off on a week-long road trip to Denmark, Pemberton and Margaret River. My intention whilst I was away was to do some blogging, and I hauled the laptop away with me, but none of the places we stayed had internet reception and so I’ve been disconnected.

Sometimes, though, it’s nice not to have choices and to have the decision made for you. I would have loved to connect with the blogosphere, to read what people have been up to, and to share the thousands of thoughts I’ve been having whilst I’ve been away, but it was actually great to disconnect with the virtual world and connect with the real one instead. I’ve had a fantastic time and feel recharged, re-energised and re-motivated.

Want to see some holiday snaps?

Here is Rottnest…

rott1 rott2 rott3 quokka rott4 rott6 rott5Next we went to Denmark and Albany…

den1 den2 den4 den5 den6 den7 den8 den9 den10 den11 den12 den13 den19 den20 den15 den21 den18 den17den16

Here is the Gloucester Tree near Pemberton. If you look closely you can see metal pegs – the tree is a fire lookout and you can climb up it! I am not game for that kind of thing so stayed at the bottom and appreciated it from there.

pemb1 pemb2I have to say though, whilst the holiday was fantastic, being back feels good too.

Having a simple, eco-friendly birthday

Last Thursday was my birthday. I’m not into having a big fuss made, and I struggle with the idea of presents, which potentially means getting a heap more stuff that I don’t really need. The more I travel down this road of minimalism/low waste/sustainability, the more I struggle with it, which combines with the fact that as every year passes by, I have less and less need for new things.

That being said, I am not at the point yet where I want to eschew all presents. I don’t really feel like I need presents to celebrate my birthday, yet there is something nice about acknowledging it – and I think people often feel that one needs the other. I pondered on requesting that nobody buys me anything – but it was only a couple of weeks before and would have been a little half-hearted. Read more

Friday night movie – the Clean Bin Project

I went to see another “eco” movie at a community screening on Friday. This time I saw the Clean Bin Project. It’s about a Canadian couple, Jen and Grant, who pledge to buy nothing for a year, and each collect their landfill waste for 12 months to see who has the least impact. The goal is zero landfill waste. The movie isn’t really about the competition, but rather the journey, and the issues with waste and landfill. There’s some great interviews with some really inspiring people involved in spreading the waste message, too. Read more

Zero-waste kitchen

After my recent blog post on trying to make my own tahini, which was motivated by my desire to use less packaging, I thought I’d write about my quest for a zero-waste kitchen. Let’s be clear, though. I do not have a zero-waste kitchen. It is something that I aspire to, something I’m working towards, but I am not there yet. I might never get there completely either, but it’s something to strive for.

This is my journey so far.

My zero-waste successes

I predominantly buy my groceries from bulk-buy stores. I have a few local stores to choose from that sell nuts, seeds, flours, grains, pulses, beans, herbs and spices in bulk, and I store everything in the pantry in glass jars. I can also buy some condiments in bulk, such as tamari and soy sauce, and cleaning products like dishwashing liquid.

bulkRather than use the bags supplied by the stores, I take my own. I re-use old paper bags (I once read that a paper bag takes three times more energy to make than a plastic bag, so my goal is to use each bag at least 3 times), and also have reuseable washable cloth and netting bags. If reusing paper bags, it’s worth checking what was in there last time. Cinnamon-flavoured brazil nuts are a pleasant surprise, chilli-flavoured sugar is less delightful! I also have a rule that I can’t take any new paper bags from the shop – if I don’t have enough then I have to go without. It’s a good lesson in being more prepared next time!

bags

At my local farmers market there is an egg seller who takes back old egg cartons for re-using. I store my eggs in their boxes at home, so I have four of these so I can return the empty ones to swap with new ones without running out in between. We also have local olive oil producers at the market who sell oil in bulk and refill bottles.

eggs oilIt goes without saying that I only buy loose produce from the other stalls.

If I want to buy items from the deli counter or fishmongers, I take my own containers. When you do this, it’s worth making sure that the assistant weighs your container first – you don’t want to pay for the privilege!

As much as possible, I prepare my meals from scratch to save on packaging, because it tastes far better, saves money, is additive- and preservative-free and is FUN! As well as meals, that includes making my own bread, yoghurt, nut milk, dips… and I’m always interested in learning something new.

My Semi-Successes

We get most of our fruit and vegetables delivered via a local organic veg box scheme. The produce arrives predominantly packaging free, but usually there’s a paper bag in there with something inside. Typically the potatoes and carrots arrive bagged. This means that despite my refusal to pick up new bags at the bulk produce stores, I still seem to be gradually accumulating them. The company were very good about not putting any of my produce in plastic when I requested it – I wonder if I call and ask for no bags at all they will be able to accommodate me?

vegbox1finalThe boxes that the vegetables come in get returned each week for re-using.

I have struggled a little with pasta. I have found one shop that sell vermicelli nests in bulk, as it seems harder to find than rice and other grains. Maybe this is because it is bulky. Sometimes we are caught short, and this means we do buy pasta occasionally in cardboard packaging. We try to stick to spaghetti rather than bulky shapes because the packaging is smallest with this.

pasta(In the last month Barilla have been swept up in calls for a boycott after the Chairman said he would never feature gay families in his advertising, and if gay people didn’t like his message, they could eat another pasta. I’m on the fence about this. I like that they package their products in cardboard and support this, yet the idea of importing pasta to Australia from Italy does seem a little unnecessary. Really, I should make my own…or switch to eating potatoes.)

The first tip we picked up from taking part in Plastic Free July in 2012 was lining our bin with used newspapers. If you want to know how to line your bin, check my post about it here. With a zero waste kitchen we shouldn’t need a bin, but we have no composting facilities where we currently live and what we can’t feed to our worms (and what little plastic sneaks in) still goes to landfill.

We buy milk from a local producer called Sunnydale who take back the empty bottles for re-using. We get stuck with the lids (which we can’t return) but it’s pretty waste free. I have a friend who has goats for milking…maybe that is the next step!?

Things to Work On

There’s still things that we buy in glass jars and tins. I buy tinned tomatoes (I have had a go at canning my own once – it was time-consuming and messy, although successful – but I ended up with three jars. Mass production, I think, is the key. Maybe when tomatoes are in season this year I’ll buy a heap and try to can a shedload of them – not that I have a shed to store them in…). I buy coconut milk, and this is on my list of things to try to make. Tahini is another one!

We have just used up our last jar of olives and I want to start getting these from a deli in future, which should mean better quality as well as less packaging.

My boyfriend likes to drink the odd beer, and beer bottles (and occasionally wine bottles) end up in the recycling bin. These are not something we keep for re-using. On the list for the distant future (when we have the space), homebrew is something that I think he’d like to try.

What else? I recently bought some cocoa butter, which came in a plastic lined bag. I know that it is possible to buy this in bulk, but none of my local shops seem to sell it. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and I don’t want to compromise by going without trying new things. I try as much as possible to keep plastic-free and packaging free, but sometimes I get caught out. Unless I change my behaviour (or an amazing bulk produce store opens down the road) I will never be completely waste-free.

So I try to do as much as I can. I might not be able to achieve 100%, but I can get as close to that as possible. As we find a solution or an alternative for one thing, so I can focus on the next thing. Small steps, in the right direction.

A Guide to Green Cleaning: What You’ll Need

After having spent the week furiously and continuously cleaning after our bedroom and wardrobe went mouldy last weekend (oh, and having to deal with the fact that someone stole our credit card details to play online poker too), I am starting to feel like my stress levels are back to normal, life can continue on and the flat is now gleaming.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the green cleaning tips I’ve picked up in the last week. It’s really easy when we are faced with emergencies like that to chuck all our green intentions out the window and head to the shops to buy the biggest plastic bottle of toxic bleach that we can find. But it doesn’t need to be this way – natural products work better, are safer, don’t give off noxious fumes and don’t harm the environment.

This is a guide to all the basic green cleaning products you need to keep your home clean and chemical free.

Green Cleaning – the Basics

The two key ingredients for green cleaning are white vinegar and sodium bicarbonate (bicarb soda).

vinegar

Vinegar doesn’t go off, is non-toxic, biodegradeble and cheap. It is acidic (the stuff you can buy from the supermarkets is around 5% acetic acid) and this helps kill nasties. We bought our original bottle from the supermarket, but we refill it at a bulk buy store we found in Fremantle who sell 10% vinegar to save on packaging and waste.

Sodium bicarbonate is an abrasive that wears away stains. According to How Stuff Works, it also reacts with grease to form glycerol, which is the cleaning ingredient found in soap. When bicarb soda is mixed with vinegar it forms carbonic acid, which makes the vinegar more corrosive and enhances its cleaning ability. As an alkali, it’s also good at neutralising odours.

Essential Oils

Vinegar and bicarb soda are great at keeping things clean, but sometimes we need a little extra help. There are two essential oils that are cheap, commonly available and great for dealing with mould and other microbes: clove oil and tea tree oil.

oils

Both have antimicrobial properties. Clove oil is an excellent anti-fungal and great for using to clean bathrooms. The WA Public Health factsheet on mould recommends using tea tree oil as a way to kill the mould spores.

How to use: add 1 tsp oil to one cup of water, and wear gloves. You can either use in a spray bottle, shaking well before use, and then wipe with a cloth, or use a bowl, immersing and wringing a cloth out multiple times in the solution to ensure it mixes.

Elbow Grease

If you’re not using harsh chemicals, you will need to put in a bit of muscle yourself! The extra effort is definitely worth it for not inhaling toxic chemicals and carcinogens, and not releasing dangerous chemicals into our water supplies.

Re-use What You Can

Where possible, it’s always best to re-use or re-purpose where you can rather than buying new. We have two old spray bottles that originally had toiletries in them which we now use for cleaning purposes. We also saved some old toothbrushes (from back in the days when we used plastic ones) to use for cleaning grouting and other tricky spots.

toothbrush

Keep Packaging to a Minimum

We needed to buy a few things, so we made sure we chose products that were as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible.  We needed some cloths and bought some biodegradable cleaning cloths. They are plastic free and made with natural fibres. However, they are still single-use and if it hadn’t been an emergency we would have found a different solution.  Having been through our wardrobe, we identified a few things that were definitely beyond repair and will cut these up to use as rags so we don’t need to buy any more.

Support Ethical Companies

One thing we needed was a scrubbing brush. I wanted to buy a wooden one with natural fibres but the only wooden ones available were unidentifiable wood coated in varnish. Instead I opted to buy a plastic brush by Full Circle. They are a great company that design products that are sustainable and made from renewable resources.

brushThe brush I bought is made with post-industrial and post-consumer recycled plastic and bamboo, and has a hollow design to keep plastic to a minimum. Despite it being plastic, I feel it is better to support a company with such great intentions.

The star purchase has to be the gloves I bought, made from fairly-traded natural rubber sourced from FSC-certified forests, manufactured by a company called If You Care. They are plastic free, and even the box is made from FSC-certified recycled paper with biodegradable inks. I love it when I find companies like this.

glovesMicrofibre Cloths

Rags and general purpose cloths are great for general dirt and grime, but microfibre cloths are useful for specific tasks. They are made up of very small fibres (microfibres – hence the name) and have far far more than a standard cloth. This means they are far better at picking up dirt. They are also super-absorbent and quick-drying, which helps prevent microbes growing on the cloth and makes them more hygienic. Want to know more? Check out this site for more information. They’re not cheap, but they last for a very long time, and for jobs like removing mould spores, they are far superior to general rags.

And that’s it! There’s no need for separate cleaners for the kitchen, the bathroom, this type of surface, that type of surface. There’s no need to waste money on expensive harmful products, either. None of this stuff is new, either. It’s what our grandmothers used to use before chemical companies and advertisers realised there was money to be made in producing 3000 different products and scaring people into using them. Another great example of nanna-technology : )

An exciting letter in the post…

I’ve been excitedly waiting for the gas bill for a couple of weeks now, and yesterday it finally arrived! Yep, you read that right. I was excited by the thought of receiving the gas bill.

Three months ago we decided to be pro-active about reducing our gas consumption because we realised our gas bill was unusually high for such a small flat, and being conscious of our environmental footprint, we decided to do something about it. Living in a rental, we couldn’t do much about the rubbishy cheap inefficient boiler with the gas-wasting pilot light that the landlord had installed. What we could do, and what we did, was reduce the pilot light to the lowest setting and lower the temperature setting so that we no longer need to add any cold water when we shower. Read more

Everyone buys too many clothes…

“Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.”
– Dame Vivienne Westwood

That was what Dame Vivienne Westwood, the famous British fashion designer, told the press after the launch of her show at London Fashion Week this week, as reported on the Telegraph.co.uk website.

I’ve got to say, I love her message. It’s something I’ve believed in for years. I remember going clothes shopping with my sister as a teenager, and we’d browse through the clothes rails and pick out bargains. When I asked myself if I really liked the item I’d found, how much it cost always came into the equation. “Hmmm, it’s £10 nice”.  Which meant, I like it because it only costs £10 – if it cost more I probably wouldn’t want it. Once I realised that I was only buying things because I saw them as a bargain, often never really wearing them, it made me question my buying habits. There were many reasons why I’d never wear the things I bought – they didn’t really suit me, I didn’t have the right occasion to actually wear it, it didn’t really fit properly… and many more. Every time I’d been seduced by price, but it had ended up being a false economy.

So I decided in my early twenties to take price out of the equation completely. When I was looking for something, I would only buy things that were absolutely perfect. I wouldn’t consider price until I’d found what I wanted – and then I’d check the price tag and decide if I was willing to spend that much. If something is perfect, and I’m sure I will wear it many times, I am willing to spend a little more. It’s a much better system than buying heaps of cheap items that were a “bargain” but that I’ll never wear. Not to mention cheap throwaway fashion that will only get one or two wears before they stretch, fade and/or become mis-shapen.

How has this worked for me? Well, I no longer need to go shopping in the sales. That stuff isn’t really a bargain – it’s all the stuff the store couldn’t sell at full price so had to discount to shift it. Why didn’t it sell in the first place? Whatever the reason (badly cut, odd sizing, strange colours), it may be a reason why the person who buys the “bargain” never actually wears it either.

I spend more per item, and I buy a whole lot less. I buy things that I like, that fit properly, and I know I will wear. Spending more on an item definitely guilt-trips me into wearing it, whereas it’s easy if something only cost a few dollars to cast it aside if you change your mind.

It is something I aspire to, but I’m not perfect. When I first switched from shopping in clothes shops to shopping at second-hand stores and on eBay, I had a brief phase of buying things solely because they were cheap. It seemed guilt-free as they were used items, but I still ended up with items in my wardrobe that I didn’t wear that just took up space. It seemed strange to spend decent amounts of money on second-hand items. Now I’ve changed my mind and if I find something I want, I’m happy to pay whatever the seller asks.

This year my sole non-underwear clothes purchases have been a second-hand jacket, jumper and skirt (plus a new pair of trainers). The jacket and the jumper were not super cheap as second-hand items go, but are really good quality and things I specifically needed. The skirt is an example of my hoarding tendencies and shows that I still have lessons to learn – it is actually the same as a skirt I already have and love, and wear all summer long, so when I saw the second one on eBay I had to buy it. Probably not necessary. Scrap that, definitely not necessary! Shows I still have a way to go!

Back to Dame Vivienne. Obviously her comment has attracted some criticism. Some think she is being hypocritical because she works in the fashion industry. Others think that by promoting quality she is actually promoting the sales of her own designer goods – her comments were simply a way to sell her products. Personally, I think that because she works in the fashion industry, she is in a better place to make her comments and have her views listened to. You need insiders to help make change in every industry, and fashion is no exception. Of course she wants to make money from her work – but you don’t see racks and racks of cheap Vivienne Westwood garments in every store you step into. She doesn’t produce wear-once-and-throw-away items. The comment about buying better quality seems less likely to be a cheap marketing plug and more likely a reference to the irresponsible, sweatshop-produced, poorly made rubbish that flies of the shelves each week – and ends up in landfill in the weeks after that. Not everyone can afford her prices, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all spend a little more ensuring the items we buy are things that are made responsibly, that we’ll love and wear many times. As Dame Vivienne said:

“Instead of buying six things, buy one thing that you really like. Don’t keep buying just for the sake of it.”

Why I volunteered to spend my weekend washing up for other people

Okay, so maybe I’m misleading you. It wasn’t the whole weekend. In fact, it was for a little over three hours on Sunday – but that doesn’t sound nearly so sensational, does it?!

I was volunteering with the Earth Carers – the fantastic group of people who came up with the Plastic Free July campaign. One of the local councils in our area was organising a family fun day called “Celebrate Lake Claremont”, and the Earth Carers decided to run a washing-up station next to the coffee stand so that all the coffees sold would be in ceramic cups – which we would wash up – rather than disposable takeaway containers. They ran a similar stall at the Mosman Park Eco Fair back in June which was a massive success and eliminated disposable coffee containers completely at that event. This was the inspiration to try to offer free washing-up stations at other events… and this one was next.

We do what we can on an individual level. My boyfriend and I haven’t purchased anything in a single-use disposable food container of any kind since July 2012. But we’re just two people. There’s only so much that we can reduce with our own habits. There’s a whole world out there that needs educating, or inspiring, or motivating to change too. So what better way than to get out there in the community and make it super easy for the people at the event to lower their impact?

You’d think that everyone would be totally supportive of such a service. We rock up for free, bringing our own standard barista-sized ceramic cups, and wash them free of charge for the consumers before returning them to the coffee stand for re-use. What’s not to love?

There was actually a bit of wavering at the start though, because someone questioned whether it was hygienic. Yep, you read that right. There was actually the suggestion that washing up coffee cups using ordinary water and washing-up liquid might not be hygienic. We weren’t washing up anything else. Just empty coffee cups. Can you believe it?! We couldn’t either.

So we set up a system to maximise the cleanliness of our cups. We had a four-bowl dishwashing system, with the cups moving from the bowl on the left through the middle bowls to the bowl on the right, and the water getting hotter with each bowl. The last bowl, with the water at 70°C, was for the final rinse. We didn’t make it up either – apparently this is a recommended practice for washing-up stations (we asked Google, although I can’t actually find the link now to share with you).

washingup2

In the three hours we washed up about 100 cups, probably more. Whilst it doesn’t even make a dent on the number of cups being sent to landfill (it is estimated by KeepCup that 1 million cups end up in landfill EVERY SINGLE MINUTE), it is far more than I am stopping heading to landfill with just my own individual action of using a reusable cup.

This is why it’s so important that as well as doing the best we can on an individual level, we try to get out there and inspire change at a community level. We can achieve so much more. It may be small, but it was still 100 cups that would have ended up in landfill without our intervention. It is more than just numbers though – it’s all the people we spoke to and explained what we were doing and why, who will take that message with them. We’re helping the idea to spread and the word to grow. Imagine if every community event, or every other event, had a washing-up station and a zero disposable waste policy? Imagine how many we’d reduce then?

If I want to see change happen, I personally need to do something about it. I can’t just sit around lamenting that other people don’t do enough. I need to get out there and do what I can to make it easy for other people to do more. Which is why I gave up my time on Sunday to wash up other people’s dishes.

As it turns out, weddings are stressful

For those of you who missed the update, my boyfriend proposed at the start of August. It was a complete surprise, but a very pleasant one. It only occurred to me some hours later that actually, after an engagement comes a wedding. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Some girls have dreams of their big day, and have been planning it since they were tiny; I am not one of those girls. I have actually very little idea about weddings. I’ve only been to a handful myself. Read more