Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thoughts on Gift-Giving

I have a complicated relationship with gifts. I grew up in a house where gifts were incredibly important and were often used as a tool for resolving issues or problems. If my mother and I had a fight (which happened often throughout my youth), I would, inevitably, receive some sort of item from her as a sign that she wanted to move on from whatever we had been arguing about. Obviously, this was significantly easier for a child (and adolescent) to deal with (“Oh! The new Guess jeans!! Thanks Mom!”) than trying to delve into the reasons for the complicated and volatile relationship that I had with my mother. It was also easier than confronting my own behaviors – why was I lying to my parents? Why was I drinking so much? It was obviously much easier for her, as well. Gift given. Issue resolved.

But my mother has always been an incredibly talented gift giver. She catches the slightest glimmer of interest, picks up on needs or desires that aren’t even apparent yet, seeks out the newest trends, puts real creativity into gift-wrapping. When things were tough for our family one year, I remember her being sincerely apologetic about not being able to buy better gifts for 9 year old me. It was like she had somehow let me down. (This was before credit cards allowed her to never let anyone else down in the gift department.)

When we lived in the Soviet Union (now Russia) before immigrating to the US, we celebrated New Year’s Eve with a tree and gifts – very much like Americans do with Christmas. The atheist government had outlawed religious celebrations of Christmas (along with outlawing Christmas in general). But the people needed celebrations and, so, New Year’s Eve took the place of Christmas. We continued this when we moved to the US. New Year’s has always been about grand gifts, an elaborately set table, more food than was necessary, and my mother having her yearly glass (or three) of champagne. My mother always valued objects and fashion – it is probably because she had so little access to anything in the USSR, even as a more privileged child of a Soviet government family. She treasured the smallest gifts – and still does. A few years ago she told me a childhood story about a pair of colored tights given to her by a camp-mate from Europe – something that she could never have gotten inside the country - still with a sparkle of longing in her eyes.

We still celebrate New Year’s Eve with my family. This is incredibly convenient as my partner and I can easily spend time with both families around the holidays without much issue. And it is still a big event in terms of gift-giving. I asked my mom if, on the occasion of her credit card debt almost getting the best of her recently (and the impending global environmental crisis), if she might like to forego presents this year. She answered, “but it wouldn’t be a “prasneek” (holiday celebration) without presents!”

My point in sharing all this, is that I will not tell you that you must give up gift-giving at Christmas. Holidays and gifts are, for many of us, emotionally tied to other times, other desires, other memories. Gifts are part of our rituals, our most intimate celebrations. But what you should know is that you CAN buy eco-friendly gifts for everyone on your list. Next week I will do a DC eco-gift guide: presents for everyone on your list – all within walking distance from a metro (to reduce your carbon footprint, of course). There are also SO many online resources now. Here are just a few:

And check out Treehugger’s gift guide for 2007.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Eco-neurosis: Shaving or Waxing?

This is an example of the kinds of things that plague my mind on a daily basis: What is more sustainable: Shaving or Waxing?

I was pondering this the other evening as I was tackling my leg stubble. So, shaving is bad because the razors are made from petroleum-based plastics, the packaging is plastic and shaving makes your hair grow back in thicker and faster, so you have to do it more often and use more razors. It helps if you don’t use disposable shavers and just replace the blades, but the blades still end up in the trash.

If you wax, there are a few other things to consider. For example, what are the ingredients in the wax? Most likely, they are pretty icky, like “Yellow 11” (unless you use a sugar based type). In addition, most of the removal strips (who knows what they’re made from – maybe cotton) out there are not reusable and end up in the landfill. There is also the packaging. I have been using Nad’s strips recently, which come in a cardboard box. Other waxing products come in plastic jars or plastic tubes or plastic roll-on applicators. If you get waxed in a salon, it can also get pretty expensive (less $$ for organic veggies!!). On the other hand, waxing allows you to deal with hair removal less because, for most people, the hair grows back lighter.

There are definitely other ways of handling unwanted hair of course. There is electrolysis or laser hair removal, which I think is probably most sustainable because the hair is not supposed to grow back at all. (This path has always disturbed me. I think, "what if I wanted hairy legs at some point in the future. I couldn't reverse it!") The other OBVIOUS option is just going au natural and ignoring the social pressure. It's actually kind of neat to feel your leg hair rustling in the breeze. If that idea just made you cringe, and you can't afford the expensive options, there are still some things out there to make your hair removal experience more sustainable. For one thing, you can make your own sugar-based waxing substance. I actually remember my Russian friend Oleg telling me about in college – that his mother and sister swore by the stuff. Here is recipe I found on the internet. It is supposed to work very much like Nad’s, which I really like.


Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
clean cloth cotton strips
wooden stick or spreader
Dust the area to be waxed, with cornstarch. Combine the first three ingredients in a clean glass bowl, and microwave for two minutes. Stop and stir your sugar mixture every 20-30 seconds. Let it cool to a comfortable warmth, and, using a wooden stick, spread a very thin layer onto your clean skin. Immediately cover the mixture with a strip of cotton fabric. Briskly stroke the strip several times in the direction of the hair growth, and then, pull the skin taut, and quickly rip away the cotton strip,
against the direction of hair growth. As you proceed, you may need to reheat your sugar mixture in the microwave to keep it warm. Do not boil it or overheat as you could easily burn your skin.

If the DIY method is too much work for you (it can get a little messy), there are premade versions out there. Check out Moom’s Organic Hair Removal at or Parissa Body Sugar also at Or, if your pain tolerance is less than that required for waxing, you can purchase the Preserve razors with recycled handles composed of at least 65% recycled Stonyfield Farm yogurt containers, and with blades that are replaceable. Buy it directly from the company here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Plant a Tree in DC and Earn a $50 rebate


"Fall is a great time to plant trees. And because large canopy trees provide extraordinary environmental and community benefits, Casey Trees and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) have teamed up to offer a rebate of up to $50 to individuals who plant a tree on private property in DC in the fall of 2007."

"Ask your garden center, arborist, or landscaper for right tree, right place selection advice and for planting instructions. One rebate per residential property. Ornamental and smaller growing trees such as dogwoods, cherries and crape myrtles are not eligible for this rebate."

"Don’t have room for a tree just now? Volunteer to plant trees at a community event. Sign-up here>>

Free Bonus: Next spring you’ll also receive a free Ooze Tube® watering bag for your tree."

1. Purchase a large canopy tree (such as an oak or elm).
2. Plant it at a residence in DC.
3. Pledge to water and care for it for a minimum of two years.
4. Mail your signed rebate request by Dec. 31, 2007.
5. Receive a $50 rebate check (or the full cost of the tree up to $50)

More info here.

And so it goes.

Last night I attended the closing party for one of the coolest boutiques in the DC area – Unsung Designers. Unsung has lived quietly behind two pink doors in a small alley in Adams Morgan for the last two years, it’s savvy founders (Grace Wang and Alishia Frey) bringing emerging designers to DC audiences like no one else. They also ran an on-line boutique highlighting these designers. The boutique stays. The Saturday-only shop goes. You would think that being open only one day a week – and on special occasions – would not disrupt the peace of DC’s fashionistas. How wrong you would be. In a town where every boutique in Georgetown is like absolutely every other boutique in Georgetown to the point where you get a certain sense of disorientation – “wait, wasn’t I just in here?” – Unsung was a harbor for raw talent. Styles that were edgy (edgy in that good way, not the bad 90s way). Clothing that was made with that hungry urge to create while still maintaining a certain sense of sophistication. So why am I mentioning this in a sustainability blog? Because a shop like Unsung is the direction fashion needs to go in. Their clothing was not disposable – it was not mass produced or made in China – the higher price tags reflected the work behind the piece, but also made it a purchase that needed to be adequately considered. Unsung carried clothing for the mature, design-oriented individual, comfortable in their fashion rhetoric, not falling prey to meaningless diversions of the season.

The on-line shop will still be open. But there is nothing like that experience of trying something on, running your fingers over the stitches, rubbing the material over your skin, seeing that perfect drape in the full length mirror and knowing that this will be an investment you are comfortable making. I will definitely miss the place.

On the bright side, I met two great design teams last night: Verrieres & Sako and gr. dano, both from San Francisco. Their designs are exactly what sets Unsung apart from the rest of the boutique crowd. Verrieres & Sako’s designs are a modern take on 1940s silhouettes, amazing craftsmanship, sumptuous fabrics (including eco-friendly bamboo), and cuts that seem to sit right on almost everyone. gr. dano’s styles are more reminiscent of the 1960s - before the hippies monopolized the country’s fashion. Both teams are also actively pursuing the use of eco-friendly fabrics and processes. I will have to write more about them later on, but check out their sites in the meantime.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Buy Nothing Day - 11/23

The holidays are upon us once again. The stress of gift-giving, the lines, the zombie-like shoppers on Black Friday . . . icky. But why buy anything at all? Do any of us really need anything? Or do we just want? It's hard to shake off the superficial quality of our holidays. Some would say that gift-giving has been a tradition for centuries on many holidays in cultures all over the world. But, the American consumerist culture that is causing such severe environmental destruction all over the world can not be ignored. So I say, take a stand on November 23rd (Black Friday) and buy nothing!! Just for one day, damn it!! Below is the press release from Adbusters:

Disclaimer: I understand that most of us do like to receive gifts. That small child in us can't wait to see what is hidden in the brightly colored package. And, let's be realistic, most of our families expect actual gifts - not the I-am-giving-you-the-gift-of-a-better-world-by-not-actually-giving-you- anything gift. Furthermore, family gatherings at holidays are often stressful for most folks - especially for many of us in the DC area, who live far away from our families and visit only on those days - without trying to push our "hippy" rhetoric down Uncle Stan's throat. Consequently, some gifts will have to be bought. But, there are ways to reduce your impact while giving good gifts. I will have a blog shortly about holiday giving. Stay tuned.


(November 23 in the USA and Canada, November 24 internationally)

STOP SHOPPING TO GO GREEN: This November, environmentalists, social activists and concerned citizens in as many as 65 countries will hit the streets for a 24-hour consumer fast in celebration of the 15th annual Buy Nothing Day, a global cultural phenomenon that originated in Vancouver, Canada.

Featured in recent years by the likes of CNN, MSNBC, Wired, the BBC, USA Today, The Age and the CBC, the international event has been gaining mainstream momentum as the climate crisis drives average people to seek out greener alternatives to unrestrained consumption.

Timed to coincide with one of the busiest shopping days on the US retail calendar, as well as the unofficial start of the international holiday-shopping season, Buy Nothing Day has taken many shapes, from relaxed family outings, to free, non-commercial street parties, to politically charged public protests. Anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending.

In past years, street activists have proven particularly imaginative in their celebrations, bringing zombie marches, credit-card cut-ups, and shopaholic clinics to malls and public squares in an effort to expose the environmental and social consequences of First World over-consumption.

Kalle Lasn is the co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, the organization responsible for launching Buy Nothing Day as a yearly, global event. He explains that while most participants used to see the day simply as an escape from the marketing mind games and frantic consumerism that have come to characterize modern life, the focus has since shifted in light of the new political mood surrounding climate change.

"So much emphasis," he notes, "has been placed on buying carbon offsets and compact fluorescent lightbulbs and hybrid cars that we are losing sight of the core cause of our environmental problems: we consume far too much."

"Buy Nothing Day isn't just about changing your routine for one day. It's about starting a lasting lifestyle commitment. With over six billion people on the planet, it is the responsibility of the most affluent - the upper 20% that consumes 80% of the world's resources - to set out on a new path."

My Little Fetish

Ever since I gave up watching television (why, you ask? Um, because it rots your brain), I have developed a bit of a magazine fetish. I have almost 10 subscriptions. You heard me right. Yes, it’s awful and I feel guilty about all the toxic chemicals used to print my glossy pages and all the trees that are unceremoniously (if we had ceremonies for each tree, maybe be would cut down less) cut down to highlight this month’s latest disposable trend (read: red patent leather platforms. Um, yeah, that one will surely last). In any case, I have been diligently not renewing my subscriptions – so many of the magazines now have great websites. But I can’t escape that feeling of excitement that comes from opening your mailbox to find the latest edition of Vanity Fair – what did they write about this month? What great photographers contributed this time? What nasty things does Graydon Carter (Editor) have to say about George Bush this time around?

Luckily, more magazines are making the commitment to use environmentally responsible papers – papers that contain postconsumer recycled content and/or responsibly sourced virgin fiber. Here is a partial list of the magazines with links to their websites (for the complete list, go to Co-op America’s website here. There are tons of magazines making an environmental commitment. (Graydon Carter – why are you not on this list?? You talk so much about “green this” and “environment that” . . . you need to walk the talk, man).




Bay Nature


Body and Soul (A Martha Stewart Magazine)


E Magazine

Fast Company (I get this one. This is THE magazine for entrepreneurs and anyone interested in the creative power of business.)

Inc. Magazine

Mother Earth News

Mother Jones


Ms Magazine

Natural Home and Garden

Nick (Nickelodeon) Magazine


Organic Spa



The Progressive

Ranger Rick


Russian Life





Smart HomeOwner

Solar Today

Surfer Magazine

Trout Unlimited


Vegetarian Times

Washington Gardener

Yes! Magazine

Yoga Journal

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Finally! Pictures from the Hoopla Grand Opening Party

So, my photographer has had a busy few weeks. But I finally have gotten some photos from the night I blogged about earlier. For more pictures from the party, go here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Damn you, Ikea!

Damn you, Ikea, and your hip design and high-fashion colors, your yellow four-poster bed out of a mid-century fairy tale and your red lacquer wall units. Damn you, and your rococo prints that are SO HOT RIGHT NOW and your flokati rugs priced well below standard and your cute little lamps that look like gnome hats (in, like, 12 colors) and your super cheap floor mirrors (pay $500 more at Pottery Barn) and the awesome armoires with the sliding doors that take up so much less space and would be perfect in my teeny bedroom . . .

How will I ever kick my “Made in China” habit with your low-priced, high-design options? Okay, so some of it isn’t all that well made and, yes, my dresser broke two months after I bought it (particle board after all). But, it’s so hard to wean myself off. Did I mention the trio of little stuffed rats that were sold in the kid’s department? Rats! Ikea is selling toy rats! If that isn’t absolutely brilliant . . .

And the sample rooms. Such great use of limited space, unique furniture arrangements, modern, bold use of color, storage solutions that would make Martha Stewart proud . . . it makes me want it all.

But the quality does make a difference. So much of what Ikea sells falls into the “disposable design” category: on the popular design radar for a year or two and manufactured to only last that long. You don’t have to settle for the same furniture every year! Just throw it out and start over – you can afford it! (And most of it is probably broken by now, anyway). Don't worry about the landfill or the resources wasted. Just have fun!

Granted, my lovely, Crayola crayon green sofabed from Ikea has held up pretty well over the last six years of book parties, overnight guests, naps, make-out sessions . . . but so many things have fallen apart just from regular use. Why has longevity dropped off the check-list of good design? Is it because stores like Ikea and Target are pouring money into top-shelf design teams that are forced to trade off craftsmanship and materials for shallow looks in order to keep prices low?

Sigh. Going to Ikea just isn’t fun anymore. (Okay, it sort of still is. Just a little.)

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