Thursday, July 31, 2008

How Green is your Valley?

In light of all the current legislation making cities greener I wonder really how green is this valley we live in?

In Seattle on the heels of discouraging bottled water from being the staple in our lives - drink tap its good for you!! we now have the plastic bag charge/styrofoam container ban effective next year. I wonder why this hard hitting edgy green move is causing such an uproar.

Plastic bag fees are quite common in Europe and for 20 cents I still think it has to be more economical than running out an buying plastic waste bin liners. And in a city like Seattle and San Francisco, that had that ban over a year ago. Our doppelganger or perhaps rival with which city is more Green. Those pesky Californian liberals or us Northwest liberals.. that feud never gets old does it? I have to wonder has there really been a big reduction in landfill waste and a tidier city? Well having just been back to the old city I would say no. Plastic bags still don the city streets and fly across the landscape as the bag donned as beautiful in American Beauty. To believe a surcharge or banning would have an effect is only known in theory as it is a city that has difficulty managing its massive other problems - and I know I used to live there. Enforcement and compliance.. who does it and how.. that I don't know but at least their Mayor is young handsome and potentially a boozer.

And while we all appreciate a city concerned about the wellness and ultimate greeness of its environment and ultimate health of its residents banning or barring water seems a tad overkill. Why not ban something more significant, such as all the plastic bottled non-water related beverages, which have a much wider impact on the city and its health. Does the Corn Lobbying industry have that much power to stop the sales of corn syruped laden beverages? They do come in cans and those are easily recycled.. wait so is plastic bottles...yes I can see why water is such a nemesis.

Much like bags, as now I have to BUY plastic bags to line my garbage or pick up my dog waste, I am not sure I have to. Its not like I can't get them well in Bellevue, Renton, Shoreline or Burien... are they doing the ban too? And the irony is that these bags are more widely re-used and take less resources to produce and place in landfills than their paper counterparts (which I do use to also line my trash bins).

So as cities look to go greener they are truly just pockets in much larger picture. When a city opts to lose bottled water or plastic sacks it only affects their residents as neighbors in adjoining communities continue to follow their same practices so what it means to be green seems more about an affect over an effect.

Having a green valley is great but not so great when the neighbor's valley's smokestack just doesn't stay on its side of the property line.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

IKEA is my Wal-Mart

Much has been made of IKEA and its accessible, inexpensive, cute named, Swedish designed furniture and home improvement products. Well as a self described "greenie" I loathe them with the same fervor that many possess for their American counterpart, Wal-Mart.

I actually can embrace Wal-Mart at some level. Not that I have shopped there or will, I loathe their personnel practices but they are moving towards resolving those issues, and they are also embracing green ideas and concepts which will encourage others to emulate when they see how it goes. And more importantly in vein with the idea "buy local" at least Wal-Mart is an American company and for now that is becoming an increasing rarity.

Sadly I cannot reserve even that much respect for IKEA. Now before people start screaming, XENOPHOBE, let me explain why I hate IKEA.

IKEA is the world's biggest charity - yes it's a non profit dedicated to interior design! Well the Bill Gates Foundation should change its mission to software in that case.

And IKEA its not even Swedish!

An article in the Economist ( discusses IKEA's business quite in depth - the link provides the details of this Dutch (not Swedish) non-profit's business dealings.

What I do find interesting is how Green can a company be that imports ALL of its products in China, a country known for its manufacturing processes that include toxic chemicals, child labor and well a carbon footprint that makes the Sasquatch look petite.

I am frequently told that their products are very usable and leave nothing to waste. Well of course, its Pre-fabricated. It should come with zero remnants. That is the idea. But I wonder what the factory is like or even what is used in the composition of the product. I have frequently tussled with the ever secretive IKEA group in trying to find out exactly what comprises the MDF or particle board in their beloved cabinets, especially those labeled "green."

The IKEA stores you see in outlying often in "bad" neighborhoods are there by design as well. At the expense of tax payers, IKEA receive tax breaks for opening in these at risk areas with the idea that they will hire a minimum of the local population to work in the store. Well having lived right next to one in Emeryville/West Oakland I can say with certainty none of my neighbors worked there unless they resembled the charming student population of nearby Cal at Berkeley. And their wages certainly did not rival Wal-Mart's in any way.

And citing the article directly.. IKEA does well to avoid all kinds of taxes...

Inter IKEA earns its money from the franchise agreements it has with each IKEA store. These are extremely lucrative: IKEA says that all franchisees pay 3% of sales. The Ingka Holding group, the company owned by the Kamprad foundation, is the biggest franchisee, with its 207 stores; other franchisees run the remaining 28 stores, which are mainly in the Middle East and Asia.

How much money does Inter IKEA Systems make? Its results are included in its parent company's accounts filed in Luxembourg. These show that in 2004 the Inter IKEA group collected €631m in franchise fees and made pre-tax profits of €225m. This profit is after deducting €590m of “other operating charges”.

Although IKEA would not explain these charges, because its policy is not to comment on the accounts of a private group of companies, Inter IKEA appears to make large payments to I.I. Holding, another Luxembourg-registered group that is almost certain to be controlled by the Kamprad family and which made a profit of €328m in 2004.

Together these companies had nearly €11.9 billion in cash and securities at the end of 2004, even after I.I. Holding paid out a dividend of nearly €800m during the year. Most of this money has undoubtedly come from the collection of franchise fees. In total, these two groups suffered tax bills of a mere €19m in 2004 on their combined profits of €553m. Clearly, the Kamprad family pays the same meticulous attention to tax avoidance as IKEA does to low prices in its stores.

The IKEA financial system of stichtingen and holding companies is extremely efficient. Even so, next time you wonder how anyone could have come up with the fiendish plans for a Hensvik storage unit or a Bjursta sideboard, spare a thought for the Kamprads' accountants.

I am frequently asked by people when they want to go "green" they discuss all kinds of products and materials and then we get to cabinets.. IKEA is the number one choice. Why? Do you know what materials are used in the composition, how its made and more importantly the distance its shipped to get here.. the response is always the same.. they are cheap. And these are people who are committed to the notion of green!

Well in that vein .. the belief is that being green is also advocating sustainability then things that are cheap are cheaply produced puts the longevity on such items short at best. And cabinets, next to appliances, should be treated with the idea that they are the last thing you want to replace or upgrade when you tire of the aesthetics. Flooring, countertops, backsplash, and paint are much easier and less costly to re-do when the time comes. Cabinets should be the primary investment and therefore the second most significant item when determining your remodeling budget. To put in IKEA is a guarantee that in the next few years you will need to replace them, filling the landfills with more waste and the costs that are offset in the purchase will be negated during installation.

It takes (according to Fine Woodworking with a master carpenter at the helm) over 60 minutes to put together a box. Add to that the time to adjust, adapt and set the box (depending on the structure/state of the kitchen and type of countertop material selected) another 30-45 minutes to set the box in place. Multiply that by the number of boxes and you can see this is an expensive proposition. That labor intensive process for a product made of MDF with a life of 5-10 years seems excessive at best and certainly makes one wonder the value of the the "savings"

Even movers I have spoken with are loathe to move IKEA furniture as it doesn't hold up well during transit and is easily damaged putting them in liability for ostensibly what is throw away items not worth the expense of moving. Great more to add to the landfill.. my Utudesk.

So the next time you feel compelled to own a Luvesk or have a Swedish Meatball. Make some of your own and watch the Travel Channel on Sweden as that is a lot more authentic and greener than your IKEA store.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Green Envy

Are you envious that the Green Jeans next door are just a little more green than you? Do you wish you were just a little more green in your daily life? Well then you may have green envy.

As a Green Construction Consultant, I am asked all the time what can I do to make my home just a little greener? And to that I respond, "paint it" But in all honesty finding your shade of green in comparison to all the Green Jeans that surround us seems much tougher than it looks. Even Corporations are busy identifying themselves as the next shade of Green. There is even a network, Planet Green, which provides us with more ways to go green 24/7. Nothing says Green more than watching Green programming on a massive LCD Screen. Green is the new black when it comes to fashion. And with all the new names that tell us how cool green is its not long before green is "out" as the last contestant on Project Runway.

Well before all that green causes us to turn green let's not hit the green panic button yet because we aren't green enough. That is the last thing anyone wants is green to be just another fad that we tire of and it hits the landfills next to our walk-man's and HD DVD players.

What does it mean to be "green?" Is it another way Madison Avenue and Wall Street can sell us the latest good or product and hope that once Apple introduces its Green Ipod it won't be the next "New Coke?" Being green is much more than buying the latest in composting machines, paint or automobile. Its a way of living, embracing cautious consumerism and waste that has been the norm for the past few decades. But it also means that with that comes the backlash and sudden Inconvenient Truth which we have finally come to face.

But going out and discarding everything in your home that isn't green is probably the last thing you need to do to embrace being green. Sure your Green Jean neighbors and friends seem to have the latest in gray water techniques, the best appliances and the most energy efficient homes with certifications and stars to match, but some of that is more than just a philosophy or fad its a financial commitment that takes more than saving resources it takes spending them and well discarding some as well.

If your car is working efficiently and has always been a reasonable vehicle then going out to buy a Smart Car or Hybrid may not be necessary. Instead of replacing it with another vehicle and sending that to the car graveyard, drive less, walk or take the bus. That home of yours may be fine but need simple repairs to make it energy efficient. And even in Seattle the clothesline is a great alternative to the dryer if you cannot get one of those super Euro efficient models that look great and cost even more. And while I am a great advocate of those appliances, those cars and super windows/doors and insulation that makes one's home and life more greener the most green thing you can do is spend your green wisely.

Going green takes the most important resource - time. Spending time wisely researching what things you can do to make your life greener is the best way to start. Don't follow the Green Jeans but follow your life, your budget and your needs. Understanding what you can do to make the world and the quality of life for you and yours first is the easiest and best way to start. And yes that is an overwhelming task but here are some simple ways that require little to no dollar investments but the paybacks are immediate.

  • Shorter showers and use a rain-catcher for the cold water for those indoor plants or take a cold shower rinse using that water.. great for the skin.
  • Put buckets in the yard as rain-catchers.. I use those for my outdoor containers.
  • Walk.. I walk to the store and I bring my own bags
  • Line your garbage with those paper or plastic bags if you don't have your own.
  • Turn lights off... we all look good in the dark and then when those light bulbs, whatever kind you have, buy only what you need and can responsibly dispose of.
  • Eat less and even less meat.. good for the body and the planet
  • Take your shoes off when you come in the house... makes carpet easier to clean and brings in less dirt and toxins into the home
  • Spend wisely.. buy what you need when you need it.
  • Wash clothes in cold water and turn stuff off..
  • Recycle and commit to it for EVERYTHING
  • Buy used goods... its here already and keep it going.
  • Have fun anxiety is bad for the environment
  • Make your own green cleaners using baking soda/bleach or white vinegar

Let those Green Jeans envy you for a change. They may have a great deal more to save our planet but they also spent a great deal more to do it.