Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hair care and cleaning finds

OK, two VERY different items here:

First, a salon owner near my job recommended a natural black hair care salon to me: Classy & Sassy Braids (Beyond), in Lakewood, WA.


Second (and apologies for combining these two items in one post!), I found a sustainable toilet bowl scrubber. One of the problems with the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" method of saving water is that your toilet gets dirtier faster, and needs to be cleaned more often. Which means that the plastic toilet bowl scrubber becomes gunky and worn out faster, too. Since it can't be recycled, replacing it often is not very sustainable. (The other option I know of, the Clorox toilet wand with disposable pads, is also not very eco-friendly).

Greenfeet.com, an online store for eco-products, sells a Coir Commode Brush for $7.95. The handle is made from wood, and the brush is made from coconut shell fibers. It's stronger and more durable than a plastic scrubber and is biodegradable. Customer reviews also indicate that it works better!

The only downside is that it doesn't have a container to place it in (for the nasty water drip-off after you use it), but I can probably find a glass jar at a thrift store that is big enough to use for this purpose. And speaking of thrift shops, please sign the Facebook petition in support of a National Thrift Store Month!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sharing our wisdom and knowledge

At one time in human history, wisdom was passed from elders who taught their childen everything they knew in very hands-on ways. We've lost a lot of that. We've gained in different ways, through universal primary and secondary education and the opportunities many have to further their education beyond that. And of course, libraries and the Internet are fantastic tools for self-education.

But we really are missing something by not passing on knowledge in the old-fashioned ways as well. I've been reading the books I have about gardening, and I'm learning about such things as plant diseases, seed-saving, improving your plants' hardiness, etc. My father was a gardener and trained horticulturalist, and he never taught me these things. He was a great father in many, many ways, but he never passed on to his children his wisdom in the area of his greatest expertise. We helped in the garden with weeding and picking ripe veggies, but he never had us help him plant anything, never taught us about how to ensure a successful harvest, never taught us about fertilization--you get the idea. I want my daughter to help me at every stage along the way in my own attempt to become a gardener. Maybe she'll never use that knowledge as an adult, but at least she'll have it.

Parenting is another area in which shared wisdom is often not passed down. (And some that is passed down can be downright harmful--my boss was talking recently about the old wives' tale of giving babies Scotch to keep them quiet!). I have read that about 94% of women have the ability to breastfeed successfully, but breastfeeding rates in the US are much lower than that. That's partly due to work and cultural pressures that make breastfeeding a challenge, but also due to the difficulties some women have in successfully establishing breastfeeding. I was lucky--my daugther latched on well the first time we tried and off we went, never having any problems with nursing. A lot of women aren't so lucky, and don't have the support they need to overcome any breastfeeding problems they encounter.

I really wanted to cloth-diaper, in large part because of my concerns about the environment. I didn't, for many reasons: I had to return to work full-time after 8 weeks of maternity leave, we didn't have our own washer and dryer, and there was no diaper-cleaning service in my area. Several women I talked to said that given that, it would be nearly impossible for me to keep up with the laundry.

In addition to the laundry logistics challenge, I also felt that I lacked knowledge. I looked online at cloth-diaper sites, and there were so many varieties--which would be best? The easiest to use were also the most expensive, and most out of my price range. The ones I could afford, I wasn't confident I could figure out how to use. The info many sites provided about how to clean and care for cloth diapers often conflicted. So even without the laundry issue, my knowledge gap made cloth diapering seem daunting.

Here's a shout-out, then to a store that is trying to share their wisdom and knowledge about parenting: Best Loved Baby, a natural children's boutique here in Tacoma. I met some of the co-owners last summer at a community festival, and they told me that they offer free classes and lots of advice on how to cloth diaper, how to pick the best cloth diapers for your child and lifestyle, how to launder them, etc. They started the store, and the classes, in large part because they felt that when they began having children, no one was around to teach them. Therefore, they want to help teach other families. Here is their story. (Sad to say, by the time I met them, my daughter was already potty-trained).

I have also made some recent connections, locally and nationally, with groups that are helping others with gardening and eco-living. I'll write more about them as I learn more.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Going natural

I've been reading "Going Natural: how to fall in love with nappy hair," by Mireille Liong-A-Kong. From what I've read so far, I'm already following many of her recommendations: getting away from commercial products and replacing them with such naturals ingredients as shea butter, olive oil, and aloe; wrapping my hair in a silk scarf at night; and keeping my hair well-moisturized. She recommends the Curly Girl "no-poo" method of washing your hair with conditioner that I'm also doing. And she also differs, as I do, with the Curly Girl method of not combing your hair--she emphasizes that gentle de-tangling is essential.

She has a few recommendations that I need to start doing. First, she recommends regular deep conditioning, at least once every two weeks. I found a recipe online that I'll try: 1 c. mayo, 1/2 avocado, 2 T coconut oil blended together and applied to the head. Cover with a shower cap and warm towel, and let it absorb for 20-30 minutes and then rinse and wash well.

She also recommends keeping the scalp clean between washes, since most black women shouldn't wash their hair frequently. Her suggestion is to apply witch hazel with a cotton ball to the scalp to clean it, and jojoba oil to moisturize the scalp between washes. Jojoba oil closes matches the sebum that is naturally found in the hair. I think I need to do this once a week, about halfway between washes.

A few more things: she says that if you're not willing to chop off all your relaxed hair at once (which I'm not!), then at some point the two textured part natural/ part relaxed hair on your head will become very difficult to manage, usually between the third and sixth month. At that point, you should wear your hair in braids or twists until it grows out enough to cut off the remaining relaxed hair. I can braid and twist, but not that well, so I need to find someone in Tacoma who can help me with this.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Deals on green products and services

True, green products and services are often more expensive than the traditional ones. However, several web sites compile information about coupons, sales and give-aways for green stuff. Here are a few:

SustainLane.com: Coupons and discount information

Ecobunga!: Guide to green giveaways and deals

Sage and Savvy: Reviews, giveaways, and more

True Cuddles: Deals on green stuff for babies and children

Green Mom Finds: Deals on green stuff for families and children

Weekend Shopping Update

On Sunday, daughter and I went to Goodwill on 38th Street. Yeah, I strayed from our favorite, Value Village. I had been looking for a while for one of those shower organizers that you hang over the showerhead to store your soap, shampoo, etc., and Value Village hasn't had one. I found one at Goodwill for $1.99. Daughter also found an adorable pair of pink sneakers, in great condition, for $1.99. They're too big right now, but she'll grow into them in about a year. (That didn't stop her from wearing them to daycare today! She got compliments on them from her little buddies as soon as she walked in the door). Knowing this, dear readers, how can you not support the petition to create a National Thrift Store Month?

I also went to Goodwill because it's next to Marlene's Marketplace, a natural foods store that I hadn't yet investigated. Not surprisingly, the store is too pricey for my budget. However, I did find Preserve razor blades there, which I had been searching for. Preserve makes razors, toothbrushes, and kitchen products from recycled plastic.

I first bought a Preserve razor and some blades from Whole Foods in Boston, but haven't found them anywhere here in Tacoma. (The nearest Whole Foods is in Seattle; Trader Joe's carries their toothbrushes but not their razors. I told the TJ Manager, who said she didn't realize they made razors, and she'd look into stocking them). I don't have to shave very often, so it takes me about 6 months to go through a single razor blade. I really wanted to buy Preserve again, and was struggling with the idea of having to go back to disposables or buying them online ($7.49 for 4 blades, plus shipping and handling). So I was thrilled to find and purchase the 4-blade pack for $5.99 at Marlene's.

The other reason why I wanted to stick with Preserve is because they will accept #5 plastics and used Brita filters from their customers, which they use to create their products. My municipality doesn't accept #5 plastics in its recycling bins, and no one else, that I know of, takes Brita filters, so I'm delighted to have a means to recycle this stuff!

Oh! I almost forgot! I purchased a book from one of the vendors at the WA Alliance of Black School Educators conference: "Going Natural: How to fall in love with nappy hair" by Mireille Liong-A-Kong. This will help me on my "no more chemicals" journey. Yay!

Weekend Update

On Saturday, Amy A (me) and Amy B did a workshop on the environment during the youth session of the Washington Alliance of Black School Educators annual conference. Amy B talked about environmental justice, and I talked about individual and collective action and opportunities in the green economy. It didn't go as well as I had hoped. We spoke in the mid-afternoon, and the young people, who had been very engaged in the morning, were tired by then. Also, I wasn't as prepared as I would have liked. But it was a start.

It was also great to get to know Amy B better. In addition to her work in public health, she founded a nonprofit with some of her graduate school classmates that focuses on environmental justice issues locally and tries to make sure that people of color and low-income communities are represented when environmental issues are being addressed here in the state. She also has a cornucopia of animals at home, and invited me to bring my little one over sometime to see them.

Meanwhile, said little one and hubby were visiting a farm here in Pierce County, run by an older black gentleman. My daughter got to see chickens and goats, and pet a baby pig. This farmer is interested in partnering with us for the Hilltop Farms idea by providing produce for a farmer's market that we would like to start up here. Hubby bought two dozen organic eggs from him. I wasn't sure I could taste a difference, but I could definitely see a difference. The yolks are much firmer, and a much brighter golden yellow than non-organic eggs.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Method products?

A lot of people rave about Method cleaning products as a natural, eco-friendly alternative to your typical commercial products. When I started seeing them in the stores, however, the ingredients list looks similar to most other non-eco-friendly products.

When we first moved here, I was pleased to discover a Trader Joe's near our home--we lived pretty far from TJ's in Boston. I started buying TJ's Next to Godliness liquid hand soap, which is $3.49 for 17 fl oz. This is the ingredients list: Natural and plant derived surfectants, earth salts, lavender oil, chamomile oil, tea tree oil, grapefruit seed oil, tocopherol (vitamin E) and water. "Natural surfectants" is not defined, but otherwise everything on the list is something recognizable. This hand soap smells good, and feels good on my hands.

Trying to be more economical, however, I tried to find an eco-friendly large hand soap refill bottle at Costco (Costco's Kirkland line has many organic and natural products). They didn't have anything like that in hand soap, but I did find a Method 96 fl oz refill bottle of their sea mineral hand soap. At $6.99, I decided it was time to give Method a try.

I hated the smell! And then I checked the back. "Fragrance" (undefined) is listed on the back--a term which many, many cosmetic safety advocates say is a red flag for some of the worst chemicals in any product. And compare Method's ingredients list to Soft Soap:

Method: Water, sodium lauryl sulfate, cocamide DEA, cocamidopropyl, betane, glycerin, aloe barbadensis gel, tocopheryl acetate(vitamin E), citric acid, sodium chloride, sodium citrate, benzophemone-4, methylchlorosoththazolinome, methylisothiazolizone, fragrance, ext violet 2, blue 1.

Soft Soap: Water, sodium laureth sulfate, cocamidopropyl betane, fragrance, DMDM hydantoin, PEG-120 methyl glucose dioleate, tetrasodium EDTA, sodium sulfate, citric acid, PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate.

Did you understand either of those lists? Me either.* Note that not only does Method's ingredients list appear no more natural than Soft Soap's, but it's a much longer list of chemicals and also includes dyes. And both include the red flag, "Fragrance."

I emailed the company with my concerns, and was told that they've tested all their ingredients and none are harmful to humans, and that they can't let anyone know what "fragrance" means because that would be giving away their trade secrets.

Now, I hate wasting anything, so I have been using the Method soap. The reason I have Soft Soap in my house is because I love their 7.5 oz foaming hand cleanser bottles. You can fill them about one-quarter full with soap and the rest with water, and the foaming bottle will make adequate soap with every pump. So it allows me to really stretch my liquid soap refills. I've been refilling the Soft Soap bottles with water and Method, which doesn't smell so bad when it's mixed with so much water. And by using the Soft Soap bottles, the Method has lasted since September.

However... I still don't get how Method can claim to be more natural. Anyone else know?

* OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. The following Method soap ingredients--glycerin, aloe barbadensis gel, tocopheryl acetate(vitamin E), citric acid, sodium chloride--are natural, and apparently the ingredients that begin with "coca" in both Method and Soft Soap are made from coconut.

FYI, check out this description of sodium laureth sulfate in Wikipedia. While the conclusion that SLS doesn't harm humans reported there may be true (I'm not knowledgable enough to say), the glowing description of SLS could only have been written by someone with a vested interest in SLS's use in the cosmetics industry. Note, too, that sodium laureth sulfate (in Soft Soap) and lauryl sulfate (in Method) are similar but not identical. According to Wikipedia, S lauryl S is the harsher of the two compounds.

UPDATE: I looked up both of these products on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety database. Both received a combined score of 5 (out of 10, where 0 or 1 are the safest, and 10 is the most toxic). Both were flagged strongly for "fragrance," and Soft Soap was also flagged strongly for DMDM hydantoin. So Method hand soap is really no more natural or safe than Soft Soap. It just, like many of the relaxers marketed as "natural" that I mentioned in my "No more chemicals!" post, has a few natural ingredients added to it, such as aloe.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The White House Garden is now a reality

First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground for the White House Kitchen Garden today, along with a group of school children. There were many groups, including the White House Farmer movement, pushing for this to happen. Cheers to the Obamas and to everyone who made this happen for this great example!

Rebuilding a Life with Thrift Store Shopping

The Thrifty Chicks (http://thethriftychicks.blogspot.com) is a blog "dedicated to a more robust global repurposing market"--repurposing being another word for second-hand. They're promoting the idea of a National Thrift Store Month and are asking bloggers to spread the word and share their experiences.

Long before I cared about being green, I cared about being frugal. (Since I've always worked for community-based nonprofits, I've never had a lot of money, LOL!). A great way to be frugal is thrift store shopping.

I tried to thrift-shop back in Boston, mostly buying clothes and toys for my daughter. However, to put it bluntly--the thrift stores I knew of in Boston sucked. When I started caring more about the environment after my daughter was born, I decided that do more second-hand shopping as a matter of principle.

I had the toughest time sticking to that resolution in Boston. Many of the items sold in thrift shops were in poor condition, and it was hard to find what I was looking for. I wear a size 10--that's a pretty common size for a woman. And yet, I often searched for months to find clothing at thrift shops that fit me, with no success. I remember finally buying a too-big pair of jeans at Goodwill out of desperation, because my old jeans were almost in tatters and that was all I could find. On a visit with my sister, she looked at me and said, "Those are 'mom' jeans. I cannot have you walking around looking like that!" She took me shopping that same day to buy a new pair that fit!

When we moved cross-country last May, we drove for two weeks, stopping to see friends and relatives along the way. Hubby, daughter and I packed one suitcase each of travel-friendly clothing, and shipped one box each of the really expensive items that would be hardest to replace, such as winter coats, suits, and formalwear. We also shipped some books and personal items, and took in the car with us a few toys, some smaller electronics (e.g., hubby's laptop, the portable DVD player), and the items we'd need on the road. But the vast majority of what we owned in Boston, we sold, gave away or donated before we left.

That means we had to purchase almost everything after we arrived here in Tacoma, except for furniture, as we moved into the furnished home of military relatives who are now overseas. Tacoma is a military town (a large Army Base and Air Force base are just south of the city), which is why, according to a friend, thrift shopping is so good here--people frequently move in and out of town.

Virtually everything we've purchased since we moved here has been second-hand. This has included a microwave, computer desk, chairs, a lawnmower, a bike and scooter for my daughter, pots and pans, utensils, an extra dresser and nightstand, linens, clothing, shoes, books, movies and toys. I have been utterly amazed at the fact that we could rebuild our life without buying anything new. And I have no trouble finding used clothing that's in great condition and that fits me!

I've shopped at several local thrift stores, but Value Village on 19th Street is by far my favorite, as well as my daughter's--she loves playing in their toy section. So sign me up for National Thrift Store Month!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Other "green for the rest of us"* blogs

I just discovered a new blog today, called, "Black and Into Green," on going green from an African-American perspective. And the blogger's from my hometown, Cleveland! I commented on one of her posts and gave her my blog url, and I hope we can start communicating. She also has a blog roll that includes other African-American environmental blogs, so I'm excited.

* When I say "Green for the rest of us," I don't define "rest of us" as exclusively black or African-American. I mean "rest of us" in terms of anyone who wants to be greener, but has felt as though they couldn't or were limited in their ability to do so because environmentalism seemed to be a white thing, a wealth thing, an access thing, etc., as a result of real or perceived barriers. I want to talk about solutions to those issues, so that green CAN be something all of us can participate in and benefit from.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When it rains, it pours!

Is there another expression I can use? This one often has negative connotations, and I want to use it the most positive sense.

A short while ago, my boss pulled me into a meeting with a woman from the public health department, also named Amy. (When we first met, she said she was excited to meet another woman of color named Amy, since there aren't many of us!). The discussion turned to all the ways we want to work together to serve the community, in terms of preventing infant mortality, improving health, and improving the environment. It turns out that Amy's college thesis was on the topic of environmental justice in Tacoma. The upshot is that in the long term (meaning the next six months to two years), we want to plan and implement programs including a farmer's market, Hilltop Farms urban gardening, a support program for pregnant women and new mothers, nutrition classes at the local food pantry, and more. And in the short term (meaning this weekend!), Amy and I have been asked to plan a workshop for a group of teens around environmental issues.

No more chemicals!

On my hair, that is. As a black woman, chemical relaxers have been a part of my life every two months since I was twelve, except for a few years in which I cut my hair short. (Before I was 12, it was straightening combs! Singed hair and burnt ears! Yeah, I don't miss those days). I started relaxing my own hair in college, along with my roommate, because neither of us could afford to go to the hair dresser. According to many of the cosmetic safety reports I've read, chemical relaxers are probably the worst product on the market for toxins that harm both the person using the product and the environment. Even the relaxers marketed as "natural" have natural ingredients added, such as shea butter or jojoba oil, but the basic ingredients of the product remain a toxic soup.

So it's time to go natural. Options available to black women who want to go natural include: braids (which can be expensive, if you have to pay someone who braids well); dread locks; and cutting your hair short. I've done the short hair route, and I don't want to do it again at this point; I don't think I look that good with it. (Although my sister's hair is currently very short and she looks fabulous, I must say!). My hair is sandy blond, and I think dread locks with light-colored hair look silly (IMO). And I can't afford braids.

There are women who wear their hair in longer natural styles, but you have to really learn how to care for it well. So that's where I'm at right now. The last time I relaxed my hair was in December. Normally, I'd be due for another touch-up right about now, but I'm not going to do it. I've started adding vegetable glycerin to the hair care products I make (described in my Feb. 10, 2009 post). I've read that vegetable glycerin is a humectant, which when added to a beauty care products, helps your skin or hair attract and retain moisture. I've been using my products to especially moisturize the roots and ends of my hair, and then brush my hair well, using a soft boar's hair bristle brush. So far, my hair looks pretty good, with little frizz, and has a nice wave to it.

I'd like to continue along this route. I'll see what happens as my previously relaxed hair continues to grow out.

You can only do the best you can

That is something I used to tell myself frequently when reading, "No Impact Man," one of my favorite environmental blogs. NIM, aka Colin Beaven, is a New Yorker who, along with his wife and young daughter, embarked on a year-long experiment to see if they could make no environmental impact. Since no impact is literally impossible, they wanted to make as little negative impact as possible, and counteract any negatives with positive impact (i.e., doing such things as environmental cleanups and advocacy). The year is now over, and they are retaining many (but not all) of the habits they developed during their no-impact year. A documentary has been made about them, and a book is forthcoming.

So I'd read his blog, and sometimes I'd go nuts, thinking, "How in the world could I ever do that!" I remember commenting on one entry in which he described the solar panel used to power up his laptop. I said something like, "The average person can't afford solar panels." Someone commented back, "The Beaven's can't either! Someone donated that to them!" Um, OK. The average person isn't likely to have someone donate solar panels to them, either.

Another issue that came up for many readers (not me, living in public-transportation friendly Boston at the time), was Colin's discussions of taking public transportation and biking instead of driving. A lot of readers lived in rural areas, or in urban areas with poor or no public transportation and with such heavy traffic that biking is very hazardous. These readers often responded with the same anger/ guilt/ defensiveness that I often felt when a green idea seemed impossible for me.

Anyway, I finally decided that I could only do the best I could do, given my circumstances, and to stop feeling guilty about the things I can't do (although I want to keep learning new ideas). For me, cost is a big issue. One of my reasons for starting this blog is that I am always searching for very cheap ways to go green, and I want to share what I discover. For example, I can't afford to buy expensive organic clothing. But I can buy all of my and my daughter's clothing second-hand, except for underwear and socks. (Hubby is a different story. He's 6'7" -- it's nearly impossible to find used clothing in his size).

"Crunchy Chicken" is another environmental blog I read, based in Seattle. She often issues challenges to her readers, and the current one is the "Sustainable Food Budget Challenge." The goal is to eat sustainably on the same budget allotment as food stamps. For my family of three, it's $463/month. The goal is to eat almost everything either locally-produced or organic within that budget.

Several people wrote in saying that that was totally doable, and were excited to accept the challenge. Then I wrote about the fact that my grocery budget is already below that amount (about $300/month), and I can't afford to increase it, and at this point, only about 25% of what we eat is locally produced and/or organic. After I wrote, several other people said something similar, including questioning the assertion by both Crunchy and several commenters that produce at farmer's markets is cheaper than in supermarkets. (That was true in Boston; it is NOT true in Tacoma). Others commented that to travel to the farms or farmer's markets where they could then then buy the local and organic foods, they'd have to drive a considerable distance; all the driving then cancels out the sustainability of the food they purchase.

So what can I (or anyone) do if they want to go green in an area, and find it's not feasible for their circumstances? I'll use the Sustainable Food Challenge as an example.

1) Don't feel guilty about it. Guilt is generally counter-productive.

2) Decide what you can do. In my family's case, we are eating less meat (less meat being less poultry in our case; we already almost never* eat red meat). We stock up on non-perishable organic foods when they're on sale. And we can try to grow our own.

3) Work with others for more collaborative solutions. In Boston, there is an urban gardening and youth development program called The Food Project (thefoodproject.org); the Dudley Street farmer's market run by the kids was one of the affordable ones where we shopped in Boston. I currently work in a Tacoma neighborhood called the Hilltop; my husband has an idea for a Food Project-like program that he's calling Hilltop Farms. We are also members of the not-yet up and running Tacoma Food Co-op, and we can see how we can do more to help that group get started.


* "Almost never" is literal. We'll eat red meat if it's being served at someone's home, and two or three times per year, my husband gets a hankering for steak or ribs.