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The holidays are a challenge for the eco-conscious consumer. Gifts that our children want may not be aligned with our tendencies. It is difficult to make eco-friendly choices 100 percent of the time, because of the society we live in.

The rule in our household is that around the holidays, our children donate the toys they no longer play with. We buy our children each one item that they truly want and the rest comes in the form of experiences, art supplies and handmade gifts. They do not complain. They know our eco-code of ethics and they do not question the guidelines we live by. It is fascinating to watch them learn from the examples we show them.

For us, it is all about balance. We don’t want to hide them from mainstream for fear that they will rebel and go in the opposite direction we wish for them. We give them plenty of choices, plenty of room for self-discovery, plenty of time in nature, and plenty of snuggle time watching family movies (that usually have an eco-theme, such as Louie Schwartzberg’s Moving Art Series).

Gift-giving could certainly become more eco-friendly if we approached it differently. Below are some alternatives to buying gifts in big box stores:

Alternatives to Buying Gifts

1. Hugs and gratitude. Expressing gratitude and love is far more valuable than material things.


2. Experiences. Present a coupon good for a picnic in the park, a hike, a camping trip, a trip to the museum, or a membership to a museum.

3. Host a gift-making party with your family or friends. Draw names and make a gift for the person’s name you received. Host an evening of painting or crafting at your home or rent out a local art studio for the evening.

4. Make your own gifts from recycled or homegrown materials. Some gift ideas are baked goods, canned goods, herbs and spices, homegrown herbal tea, jams, jellies, meals in a jar, hot cocoa mix, artwork, jewelry, treasure chests, picture frames, ornaments, lip balm, bath salts, soap, etc. Find more DIY gift ideas here

5. Gratitude Circles. Instead of gift giving, talk your friends or family in to having a gratitude circle where your presence is your present. No gifts necessary; bring a potluck dish to share and a good attitude. Each person goes around the circle thanking each other for their friendship and telling each person what they love about them.

6. Gifts from Nature. Give the gift that keeps on giving; give a fruit tree or perennial fruit plant, a houseplant that purifies the air, perennial divisions of your favorite flower, pollinator garden seeds, a bee habitat, mushroom spores to inoculate, heirloom seeds, a garden in a box, a medicinal herb plant, or have your friends go for a hike and gift each other with things from nature (as long as the natural area permits).

7. Service gifts. If you are a carpenter, a nanny, a gardener, a mechanic, a writer, a marketing pro- offer your services to friends and family. Coupon books are a great way to give this gift.

8. Craft fairs. Local craft and artisan fairs are abundant this time of year. Support artisans in your local community.

9. ETSY. Buy handmade gifts from artisans all over the world.

10. Shop locally. local artisan foods, gift certificates to local mom and pop shops or csa subscriptions make excellent gifts.

Alternatives to Wrapping Paper

1. Recycled wrapping paper from last year

2. Recycled gift bags from last year

3. Cloth bags

4. Cloth napkins

5. Use clothing such as scarves or a hat to wrap a gift

6. Seed catalogs


7. Old Book Pages (that may have been broken our torn over time)

8. Newspaper

9. Magazines

10. Fabric

11. Recycled envelopes for small gifts

12. Recycled paper (you can decorate with paint or stamps)

Crystal Stevens is the assistant head farmer at La Vista CSA Farm in Godfrey, Ill., where she manages the greenhouse, designs and updates the website, writes for the newsletter and handles communication between shareholders and the farm. She cofounded the Missouri Forest Alliance with her friend and long-time environmental activist, Jim Scheff. Read all of Crystal's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



While I try to live a sustainable lifestyle, up until recently, I admittedly didn’t think too much about the air I breathed indoors within my home — until my son began to struggle with severe asthma. My wife and I worked tirelessly to research effective remedies and did our best to provide him with each and every recommended treatment at the highest standards of care.

The more I explored, the more I realized I was not alone and began to think more critically about what I could do safeguard the air quality in my home environment. Indoor air quality is a critical problem in interior spaces today, characterized by building occupants (including school children) experiencing headaches, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, and other symptoms that abate once they leave the building. Additionally, poor indoor air quality is connected to a variety of infections, conditions and diseases, including lung cancer and asthma, according to the American Lung Association. Recent data also suggests that over 25 million people, or roughly 8 percent of the population, has asthma.

Indoor air is polluted by volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These gases are emitted into the air from products like pesticides, air fresheners, cleaning products, paint and paint remover, personal care products, appliances, furniture and building products, including carpet and pressed-wood floors, and more. Sometimes VOCs react with other gases, forming other pollutants that are released into the air.

Even when some of these products aren’t being actively used, they still emit VOCs. This can happen when such products are simply stored or are being moved. Commonly released VOCs from these everyday household products are toxic compounds like benzene, toluene and formaldehyde.

Safeguarding Ourselves Against Indoor Air Pollution

The good news about poor indoor air quality is that we can take actions to reduce pollution and make the air we breathe healthier.  There are steps we can take – and they need not demand a major investment of money or time that can make a dramatic difference.

Don’t smoke inside the home. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes and cigars can substantially elevate pollution inside the home. Research shows that cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, exposing those who inhale it to all of the many health risks that smokers face.

Assess radon levels. Radon has been called a quiet killer because this clear, odorless gas heightens the risk of lung cancer — in fact, it is the second-leading cause of it in the United States. As a radioactive gas, radon emanates from the natural process of uranium decay in soil. Cracks in the foundation of homes and other access gaps enable it to seep in. Home radon kits are available for consumer use and sold at various price points. If test results indicate a potential problem, there are steps you can take to remediate and reduce it.

Bring the outdoors inside. Certain houseplants provide natural air-filtration benefits. The NASA Clean Air Study proved that common indoor plants can decrease organic chemicals, or VOCs, from indoor air; these include benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde. Also, open windows to release indoor toxins.

Eliminate or reduce artificial scents. Synthetic fragrances from air fresheners, household cleaners and detergents release various chemicals into the air. Under the law, the various pollutants, or chemicals, released from products like air fresheners are not required to be listed on product packaging. Stop using, or reduce usage of, carpet cleaners, furniture polishes, air fresheners and hair sprays that release these compounds. Look for natural scents to freshen the air, such as by using natural oils in a diffuser and by cleansing surfaces with lemons and baking soda.

Determine what’s in the air you breathe. Knowing exactly what chemicals and compounds are in your household air no longer has to be a guessing game. New devices can help to cleanse or purify your indoor air, monitor pollution sources and identify precisely which pollutants are contaminating the air your breathe.

Indoor Air Monitors

Living a healthy life requires being informed and applying that knowledge to our betterment. Fortunately, when it comes to indoor air quality, simple DIY steps exist for us all to make a sustainable difference. Indoor air quality monitors allow you to monitor the current levels of indoor air pollutants in your home.

One such device that can help you to monitor your indoor air quality is foobot. This device fits within the arena of the Internet of things (IoT) as a smart device. It leverages predictive artificial intelligence to optimize indoor air flow through chemical and physical pollution control, and temperature and humidity indicators.

Sensors continuously monitor pollution sources, that data is transmitted to a dedicated, secure server, and end users can then review findings and suggested corrective actions via a mobile application. Click here for more information on foobot.

Photo of indoor plants by MorgueFile/benhur; Photo of Foobot courtesy AirBoxLab

Jacques Touillon is a serial entrepreneur. Environmental issues have always been his playground. He is the Founder and CEO of AirBoxLab, which recently introduced its Foobot air quality device to the U.S. market.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Just picture it: You’re sitting at home and you feel a cool breeze — only it’s winter time and you realize your home is poorly insulated. Home insulation is no longer an opportunity to increase your home’s energy efficiency; it’s imperative. If you are like most of the homeowners who are concerned about the escalating heating and cooling costs, insulating your home is the best way to go.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, approximately 48 percent of the energy is used toward either heating or cooling a home. However, with the proper insulation, you can save anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent on heating and cooling, while upgrading the comfort and quality of your living space. Here are a few steps you can take to insulate your home properly and reap the cost-saving benefits year-round:

Educate Yourself about the Importance of Home Insulation

Insulating your home is one of the most effective strategies for anyone interested in conserving energy, becoming more environmentally conscious, and saving some money. As Emmy Nelson, CEO of Home Management Service, shares, homeowners are spending too much on their energy bills.

While there’s little you can do to control your HVAC system, a well-insulated home will put a stop to excessive heat transfer, which means that it would prevent heat from entering the house in summer, and escaping in winter. To do that, Nelson recommends homeowners to pay particular attention to the attic, the ceiling, the basement, and other areas that is most susceptible to air leakage.

Identify Leakage Points in Your Home

While inspecting your home, one thing you need to determine is the R-values in different parts of your home. According to EnergyStar, the “R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. The higher the R-Value the better the thermal performance of the insulation.”

You can figure that out personally by getting advice from your state energy office and utility. However, homeowners can also hire a professional energy auditor to use special equipment to identify air leaks, areas lacking insulation, and malfunctioning equipment.

Perform a Quick DIY Seal Up

Air leakage takes a big toll on your wallet. For a quick DIY, The U.S. Department of Energy recommends homeowners to caulk and weatherstrip leaky doors and windows, while using “foam sealant on larger gaps around windows, baseboards, and other places.” Meanwhile, single-pane windows can be covered with storm windows, or better yet, be replaced with the more efficient, double-pane, low-emissivity windows.

According to the Do It Yourself website, “insulation should be installed in any barrier (wall or ceiling) the stands between cold air and warmer air or unheated spaces and hated spaces.” If possible, homeowners can also pour loose fill between ceiling joist and fit foam boards in between new construction wall studs.

Plan Your Budget for a Thorough Insulation

Homeowners who are thinking about getting professional help or pursue a more advanced DIY insulation project carefully plan their budget and develop a tentative timeline for the project. When it comes to insulating big areas in your home, the attic is the best place to start.

According to HouseLogic, “adding insulation there is quick, easy, and cost-effective … In the Northeast, for example, upgrading attic insulation from R-11 to R-49 would cost around $1,500 if you hire a pro — half as much if you do it yourself — and, depending on the type of heat you have, save about $600.” After you’ve got that covered, you should insulate your basement or floor to save yourself as much as 30% in energy loss.

Home insulation is an efficient way to save more money and live more comfortably. For a more comprehensive home insulation plan, check out’s Where to Insulate a Home. You’ll find a list of places you need to insulate as well as tips and recommendations for getting the job done.

Photo by gmcgill/Fotolia

Paul Kazlov is a metal roofing expert and has grown Global Home Improvement to be the Mid-Atlantic's largest installer of residential metal roofing, saving the everyday homeowner money on energy costs. He has installed more than 1,000 metal roofs and more than 2 million square feet of standing seam, metal slate, and metal tile, helping the Philadelphia-New Jersey-New York area. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulKazlov, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Gifting is more enjoyable when you know that the gifts you are giving were made with the environment in mind and are a lot of fun. Plus, the recipients will be totally in love. Viva Green Homes released its annual eco-friendly gifts list this year with everyone in mind: men, women, children and pets. From tote and travel bags, to jewelry, books, and crafts, there really is something for everyone.

To check out the full list of all 12 gift ideas, click here.

Here are a couple of our favorites:

crafting for kids
Crafting kids and their parents will delight in this fun book. Find Recycled Crafting for Kids book here.

firefighter wallet

This wallet isn't just cool, it's hot. Find the firefighter recycled wallet here.

dog collar

This doggie collar will be a hit for owners and their pets. It does more than exude eco-friendly qualities made from recycled rubber. This dog collar also has a bottle opener on it for the owners who enjoy a bottled beverage. Just make sure to reuse or recycle that bottle afterward. Find this dog collar here.

Kari Klaus is a Northern Virginia Realtor and founder and CEO of Viva Green Homes. In addition to working on establishing Viva Green Homes as the most popular sustainable homes site, she also is volunteering and working with local animal rescue groups in Mexico. Read all of Kari's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Four years ago, I was camped upon a hill in Turkey watching the canvas of my tent buckle ominously. The wind howled, and rain started to drip onto my forehead. I’d been living in the tent for six months, but winter had suddenly arrived. I needed a house. Fast.

Considering the urgency, I was picky. I wanted something beautiful, round and environmentally friendly. The technique I chose was earthbag. I didn’t regret that choice at the time of building. Four earthquakes later, I still don’t.

It might have been more by luck than judgment, but earthbag building has proven itself perfect for my experience level, my climate, the topographical features of my land and my aesthetic taste. It’s easy to master for first time builders, and fairly invincible in terms of strength.

Earthbag was initially designed for settlements on the Moon and Mars, and was first applied in the construction of emergency shelters for refugees in the Persian Gulf. I am indebted to Nader Khalili, the Iranian who pioneered the technique, because my little earthbag home has liberated me from a mortgage.

The technique has numerous other benefits, some of which I have learned as time goes by. So here’s my list of why you might want to think about an earthbag home.


1. Earthquake resistance. Earthbag is the most indestructible sustainable building technique in existence. Earthbag buildings are so tough they have been known to damage the earthquake-testing equipment and show no sign of structural weakness. This is why the method is now being pioneered in Nepal in the wake of the earthquake disasters this spring. Turkey is also a seismic country. I’ve sat through four quakes of over 5.0 and not even seen a crack in the plaster. By contrast, my neighbour’s concrete wall built by professionals suffered a gaping hole after a quake two years ago.

2. Simplicity. The technique itself is so straightforward, even I mastered it (I hadn’t so much as put a shelf up six months prior to commencing the build). There’s not much more to it than filling up sacks with wet mud, laying them end to end and squashing them flat. Rings of barbed wire are run between the layers to prevent them from slipping away from each other.

3. Energy efficiency. Earthbag homes boast excellent thermal mass. They are particularly suited to hot dry, Mediterranean or temperate climates, as the thick mud walls regulate the temperature. An earthbag house stores both heat and cool. There’s no need for an air conditioner in summer, and in winter – if you place your windows strategically to absorb the maximum sunlight – your house is cozy and warm long after the sun goes down. On the coldest days of the year, I burn my wood stove for about three hours each evening.

4. Perfect for unconventional designs, circular or oval-shaped buildings, domes or arches. You can create all manner of interesting shapes with earthbag. Curvy or round walls are both strong and easy to construct. Earthbag is also famed for its domes and arches. It’s a beautifully flexible building method.

5. Bullet and shrapnel proof. An earthbag house normally has walls about 40-60 cm thick, which is a boon if you’re expecting a firearm attack, or happen to live in a war zone. Unless someone’s popping round with a warhead, you can feel pretty unassailable.

6. Soundproof. Silence is golden. The thickness of earthbag walls means you could effectively use your home as a recording studio without utilizing a single egg box.

7. Fireproof. Electrical wiring faults are no threat to an earth wall. An earthbag home acts as one enormous earthing device, and obviously mud doesn’t burn.

8. Flood proof. One of the major advantages of earthbag building over cob is its endurance in severe floods. The bags hold the structure in place and prevent the mud walls from washing away, no matter how much water is gushing by. My house has sat through major flash flooding with no damage whatsoever.

9. Inexpensive to build. The only expense with earthbag building is the sacks and the barbed wire. My home cost me about $5000, but most of that money was spent on labour, the floorboards and the roof.

10. Beauty. When people first saw my home without its mud plaster finish, they thought it looked like a bomb shelter. I’m happy to say, that is no longer the prevailing opinion.

Atulya K. Bingham is an author and sustainable building addict. She lives semi off-grid in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house. Her days are spent growing her own food, experimenting with natural building techniques, and writing. She is author of The Mud Website which offers plenty of earthbag building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, sustainable living tips, and much more. Pick up your free copy of The Mud Earthbag Building PDF. Read about Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular memoir of building her earthbag home.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


LEED: As Kermit the frog might say, "It ain’t easy bein' green."

Well, it seems Kermit is on to something in the real estate market too. As homes flood the real estate market claiming that they have green features or energy efficiency and ask for a premium price tag because buyers think that they are getting an innovative, eco-friendly and energy-efficient home, the real question is, "How do they know?"

The Business of 'Greenwashing'

The practice of using eco buzzwords and claiming various green features to overly hype a property is known as "green-washing", and it can make it confusing for buyers in the market for eco and energy efficient homes.

Many builders are taking the extra step to complete their homes with a third party certification from a national certifier like Energy Star, LEED, and even Net Zero or the many local or regional certifies. While others rely on the marketing of their real estate agent to boast about how "green" the home is. But unless you have a run-down of all the green and energy efficient features and can weigh how green or energy efficient they are, will you fall into the trap of buying a "green" home just because someone said it was so?

Tips to Ensure that Your Prospective Home is Actually Green

1. Ask if the home has any certifications, either nationally or locally. Because there are a variety of certifications, check to see if that one focuses on the features that matter to you most. Are you interested in energy saving primarily or would you like to be sure the home hosts a combination of energy saving features like high R-value insulation and high efficiency systems as well as healthy finishes such as no VOC paint and zero-off gassing flooring?

Some of the most well-known certifications are LEED, Energy Star, Net Zero, and Built Green. 

2. If the home is being marketed as "green" but all you notice is Energy Star rated appliances in the kitchen (good, but far from what you might consider to be "green" home) ask for a full run down of the features, systems, and building materials.


One of the newest MLS type real estate sites that lists eco-friendly and energy efficient homes for sale is Viva Green Homes They found that in general green certifications, locally or nationally, are very helpful to buyers to get a quick sense of how eco-friendly a home is. For that reason, buyers can quickly search by a specific certification(s) on the website. Or, they can browse through all the listings and note the prominently displayed certifications with the listing’s photo, making searching for a green home much easier than ever before.

energy star cert home

LEED cert homes

But the site goes further in an effort to help combat "green washing" of un-certified homes listed for sale (ones with green features but are not third-party certified). The site lists a special Viva Green Homes Score rating of one to five stars based on the quality and quantity of the green features named in the listing. For buyers who want an eco-friendly home but don’t know how to weigh or calculate just how green one home compares to another, this VGH Score helps to quickly identify how green a home is based on the star rating. The details of the green features are listed on the individual listing’s page.

This Harleysville, Pennsylvania home is an example of an eco-friendly and energy-efficient home that received a 5-star Viva Green Homes Score. This home earned the VGH 5 Star rating because of its quality and quantity of green features including geothermal heat and cooling, tankless water heater, radiant floor heat, and its passive design. For its interior finishes it has low-VOC paint and finishes with little to no off-gassing, and more. The home is for sale and you can see more about it here.

At the end of the day, each buyer will pick and choose the right home that fits their needs. I hope that these helpful tips on buying a truly green home helps make sure that you aren’t singing the blues (or the greens).

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Our homes account for the largest part of our personal carbon footprint (unless you happen to own a private jet). Collectively, the 115 million residences in America today use an estimated 22.5 percent of the country’s energy. This means that one of the best things you can do to help save the planet from the impact of global warming is to make sure you are wasting as little energy in your home as possible.

To do this, you need to target the five main areas of the home that either consume or are responsible for wasting the most energy. These are, in order of impact:

1. Windows

2. HVAC (heating and cooling your home)

3. Water Heaters

4. Appliances

5. Lighting

Windows and HVAC systems are intrinsically linked, and by targeting these areas most aggressively you can save the largest amount of energy. While heating and cooling our homes accounts for nearly 50 percent of its energy use, windows are literally holes in our homes through which 10 percent to 25 percent of our energy bill flows. Replacing old, drafty windows with new, air-tight Energy Star-qualified windows is one of the most effective ways to decrease your home’s carbon footprint.

New windows are particularly effective if your home currently has single-pane windows, as replacing them with double-pane windows with high-performance glass will essentially double your home’s capability to keep the cold air out (or in, depending on the season). Low-e coatings also help reduce heat gain, keeping your home cooler in the summer months. In colder climates, low-e coatings combined with gas-filled windows (containing argon to provide extra insulation and efficiency) will reduce heat loss.

Installation of windows is critically important—if they are incorrectly installed, the seals will fail quickly. This is not a DIY job: Badly installed windows are likely to leak air and water and may rot and cause structural problems. Additionally, by hiring professionals to do the installation, you will be protected by a warranty, meaning if there are any problems over the next 20 to 30 years, you can make sure your windows will remain energy efficient at no extra cost to you.

Rounding out the top 5 energy suckers in our homes are: heating hot water (18 percent), running our appliances (13 percent), and lighting our homes (5 percent).

Water heaters. The easiest way to cut your energy use for heating hot water is to use less of it. Switch to Water Sense plumbing fixtures. Water Sense is the Energy Star equivalent for products that consumer water. Look for certified high-efficiency toilets, ultra-low-flow faucets and aerating showerheads. Insulating is also key to reducing energy use: Insulate your hot-water storage tank and the first six feet of the hot and cold water pipes connected to the water heater.

Appliances. By choosing Energy Star models when replacing worn out electronics and appliances, you can dramatically reduce energy use, especially when it comes to the refrigerator. The fridge is the biggest individual energy hog after the heating and cooling system, accounting for about 13% of a household’s appliance energy use.

Lighting. Switching to energy-efficient lighting, in particular LED bulbs, is one of the fastest and easiest ways to cut your energy bills. Timers and motion sensors save even more energy by reducing the amount of time lights are on but not being used.

Some of these steps are small, others very large, but if you can target them all you can be very proud of the fact that you own a “green” home, and your footprint on our precious planet will become substantially lighter.

Jennifer Tuohy writes on green homes and energy efficiency for The Home Depot. Jennifer's energy saving tips on windows and insulation are aimed at helping homeowners save on heating bills. To view Home Depot's windows installation services, you can click here. Read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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