Skip to content Skip to site navigation


Ask Umbra: Is the thrift shop my only option for socially responsible kids’ clothes?

thrift shop clothes

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Is it possible to find clothes for my kid that are eco-friendly AND produced using fair trade practices? I know the eco-friendly party line is to buy from thrift stores, but most of those were probably produced in a sweatshop before they were donated. You're not actively giving money to manufacturers who produce clothes using bad practices, but you're not encouraging manufacturers who use good practices either.

There seem to be very few clothing companies who advertise that their kids’ clothes are made using fair trade practices. Am I just asking too much?

Claudette H.
Gilbert, Ariz.

A. Dearest Claudette,

I don’t have any children, but word on the street is that raising them isn’t easy -- a disclaimer that applies to everything from convincing the little darlings to eat their peas to suiting them up in sufficiently sustainable outfits. I’m afraid I can’t help you much with the peas issue, but I do have some thoughts on your clothing question.

Read more: Cities, Living


Ask Umbra: Does leaving the lights on really keep the burglars away?

spooky guy

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I always cringe when I see people leave their lights on when they’re not home to deter would-be burglars. Does burning the bulbs for hours really prevent robberies?

Ron K.
Wheaton, Ill.

A. Dearest Ron,

Environmental consciousness can be quite the balancing act. On the one hand, you certainly don’t want to be wantonly sucking up electricity. On the other, you don’t want to come home to a trashed house, either, to say nothing of the profound creepiness of having some criminal paw through your stuff. Let’s shed some light on the subject.

According to FBI crime statistics, of the 1.38 million home burglaries in 2012, the majority were committed during the day – when, presumably, having a light on wouldn’t have mattered as much. That’s because most thieves look for an unoccupied home above all else, and that’s (naturally) most common when residents are at work.

But if “Act casual and look occupied” is your house’s best strategy against burglars, then a pitch-dark abode in the waning daylight is a bit like a neon sign blazing “Up for grabs!” And pretty much every police department I surveyed while researching this question advises dwellers to keep lights (and/or TV and radio) on for at least part of the period they’re out and about.

Read more: Cities, Living


Ask Umbra: Could you settle the debate over dishwashers vs. hand-washing?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I'd like to see fairer comparison of handwashing dishes vs. using a dishwasher. I calculated how much water I use washing dishes by hand efficiently (with a tub, not running water) and my highest use (by day) was the same as an efficient dishwasher. Most days, I use less. Also, I don't run on electricity.

Saying that dishwashers always save water is misleading and only true in the circumstances most favorable for dishwashers and least favorable for hand-washers. Please revisit. I can't be the only reader who knows they use far less water washing dishes by hand.  

Beth R.
Sharon, Mass.

A. Dearest Beth,

Indeed, you are not the only astute reader who wrote in after my recent column on disposable vs. reusable dinnerware. And you’re right: Though the average washer of dishes will use far more water when scrubbing up by hand than when loading the dishwasher, I should have known my readers are far from average.

Let’s back up and take a look at the numbers: According to a widely cited European study, hand-cleaning 12 place settings guzzles, on average, 27 gallons of water. Compare that to a load in a new, Energy Star-certified dishwasher: All machines must use less than 5.8 gallons per cycle, and the best of the bunch sips just 1.95 gallons. The difference sounds stark, but that’s not the whole story.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: What’s the best way to seal up a drafty house?

cold girl

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. This winter is supposed to be very cold in Virginia. What are your top recommendations to renters in drafty homes? We plan to put plastic wrap on the windows and replace the door jamb insulators. Is there anything else we can do?

Cold Kate
Fredericksburg, Va.

A. Dearest Kate,

There’s something rather Dickensian and romantic about the idea of huddling 'round the fire as icy drafts sweep through your charming Victorian home. But it’s not so nice in practice, is it? As renters, you may feel limited in what you can do to fortify your house against winter’s chill, but take heart: There are several short-term steps you can take without your landlord’s involvement, and several more long-term improvements to be made with it.


Ask Umbra: Must an eco-minded wine connoisseur drink from a box?

wine snob

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Traditional wine bottles weigh a lot to transport, but the glass and cork seem to be good for recycling. The economical cardboard wine box weighs a lot less and can also be recycled or composted, but inside the box there is a plastic bag which may be recyclable, but may also impart unwanted ingredients to the wine.

Could we add a little weight in the formula to the health of the consumer, since the environmentally and politically active part of the population seems to include a higher percentage of wine drinkers (impression, not hard data), who, if they remain healthy, may better be able to help restore our planet's health?

Ron L.
Philadelphia, Penn.

A. Dearest Ron,

Your question puts the environmental impact of wine in a whole new light. If the world indeed depends upon the health of our wine-swilling, lefty-leaning, grassroots-organizing neighbors, then the presence of dangerous chemicals in their Chablis is a matter of national, nay, global security.

And even if your assumption about a link between wine drinking and eco-activism doesn’t pan out (though it sure is fun to examine the evidence), the health effects of a particular wine package are worth considering when we’re choosing between bottles and boxes.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: Is my artisanal whipped cream a climate menace?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. The holidays are coming, and with them, lots of pies. Pies that go better with whipped cream. I use a foamer bottle to make whipped cream, quickly, easily, and with far less mess than doing it by hand or with a stand mixer. But I just realized: The cartridges I use are CO2! So I'm using a greenhouse gas just to make whipped cream! I'm feeling ridiculously guilty. Is it really all that much? How much CO2 would be released generating the electricity to power a mixer to do the same thing?

Steve, a.k.a. Grossly Conflicted about a Minuscule Part of My Life!

A. Dearest Steve,

Welcome. You’re among friends here. I wouldn’t have a column if not for people grossly conflicted about minuscule parts of their lives.

I must start by breaking the news that the situation is worse than you think: The cartridges (also called chargers) you’re using in your whipped-cream foamer are most likely filled with nitrous oxide, not carbon dioxide.

Read more: Food, Living


My expert advice: Donate to support green news now


Today is the final day of Grist’s vaunted annual tradition, the year-end fundraiser!

We still have 786 donations to go and we’re relying on you to propel us, like a steely javelin slicing through the crisp winter air, to our goal of 2,500 gifts before midnight.

The fact is, we need you to make our unique brand of green news and advice possible.

Do you enjoy my little column, or our daily news, or the insightful interviews with bold people endeavoring to make this planet a better place?

Then please give. We’ve got lights to keep on, bills to pay, and a staff of 25 to feed.

Can we count on your help on this last day? Make a donation now!

Read more: Uncategorized


Ask Umbra: Does antibacterial soap work better than the old-school variety?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. When I asked my new roommate if we could switch to regular dishwashing liquid from our pure castile soap, she said she would rather not because she was "bug friendly." I'm a fond lover of the flora and fauna myself, but I don't want to get a foodborne disease that would be avoided by using a stronger soap. I even wonder if the awful cold I caught from her was from not using disinfecting soap on our dishes. Why is my roommate insisting on using castile soap? Does it work?

Dishwashing Dilemma
San Francisco, CA

A. Dearest DD,

You’ve identified what I think is a common concern among the eco-conscious. Of course we want to choose nontoxic, non-polluting products … but do natural cleaning alternatives actually, you know, work? This is especially acute when health issues -- not to mention matters of domestic tranquility -- are on the line.

Get ready for a cooling of tensions in the kitchen, DD: Your pure castile soap is just fine for dish duty. To explain why, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the purpose of soaps, whether they’re meant for your hands, body, or the pot with the burned-on crud stuck to the bottom. It’s not to kill pathogens. Rather, soap chemically binds with grease and germs, then yanks the offending nasties down the drain in a swirl of hot water. (It does this so effectively, simple handwashing is the centerpiece of a global campaign from the World Health Organization.) And castile soap, a veggie-based and biodegradable concoction, stands right there with your “regular” varieties.

Read more: Living


Ask Umbra: Can you really recycle plastic bags?

bag lady

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I do my best to avoid plastic bags, but it takes a lot of planning to completely avoid getting them -- e.g., if I decide to buy items like Brussels sprouts that need to be corralled before going into my reusable bags. Do the plastic bags that supermarkets offer to recycle really get recycled? If not, I really need to get serious about planning ahead.

Jim P.
Newton, Mass.

A. Dearest Jim,

I can empathize with your plight. I, too, have dashed off to the grocery to pick up “just a thing or two,” only to emerge laden with impulse radishes, string beans, or those alluring Brussels sprouts. While your checker no doubt thanks you for confining them to a plastic produce bag, your conscience may not.

Read more: Food, Living


Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to keep my teeth white?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I am trying to reduce waste (like any diligent Grist reader), and one item I can't find in a recyclable or reusable container is toothpaste. Are there any toothpastes that come in recyclable containers and aren't made by big companies and full of chemicals? I've considered making my own paste from baking soda, but then there's no fluoride. How important is that?

Rachelle G.
Menlo Park, Calif.

A. Dearest Rachelle,

We’ve come a long way since the days of cleaning our choppers with crushed twigs and bones, but that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out everything when it comes to eco-oral hygiene. Your question addresses two issues, Rachelle: the toothpaste itself, and the tube it comes in. Let’s brush up on the former first. Environmentally and healthfully speaking, what’s the best way to keep our teeth clean?

The medical establishment is pretty much unanimous on this one: You want to brush your teeth at least twice daily with an American Dental Association-approved toothpaste. The ADA conducts gold-standard testing to ensure a given goop actually follows up on its claims to protect those pearly whites -- and brands that pass muster get an ADA seal on the package. Easy, right?

Well, not so fast: An ADA seal doesn’t necessarily mean a tube is free of potentially worrisome chemical ingredients.

Read more: Living