Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jolly green corporate giants

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts this week. I've been rushing to try and get ten pieces published at Associated Content before the end of this month in order to earn a small bonus. At this point I'm up to nine, with the tenth waiting for approval. The new ones include an explanation of how to organize your computer cables with pipe insulation as I did back in January, a reprint of an article I wrote for the "Live Cheap" blog on how to do your holiday shopping at yard sales, a guide to what I call "the three habits of highly frugal people," and an editorial on why a frugal lifestyle shouldn't be seen as a sacrifice. (After this I'll probably ease off on new Associated Content articles for a while, so readers of this blog won't have to be pestered about them all the time.)

So, what with all that other writing I've been doing, it's taken me a whole week to get around to blogging about an article I read in the New York Times last Thursday about the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The main thrust of it was that Earth Day started out as a fairly fringe-left, anti-establishment event, but now, 40 years later, it's a big, popular festival, and lots of corporations are taking advantage of it to market their green products and services. The article quoted one of the original founders of the Earth Day movement bemoaning the "tragic" way the event has been "perverted" by corporate marketing.

Now, I consider myself pretty close to the salad fork on the political place setting myself, but my honest reaction to this was, "Oh, stuff it." Because personally, I care a lot less about the purity of people's motives than I do about the actual results. Sure, it's likely that these corporations are only adopting green (or slightly greener) practices out of financial motives, rather than out of any real concern for the earth. So what? If the net outcome is less oil drilling, more recycling, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, then isn't that a good thing, regardless of the reasons?

In fact, I'll even go so far as to argue that having giant corporations hop on board the green bandwagon is the best possible outcome. Because think about it: a hundred pure-hearted environmentalists doing absolutely everything they can to be green—going off the grid, raising their own food, eschewing all fossil fuels, and living a 100 percent ideologically pure lifestyle—will still have far less actual impact on the environment than a huge, evil megacorporation like Wal-Mart becoming just a tiny bit less evil. Baby steps make a big difference when you have such a large footprint. It's like buying a fuel-efficient car: you'll have a lot more impact by trading in a huge, gas-guzzling SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon for a hybrid SUV that gets 20 (thus going from 10 gallons of gas per hundred miles to 5) than you will by trading in a fairly efficient compact car that gets 33 miles to the gallon for a super-efficient hybrid that gets 50 (going from 3 gallons per hundred miles to 2).

It may indeed be true that "a small group of concerned citizens can change the world," but the easiest way for it to do that is by influencing big decision-makers. And I see no point in taking a morally pure stand if it has no chance of making an actual difference. Voting for a tiny splinter-party candidate who takes the right and just position on every issue may make sense if what you want to do with your vote is to "make a statement," but if you actually want to make the country a better place, you'd be much better off giving your vote to a seriously flawed major-party candidate who's far less seriously flawed than the other major-party candidate. The former choice expresses your dissatisfaction with the system; the latter actually does something to change it.

And let's not forget the image of the environmental movement itself. The green movement has made vast gains in popularity, and therefore in clout, with the spread of the idea that going green can be easy and fun. And most people would much rather go to the mall than to a lecture. So if a soy-fiber plush toy can get apathetic, consumerist, mainstream America thinking and talking about environmental issues, isn't that a good thing?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day, if the weather holds

Today's weather report calls for "sunshine and clouds mixed," with "a stray shower or thunderstorm," which is singularly unhelpful when it comes to planning your day. Do you ride your bike to work, or do you risk being caught in that "stray shower or thunderstorm"? Should you hang the wash out on the line, or will that "stray thunderstorm" leave it more drenched than it was when it came out of the washer? In other words, how many of the "green" things you do most of the time will the weather ironically force you to skip on Earth Day?

This got me thinking about how the weather and climate affect the "greenness" of my behavior in general. For example, I'm sure I'm generally a deeper shade of green in the summer than I am in the winter. I can't line-dry my clothes in the winter, because they'd freeze solid (apparently there are some people who do this and bring them in, still frozen, to dry, but I'm not quite that dedicated); Brian can't ride his bike to work in the snow; and while I can go most of the summer without air-conditioning (I switch it on only when the temperature in the house hits 90 degrees, which may not happen more than twice in a summer), I certainly can't manage for most of the winter without heat. During the winter months, my garden lies neglected, and even eating local food is impractical, because nothing grows in New Jersey from November through March. (Barbara Kingsolver's local eating experiment in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I wrote about on my old blog, was only practical because the family moved across the country from hot, dry Tuscon to warm, fertile Virginia.) Even buying secondhand goods is harder in the winter, because there are no yard sales. In fact, according to Wikipedia, one of the reasons for choosing this date for Earth Day in the first place, forty years ago, was that it was "late enough in spring to have decent weather."

This is a troubling trend, because it suggests that we may be trapped in a vicious circle. Probably the biggest environmental problem the world faces right now is climate change—a better term than "global warming," because the earth isn't simply going to grow gradually and uniformly warmer across its entire surface; instead, weather patterns will shift dramatically, and one of the likely effects will be more and bigger storms. In other words, the weather is going to keep getting worse, and the worse it gets, the harder it will be for people to do the things that are needed (like driving less, or using less power) to mitigate the problem.

But on the other hand, some of our problems may turn out to be self-correcting. For instance, the burning of fossil fuels is a problem not just because of the greenhouse gases and other pollution they produce, but also because they're a limited, nonrenewable resource. But that may be a good thing, because as the supply of these fuels starts to run low, the prices will go up, giving a boost to conservation efforts and to the renewable-power industry. I'm not trying to say that the problem will take care of itself, and we don't need to do anything—merely that there are at least a few good reasons to hope that the efforts we do make won't be futile.

Personally, I've never been much of a believer in hand-wringing. Yes, we need to understand the scope of the problems we're facing, but only so that we can figure out what's needed to solve them. I prefer to focus on ways to succeed, rather than on the disastrous consequences of failure. So rather than joining the chorus of doomsayers, I'm going to come up—right now—with a list of ten simple things that I am doing to help the earth this Earth Day, come rain or come shine:

1. I got in and out of the shower in three minutes.
2. Afterward, I dried my hair with a microfiber towel rather than a blow-dryer (which is terrible for my dry hair anyway).
3. I have dressed in my secondhand best (every garment except the underwear).
4. I'm now brewing up a cup of organic, Fair-Trade coffee. (I'm also using Amy Dacyczyn's trick of adding half the original amount of ground coffee to the once-used grounds in the filter, to get a second cup from half as much coffee.)
5. I will submit at least one new green-themed article to Associated Content. (Side note: I've had three new articles published there since my last post. Two of them are reworkings of topics already discussed on this blog: a piece on the virtues of popcorn and the best way to take advantage of them, and an editorial on how the recession is making Americans greener. The other is a review of the new solar garden lights I picked up at the Aldi last week. I've added a handy link at the right that will take you directly to my Associated Content page.)
6. I will darn one of Brian's socks that has developed a hole in the toe (though this may actually be counterproductive, since we probably need new rags in our kitchen more than he needs new socks).
7. Speaking of which, I will use reusable rags to mop up all our kitchen spills, of which I'm sure there will be some.
8. I will take a walk (with an umbrella, if necessary) to renew my appreciation of nature.
9. Tonight's dinner will be meatless (potato-apple skillet, from the delectable Small Potato Cookbook).
10. And I went ahead and hung the laundry out on the line. Call it a leap of faith.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Second AC article

Associated Content has accepted my second article, "How to Install a Brown-Paper Floor." This is a step-by-step walkthrough of the project followers of this blog read about in my entries of February 8 and March 10. So if you'd like more details on how to tackle this job yourself, check out the article.

By the by, if you'd like to become a "follower" of my work on Associated Content and receive updates when I publish something new, it's quite easy to do. Just click on the link that says "follow" below the by-line at the top of any of my articles. Or you can just watch this space—I'll be sure to mention it here on the blog whenever I publish any new pieces on ecofrugal subjects.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Free coffee (and no paper waste)

Happy Tax Day! Okay, so that's not exactly a joyous occasion for most of us, but Starbucks is helping to take away the sting of it: bring in a reusable mug to your local Starbucks, and you can get it filled with brewed coffee for free. I'm not sure why they chose to do this particular promotion on Tax Day rather than Earth Day, but maybe they figure that anyone who has just finished wrestling with a tax return deserves a break.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I'm an Associated Container!

I've just published my first article on Associated Content: "Wasted Spaces: A Home Show for Real People (with Real Budgets)." Fans of this blog will recognize it as an expanded version of my entry from March 2. I plan to make this the first of many articles I post on ecofrugal topics. Many of these will be expanded versions of ideas I've explored on the blog, such as:

• How to install a brown-paper floor
• How to build your own media computer for $350
• Controlling computer cable chaos
• What is ecofrugality?

I'd welcome your suggestions about which of these ideas you think will make the biggest splash online, as well as your ideas for additional topics.

I'll let you all know as I add more articles, and I hope you'll take the time to check out my pieces and pass them along to any friends who might be interested in them. (The more page views they get, the more I earn, so please, don't be shy. :-))

Same old, same old

One thing I often find frustrating about articles on frugality and/or green living is that they so seldom have any new advice to offer. I'll eagerly click on a link to a list of "20 ways to cut your utility bill" or "10 simple steps to reduce water use" or "15 ways to save $100 this year," only to find that most, if not all, of the tips on the list are things I've been doing for years. (Those few that aren't are usually things that, for one reason or another, don't apply to my situation. For instance, I can't run my dishwasher only when it's full, because I don't have a dishwasher.)

Today, for example, I found this article about "Saving Money and the Environment" on the Dollar Stretcher site. Pleased to see someone else writing about ecofrugal ideas, I clicked on it and skimmed through it, only to realize that the tips she's offering in this article, such as "put aerators on your faucets" and "turn down the heat to 68 degrees," are essentially the same guidelines that appeared in 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth more than 20 years ago. Are there actually eco-conscious people out there who don't already know this stuff?

Of course, I realize that I'm probably not the intended target of this article. It's more likely intended as a primer in ecofrugality for people who have never really made any effort to save money or natural resources before. (Perhaps they've decided to start now as the recession starts squeezing their paychecks. Well, if it gets more Americans to pay attention to what they consume, then I guess this economic cloud has a silver—or green—lining.) And I guess that the reason so many books and websites keep going over these same ultra-basic ideas is that there are still so many people out there who don't reuse baggies and scrap paper, or hang their laundry, or take cloth bags to the grocery store, or any of the other hundreds of things that most of the folks in my circle already do. But all the same, I can't help wishing that just once in a while I could find an article with some new frugal ideas, ones that I haven't already heard countless times.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Financial tuneup

This week, I came across a page on the New York Times website that lists "31 Steps to a Financial Tuneup." Many of the steps (such as "Increase your student loan payment") don't apply to us, and there are others (such as "Check your credit reports for free") that we've already taken. However, after reading through the whole list, I picked out three steps that I thought might actually work for us. My results, as you'll see, were mixed.

1. Find a better bank. Ron Lieber, the Times' financial guru, points out that most customers no longer really need a brick-and-mortar bank with a branch in their neighborhood. With direct deposits, online banking, and waived ATM fees, online-only banks can offer the same level of service as local branches, and their lower overhead translates into higher interest rates on savings and checking accounts. After considering the question from several angles, I concluded that moving all our accounts to an online bank wouldn't work well in our case. For one thing, as a freelance writer, I get paychecks from different clients at different times, so I can't simply set up a direct deposit. Also, our mortgage is at our local branch, and having an account there is very convenient when we want to make an extra mortgage payment—we can just transfer money from one account to the other. However, I did notice that the amount in our account at the local bank was well above the minimum balance we needed to maintain in order to earn interest. So I took the bulk of the extra money—leaving just a slight cushion—and transferred it to the account we already have at the online-only bank ING. There, it will earn 1.1 percent interest instead of 0.4 percent—not a huge difference, to be sure, but every little bit helps.

2. Find a better-earning rewards card. When we first signed up for our rewards MasterCard a few years ago, it was offering a deal that looked pretty sweet: 1 percent cash back on all purchases, and as much as 5 percent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, and drugstores. Since those three categories account for at least half of our transactions in any given month, this was great for us. However, it turned out to be just a "teaser" deal that expired after a few months, and the bonus rate for gas, groceries, and drugs dropped to 2 percent cash back. Still, this was better than any other card I knew about, so I figured I had no cause to complain. However, when I took Lieber's advice and reviewed my credit card terms—something I hadn't done in a while—I discovered that the issuer had apparently dropped our cash-back rates still more (without bothering to notify us of the fact). We were now earning less than 1 percent on most purchases, and only slightly more than 1 percent in those three special categories. Hmm, not as sweet as I thought. A quick search on the financial site (which Lieber also touts on his page) led me to the "Chase Freedom" card, which offers 1 percent cash back on all purchases, and 5 percent cash back in various categories (such as groceries, air travel, and home improvement) that rotate on a quarterly basis. It took me just a few minutes to submit an application online, and my new card is now on its way.

3. Ask your cable company for a better deal. We don't have cable TV service, but we do have a cable modem, and I thought I might be able to negotiate a better deal on our service. A recent article about haggling in the Washington Post notes that companies may be more willing to deal if they fear losing your business to a competitor, so I called up our cable company and pointed out that, if I were to switch to DSL, I could pay $30 less per month. Of course, I hastened to add, I'd rather not have to switch, but gee, that sure is a big price difference, isn't it? So is there any way you could offer me a better deal? The answer: Nope. I persisted: What about the introductory offer you have on your website, $30 a month for the first year? Could we get that as existing customers? Still nope. Well, I said, playing my trump card, could I talk to someone else, a supervisor, who might have the authority to negotiate? The operator was happy to transfer me, but the supervisor I got on the line was no more open to negotiation. The only deal she could offer me, she said, was their "triple play," which bundles TV, phone, and Internet together for $90 a month, but since we don't currently have TV service, this would actually cost us more than we're paying now. "But you'd have a new service," she pointed out. Yes, but it's a service I don't need. "Well, I'm afraid that's all we have." So I politely signed off, with a veiled threat about "looking into my other options."

So, after investing a bit less than an hour of work, I was able to make two minor tweaks to our finances that may put a hundred or two extra dollars in our pockets each year—but I struck out on the third one, which actually offered the biggest potential savings. Oh well...two out of three, as they say, ain't bad.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Beautiful weeds

Saturday's mail brought us a flier from Lawn Doctor, offering to help us get a "lush, green, weed-free lawn." This description is so unlike our current lawn that I couldn't help wondering whether they had sent around spies to scope out the yards in the area and target the folks that they assumed were most in need of help. Our yard has become more or less a safe haven for weeds of all kinds, from chickweed to dandelions to wild garlic. One whole slope in our backyard is thickly covered with purple dead nettles, which look beautiful in the morning sunlight as I hang out the laundry. Yet I realize that the sight of this thick, lush growth would sent many if not most homeowners running for a bottle of Roundup. This fact moves me to wonder: who exactly decided that these flowers are "weeds," anyhow? Whose idea was it that the ideal lawn should be a thick, dense carpet of turfgrass with nothing else in it? Why is grass better than dandelions?

My handy desktop dictionary defines a weed as "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants." So basically, these various wildflowers are only weeds if you don't want them where they are. I'll readily agree that in my garden, a dandelion is a weed, because it's using up water and nutrients that I want to save for my tomatoes. But a lot of people seem to assume that every part of the yard should be filled with "cultivated plants," and therefore wild plants of any kind, anywhere, must be weeds. This seems like an awfully wasteful approach, since it requires you to get rid of all the plants that grow naturally in your yard, with no assistance from you, and put in plants that don't grow there naturally, which will require constant attention from you to keep them looking their best. For example, to keep a grass lawn looking good, you have to mow it, water it, fertilize it, and, oh yes, exercise constant vigilance to keep out the "weeds." (Or you can pay someone like Lawn Doctor to do it, to the tune of about $300 a year. Sure, you may have to stay inside for a couple of hours after they've sprayed all those chemicals around, but isn't it worth it to have a "lush, green, weed-free lawn"?)

So what's the ecofrugal alternative? Well, here's one that's really simple: if only unwanted plants are weeds, then all I have to do to get a "weed-free" lawn is to declare that all plants are welcome in my yard. Without pulling up a single plant, I'll have eliminated all the "weeds" by declaring them to be non-weeds, and it won't cost me a cent!