Archive for the 'Buying Smart' Category

Stephane drinks TRU Organic Spirits

Going in to college I wanted to be an entrepreneur. When I got there, environmental studies classes took over my education, and taught me about the ill effects of carbon emissions, using pesticides on our food, and other ways human activity negatively impacts our planet. These facts do not change the reality that people are still going to need things, or want things for that matter. That is where businesses comes in. However, goods and services can be provided in socially responsible ways.
That is what Stephane and the makers of TRU Organic Spirits had in mind when they set out to make Vodka. I met Pierre in Yellowstone National Park after I retrieved a ball from a tree for his daughter. Laura and I were looking for a campsite, so Stephane and his family graciously offered to share theirs. Sitting around a fire we discussed his business that he helped start. Before they went in to business, Stephane knew that providing a good takes certain resources, but it is possible to provide those resources in a way that has the least impact on the environment. TRU’s slogan is ‘a better vodka for a better planet.’ But how green is TRU?
TRU makes vodka and gin using organic lemons, wheat, vanilla beans, and juniper berries. Their bottles are lightweight (but strong), lightening the load when in transport, and their packaging is made of all recyclable materials that folds in on itself to eliminate packaging tape. Also, the boxes that they are shipped in are dual-use, meaning they convert into shelf displays for the product.
The major action that impressed me and makes the most difference, was that that for every bottle they sell they plant a tree. TRU works with Sustainable Harvest International, a nonprofit ecological restoration group that works with farmers in Central America to help them protect their forests through restoration training workshops, and plants trees. To date, TRU has planted 65,012 carbon trees that sequesters carbon dioxide, holds soil in place, and provides food and habitat for hundreds of organisms.
They are also a member of Slow Food USA, a network of food producers committed to sustainable agriculture. But how is TRU an agricultural product? A lot of land is used to grow grains to make liquor. In fact, it takes 23 square feet to grow the wheat for a 750ml bottle. Multiply that by 2.2 billion, the number of distilled spirits sold in 2008 in the US, and that is 1.1. million acres. An image from TRU’s website helps explain that to grow that much wheat conventionally takes 1.65 million lbs of pesticides, and 110 million lbs of fertilizers, and 179 million gallons of fresh water.
Our economic system, which is based on the trade of scarce resources and unlimited growth, is quite the joke. However, there are steps in the right direction, and responsible businesses like TRU are taking those steps. While they do their part, do yours by supporting businesses like this one, and others who work toward a sustainable future.

Sharing the road with the buffalo


Julia. Peace. Coffee.

In Minneapolis I mentioned to my host the purpose of my trip, and he recommended I check out a couple of spots that he thought would peak my interest. One of them was the non profit, Peace Coffee, and boy was he right!

Julia, trailer, coffee!

Peace Coffee is a coffee distributor and roastery in downtown Minneapolis. They roast 100% organic, fair trade beans five days a week, and are committed to buying coffee from cooperatives to make sure their operation is non-exploitative. But that is not the best part…the coffee is delivered by bike! Peace Pedalers, as they are called, bike over 5,000 miles every year delivering their beans to coffee shops and retailers all around Minneapolis. Their motto is ‘Roast beans, not fossil fuels,’ and boy do they live up to it. Every morning two cyclists make the rounds to drop coffee off around the city. I caught up with Julia, a Peace Pedaler, as she began her ride.
Julia is an avid cyclist (like most people in St. Paul-Minneapolis), and this job caught her eye when she was looking for work. We talked as we followed the most efficient route to each of the customers. The coffee is loaded in a long, box trailer that is capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of coffee. To maneuver the trailer fully loaded is quite the task, and it helps if you know the cracks, ditches, and alleys by heart. To her it was just another day on the job, but I was so excited to simply follow her around until I felt like I was annoying her.
Peace coffee tackles the two most valuable commodities on the planet, coffee and oil. By creating a fair trade market they ensuring better lives of farmers and their communities. By biking, they are autonomous in their reluctance to drive a delivery truck that runs on regular diesel fuel.
Growth did eventually exceed the range that was possible with bicycle delivery and a van was purchased. The van runs on biodiesel, a blend of vegetable oil, methane, and small amounts of lye, and is purchased from a local source, the Twin Cities Biodiesel Coop. Biodiesel is an alternative to petroleum that has the ability to dramatically reduce sulfate and hydrocarbon emissions, as well as reduce particulate matter in the air we breath. It is important to assess how we transport goods, as transportation (personal cars and trucks, freight hauling, airlines, shipping, and railroads) is responsible for the largest portion of U.S. oil consumption, and it is the fastest growing sector in terms of oil consumption.
Leave it to the Twin Cities to have Peace Coffee. It is 5pm, and the streets are littered in cyclists. Bike gangs of middle aged men with colorful cycling shirts are only a part of the massive bike culture that is obvious here. Though I am sad to leave, I am happy that Peace Coffee is in business!

Visit Peace Coffee’s homepage!

The Queen of Conservation

The queen in front of her treasure

The queen in front of her treasure

Some people are excited when their favorite baseball team wins; others become excited when they go to their favorite place to eat. I am excited when, by chance, I come upon a person who is deeply passionate about conserving resources. The adrenaline began to rush as I figured out what I was riding by as we entered Ann Arbor; a consignment shop where people can buy already used items cheaply. I leaped off the bike and went inside to talk with people who worked there and to ask if I could approach a customer to ask some questions. “Sure, go right ahead. You might get some long-winded answers though,” was the response. Usually my informal interviews take no more than fifteen minutes so I did not take her seriously.
I saw a woman occupied with maneuvering some chairs into her Mercedes, so I waited to approach her. Once she turned around I asked her if she had a couple of minutes to talk about Treasure Mart, why she shops there, and how she finds using consignment items. She then spent the next fifty minutes explaining what she does to reduce her waste stream.
Her name is Swanna, a resident of Ann Arbor whose conservation efforts begin with her work. Swanna is a home-stager which means she furnishes empty houses that are on the market, and to do so comes to the Treasure Mart and Ann Arbor’s Reuse Center (similar to Vermont’s ReStore). Rather than buying new items, she chooses to buy “the real thing” because used stuff still has meaning. She sees value in them beyond the price tag, and would rather see things with life left in them be used rather than sent to the landfill. Swanna asked the rhetorical question, “Why should we pay more money to produce new things when perfectly good ones are already made and available for a lesser price?” At Swanna’s own home her recycling is considerably larger than her garbage. This has something to do with her unwillingness to put things into the trash. Instead she would rather make art out of ‘garbage’. She also volunteers at the teen center in town, where kids use materials she gathers to make centerpieces for tables and other decorations. While looking for ways to reduce the center’s waste during board meetings, it was decided to use rented ceramic, reusable plates instead of paper plates. I was impressed at the decision, and was curious if they also save money by doing it. “Is it cheaper?” I asked. She paused, looked over the top of her no-frame glasses and said in the most serious tone I heard her use. “It’s righter.” It might seem like a small step but the success of sustainability depends on our commitment to the details of our routine lives. Her ethical devotion was genuine and moving. I also realized I might be taking up too much of Swanna’s time when Treasure Mart closed during our conversation. I took a photo before she drove away, leaving me in between piles of tables, lamps, mirrors, and desks, all one step closer to serving their purpose once again.

LEDs in Action

The hallway that leads to the bedrooms in Susan’s house is lined with pictures she has taken on her treks around the world. While I was looking at a beautiful photo of Crater Lake I noticed it was a little dim, so I looked up to the light. It was apparent that the lights in the lamp fixtures were no ordinary incandescent bulbs. Nor were they the compact fluorescent bulbs that I have seen in most fixtures I have looked into. Even the ferry we took to Long Island had light-emitting diode (LED) lights, the future of lighting.

CFLs come in all shapes, sizes, and colors

CFLs come in all shapes, sizes, and colors

A compact fluorescent light (CFL) uses 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and will last ten times longer making for an easy, efficient, low cost solution to reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released in to the atmosphere at your expense. LEDs have the ability to use half the energy of a CFL and last four times longer, roughly 30,000 hours.
All lighting options will have their drawbacks. 90% of the electricity you pay to light an incandescent bulb ends up as heat, the other 10% as light. Their low cost makes them attractive, but they’re horribly inefficient when contrasted with the CFL, which does contain a tiny bit of mercury. When I say tiny bit, I mean only about 5 milligrams, so if one happens to break in your home there is no reason to have a baby about it. If you do happen to have a baby around the broken CFL, I would remove him or her from the room for a little while, but no reason to freak, for reasons explained here. CFLs should also be disposed of properly, and this link will help you find a place by you to do that. As I saw with Susan’s LEDs,

Susan's LEDs

Susan's LEDs

they were dimmer than CFLs. Their light is also directional, which makes them tough for indoor lighting where you need a space illuminated and not just one spot. The cost per bulb for an LED is steep, even though you would end up spending more on incandescent lighting over the life of the LED. Susan bought her LED bulbs because of their efficiency and lack of mercury. A pioneer in the home lighting world, Susan is a little cooler, both figuratively and literally for using them. She is also a little ahead of the game, for in the near future we will all be as cool as Susan with LEDs lighting our hallways.
For a great in-depth and unbiased comparison between the three types of bulbs, including comparisons of savings, check this out!


We decided to stop by Sarah and Aaron’s favorite food store before heading off to Vermillion. It was one of those small-but-has everything places which advertises their organic and natural foods. One section in particular that was well stocked, and always gets my attention, was the bulk food section.

Richard and his bulk foods

Richard and his bulk foods

I was browsing the selection of trail mixes when I met Richard, an IRS employee and Clevelandite who had a shopping cart full of items from the bins. Richard was mainly shopping for nuts and seeds that he could not find anywhere else. This is one of the advantages of buying bulk; items not for sale anywhere else can usually be found here. Your ability to choose the quantity is a big plus, and what you end up paying is almost always cheaper per pound than what would be found in the aisle. Not to be overlooked is the packaging that is saved by buying bulk. You can show up with your own containers and bags to fill up, so all you come away with is the food itself! If you do forget your containers, there are always bags supplied. Either way a lot of unnecessary trash is saved from filling a hole in the ground. I was glad to meet Richard, not only because he was buying in bulk, but I got a chance to talk with him about his lifestyle. Richard is doing what he thinks is right, and is willingly making sacrifices in his life to exclude meat, more recently dairy products, and other elements of life we plunder every day. I am not saying we should all become homeless, minimalist, vegans but we should recognize our ability to live comfortably without every new invention, or everything our pocketbooks can give us. Buying bulk food is an easy way to get what we need without all the other resources, we do not use, that usually comes with them.


Americans eat beef like Laura eats candy, and Laura

Fey with her meat and vegetables

Fey with her meat and vegetables

eats a lot of candy. On average we eat about 65 lbs of beef a year, about 1/3 of our annual consumption of meat. On account of the demand, the meat industry has been industrialized to the point where your steak comes from a cow that was fed corn based feed with antibiotics and hormones mixed in to help the animal fight off any diseases it would get from living literally on top of its own fecal matter with thousands of other cattle a necks length away. That steak might be cheap, but the hidden costs include heart disease, food-borne illnesses, and environmental degradation to list a few.
Central Market

Central Market

I hopped in to the Lancaster Farmers Market to find out what the meat options were and found Fey, a local who was picking up some steaks at the Country Meadows Farm stand. The farm raises all kinds of meat from beef to lamb and does so in a responsible way. The animals graze on grass and are not fed any hormones or antibiotics. I asked Fey why she bought her beef there instead of at the supermarket, and she said as ruminants, cows are not supposed to eat anything but grass; their digestive systems are not built to process corn based feed. She is absolutely right, how are we supposed to stay healthy when the animals we eat are not healthy? The farm also encourages customers to build a relationship with their farmers, and tear down the barriers set up by supermarkets that disconnect us from our food.
The Market in Lancaster is an impressive sight, the entire building packed with people eager to buy directly from their farmers. It used to be open only two days a week but another day was added because so many people support it. So the next time you are craving that burger find a grocer near you that sells local grass fed beef, it will be high in Omega 3’s, CLA (reduces body fat), vitamins and minerals, and help out the land and local business.

For an in depth look at the beef industry, here is a link to Michael Pollan’s

Susan from Philadelphia

Susan with her eggs

Susan with her eggs

The Fair Food Market is the first stand I ran into in the Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia’s main downtown market. A wide variety of local Pennsylvanian (some from Jersey) vegetables, dairy and meat products, breads, grains, and random items are packed into a couple of square feet that gives the impression food is just bursting out of the baskets. The stand is run almost entirely by volunteers, overseen by only three staff. I talked with Gianni (see post below), who said the volunteers give their time because they care about giving people in the city the option to buy local food. The best part about working there is that he sees and talks with people of all demographics who are shopping there and are excited about local food. One such person is Susan, a
Emu egg from over the river

Emu egg from over the river

Philadelphian who bee-lines it to the Stand for pasture-raised eggs once she runs out. Not many places offer eggs from chickens who live in a pasture. Most stores only offer cage-free eggs at best, but cage-free does not mean the chickens were outside at any point in their lives, only that they were not crammed in to a cage. In addition to eggs, Susan picks up vegetables displayed in baskets with tags telling what farm they came from and where it is.
I did the same, grabbing some greens before I said goodbye to Susan and snapping some photos of the local goose and emu eggs.

Check out what the Union of Concerned Scientists has to say about pasture-raised food


May 2018
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