Slow living, Sustainability

Re-examining sustainable living

For the most of my adult life, I have tried my best to live in a way that does the least damage to the earth and the environment. I have embraced several sustainable practices in my daily and work life; it’s never enough of course, but it’s a path to which I am committed, which includes always striving to do more.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me, however, that I need to focus on another, and equally – if not more – important aspect of sustainability, namely that which affects my mental, emotional, and physical health. I’ve discussed previously my concern over society’s increasing obsession with busyness, and how it’s become equivalent to an Olympic sport, where people compete with each other over the extent of their busyness. I’ve been trying to pursue a slower way of living, but my efforts have been far from consistent, so I’m going to challenge myself here to treat myself as sustainably as I do the environment.

Slow living isn’t a new concept; it sprung from the Slow Food movement, which traces its origins to 1986, in response to the proposed opening of a McDonald’s in the Piazza di Spagna. Several Italians expressed anger at this proposal and, while McDonald’s did open the location, which is still there today, this reaction led to the establishment Slow Food International 1989. This movement espouses the following principles:

Slow Food envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.Our approach is based on a concept of food that is defined by three interconnected principles: good, clean and fair.

  • GOOD: quality, flavorsome and healthy food
  • CLEAN: production that does not harm the environment
  • FAIR: accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers

I have adopted various slow food practices, such as shopping from local farmers, making my own food, eating at local restaurants that support local food producers, and avoiding fast food. My attitude towards food is one of joy, since I consider cooking to be a creative pursuit that nourishes my soul.

Related to the concept of slow food is that of slow living, which is defined as a mindset whereby you curate a more meaningful and conscious lifestyle that’s in line with what you value most in life. It means doing everything at the right speed. Instead of striving to do things faster, the slow movement focuses on doing things better. Often, that means slowing down, doing less, and prioritising spending the right amount of time on the things that matter most to you.

While I’ve tried to embrace the concept of slow living, I haven’t done so as consistently as I would like, so I’m challenging myself in the next months to do this more deliberately. I’ve fallen off the slow living wagon over the past few weeks, and I’m seeing all too clearly the negative effects this is having on my mental, physical, and emotional health. I’m good at burying and ignoring mental and emotional health, but my physical health sends me the loudest alarm bells, since it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the significant increase in the manifestations of chronic health conditions, especially my widespread arthritis (the result of years of martial arts). I’m thus making a commitment to living a life that sustains me, as well as the planet, and to explore in more depth the three primary principes of slow living:

  • Live by your values – simplifying
  • Everyday deceleration – looking inwards
  • Live consciously – looking outwards

I will explore each of these principles in the next few posts as well as tangible steps I can take towards living them daily. Some useful resources that I will consult include:

Slow Living LDN

Seeking Slow: Reclaim Moments of Calm in Your Day

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed

The Slow Living Guide

Minimalism, Sustainability

Questioning conspicuous consumption

I am reading Canadian author J. B. MacKinnon’s book The day the world stops shopping. In what he terms his “thought experiment,” MacKinnon speculates on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of drastically reduced consumption. I’m not going to review the book here, as this is not the point of this blog, although I highly recommend this book. Over the past several years, I have been actively trying to reduce my consumption habits and have made significant strides. There is much, much more that I can and should do, however, and this book is helping me question my assumptions and choices.

A phenomenon that strikes me in particular is that of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1889 publication The theory of the leisure class, which I recall reading in one of my undergraduate classes many years ago. Conspicuous consumption is exemplified by purchasing products to serve as symbols of wealth, prestige, taste, and so forth. An excellent example of conspicuous consumption, so mercilessly lampooned in the film American psycho, was the heady decade of the 1980s, with its emphasis on brand names, designer clothes, expensive cars, and living completely beyond one’s means. The television show Miami Vice is a perfect example of the idolization of this lifestyle. Although conspicuous consumption waned, to some extent, in the 1990s, following the economic downturn of the late 1980s, and also following the Great Recession of 2007, it is increasingly promoted via social media sites, such as Instagram and TikTok, where so many people promote luxurious lifestyles, branded items, designer clothes, and so forth, and seemingly compete with one another for prestige and perceived wealth.

I’ve been a willing participant in conspicuous consumption for a long time. I well remember the Miami Vice era, and my focus on designer goods and ensuring that logos were well visible. As a young person then, I worked part-time in a very expensive part of Toronto in a store that sold prestigious goods and jewellery (e.g., a single Flora Danica dinner plate could set you back at least $1,000). It was impossible to keep up with this environment with my limited budget, of course, but this didn’t stop me from trying.

I was raised in an educational setting where wealth prevailed which, unfortunately, was the perfect setting to establish an early emphasis on conspicuous consumption. It was an environment where status and prestige were displayed like suits of armour through consumer goods such as clothes, jewellery, cars, etc. Shallow? Yes? Hard to resist when you’re surrounded with it? Absolutely. I’m also blessed (cursed?) with a love of beautiful things which, almost invariably, translates to expensive, and often conspicuously so. I like the finer things in life that are often associated with luxury brand names that one casually drops in conversations, or wears, sometimes literally, on one’s sleeve.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve put serious effort into questioning my conspicuous consumption behaviour. Besides drastically reducing my consumption habits full stop, I’ve asked myself serious questions about why I buy the things that I do. Do I buy something of good quality because I want to invest my money wisely in a product that is well made and will last which, in turn, helps reduce what I send to the landfill? Or am I more concerned with signalling taste and prestige through the products I buy? At this point in my life, I think (hope) that I have inched slowly more towards the former, rather than the latter. One of the fortunate consequences of living a vegan lifestyle is that a lot of luxury products (e.g., the oft-coveted Louis Vuitton bag) don’t make it into my home because of the materials with which they are made (e.g., leather, cashmere, etc.). I’ve come to care increasingly less about how I am perceived, which helps me in many ways, such as having a small wardrobe and shamelessly repeating outfits.

My pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle helps me question all my consumption decisions. I question the importance of brands, particularly since so many luxury brands have very questionable ethical and environmental practices and, to be honest, don’t always produce the best quality goods. As an example, when I was looking for a new dishwasher, the brand Bosch was tossed around by so many people; while this brand is certainly known for the quality of its products, to what extent is the cachet of the name more important than the product itself? I did my research first and purchased a product under the Kenmore brand of the then still extant Sears. When I selected the dishwasher in the store, the sales representative told me that the machine was in fact, a Bosch, but produced under the Kenmore brand at a price differential of $1,000. The Kenmore and Bosch machines were next to each other in the store and were, in fact, identical. My focus was on quality, rather than brand name. I can think of a number of people who would have picked the Bosch branded machine, even if they knew the machines were identical, just to have the name appear proudly in their kitchen. Do we buy products because they are truly of good quality, or because we want to project an image to others (e.g., the ubiquitous Blundstone boots, or the always recognizable Fluevogs)? It’s become increasingly important to me to question my true motives and assumptions when I buy an item, as I’ve been guilty of conspicuous consumption for too long.

Sustainability, zero waste

Canadian sustainable cleaning products

I’ve done a good job of minimizing the products I use to keep my home clean. A few years ago, I used to make most of the products myself, but I quickly learned that this option is not always the better one, as I often bought three products to make one cleaner, which creates more waste than I liked, not to mention the extra storage space these products would require.

For most household cleaning tasks, I use the all-purpose concentrated cleaner from The Unscented Company, which is based in Montreal. Their products are vegan and the company is Leaping Bunny certified. TUC is also a Certified B Corporation, and women owned. TUC provides refilling options: You can buy their refills in large cardboard boxes, which are lined with plastic, as they contain liquids, but this still cuts down a large amount of plastic waste. You can also find refill stations in local retailers, such as Luminate in Bedford, which is close to where I live. The only downside is that the all-purpose concentrated cleaner does not come in refillable boxes; the regular all-purpose cleaner does, but I find concentrates to be a more sustainable and economical option, as you can use them at different concentrations for different cleaning tasks. I buy the very large plastic bottle of all-purpose concentrated cleaner (3.78 L), which comes with a pump. I mix one pump with about 500 ml of water and keep a spray bottle in the kitchen and both bathrooms, and use it also in my refillable spray mop to clean the floors. I’ve had this large bottle for about six months now, and I’ve hardly made a dent in it. The product cleans very well, leaves no residue and, of course, is unscented. TUC sells a number of its own products, as well as other sustainable household goods.

All-purpose cleaners are not particularly good for cleaning mirrors and glass doors. I used to make a DIY spray that consisted of one part water to one part isopropyl alcohol. While this spray worked very well, I was going through a fair amount of plastic bottles of the alcohol. Vinegar is a popular product for cleaning glass, and I can buy it in bulk, but I am not comfortable using vinegar to clean my glass shower door, as I don’t want vinegar to come into any contact with grout, as vinegar can be corrosive. I also have marble counters, which can be damaged by any errant vinegar. Finally, I’ve always found that vinegar leaves some streaks. I’ve recently switched to using tabs (pictured at the top of the post) made by Tanit, which is also based in Quebec. Tanit products are all vegan and cruelty free. They sell a number of products that come in tabs, including a degreaser, an all-purpose cleaner, and toothpaste. I use the unscented glass and mirrors tab. You dissolve the tab in a bottle filled with 500 ml of warm water; the tab dissolves in about five minutes and the product will stay incompletely dissolved until the bottle is empty. The tabs come in a compostable paper package. Tabs are very environmentally friendly, as they cut down on so much water, which also means that the products are lighter and cost far less to ship.

Another Tanit product that I’ve enjoyed using is their tab toothpaste. As I’ve mentioned before, I will not give up my fluoride toothpaste, which I use in the morning and evening, but for the rest of the day, I prefer to use a less wasteful option to clean my teeth. I’ve tried a number of toothpaste tabs over the years, but I’ve found them to be too harsh on my gums, especially since they did not always dissolve well and often contained a lot of baking soda, which can be very harsh on tooth enamel. The Tanit tabs dissolve very well and contain Nano-Hydroxyapatite (nHap), which is a calcium phosphorus compound found naturally in our bodies. Research has indicated that nHap can help demineralize teeth. I use the tabs after lunch and dinner. The tabs come in a glass jar and you can buy refills in compostable packaging (I am subscribed to the four-month plan). Tanit makes several other products for skin, hair, and household care.

Minimalism, Sustainability

Reflections on life without a car

Image source

This past July marks the fourteenth year in which I have not owned a car. I bought my first car when I started my first job (an elementary school teacher) and lived in a small town in South Western Ontario, where it was impossible to get around without a car, since there was no public transit. I faced a similar situation when I lived in Detroit, a city that is designed to encourage driving a car; which is not surprising, given the importance of the automobile industry in that city, and where public transit was limited. In Toronto, I hardly ever used a car, as it was much easier to get around with the subway and TTC buses.

When I moved to Halifax, I drove to work for the first few years, but switched to public transit. It’s not really possible to drive in Halifax without winter tyres, given how hilly the city is and how much snow and ice we get, but I couldn’t store tyres in my home. I started taking the bus to work and drove my car only on the weekends. I was never comfortable owning a car, given its carbon footprint, so once the lease of my latest car was up, I decided not to get another car. I had done a trial run for two months prior to this point to see how well I could manage without a car, and I found it surprisingly easy.

Fourteen years later, I can safely say that giving up owning a car was a splendid idea. I certainly don’t miss the lease payments, the insurance premiums, and the ever increasing cost of petrol. My employer subsidizes my year-long transit pass, which is also tax deductible. Not owning a car has saved me thousands of dollars a year. I live close to a car rental company, from which I occasionally rent a car for purchasing larger items, going on holidays, driving to the airport, and so forth. This rental agency allows me to pick up a rental from one location and drop it off at another without a charge (because I’ve been with them for so long), and I even get a discount through my employer.

While so many people can’t imagine life without a car and see not owning one as a burden, I enjoy the freedom and flexibility that being car-less gives me. I don’t need to worry about finding a parking spot, and when I go to a destination, I don’t need to circle back to where my car is parked in order to return home. I don’t have to go through the white-knuckle experience of driving through snowstorms and blizzards. Riding a bus allows me to observe the various neighbourhoods of the city at a leisurely pace, and I can catch up with my reading if I wish to. I also walk a fair amount, which is excellent exercise, and which allows me further time for self-reflection. I don’t ride a bicycle.

My shopping habits have been affected by my use of public transit. I need to plan my shopping trips more carefully, as it takes me longer to do them, and I can carry only so many things. This means as well that I rarely give in to impulse shopping trips. I have heavier grocery items delivered when I need to; this helps provide some income to the local delivery persons, and gives me the freedom to get that extra large bag of potatoes.

Owning a car is a luxury and a privilege that so many people take for granted. I recognize also that I am very privileged in my choice to not own a car; so many people do not have this choice. I am fortunate also to have a very good public transit system that allows me to get around the city. Not owning a car is the second most significant way in which I reduce my carbon footprint; the first is my vegan lifestyle. Being car-less is a choice I have never regretted.

Minimalism, Sustainability

Updating my wardrobe

Image source

Over the past six years, I’ve pared down my wardrobe considerably. I keep track of what items of clothing I wear daily via Airtable, and at the end of every month, I take stock of what I wore and how often. This process allows me to decide which items I need to weed based on use. I see no point in holding onto clothes that I rarely wear. I highly recommend tracking your clothing wear, as the results can be very eye opening.

I normally buy very few items of clothing in a calendar year, as I have a one-in, one-out policy. I did need to refresh my wardrobe more than usual in the past twelve months for two reasons: some of my clothes were getting worn out after several years of wear, and I wanted to re-introduce trousers to my collection. I have worn dresses and skirts almost exclusively over the past six years, but I have missed wearing trousers.

When I decide to bring in a new-to-me item of clothing to my wardrobe, I first see if I can find something in a consignment store. I prefer consignment stores to thrift shops, as the quality of clothing is generally higher in the former. If I can’t find anything in a local consignment store, I will try Poshmark. I’ve had good luck with Poshmark, although I’ve learned to do my research, as I’ve caught a few vendors being less than honest about the original prices of the items being sold; as an example, I came across a vendor who was selling a pair of Burberry sunglasses and quoting the original price at twice what they actually cost (I have the same pair that I bought from a physical Burberry store), and a selling price of what these sunglasses actually retail for. If I don’t have any luck with consignment stores, I will turn to a retailer that meets my ideal criteria, if at all possible:

  • Canadian owned and operated
  • Independent
  • Uses sustainable fabrics and production practices
  • Items are made in Canada
  • B-certified

It is very difficult to find retailers in Halifax that meet all these criteria. Because of this, my purchases have been done online:

  • A shawl-collar navy cardigan and a brown tweed blazer (both second hand) from Poshmark.
  • A brown cardigan from Elsie’s a local consignment store.
  • Handmade linen tops: One each from BriaBLifestyle and Eloise and Lily (from whom I bought a linen bath towel, as well). I wear linen year-round. The top from Eloise and Lily is shown in the image above, only mine is in chocolate brown.
  • Two pairs of trousers from Helene Clarkson. I should note that this company produces travel-resistant business clothing in a polyester jersey. Synthetic fabric lasts a long time, so there is that element to consider, as keeping clothes for a long time contributes to less waste. I bought the Aro trousers, which are reversible (one side is black and the other is navy), and the Juniper wide-legged trousers.
  • One long-sleeve and one short-sleeve t-shirt from The Sleep Shirt. I buy my sleepwear from this company as well; it’s expensive, but of extremely high quality.  
  • A bamboo wrap dress from Miik.

Most of my clothes can be work year-round, so at this point, I don’t intend to add any more items to my wardrobe; in fact, I will be decluttering further based on the results of my Airtable tracking.


My favourite sustainable Canadian clothing brands


This article from the Guardian discusses the potential impact of Generation Z (18-24) buying behaviour on fast fashion: If generation Z’s habits are adopted by the population as a whole there could be a shift to consumers with a “divided wardrobe” – featuring rented items and others bought from resale vendors – becoming the new normalThis emphasis on sustainability, non mass-produced goods and uniqueness mirrors the consumer values of the younger generation whose attitude towards fashion has been shaped by the “Blue Planet effect.”

The picture above is taken from an Australian article that suggests that the fast fashion industry accounts for 10 per cent of global pollution. Dr Kirsi Niinimäki, from Aalto University, has done a lot of research into the fashion industry; her latest publication, Sustainable Fashion In A Circular Economy, is on my reading list for this summer. The CBC documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, discusses that garment, apparel production, is one of the top five polluters globally…we are producing over 100 billion new garments from new fibres every single year, and the planet cannot sustain that. This page, from the Fashion Takes Action website, provides some sobering statistics about the environmental impact of the fashion industry, perhaps the most startling of which – because it is so personal – is that 37 kg of textile waste per person ends up in Canadian landfills each year.

I won’t spend too much time on the environmental impact of fast fashion, as this has been done far better by experts in the field. I want to focus instead on some sustainable Canadian clothing brands that provide some better options. This list is not exhaustive and reflects only the companies from which I have purchased. I don’t tend to wear casual clothes, so sustainable Canadian brands like Tentree are not included in this post.

The most important thing we can do to reduce textile waste, of course, is to simply stop buying so many clothes, and to keep what we have for longer periods. Fast fashion is often poorly made, so clothing doesn’t last as long, so buying better quality is always a good idea. Secondhand shopping is a good alternative, although I’ve noticed that people often tend to overbuy from thrift stores because the clothing is cheaper there, which will still result in a lot of textile waste. No solution is perfect, of course, but at least the companies below are doing what they can to produce clothing in more sustainable ways.

Lights of All: We are vegan, sustainable and ethical; we value all life on this planet and do whatever we can to honour those lives in the product we make. Everything is made in house using only the best materials for the environment, people and animals. The company is owned and run by one woman, Katia Hagen, who designs and makes all the clothing. Katia outlines the ecocentric philosophy of her company here.

Korinne Vader: Our goal is to only use natural fibres in production … Many of the suppliers that we work with are STANDARD 100. The STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® is a worldwide consistent, independent testing & certification system that tests for harmful substances used during all stages of production (raw materials, intermediate, and end product). Korinne Vader creates unique handmade goods that reflect the beautiful imperfection of nature and humankind.

Encircled: Encircled’s name originated from the dream that fashion can benefit everyone – it can be stylish, sustainable and responsibly-made. It’s about feeling proud of the clothing. hanging in your closet, and investing in quality over quantity. The company’s code of ethics may be found here.

Frank And Oak: The devastating impact of climate change has made us conscious that we all have an active role to play in our collective future. Today, we are more than ever committed to fighting for our planet and will continue to set an example as best we can by offering better sustainable products. The company’s sustainable goals may be found here.

Kotn: By working directly with cotton farming families in Egypt, we want to rebuild the industry from the inside. We make our own fabrics from raw cotton bought direct from farmers at guaranteed prices. Like farm-to-table, but for your clothes. commitment to sustainability may be found here.

Hoi Bo: Hoi Bo was born from a desire to create a truly sustainable brand that would offer a unique balance of beauty, design, craft and functionality.


The carbon footprint of online shopping

Five paper shopping bags and a shopping cart on a laptop keyboar

Image source

I have been shopping online for several years. Online shopping suits my introverted nature, as it removes the need to talk to salespeople in stores. Online shopping also provides me with access to items I cannot find easily in local stores, particularly since sustainable and vegan products are sometimes more specialized and harder to obtain.

I have been increasingly concerned with the carbon footprint of online shopping. I was surprised to learn that online shopping can be less carbon intensive than shopping in a bricks and mortar store; the key is the type of shipping option. A graduate student at MIT conducted an environmental analysis of US online shopping and found that the carbon footprint of purchasing an item in a store is higher than buying the same thing online with regular shipping.

Customer transportation is the highest carbon footprint for in-store shopping, while packaging and delivery are higher factors for online shopping with regular delivery. In my case, since I use only public transportation, my in-store shopping carbon footprint would be smaller.

The key factor is the type of shipping involved. As people increasingly expect express delivery, especially if they have an Amazon Prime membership, as I do, the carbon footprint of online shopping increases noticeably and exceeds that of in-store shopping. A UPS study of Canadian online shopping behaviour found that 63% of shoppers expect orders placed before noon to be delivered that same day, while 61% of shoppers expect orders placed before 5:00 pm to be delivered the next day. Express shipping reduces a lot of the economies of scale of regular shipping, such as filling trucks to ensure maximum efficiencies, as is shown in the video below.

I am making a concerted effort to avoid online shopping whenever possible and to support local businesses. When online shopping is the only option, I choose regular delivery, usually by Canada Post, which is the most carbon friendly option. I also make a point of asking companies to avoid plastic in their packaging; most are happy to comply.


Letting go of balloons

At a recent convocation event, I entered a room that was filled with balloons in the university’s colours. My first reaction was “oh no, this is not good.” Of course, I felt like the grinch. I appreciate all the effort that went into decorating the room for this special event, but I can’t help feeling concerned when I see so many environmental hazards being used in this manner. It’s easy to get caught in the excitement of the moment, but we really do need to consider what happens to all those balloons once the event is over.

The environmental hazards of balloons have been well documented. Someone in the room told me that since the balloons would not be released, there isn’t that much of a problem. Certainly, the largest environmental impact of balloons is caused when they are released, but the balloons themselves are made of non-sustainable materials, which makes them an environmental hazard regardless of their methods of disposal. This article outlines nicely the environmental impacts of balloons:

  • Balloons travel over great distances:  Balloons have been found to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles.
  • Balloons are a danger to wildlife: Birds, marine life, and terrestrial animals often eat latex balloons that have fallen into their habitat. The latex blocks the digestive system-causing a slow agonizing death.
  • Ribbons and strings, including biodegradable cotton string, become entanglement hazards.
  • Wastage of helium: A finite resource
  • Degradable balloons are NOT the solution: Ordinary latex balloons will not start to degrade for about five months in the ocean, and shiny Mylar balloons last for years.

I’m sure a few eyes will roll when I do this, but I do plan to have a chat with the organizers of this event to see whether we could try to use more sustainable forms of decoration next year.


Trapping microfibres with the Cora Ball

I have been considering for quite a while how to deal with microfibre residue in my washing machine. Although most of the items that go into my washing machine consist of natural fibres, I do have some faux-fur throws that are made with synthetic materials. These throws are an essential component of keeping my furniture and bed clean, as my cats are allowed to sit wherever they like. The cats love the softness of the faux fur throws,  and in my household it’s all about spoiling the non-human animals.

I had considered purchasing the Guppyfriend washing bag, but was concerned that it would not hold large throws.  I have come across what seems to be a far more practical alternative: The Cora Ball. As you can see from the image, the Ball consists of a number of layers of plastic that trap mibrofibre particles during the wash; you simply toss the Ball in with your load of laundry. You clean it by pulling out the fuzz from between the layers. The product reviews have been promising; you do need to be careful of placing more delicate items with tassels, straps, and so forth, into a laundry bag so that they don’t tangle in the Ball. Since I do this anyway, I don’t anticipate any problems.  The Ball should capture human and cat hair as well, which is a nice bonus.

The Cora Ball is not available in any local stores, so I ordered it online from Canadian company Ahimsa  Eco Solutions. At $49.00 CAD, the Cora Ball is more expensive than the  Guppyfriend, but will likely last longer than the bag. I look forward to seeing the results.