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The rise of local farmer’s markets in Toronto: Parkdale-High Park

Eating foods that are in season and buying local foods are suddenly back in fashion. Witness the slow food movement, and the 100-mile (or km) diet. BUT, there have always been farmer's markets in Toronto, and Foodland Ontario has been around ever since I can remember, urging me to eat more squash in the Fall. This "rediscovery" of local foods and farmers isn't just happening in Ontario. In the UK, Gordon Ramsay's brilliant F-Word tv show is urging Brits to remember their forgotten local foods, as well as trying to get the younger generation, who have apparently forgotten how to boil an egg, back into the kitchen. Check out Gordon on CBC's The Hour below.

Doing the homework around local foods, and sustainable shopping, and fair-trade coffee can be very tiring. These tomatoes in my local supermarket looked identical, but one batch came from Mexico and one from Canada (talk about needing to read the fine print). SO, I was thrilled to hear that I can access reliably sourced local and organic foods much more easily now that Sorauren Farmer's Market will be in walking distance from my house. The Westend Food Co-op which runs the market has posted clear statements on its vision, mission, and values.

This goal of transparency at the Westend Food Co-op is fantastic, because when it comes to ecological footprints, the intuitive idea that ALL local foods must have lower footprints for energy production, is NOT always true. A Swedish colleague once told me about a full life cycle assessment comparing local produce with that coming from Spain, which found that the ecological footprint of the Spanish fruit and veggies, was actually lower than the Swedish produce! In sustainability, full life cycle assessment or cradle-to-grave analysis looks at the total amount of energy and resources that it takes to produce some object, including food. It embodies the concepts inherent in full-cost economic accounting.

Dawn Bazely

One Ecology professor’s view of all this “green” consumer hype

It's over a year since Al Gore won an oscar for An Inconvenient Truth. The 2008 Earth Hour and Earth Day have come and gone. "Green Awareness" events do tend to be more frequent in spring, as we come out of hibernation and notice the environment - tree pollen, tulips etc. But, there is definitely also a tsunami of environmentally-driven advertising, products and newspaper coverage. Globe & Mail columnist, Karen von Hahn wrote about what she sees as some of the hypocrisy of 'ethical consumption' in her May 24th column "Hey Bono, shopping is supposed to be fun".

Ms. von Hahn is quite right to question whether "buying fair trade really does make trade fair". This is an important area of research in universities, and everyone else should think about it too. The ecological reason for why green shopping IS an important piece of the sustainability puzzle, though not the whole picture, is that from its birth, EVERY organism is a consumer. Even if we abolished all shopping malls and our consumer society, we'd still all be consuming, simply by breathing, drinking, eating and occupying space.

One key sustainability goal for Homo sapiens (us humans), needs to be that we each consume as little as possible in terms of materials and energy. Should we be thinking about where stuff comes from, who made it (and how they are being treated), how much gas was burned in getting it to the store, and where the metal came from, etc? ABSOLUTELY Ms. von Hahn! Because when you are doing that much research into the ecological and carbon footprints of stuff, shopping bcomes EXHAUSTING. And that's good, because, in answer to the question that we ask our kids to ask themselves in the local sweetshop "Do I WANT it or do I NEED it?", you are much more likely to buy only stuff that you really do NEED or are really motivated to WANT. So, there's the bottom-line - responsible consumers will tire themselves into reduced consumption as a consequence of their increased awareness!

Dawn Bazely

Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce

This wallet-size guide from the EWG will help you decide which produce to buy organic, and which are lowest in pesticides, so you can eat healthy without emptying your wallet. I recommend the health-conscious shopper to print and keep a copy with you in your wallet or purse:

P.S. It is always better to buy locally in order to reduce gas emissions from transport vehicles

The two best coffee table books on sustainability?

My colleague, Prof. Larry Licht (see p. 9), is retiring, so I was dispatched by the chair of Biology to assist with gift buying. I had suggested that Larry, who is not just a herpetologist (that's a frog and general green-thing expert), but also interested in conservation and various other causes, might appreciate one of the crop of great books that vividly illustrate the link between environment, people and sustainability.

Paul Marmer, who just got back from a year in Mongolia came with me, to pick up a copy of Hungry Planet, by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio (2005). But, we were also very tempted by Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (2001), which I knew about from an outdoor photography exhibit in London, UK. The latter is pricey, at nearly $70, but is unbelievably gorgeous, and if you need some guilt to go with your enjoyment, visit Arthus-Bertrand's website, and read my blog on your March Break Ecological Footprint. Paul and I spent a lot of time debating which one to get since the budget did not stretch to both.

There are lots of text-heavy books on sustainability and the environment. But the fact is that a picture is still worth a thousand words. Both of these books will get MOST people to THINK about their ecological footprint, and that's always the first step. BUT, both books are engaging and not overly preachy. These are not straight environmental, nature books. They are much more than that. Ideally, we shouldn't be giving each other gifts of more stuff at all.

BUT, if you are looking for something for Father's Day, either of these would be well-received by most dads. The slightly less expensive 365 days of Earth from Above and the paperback version of Hungry Planet are in the $30-$40 price range.

Dawn Bazely and Paul Marmer

Composting at Home

As more and more municipalities introduce green bin programs to reduce the amount of organic waste entering landfills there is also an increase in consumer options for household composting units. Besides the conventional outdoor composters there has been an increase in indoor composters available for apartment dwellers that do not have access to municipal compost programs. These products range in size, level of work involved, costs, and how they compost the organic matter. All things organic is a website with a wide range of compost products and information on how to start your own home composting. The site also contains troubleshooting information on how to avoid getting odours and fruit flies. Household composting reduces your own household waste while providing you with organic soil for your plants or gardens thereby avoiding having to purchase potting soil elsewhere. If you still are not convinced watch this YouTube video on the Nature Mill an indoor small odourless household composting unit that uses heat not worms to break down the organic material. If you decide to take the leap to household composting you will not regret it. Another way we can all reduce our impact on the natural environment.

Canadians come second to last in green consumer survey

Check this link to a CBC news item that places us second to last in a fourteen-nation survey of green consumer choices. Conducted by the polling firm GlobeScan for the National Geographic Society, the Greendex confirms Canada's enormous per capita ecological footprint as represented most visibly in our large homes and car culture when compared to countries like Brazil, China, and India.

However, the findings of the survey are somewhat too obvious. We are either the top or second highest consumers of powers in the world, fueled by both our general affluence and our cold climate. A more accurate ranking of Canada's progress can be made by comparing us to Scandinavian countries (although, they are obviously far in advance of our American-influenced high consumption lifestyle).

Still, useful information can be gleaned from the survey of 14,000 individuals that weighs both extent footprints and consumer intent. You can likewise calculate your own score from the survey web site.

Essential listening on why we buy stuff – CBC’s The Age of Persuasion

The superb CBC radio series, The Age of Persuasion, hosted by Terry O'Reilly, is essential listening for everyone interested in Sustainability. There is an unofficial podcast.

This series introduces us to the world of advertising. In the past 100+ years, advertising has been encouraging us to consume more. It seems to me that if sustainability is about getting people in North America to consume less, then we need to harness the know-how of the advertising industry to help us here.

In 2003, the Canadian per capita Ecological Footprint was 7.6 global hectares per person, while that of people in many African and Asian countries was under 1 global hectare per person. So, that means that I am the equivalent of 8 people from those countries, in terms of what I consume - wood, metal, water, hydro. HOMEWORK for sustainable shopping is to read WWF International's 2006 Living Planet Report. In 1999, I started using the Living Planet Reports to teach my second-year Ecology class, BIOLOGY 2050, about ecological footprints. The 1998 report was only available in hard copy. The idea of the ecological footprint is very clearly explained in these excellent reports in which the data are pulled from many international government sources and vetted by various experts.

Dawn Bazely

Politically correct coffee grounds & sustainability Part 2

While on a coffee break from doing field work in London, Ontario, I was amazed to discover Starbucks' innovative programme in which they make their used coffee grounds available for people to put on their gardens. This is local resident and teacher, Trish Robertson, who told me that she really does use the grounds in her condo planters on a regular basis! While we don't see this in Toronto, presumably because municipal composting is available (I will be checking into this), in places like London, this programme must be diverting huge amounts of beans from landfill. I'd love to know the numbers on this and where all those other coffee grounds from other coffee shops are ending up. (Hello students - this would be a great research project...).

What's more, Starbucks even has a World Water Day link on their website. And, their business cards are printed on 100% post-consumer recycled material. Okay, okay, now I am beginning to feel bludgeoned by their sustainability initiatives. I take my hat off to them for their innovative leadership in both upstream and downstream coffee operations (I learned that term from my studies on oil and gas pipelines). I AM going to ask them more about the tons of coffee grounds that they need to dispose of at the end of each day. Many thanks to Michael and Lena at the Starbucks for their patience and enthusiasm in answering my questions.
Dawn Bazely

Politically correct coffee & sustainability Part 1

First off, I admit that I drink coffee, and if you do too, then Black Gold - "a film about coffee and trade" is essential viewing. Below is the trailer for this very hot doc.

In my home, we have been buying what I call politically correct coffee beans (fair trade etc.) for a very long time (over 20 years), and in the last 12 years, our beans have come from Alternative Grounds in Toronto. But, when it comes to coffee on-the-go, like loads of people, I tend to buy it from one of the large chains - Tim's, Starbucks, Timothy's, Second Cup etc. Given Canadian's strong devotion to drinking coffee, I thought I'd check in on how the BIG FOUR purveyors of coffee to Ontarians are doing in terms of leading us all towards more ethical coffee drinking. (Sure, there are other coffee chains, but in Toronto, and much of Ontario, these predominate).

Right off the bat, I applaud Timothy's for their collaboration around sustainable coffee with York's very own Las Nubes Centre for Tropical Conservation and Research. Starbucks is also right up there on ethical beans, especially in Ethiopia, as can been seen from the trailer at the end of this post. Tim Horton's has a webpage about its sustainable coffee partnerships in Guatemala, Columbia and Brazil but there's no specific mention made of the fair-trade or shade-grown concepts (though reforestation is mentioned). Hmm - this page raises more questions than it answers for me. Second Cup has a pledge "to work in harmony with both the environment and people". Since I spend loads of money at the Second Cup on York's campus, I can see that I will soon be quizzing the owner about this "pledge".

Obviously, it's now pretty much de rigeur for the big Ontario coffee chains to make at least some sustainability and fair-trade type of coffee statements about the start of a coffee bean's life (but, there still appears to be room for lots of improvement in this area at some of them).

But, can the sustainability at the end of a coffee bean's life-cycle also be improved? The answer is, quite simply, yes. To find out what, see Part 2 of this series.

Now, the next thing is for all of these companies to use biodegradable cups. Lots of independent coffee and tea shops are on the Greenshift, Toronto list, but it's not clear if it's because they are all using these compostable cups.

Dawn Bazely

Stuff: fixing rather than tossing

Saturday's Globe and Mail had an article titled If it's broke, fix it which lists a multitude of items that can be fixed rather than tossed, such as shirts whose collars have become too tight, luggage that needs a new panel or zipper, and purses that need to be relined. The point of the article is that you can help the environment and your wallet by repairing items rather than replacing them. It's a great message, but as is pointed out by the readers in the comment section, this is generally only practical for high quality items. When you buy something cheap, for example from a dollar store, it is normally more expensive to fix it rather than to replace it. And in our consumer society where one always wants the newest and latest thing, buying something that will last 20 years can be a hard sell.

[photopress:story_of_stuff.jpg,full,alignright]Another issue, is that things are simply designed to not last very long. Check out the fabulous The Story of Stuff video with Annie Leonard. This 20 minute look at stuff, from extraction to sale and use, and then disposal, highlights that things are designed to only last long enough for consumers to still have faith in them. This process, which is called planned obsolescence, essentially creates things for the dump - to last a little while, break, and be thrown out, so that the consumer will then go out an buy a new one. Annie also talks about perceived obsolescence, when we throw away things that are perfectly useful. This gets back to the issue of having the latest version of stuff - for example smartphones, such as the BlackBerry Curve, as I discovered recently with some MBA friends who seemed more interested in the "look" of the item, or "beauty" according to the website, rather than its features or "brains".

As Annie points out, all the advertisements that we are bombarded with try to tell us what we should want and have. And then we go out and get these things, otherwise we feel inadequate compared to our peers. So this means that we don't just buy cheap stuff because it is cheap, but we buy it because this is the only way the majority of us can afford to always have the latest thing. All of this reminds me of something somebody once told me: unhappiness is unmet expectations. It seems the root cause of our "stuff problems" is that we compare ourselves to what's happening in popular culture too much, rather than concentrating on what makes us happy. The take away then for me is to always aim to buy things that I really love rather than just what's in style, so that I won't get tired of them. I guess I'd better go get my brown boots fixed now, and walk my talk!