What does your typical morning routine look like – a blurry-eyed stop at Starbucks for a banana and takeout latte before hopping on the freeway? You are not alone. What if, instead of the stressful gridlock and disposable cup, you tried biking to your office and treating yourself to a freshly-brewed mug of coffee once you arrived? For Vanessa Farquharson, it is all in a day’s greening.
As a twenty-something Canadian journalist and self-proclaimed sustainability-novice, Farquharson challenged herself to make one green change to her life every day for an entire year and blog about it along the way. Over the year, she tackled the radical (e.g. unplugging her refrigerator and foregoing toilet paper) and the small (e.g. streamlining her beauty care products and attempting to date green), while trying not to alienate her friends or family by turning into a “smug hippie.”
Her new book, Sleeping Naked is Green: How an eco-cynic unplugged her fridge, sold her car and found love in 366 days, chronicles her journey and the slow -- sometimes painful and other times transcendent -- transformation she made towards living a simpler, more sustainable life. I spoke with Farquharson about getting over one’s eco-anxiety, moving beyond the tote bag, and the greenest way to eat ice cream.
You wrote about how people tend to get overwhelmed by the scope of the world’s environmental problems, start to feel helpless and end up not doing anything about it. How did you break out of that mindset?
I definitely still felt overwhelmed when I started the challenge and the whole process involved me floundering a bit. I wasn’t that educated about environmental issues at the time, so I had to force myself to forge ahead knowing that I was not armed with a wealth of knowledge. I had to get comfortable with doing things even though they would not all be the right choices.
For example, when I started the challenge I switched from drinking water out of disposable plastic bottles to a Nalgene. Then, when I found out about BPA I switched to a Sigg. Then two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about how Siggs are made of aluminum coated with some substance that the company still will not disclose. So now I’ve switched to yet another brand. Can I not just figure out which drink receptacle to use? That said, it is still an improvement from using disposable bottles.
How did you come up with 365 green ideas -- and did it get easier or harder to think of them as the year went on?
It definitely got harder as of about day 10! I really thought it would be simple; I would change all my products and not do anything too hardcore. But somewhere in those early days, I realized I had shot myself in the foot.
It doesn’t sound too glamorous, but I usually came up with ideas on my couch at 11:30pm. By the last quarter I knew I was making changes (some of them totally ludicrous) that I would not ultimately keep. Like not wearing makeup, writing in haikus to save ink, or only eating food grown within a 100 miles of Ontario. In February all you can get is beets and cabbage and I knew I was not going to give up coffee, tea, spices, or sugar. In the end it became a lot of “stopping” or “giving things up.” As much as I am in favor of minimalist living, I do not think the green movement should be all about getting rid of things.
Then there were points where I thought, “I really need to have a baby,” because there are so many changes that come with kids and families (reusable diapers, organic baby food, etc.) that I could not capitalize on.
What was the best eco-suggestion that you got from a reader?
I gave a prize away on my blog to someone who suggested the idea of eating ice cream in a cone rather than a cup. It’s not like ice cream cups are causing global warming, but the suggestion represented my initial outlook for the challenge. It was a quirky example of thinking differently. And of course, if everyone chose a cone…
Do you think the fact that green is now “chic” has made a significant difference in the way of people’s habits?
I think there is a higher consciousness of the issues, and I have seen a lot more people using coffee thermoses, reusable water bottles and tote bags. But people are not unplugging their fridge or giving up their cars. They are willing to pay money for energy offsets or for a greener car, but far fewer are willing to take the extra step and not drive at all. It actually surprised me how easy it was to make some of the big changes, but when I tell people I unplugged my fridge, they drop their jaws.
How has living without a fridge changed the way you cook and eat?
I purchase food more frequently and cook a lot, though it reduces the lifespan of leftovers. Any leftovers I have, I basically have to consume for the next meal. I rarely have meat in the house and if I do, I have to cook and eat it right away. In the end, I do not know if cooking without a fridge is always greener because it leads to more frequent shopping, more packaging etc.
Do you think that your challenge influenced your family or friends’ practices at all during the year?
My family, sadly, is not making many changes. When I go to my parents’ house for dinner, my mom makes an effort to buy organic and local food, but I do not think they have changed their own personal habits. It is revolting that my family has four vehicles for four people -- and my sister recently had a bad experience with natural deodorant I bought her and was traumatized. Some of my friends have come around a lot more. They did not care before but now ask me questions. That’s great.
How have your habits changed -- for the better or for the worse -- since you started living with someone?
Living with someone and sharing space automatically ups your green living situation, and my boyfriend probably knows a lot more about eating sustainably because I am so neurotic about grocery shopping. He knows not to leave the house without a thorough shopping list about which organic brands to get, but he still insists on eating things like cold cuts and lactose free milk instead of almond or hemp milk. My pantry has all of this great hippie stuff like agave nectar and almond butter, but then there is this top shelf with Just Right cereal and all of his other food demands.
There’s a lot of shoddy environmental information out there. As a journalist, do you have any techniques or tips to share with folks about how to find reputable green info?
I think trusting your gut is important. And -- this will sound really lefty -- but I have an inherent mistrust of studies and publications that are funded by big corporations. Most of the greenwashing comes from there. Some of the information the government releases is okay, but again -- industry and the government are in bed with one another. Ultimately, most of my trustworthy information comes from non-profit organizations because they are not motivated on behalf of any industry or person. No matter what, though, I try to check all the footnotes.
Do you have any favorite green books or other media?
I was definitely moved by An Inconvenient Truth and the Omnivore’s Dilemma, but now I am reading a great book called Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. They are toxins specialists. They focus on seven or eight toxins, exposing themselves to them and then measuring their blood levels. One guy spent two days eating tuna all the time and his mercury levels went through the roof! It is informative and a little scary, but while An Inconvenient Truth was catastrophic, this book is more focused on how to address and prevent the problems.
For folks who finally just saw An Inconvenient Truth (i.e. are ready to take that first step), do you have a tried-and-true “gateway drug” green practice?
Maybe this sounds predictable, but it has to be getting rid of my car and starting to bike and take public transportation. I love nothing more than riding my bike through the city, and even in the middle of the winter, I can sit on the train and read my book or listen to music rather than sit in a car and spend my whole paycheck on road rage. It is stress-free and saves me tons of money. It got me wondering; how did I even get sucked into car culture in the first place? Getting rid of my car was definitely liberating.