I Need...Household Cleaners

>> Sunday, September 28, 2008

A friend asked me to describe my homemade household cleaners in more detail. So first off, why I switched...

When Second Son was about a year old, he developed a terrible case of eczema all along the backside of his legs. After I eliminated possible food allergies, someone suggested that the likely culprit might be household cleaners. But there was a problem with this suggestion. If you've ever looked at the back of a typical bottle of all-purpose cleaner, you may have noticed that they don't list their ingredients, or if they do, it's one or two "active" ingredients. When you're trying to figure out what your kid might be allergic to, you kind of need to know what's in the products you're using.

I began doing some research on what I could do (this was before I started shopping at Whole Foods regularly, and long before I ever heard of companies like Seventh Generation and Ecover), and I came across a great book called
Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living by Annie Berthold-Bond. This book is a great resource for homemade non-toxic living, including recipes for everything from toilet cleaner to facial lotion.

Annie Berthold-Bond lists five essential ingredients for less toxic cleaning: baking soda, borax, liquid soap, vinegar, and essential oils. Except for the essential oils, all of these ingredients are super cheap and can be found at any grocery store. I bought a box of borax when I first started making my own cleaners, and at the rate I've been going, I'll have to buy another one when I'm 50. Basically, that puts the cost of making your own cleaners at almost nothing. (Annie Berthold-Bond says that on average the recipes in her book cost 10% the cost of the commercial product.)

According to the Story of Stuff, "there are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today. Only a handful of these have ever been tested for human health impacts and NONE of them have been tested for synergistic health impacts, that means when they interact with all the other chemicals we’re exposed to every day." I don't know how many of those chemicals are in typical household cleaners, but I do know that it really bothers me that they don't even tell us what's in the stuff we're using. I like that with my homemade cleaners, I know exactly what I'm using, I know that inhaling it is not going to harm anyone in my family, and I know that throwing a bucket of mop water out my back door is not going to harm my plants or contaminate the water.

So here are the recipes:

All-Purpose Window Cleaner

  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. liquid soap
  • 2 cups of water
Combine the ingredients in a spray bottle, and shake well to blend.

All-Purpose Cleanser
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. borax
  • 1/2 tsp. liquid soap
  • 2 c. hot water
  • up to 1 tsp. antiseptic essential oil (I use tea tree oil)
Combine the ingredients in a spray bottle. Shake to dissolve and blend the minerals.

Basic Floor Cleaner
  • 1/4 c. liquid soap
  • 1/2 c. vinegar
  • 2 gallons warm water
Combine the ingredients in a large plastic bucket.

Wood Furniture Duster
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • a few drops olive oil (or jojoba oil, which is more expensive)
  • 3-5 drops essential oil for fragrance
Combine the ingredients in a bowl, dab some on a rag, and use it to dust.

I didn't ever solve Second Son's eczema (though it did eventually go away), but I've been happily making my own cleaners for two years now. If you're wondering if they work, the short answer is yes. The long answer is that sometimes (like if I've put off cleaning the bathroom too long) they do require a little bit more elbow grease than I would have to use if I just bought a bottle of Formula 409. But for me, the cost and the environmental impact make it worth it.


Grocery Shopping Week 2: Whole Foods

>> Friday, September 26, 2008

Whole Foods scores
Better World Shopper: A
Co-op America Responsible Shopper: B- for ethics and governance, C for health and safety, C for greenwashing

Distance from my house: 7.3 miles (17 minutes)

I'm at the opposite end of the scale this week. I saw Whole Foods described as Whole Paycheck recently, and that's not too far from the truth. Whole Foods is the type of store that makes me feel like I have to be rich and single to be able to eat natural, organic, and fair trade foods. Despite that, I think Whole Foods is an admirable company, and I would really love to able to shop there more. Plus, they not only don't roll their eyes about my reusable bags, they actually give me a $0.10 discount for each bag I bring.

Almost everything I bought today was labeled as organic - even the sugary cereal, which just seems weird. The produce selection is huge, and I like how they include on their signs where the items came from, even if very few items were locally produced. I was also able to find milk, cheese, and yogurt without hormones, and they even have milk from a local dairy (Maple View Farm) packaged in glass bottles. Today, I chose to buy the Whole Foods brand of milk because it was about a dollar cheaper, but I checked out Maple View Farm's website when I got home, and they say their milk is hormone-free, the cows are fed some grass and some mixed-grain, and the glass bottles are returnable (although how you return them was not explained).

They have a nice bulk foods section, including super yummy chocolate-covered raisins and pretzels, but it's hard to fathom paying that much for oats and flour. There is a really cool machine in the bulk foods section that grinds peanuts into peanut butter or almonds into almond butter.

I've been buying my laundry detergent, dish soap, body soap, and other beauty supplies at Whole Foods for a long time, so I definitely recommend both of those sections.

I didn't see many Fair Trade Certified items, but I did find fair trade chocolate chips.

Here's what I bought:

organic tofu
cheddar cheese (3 cup bag)
juice (2)
organic butter
organic milk
organic applesauce
organic baby food (7 jars)
organic baby cereal (2 boxes)
organic cereal (2 boxes)
organic yogurt
organic carrots
organic bananas

Total = $60.03

Note: Keep in mind that these shopping trips only include my weekly perishable items and do not include my pantry staples (like flour, sugar, oats, etc.), my health and beauty items, or my cleaning supplies. I'm looking into joining a buying club for the pantry staples, and I already buy most of the other items at Whole Foods.


Armed against Consumerism

>> Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I tend to be more of a media education type of person than a media abstinence type. I admit that I let my kids watch TV and play on the computer, and I don't feel guilty about it (most of the time). I restrict how much they can watch, I monitor what they are watching, I try to balance outside play with couch potato time. I enjoy the media, so why shouldn't I have kids who also enjoy the media?

The problem is that we live in a commercial culture, and Big Business has their eye on our children. And as we head into the holiday season, it becomes more important that our kids are armed with the resources to resist the consumer frenzy. I believe in teaching our kids to have a healthy skepticism about advertisements they see on TV, or on the computer, or on a billboard, or a bus...(they're everywhere!) And I thought I was doing pretty good at teaching this to my kids.

But then my First Son, who is almost five, says to me, "We need to buy some Motts applesauce."

"Hmmm," I say. "Did you see a commercial for Mott's applesauce?"

"Yes," he replies. "But you say commercials are trying to get us to buy things we don't need, and I think we need applesauce."

"You're right, we do need applesauce. But we buy whatever kind is cheapest, and Mott's is not the cheapest," I say, and then explain, "Commercials play with your emotions to try to get you to buy what they're selling, and sometimes they lie to you. I like to make my own decisions, and that's why I don't listen to commercials, even if they're selling something like applesauce that I usually buy."

I thought I got the point across, but the next time we were at the store, he brought it up again. "Can we get Mott's applesauce?"

I decided I needed a book that could teach my son about advertising strategies. My first stop was my local library's website, but after an hour of trying out various search terms, the only book I could find was The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials, which my library does not yet have but has ordered. I put it on reserve, and I'll let you know how it is once I get it.

My next stop was two of my favorite organizations, Common Sense Media and The New American Dream. Common Sense Media is a non-profit organization that rates movies, books, TV shows, and websites based on their age-appropriateness and provides tips and guides for managing media in the home. These are great resources, but not exactly what I was looking for.

Next stop, New American Dream. This is where I hit the jackpot. They have a terrific brochure called "Parenting in a Commercial Culture," which includes a list of books and websites to use when teaching your kids about commercialism. My library happened to have two of the books, so I picked them up this afternoon, and also spent some time perusing a few of the websites.

1. The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell
This is a fantastic book about Mooch the cat, who wants to give his best friend Earl a gift. What do you get for the dog who has everything? Nothing! Mooch's gift of "nothing" reminds us that the best gift to give a friend is time spent together.

2. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson
Based on a passage from Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond, this book tells the story of Henry and a friend, who both agree to meet in Fitchburg at the end of the day. The friend says he will work until he has enough money to take a train to Fitchburg, and Henry says he will walk. The friend spends the whole day working, while Henry enjoys a long leisurely walk exploring nature and picking blackberries. In the end, the friend gets to Ficthburg faster, but who had the better day?

3. http://pbskids.org/dontbuyit/
This is a great website, even if it was made by PBS kids, which seems to be one of the big marketers to children these days. (I think my son probably saw the Mott's commercial on PBS). This site is targeted at upper elementary to middle school age kids, but I played a few of the games with my son, and I think he got the gist. I also learned some fun (but sad) facts. For example, how much of the cost of a $50 pair of jeans goes to the Eastern European worker who made it? Answer: $0.50

4. http://web.mit.edu/civenv/K12Edu/game.html
This website includes a game where you can test your skills as a consumer. It doesn't have the best graphics, but my son enjoyed guessing which was the best object to buy, and it was fun to see how we're doing as conscious consumers.

All of these are great resources for arming our children against the media, but none of them were exactly what I was looking for. Anyone know of a good children's book about advertising? I need some help if I'm going to win the battle against Mott's applesauce.


I Need...Diapers

>> Sunday, September 21, 2008

My Cloth Decision

Supposedly, if you crunch the numbers on the environmental impact of cloth and disposables, considering what they are made of (for cloth), how they're manufactured (for disposables), how they're washed (for cloth), and how they're disposed of (for disposables), you end up with a tie. I'm not a scientist, and I don't have all the data, so I can't tell you which studies to believe. But for me, there were lots of other considerations that led me to cloth:

  1. Some (if not all) of the criticisms with cloth are solvable. Pesticides in cotton fields? Buy organic cotton diapers. Lots of water used in washing? Use an Energy Star washer. Too much energy used in Drying? Line dry your diapers. The problems with disposables are not that easy to solve. Even so-called biodegradable diapers will not biodegrade in a landfill (although they are compostable in a home composting system if done properly).
  2. Cloth diapers put human waste where it belongs, in the sewage system. It's actually illegal to put human waste in the landfill, but this is not enforced with disposable diapers. The practice of throwing dirty diapers in the landfill has the potential for massive water contamination, considering all of the diapers thrown away every year (95% of U.S. babies wear disposables). The Green Guide suggests, "If you use disposables, flush any fecal material down the toilet before throwing it away, to reduce the possibility of contaminating water supplies."
  3. Cloth diapers are cheap and can be used over and over and over, so financially, they are definitely the better option. I've used most of the same diapers with all three of my kids, and they are still going strong. When you're finished diapering, you can use the cloth part as durable rags and pass the plastic cover on to a friend.
  4. Most cloth diaper companies (both the companies making them and the companies selling them) are run by work at home parents, and I am always in favor of screwing the Man to support a small business. :)
  5. Some studies suggest that the chemicals used in disposables could be toxic and might cause infertility in boys. I'm not sure if I believe that, but as a mother of boys, I choose to be safe rather than sorry.
  6. Cloth diapers say, "I care." Maybe the scientific evidence says that cloth and disposables are equal, but the truth is that most people believe that cloth is better for the environment. And whether or not that's true, every time I take my cloth-diapered baby out into public, I'm letting people know that I'm making a conscious effort to do my part to care for the environment and be a less wasteful person. And hopefully, encouraging them to do the same.
Dispose Wisely

If you choose not to go with cloth, at least be a Conscious Shopper. There are many better options out there besides Pampers and Huggies. Here are a few possibilities that I've seen. (Note that I have never tried any of these diapers, so I cannot vouch for their effectiveness.)
  • Seventh Generation
    • The Good: Chlorine-free, fragrance-free, latex-free. Seventh Generation is a great company that tries to be socially and environmentally responsible and discloses all ingredients.
    • The Not-So-Good: They use sodium polyacrylate (the gel-like superabsorbant balls inside the diaper that may or may not be bad).
    • Cost: $42.99 for a pack of 176 size 1 diapers at Amazon ($0.25 each)
  • Tushies
    • The Good: The absorbent part of the diaper is made of a mixture of cotton and wood pulp rather than sodium polyacrylate. They are also chlorine free.
    • The Not-So-Good: Because they are gel-free, they require more diaper changes than a typical disposable, which is a consideration since they're expensive.
    • Cost: $43.63 for a pack of 160 small diapers at Amazon ($0.27 each)
  • Gdiapers
    • The Good: A cross between cloth and disposables, these diapers use a cotton outer pant with a flushable insert. If you flush the insert, you're putting waste in the sewage system, not the landfill. They are Cradle to Cradle certified. The company tries to ensure fair working conditions in their China factories that make the outer pants, and the inserts are made in Ohio. The absorbent part of the inserts are fluffed wood pulp, rather than sodium polyacrylate.
    • The Not-So-Good: A lot of the reviews I've seen say that these are difficult to use, and they end up with a lot of leaks. I have not tried them, so I can't say.
    • Cost: $16.99 for the covers, $52 for a pack of 160 inserts from gDiaper.com ($0.33 each).


Grocery Shopping Week 1: Walmart

>> Friday, September 19, 2008

Walmart scores:
Better World Shopper: F
Co-op America's Responsible Shopper: C for environment, F for ethics and governance, F for health and safety, F for greenwashing

Distance from my house: 4 miles (9 minutes)

To get a good base to compare to, I decided to do my grocery shopping at Walmart this week. I don't usually shop at Walmart (unless I'm visiting my parents in Small Town, KY where it's the only place to shop). The last place we lived didn't have any Walmarts in a reasonable vicinity, so I first gave up Walmart shopping out of convenience. Then I watched a documentary about how Walmart is destroying the American economy and read many other things about Walmart's bad business practices, and pretty soon, Walmart became the epitome of shopping evil in my mind. Not to mention that it is always crowded (and I hate crowds), the cashiers give me evil looks about my cloth bags, and the overall store quality makes me feel dirty. So basically, shopping at Walmart makes me feel icky, but I was willing to make this moral sacrifice for the sake of my blog.

Despite all the ads I've seen lately about Walmart's organics, their organic selection at my local store was few and far between. I did find milk without growth hormones (but not organic), organic carrots (in a plastic bag*), and organic baby cereal, but that was about it. I do buy some produce at the grocery store and will buy more come winter, so I took a glance around the produce. The bananas (which I buy a lot of every week) were nasty, but overall the selection was pretty good, just not organic. I forgot to look for fair trade chocolate chips, but I'll be sure to do that at the next grocery store.

Here's what I bought:

cheddar cheese (4 cup bag)
frozen apple juice (2)
frozen orange juice
baby food (7 jars)
organic baby cereal (2 boxes)
tortillas (family pack)
cereal (2 boxes)
organic yogurt**
organic carrots

Total $42.52***

*This drives me crazy! Why do they take something good and put it in awful packaging? Organic carrots in a plastic bag. 100% recycled toilet paper individually wrapped in plastic. Free range eggs in a styrofoam carton. What are they thinking?

**Normally, I make my own yogurt, but the yogurt maker is on the fritz right now.

***I also buy about $30 worth of fruits and vegetables and eggs at the farmers market.


Conscious Shopper Goals

>> Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mr. Conscious Shopper (who is actually Semi-Conscious, but lets me do all the shopping) requested that I make a list of my goals in this experiment. There are soooooooo many changes I want to make in my life that it would be impossible to list them all (and boring to read), but here is a list of things that are currently making me feel guilty (with some possible solutions in parentheses).

  • plastic (find alternative products that don't involve plastic)
  • over-packaging (find products with less packaging, shop online less, buy less)
  • pesticides and chemical fertilizers (buy organic, plant a garden)
  • industrial farming (buy from small farmers, plant a garden)
  • canned foods (can my own fresh fruits and vegetables, use dried beans)
  • drying my clothes in the dryer (get a drying rack)
  • sweatshop labor (shop thrift stores, buy American)
  • dairy cows (drink soymilk, eat less cheese, find out if there are happy cows around here)
  • gas (ride a bike, get a bike trailer for the kids)
  • wastefulness (buy less, fix what's broken, shop thrift stores)
  • eggs (buy free range eggs, get chickens someday!)
  • advertising to children (watch less TV)
  • home energy usage (programmable thermostat, raise the AC, lower the heat)
  • paper (buy recycled and FSC certified paper)
  • food waste (compost)
  • water usage (low flow shower heads and faucets)
(This list is in no particular order, and I doubt it is a complete list as there are always more things to make me feel guilty.)


Save the planet! Go vegetarian!

>> Tuesday, September 16, 2008

As my children and I drove across the country earlier this year, my First Son spotted a truck of piglets driving past us and shouted gleefully, "Look, Momma, piggies!" Oh, to have a child's innocence. Unfortunately, I knew where those piggies were really going, so seeing a truckload of them didn't fill me with glee.

I've been a vegetarian for 11 years, and although I've often said that I would never force anyone to go veggie (including my own children), I sincerely wish more people would make the choice.

There are many, many reasons to choose a vegetarian lifestyle. Mine was because of the inhumane treatment of animals in modern factory farms. Chickens are crammed into ridiculously small cages with conveyor belts underneath to catch the eggs. Cows spend most of their time standing on cement slabs (rather than in pastures) where they are fed a corn-based diet (rather than grass). Cows are also given drugs to make them grow fatter, or in the case of milk cows, to make them produce more milk, and they often grow so fat without any ability to exercise that they become crippled under their own weight. Check out this recent article from CNN. Why do we think it's okay to treat animals like that?

But even if you're not moved by the treatment of animals, there are plenty of other reasons to choose from. Consider that 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. is fed to animals. Consider that 20 vegetarians could live off the land required to feed one meat eater. Consider all of the Amazonian rainforests that have been harvested to use the land for cattle. Consider the health benefits. Consider the poor working conditions and low pay of the people who work in slaughterhouses and factory farms.

Since this blog is about making buying choices that are good for people and the planet without going broke, I should mention that supposedly, a vegetarian diet is cheaper than eating meat. I wouldn't know. I've been a vegetarian my whole adult life. I briefly bought meat for a year or two after I married my meat-eating husband, but I gradually weaned him off of eating meat at home, and I have no memories of how much I was spending on meat then. But because I wish everyone would choose to go vegetarian, I'm going to agree with what I've read and say that eating less meat will save you money.


Some Things I Already Do, Lots of Things I Can Improve

>> Saturday, September 13, 2008

I'm not a green newbie. I've been slowly going greener and greener over my whole adult life, but I'm ready now to take the plunge into the extreme green.

These are things I already do:

  • vegetarian
  • recycle
  • make my own household cleaners
  • shop at the farmers' market
  • bake my own bread
  • make my own yogurt
  • avoid individually packaged foods
  • avoid unnecessary chemicals in beauty products
  • use reusable lunch boxes
  • use CFL light bulbs
  • use cloth napkins
  • use cloth diapers
  • use re-usable bags for shopping
My dream in life is to buy 5 to 10 acres, build a passive solar house, grow all my own produce, raise chickens and goats, and live as self-sufficiently as possible. But that's the long term goal, and I'm ready to take some baby steps now.

The New American dream has a Wallet Buddy on their site that you wrap around your credit card so that every time you're tempted to buy something you can be reminded to spend your money wisely. This is their criteria:
  1. Do I need it now?
  2. Was it made sustainably?
  3. Were the workers who made it treated well?
  4. Does it have too much packaging?
  5. Is it worth the money?
Great words to follow.


Compare yours to mine....

>> Thursday, September 11, 2008

Eventually, I'd like to have a chart or graph or some nice visual image on this blog showing how my buying choices are affecting my budget, but just to start things off, I'm going to have to list approximately what I currently spend each month. These are the categories that I think will be effected as I try to make better shopping decisions:

  • Grocery (this includes anything you can get at a grocery store, so food, health, beauty, cleaning, etc): $500
  • Gasoline: $300
  • Electricity: $150
  • Water: $50
  • Entertainment (movies, eating out, etc.): $300
  • Clothing: I don't have a good set budget for this. I think I buy about $200 worth of clothes for my kids twice a year (spring and fall), but it might be more than this, might be less. My husband and I get new clothes whenever my husband gets a bonus, or we get a tax return, or I'm just feeling really depressed and need a pick-me-up.
I think $500 is a pretty average grocery budget. I have a family of five: my husband, myself, and three kids under five years old. Until a year ago, my grocery budget was $400, but rising food costs and the addition of an extra mouth forced me to increase my budget. As I mentioned, since living in Raleigh, I've struggled to stay under that $500.

I found this chart from the USDA that shows what the average cost of food should be for a family of four who prepares all their meals at home and eats according to USDA dietary guidelines: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/2008/CostofFoodJun08.pdf


The Dilemma

>> Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I've always been a thrifty shopper. I shop sales, I shop clearance sections. I buy generic. I'm not proud, and I love to save a buck!

But ever since we put our house in the DC suburbs up for sale and moved to Raleigh, NC, I have been extra thrifty. I've had to be. Making two house payments while waiting for our house to sell has left me pinching pennies and cutting costs any way I can.

DC was an expensive area to live in, but so far Raleigh is the winner in grocery prices. I have yet to find a good cheap grocery store around here, and everytime I've gone shopping, I've left the store feeling overwhelmed and depressed.

For the past couple years, I've been on a slow journey toward converting to all-natural, organic, and environmentally friendly products, but the penny pinching made me start questioning my principles. Was it more important to stay in the budget (even if that meant shopping at the center of grocery shopping evil, a.k.a Walmart), or was it more important to be good to people and the planet, seeking out fair trade and organic items?

Is it possible to do both?

So that's the question I'll be exploring here. Can I be a responsible consumer and still stay within my budget? Let's find out...

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