One of the things that we love most about concrete surfaces is that they can almost always be repaired. They’re not a perfect surface (let us know when you find one that is!), but they are durable and resilient and rich in character. Much like wood (which pairs beautifully with concrete), you can rest assured that whatever happens, you can probably fix it.
Of course, there are a couple of factors that will determine how easy and successful the repair will be: the quality of the original surface above all. And how well you’ve cared for it over the years. The type of sealer (or lack thereof) will make a difference too.
We often compare making concrete to making bread. On the face of it, concrete is a very simple recipe – essentially a mix of sand, crushed rock, cement (the ‘glue’) and water.
However, as with bread, the devil is in the details, and the experience of the hands that make it. There are a huge number of variables (aggregate properties, exact proportions, admixtures, cement:water ratios, reinforcement methods, curing conditions, finishing techniques etc.) that will affect the quality of a slab of concrete. In the end, making concrete is part art, part science, and it is up to each ‘cook’ to fine tune their process until the end result is just right for their own needs.
Given the number of variables at play, we have been hesitant to repair concrete surfaces that we didn’t make. However, when we were given the opportunity to refinish a pour-in-place concrete countertop that would otherwise have been thrown out after only a few years of use, we couldn’t pass it up. We firmly stand by our belief that it is better to repair than to replace, so we decided to accept the challenge and put our claims about the repairability of concrete to the test.
The main issues with the original countertop were a blotchy appearance and the fact that the surface layer was beginning to flake off – quite severely in places.
We had several homeowners ask us about this latter problem at last year’s home show, mainly with respect to DIY projects. When concrete is poured, a thin layer of fine materials forms on the surface, called the ‘cream’. This is what gives that raw, natural concrete look that home décor shows and magazines love to show off. It looks cool, but that surface is very delicate. It’s possible to preserve it with the right combination of skill and sealing, but for the most part, there’s a good risk that the cream will start to wear off over time. The problem will be worse if the concrete mix design and process weren’t designed for the application (a countertop is not a sidewalk!), or if there was too much water in the mix. It is tempting – and sometimes necessary - to add extra water when finishing a pour-in-place project to make it easier to achieve a smooth surface, but too much extra water will result in a softer, less durable surface that is more prone to degradation over time.
Our goal in repairing the countertop was to grind through the delicate cream in the hopes of finding a more durable base underneath that we could polish and seal for an attractive finish. Our biggest fear? That the concrete would be too soft throughout, and might disintegrate under the impact of our polishing machine.
All in all, we’re pretty pleased with how it came out. Well let’s be honest…really pleased! It’s better than we hoped, and certainly better than it could have been. And in the end, we saved a relatively new concrete countertop from being destroyed and replaced.
The new surface isn’t perfect. There were places where the concrete was softer, leading to small dips in the surface, and we decided not to do a major grind on the back edges where the concrete was particularly fragile for fear that we would undo all of our good work up to that point. The edges stand out, as you can see below, but they also tell the story of the homeowners’ commitment to reducing waste (and saving money) by extending the life of their existing counters.
To say that the repair was cheap would be misleading. There are a number of costs that go into a good repair: job site preparations to minimize the amount of concrete dust that goes into the air and throughout the house; polishing pads and equipment; a high-quality sealer that will help preserve the new surface; labour; travel; and of course, the risk associated with embarking on an unpredictable project. We can say, however, that the repair cost was less than half of what it would have cost to replace the old counters with new, high quality concrete countertops.
The moral of the story? If you’re looking for a hardy, durable surface that can stand up to life in the long run, consider concrete. Invest in good quality concrete, designed for your application. Care for your surfaces. And don’t fret if something happens! It can probably be repaired.
Building or renovating your home or office can be an overwhelming and expensive undertaking, sometimes more so than you bargain for. There are so many decisions to make and, given the amount of time and money that you invest in the process, those decisions matter as you’re likely stuck with the end result for quite some time.
If you’re just gearing up for this great adventure, you may have wondered about hiring an interior designer or decorator to help with the process. On the one hand, it could make your life a whole lot easier: you’d have someone to guide you through decisions, provide advice on different options for colour, material and layout, and perhaps see possibilities for use of space that you would never think of. On the other hand, it represents yet another cost for your already bulging budget. Surely you can do a decent job on your own and save a bit of money, even if your home doesn’t look like a magazine when all is said and done?
If you’re wrestling with this decision, read on. We went right to the source and asked some of our favourite New Brunswick interior designers and decorators for their insights into the benefits of working with a designer, and how to go about it.
A word on titles
There are many talented people and businesses out there offering design and decorating services for homes and workplaces. However, they go by several different titles - interior designer, interior decorator or simply designer. Are they all the same? Not exactly. While there is overlap in what they do and the services they offer, the title of Interior Designer is reserved for those with a specific combination of education, experience and accreditation, including a fully-fledged Bachelor’s degree in Interior Design. As Dominique Fournier of Osez Interiors explains, in New Brunswick - and in many other provinces – “[interior designers also] have to be part of the provincial association and, after a few years working in the industry, they have to go through an examination process to become a qualified interior designer.” Interior designers are morally and ethically bound to protect the health, safety and well-being of the occupants of the spaces they design. You can find a full list of qualified interior designers and interns on the website of your provincial interior design association, or through Interior Designers of Canada’s national membership directory.
The Interior Designer designation is a bit like the Red Seal designation in carpentry. It gives you a base level of confidence in the skills and abilities of the person you are hiring. However, it doesn’t mean that a carpenter who isn’t Red Seal isn’t any good. It does mean, however, that you should do your due diligence in asking about the qualifications and experience of the professional that you are interested in working with to ensure that they have the knowledge and resources required for the scope of your project. Interior decorators and others working in the field bring to the table various combinations of education, experience and talent that may serve you very well.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the generic term “designer” where appropriate in the discussion below. We’ll talk more about how to choose the right designer in a minute.
What exactly do designers do?
Moncton-based Interior Concept Studio often runs into the misconception that “[they] only deal with colours and aesthetics and that [they] only work in one style (modern)”. In fact, interior design is about far more than that. It is about optimizing the use of space (making every square foot count!) to meet the needs of those who will be using it. Or, as Colleen O’Donnell of Optimized Planning and Interiors (OP&I) puts it, “we create experiences for our clients in their spaces that satisfy their needs”, with the ultimate goal of “satisfaction and delight”.
Most designers will begin with a consultation to understand your needs and wants, and identify any challenges that need to be solved for your space. From there, each firm will have its own step-by-step process and range of services. For example, Saint John-based Tuck Interiors’ interior decorating services include “visual display boards, material samples, floor plans, 3D concept drawings, detailed budgets and expert advice on furnishings, lighting, finishes, and décor”. Likewise, interior decorator Nicole Brigham of Brigham Interiors describes herself as a “do-what-needs-to-be-done kind of gal”, with specialized offerings such as custom sewing and wallpaper installation helping to set her apart.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked – and most valuable - services offered by designers is project management. Once a concept is approved, full service interior design firms, such as Interior Concept Studio and OP&I, will “line up the trades and follow the project until it is complete”. Interior decorators, such as Tuck Interiors and Brigham Interiors, offer similar services for clients that want them. What would it be worth to you to have someone who can not only help you design the best space for your needs, but also oversee the coordination of the actual construction or renovation project? Can you feel the weight lifting off your shoulders? Interior designers have specialized knowledge of the interior non-structural construction process, including building codes and building permits, and can often apply for permits, collect quotes and coordinate the construction schedule on your behalf. Experienced designers also have strong relationships throughout the construction industry, from architects and engineers to contractors, tradespeople and product manufacturers. While interior decorators and other design professionals might not have the same background in building codes and construction standards, they may be able to leverage their professional connections to fill any gaps.
An important part of project management is about working within a budget and a timeline. “As a designer”, says Dominique of Osez Interiors, “our job is to make sure your vision stays true to what you want while keeping in mind your budget and [keeping] you focused so that your project finishes in a timely manner”.
Advantages of working with a designer
Designers have no shortage of stories about clients who have been surprised by the amount of value they reaped from working with them, especially after trying to manage the project themselves. Nicole Brigham (Brigham Interiors) often hears, “I wish we knew to call you before we got started!”. So how exactly is working with a designer going to help you? As Dominique Fournier (Osez Interiors) puts it, “hiring a professional can save you money and a headache!” We already talked about saving yourself the headache of handling the project management (or finding someone else to do so). But let’s break it down a bit further:
Interior Concept sums up the value that they bring to their clients in this way: “peace of mind, originality,…knowledge and that little extra touch of wow”.
Who can benefit most from working with a designer?
Based on the list above, it’s hard to see how your project couldn’t benefit from a designer’s help. Indeed, Saint John-based Tuck Interiors encourages anyone who feels the need for advice to contact them, even if it’s just for a one-off consultation. That said, there are some people and projects that stand to benefit the most. Here’s a shortlist from our designers:
How to choose the right designer
Choosing a designer, says Dominique Fournier (Osez Interiors), is “like picking a pair of shoes. You have to make sure they have your vision, that you’re comfortable and [that] they fit your personality!” It is important that you trust your designer’s judgment and feel comfortable communicating with them about what you like and dislike. Here are a few other things to consider:
So where do you start? Nicole Brigham (Brigham Interiors) suggests picking up the phone and calling “a few designers whom you’ve heard good things about or [whose] social media feeds” appeal to you. If you get a good feeling from that first conversation, book an in-person consultation so that you can get a better idea of their design and professional style. Ask the designer how they would “respond to [your] needs and the goals of the project. If [you] like the answer – engage and enjoy” (Colleen O’Donnell, OP&I). Don’t forget to ask (and follow up on) references!
When to start working with a designer
How soon should you start working with a designer? The answer is unanimous: as soon as possible, and ideally before you start work on the project. At the “dreaming stage” is best, according to Nicole Brigham. The sooner a designer gets involved, the more value they can bring and the sooner they can start saving you money by helping you avoid costly mistakes and unnecessary expenses. If you’re building new, it doesn’t hurt to have a designer review your house plans before you finalize them. “We aren’t experts on home building, but we know how to lay out a space, so having us look over your plans is worth it” (Tuck Interiors).
How much does it cost?
We hope that, by now, you have a good sense of the value that comes from hiring a designer. But you may still be wondering about the cost. When you’re hiring a designer, “you’re paying for [their] time and expertise. Although every firm has its own pricing, a designer’s fee is usually a small percentage of the cost of” the project, says Dominique (Osez Interiors).
Most designers we talked to work with an hourly rate that ranges anywhere from $75 to $160/hour depending on the services offered and required. Brigham Interiors, for example, charges a one-time consultation fee of $175, with lower hourly rates thereafter. Whether the designer charges by the hour or by the project, they should provide you with a detailed cost estimate of their fees for the project before moving forward. When considering the estimate, remember that while “it might seem expensive at the start,…the project will benefit from that investment at the end” (Interior Concept Studio). If you’re on the fence and unsure whether the investment is worth it, ask the designer to walk you through a cost-benefit analysis.
The size of the project will affect the cost, but so will the amount of time you demand of your designer. “If you’re able to communicate via email on small items…, then you’ll save money. When you’re organized and know what you want, you’ll save money” (Nicole Brigham, Brigham Interiors). If it’s not spelled out, ask your designer about their communication preferences and how much face-to-face time they have allowed for in their project cost estimates.
While full service design firms, such as Interior Concept Studio and OP&I, can bring more value to clients who have “flexible budgets”, most designers are happy to work within “any reasonable budget” (Brigham Interiors), as long as you are also prepared to adapt your expectations to what can reasonably be accomplished within that budget.
Advice for homeowners
We asked our designers what advice they would give to homeowners who are designing a new home or preparing for a major renovation, whether or not you choose to hire a designer. Their response? PLAN, PLAN, PLAN! And do it early.
The design process “is a process that comes together in layers”. Colleen O’Donnell (OP&I) emphasizes that good design is not magic. Rather it is the result of hard work and iterative steps. As a homeowner, it is important that you start by “do[ing] your homework and defin[ing] what ‘life’ will need to be like in your new home”. Then “design to satisfy that vision”.
Nicole Brigham (Brigham Interiors) also reminds people to “’zoom out’ to consider the overall look and feel you’re looking to achieve” before you start purchasing materials. She often sees clients “considering materials they’re instantly attracted to without considering how it looks installed or with other materials and furnishings”.
While your plan may change “100 times” before the build is complete, “try your best to stick to it as closely as possible and adjust when needed,” says Tuck Interiors. With a good plan in place, you’ll be able to better evaluate how any changes will affect your cost, timelines and the end result.
“Just do it!”
If you’re still unsure about working with a designer, Tuck Interiors says “Just do it!” As Colleen O’Donnell (OP&I) points out, there’s nothing to lose by starting a conversation to learn about the design process. The most it will cost you is a consultation fee. Don’t get hung up on the size of your project or the idea that hiring a designer is extravagant. Whether it’s a one-room makeover or a full home renovation, there is value to be found in good design. Remember, the biggest reward for designers is “[b]eing a part of making people’s lives better” (Nicole Brigham, Brigham Interiors).
Still got questions? Leave your question in the comments and we'll do our best to get you an answer!
A huge thank you to the following designers for their input and advice:
Interior Concept Studio (Moncton) https://www.interiorconcept.ca/
Osez Interiors (Moncton) https://www.osezinteriors.com/
Optimized Planning & Interiors (Fredericton) https://www.opiinc.ca/
Brigham Interiors (Fredericton) https://brighaminteriors.ca/
Tuck Interiors (Saint John) https://tuckstudio.ca/tuck-interiors-commercial-residential-decorating-saint-john-nb/
D.A.S. proudly participated in Moncton’s climate strike march in late September. For us, the march was about showing solidarity, demonstrating to government leaders and to the broader community that “we” - young and old, big and small, businesses and citizens - care about the future of our planet. And that, moreover, we are ready to reassess the priorities that guide our decisions – time, money, security, convenience – to make room for consideration of environmental impact.
The marches were about calling on leaders – those who make and shape policy – to act big and to act quickly. The timing, in the midst of a federal election campaign that had climate change policy at its centre, was ideal. Policy is powerful and necessary when it comes to forcing and enabling major shifts in behaviour. But, for many of us, it is also intangible, out of our control, and slow to have any visible impact. If we focus too much on the big picture problems, the ones we want our leaders to solve, it is easy to get overwhelmed and determine that there’s nothing that we can do but wait.
Which is why we were so pleased to see this sign in the crowd:
Here are five little things that our family has started doing to help reduce our impact on the environment:
This probably won’t come as a surprise, but WE LOVE CONCRETE. We’ll be the first to admit that concrete isn’t the perfect surface, but having lived with it in our own kitchen for the past four years, we would choose it again and again over anything else. So what’s so great about concrete?
The concrete countertop industry puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that concrete is highly customizable. It can be formed into just about any shape or colour. You can embed personal accents and unique aggregates into your counters. You can pour them in one piece to avoid seams (which aren’t really as hideous as some people make them out to be). In the hands of a skilled craftsman, the greatest limitation is your imagination…that, and your budget. Custom work, whether in concrete, wood or some other material, is expensive, and rightly so. Like it or not, people’s time and skill is worth something – often more than the materials they are working with.
Like everyone else, we are excited by the endless possibilities of concrete, and have visions for an artisan line that will allow us to unleash our creativity and that of our customers who have the means to pay for it. However, we believe that concrete doesn’t have to be highly customized to be beautiful. Here are five reasons why WE love concrete, custom-made or otherwise.
Look and feel. Let’s face it. While our kitchen and bathroom surfaces play a very practical role in our lives, for most of us, it’s the look and feel that gets us excited. If practicality always won out, nobody would be paying a premium for marble.
It’s hard to find the right words to describe the look and feel of concrete. Natural, organic, earthy come close, but these words can also be applied to granite and wood (which pairs very well with concrete, FYI). So we were excited when we came across the Japanese concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ (not to be confused with wasabi) the other day, which is all about finding beauty in imperfection. Think antique furniture, children’s artwork on the fridge (or, if your children are like ours, on the wall), a banged-up kitchen table.
The fall 2019 edition of Magnolia Journal talks about wabi-sabi as an antidote to the picture-perfect homes that we see in magazines and on home reno channels on TV. Of course, Magnolia’s version of ‘imperfection’ is a little more curated than ours, but still. The point is, while we strive for consistency and predictability in our product, there is an inevitable, natural variation in each piece that comes from the fact that concrete countertops are not only man-made, but handmade. Call it imperfection, call it unique, call it character. It is one of the biggest draws of concrete for many of our customers.
That, and the feel. There is something about polished concrete that just begs you to stroke it. Perhaps it’s the contrast between our anticipation of cold, hard concrete and the reality beneath our fingers of a smooth, warm surface. Of course, the feel depends somewhat on the sealer you choose. A polyurethane, for example, will feel a bit more plasticky in exchange for better protection against stains and etching. While we are happy to offer this option for those who want to keep their counters looking new for years to come, for us personally, nothing beats the feel (or the look and simplicity) of highly polished concrete sealed with beeswax.
Versatile design. Contrary to popular belief, concrete countertops are not limited to industrial design applications (nor do they resemble sidewalks). Concrete is versatile and timeless as a design feature, and can be equally at home in a country kitchen or an industrial-style loft apartment. Good thing, too, because your concrete countertop will last much longer than the trends that were popular when you first had it installed.
Durability. Concrete is highly durable, and gets stronger over time. If well taken care of, your counters will last the life of your home.
Depending on the sealer chosen (we offer several options), concrete countertops can handle hot pots and will not scratch easily. Many people are in the habit of using hot plates to protect their counters, and it never hurts to play it safe, but if you tend to cook using multiple saucepans or have had tile counters in the past, being able to put hot pots directly on the counter can be a real advantage. When it comes to cutting, we would recommend that you always use a cutting board – to protect your knives as much as anything. If you don’t like cutting boards, consider including a section of butcher block in your countertop design. Of course, like stone, the edges will chip if you hit them hard enough, but – as per the next point – those chips are relatively easy to repair.
Easy to repair. As a rule, concrete countertops are easier to repair than natural stone because they can be repaired using the same materials that they were originally made from. Stubborn stains or etches can be removed through spot repairs (using hand polishing pads), or if you want a full refresh – if you’re selling your house, for example - the entire counter can be sanded down and refinished for a brand-new surface. We firmly believe that it is always better to repair than to replace.
Sustainable. This is a case of last, but not least. We keep hearing that people care about sustainability, but that ultimately, it isn’t what sells. Well, it is what sold us on concrete above all else. Sustainability is a tricky concept, as it can be defined and evaluated in so many different ways. Based on our experience with things like laminate countertops, kitchen appliances, electronics and even kids’ toys, we place high value on how long-lasting products are, what they’re made of and where the come from.
We embrace concrete as an eco-friendly countertop solution because it is:
And if you’re the technical type, concrete countertops have lower embodied energy than many other popular countertop options (see https://www.buildwithrise.com/stories/sustainable-countertops-face-off).
So there you have it, folks. In a nutshell, concrete, for us, represents the art of transforming something simple – sand, cement, rocks and water – into something beautiful and durable, and really quite practical.
If you’d like to know more about how our fascination with concrete countertops began, or how we make them, check out this video on Youtube: https://youtu.be/q8s9LiqnCK4 (also on our homepage).
Now it’s your turn. What is it about concrete countertops that captures your imagination? Tell us in the comments below! We really (really) want to know.
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?
Want to know more about us? Check out this article in Huddle Today:
Concrete is our medium, but sustainability is our mission. Sustainability is about making better choices. This blog aims to help you do that.