Monday, November 28, 2011

Fair Trade gets a bit less fair

For a few years now, I've been buying organic, Fair Trade certified coffee in bulk from a supplier in Massachusetts called Dean's Beans. By buying five pounds at a time from them, I was able to keep the price down below $10 a pound—which is still pretty expensive, but the best deal I'd ever managed to find for Fair Trade. (On the off chance that anyone reading this blog isn't already familiar with Fair Trade, the idea behind it is to ensure that farmers and craftspersons are paid a fair price for their goods. Various organizations offer Fair Trade labels, which certify that they have inspected the farm and ensured that it meets basic standards for worker treatment, sustainability, and so on. The international umbrella organization for such groups, Fairtrade International, has more information.)

On my most recent visit to the Dean's Beans site, however, I made two distressing discoveries. First, the cost of both coffee and shipping has gone up, pushing the price per pound to nearly $11; and second, in a possibly related development, Fair Trade USA (the most prominent certifier of Fair Trade goods in this country), has just split off from Fairtrade International and has lowered its standards to certify products with "as little as 2% Fair Trade ingredients." In other words, the familiar "Fair Trade Certified" logo is about to become all but meaningless. The folks at Dean's Beans predict that brands like Starbucks and Green Mountain will soon proudly promote themselves as "100 percent Fair Trade Certified," even though their actual supply chains won't have changed one bit.

Frustrated by these developments, I decided to check out the selection of Fair Trade coffees at Trader Joe's. I wanted to find out, first of all, whether they still offered any Fair Trade selections that came in at under $10 a pound, and second, whether their coffees were legitimately Fair Trade. The good news is that the answer to both questions was yes: Joe had several types of joe bearing Fair Trade labels, and all of them were marked as complying with the international standards—not the newly lowered standards of Fair Trade USA. And while not all of these coffees were under $10 a pound, several of them were. The bad news, for me at least, was that not one of these selections was available in decaf. So, for coffee drinkers who want the buzz—and a Fair Trade standard with some teeth—Trader Joe's looks like the way to go. But for those of us who can't handle the caffeine, it looks like Dean's Beans Mexican Chiapas decaf, at $45 for 5 pounds (plus $9 for shipping), is still the best deal in town.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Respect the Bird!

The Washington Post has an article today about a subject that's long been a pet peeve of mine: "Christmas creep." This phrase refers to the tendency of retailers to try and extend the Christmas shopping season as long as possible, often putting up their holiday greenery before Halloween. This sort of thing happens at other times of year as well (back-to-school sales start before school is even out, and fall decorations appear in mid-August when the mercury is at 92), and it always disturbs me to see just how much modern society has lost touch with the natural cycle of the seasons. However, Christmas creep is a particularly egregious example because it means that another perfectly good holiday, Thanksgiving, gets glossed over as if it didn't count. The grocery stores do take a bit of notice, but since food is pretty much the only thing people buy for Thanksgiving, all other retailers tend to ignore it and skip straight on to Christmas, with all its glitz and goodies. In fact, the very thing that makes Thanksgiving one of my favorite holidays—the fact that it's all about family and isn't a massive purchase-fest—is what leads most businesses to give it short shrift.

Well, it appears I'm not the only one who feels this way. A campaign called "Respect the Bird" is now taking shape on Facebook, urging people to give Thanksgiving the attention it deserves—and specifically, not to let the holiday weekend be "gobbled up" by Black Friday shopping. And while some stores are trying to push Black Friday sales as early as possible, actually opening up their doors on Thanksgiving Day itself, at least one—Nordstrom—is pushing back, with a tasteful sign explaining that you won't see any holiday decorations there until November 27, because "we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time." (This pleases me so much that it almost makes me want to go out and buy something at Nordstrom just to support them in their stance—but unfortunately, my ecofrugal instincts still rebel at their prices.)

The video that accompanies the article makes the point that "Thanksgiving is about being grateful for what we already have, while Christmas [at least the way it's often presented] is about going out and getting more." And especially in this economy, it seems like we could all do with a lot more of the former than the latter. (On a related note, those who object to having Christmas itself turned into a consumer-fest might like to take a look at the Simplify the Holidays campaign run by the Center for a New American Dream. The website offers a list of suggestions for ways to take the emphasis on "stuff" out of the winter holidays and refocus them on family, friendship, and, for the true believers, faith.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting rid of "stupid plastic"

Recently, the blog at ran an entry about the evils of plastic. Most of it was stuff we've all heard before—it's ubiquitous, it's toxic, it kills baby sea turtles—but the author did concede that "There are a lot of great things that plastic has made possible, like artificial hearts, lightweight glasses, and Kevlar vests for police officers." So she summed up her position on plastic in the words of an activist interviewed in the documentary Bag It—"We’re not saying no to all plastic. We’re saying no to stupid plastic"—and announced that each Monday the blog would feature a new post on "how we’ve gotten stupid plastic out of our lives, and where we’re facing challenges." (In yesterday's post, for instance, she talks about the difficulty of eliminating plastic food packaging for someone who hates to cook.)

I like the idea of targeting "stupid plastic," rather than trying to eliminate all plastic (a goal that's almost certainly futile and quite possibly counterproductive). But it did kind of raise the question of just which plastics can be considered "stupid," and how you draw the line. Some products are easy to identify as "stupid," such as single-use grocery bags (which can be eliminated entirely with a single, reusable canvas bag). But other cases are trickier. Some products are clearly necessary (clothing, for instance) but don't necessarily have to be made out of plastic. But does that mean that products made of alternative materials are automatically better? Some readers of the blog seemed to think so, bragging about their wooden toothbrushes and metal toothpaste tubes. But I had to wonder: what about the environmental impact of cutting down trees to make those toothbrushes, and raising the pigs used for the bristles, and mining and smelting the metal to make the toothpaste tubes? Don't we have to take that into consideration? And if so, just how do we figure out which type of material is least harmful to the environment?

There's also durability to consider. Is a wooden toothbrush that gets tossed in the compost bin and replaced every three months a better choice than a plastic toothbrush with replaceable heads that gets used year after year, with only the heads being replaced? What about a nylon shopping bag that wears better than a cotton canvas bag? And let's not forget the impact of shipping. Glass bottles may be less toxic than plastic ones (though not necessarily safer, since they can break) and easier to recycle, but they're also a lot heavier. So if all soft drinks were still packaged in glass bottles, how much more fuel would be required to ship them around the country? How would the amount of petroleum used in transporting the heavier bottles compare to the amount used in producing the lighter ones? Is it even possible to calculate?

I don't pretend to have the answers to these questions, and I'm not sure anyone does. So speaking for myself, I'm going to continue to focus my anti-plastic efforts on the "stupid plastics" that I know are stupid: namely, the ones that can be eliminated completely with no negative impact (and in many cases, a positive impact) on my quality of life. So here are a few examples of plastic items that I have no doubts about giving up—and others that I'm going to be holding onto for a while:
  • As mentioned above, single-use plastic grocery bags are a definite "don't need" for me. However, I have no plans to give up my polyester ChicoBag, which I think more than makes up for its own modest plastic content by being so portable that it's easily tucked in my purse, ensuring that I'll never be caught out without a shopping bag and need to bring home a disposable one.
  • I'm also not planning to give up plastic garbage bags (what would I replace them with?). However, I do cut down on the use of them by producing less trash, so I only need to take it out every couple of weeks.
  • I have never bought bottled water, which, as I mentioned in this post over a year ago, is neither healthier nor, according to most taste tests, better tasting than tap water, which is virtually free. (However, rather than invest in a $20 eco-friendly aluminum flask for carrying tap water on the go, as some green organizations recommend, I simply bought a $1.50 glass bottle of Snapple, drank the contents, and rinsed it out.)
  • I'm certainly not giving up my computer, printer, and other peripherals, with all the plastic parts they contain. However, in the seven years I've owned my (now ridiculously outdated) HP inkjet printer, I've bought only one plastic replacement cartridge for it, thanks to an ink refill kit that has paid for itself many times over. And, by keeping all my equipment so long past what most would consider its expiration date, I'm reducing the demand for new plastic stuff.
  • I plan to continue buying orange juice in plastic bottles (the good stuff) whenever it's on sale. The #1 plastic bottles are recyclable, while the cardboard cartons have to go in the trash. (Frozen OJ concentrate does have less packaging, but even it has some that's nonrecyclable—and it's actually more expensive than the good stuff purchased on sale.)
  • I get most of my music in digital download form these days, so I don't need to fill up my house with more polycarbonate CDs. We do buy the occasional DVD, but more often we borrow them from the library, or find free stuff to watch on Hulu and other sites.
That's all that comes to mind at the moment. Would anyone else care to weigh in with examples of plastics that are definitely "stupid"—or not so stupid?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eco Thanksgiving vs. frugal Thanksgiving

The latest batch of supermarket fliers to arrive at my door included one from A&P that prominently advertised frozen whole turkey at an amazing 49 cents a pound. I remember my dad describing 59 cents a pound as a good price for turkey when I was a kid, back in the 80s, so 49 cents a pound today seemed like a truly incredible deal, and it got me thinking: with all the talk about how much food prices have risen lately, just how cheaply is it possible to put together a Thanksgiving dinner if you buy everything on sale? Three years ago, in a post on the Dollar Stretcher forums, I calculated the cost of my family's traditional Thanksgiving meal—turkey, stuffing, gravy made from the drippings, potatoes, veggies, cranberry sauce, and apple and pumpkin pies, for about 10 people—at about $34. Would it still be possible to get the meal for that price?

After examining all the store fliers, I concluded that the deal I'd spotted at the A&P was the best available price for turkey. ShopRite store was offering a free turkey, but you had to spend $300 at the store in a single month to get it, while the A&P deal had no strings attached (except that you could only buy one bird at this price). Using the estimate of 1.5 pounds per person (before cooking), I concluded that a 15-pound bird would be enough to feed 10 people. Thus, at this price, the turkey would cost only $7.35, and that would include the cost of gravy made from the drippings.

However, Shop Rite appeared to have the best deals on all the other components of the meal. I figured that with a little planning, it should be possible to hit both stores—if not in one trip, then at some point during the week—so as to combine the cheap turkey with these other deals:
  • Stove Top stuffing is 99 cents for a 6-ounce package. This is possibly not as cheap, and certainly not as tasty or healthful, as homemade stuffing—but it makes the math a lot easier if I just assume that the stuffing will come from a box. Two boxes, which should feed 10 people, will cost $1.98.
  • Cranberry sauce, on the other hand, appears actually to be cheaper if you buy it in a can. Store-brand cranberry sauce costs only 77 cents a can, or $1.54 for two cans, while whole cranberries cost $1.99 a bag, not even counting the cost of the sugar.
  • You can get either sweet potatoes or white potatoes for $2.50 for 5 pounds (which would work out to 8 ounces of potato per person). Ironically, this makes the potatoes marginally more expensive per pound than the turkey.
  • For veggies, you can get fresh broccoli crowns at 99 cents a pound. Figure on 2 pounds for 10 people, making $1.98.
  • Lastly, we have the pies. I tried to calculate the cost of making the pies from scratch, as we always do, but I couldn't find sale prices in the flier for some of the ingredients, such as canned pumpkin. (Perhaps the pumpkin shortage has driven up the price to a level the stores don't care to advertise.) So I took a shortcut here and just used the price for Mrs. Smith's Pies: $2.24 each. One each of apple and pumpkin would come to $4.48, quite possibly less than it would cost to make them from scratch.
So, the total cost of the meal—not counting extras, such as drinks and ice cream or whipped cream for the pies—comes to $19.83. This is pretty impressive, especially considering the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) today estimated the cost of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 at $49.20—nearly 2.5 times as much.

However, there's one snag. The ultra-cheap Thanksgiving meal I've described here is one that I wouldn't actually eat, because I only eat meats that are humanely farmed. I also prefer to buy organic produce when possible (though I don't do so exclusively), and I have a preference for homemade dishes (stuffing, cranberries, pies) that don't contain a bunch of unpronounceable chemicals. So this raised a new question: what's the lowest amount it's possible to spend for a virtuous, organic, free-range Thanksgiving meal that even hard-core liberals like Lou and Peter Berryman's Uncle Dave wouldn't turn up their noses at?

This question is, of course, trickier to answer than the first one. My grocery store fliers didn't include organic versions of most items, so I had to do a little research. I found that prices on humanely farmed turkeys, at least in our area, vary considerably. A 15-pound turkey from Griggstown Quail Farm costs a jaw-dropping $149.85 ($7.99 per pound plus a flat $30 per bird), yet Stolzfus' Poultry at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market offers "fresh-killed farm-raised turkeys" for only $2.69 a pound, or $40.35 for a 15-pound turkey. Although this is less than a third as much as the Griggstown Farm turkey, it's still more than 5 times as much as the cheap one from the A&P. So for an organic and humane Thanksgiving dinner, it looks like the bird alone will cost more than twice as much as the entire meal for the ultra-frugal Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, the markup for the other ingredients isn't as high. I checked prices for these at our local Stop&Shop, Trader Joe's, and at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton. Here's what I found:
  • Organic sweet potatoes are $3.69 for 3 pounds at Trader Joe's. We'll say we can make do with one bag, since there will be stuffing as well.
  • For veggies, we can get organic frozen peas for $1.99 a pound at Trader Joe's. Assume we'll need two pounds to feed everyone, so that's another $3.98.
  • My dad makes a stuffing based around brown rice. A two-pound bag of organic brown rice is $2.99 at Stop&Shop, and we'll probably use about half of it, for $1.50. I'm going to cheat and not do the calculations to figure out the exact prices of the other ingredients (apples, onions, celery, chestnuts, and mushrooms); I'll just guess that it's another $2 or so.
  • I didn't find organic cranberries anywhere, so I had to go with the price for canned organic cranberry sauce at the Whole Earth Center: $2.79 a can. That comes to $5.58 for two cans.
  • Although I did find canned organic pumpkin at Whole Earth, I couldn't find organic versions of the other ingredients (specifically, evaporated milk). So I decided to change the menu to include two apple pies. Organic Granny Smith apples at Trader Joe's are $2.49 for 2 pounds; for two pies, we'll probably need two bags for $4.98.
  • We also need flour, sugar, and butter for the pies. Organic white flour is $1.50 a pound at Stop&Shop, and organic sugar is $1.65 a pound. I'm guessing we need a pound of each. Organic butter (for the pie crust) is $4.79 at the Stop&Shop; we'll use probably half a pound in the two pies, for $2.40.
That brings the total for all the other ingredients to $27.28, and the grand total for the meal to $67.63. This is more than 3 times as costly as our rock-bottom budget Thanksgiving meal, but interestingly, it's not even 50 percent more expensive than the AFBF's estimate. So while frugal folks who are used to buying everything on sale may experience major sticker shock when they try to go free-range and organic, those who normally pay full price may be pleasantly surprised to find that an organic version of the same meal needn't be that much more expensive.

The other takeaway from this exercise, I think, is that the organic markup is much higher for meat than for most other products. With our eco-Thanksgiving meal, the turkey accounts for nearly three-fifths of the total cost; for the budget Thanksgiving meal, it's less than two-fifths. In fact, a vegetarian version of the organic meal—all the "trimmings" without the turkey—would cost barely more than the ultra-cheap meal complete with the bird. Of course, Thanksgiving comes but once a year, and maybe for this one occasion it's worth paying extra to have the traditional meal in all its glory. But certainly on a day-to-day basis, eating vegetarian is the most obvious way to go organic without taking a big hit to the wallet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Teach your children well

The latest Dollar Stretcher newsletter had a story in it I thought might be appealing to parents who read this blog: "A Frugal Money Lesson." The summary is that when this mom's two kids (ages five and eight) started asking why they didn't have enough money for some activity they wanted to do, the mom decided it wasn't too early to teach them a lesson about budgeting. She asked them to think of a job they'd like to do when they grew up, and then she wrote down the monthly salary for it, along with a list of expenses that would have to be paid out of that income. Then she showed them how spending more money in different categories (e.g, renting a big apartment instead of a small one) left less for other things. (The eight-year-old did the sums to see how each decision affected her budget, while the five-year-old counted out his expenditures from a stack of Monopoly money.) The outcome: both kids learned a vital financial lesson, and as a bonus, "my five-year-old learned to count by 20s."

This struck me as an incredibly useful exercise. It would be especially handy for home-schoolers, who can use it to combine a math lesson with a life lesson, but really, I think all parents could make use of it. I suspect that many American adults have never really learned to grasp the concept of opportunity costs (i.e., "doing x means you have less money for y"), and would be much better off if they'd been exposed to the idea while they were young and impressionable. Parents who teach their kids this lesson would be doing them a lifelong favor—and they would benefit themselves in the short term, as their kids might stop pestering them for goodies that don't fit into the budget. (Or at least, if they do, they'll have to accept the logic of the answer, "Buying you a new toy will leave us less money for food, remember?")

Monday, November 7, 2011

Generic house

This weekend we went to visit a friend whose house has lots of what can only be called "character." I mean this in both the best and the worst sense of the word. The house has lots of interior detail—a stone fireplace, solid wood paneling, exposed beams, vintage doors and doorknobs—but it also has crumbling tile in the bathroom, acoustic tile falling off the ceiling, and a stove that hasn't worked for over a decade. I often find myself feeling frustrated in this house, because it's such a neat house in so many ways and it's not being shown to advantage.

I think the reason this bothers me so much is that our house is almost exactly the opposite: it's solid and well-maintained, but it has no detail whatsoever. In fact, I can't even identify an architectural style for it: when we bought it, the listing described it as a ranch, but it doesn't have the open, sprawling feel of a ranch at all. It almost feels more like a Cape Cod, with its rectangular shape, small rooms, and central hallway—but it it lacks the steep roof and central chimney that are the hallmarks of this style. Basically, it's just a snug, plain little postwar box, with no distinguishing features of any kind.

This makes it frustrating for me when I try to plan any kind of home improvement project, because I'm a big believer in working with the existing architectural style of a house, adding on in ways that enhance rather than disguise its original design. Yet with our house, I feel like I really have no style to work with. Suppose, for instance, that I want to add on a covered front entrance: what kind of addition would be in keeping with the style of the house? I can't come up with an answer to that, because the house itself is so plain that it seems like the only way to work with the style is to leave it plain and add no adornments at all.

Maybe I should just think of it like vanilla ice cream: since it's not a strong flavor itself, you can add anything you like to it, from fresh raspberries to creme de menthe. So if you have a house with no basic style, you can add on any style you like and it won't clash. But would trying to make our postwar box into a Craftsman bungalow just look pretentious?