Posts Tagged ‘buy local’

Squeaky clean

I live in an apartment building whose pipes have a long-standing and intense hatred of the tenants, which causes them (the pipes, not the tenants) to leak, explode, make banging noises at night, spontaneously come to life and smash through the walls, that sort of thing. It’s lovely.

We’d just finished a round of repairs taking several months and involving the replacement of several walls, so naturally, it was about time for the drains to spontaneously fail again. So I thought, “Well, this is okay; I’ll try out one of these ecologically friendly cleansers I keep seeing.”

As y’all probably know, chemicals poured into municipal water systems have a way of turning up in neighbouring rivers and lakes and getting back into the drinking water supply. So I want to avoid pouring unnecessary chemicals down my drains. I also want my drains to actually function, though.

So I went to the nearest natural products store and asked about non-toxic drain cleaners, which I was sure I’d seen there. They told me they didn’t carry them but could order them specially if needed. This didn’t seem terribly useful to me, since in my experience, ninety-
nine percent of drain problems are of a moderately urgent nature. I know maybe two people (my mother is one) who are sufficiently foresighted that they would actually pre-order a cleaning product they might use once in five years. (She’s also worryingly well-prepared for tornadoes, considering that she lives in southern Ontario. I think she may know something the rest of us don’t.)

The second natural products store I tried was closed for renovations and the third and fourth didn’t carry this stuff either, although one of them had at least heard of it. While walking through the city from one store to another, I probably passed a dozen or so chain-store pharmacies, all of whom, I’m quite sure, were well-stocked with Draino and the like.

I finally found what I was looking for (NatureClean Drain Cleaner) at Jardins Sauvage on Monkland Avenue. Elated, I took it home, tried it overnight, and found absolutely no result.

This is the most common complaint about ecologically safe cleansers: that they’re less effective than the toxic kinds. So I was actually kind of pleased when the Liquid Plumr failed to work either. I mean, yes, now we have to get the landlord to fix this (which, to his credit, he’s usually pretty quick about doing) but at least I don’t have to write a disappointed post about the ineffectiveness of trying to do one’s bit for the water supply.

Instead, I can write a disappointed post about how hard it is to find the stuff in the first place.

To their credit, pharmacies have been doing a much better job in the past few years of stocking recycled-fibre toilet paper, phosphate-free dishwashing liquid and the like. But the less common corners of the cleaning product world remain the domain of scary liquids that can burn through your eyeballs and so forth. It’s something I can see changing, but pretty slowly.


Drunk with power

Do you ever just marvel at the sheer amount of stuff available? I don’t mean just weird stuff, like that Slap Chop thing the guy’s always yelling about on TV, or salt shakers shaped like the Statue of Liberty, or Don Cherry’s Rock’Em Sock’Em Hockey videos. I mean just normal stuff.

So I’m at this exhibition of outstanding McGill researchers (this is the actual present tense rather than the narrative present, btw; I’m writing this on the backs of grocery receipts while I wait for coffee [sweet, sweet coffee] to become available) and while I was setting up Peter Brown‘s display table, I managed to tear an embarrassingly large hole in the crotch of my jeans. Hurrah.

As this blog is not the place to discuss conventions of sartorial modesty, I won’t, but I will point out that everyone here is dressed much more nicely than I even without holes in my clothing. In any case, I didn’t want to sit for the next five hours with my underwear peeking out every time I moved my legs, so I went looking for a sewing needle. This is, of course, the one day I forget to bring my sewing kit with me. I’d have made a terrible Boy Scout. (Actually, I was kicked out of Girl Guides for fighting. I’m not a very sociable person. Y’all may have noticed.)

So I found a convenience store and bought one of those little $2.99 sewing kits they have by the cash register. Took it into the washroom, fixed my jeans, and now I’m sitting out here just marvelling at this thing.

Measuring tape. Two safety pins. Four straight pins. Four snaps. Eight buttons. Three needles in a little plastic tube. Threader. Tiny scissors. Ten spools of thread (no white, oddly enough). All in a little plastic box with a latch.

How staggering is it that we live in a place where you can buy this kind of thing in any corner store for less than half an hour’s pay at a minimum wage job? I would want one of these in my lifeboat or my space shuttle or my time machine to the Jurassic. They’re so incredibly useful. (Except the scissors. They couldn’t cut butter.) How much would this have been worth to a pioneer housewife two hundred years ago? How strange is it to realize that it didn’t even occur to me that I might not be able to find one? Of course I would. You can get them everywhere.

How strange is it to think that we live in a place so dependent on imports from other countries? This one is made in China – it could be Thailand or India or Bangladesh or Mexico as easily. How far did it travel to get here? How much more would it cost if it were made here, under our labour and environmental laws?

Who put it together? Who mined the steel and grew the cotton and drilled for the oil, and where? Where were all the pieces spun and molded and forged and dyed? What were the factory conditions like for the workers? How many hours of wages does $2.99 represent for them?

How many people live on less than that every day? How many people die for lack of that much money to buy medicine or water filters or rice? What does it mean that instead of spending that money to help them, I spent it on not being embarrassed at a public function I don’t really want to be at? What does it say about society? What does it say about me?

What am I doing here, sitting in this exhibition hall in my mended jeans while poeple in suits drink wine and eat little nibbly bits of fish on fancy crackers? What’s this all for? What are we contributing here? Events like this should be either useful or fun. Is this fun? I can’t see a single person smiling. Would they be happier if they had more stuff? Would I? Does this cheap sewing kit make me happy? It makes me less embarrassed; is that the same thing? Have I bought $2.99 worth of happiness?

Time to have some wine, I think. Can’t think like this all the time; I will go mad.

Freaks of nature

So I found some apples today, when due to some long and stupid circumstances I ended up going through the fridge of another tenant in my building who’d skipped out on his lease about a month ago. Needless to say, said fridge had gotten pretty nasty, but there was a bag of apples in which about half of them were still good enough to make pie with. So I started cutting up the apples, and this was the weird part. No seeds! I’ve never seen apples without seeds in them before. I looked at the package. Mixed apples from Washington. No mention of them being seedless (and you’d think that’s the kind of thing they’d advertise as a selling point, right?). Really odd. Three different varieties of apples in the bag and only one apple that had any seeds in it.

Intellectually I know that seedless apples aren’t really any odder than seedless bananas, which have a long and honourable (?) history. So there’s no reason to assume these are weird genetically-modified part-llama deliberately-sterilized freak apples. But there’s nothing in Canadian food labelling requirements that requires anyone to tell me if they are. Which is unsettling.

And, yeah, I know I said a few weeks ago that I was going to pay more attention to where my food comes from; but I’m not being inconsistent here, cause I feel like avoiding the throwing away of perfectly good food trumps most other considerations. I have no idea what the provenance of these apples is (other than “Paul’s fridge”, obviously) but the pie smells good so far, so, hey. If I get some sort of alien bursting out of my chest tomorrow, y’all will know what to blame.

(Oh, and today’s Dinosaur Comics is, as usual, topical and awesome.)

Eat, drink and be merry

I met up with a friend of mine over the Christmas holidays, whose name I’m not going to mention for reasons that will become obvious. When we got together, I was surprised to see that she was carrying a bottle of water in her backpack. She’s usually pretty good about environmental stuff, so I asked her, “What’s with the bottled water?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, you know, I thought you were avoiding it because of how resource-intensive it is?” I said.

She shrugged. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “This water’s organic.”

I’m not telling this story to make fun of her, although it was pretty funny. The point is that we all get tripped up sometimes by the myriad of environmental buzzwords now circulating through our collective cultural memespace. Especially with the kind of greenwashing that’s become increasingly common these days.

“Organic” is one of those words that can have a pretty wide range of actual definitions. Apparently there are more than forty organizations in Canada alone that can certify foods as organic, and they use several different standards. That’s not including foods that use labels like “authentic” or “natural”, which don’t have legally specified definitions. Sometimes that means an advertiser is trying to put one over on people; sometimes it means a small producer doesn’t have the money or the ability to go through the organic certification process, even though their food would meet the qualifications if they did. Without knowing about the specific supplier, it’s hard to know which.

And of course, like anything else, this issue doesn’t exist in isolation. There’s a market in my neighbourhood that sells organic apples imported from Japan. Quebec apples, probably sprayed with pesticides, are still available at this time of year at the Provigo. Buy local or buy organic? Or, as is far more likely at the moment, run out of time, buy whatever I can get at the store that’s directly on my way to work, and then feel guilty about it?

There are other options; I’ve been volunteering for the past few months at Zero Food Waste (which, incidentally, would love to have more volunteers, if you’re in Montreal!). It’s kind of like dumpster diving, except officially approved-of by the stores – they put aside food that they’re going to throw out, and we pick it up and sort it out for use by the food bank, community kitchen, and other local organizations.

I try to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, except in a really general way, but I am going to make more of an effort to pay attention to what I eat this year. Hanging out with the above group of cool people should help. We’ll see how it goes.

(As an ironic epilogue, I found out later, via Wikipedia, that there actually was a complaint filed with the USDA in 2004 against a company that was indeed declaring tap water to be “certified organic” in order to claim that their various personal care products contained organic ingredients. Weird.)

Whole Earth Economy business tips

Over at Geoff’s Eco-blog there’s a great new post on “Whole Earth Economy Business Tips”:

Tip 1: Spread the word about the need to re-think our economy. Business is the front line of the economy, the arena in which the exchanges take place that drive our ways of living. Business and consumer choices have an enormous impact on our society and our environment. It is crucial that members of the business community understand the ultimate, long-term ecological crisis our economy faces – a crisis much more serious than the economic and financial crisis of the past year. The problem is not just climate change. It’s also biodiversity losses, threats to ocean health, a nutrient cycle that is out of balance because of fertilization, deforestation, overpopulation and more. We must come to terms with the reality that the global human ecological footprint is greater than what is available, and that we therefore are running an ecological deficit, using up the Earth faster than it can regenerate itself. This means we have to envision a new kind of economy that recognizes the ecological limits of our finite planet Earth.

Click to read the whole article.

Sock and awe

So…socks, right? Just about everybody wears them, especially in Montreal this time of year.

(Note: this is probably not going to be one of those “useful” or “coherent” posts, because I didn’t get hardly any sleep last night. Just FYI.)

Anyway, socks. I seem to be getting low on socks without giant holes in them, and while I do darn my own socks of course, sooner or later they get so patchy as to be unwearable. At which point they can be reused as dustrags or (if they’re made of actual wool rather than cotton and manky elastic) disassembled for their component yarn. But I still need new socks.

So obviously going to Wal-Mart and buying socks made by Cambodian children out of pesticide-ridden cotton grown on former rainforest land is not the best option here.

Can I get Canadian-made socks? Not at any store within five kilometres of my house, certainly, according to my unscientific and time-consuming survey. Let’s do some googling. The first result for “socks made in Quebec” is some children’s book; the second is The Great Canadian Sox Co. Inc. Hey, that sounds promising. Locally made socks, that’s good, right? Let’s look around their site a bit more. And…their yarn is made by Monsanto and Dupont. Huh. Maybe I’ll give that one a pass.

Okay, back to The Google. Sock monkey doll kit…no. Les Bas de Julie…okay, that’s better. Hand-finished wool socks made in Waterloo, Quebec. Definite bonus points for being local and non-sweatshop. Doesn’t say where the wool is gotten from – it says “Shetland wool” but I think that’s the breed of sheep? I don’t know much about sheep. I could phone them and find out, but…the socks are $34.95 a pair. I need at least five new pairs of socks at the moment, so that’s going to be a problem on a part-time paycheck.

The thing is, I don’t actually know what’s a reasonable price for socks. I mean, I know how much you generally pay for them: you can get made-in-China-and-sold-in-a-plastic-wrapper socks about five for $12 at the PharmaPrix. But I don’t know what the materials cost of a pair of socks is, I don’t know how long a pair takes to make (at least, on a machine; by hand it takes frickin’ days), I don’t know how much skilled labour it takes to operate a sock-knitting machine…There’s a lot about the sock industry that is a mystery to me.

Back to Google. BonjourQuebec plugging Les Bas de Julie to tourists. More sock monkeys on eBay. Le Plein Air d’Abord, a shop in Quebec City. Well, they do sell socks, let’s see who their suppliers are. Acorn and Smartwool. Acorn’s website does list “Animal-Friendly” and “Eco-Friendly” collections, but the Eco-Friendly set (“featuring all-natural, renewable materials that are sustainably grown, biodegradeable and organic”) doesn’t include any socks. They don’t say anything on their website about where their socks are made. But they’re made of “fleece”, which is one of those things that everyone knows what it looks like but if you ask them what it’s actually made of, they’ll go “duh…goats maybe?” Actually there are two things called “fleece”, one of which is unprocessed wool (like the Golden Fleece); the other one is made of petroleum. These socks look like the second kind. I think maybe I don’t want extra-flammable socks.

Smartwool looks better; their website has a lot of stuff about sustainability and caring for the planet. They sponsor a lot of programs about conservation, wilderness education for urban kids, bicycling, and so on. I would feel good about giving money to this company. They do, however, import their wool from New Zealand. Admittedly, they talk a lot about animal welfare and take great pains to assure customers that these are very happy sheep, but still…New Zealand to Quebec, that’s a long way even direct, let alone with detours to wherever the socks are actually made, which I couldn’t find.

Googleoogleoogle…ballet slippers on shopbot, Winter Clothing in 19th Century Quebec Thematic Tours, some article that I have to sign up for an account to read, so I won’t. That’s page one. I’ve now spent about forty-five minutes on this, and seeing as I’m a child of the internet age, that’s, like, forever.

Maybe it’s time to look at some other options. What about used clothing stores? Okay, I do buy most of my jeans at the Salvation Army, likewise my current winter coat, etc., but I think I’m going to have to draw the line at socks. (And well before underwear. Okay, I don’t know if they actually sell underwear, but they sell swimwear, which is basically the same thing. Ew.) There’s something kind of gross about wearing socks that used to be somebody else’s. Possibly I’m being overly squeamish on this, but you know what, I’m okay with that.

Right, so if that’s no good, what about making my own socks? Ontario and Quebec certainly have quite a number of sheep farms, some of which sell wool, and my local yarn store could probably order me some locally made yarn.

Digression: Rose Haven, back in my parents’ hometown in Ontario, sells locally made yarn with adorable photos of baby sheep on the label, and you can also order lamb meat direct from them. Which made some people squeamish, but seriously, folks, where do you think it comes from? (I’m not vegetarian – tried it a few times, ended up in a bad way medically each time, can’t figure out why and please no comments about how the world will be saved by the miracle of flax seed oil or something, because I have talked to dieticians and so on about it and that isn’t it.) Anyway my point is, if you can’t bear to think about the idea that your lamb roast used to be a cute little furry critter skipping about the meadows, perhaps you should not be eating it, right? Either embrace your ancestral omnivorousness or don’t, but don’t delude yourself. Cause that’s just annoying.

Meh, that aside, it’s a lot easier to find local yarn than local finished socks. So this looks like the best option so far, in terms of locality, non-exploitation of workers, and using natural renewable resources. (Yes, I know animal farming is far less efficient and eco-friendly than plants. But try growing cotton up here.)

The only other downside is the time it takes. I knitted a pair of socks for a friend this past summer, and it took I would say about 10 hours per sock (I’m a slow knitter though). So, 20 hours a pair, and about $15 for the yarn…suddenly that $34.95 up above starts to look pretty reasonable actually.

On the other hand, it’s not like I don’t have the time. I’ve got a half-hour commute every morning and evening, and even if I only get a seat on the metro about half the time, that’s still some good knitting time, there. Plus it happens to be something I actually enjoy and find relaxing, which is helpful.

So, it looks like the project for this month is sock knitting. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.