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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


In Stockholm, a proposal to make snow plowing priorities better for women

stockholm winter snowplow
Ulf Bodin

In Stockholm, the depths of winter can stretch out over nearly half the calendar year. Last winter, the first reported snowfall came on Oct. 25, and the last sighting wasn't until April 20.

With six months of potential snow, the task of keeping the city's commuters moving and working can be a real challenge for local government. At the moment, Stockholm uses a relatively standard snow-clearing strategy that differs little from what other harsh-winter cities have chosen to do. They focus their plows first on major thoroughfares, then on downtown areas close to major workplaces and construction sites, and finally move on to smaller roads, neighborhoods, and schools.

But some in Stockholm's city government have begun to suspect that these longstanding strategies may not best serve all of the city's residents. By focusing on city-center workplaces and construction sites, the Green Party's Daniel Helldén suggests, the city is implicitly ignoring the places that "vulnerable groups," including women and families, frequent most often. His solution? Something he's calling "gender-equal plowing."

Read more: Cities, Living


Poultry matter: What to do with all that chicken shit?


Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from agricultural activity is a major source of water pollution in many parts of the country. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, half of the phosphorous and 40 percent of the excess nitrogen result from agricultural runoff, leading to algae blooms and destructive conditions for the bay’s legendary fish, oysters, and crabs.

A report from the Pew Charitable Trusts on the chicken industry, published over the holidays to little notice, identifies a significant contributor to the problem and proposes a useful solution.

Almost all chickens raised for meat today are grown under contracts between growers and large companies such as Tyson, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue. The chicken grower agrees to raise the company’s birds, using feed and drugs also supplied by the company. At the end of the contract the company picks up its chickens, leaving the grower with the manure and litter, and the responsibility to get rid of them.


Carbon trading is booming in North America, no thanks to U.S. or Canadian governments

North America

In most of the carbon-trading world, it has been getting cheaper in recent years to buy the rights to pollute the atmosphere with climate-changing carbon dioxide. That's largely because recession-afflicted Europe is awash with too many carbon allowances for its trading scheme to have any real bite, and because demand for U.N.-issued allowances has crashed along with hopes of a meaningful international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

But in a bleak year for carbon markets, North America was a rising star.

Despite ongoing failure by the U.S. and Canadian governments to impose limits or taxes on greenhouse gas pollution, state and regional initiatives on the east and west coasts of North America moved forward.

California and Quebec are now the most expensive places in the world in which to pump carbon dioxide into the air.


Cereal numbers: Will GMO-free Cheerios capture a new market?


Back in October, I listened in on a press conference in which activists announced that they were going to hammer on General Mills until the company agreed to label Cheerios as non-GMO. I have to admit, I thought nothing would come of it. The participants were asserting way too many dodgy claims for real journalists to take them seriously (you can listen here). I hung up part way through and I didn't see any coverage come from the event. But apparently someone more important than me was paying attention: General Mills just announced that it will guarantee its original Cheerios don't have any genetically engineered ingredients.

The company said it's not responding to pressure; rather, it's interested in the possibility that customers might "embrace" (i.e. buy more) GM-free Cheerios. Even if that's true, activists may have rallied enough interest to get General Mills' attention, and I suspect that the company wants to try labeling as an experiment. Will a non-GM label increase sales? Will customers pay a higher price? The answers to these questions will be valuable to the company in planning for the possibility of labeling laws.

Read more: Food


Tar-sands mining in Canada is unleashing mercury pollution

Drilling for tar-sands oil in Alberta
Care for some mercury pollution with your tar-sands carnage?

Drilling for tar-sands oil in Alberta has long been recognized as a driver of climate change, helping to nudge the mercury up in thermometers around the world. Now, it appears that it's also dousing the Canadian province with straight-up mercury pollution.

Canadian government researchers have discovered that oil-sands operations have puffed out mercury over 4.7 million acres of northeast Alberta, boosting levels to as much as 16 times higher than background levels. Mercury is a potent poison that's frequently emitted by mining and fossil-fuel burning. It can harm the brains, hearts, kidneys, lungs, and immune systems of children and adults alike.

The Montreal Gazette reports:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Dear Donald Trump: Winter does not disprove global warming

New Yorkers trudge through snow as Winter Storm Hercules approaches.
Roman Kruglov
Winter Storm Hercules approaches New York.

An intense blizzard, appropriately named Hercules, is blanketing the Northeast. Antarctic ice locked in a Russian ship containing a team of scientists -- en route, no less, to do climate research. Record low temperatures have been seen in parts of the U.S., and in Winnipeg, temperatures on Dec. 31 were as cold as temperatures on ... Mars.

So as is their seasonal wont, here come the climate skeptics. Exhibit A:


Watch New York’s streets get dramatically better for walkers and cyclists

Sometimes, when change happens slowly and incrementally, it's hard to remember how bad the status quo was in the past and how many nice things have happened in the intervening years. The improvements to the streets of New York have been like that -- it's sometimes hard to remember when Times Square was full of cars and bereft of places to sit your butt down, or when bike lanes were fading paint jobs at best.

So we love this video from Streetfilms, which shows how the city has changed over time -- and how much for the better:

Read more: Cities, Living


North Dakota’s oil is more flammable than other crudes, feds warn


The oil that's being fracked out of North Dakota and Montana may pose a "significant fire risk," federal regulators warned yesterday.

This news comes after three trains carrying crude oil from Bakken shale formation derailed and exploded last year. The most deadly derailment occurred last summer in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Then, in November, there was a fiery crash of rail cars into an Alabama wetlands area. And finally, this week brought an accident in eastern North Dakota, which lead to the evacuation of the nearby town of Casselton.

"[R]ecent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil," the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration wrote in a safety alert released Thursday.

Stock markets took the warning seriously. From Reuters:

Shares of Whiting Petroleum Corp , Continental Resources Inc and other top crude oil producers in the Bakken shale formation plunged on Thursday after the U.S. government said oil produced there may be extra flammable.

Here's more on the hazards of Bakken crude from the Associated Press:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Mark Ruffalo wants you to imagine a 100 percent clean energy future

mark ruffalo fracking press conference
William Alatriste/New York City Council

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of what the year 2013 meant for climate and energy. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

For Mark Ruffalo, environmental activism started out with something to oppose, to be against: fracking. It all began when the actor, perhaps best known for his role as Bruce Banner (The Hulk) in Marvel's The Avengers, was raising his three small children in the town of Callicoon, in upstate New York. At that time, the Marcellus Shale fracking boom was coming on strong and was poised to expand into New York, even as the area also saw a series of staggering floods, each one seemingly more unprecedented than the last.

"That was alarming," remembers Ruffalo on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream below). "Not only alarming to me, but also alarming to all the farmers who used to make fun of me for talking about climate change and global warming."

Read more: Climate & Energy