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Tag Archives | environment

Easter chocolate report: watch out, palm oil about

palm oil and chocolate

Watch what you eat this Easter, ethical shoppers (and we don’t mean calorie counting). Jess Noble explains.

Chocolate brands Cadbury and Lindt monopolize the Easter chocolate market in OZ, but what the average supermarket consumer doesn’t know is that some of the most popular chocolate contains environmentally harmful untraceable palm oil, including some products from both these giants.

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No more grainy tomatoes! Replace pitiful produce with seasonal superstars

 Eating seasonally is an easy way to be gentler on the planet, improve your health and shrink your grocery spend. So why don’t we all do it? Daile from The Confused but Conscious Consumer peers into the produce section.

eating seasonally

Picture this – you walk into a grocery store on a wintery July day. Maybe it’s your local farmers’ market; it could be a chain supermarket or even a fruit and veg shop. There are so many options – beautiful looking fruit and vegetables on display. The tomatoes are red and juicy, lettuce green and leafy. An apple so shiny you want to bite into it on the spot, just to hear the loud crunch and feel the sweetness burst in your mouth.

You may come shopping armed with a very specific list of items to purchase, based on the cookbooks you scoured prior to your shopping adventure; or perhaps the knowledge of ingredients for a family favourite. You grab a basket and fill it to the brim with zucchini for a frittata, asparagus for a weekend breakfast cook-up, sweet potato and pumpkin to make a nourishing soup, strawberries and mangoes to add to your post-exercise smoothies and some mint for Mojitos because no one is THAT perfect when they go shopping.

The asparagus has been imported from Mexico, the mint is out of season as it’s winter and the strawberries and mangoes are horribly expensive but still grown in Australia… although how far away and under what unnatural circumstances?

As consumers, we demand that the fruits and vegetables we want to eat be available for purchase at all times. Especially if we have seen it as a key ingredient on a TV cooking show the night before. We will pay top dollar for out of season fruit and vegetables, and not bat an eyelid at a bunch of greenery flown 14,000 kilometres to be sold en masse.

But how are we supposed to know what is in season? I’m no agricultural guru, and to be honest have a difficult enough time keeping a cactus alive let alone a vegetable garden. I have done a basic amount of research and know there are handy guides such as this one for Australians, this for the US and one for the UK. I have no doubt Google will point you in the right direction for whichever country you are in.

Seasonal eating information is out there, and sometimes common sense comes into play as well. Winter is the time for root vegetables, summer is perfect for stone fruit and spring is the sound of strawberry picking.

Eating seasonally is not that difficult but sometimes it means putting down your recipe book, turning off the TV cooking show inspiration and tossing out your old favourites. A great idea is ordering a farmers box every week and discovering new recipes based on the surprises found in the delivery. Think of it as a Masterchef Mystery Box in real life.

eating seasonally

Tips for eating seasonally

– Shop at farmers markets. Talk to the vendors selling the produce, find out where the delicious food you are about to buy is grown and ask for their recommendations.

– Buy your fruit and veggies first. After you have stocked up on enough fruit and veg for the week, pull out your cookbooks or do a recipe search with your main ingredients. This will guide you with a list of non-perishables to buy to complete your meal plan.

– If it seems expensive, don’t buy it. There is a reason avocados are $4.00 in autumn. Not buying overpriced produce is a great way to eat seasonally as well as reduce your weekly spend.

– Experiment with food. So what if the recipe calls for potato and you bought turnip instead? You may discover new favourite flavours and surprise yourself. Breaking the rules is fun.

– Follow interesting food blogs to keep inspired all year round. I have listed some of my personal go-to blogs – Inspirational food blogs for cooking seasonally.

So, how often do you actually consider where your food comes from and how it came to be glistening at your produce market? Do you have any great food blogs you want to share? What about tips on how you eat seasonally at home?

Photo credit
KBR, tomato salad (CC)
Elizabeth Thompson, Vegetables on display (CC)
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Green washing or greenwashing? Laundry chemicals exposed

are these chemicals being greenwashed

Chemicals. What does the word mean for consumers? Is your laundry powder sold using greenwashing claims? Should you be worried? Using laundry detergent as a case study, Eleanor Robertson puts chemicals under the microscope.

The word ‘chemical’ is powerful. Say it, and we tend to picture 44-gallon drums full of mysterious green sludge, perhaps labelled with skull and crossbones. These images and associations are echoed in advertising for many products, which use the terms ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ to imply that they’re healthy, green, and non-toxic.

Is this accurate? Well, not really. So what’s the story?

What is a chemical?

In order to determine what substances we should care about when we’re buying things, it’s essential to understand what the terms on product labels mean. Many products advertise themselves as chemical-free or ‘natural’, but these terms don’t have an agreed-upon meaning. Plus, items like laundry powder aren’t required to list their ingredients on the package, so it can be hard to figure out what’s actually in them.

In the strictest sense of the word, everything is made of chemicals. A chemical is just a compound, or an arrangement of molecules, that science has named. Everything can be described in chemical terms — including things we think of as natural like air, food and water — so calling something ‘chemical-free’ is meaningless and misleading.


All the chemicals in that banana were formed by natural processes, but if you isolated any single one and compared it to the same chemical produced by humans in a lab, they’d look exactly the same. This is why the term ‘no synthetic chemicals’ doesn’t tell you much either.

What really matters

Usually when we buy products that make claims of ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’, we’re looking for something else: we want to know that what we’re purchasing isn’t going to make us sick, or harm the environment. What we’re really after is products that are non-toxic.

Buying products that are less harmful to people and the planet is obviously very important, which is why it pays to be a little skeptical of products that make environmental claims. Defining something as non-toxic is hard, because toxicity is related to quantity – which means that in large amounts almost everything is toxic to humans. That includes water. In terms of environmental impact, even Earth-friendly cleaning favourite Bicarb soda has issues: the Solvay process, an industrial procedure used to synthesise Bicarb, is not environmentally neutral.

It’s simply impossible to rely on eco-claims made on the product packaging, unless it’s been independently certified by a credible third party. Good Environmental Choice Australia, or GECA, certifies some laundry products — most are commercial rather than domestic, but if you like to buy in bulk it may be worth checking out.


What’s in my washing powder?


To dig a little deeper into what we use to wash our clothes, I checked out the ingredients in three supermarket laundry powders: one brand name that made no eco-claims, one brand name that did make eco-claims, and one supermarket own brand. While this isn’t a representative sample or a scientific test, it did turn up some interesting points. The ingredients for these laundry powders came from their Materials Safety Data Sheets, not the packaging. Not all laundry powders have MSDS available — try Googling the product and brand name along with ‘MSDS’ if you’re interested. I also investigated one recipe for ‘chemical-free laundry detergent’ from a popular eco lifestyle blog.

To determine how safe each ingredient is, I used the Environmental Working Group’s substances database. EWG gives substances an A-F ranking according to five criteria: Asthma/Respiratory, Skin Allergies and Irritation, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, Cancer, and Environment.

Regular brand (no eco claims)

Ingredient Ranking
Sodium sulphate


Sodium carbonate


Pentasodium triphosphate


Sodium silicate


Sodium tridecyl benzene sulphonate


Sodium carbonate peroxide


Tetrasodium pyrophosphate


Sodium hydroxide


Eco Brand

Ingredient Ranking
Sodium carbonate


Sodium lauryl sulphate


Disodium citrate


Sodium disilicate


Carboxymethyl cellulose


Alkyl polyglucoside


Supermarket own brand

Ingredient Ranking
Sodium carbonate


Protease (enzyme)


Sodium percarbonate


Chemical-free detergent recipe

Ingredient Ranking
Castile soap (olive oil-based vegetable soap)


Borax (Sodium borate)


Washing soda (Sodium bicarbonate)


The best-performing detergent in our non-representative sample was the supermarket own brand, with none of its ingredients ranking below B. The regular brand had ingredients ranked A-F, but more of its ingredients were ranked A than the eco brand, whose ingredients ranked A-C. Surprisingly, the borax used in the ‘chemical-free’ recipe rated F. Since 2010, the European Union has required products containing borax be labelled ‘May damage fertility’ and ‘May damage the unborn child’.

SPOTTED: Ridiculous eco-claims

  • No Sodium Chloride

Product contained three other types of sodium.
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate-free

Product contained Sodium coco sulphate, which is basically the same thing.
  • Plant-based

Product contained one plant-based essential oil. All other ingredients were minerals.
  • Free of harsh detergents

Contained Sodium coco sulphate.
  • No negative environmental effects

Ingredients were listed vaguely with words like ‘degreasers’ and ‘surfactants’, making this claim impossible to assess.
  • Just like Granny used to wash

I doubt Granny used potent biocide and possible cytotoxin Methylisothiazolinone to wash her clothes.

Takeaway messages

  • Chemicals make up everything we come into contact with. ‘Chemical-free’ is a buzzword, and stops us from rationally assessing which chemicals are better and which are worse.
  • Be skeptical of claims made on packaging unless they are backed up by a credible eco-label. It is very easy for products to create the impression that they’re safe for people or the environment when they are not.
  • In our example, the detergent that made eco claims was better than the one that didn’t, but even it contained a few nasty surprises.
  • The Home branded detergent had the fewest nasty substances, showing that products without eco-claims can sometimes be better than those with. However, which detergent is most effective is another question altogether!
  • If you’d prefer to make your own detergent, try a laundry liquid recipe with low health and environmental impacts.
  • Another good option is to try out soapnuts. These are the dried husks of the Sapindus fruit, which are compostable and contain safe, natural surfactants.
Photo credits:
Test tubes: Horia Varlan (cc)
Banana ingredients: courtesy of James Kennedy
Washing line:bies (cc)


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Otter’s Green Grog Guide

sustainable alcohol

When it comes to responsible drinking, we’re given an avalanche of advice about the health benefits of red wine, the dangers of binge drinking, and why alcopops will bring about the downfall of civilised society. But putting aside liver health and tipsy teens for a moment, what’s that case of white wine doing to the planet? Are some brews better than others? And what’s the surprising Australian innovation that could slash booze-related eco damage? Otter has answered all these questions and more in our first Green Grog Guide to sustainable alcohol!

sustainable alcohol


Ah, beer. Once a way to consume water without risking exposure to pathogens, Australians take in around 41% of their total alcohol as beer. There is enormous variation in the water and energy intensity of different beers, and how they’re packaged is also an important contributor.

The water footprint of a glass of beer is around 75 litres, and a lot of that is used during the growth of grains, which are the usual source of carbohydrates fermented to produce beer’s ethanol content. But the water stats we can use to make better beer choices are the ones that come out of different breweries. This report from 2010 estimates that beer production in large breweries uses about 4 litres of water for every litre of beer produced, whereas small breweries tend to use more like 6 or 7.  As always, it’s worth checking to see if your favourite brand has a water and energy use policy. For instance, Sab Miller, which makes Pure Blonde, Victoria Bitter and Peroni, says it is committed to reducing its water usage to 3 litres per litre of beer produced by 2020. It claims to be an industry leader.

Australia has a pretty good recycling record, with about 64% of our post-consumer waste being in some way re-used. But there’s always room for improvement, and if your state has a Container Deposit Scheme you can even make some money back.

In terms of carbon footprint, you can make a big difference by switching brands and packaging, and being careful about how you store your bezzas. This article estimates a local brew at the pub has one-third the impact of the same amount drunk from an imported bottle. That is, it’s much better, from an emissions perspective, to drink a non-imported schooner pulled from a keg than it is to buy a carton of bottles from America or Germany. And make sure you’re practising efficient tinnie refrigeration! Only fridge the amount of beer you’re going to need, and don’t run a separate beer fridge.

The upshot of all this is: going to the pub is better for the environment. Whose round is it?

sustainable alcohol


Wine, generally, is on the ups in Australia, with the hard-earned thirst being replaced by a relaxed glass of red or white. Wine represents 37% of the alcohol we consume annually, and Australia is now the world’s fourth largest wine exporter.

The water footprint of a glass of wine is around 120 litres, considerably more than beer. But Australians drinking Australian wine can put our minds (relatively) at ease when it comes to sustainable alcohol. Food miles are an important consideration because wine bottles are heavy and bulky to transport, meaning the closer your wine, the better. This paper suggests that Australian wine may suffer PR impacts on the export market because it’s so far away from its main importers. But for locals, this means it’s a correspondingly better choice than drinking wine that’s been shipped here from overseas.

Speaking of packaging, what’s the most environmentally advantageous way to buy wine? Why, the humble sack of goon, naturally. Referred to as ‘Bag In Box’ in industry circles, it was invented by Australian winemaker Thomas Angove in 1965, and has become synonymous with low-quality wine fit to be consumed only by alcoholics and university students.

But cask wine has many advantages over the bottle. (Not even counting the option of highly inadvisable and quintessentially Australian drinking game goon of fortune.) A single bag and cardboard box usually contains 2-4 litres of wine, which represents far less packaging than glass bottles. One report found cask wine generate a 55% lower carbon footprint and 85% less landfill waste than traditional glass bottles. Plus, the wine lasts longer: BIB packaging doesn’t expose the liquid to air, ensuring a much slower rate of oxidisation.

So reducing the environmental impact of your wine? It’s in the bag! The bag in the box, that is. Australian-grown cask wine is probably the best choice, and these days there are some perfectly respectable tipples sold Chateau Cardboard-style. And if you want to keep a decoy bottle and a funnel handy to maintain your reputation? Well, we won’t judge you, and after a few glasses neither will your dinner party guests.

sustainable alcohol


Spirits – your vodkas, whiskeys and gins – are high-alcohol liquors produced by distilling the product of fermentation to achieve a more heavy-hitting end result. They’re also heavy hitters in terms of resource use, with distilleries using between 9 and 63 litres of water for every litre of spirits they produce.

However, comparing this figure to the same measure for beer and wine can produce misleading results because of spirits’ high alcohol content. A litre of vodka contains 33 standard drinks, whereas a litre of regular strength beer only has 3 or 4. That’s a lot less packaging, and depending on the distillery might even be less water and energy usage per unit of alcohol.

Different kinds of spirits have their own unique issues. Rum and tequila, for instance, both produce a startling amount of waste – up to 90% of the raw material ends up outside the finished bottle. For tequila, it’s dire: every litre of finished tequila generates 10 litres of vinazas, acidic wastewater byproduct. Since tequila is only legally allowed to be named tequila if it is manufactured in the area surrounding Tequila, a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the environmental impact of this waste is highly concentrated. In 2008, over 2.5 billion litres of vinazas was unaccounted for, and reports suggest it is shaping up as a disastrous pollution issue in the region. Some small batch tequilas are more responsible, but the vast majority are unsustainable.

Because spirits is such a diverse category, it’s harder to give general advice than it is about other kinds of sustainable alcohol. It’s worth researching brands that make specific sustainability commitments to avoid any nastiness.


Image credit
Alcohol, Kimery Davis (CC)
Beer, courtesy Dan Nolan (<3)
Wine, Dorte (CC)
Whiskey, Eelco (CC)
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Three must-see sustainable jewellery sources

sustainable jewellery

Back in January, Otter investigated the ethical issues surrounding jewellery. From dirty gold mining to blood diamonds, it turns out shiny trinkets are as good at distracting from their questionable production processes as they are at diverting attention from a bad hair day.

One of the things we recommended was to look out for Fairtrade or recycled materials, to avoid the negative effects of dirty mining practices and ensure the beautiful ornaments you buy aren’t made by exploited workers. We’re always on the lookout for new places to buy sustainable jewellery, and here are three local Australian shops we’ve stumbled upon that don’t sacrifice quality or design when it comes to responsibly-sourced glittery goodies.

bombshell necklace

Oz Fair Trade Bombshell Jewellery

Qinnie Wang, founder of Oz Fair Trade, says:

During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more than 270 million sub-munitions on Laos. It is estimated that more than 30% of these sub-munitions failed to explode, leaving Laos with 80 million undetonated bombs. Since 1973, there have been around 12,000 explosion-related accidents.

Cambodia’s notorious landmine problem is the product of a civil war that spanned three decades and claimed the lives of up to three million people, or one third of the entire population. Today, more than 40,000 people are amputees.

Despite the efforts of the relevant government bodies in both countries, millions of undetonated bombs remain. It is within this context that a new type of product was born: recycled bombshells.

Once detonated, the aluminium and brass in bombs can be melted and made into household objects. Local people started making spoons from bombshells after the war, and they now produce beautiful jewellery, too.

Recycled bombshell products are ethical in three main ways:

•             recycle existing material

•             provide extra income for land clearance

•             provide job opportunities for local people

You can view how bombshells are turned into jewellery in the Oz Fair Trade’s YouTube video, or view the bombshell collection here.

spindrift necklace


Spindrift is the creation of artist and jewellery designer Natasha Wakefield, who combs the Northern Beaches of Sydney for pieces of sea glass to use as gems in her collections. Sea glass is the result of tides and sand acting on shards of bottles, windows and parts from wrecked ships, transforming it from jagged and dangerous waste into smooth, frosted treasure.

The sea glass used in Spindrift jewellery is also known as mermaids’ tears, and this romantic provenance is echoed in the designs. The pieces are elegant, understated and slightly melancholy, with the pale, translucent blues of the sea glass complementing lustrous silver metal components. Other pieces use reclaimed wood and small shell fragements.

Spindrift uses recycled silver wherever possible, and is committed to sourcing Fairtrade and sustainable materials.

katrina freene

 Katrina Freene

Adelaide-based designer Katrina Freene makes limited edition earrings, brooches and necklaces from recycled tin trays. A little bit retro and a little bit Australiana, Freene says her design is heavily influenced by her passion for sustainable jewellery as well as memories of her childhood.

The tin trays she uses are an op shop staple, often passed over for being unbearably kitschy. On a large, tea-tray-sized scale this is often true, but the colourful motifs really shine as smaller bits of wearable art. Some pieces incorporate multiple textures, and some are single patterns, like a pair of studs with the detail of a pheasant’s plumage. Part of the charm of this jewellery is the invitation to imagine what the rest of the tray looked like, which makes her pieces both whimsical and engaging.

Posts and earring threads are made of sustainable materials, and Freene tries to avoid manufactured parts as much as possible, preferring to design them herself.

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Ancient suds, modern miracle: Replace every product under your sink with Castile soap


What if you could replace a whole cupboard of cleaning products with one simple, environmentally preferable, animal friendly soap? Lucia Holding looks at the wonders of Castile soap.

A couple of weeks ago I took the first steps on my journey towards a home with no nasty, harsh products. Everyday household cleaners, beauty and self-care products can be quite toxic, and without even knowing it we could be polluting the planet. But don’t panic! There is a way to avoid the damage. The answer is simple: Castile soap.

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