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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Less is More project: Week 8 - Wake up and smell the coffee

ume-y, Flickr

Is coffee a necessity? That question used to pop in my head every time I went to a morning meeting or to a kids' basketball game: everyone showed up with a mug. I also pondered it every time I saw it on the list of "essentials to take on a minimalist, back country camping trip".

(Okay, yes, I do tend to ponder things a lot in general.)

That was before I started drinking coffee myself. They are right: it's a - mild and legal - drug. Once you get started on it, it's hard to stop. Mind you, I only drink one cup of the black, unadorned substance (no cream, no sugar, sometimes a drop of milk) in the morning. But still. I does make a difference in my waking up process.

That being said, when I go camping, I don't bother bringing coffee. I feel so energized waking up to the nature sounds and smells that I practically pop out of my sleeping bag like a toast pops out of a toaster!

Now coffee (or tea) comes with a price tag. If you only drink it at home, and make it the old-fashioned way (i.e. with a bodum, like I do - it tastes wonderful), the price tag might be small. But a lot of people own fancy "small appliances" that not only are more costly, but also take up more room on the counter top. AND pollute incredibly. Don't get me started on the Tassimo or Keurig style coffee makers. I won't touch them with a ten-foot pole: their impact on the environment is enough to deter me completely. 

For more on the environmental impact of those single cup brewers that use coffee pods, click here and here.

As for buying coffee "on the go"... it might not be much better, from both an environmental and a health perspective. Disposable coffee cups are at the center of a debate, but if that isn't enough to raise doubts, consider the fact that a great proportion of people who grab coffee on the go sit at the drive-thru for several minutes. Who turns their engine off? 

Do your own little survey and let us know.

Another impact our coffee drinking can have is an economic and social one. For something we do mindlessly every morning, do we even question the provenance and the human impact? There is an ethical way to consume. There is fair trade coffee on the market. I believe it's worth buying.

Wow. A lot of things to ponder for a couple bucks a day, don't you think? Well, I'm not done with you. How many bucks are we talking about exactly? I know someone who buys coffee from a big chain every day on the way to work. She once told me "It's just $5 a day, I think I deserve it. Who cares if I spend a couple hundred dollars on coffee every year". I asked her if she systematicall buys coffee on workdays. She said yes. I made a quick calculation: if she buys coffee every day she works, her total for the year is probably well over a thousand dollars. Assuming that she never gets tempted by a muffin or bagel too. 

How much do you think you spend on hot beverages each year?

This whole post was prompted by an unfortunate event this week: my bodum broke. At first I did not have time to go buy a new one, so I had to come up with a quick fix. I found an alternative to filter the coffee particles: I make the coffee in a measuring cup (easier to pour from), then use a small strainer that I already had (and almost never used) as I pour the coffee into my drinking cup. It works fine. Now I wonder if I should even replace my bodum at all! 

I do own a bigger, traditional coffee maker, but I never use it. Since I am the only one who drinks coffee in this house, and only have one cup in the morning, it seems like a lot of hassle for such a small quantity. Which leads me to another question: do I even need this bigger coffee maker? Should I get rid of it? I only use it when we have people over, and mostly only the people who come to my place in the morning. Very few people drink coffee past lunch time, I have noticed. So this is a very occasional occurrence. A regular coffee maker takes up a lot of space. Maybe the solution is to acquire a good quality, bigger bodum, that I could use when I'm alone and when I have company over. I will think about it.

For further readings on the coffee industry:

Starbucked, A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture by Taylor Clark

Acheter, c'est voter. Le cas du café (To Buy is to Vote. The Case of Coffee) by Laure Waridel



A bodum? I don't know. We will see.

I was briefly tempted to buy teaching materials. It's for work, after all. But I already own more than enough teaching materials. There's no rush. 


This week I finally tackled the daunting office. I am not done - the whole  process will likely take weeks - but it already looks less cluttered. I donated books.

I am also using the small, cheap, gently used toys my kids are not using anymore as prizes for my students when we play Bingo. Up to now no one has complained whatsoever. 


I realized that:

  • I have quite an emotional attachment to some of my books! Especially the cumbersome and pricey textbooks from my B.A. in Psychology! There is one I think I will keep. One is reasonable, right?
  • I own 3 different coffee measuring scoops. Mind you, they don't take up much space. But still. I will keep my favourite one.


It occurred to me that acquiring stuff is a little bit like gaining weight. The tendency is not easy to reverse. It takes a lot of hard work. Better off never accumulating stuff (or body fat) in the first place. Easier said than done...

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Less is More project: Week 7 - Your biggest investment

JulieSaintMleux, 2012

After I mentioned the cleaning chores I had accomplished on a certain housebound day (winter storm number 259!), along with the time it had taken me, my friend S remarked: "you do have a big house".

Funny... I don't think I have a big house. Granted, it's not small, but it certainly does not qualify as a McMansion. 

Upon verification, our house is around or slightly above the US national average and median in terms of total square footage. According to the American Enterprise Institute, in 2013, the average size of new houses was 2679 square feet, whereas the median was 2491 square feet. The United States Census Bureau gives numbers a touch smaller for 2010: an average of 2392 square feet and a median of 2169 square feet for single-family houses. (As some of you know, we live in Canada, where the numbers seem to be inferior, a 200 square feet difference or so.)

For an interesting comparison, the site Shrinkthatfootprint has put together the numbers for other countries (based on 2009; the numbers might be higher now):

Honk Kong: 484 ft2
UK: 818 ft2
Canada: 1948 ft2
US: 2164 ft2
Australia: 2303 ft2

The interesting thing about those numbers - the North American ones anyway - is that they have increased significantly over the past decades. Houses have been getting bigger. I assume my house's size is "just right" for a family of four, but truth is, we do not need all that space. Before we bought the property, we lived in an apartment that was significantly smaller. We did fine. The kids have grown, but we could still live in the same apartment, even if I would probably miss, although only temporarily, the 2 full bathrooms we have right now, as well as the formal dining room (currently used as my home office). (We also have a third toilet in a powder room that really we don't need - how often do 3 different people have to use the bathroom at the same time?) As for the storage (right now I benefit from generous closets, including a walk-in almost big enough to be used as a nursery), you suddenly don't need as much when you cut down on stuff. The only real issue would probably be the following: where to store 4 bikes and all the camping equipment? 

If you currently have small living quarters, how do you make it work? I'm specifically interested in knowing where you store your sports/outdoor equipment.

So. "Big" houses are nice. And what's wrong with them if you can afford them? The question is: what does it mean, exactly, to be able to "afford" a big house?

Let's say you would like to work less. Or do something else that you are passionate about, but pays less. Or maybe you would love to travel more. Yet you don't, because "there are bills to pay". The biggest of which are most likely house related: mortgage payments, insurance, maintenance, heating, electricity. You are stuck working more than you want and/or in a job you don't really like in order to pay for that house. Feeling resentful yet? 

Big houses usually come with land as well. We opted for countryside/forest living, and have close to 2 acres (or 75 000 square feet) of greenery around the house. Surely I appreciate it: tons of space for the kids to play, for the dog to run around, for us to make a big garden. Unfortunately, big spaces also mean lots of work: just mowing the lawn or shoveling the driveway is a Herculean task here. Luckily a good part of our property is wooded, which requires very little work. Still, all that maintenance - house and yard - takes time and/or money (depending on whether you do it yourself or hire someone).

All that time and money, you don't have it for other things. There are days in the summer when I have to pick between weeding the flowerbeds and going to the beach. Frustrating. I know it's the ultimate "first world problem", but why can't I have a nice front yard AND a nice relaxing day with family and friends?

If you are lucky enough to have the time and/or money for a big house, take a moment to think about your environmental footprint: is your choice of property kind to the Earth?

Even if we don't need to move (we still made a reasonable choice with that house), some days, I do wonder: would we be better off (and would Mother Nature thank us) with a smaller property? I know it's a dangerous thought: I might like it a little bit too much, become addicted to the sense of freedom and simplicity, keep downsizing, and end up in a tiny house (nothing wrong with that, you might say). I thrive when we go camping, and our camping style is rather minimal: a tent, some basic gear, no water/electricity/electronics. No car access either, meaning we have to carry everything on our backs. I love that way of life. (My only questioning is whether I would take to it 12 months a year - it does get pretty cold around here.) 

I have dreamed of moving into a "treehouse with a view" or even a sailboat. What's so special about those kinds of places? Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Man - A Year of Freeconomic Living, has experienced the joys of living in a smaller, closer to nature dwelling: 

"My favorite times were when it rained heavily. I'd listen to the rain crashing on the roof with a real appreciation for the shelter that was keeping me dry and protected [...] Such gratitude increases as you get closer to nature and the things that you use; the more degrees of separation you have, the less you appreciate them.

This is exactly what I like about camping. And so I have a feeling that if we moved to something smaller, I would quickly embrace it. Despite all that, there is something about living where we live that is hard to renounce... what is it called? Oh yeah, I got it: it's called status.

To be honest, I don't even know if status is something that bothers me all that much - but I can't come up with any other reason why moving into a smaller house would be problematic - unless we have to leave the neighborhood... and what I like most about the neighborhood is not the status, but rather the close-knit community, the peaceful atmosphere, the nature that surrounds us.

Any thoughts?



Once again, I had to go to the pharmacy for one small purchase (medication for a family member), but almost got sucked into buying more. Did you notice how big most pharmacies have become? If you wanted to, you could probably do half of your groceries and buy half of your clothes there! That on top of acquiring cosmetics, candy, toys, books, school/office supplies, decorative items, gadgets, etc.  


This week I tackled my hutch. I filled 3 boxes with various plates, glasses, bowls and vases I haven't used since we moved here in 2007. (Don't worry mom, I still have the one vase you told me to keep!) 

This wasn't as easy as one would think. As I cleaned the shelves, I was tempted to simply move the things around. When I got to the shot glasses, I thought "What if I want to do shots with friends?" (D doesn't drink). Then it occurred to me that I don't remember the last time I had shots with friends (other than one random time in a bar 2 years ago). We are grown-ups. We drink wine. Okay, and beer. But shots? I don't need those glasses.

Come to think of it, there are very few things that you should keep in your kitchen if you don't use them at least on a weekly basis. One exception is the fondue set (we love fondue in this family). Other than that... toss it!

Good news: I found the screwdriver I had been looking for! (Please don't ask me what it was doing in the hutch.)


The Less is More spirit also applies to the projects we take on, and in my case, one of them is reading. When I go to the library, I take too many books, and then have to rush reading them all before they are due back (they cannot be renewed when somebody else places a hold on them). I need to get into the habit of taking only 1 or 2 books at a time.


Just because you can afford something is not a good enough reason to buy it. I cleaned my pharmacy this week. I keep all medications in a high cupboard in the kitchen (the bathroom is not a good place as it gets too hot and damp), but it's been kind of messy, and I though that a small, inexpensive basket would help me keep all the little bottles organized. Problem is, I am on the Less is More project, and not supposed to buy anything. All my baskets are already put to good use. What to do? Well, I was inventive. I found a rather sturdy and empty shoe box, cut the top off, and filled it. Who cares if it doesn't look pretty. It's gonna be inside a cupboard! And now I can say that I did a good deed for the environment: reused something that was perfectly fine instead of acquiring something new.

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Less is More project: Week 6 - The case of clothes

Jason Hargrove, Flickr

In Not Buying It - My Year Without Shopping, one of the first things the author, Judith Levine, falls for (hence breaking her rules) is a pair of high-tech, high-priced socks. Turns out clothes are a common vice, even for those who endeavour to buy less. I am no exception, as you will discover in today's confessions.

In 1993, after my first summer of working regular hours (as opposed to occasional babysitting), I indulged and bought myself a $140 sweater (around $200 in today's dollars). I remember my friend K's stunned reaction : "You really are going to spend that much on one piece of clothing?" My response was somewhere in the vicinity of "I love it, and I have the money, so why not?"

This was only the beginning of my relationship to fashion. 

In fact, it wasn't really the beginning at all. Years before, as I had entered - private - middle school, and influenced by my peers' take on fashion, I started insisting on my parents only buying me brand/designer clothes. Certain stores were to be avoided at all costs - I couldn't fathom being seen in "cheap clothes". The ideal article of clothing, in my young teenager's mind, featured a tiny embroidered horse or crocodile.

I was a total preppy... and proud of it.

I was also becoming dangerously snob. 

In the years that were to follow, I would often be found reading women's magazines, which in no way helped the situation, as you can imagine. I don't even think I had that good of a taste in fashion, to be honest - everything I wore was rather plain - but I definitely was looking for quality, tag, and price (the higher the better!)

Later on, when I had children, they became an extension of my fashion persona. Living in Montreal, I was surrounded by parents who treated their kids as a fashion statement. It just seemed like the thing to do. Drool and overflowing diapers were not to get in the way of looking fabulous. And all the children's clothes boutiques! How could I resist. We went shopping often.

Nowadays, living in the countryside (in the woods would be more accurate), and consuming significantly less media in general, I feel less pressure to look my best. Fashionistas do not abound here, and the ones who do have a sense of style promptly change into more comfortable clothes the moment they get back from work. Whenever I've gone to the playground wearing anything else but jeans and a t-shirt, I was greeted with a "Wow! You're all dressed up! Anything special going on today?"

I am not, however, completely cured of my "fashion addiction". As I discovered long-distance running and also started going to the gym on a regular basis, a new problem emerged: I became obsessed with workout clothes. I currently devote one very big drawer to them, and it is overflowing: I had to find some space in my closet for the thicker, cold weather running pieces. I could literally work out every day for two weeks without having to wash anything. Yet sport clothes still have an irresistible appeal - it is torture for me to not buy any new pieces. Why, oh why?

Perhaps it's because we don't, in affluent societies, relate to clothing as a basic need. Fashion is, by definition, the ultimate example of planned obsolescence. Trends are ephemeral. Following them is a status statement in itself. You are not buying clothes to fulfill a basic need (a couple season-appropriate pieces would suffice for that), but rather, you are buying clothes "because you can". You wear them not to cover your body, but to express your personality, your values,  your belonging to a certain group, your taste, and, in more cases than we think, your wealth - it takes money to replace your clothes before they even start wearing out.

In 1932's Scarface movie, Tony Camonte rejoices about being able to wear "a new shirt every day". Based on how common "wearing a new shirt every day" has become, one has to wonder what constitutes a need when it comes to clothing.

What's the problem with wanting to look good, you might ask. Well, there are a couple. For one thing, the creation of apparel has quite a significant impact on the environment. As Juliet Schor reminds us in True Wealth"it requires 2000 liters of water to produce one T-shirt and 8000 for a pair of leather shoes". That's just one example. And what about the social side of the question? Heard of the sweatshops lately? The conditions in which the garments we wear are created are often unacceptable from an ethical standpoint (click here for more info). Do we want to support that?

To borrow the words of Mark Boyle in The Moneyless Man"Most of us don't have the faintest idea that our daily shopping habits are so destructive".

To relieve some of my guilt, I have become an adept of thrift and consignment stores. If you have the time and patience, they truly are fun places to go, with the added bonus of being kind to your wallet. The next step, obviously, is to buy less clothes altogether. No new piece of clothing will enter my - already too full - wardrobe in 2015, but I need a plan for the following years.

Project 333 comes to mind. Have you heard of it? Its goal is to simplify your wardrobe to the point of using only 33 items over the course of 3 months. Interested? Click here.

In the weeks to come, I am also going to keep track of the clothes I do wear, vs the ones I don't wear. 

If you have any other tricks and strategies, please share!



After the fourth big snow storm in 2 weeks, I have to admit I felt tempted to buy a snow blower. Luckily, we live in a close-knit community: 3 lovely neighbors came to our rescue on the worst of above mentioned storms. (Since the garden is buried under feet of snow, preventing me to offer homegrown foods in exchange, I paid them back in doughnuts.)


Nothing this week, but I have a feeling clothes are going to be tackled soon.


I realized that owning less is a great way to avoid purchasing things you don't need. This house is full of rolls of tape (scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape), and the reason is that I kept buying more because I had misplaced the ones I already had. Now that I am decluttering I rediscover a whole collection. No need to buy any tape in the years to come!


This post on fashion in general and clothes in particular is throwing me out of my comfort zone. I can resist a lot of stuff, but clothes belong to a different category. Not buying any might be one of my biggest challenges this year. I also feel like I should take inventory of the clothes I own, but I am scared of the results. Not too long ago, I noticed I own 5 pairs of winter boots. I still see a use for each of them. This is going to be hard...

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Less is More project: Week 5 - Did you say baking soda?

PhotoAtelier, Flickr

This week has not been the greatest, as the whole family caught a rather virulent bug. On the bright side, I was not tempted to shop whatsoever. To be honest, I was not tempted to write either, but luckily, guest writer sj is here to save the day!

Always interested in exploring cheap, environmentally friendly ways to keep clean, I have been investigating some "natural cleaning products". My friend sj kindly guided me through the discovery of some convenient alternatives. Today, she will introduce us to...

... The Magic and Wonders of Baking Soda!

Simply put, baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is amazing. I am a proud baking soda addict. It never ceases to amaze me and I use it for everything - from deodorant to shampoo, and for all my household cleaning. Today, I am going to give you fine readers the inside on scoop on what is so wondrous about this versatile white powder. I will also delve into the industrial production of baking soda.

Cleaning Everything

Nothing cleans a bathtub (and sink, and floor, etc.) as effectively as baking soda - it cuts through soap scum and grim that you didn’t even realize was there. Your bathtub is supposed to be a glowing bright white, but if you’re not using baking soda, there is a good chance it’s closer to off-white, and you’ve come to believe it's normal. To help your bathtub release its true shine, just sprinkle baking soda on the dry bathtub and use a damp cloth to scrub. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

What’s even more amazing is what baking soda does to your armpits. Deodorant is my favorite use of baking soda. Applying dry baking soda powder on your underarms (with your fingers or a cosmetic brush) prevents all odor. You can add a couple drops of essential oil (lavender, for example) to your homemade deodorant jar. Using baking soda this way may make a little bit of a mess - you should do it over the sink or bathtub and you may end up with baking soda particles all down your side, but it is well worth it. Even after a hard run, there isn’t even a hint of odor. It is magical - and no questionable chemicals!

I also wash my hair with it, which is becoming a common trend. Just take a couple heaping table spoons or a handful and make a thick paste with water. Start massaging it into the roots of your hair - really give your head a good scrub and cover every inch of your scalp. After this nice brain massage, let it sit for about a minute and then rinse (using cooler water, which is better for your hair). Your hair may feel a bit funny while it is still wet, but it will dry clean and fantastic. I have been doing this for over three years - my hair became healthy, curlier, shinier and stronger. If your hair is long, you can use apple cider vinegar as “conditioner”.

Another useful tip: if you quickly apply a baking soda and water paste to a bee, hornet or wasp sting, the soda will neutralize the acid injected by the sting and stop all pain. It can even be used on canker sores and mouth ulcers. 

Sadly, brushing your teeth with baking soda is not so simple, as the powder is too abrasive for the tooth enamel. Other than that, I seriously believe baking soda is wonderful. I highly recommend you try it! Although, I have discovered a little bit of a dark side...

Mother Nature's take on it

As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I am concerned with the production of goods, and unfortunately, the picture doesn’t stay as clean as I was hoping when it comes to baking soda. Most products have at least some impact on the environment, and baking soda is no exception. Please keep in mind, however, that baking soda is definitely not the “dirtiest” of available products.

To produce sodium bicarbonate, soda ash (its primary ingredient) must be acquired. In North America, soda ash is mined in the form of trona (a mineral). Trona is then mixed with water and carbon dioxide (great use of an abundant pollutant!) to make baking soda. Soda ash is also used to make many other products - glass, fiber glass, textiles, detergent and paper. It’s a pretty useful and widespread resource. The largest mine in the world is in Wyoming and produces 90% of America’s soda ash. There is such an abundance that this mine will not run out of trona for at least another 2000 years.

In regards to this information, there is nothing “wrong” specifically with the trona mining industry. However, trona mines do share the problems every mine has: mining and related processes release lots of pollutants into the atmosphere and generally cause environmental devastation to the surrounding area. The trona mine in Wyoming is a major contributor to air pollution in the state, and the mine does not monitor their emissions, which is cause for concern. 

But making baking soda is currently going through some positive and exciting changes! A new technology was put to test in 2014 - carbon dioxide emission from industrial factories can now be directly turned into baking soda. Let's hope this method takes over in the next couple years!

In conclusion

I believe baking soda is a much better choice than other cleaning and cosmetic products in terms of personal health, cost and simplicity, even if it's not perfect from an environmental point of view. Nothing really is, and at least is it made in North America, so it has a lower carbon footprint. The production of baking soda is still better than the production of more complicated cleaners, soaps, detergents, antiperspirants, etc., in which baking soda is just one ingredient. So, is baking soda a good sustainable choice or a lesser of evils? I am not sure, but I am still vouching for it, and I really think you should try it - and stock up before the apocalypse! (hehe)





Very few temptations this week. Too sick. I did buy some Advil, and it was definitely a need. I also had to replace the ink cartridges in my printer. This is for work (hence a need), but I have decided to look more closely at my ink and paper consumption in the coming weeks.


Too sick to do any cleanup. I will catch up next week.


Because I was sick, I watched more TV than usual (which is not hard, as my usual is to not watch any TV at all). I am appalled at all the advertising. Apparently, your life will be wonderful if you make sure your appearance is flawless, your car shiny, and your food... unhealthy. Has your brain melted yet? Only a couple hours in front of the screen and I already feel like I've lost some IQ points. But maybe that's from being sick.


Are you tired of hearing me mention my sickness yet? I am. Which is why I will turn off the computer right now, and go get some rest.

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...