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Free Your Ride: what’s the best car-sharing service?

autoshareThe summer after 9th grade, my parents moved my little brother Mark and I from Montreal to suburban Mississauga, a gaping 35 kilometres from downtown Toronto. Back in Montreal, I was used to taking the city bus to school downtown and subwaying around to meet friends. In Mississauga, I quickly figured out you’d have to wait a good 30 minutes for sparse busses and walking got you nowhere in a hurry. My family got real car dependant real fast.

These days, my household is technically car-free, though I do have memberships to pretty much every car-sharing service in town. Call it research for my car-sharing guide, but each one has different advantages (trunkless Smart Cars, for instance, are a bad idea for trips to IKEA, though I did manage to cram a giant patio umbrella in one of these puppies, which made me want to try shoving a dozen clowns in here, too).  I know there are some hardcore treehuggers who would rather lie under the tire of an 18-wheeler rather than get in a car and, on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of you living far from car-sharing services let alone descent transit will be rolling your eyes right now, muttering, “I don’t think so, honey.” I know it’s not ideal for jobs that make you drive to all corners of the earth hauling gear and that sort of thing. But if you’ve got car-sharing services in your ‘hood, I really recommend checking ‘em out. Gas and insurance are included, it’s way cheaper than owning and it’s definitely a lot easier on your carbon footprint. I still love my bike and I’m super lucky to have a streetcar running right outside my front door (except for at 6am when it starts dinging its bell every few minutes) but I won’t deny how happy I am to pull out one of my car-sharing membership cards when I’ve got a trunkload of stuff to pick up that won’t fit in my bike basket. Anyway, think about it and if you live in Toronto, take a look at my car-sharing reviews.

Got dirt on your face? Bronzers & the ugly side of mineral makeup

Dirt on your face? Check your mineralsYou know when you think something’s going to be quick and breezy and it ends up being a knee deep slog through muck and fog? Well, that’s sort of what happened with my bronzer column. I thought I’d toss together a light column on summer makeup, until I remembered that mineral powders are mired in controversy. One mineral in particular has gotten a lot of bad press this year – mica – thanks to media exposes on the child labour plaguing mica mines in India. This makes mica the poster child for “natural” ingredients that aren’t always so desirable. Unfortunately, pretty much every bronzer and most makeup on the market (conventional and natural brands alike) uses mica. And 60% of the world’s mica, comes from India, where illegal mining is a big problem. I called half a dozen natural makeup companies to find out whether they were aware of the child labour problem associated with mica and whether they had any guarantees their products were child labour free. Most of the little indy brands were truly shocked and alarmed. Some jumped on their suppliers to dig up as much as they could on their mica chain of supply, how and whether it was monitored, what kind of traceability schemes they had, what kind of support they had for the workers. Some never called me back. Some met relatively tight-lipped suppliers, which they have since told me they dropped. Others were greeted with a pretty impressive degree of transparency (often from big name suppliers that had been slammed with bad press on this issue in the past and had beefed up their policies).

100% Pure’s owner was the most aware of this issue ahead of time and gave me the direct number for their supplier so I could pick their brains directly. Pure Anada’s owner gave me perhaps the most detailed responses of all. Earth Lab’s owner was also really responsive.  You’ll notice that none of the product’s in this week’s guide got a perfect score and none were given my “Ecoholic pick of the week” designation, which I always give out to the top-scorer. To be honest, I felt I’d need a whole investigative team with cameras going into mines to feel confident giving perfect scores, which to be fair, is something that could be said every week in the column. All I can do, in the end, is share what I know on ingredient sourcing and tell you that at least the genuinely natural brands (versus fake naturals like Rimmel) didn’t pack their products with questionable preservatives and fillers. And I can talk to you about how they perform on your face (because we are still talking makeup, after all). I own bronzers from all five of the highest scoring natural brands and performance-wise really enjoyed them all for different reasons (cream sticks vs powder compacts vs loose powder all have different advantages depending on your skin’s needs). To get the down low on them all, head to my bronzer guide in NOW Magazine.

Kickin’ it: the ethical guides to soccer balls & summer shirts

Shirts and balls

“You never do any columns for guys,” my editor grumbled a few weeks back. I gasped. “Are you saying the frying pan and cleaning cloth guides that we just published are a woman thing?” I prodded loudly, making sure our banter was audible to the whole news room. To be honest, in my house, my partner does at least as much cooking and cleaning as I do (which isn’t always saying much, but when that man gets on a whirlwind cleaning and purging spree, boy, watch out!).  Regardless, a few weeks after the news room remark I rolled out a few “man-friendly” columns to make sure the gents in our midst don’t feel left out. First up, my new researcher Elyssa suggested a guide to short-sleeved summer mens’ shirts. Not an easy task, considering there are so few eco brands doing menswear these days.  Turns out finding dude clothing that’s both made in Canada AND made with eco-friendly fabrics is about as rare as a sighting of Justin Bieber with his pants pulled up. For the full frontal break down of good and not so good brands plus Nature Notes on donuts and deforestation as well as the latest on GMO-banning nations, head to the full Hot Under the Collar column.

Next up, we channeled the vibes pulsing through every bar/pub/patio with a TV on earth with our Ecoholic guide to soccer balls. Men, women, children, everybody loves the World Cup…well, except for the thousands of poverty activists taking to the streets of Brazil, of course. The Ecoholic Football Fever guide dives into the ethics of stitching the very soccer balls you might be kicking around in a field or yard near you. Plus in this issue, you’ll also find news on the Saputo dairy boycott, Greenwash of the Week and more so don’t change the channel! 

Hello, sunshine: the solar tech guide for every budget (& more)

woman in the fieldSome people dream in technicolour, I dream in solar panels. Well, not every night or anything, I’m not a lunatic. I’m still saving for a house clad with shiny blue panels (oh wouldn’t it be awesome to go off-grid and never pay a utility bill again?). In the meantime, I’ve got a little guide here to solar technology for all budgets (just ignore the part that talks about the Green Living Show, which has now passed…yes, I’m behind on blogging again). It covers everything from pretty solar patio lights to solar chargers all the way to solar shingles. Plus, you’ll find my super cool Green Find of the Week (moss graffiti kit!), news on H&M and Zara‘s commitment to green up their rayon, the latest push to get us all planting milkweed (the only plant monarch butterflies can breed on) & more. Now that’s a variety pack! Who else gives you solar tech, fashion news and gardening tips in one blog? Click here to read on…

The New Hemp Economy: Q&A with author of Hemp Bound

Doug FineIf you’ve ever met a hemp enthusiast, you’re probably already schooled in the plant’s superpower uses in clothing, snack bars and hacky sacks. But in his newly released book – Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Agricultural Revolution –  comedic investigative journalist and solar-powered goat herder Doug Fine shows just how deep the wonder-crop’s applications run. New Mexico-based Fine set out to meet the people pioneering hempcrete-insulated houses, hemp-fuelled limos, even hemp-fired power plants. He chats with Ecoholic about the plant’s budding potential.

You say Canada’s hemp industry is booming and can’t plant it fast enough. Where’s it all going?

Here’s the reality on the ground today: Canadian farmers are making $300 per acre profit on hemp – as much as 10 times what they make on GMO corn. They’re growing for the nutritive superfood that is hemp seed oil. Demand is growing so fast… I wish I had 1,000 acres on which to plant hemp today – $300 times 1,000 is more than I’ve yet made as a writer.

If so much hemp is being grown, why isn’t anyone making Canadian-grown hemp clothing?

Canada isn’t yet growing much for fibre applications; the seed oil has been the money crop. In China and parts of Europe, fibre is profitable for textiles, construction and industry. At the Composites Innovation Centre in Winnipeg (a joint government/private sector venture), I saw a prototype tractor body made entirely from hemp fibre.

How can hemp come to the rescue in the face of climate change?

The idea in Hemp Bound that I hope spreads widest and most quickly is a farm waste biomass energy plan that I believe can help wean humanity from fossil fuels. It’s already in play in Europe: entire communities in Austria and Germany are becoming energy-independent by combusting biomass anaerobically. Now I’m traipsing around North America trying to get farmers and processors to implement this alternative to fossil fuels. The outhouse-sized units aren’t very expensive. A single farm can provide its own energy or feed it back to the grid. The U.S. Army is even investing in this technology.

You talk about how its drought-resistant, soil-rehabilitating properties will come in handy as farms dry up.

Hemp is an annual plant whose foot-long taproot helps stabilize soil and provides a vital ecosystem for microflora and fauna. Colorado’s first commercial hemp farmer, Ryan Loflin, comes from an experienced farm family. He told me hemp uses half the water his wheat crop did. That means his neighbours on the threatened Ogallala Aquifer can dry-land crop hemp. Imagine the implications for drought-ravaged parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa.

If hemp growing doesn’t require pesticides, why is it important to support organic hemp?

That is a fantastic question, and the answer is important: while hemp itself doesn’t require pesticides (and you blessed Canadians have prophylactically banned GMO hemp as well), to be organic the soil must be organic year round. If not, hemp, being a rotational crop, could be and often is cultivated on non-organic soil that’s growing, say, GMO soy at other times. While the hemp crop will help heal that soil, I don’t want my family putting that non-organic seed oil in our morning shake.

Is the U.S. any closer to legalizing hemp farming, the way Canada did in the late 90s?

I expect U.S. federal law to get there in the next year or two, now that this year’s Farm Bill allows university research. Canada’s industry, now approaching $1 billion a year, started out with cultivar research as well.

If you were a venture capitalist, what hemp products would you invest in?

The hemp brand is best expressed in the kind of beyond “Don’t be evil” business model that Dr. Bronner’s hemp and olive oil soaps espouses: fair trade, organic, and the CEO makes no more than five times the wage of the lowest-paid worker. You can be righteous and profitable at the same time. Along those lines, what I’d like to see is rural communities investing in regional processors, sharing the profits, healing the soil and the air, and profiting right from season one from “tri-cropping” – that is, from growing at once for seed oil, fibre applications and clean distributed energy.

What’s the most surprising place you found hemp in a product?

My Republican accountant’s office: she proudly showed me her skin cream with hemp in the ingredients list. Also, a Canadian product called Holy Crap Cereal is at the International Space Station. Oh, also on my own body: I testified in favour of cannabis regulation at the United Nations recently while completely clad in hemp clothing.

Did you know…?

• Hemp-insulated houses take less energy to heat.

• Hemp fibres are used in Dodge, BMW and Mercedes door panels.

If you like it then you better put an ethical ring on it: the band guide

wedding bandsOnce spring hits full swing so does wedding season. If you’re already engaged, well, congratulations! When’s the big date? You planning on sealing the deal with a wedding band? Have I got the column for you. In the latest Ecoholic, we dig deep, real deep, like belly-of-the-earth-mining-conditions-deep to, er, extract the truth about which rings are truly fair and and full of heart from the ground up. Lots of companies claim to use ethical diamonds and responsible gold, but what steps have they taken to ensure they’re not selling you dirty bling, tainted with blood, sweat and tears? Check out Earthworks retailer score card called Tarnished Gold. Interestingly, Birks and Tiffany were two of the only major retailers that scored fairly well, though the top scorers are all indy brands that use certified fair trade and/or recycled gold.  For the complete Ecoholic wedding bang guide, though, read on here. And keep your eye on this page…Earthworks has an updated retailer scorecard coming out in the near future. I’ll be sure to post it.

ethical rings

The olive oil guide…with a drizzle of Vasil family history

olive oil guideMy grandfather Nick was what you’d call a Black Sea Greek. In fact, he was a Greek born and raised in Crimea, from another messy time in history – the years leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. My family fled after my great-grandfather was shot for being on the losing side. By the 1930s, three of the sons had opened up a Greek grocery store in Montreal, somewhere on St Laurent Blvd. They sold black olives, feta, and of course, lots of olive oil, direct from the original motherland (Greece). My grandfather studied engineering (that’s his graduation shot below) but he also knew good olive oil when he tasted it. And now 80 years later, well, I’m offering you a guide of my own to olive oil. The scene has definitely changed a lot since then. Companies are pawning off all kinds of junk as EVOO. And let me tell you, the original stuff never had pesticide traces in the mix. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the guide, along with news on milkweed, palm oil and more. This one is dedicated to my papou, Nick Vasilikiotis.

Papou original

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Getting to the bottom of your yoga mat & lessons from Wisdom 2.0

NMFSC_036_0227yogaWhere do you find your bliss? Face first on a yoga mat? In a quiet moment to yourself? In a bowl full of ice cream? Well, this week, we dive into two of three, anyway. First up, you’ll find my Ecoholic guide to yoga mat materials, which I think may be pretty controversial. Long story short, too many eco mats claiming to be green are totally stretching their credibility (some puns can’t be avoided). It’s pretty astounding how many companies just say their eco mats contain TPE, when TPE is a broad category of synthetic rubber that can be all kinds of things. Turns out most of those “eco” TPE mats are made of styrene-butadiene-styrene – hello, styrene and butadiene are both human carcinogens! I dug up some government reports that document the elevated cancer rates in workers who make SBS. These compounds may not leach necessarily, the way hormone disrupting phthalates would from PVC mats, but these mats are certainly famous for crumbling (proof, manufacturers say, that they’re “biodegradable”). I’d say these mats are less biodegradable (returning to compounds found in nature) and more just degradable, breaking down into smaller bits over time – two totally different things. Creating SBS dust in your home isn’t what I’d call a selling feature. The whole thing makes me want to take a few deep breaths, just not next to most yoga mats.

Speaking of deep breaths, you’ll find my mini write-up on some of what I learned from the Wisdom 2.0 conference I was talking to you guys about. So much happened over the 3 days it’s hard to squeeze it into 500 words. I’ve got a way bigger piece coming out in the next issue of Corporate Knights magazine discussing the rise of corporate mindfulness and what it all means from an environmental angle so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, hope you enjoy the latest Ecoholic! If you can’t read the version above (click on it then click again to blow it up full size), head hear from the full online story.

The liquid hand soap guide + the latest on neurotoxic chems

NMFSC_033_0220 handwashEveryone washes their hands (we hope) – the question is what are you washing with? Bar soap is a good way to avoid plastic packaging and unrecyclable pumps (click here for my bar soap guide) but considering the popularity of liquid hand soaps, they deserve their own special guide. So voila! In this issue of Ecoholic in NOW, I looked at a handful of products (warning: puns are inevitable), including soaps that still have the gall to contain triclosan when the feds have said it’s dangerous to aquatic life and doesn’t even kill cold and flu viruses. What’s the point? Marketing! Yes, they’ve convinced us regular soap and water isn’t enough to kill germs, which is a complete fabrication. So, go ahead and dump your “antibacterial” handsoap. Good news is brands like Softsoap have already ditched triclosan and others like Bath & Body Works are finally offering options that are triclosan-free (though they still carry triclosan soaps).

Beyond that I review a selection of liquid soaps from green to greenest. How does Method measure up? Is your health store soap as eco-friendly as you think? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by reading the latest Ecoholic, naturally (by the way, the print version – which you get a snapshot of above – had a few typos and corrections made under Nature Clean, so check the online version at nowtoronto.com for the most up-to-date file). I was really excited to be able to include Green Beaver’s newest product, a castile soap that’s made with some Quebec-grown organic sunflower oil. Why is it special? Because it’s entirely organic (so no workers, wildlife or waterways had to be harmed to grow the plants needed to make your soap) AND it tries to include ingredients not grown thousands of miles away. Green Beaver wanted the whole thing to be made with local organic sunflower oil but there’s just not enough of the stuff to keep up with demand. Love that they’re actually encouraging the expansion of Canadian organics. And by the way, most castile soaps are essentially concentrates that can be used in a million and one ways, including diluted with water (1 part soap: 3 parts water) and placed in a reusable hand soap pump.

I also wrote a piece on a new study documenting the startling rise of chemicals now known to trigger neurological problems like ADHD and autism in children. The study was published in the Lancet Neurology and if you want to read the original study itself, here’s a link. Fascinating and terrifying really.

Oh and let’s not forget this week’s Greenwash of the Week: Tarte Cosmetics. I can’t tell you how many times I walked into a Sephora and was told Tarte is a great natural brand. Their marketers are genius, but definitely stretching their green cred. Anyway, enjoy the issue! If you can’t read the version above you can always click here to take you to the online version.

 

Cough syrup, chocolate and the quest for enlightenment

Woman meditating

Have you ever blinked and missed a few weeks of your digital life? Somewhere between January and now, well, I fell off the blog train. Did I hit my head on the way down and find nirvana, lined, inexplicably, with chocolate and cough syrup? No, but I did get to spend some time with a few pretty enlightened souls at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco last weekend. It’s where the tech world and the meditation/mindfulness community meet for thought-provoking dialogue around the ideas of hyper connectivity, disconnection and how meditation and mindfulness can help. I’m writing about my personal experience of it for next week’s issue of NOW (which I’ll post here next week) and another piece on the big picture coming out this spring.

Where do chocolate and cough syrup fit into the mix?  Well, those are the Ecoholic columns I never posted here while I was off the blog wagon. So without further ado, here are my product guides on the ecological ins and outs of chocolate, cough syrup and ice melt (who’s good/green, bad or ugly), whirled up in the Vitamix with Nature Notes on L’Oreal’s forest-friendly makeover, green reno loans, Keystone updates, and more.  Yes, you get it all in Ecoholic – green news, product tips and one woman’s quest to wisen up.