nature

Sustainable Beauty

Editor’s Note: During these times of uncertainty, finding ways to proactively care for ourselves and our surroundings can have a grounding effect. However, we must recognize that having this opportunity is a sign of our privilege. I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the labor of essential workers.

16 Top Ethical and Sustainable Beauty Brands You Should Know [Space Nation Orbit Blog]

Eco-conscious consumerism may seem like an unlikely investment of time during a global pandemic, but quarantine has allowed many of us to slow down and listen to our bodies. Practicing self-care can take many forms and adopting a skincare routine is one. When we discuss personal care products, however, we should also consider the life cycle and environmental impacts of their packaging.

According to a report compiled by Statista, the 2020 United States skincare market has generated $18.1 million and the average consumer has spent $55 on skincare. The bottles, tubes, and containers used annually by the cosmetic industry adds up to 120 billion units of plastics packaging. But how does this hurt our planet?

Of the 120 billion units of plastic packaging used each year, 70% ends up in landfills. Bioplastics do not degrade naturally or within the average human lifespan. They can be composted, but require such an intense degree of heat to break down that they must be returned to an industrial compost site.

Through the dumping of waste in developing nations and irresponsible waste collection practices, plastic ends up in our oceans and breaks down into microplastics. When ingested, plastics and microplastics jeopardize the health of marine life and move in such a way mimic the movements of prey consumed by fish and seabirds. Plastic pollution, which PEW Research Center estimates currently totals up to 8 million pieces of plastic in the ocean, can also become entangled with aquatic life. This has resulted in the strangulation of sea turtles and marine mammals’ necks, and the asphyxiation of aquatic life.

Alternative forms of packaging have been used by companies in response to rapid deforestation and plastic pollution. An increasingly popular material is bioplastic, which is made from the sugars in corn starch, cassava, and sugar cane. Bioplastics are defined by being composed of 20% or more renewable resources, and are free of the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA (bisphenol A). This alternative seems appealing compared to the use of petroleum-based packaging, but the conservation community warns that there are many contingencies to the success of bioplastics. It is often cited that they emit less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based plastic, due in part to the fact that they are not unearthing trapped liquid carbon dioxide. However, a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found that extensive land use, as well as fertilizer and pesticide application, lead to more pollutant emissions than traditional plastic. Not only are these agricultural practices harmful to the environment, but they also threaten our hormonal and skin health.

The use of “natural” ingredients in products and packaging disproportionately impact people of color. On the agricultural side, migrant farmworkers in the United States experience routine exposure to pesticides and other environmental hazards associated with industrial farming (such as California’s continued wildfires), heat stress, and contaminated drinking water. These laborers are essential to the $200 billion agricultural industry, yet farmworkers make about 40 cents per bucket of produce picked. On the consumer side, there has also been an uptick in lawsuits based on exposure to toxic ingredients in household brand health and beauty products. A notable example is litigation based on mercury contamination in skin-lightening products. The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology issued an opinion that women of color are disproportionately exposed to unsafe ingredients in beauty products due to the societal pressures they face to conform to Western beauty standards. For these reasons, looking at sustainability through the lens of human rights and racial/social justice is key to the growth of the sustainable skincare/beauty industry.

So where does our beauty waste go?

Our demand for resource-intensive products contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year. This is because skincare products contain ingredients like soy, palm oil, and sugar cane, which are grown on large-scale farms that consume extensive stretches of land. Not only are the effects of our consumption felt on land, but also seen in the oceans. Alarm has been raised surrounding the ethical implications of agricultural sourcing. By diverting land and energy away from food production, companies are exacerbating food insecurity in many developing countries. Ecovia (formerly Organic Monitor), a market research firm that examines the organic beauty industry, compares the debate over “beauty crops” to that of biofuel. While both are striving to improve sustainability in their markets, advancing technology while failing to address food security ignores the basic human right to food. Developments in the industry, such as the commitment to sustainable palm oil-sourcing (see Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), have been created to address these concerns. Similar roundtables exist for soybeans and cocoa, all with the intent to responsibly and ethically grow consumer crops.

How can you find sustainable skincare products?

Greenwashing has frequently become more apparent as brands jump onto the eco-conscious trend. This term refers to the marketing strategy which deceives consumers into believing that the product is better for the environment (i.e. by having a lighter carbon footprint or donating to an environmental organization). Usually, greenwashed products use earth tone colors, have pictures of natural landscapes and/or leaves, and include key words such as “eco-,” “natural,” and “sustainable.” Greenwashing misleads consumers to think they are making decisions that positively impact or vaguely-reference the environment, when in reality, these companies continue to package in plastic and encourage wasteful consumption patterns. Many argue that bioplastics are an example of greenwashing due to inadequate composting infrastructure or consumer understanding of the waste process.

Along with greenwashing, be wary of the word “organic.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a certified organic label indicating that the crops “are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing… soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible” (USDA 2012). According to the New York Times, an amendment to the certification allowed 38 synthetic ingredients into organic products. With this in mind, conducting research on specific company policies in regards to ethical and sustainable sourcing is key. Look for Fair Trade Certified and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Certified products when possible, and explore package-free products/options! Becoming more environmentally conscious doesn’t happen overnight – and it isn’t always financially sustainable for many people. Mindfulness about our practices and consumerism doesn’t mean we’re doing everything right, but that we’re conscious and working towards change.

Thank you. Gracias.

“The Pollinators” Film Screening

By Maizey MabrySmith

Looking for something to watch while you’re stuck at home? Eco House has a suggestion for you. On February 25th, the Eco House learning community held a screening of the exciting new documentary, “The Pollinators.” The event, held in the Student Union Theatre, was open to all students as well as members of the general public. Over 90 students turned out and many more watched remotely.

The film profiles large-scale American beekeepers whose jobs are getting increasingly harder as the years go by. As pesticides such as neonicotinoids become more widespread, bees are dying in record numbers, and bee die-offs are becoming part of the daily routine. To keep up with demand despite this challenge, there is now a constant and large scale movement of hives back and forth across the United States by freight trucks. The almond industry plays an immense role in this, as they rent almost 100% of the nation’s hives for their pollination period. The almond industry’s high demand leaves behind only a small number of bees to pollinate other crops for that period. One emerging solution explored in the film is the regenerative agricultural practices, such as no-till farming, silvo-pasturing and creating habitats for beneficial pollinators. Many of these practices work in conjunction with one another to support the bee population. For instance, the growth of nitrogen-fixing cover crops between normal planting seasons allows for no-till practices and reduces the need for harmful pesticides.

The film was followed by a lively Q&A session with the director, Peter Nelson and producer Sally Roy. The audience came prepared to discuss solutions to the issues facing bee populations and ways in which we can keep the pollinator industry alive. Nelson promoted the importance of supporting local farmers and beekeepers, but also focused on spreading knowledge. The film itself is available upon request for screenings by towns and other large groups, like UConn. Nelson emphasized the importance of spreading the knowledge of these issues so that they can be better understood by the general public, either through the documentary or through alternative educational efforts.

Nelson, a beekeeper himself, personally explained the struggles within the work force and is excited to get to work on his next big project!

The event was co-sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, the Institute of the Environment, the UConn Honors Program and the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.

 

The IPCC Report: Facing our Future

By Sophie MacDonald and Natalie Roach

This October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that has shaken the global community. The IPCC was invited by the UN to report this year on the effects that we would experience if the global temperature warms 1.5℃ (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. They released a full report along with a technical summary and policymaker summary. The report contains scientific, technical, and socio-economic findings and has major ramifications across these disciplines. The contents of this report are grim, but give us a much more concrete vision of our future—something that is vital as the world makes plans to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Since civilization hit the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, humanity has been dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air at an exponential rate. This has led to an increasing amount of sunlight and heat being trapped in our atmosphere, and consequently an increase in our planet’s average temperature. Even a slight increase in this global temperature has immense impacts on our climate and in turn the survival of life on Earth, including humans.

The IPCC report begins by defining what exactly the average global temperature was before humanity started to affect it. The IPCC defines pre-industrial levels as the average global temperature over the period of 1850-1900. The report then talks about where we are now. We have already caused a 1℃ rise in the average global temperature compared to pre-industrial levels. Effects from climate change are already happening, and at this point they are inevitable.

However, we still have control over how severe these effects become, and how long they will last. On our current global trajectory, we will reach a 2℃ increase by 2040. With the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world committed itself to changing this trajectory. Countries promised to keep the increase to under 2℃, and to strive to keep the increase near 1.5℃. In reality, the agreement has little binding power. Globally, we are struggling to reach the 2℃ goal, never mind 1.5℃, which is currently categorized as ‘above and beyond.’

The IPCC report focuses on the changes in our climate that will result if we curb the global temperature rise at 1.5℃ as compared to an increase of 2℃. Although any further rise in the global temperature has and will result in devastating changes to our natural and human systems, the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃ warming is significant. This report makes it clear that 1.5℃ should not be considered as ‘above and beyond,’ but instead as the absolute limit for global temperature rise.

By 2100, the global average sea level rise is projected to be 0.1 meter lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. Sea level rise will continue past 2100, and it is inevitable at this stage. However, sticking to the 1.5℃ goal and slowing the rate of sea level rise will allow more time for adaptation of coastal communities impacted by this rise. Although 0.1 meters may not seem significant, it will make a big difference in giving the world time to prepare for sea level rise.

One of the most poignant symbols of this change in global temperature is the livelihood of the coral reefs. At 2℃, more than 99% of coral reefs will die off due to coral bleaching. At 1.5℃, only 70-90% of current coral reefs are projected to die off. The loss of this incredible phenomenon would be a tragedy. The majority of the ocean’s biodiversity exists in coral reefs, they serve as a buffer that protects coastlines from tropical storms, and they function as important primary producers as well.

The frequency of a sea-ice-free Arctic during summer is substantially lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. At 1.5℃, an ice-free summer will happen once per century; at 2℃, it will happen at least once per decade.

In addition to the effects mentioned previously, a 2℃ rise instead of 1.5℃ will drive the loss of coastal resources, reduce the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture, and lead to greater species loss and extinction. Vector-borne diseases, such a malaria and dengue fever, are expected to increase and shift geographic regions. A 2℃ rise will lead to larger net reductions of cereal crop yields such as maize, rice, and wheat.

As the global temperature warms, the effects outlined above are expected to lead to increased poverty and disadvantages in vulnerable populations. Limiting the temperature rise to 1.5℃ instead of 2℃ could reduce the number of people who will be susceptible to poverty and facing climate-related risks by up to several hundred million by 2050.

The IPCC states that reaching the 1.5℃ goal and protecting what we can of our world requires “upscaling and acceleration of far-reaching, multi-level and cross-sectoral climate mitigation and by both incremental and transformational adaptation.” While the Paris Climate Agreement was a historical step for humankind, it’s not nearly enough to save us. The agreement was the beginning of this world transformation; true change will require continued, tenacious, collaborative effort.

This information can be overwhelming and disheartening. We at the office understand that, and know that this work requires stubborn positivity. The only way we’re going to get close to reaching the 1.5℃ goal is if we wholeheartedly believe in our mission and in the future of our world. Even if we do not reach our goal of 1.5℃, or even that of 2℃, any change we make now will still have an important effect on generations to come. So get out there and make some change happen. Reduce your carbon footprint. Vote on November 6th. Start improving your community. Collaborate with friends and neighbors. Have meaningful conversations with those around you. We are each just one person, but we still have an important, irreplaceable influence on the world around us.

Link to the IPCC’s Report: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/

A Calling for Sustainability: One Grad Student’s Story

My name is Rachael, and I am a non-traditional graduate student. I am actually a mid-career professional who has decided to change careers to create work in a field I care passionately about.

I did my undergraduate work in Pennsylvania in animal science and biotechnology. I subsequently used my degree to work as an environmental educator, veterinary technician, and farm market manager before settling into a 12 year career in biomedical research. I took two years off to pursue a dream as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural highlands of Western Guatemala.

I have been a self-taught lifelong naturalist, and when I arrived at my destination almost 11,000 ft above sea level in Guatemala, I quickly realized how fragile and marginal the summit environment was. I also quickly realized how difficult and balanced a chore it is to support oneself in this locale. For one year, I worked as a field veterinarian, health extensionist, and development professional. I started a sheep genetics project that had promise to help lift about 45,000 people out of poverty while teaching them to better care for their fragile environment. I ended up working on this project for 9 years.

road to siete pinos

My post-Peace Corps US career moved me from tuberculosis and flu vaccine research to overseeing health of transgenic mice and rats, and then I became an animal welfare and research ethics specialist. This path led me to UConn’s door in March 2009, where I worked as the campus IACUC coordinator and vice-chair while I started my Master’s degree in Agricultural Resource Economics part-time. I quickly realized that the needs of the master’s degree program were intense, and were in conflict with the hours required to maintain my work position. In 2010, I made the scary and tough decision to leave my employment and venture on as a full-time student.

My end goal is to turn the projects I started in Guatemala into a non-profit foundation that helps research, advise on, teach, and promote the use of climate change adaptation strategies for poor people living in highland regions. My experiences provided me with unique perspectives on how climate change is already starting to impact families’ abilities to feed themselves, and I can clearly see the ties between poverty and environmental degradation. For my Master’s degree, I am studying the economic impact of climate change in this vulnerable region, in order to provide myself with baseline data that I can use when I solicit team members and funding to start my NGO.

extended dry season

I currently work half-time in the UConn Office of Environmental Policy, and take graduate classes full-time. My path has not been without its trials. I have, in the past 5 years, suffered three job losses, and have had to physically move 6 times. My personal and family relationships have been strained, as has my health. Going back to school after 15 years away has been challenging, as I accustom myself to a much more demanding mathematical workload than I had ever known before. Life plans had to put on hold. I am paying my way through school, and ​​finding that I am struggling with bills and rent, often wondering if this is all worth it.

Yet I believe in what I am doing. Someone once told me that a calling is “that which you find impossible to walk away from.” It has been said that when you get beyond the US public debate of climate change, and get out into the heart of what the world risks losing at the mercies of unchecked climate change, you may actually learn to love aspects of what may be lost. In my case, I have learned to love it all- the bird species in jeopardy, the people struggling to find their way out of poverty while preserving one of the most fascinating and beautiful cultures on the planet, the cloud forests and maize fields.

milpa

My talents and interests have led me to the corn fields of Central America. I am an honorary Maya for the work I have done, and I consider that the greatest reward I have ever received. I try to challenge my students, the ones who work for me every day, to also tap into their individual potential, and think beyond finding “jobs” when they graduate. I want them to care about the work they do, both in the OEP Office, and in the larger scope of the world around them. We are part of a team trying to learn how to motivate people to care about their world, and how to effect positive change. We are trying to develop a sustainable and grateful mindset toward the world around us, one small victory at a time.

Making a Difference on Campus: How Spring Valley Farm Came to Be

I have heard from a lot from my fellow Huskies that they feel as though they are unable to cause change here at the University. They feel as though they are a small fish in the giant ocean that is UConn and so they cannot do much to make a difference on campus. I did, however, witness one of my fellow students do what others thought was impossible. In only four years, I watched a friend of mine turn a club into a small scale business that even led to the creation of UConn’s latest living and learning community.

During my freshman year, I began attending meetings of the UConn ecoGarden Club, which was a student run organization focused on growing food organically and sustainably. We were a young club (only three years old at the time) and only had one-third an acre of land, a shed, and a hoop house. Even though the main members of the club included numerous upperclassmen and graduate students who had been at the club’s founding, the president was a sophomore named Matt Oricchio.

In a year, Matt helped grow the club to include a second hoop house and numerous cold frames. In the summer concluding his first year as president, the club began selling produce at local farmers’ markets. In another year, it became a summer community supported agriculture (CSA) program that sold twenty shares to local community members. The CSA was successful enough to run the final summer of Matt’s stay at UConn. He also developed a working relationship with the Local Routes program and Dining Services, which allowed the club to sell produce to Chuck and Augie’s Restaurant as well as to the campus dining halls.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pdi8Uq3gTE&noredirect=1]Dedicated to organic farming, Matt worked with a number of individuals from the Department of Dining ServicesOffice of Environmental PolicyDepartment of Residential Life, and numerous faculty members to create a living and learning community focused on organic farming. Thanks to the persistence of Matt and some other key individuals, Spring Valley Farm opened in the spring of 2010 and housed Matt as its first resident. He graduated and spent his summer taking care of the farm and training EcoHouse students to take over for him when he finally left in December. Spring Valley Farm now houses ten students and sells produce to Chuck and Augie’s and the dining halls. Matt currently is president of an organic farm in Westport, CT.

Matt’s time at UConn showed me that it is possible to change the university, even without ever working for it. Spring Valley Farm is but one example of a change on campus brought about by a student because of his perseverance.  The biggest inertia facing students wanting change is not that of the large institution, but rather an attitude that preventing them from acting in the first place.