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No Stupid Questions

Lizzie Horvitz, Founder & CEO, Talia Vicars, Jane Pennoyer and Mark Falinski, Ph.D.
No Stupid Questions3

Who better to ask about all things sustainability than the team at Finch? Here are answers to some of your most asked questions. 

1. WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH CLOTHING THAT IS WORN OUT? I CAN’T DONATE IT BECAUSE THEY HAVE HOLES.

Did you know that in America alone, the volume of textiles thrown away amounts to over 80 pounds per person per year? Yikes. Here’s what to do with your threads when they’re too worn to donate. 

Clothes

  • Cut your old clothes into dish rags to give them a second life.
  • H&M rolled out a Garment Collecting program in 2013, through which they take unwanted clothing and textiles in any condition, from any brand. 
  • Lots of other brands have smaller take-back programs for their own goods, including Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Marine Layer, and Girlfriend Collective
  • If you live in the Pacific Northwest, check out Ridwell, a company that will pick up your old stuff right from your doorstep for a small fee. 

Jeans

  • Madewell and Levi’s both work with the Blue Jeans Go Green to turn your old jeans (from any brand in any color and condition) into housing insulation. The best part is, both brands will give you a credit towards future purchases in exchange for your donation.

Undergarments

Shoes

  • Terracycle will turn your old leather shoes into flooring material and plastic shoe parts into containers. You can also drop off your old shoes (from any brand in any condition) at a North Face store and they’ll repurpose them through their Clothes the Loop program. Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program is a good option for sneakers specifically. 

2. WHY ARE SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING BRANDS ALMOST ALWAYS MORE EXPENSIVE? IT SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF BUSINESSES THAT LABEL THEMSELVES AS BEING “ECO-FRIENDLY” ARE ALMOST ALWAYS MORE EXPENSIVE.

For those of us who are accustomed to fast fashion prices, the costs of “sustainable” clothing can seem exorbitant. Let’s break down the factors that go into this pricing. 

Fair Wages

As Ayesha Barenblat, the mind behind Remake told Vogue, “the price reflects the exploitation.” Ethically-produced clothing pays a living wage, which enables the people making our stuff to live comfortable and safe lives. Rather than paying living wages to garment workers, fast fashion brands often cut corners (and costs) by using child labor. Believe it or not, the fashion industry actually funnels more money into modern slavery than any industry outside of tech. When you buy from brands that pay their garment workers living wages, the price tag of your clothing will reflect that. 

Materials

Sustainable clothing brands often source more durable materials that will stand the test of time. Unfortunately, these durable materials are often more expensive than cheap, flimsy materials. Fortunately, since these materials last longer, the cost-per-wear of a more expensive but durable item may actually end up being lower than that cheap fast fashion garment that falls apart after a few washes. 

Our solution? Buy second hand! We love thrifting to save money on clothing that stands the test of time. 

Keep in mind that greenwashing is rampant and some companies take advantage of this fact. Check out our post on the topic to learn about some telltale signs of greenwashing. 

3. HOW MUCH BETTER ARE ELECTRIC CARS VS. NORMAL CARS?

No Stupid Questions5

Wow, this is a complicated one… The short answer is that Teslas and EVs produce fewer emissions during use than gas powered cars in 95% of the world, after accounting for the fossil fuels used to produce electricity, according to a 2020 study in Nature Sustainability. How much better the Tesla is than a gas guzzler depends on your location, your car type, and more, because like everything in the world of environmental sustainability, the answer can significantly change based on a bunch of factors. The best way to answer this question, and most other sustainable product questions, is by understanding the environmental impacts from the time the first bit of metal is extracted from the ground, all the way until you have to say goodbye to your old clunker at the dump.

So first, let’s think about making each car. Each car might seem pretty similar in terms of build and materials, but there are some very important differences between the two. The most important of these? The batteries and all the fancy metals and materials in the shiny new Tesla. A 2018 study out of the University of British Columbia found that the embodied carbon footprint of the materials in an EV battery and its other components is 60% higher than the carbon footprint for the materials in a gas powered car. There are other environmental issues around the cars, including related to the world’s lithium supply and other damage to the environment, but we will touch on that another time.

Wait, how is the Tesla better then? Well, let’s get to using it. When you use a gas powered car, you are using 100% (or sometimes 85%) pure fossil fuels in the form of gasoline. All of that is combusted and released as greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, an EV is powered by the electric grid. Depending on where you live, fossil fuels only provide 25-89% of electrical power. That means that, per mile, you are indirectly burning way less fossil fuels. 

So how much better is an EV than a gas powered car? Well, that depends on where you live, how long you use the car, and which electric vehicle and gas vehicle you look at. Carbon footprint payoff periods range from a few months to a few years for electric vehicles, depending on which scientists you ask, and the UBC study from above actually noted that over the course of 210,000 miles driven, the lifecycle GHG emissions from an electric vehicle are about 48% less than for a gas vehicle. If you live in a place with more solar panels and wind powering the electric grid, the EV could win by even more. And, the longer you drive an EV, the more it will win by. If you really want to know a more exact guess, there are calculators online to help you.

So, should you trade your gas car for an EV right now? That also depends, but I am actually going to shockingly say “No”. Manufacturing an EV battery

produces the same amount of carbon emissions as driving the average gas car between 5,000 and 38,000 miles. That means you would indirectly release the same amount of emissions by driving your gas car right now for thousands of miles as you would if you got a Tesla and then never drove it. So our advice here is this: either sell your car so it is driven until it can’t dgo any more, or drive it yourself until the end of its life. Then, once it is no longer working, an EV becomes the best possible choice for the environment.

4. ARE KEURIG COFFEE PODS REALLY THAT UNSUSTAINABLE?

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I’m sorry to say, but it is complicated! Single use Keurig coffee pods are pretty bad overall from a waste perspective, but studies disagree on their relative climate impacts. While some scientists have found the carbon footprint of coffee from single-use coffee pods to be much higher than a cup of drip-based Joe, others have found that there might not be a big difference at all. Either way, our suggestion is pretty straight forward. If you already have a Keurig, stop buying single use pods, and get one reusable pod to refill with coffee from your local roaster instead. More details are below:

Waste

Keurig claimed that “90% of K-Cup® pods had the potential to be recovered”, but as it currently stands, they are not. In 2020, Greenpeace evaluated nearly every municipal recycling facility in the United States (367 of them) and not a single facility in the entire United States accepts Keurig pods for recycling. Not one. Plus last year, Keurig lost a class action lawsuit about labeling on their products, since their products did not even meet the legal definition of “Recyclable”. Pretty trashy, overall.

Climate

The climate impacts of Keurig pods is a bit more confusing, since how things are used matters so much. A 2019 study found that making a single cup of coffee using a Keurig with single-use pods had roughly the same carbon footprint as making a single cup of drip coffee (assuming both were drank in their entirety). Meanwhile, another study from 2020 found that the carbon footprint of a single use pod Keurig system was actually 30-75% higher than coffee from a drip filter. This science might need more time to boil over.

What you can do here:

If you want to lower the carbon impacts of coffee in a major way, turn off “Standby Mode”. Keeping your water constantly warm in “Standby Mode” creates six times as many carbon emissions as everything else, combined. Since each single use pod can be up to 40% of the carbon footprint of each cup of coffee, purchase one reusable pod, and fill it with coffee yourself. Doing so may actually make your Keurig the more climate friendly option in the long run. Two birds with one stone, since this also cuts down on that non-recyclable waste.

5. SO I DON’T EAT MEAT FOR ETHICAL REASONS, BUT MY FAMILY DOES. SOMETIMES I MAKE A MEAL THAT IS RIGHT-SIZED FOR THEM BUT THERE ARE LEFTOVERS. MY HUSBAND WILL NOT EAT LEFTOVERS. SOMETIMES I EAT THE LEFTOVER CHICKEN JUST SO THE ANIMAL DIDN’T DIE IN VAIN. IS THIS WRONG?

First off, there is no way to be wrong about eating leftovers (unless you microwave fries the next morning. That is gross). But in this specific case, you are double right, because eating this chicken is the most environmentally-friendly option in the short term, while a small shift in your cooking habits is the most sustainable option in the long term. Let’s get into it!

First, let’s think about poop and garbage. That piece of chicken is going to end up as waste, one way or another. For most people, there are 3 choices: 

  1. digest it, wait a few hours, then flush it down the toilet, 
  2. throw it in the trash,
  3. compost it. 

The most wrong choice here is throwing it in the trash. The International Panel on Climate Change determined that poultry poo down the loo will produce 60% fewer methane emissions than uneaten chicken in a landfill, while composting can cut down methane emissions by 30-86%, depending on how aerated and well-maintained your compost pile is.

Okay, we talked about the waste, time to talk about that chicken staring back at you from the fridge. There are obvious animal welfare and ethical concerns regarding both eating

and not eating chicken. If the already-cooked chicken leftovers doesn’t get eaten, there are wasted emissions, plus a life lost for no reason. However, this can be a slippery slope and could lead to “the chicken has already died, so I’ll order it off of a menu or buy it from a grocery store.” Animal welfare concerns are very valid, for which there are arguments around not partaking in eating it at all. That’s for another time. 

So, should you eat it? From an environmental standpoint, cluck yeah you should! You already paid for that chicken’s carbon footprint (check out our blog on carbon and water footprints of foods for more info), plus the carbon footprint from whatever heat source you used to cook it. Eating the chicken makes sure that all of those emissions still serve a purpose. However, Finch’s research and data can’t quantify your personal values, so it is ultimately up to you to decide how your values stack up to these impacts.

Last thing. By making your sacrifice, you are doing better for the environment, but being good to the environment doesn’t require you to make any sacrifices at all. Instead of forcing down a food you don’t want, we suggest lowering your food waste by making sure your family only cooks as much chicken as they need and supplementing with lower impact foods, or by finding creative new ways to use the leftovers in a way the family can enjoy.

6. CAN YOU RECYCLE PAPER TOWELS?

No Stupid Questions1

Sadly, even unused paper towels cannot be recycled because the fibers are too short to be made into new paper. If they’re wet with food, soil, or grease, they’ll contaminate the entire recycling process. You can recycle the tubes, though! Source here.

7. CAN I, AS ONE PERSON TRYING MY BEST TO MAKE SUSTAINABLE CHOICES, TRULY MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE? I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF THERE IS ANY SCIENCE BACKED RESEARCH THAT SHOWS THAT MY ACTIONS, AS A SINGLE PERSON OUT OF BILLIONS, ACTUALLY MAKES A DIFFERENCE BECAUSE I CAN’T HELP BUT FEEL COMPLETELY HOPELESS SOMETIMES.

No Stupid Questions2

We think: absolutely! It’s not an either/or but a both/and when it comes to making progress to slow climate change. We loved this podcast, and wrote about progress not perfection here.

8. I FEEL LIKE SO MANY BRANDS ARE BECOMING “GREEN” THESE DAYS, BUT DEEP DOWN I FEEL LIKE IT ISN’T REAL. AS A CONSUMER, HOW CAN I DECIPHER THE REAL FROM THE FAKE, THE MORALLY JUST FROM THE CORRUPT.

No one likes to be swindled. As far as greenwashing goes, it’s a particularly painful kind of swindling, because it works off the premise that we want to do right by people and the planet. So how do we protect ourselves from these predatory practices? The best way is to understand that sustainability is a sliding scale. Read more about how to Green and Bear It.

9.WHAT’S BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT? DRIVING TO THE STORE IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD TO BUY SOMETHING OR BUYING IT ON AMAZON?

While we won’t ever explicitly tell you to buy from Amazon, buying an item online and having it shipped to you is often less carbon-intensive than driving to the store. Of course, this depends on how far the store is, how heavy the package is, and a variety of other factors. It’s also important to remember that sustainability is about more than just what is better for the environment -- buying from small businesses has impacts on your local economy, and has ties to equity through redistribution. Read more about how to Shop for Impact Drop.

10. WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT TOTE BAGS??? IF IT TAKES 20,000 USES TO OFFSET THE IMPACT OF PRODUCTION OF A COTTON TOTE, THEN WHAT BAGS SHOULD WE USE?! THEY MAY NOT LITTER STREETS AND SEAS LIKE PLASTIC BAGS, BUT THEY STILL SEEM PRETTY BAD?

What to do about totes… is to use them again and again. Really get your money (and carbon!) worth, by reusing tote bags. Like we talked about in the Sustainability Paradox blog, plastic bags need to be reused more than three times to offset their carbon footprint. A slightly thicker polypropylene bag needs to be reused more than ten times. And, the cotton tote would need to be reused more than 100 times to offset its carbon cost. So, what do we do if we don’t want to use one of our cotton totes anymore? Although made of cotton, totes cannot be composted in municipal facilities. It’s the unfortunate reality that only 15% of the 30 million tons of cotton produced annually gets to textile depositories. If the tote makes it there, most of the dyes used to print logos or cool phrases like “Sunday Funday” on them are tough to break down. Those pieces have to be cut out and tossed away before the cotton tote can live another life as a different item...but turning the old cloth into something new is almost as energy-intensive as making it originally, which is where most of the tote’s carbon footprint is coming from. 

TLDR: It is A-OK to get a cotton tote if you’re going to reuse it. But what if your cotton tote has seen better days? How should you get rid of it? Toss that tote into the trash if you don’t want it anymore, or hunt down a textile depository near you. To avoid this hassle, don’t get cotton totes you don’t need.