Responsible campus consumerism

Environmentalism and sustainability movement should be more than just a fad, Earth Centre co-chairs say

Earth Centre co-chairs Raili Lakanen and Michelle Berquist want to increase environmental awareness on campus and change students’ consumption habits.
Image by: Don Lougheed
Earth Centre co-chairs Raili Lakanen and Michelle Berquist want to increase environmental awareness on campus and change students’ consumption habits.

For volunteers at the Earth Centre, green isn’t the new black.

They see such ideas, as espoused by the green movement, as treating sustainable living like just another consumer trend.

“This is the difficulty of ‘green consumerism’—you’re still consuming,” said Raili Lakanen, co-chair (human resources) and ArtSci ’09.

She added that reducing consumption and waste is an essential part of the environmental movement.

“I feel that the Earth Centre has chosen to take a path of selling things that people see as essential, such as detergent or soap. These are things that people need for their daily lives,” she said.

“The Earth Centre has chosen to provide a substitute for these products by choosing a more responsible consumer choice.”

The Earth Centre, located in Macgillivray-Brown Hall, sells low-cost, eco-friendly household and personal products and works as an environmental resource centre.

The centre makes only a few cents per item sold. The money is put towards buying more products.

“The Earth Centre really wants to inform students on alternatives to products they already use,” Lakenen said. “We want to change consumer habits on a student budget.”

All of the products at the Earth Centre are shipped to Kingston from the Ontario Natural Food Co-op, a Toronto-based group of companies that specialize in organic, sustainable products for household and personal use. Shipments are made once every other week, depending on how much stock the centre needs.

The Earth Centre is run by about 30 volunteers, including seven executive volunteers who oversee product research, finances, marketing, volunteering and education.

The centre’s education director researches all the products and educates volunteers and customers about them.

Michelle Berquist, co-chair (operations) and ArtSci ’09, explained that because the Earth Centre is a non-profit organization, their goal isn’t to encourage consumption. Instead, their primary goal is to educate students on why sustainable living is beneficial for the environment and the public.

“There’s an important distinction between green consumerism and what we do at the Earth Centre,” Berquist said. “We aren’t running a fiscally sustainable business. We are not aiming to sell products so much as we are selling ideas.

“At the moment, there’s not any product we can claim to be perfect, but it’s the best we can do right now,” Berquist said, adding that they’re always trying to provide students with the most responsible consumer choices.

“We can make a difference right here,” she said. “The ideology behind the Earth Centre is to transform knowledge of environmental issues into action.”

Berquist said the most important aspect of a lot of their household products, such as soaps and cleaning products, is that they biodegrade in water.

“A lot of chemicals are flushed out into lakes and are dangerous for the ecosystems in that area,” she said. “This is introducing, en masse, a chemical not native to [some ecosystems].”

Berquist referred to Lake Winnipeg as an example. Since the late 1990s, water testing has shown the ecosystem of the lake to be disrupted due to an influx of chemical nutrients, such as phosphate and nitrogen, which entered the lake through sewage systems.

All of the paper products sold at the Earth Centre, such as tissues or toilet paper, come from a company called Cascades, which uses 100 per cent recycled materials.

“We’re the last [paper] mill that manufactures recycled paper in Canada, which means something …and creates a sense of community,” said Julie Loyer, communication advisor for Cascades Inc.

Cascades produces a variety of paper products including toilet paper, box boards, printing paper and coin wrappers. All the paper Cascades uses is manufactured at a paper mill in St-Jerome, Quebec, the oldest paper mill in Canada and entering its 125th year of manufacturing.

Cascades makes 100 per cent post-consumer recycled papers as well as 30 per cent post-consumer paper. The Earth Centre carries the 100 per cent line.

The 100 per-cent recycled paper is approximately seven to 10 per cent more expensive than non-recycled paper, Loyer said.

“All the paper comes from urban forests, which means they’re entirely made from blue bins,” she said. “So you need no trees to manufacture paper, which is the best way to preserve the environment—and it also means less chemicals, water, and energy to manufacture the paper.”

The 30 per cent recycled paper is a start for people beginning to make the switch to more environmentally-friendly products, Loyer said.

“It’s a good step for people to go from virgin to 30 per cent. The paper made from 30 per cent [recycled paper] is the same price,” she said.

A pack of four rolls of 100 per cent recycled toilet paper costs $1.25 at the Earth Centre.

The Earth Centre also sells tampons and pads made from organic cotton from UK-based company Natracare.

Natracare sells organic and natural feminine hygiene products—including tampons, pads, panty liners and wipes—manufactured in Europe using raw materials grown and produced in European countries such as Sweden, Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom.

Not only are the raw materials grown organically, said Kim Wronkoski, Natracare sales and marketing director for the U.S. and Canada, but the whole manufacturing process is certified as organic by the Soil Association Certification, the largest body of organic certification body in the United Kingdom. The association visits Natracare’s office and manufacturing plants to ensure their standards are met.

Natracare differs from other companies, Susie Hewson, the founder and international sales and marketing director, told the Journal in an e-mail. She said Natracare is unique in using chlorine-free pulp from small-managed pine forests and certified organic cotton. They also avoid petroleum-based materials in favour of organic and natural plant extracts.

Because of this, she said, the products are healthier for women and better for the environment.

“It means that you make a positive decision for your health and that of our planet, for less than the cost of a latte,” Hewson said.

At the Earth Centre, a pack of 16 Natracare tampon costs $6. At A&P, a pack of 18 brand-name tampons costs $3.99.

Berquist said petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers are used to grow the cotton that end up in most tampons and pads, and possibly in the bodies of the women who use them.

Five magazines have donated subscriptions to the Earth Centre, including Corporate Knights and Green @ Work. The bi-monthly issues are available for students to read at the centre. Lakanen said the centre is also working on purchasing books for a resource library.

“We want students to learn about environmental issues casually,” Berquist said, adding that they’re open to suggestion from students about to which books to buy.

In September, the centre changed from being a committee under the Social Issues Commission to a club under the AMS.

Marketing director Paul Harrison, Sci ’08, explained that as a committee the centre’s budget was allocated by the AMS. As a club, the Earth Centre can receive a $0.50 opt-outable fee which will provide the centre with its budget for the year.

The centre won’t know until student fees are distributed at the end of this month what their budget will be.

Once the budget is finalized, the Earth Centre will begin a marketing strategy, including posters that outline its mandate and provide directions to its space in Macgillivray-Brown Hall.

However, when planning their publicity campaign, the executive encountered the catch-22 of marketing for a sustainable organization—posters aren’t sustainable.

Harrison plans to minimize the centre’s use of paper advertising by using T-shirts, bags and word of mouth.

—With files from Rosel Kim

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