Saturday, 30 June 2012

Which is greener: hand driers or paper towels?

In the toilets at work, we have both electric hand driers and paper towels. I'm always surprised by the amount of people that use the paper towels, as I've never seen them as good for the environment. On the other hand, some people can't believe I use the hand drier, and ask if I'm aware how dirty they can be.

I looked into this, and they do have a point.

Hand driers usually have filters that need regular cleaning to remove dust and grime. If this isn't done, then bacteria can breed inside the machine, and then get blown onto your freshly washed hands. However, I do wonder if this is any worse than the bacteria that's always on toilet door handles, from people who haven't washed their hands. I'm still alive, so I guess it's not a major issue.

The argument for paper towels is that they're greener because they can be recycled and they don't use electricity. I've looked into this.

Dirty paper towels are often unsuitable for recycling, because they are made from low-grade paper, and are contaminated with bacteria (and worse) from people's hands. There's also a vast amount of energy used to fell trees, cut them, ship them to the paper plant, grind them into pulp, dry them (using hot air!), cut them into sheets, and drive them to the office. So I reckon using a hand drier eliminates a lot of unnecessary energy use.

Unfortunately, the information I have is from sources connected with either the paper industry or the hand drier manufacturers. I don't have concrete figures or independent evidence, so it's difficult to prove either argument. At the moment, I'm sticking with the hand drier.

So what's your preference - paper towels or hand drier?

Saturday, 23 June 2012

In Transition

I've just finished watching a documentary film called In Transition. It's about communities that are trying to become less dependent on oil, and products made from it.

I thought it was worth mentioning, because unlike many films of this genre, it manages to do this without any hysteria or evangelism. Sure, some of the people interviewed are die-hard environmentalists. But most of the people are just ordinary folks trying to make a small change, and in the process, making new friends in their local neighbourhood. Like the chef who proudly announces that all the ingredients for his dishes come from within a 50 mile radius of his kitchen, and he personally knows the farmer who supplied the meat.

There were a few technical terms in the film that weren't explained fully (I'm guessing there probably wasn't enough time). So if phrases like "Peak Oil" don't mean much to you, then you might not get the most out of the film. It's still worth watching though. There's a different film that explains these terms in a wonderfully simple way, which I'll share in a future post.

Here are some great quotes from the film that I couldn't help noting down:

 - In the US, a carrot travels an average of 1838 miles in order to reach the dinner table.

 - In the UK, 50 percent of all vegetables and 95 percent of fruit come from overseas. There are crops like garlic that we could grow in the UK, but instead we import them from China and other countries.

 - In England, 142,000 acres of orchards have been cut down in the last 100 years (I've noticed myself that even in the British apple season, we import apples from overseas).

All of this means a lot of transportation, which invariably uses oil. A consultant presenting the issues to a local council meeting summed up the problem: "We're moving from a time when our consumption of fossil fuels - be it oil or gas - is the key factor in our economic success, our sense of wellbeing, our personal prowess; to a time when our dependency on fossil fuels is our degree of vulnerability".

Despite this, I thought the film ended without any definite conclusions. However, there was an invitation for viewers to send in their own stories on video for use in a sequel.

You can now watch the film online for free, in the window below, or via Vimeo.Grab a mug of tea first - it runs for about 50 minutes.

In Transition 1.0 from Transition Towns on Vimeo.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Marketing Uncovered: Price Wars

You've seen the discounts, the sales, and the shops fighting to be the cheapest. Or is it just clever marketing? Let's find out in the latest "Marketing Uncovered" episode!

Here are my top phrases in the shopping category, together with their alternative meanings.

"We guarantee our prices are unbeatable"
This doesn't mean that the prices are the cheapest. You'll often find a host of terms and conditions attached to claims like this. Usually, if you buy the item and then find it cheaper elsewhere, you can get a refund of the extra you paid. But the devil is in the detail - you may have to jump through hoops to get your refund.

"10% off"
And what was the original price? If the company were already more expensive than their competitors, then they still may be more expensive! It's the price you pay at the checkout that counts, not the discount.

"Our customers save £150, on average"
This is designed to lure you away from your current supplier, but again, doesn't guarantee that you'll save money. The key here is that the phrase talks about "our customers", and not the entire population. That's because, with services like insurance and utility companies, no company is cheapest for everyone - it depends on where you live, how much you use, and a whole range of other factors.

"Special offer!"
Why? Is the product a limited edition? Is there a temporary discount? Or is the company trying to offload some outdated products from the back of their warehouse?

A side note
Don't get too sidetracked by prices. A cheap product that doesn't last long can be worse value than a more expensive product that lasts. After-sales service can be important too, and may be worth paying extra for. These are factors that are easily overlooked when comparing prices.

If you've ever wondered why competing companies can seemingly have "cut-throat price wars", while still managing to make a tidy profit at the end of the day, then you might now have an inkling as to how this is done!

(as always, the phrases above are generalisations, and are not intended to reflect any particular company's claims)

Friday, 8 June 2012

Marketing Uncovered: Food Labels

Image credit: Ralf Roletschek
In the latest instalment of Marketing Uncovered articles, I decided to explore some of the ethics around food labelling and advertising claims.

Here, as always, is a run down of my pet hate marketing phrases, together with what I think they really mean.

No added sugar
This just means that the product hasn't been sweetened with sugar. But if it's a sweet product, and it's a processed food (eg. a soft drink), then it has to get its sweetness from somewhere. Sometimes manufacturers use fruit juice concentrate, which is really a sneaky way to use fruit sugar instead of normal sugar. However, for the most part, I find that "no added sugar" usually means "contains artificial sweeteners". Also, because sugar is a natural preservative, removing it can mean that products like soft drinks need stronger artificial preservatives to compensate. So "no added sugar" doesn't necessarily mean "better for you".

Real ingredients
This doesn't necessarily mean you're eating a hand-made product, or one that only uses natural ingredients. Going from the products I've seen using this claim, it currently seems to mean that natural or close to natural ingredients are used. This might include "nature identical" ingredients, for example, a strawberry flavour that is made in a factory, but is almost identical to the natural substance in real strawberries. But as I haven't been able to find an official definition of "real ingredients", it's really anyone's guess as to how tomorrow's products will use this phrase.

85% Fat Free
Regular readers will have already worked this one out. It means that the product contains 15% fat. In other words, when you look at the nutrition information on the back of the pack, you will see that there is 15g of fat per 100g - fairly high. Thankfully, recent industry changes in the UK mean that there are now controls over the use of phrases like "fat free". But it still serves as a useful illustration.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm the one in the supermarket looking at ingredient labels. At least they have tight regulation, and they have to disclose most (but not all) of the contents. I find it a great way to dispel the marketing spin, but only if I have one of those rare ingredients: time!

Image: Bilder im Supermarkt by Ralf Roletschek, CC-BY-SA licence, obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Endless Summer

Fresh vegetables at a street market
Image: Biswarup Ganguly
Everyone knows about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. But did you know that choosing the wrong ones could have an impact on your wallet, your wellbeing, and the environment?

The phrase "Endless Summer" was coined some years ago, to explain how it's always summer in some part of the world. This makes it possible to have fruit and vegetables on sale all year round, no matter whether they're in season or not. Thanks to an Endless Summer, they are always in season somewhere, and can be transported to store shelves anywhere in the world.

As you'd imagine, the environmental impact can be huge, especially if goods have to be kept refrigerated on the journey. And by the time they reach the store shelves, they're already a few days old and have lost some of their nutrients.

Of course, someone has to pay for the transport costs too. That would be you. Well volunteered!

The way around this? Look for produce that's grown in your home country, or at least close to it. Ideally, try to buy from local producers or farmers markets. If there's a poor harvest (which still happens even in developed countries) the local outlets will still have small amounts of local produce. The supermarkets, however, have to buy in bulk and will often buy abroad instead. The supermarket may be cheaper in this case, but don't forget that there is still a cost to the environment.

Even better than all this is to grow your own vegetables. It's easy (no, really it is), and you can start with a plant pot or grow bag on your patio or balcony.

We might not be able to make the summer last all year, but we can make food choices that have a feel-good factor.

Image: Vegetables by Biswarup Ganguly, CC-BY licence, obtained via Wikimedia Commons.