It was junk pick-up day in our neighbourhood a few weeks back. Doing our nightly rounds with the dog, we were a little shocked by the number of laminate countertops being thrown out. We counted at least four different households disposing of laminate counters in our small neighbourhood of 40 houses. This brought us back to one of the original triggers that set us thinking about the need for a more sustainable countertop solution in the first place.
When Yannick was working as a cabinet maker in Ottawa 10 years ago, he was appalled when he was sent back to an apartment block to replace damaged laminate countertops that he had installed less than a year earlier. From a cash flow perspective, this ‘buy cheap and replace’ approach makes sense, but from a sustainability perspective, it’s pretty awful. It screams of our disposable culture, where it is easier, and often cheaper, to replace something rather than fix it.
We often think about breaking free of this disposable culture in the context of everyday purchases – making fewer trips to Dollarama; buying fewer, better made clothes etc. – but what about in the context of your built environment, i.e. your home?
The U.S. Green Building Council recently launched the Living Standards Campaign to better understand and help shift the way we think about green buildings in the context of climate change and sustainable living. When we talk about climate change, we don’t often think about buildings, and when we do, it is generally in the context of energy consumption. But the materials that we choose and how we care for them have an impact as well.
Here are a few things to think about as you build or renovate your home:
1. Homes require care and maintenance. A recent survey of millennial homeowners in the US found that many had regrets about buying their homes, largely because they didn’t realize how much maintenance a home required. No matter how perfect and shiny a new home or countertop or piece of furniture looks at first, everything gets dirty and has the potential to break at some point. Any product that promises to be entirely maintenance free or indestructible is probably over-promising. The questions to ask, then, are what kind of preventative maintenance is required and how easy is it to repair something when it breaks. When you are shopping for home finishes, appliances or systems, don’t flinch at maintenance requirements. Ask questions and educate yourself. Weigh the pros and cons based on your lifestyle, but don’t think you’ll get away without lifting a finger. Budget time and money for maintenance and take care of your home. Case in point: A laminate countertop can last for decades if well taken care of, but once damaged, it can be difficult to repair.
2. Think ahead. It’s common practice for new homeowners to choose cheaper finishes at first, with the intention to upgrade later. This makes financial sense and sometimes we don’t have a choice. If you are going this route, though, plan ahead to minimize wasted energy and materials (and money!!) when you decide to make the change. For example, if you’re installing laminate counters, but want to upgrade to stone (or concrete!) eventually, make sure your cabinets are built to hold stone from the start. Solid wood cabinets are better for the environment and the air quality in your home, anyway. And be sure that your laminate counters are attached in a way that makes it possible to remove them later without breaking them. If you’re using a tile backsplash, place a grout line between the top of your counter and the tile so that you can cut away the counter without damaging the backsplash. If you take good care of the laminate tops, you can donate them to a charity such as Habitat for Humanity when you’re done with them (they even pick up!). You may not love them, but you can bet that someone else can put them to good use if they’re still in good condition.
3. Beware of trends. Before you design your home according to the latest trend, remember that trends change much more frequently than you can afford to remodel. Trends are great for inspiration, but do your research and spend time figuring out what YOU want – in terms of both aesthetics and function - so that you aren’t tempted to replace perfectly good materials once your chosen trend has passed (or once you discover that the look you fell in love with is not, in the end, very practical…think white countertops!).
If you are someone who likes to change things up, choose neutral and versatile finishes (like concrete!) that can adapt to different decors over time. Remember, though, that while changing up your decorations and accent pieces might be relatively cheap, it still represents more materials, more energy, more consumption.
4. Consider hiring a professional. Professionals cost money, but so do mistakes and wasted materials. We’ll save the hazards of DIY project management for another time, but here are a couple of reasons to think about hiring a professional from a sustainability point of view:
5. Product life cycles. Those focused on cracking the code on sustainability are increasingly talking in terms of life cycle assessments and the concept of a circular economy, encouraging us to look at where products come from, what it takes to make them, how long they last, and what happens to them at the end of their useful life. Embodied energy, which looks at the total amount of energy required to make a product, from raw material extraction to transportation to market, is one thing to consider. This article from the Australian government includes an excellent set of guidelines to reduce the overall embodied energy of your home. Of course, buying local is high on the list. Here are some of our other favourites: Design your home to last. Don’t overbuild – a bigger house means more materials (and cost!). Choose durable, low maintenance materials that can be easily reused or recycled. And stick with standard sizes where possible. Not everything has to be custom-made to be beautiful!
6. Ask questions. Of course, there are many factors beyond sustainability that affect decisions about your home. Cost, aesthetics, design constraints, function, lifestyle and family composition all come into play. But whatever your ultimate priority, we hope that we have helped you to see that there is always room to think about sustainability, and it doesn't always require big trade-offs. Figure out what’s most important to you – maintenance, repairs, durability, product life cycles - and ask questions, lots of them. Not only will this will help you make choices that you can feel good about – that fit with your values, your needs and your style. It will also send a message to suppliers that customers do care about sustainability when it comes to building their homes. Supply follows demand!
I’ve been meaning to sit down and write this piece for a few weeks now. The kick in the pants came last week when we discovered that one of the laminate vanities in our new house – less than 5 years old – needs to be replaced already due to water damage: a combination of failed silicone around the sink and children who manage to get more water around the sink than in it. Out with the laminate, in with the concrete – once and for all.
Early last month, Moncton city council declared a climate emergency, with a commitment to report back with an action plan by May 1, 2020. In doing so, Moncton joined over 20 other Canadian municipalities (including Halifax, Mahone Bay, Edmundston and Charlottetown) and over 450 municipalities worldwide in responding to a global campaign focused on mobilizing local governments to tackle climate change at ‘emergency speed’.
It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of declaration. Formally recognizing the need to act is one thing. Driving real change is another. Depending on the city’s communications approach, we may not know what will come of it until a year from now. Now a year may seem like a long time to wait when we’re talking about an emergency, but I’ve spent enough time in government to know that this timeline is probably quite ambitious – not because governments are hopelessly slow or lazy, but because governing with the public purse is far more complex than most of us appreciate.
The whole idea behind the global campaign is that it is easier to affect change at the local level. Local governments are often the first to feel the effects of, and respond to, climate change – notably when it comes to extreme weather events (floods, droughts, snow storms, ice storms…sound familiar?). They are also more nimble and flexible than provincial or national governments. But they are still governments.
Local doesn’t just mean local government. We, as citizens and local business owners, have a role to play in determining whether the city’s declaration is a symbolic act or a commitment to real change. The private sector can move much faster than government, and as New Brunswick’s own David Alston has both argued and demonstrated (through the creation of Brilliant Labs), it is so much easier for governments to take risks when they can build on a movement that is already rolling and that citizens have already bought into.
So what can we do? Where do we start? Very simply, by making better choices and telling better stories.
Most of us recognize that we need to change things about the way we live for the sake of the planet and future generations. In other words, we need to make better choices – where ‘better’ is defined through the lens of environmental impact. Depending on your situation and what matters to you most, this could mean buying local, reducing your consumption of single use plastics, investing in solar panels or electric vehicles, or choosing products that last longer even if they cost more.
You don’t have to be an activist or a radical environmentalist to care about the planet. Not sure where to start? Have a look at Quebec’s Pact for Transition or the New Brunswick version and commit to two specific things that you will do to reduce your footprint on the environment this year. Here’s one of mine – I commit to walking half way back across the parking lot when I’ve forgotten my reusable grocery bags…even if I do have three grumpy kids in tow. If you want it to take it one step further, sign the Pact and start living it.
It is easy to talk about making better choices. But the reality is that they can be expensive, confusing, inconvenient, or time-consuming. Sometimes the choices we’d like to make aren’t accessible, or we don’t know what our options are. But this shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can. One person’s daily efforts might not be enough to save the planet, but if we all do nothing because we don’t think that we, individually, can do enough, the outcome is pretty clear. And it’s not pretty.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of looking at what we’re giving up when making better choices, rather than what we’re gaining. I’m guilty of it, certainly. So how do we, as a local community, shift this mindset?
By changing our story.
Telling better stories.
As one of my favourite local marketing companies has taught me, stories are incredibly powerful. They are at the heart of why we do what we do. At a personal level, the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves have a powerful influence on the decisions that we make – where we shop, what we buy, how we spend our time, how we connect with the world around us. These stories reflect our priorities, but they also shape them. If I tell myself (as I too often do) that I am a busy, overworked mother of three who is doing her best to make it through each day without collapsing of exhaustion before my work is done, then I am going to make choices that prioritize convenience and minimize effort. But if I shift my story to one about a woman who cares about the environment and wants, above all, to live in a way that not only ensures a sustainable future for my children and grandchildren, but that also sets a positive example for them to make good choices of their own as they grow up, then the lens through which I make decisions changes considerably.
Rewriting our own personal stories is a powerful means to start shifting our habits for the good of the planet. But, when it comes to purchasing decisions, there’s another side to the story. Businesses also have a story to tell, and these stories – intentionally crafted or otherwise – are at the very heart of the business-consumer relationship. In the same way that we feel a connection to someone who’s telling a story about an experience that we can relate to, we are drawn to those businesses that share our values, that ‘get’ us (where ‘us’ is defined as the way we choose to see ourselves). And how do we know what a business’s values are? Through the stories that they tell us about what’s important to them and why they do what they do.
Don’t believe me? Think Notre Dame. There has been outrage in some circles over the amount of money raised almost overnight to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral, while we can’t even provide for the basic needs of so many of PEOPLE around the world. But just think of the stories, the amount of connection that people around the world have with this building, whether they have actually been there or not - from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, to tourist visits, weddings, funeral, masses, architecture, art history. It wasn’t just a building that burned down. It was the backdrop to our stories.
There are so many businesses in our community and beyond that offer knowledge, services and product offerings that have the potential to support the growing desire of citizens to make better choices. Think local farmers; furniture or shoe repair companies; interior design firms that work with their clients to minimize material waste and promote timeless design; homebuilders that proactively educate their customers about energy-efficient options; second hand clothing stores, and the list goes on. How are these businesses evolving their stories to connect with customers who are changing their own stories about reducing their impact on the planet? How are we, as business owners, using our stories to help our community think more broadly about what it means to make better choices for our local environment and the planet writ-large? To understand the options before them and make those options accessible? This presents a business opportunity, yes, but more than that, I would argue that it’s a moral obligation for those sustainably-minded companies – and there are many of us – that are in business not just to make profit, but also to make an impact. Tell your story. It doesn’t make you unprofessional. It makes you real.
A call to community action
I talked earlier about the power of grassroots movements to pave the path for governments to institutionalize positive change. Individual efforts by citizens and businesses are a start, but the government doesn’t have the capacity to respond to thousands of voices, even if they are all saying the same thing. A community is more than the sum of its parts. So how can we, as a community of citizens, businesses and organizations, take our individual stories and knit them together to start shifting our collective story toward one of empowerment and motivation to act in the face of climate change? There will always be dissident voices and competing needs. There will always be activists and those who prefer not to get involved. But is there an underlying narrative that we can collectively embrace around our commitment to respond to the climate emergency that is not on our doorstep anymore, but pushing into our home? How and where do we have the conversations to make this happen? What role can bloggers play, or organizations like Excellence NB and Huddle, industry associations or the Chambers of Commerce? What about schools and community organizations? I don’t have the answers. But together we can figure this out. We’ve got a year to do it. Who’s in?
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