Are you an Ecoholic?
Adria Vasil’s mother raised her to believe that you can change the world just by changing your little corner. It seems that this celebrated Canadian eco heroine can’t stop the domino effect she started with the Ecoholic revolution happening in Canada and beyond. Her new book Ecoholic Home is already influencing readers with informed, affordable and practical advice on how to green your home on any budget, going on to test the brands making the big green claims to help you make the right choice. While changing your ways at home is just the beginning, it’s a great place to start.
Was the experience of writing your new book, Ecoholic Home, any different from the last?
Yes, in so many ways. For one, green has become really mainstream, especially in the Home section. When I wrote the Home chapter of Ecoholic, it was really hard to find items for people, such as sustainable furniture or organic sheets. (They were all going to be $400 and beige.) And, if you wanted to make green home reno changes to your house, it impossible to find all the building materials and so on that I was talking about. The country was really starved. But now, The Brick sells furniture—dining sets made out of rubber trees that are no longer productive. And Bed, Bath & Beyond has tons of organic bedding, hand towels, that kind of thing. Green has permeated the mainstream.
Why do you think it struck such a chord?
I think they found it approachable—it’s kind of a friendly reference manual. And there really weren’t any other Canadian-focused books that gave specific lists—here’s where you can buy a Canadian product that is green. There was a real appetite for that. It was also right when people were getting enthusiastic about the environment again. In 2004, when I started writing the column [“Ecoholic,” for Toronto’s NOW magazine], there were 10 people out there paying attention! But by the time the first Ecoholic book hit, the scene had completely changed.
Did that make the writing easier or harder?
A little of both. It has become much easier to find green products, but there’s also more greenwash out there. We had greenwash a few years ago when we did the first book but now it’s astronomical. You really have to keep your wits about you. So I made sure to include in Ecoholic Home a guide to decoding greenwash and a guide to decoding all the green labels out there.
The other change is the recession. It has had an interesting effect on the environment. Green stories aren’t on page one [of most newspapers] as much as they were before the recession hit, but people inherently started going back to some of the green home strategies that our grandparents used in the Great Depression to save money. Without necessarily thinking about it, we’re starting to turn the lights out more, consuming less and ultimately realizing that this is exactly what they meant when they said going green could save you money.
Didn’t North Americans do the same thing during the oil crisis of the 1970s though, and then by the 1980s, they’d gone back to old habits? Are you hopeful that this change is going to be long-lasting?
Oh, I have no concerns at all about the environment coming back front and centre on the agenda. There may have been a temporary dislodging of the environment from the front page but climate change is going to continue to put it toward the front of our minds. And, in fact, the recession hasn’t changed the way Canadians feel about the environment—they’re still greening their homes, they’re still buying organic food… It’s just that people aren’t talking about it.
So why Ecoholic Home, a book centred on changes you can make around the house?
Statistics Canada says that Canadian households are responsible for 46 percent of the nations climate cooking emissions. So it’s an area where we have so much potential to change, even through the tiniest actions. You’re breathing in the air in your home every day and you want it to be as safe as possible. It’s intensely personal so it’s a great place to start.
I also think that the home is a tangible place for people to make changes. You can see pollution coming into our homes in the form of air fresheners and the furniture you buy, and people are freaked out that this is making it’s way into their actual private space.
Consumers are faced with a choice all the time: Support companies that are green through and through or the companies with a limited offering of green products plus many other conventional products. Do you get flack from readers when you suggest the latter option is okay?
I always try to explain why I’m including the mainstream brand, and to say that the top choice is to support the local, Canadian-made option that’s independent and Mom-and-Pop-owned. But if you’re not going to buy that or if that’s not available near you then at least these companies are making products that are more accessible to the average consumer who would not have considered a green product before. So I’m not against it.
Did you do product testing in the first book?
No. In the first book, I definitely made sure to include my opinions of products in the writing but it wasn’t formally laid out. In this book, I thought it was really important to do because people will come up to may and say, “I tried a few green cleaners and they were terrible, so I’m never going to buy a green cleaner again.” I thought it was really important to then say, here’s a review of 8 natural cleaners and these four sucked and these three were pretty good and these 2 were amazing. So at least you know where to spend your money. If you get one green thumb up then that means the product is equivalent to “spit in a rag.” So, it’s a no hold’s barred product testing chart, for sure.
What do you suggest renters do to make a difference?
I’m a renter myself and so I know that as a renter you can’t start putting in FSC-certified cupboards and that sort of thing. That’s why it was important to me to put the big home reno stuff at the back of the book. So the first three-quarters of it is really accessible to everyone. It goes through things like cleaners to how you wash your clothes to your sheet choices. The thing is that even under the heating section, while you can’t go out and buy a new furnace, you might be able to talk to your landlord about figuring out how to change your own furnace filter on a regular basis. You can change your showerhead for only $30 and you can put a toilet dam in the back of the toilet for only $5 to save on water. You can unplug all of your electronics when you’re not using them to save 10% on energy. And what you bring into your home is really the same whether you live in an apartment, a dorm or a 3,000 square foot house. I included a section on greening your first apartment, and one on greening your dorm. Instead of running out to get that Teflon pan for your new place, go to Zellers and get an Earthchef pan for $29. It’s made out of ceramic instead of Teflon, so you still get the non-stick factor for young chefs who don’t want to deal with cast iron. Shop for your furniture on Craigslist and buy in bulk. Stick to green cleaners. I also threw in some fun stuff like throwing green movie nights and banning long showers from your house.
These are all great ideas, but how much to these small lifestyle changes really matter? Are they enough?
I think it’s a starting point. Your home is ground zero, so I think once you make the changes in your home, then you can branch out to working on changing the world around you. You get inspired. You get on a roll. Now, not 100 percent of people will end up lobbying their politicians, but I did make sure to include a section in the book on building sustainable communities, on going beyond your own household. Really, municipalities and neighbourhoods are where the most exciting action is really happening—neighbours banding together and saying, “We should buy a bunch of solar panels together so that it’s more affordable. Or, let’s band together and petition our politicians in order to find out what’s in that weird warehouse next door to us—if there are any toxins in there that we should be worried about because of kids playing nearby.” So I’ve made a real point of saying that connecting to your community—and making changes within that community—is really the most important thing you can do.
You’re saying that we need to go beyond just being green consumers?
Right. We don’t want people to become lazy—to assume that if you buy recycled toilet paper that is definitely going to change our world. But those are important first steps to make because once consumers get educated about toxins and the environmental ramifications of all the products they purchase, it makes them more aware of the environmental ramifications outside of the home. You start perking up and wondering, okay, so there are VOCs. And how does that lead to smog? And what about smog? How can we make it safer for my kids to breathe? Like I say in the book: We can’t buy our way out of this mess. It can’t start and end with shopping. It can start there but it can’t end there.
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