Recent headlines have been dominated by the subprime mortgage mess, the ensuing credit crunch, and the ripple effects that continue to be felt by financial institutions worldwide.
But loans don’t have to come from banks. San Francisco-based Prosper makes it easy for people like you and me to borrow from, and loan to, other individuals. I love the idea of circumventing the banking system (especially since financial institutions’ investments sometimes conflict with people’s ethics) and instead engaging in a community-based model of borrowing and lending.
Here’s how it works. Say I need $20,000 to make a documentary film about the conscious-consumerism craze that’s sweeping the nation, and my bank wants to charge me a 20% interest rate for the loan. I think I can do better. Once I join Prosper (for free), I can request a three-year, unsecured loan of up to $25,000 by posting a
listing that states how much I want to borrow and the maximum
interest rate I’m willing to pay—say, 15%.
Potential lenders search Prosper’s listings and bid on requests that appeal to them (based on the maximum rate, the borrower’s credit history and debt profile, and
other factors). Each bid states the amount to be lent (it doesn’t have to be the whole chunk of change) and the minimum interest rate
the lender is willing to accept.
Say one person will fork over $10,000 at 15%, one lender will part with $7,000 at 13.5%, and another person will let me borrow $3,000 at 10%. Bingo: Prosper combines the three offers into one loan for me and facilitates its payment and
collection. My filmmaking career is launched! (See the FAQ for details about how Prosper handles identity verification, missed payments, etc.)
Another cool feature is that lenders can form groups on Prosper that focus on specific types of borrowers—college grads under 30, entrepreneurs, active-duty members of the military, Wisconsinites... the list goes on.
Last month I blogged about trying to get info from shoemaker Earth about its factories in China (link).
Why would a company with such a progressive image, I wondered, not be happy to verify its glowing assertions about the safety and labor-friendliness of its overseas contractors by having those operations inspected by one of the many third-party certifying organizations that exist for this precise purpose?
Why, in short, should consumers trust any corporation to effectively police itself?
(Since my original post, I’ve learned that problems still exist even when such certifiers are used, but I remain convinced that auditing is the best way to go.)
Five and a half weeks after my inquiry (which went unanswered, so I sent two more emails and left one phone message), Earth customer service finally responded. After disingenuously claiming to have received only my first email (I know that at least one of my later messages went through, because I got an out-of-office reply), the representative wrote:
We do not have specific answers for these questions, and I’d rather not open up the conversation.
We hold our facilities in China to the utmost
standard both environmentally and socially. Our shoes are manufactured
in a controlled, clean, and safe environment that is inspected, not
only by our top executives, but also by larger US corporations. Our
factory and offices are cleaner than most US plant and our workers are
living and eating far above Chinese standards. Ten years ago, our
workers were walking or pushing used bicycles to go to work, today
several of them have their own cars. In short, US companies are
pushing the envelope and raising up the bar for a better living and
better environment. Thanks to companies like us, we influence changes
and improve people’s life. I hope this information helps.
A few thoughts that might get Earth more grounded:
1. If you don’t want to have a conversation about these issues, you shouldn’t use them as a marketing ploy.
2. You can’t make claims about something that consumers care about and that has an effect in the world and then refuse to back them up.
3. Cutting-and-pasting unverifiable cherry-picked anecdotes does not reassure informed customers asking crucial questions. Rather, it insults them, invites claims of greenwashing (etc.), and pisses them off.
I followed up (politely) asking what “larger US corporations” means. What type of corporations? Fellow shoe manufacturers, perchance?
Evidence suggests I should hear back, oh, maybe by the end of September.
In July I blogged about finding out that Kashi had been bought by Kellogg. Though the customer-service rep I spoke with went to great pains to reassure me that the buyout didn’t represent a betrayal of Kashi’s ideals, red flags still popped up in my mind.
Oftentimes when small, ethically committed companies are acquired by mega-corporations, their sustainable ethos is lost or watered down. For example, ever since Horizon Organics was bought by Dean Foods, in 2003, it has faced criticism over the industrial-scale dairies that joined its milk suppliers.
But I don’t think buyouts are always necessarily bad. One company I’m watching with interest is chocolate maker Dagoba. When it was acquired by Hershey’s in 2006, Dagoba founder Frederick Schilling stated on Slashfood that his decision “was based on my
desire and passion to make change in the industry and assist in the
transformation.” Far from compromising its ideals, the merger would enable Dagoba to “reach out to thousands, if not
millions more farmers than we could have on our own.”
Is Schilling right? What about when his contract expires and the brand goes on without him? Only time will tell.
Another interesting example is yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm. Since 2004, 80 percent of its shares have been owned by Groupe Danone. Stonyfield has been criticized for decreasing the percentage of organic products it offers, but it’s
still doing good things. It donates 10 percent of its profits to
environmental projects, it offsets all of its C02 emissions, and as I
mentioned in a recent post, it funds Climate Counts. CorpWatch even quotes a company spokesperson as saying that Danone “is
asking us to help them change their operations worldwide to organic
Indeed, a compelling argument can be made that large corporations, because of their size, have the capability to generate more net good in the world than small ones. But I still gravitate toward the little guys, such as family-owned yogurt maker Straus.
I’m definitely interested in continuing to explore this issue, though. If any readers have any good resources on this topic, shoot them my way.
This just in: Covalence, which I’ve blogged about before, is cutting the price for single-user subscriptions to its corporate reputation tool, EthicalQuote. The public version of the tool is still free, but the data in it is perpetually one year old. Subscribers, on the other hand, get up-to-date info on the behavior of a couple hundred multinationals in the form of a graph that lets you easily pull up details on specific inputs. Instead of $3,800 a year, it’s now $1,000 (or 732 euros). That’s still pretty steep for your average conscious consumer, but it’s a substantial reduction. Should I do it?
Thanks to Ethan at Hooze for turning me on to this one: A new nonprofit called Climate Counts aims to fight global warming by helping consumers find out how seriously different companies take climate change, so that people can boycott or buycott them as they wish.
“When consumers take action and raise their voices on issues
that matter to them, businesses pay attention,” the site states. “Working together, consumers and companies can raise awareness, change
behavior, and move markets to promote environmentally and economically
sound solutions to the climate crisis.”
Climate Change, which is funded by Stonyfield Farm, Inc., uses 22 criteria covering four general categories to provide its company ratings: the extent to which a company has (1) measured its climate footprint, (2) reduced its impact on global warming, (3) supported progressive climate legislation, and (4) publicly disclosed its climate-related actions in a clear and comprehensive way.
To get the ratings, consumers can either search the website or send a text message to Climate Counts—the latter being a pretty cool option for when you’re actually out shopping.
The only downside is that so far there are ratings for only 56 companies across eight sectors. Then again, Climate Counts is still new, and collecting and processing this type of information is nontrivial. I’m excited to see how the effort develops.
Yesterday’s Talk of the Nation contained an enlightening segment on why something as boring-sounding as the U.S. Farm Bill (which continues wending its way through Congress after the August recess) should be of great interest to anyone who eats. Link.
The folks at Sustainable Business Achievement Ratings (S-BAR) think so. They’re working on a web-based tool for consumers and companies “that
offers instant feedback, fast-track learning, evaluation and market-segment
comparisons” regarding corporate environmental and social performance.
As S-BAR’s site points out, a wide variety of voluntary environmental and social standards exist covering various product, facilities, and company attributes, but they don’t add up to a coherent whole.
As a result, it’s difficult for consumers to know just how “good” any given company is—and for businesses to know what exactly they should do to be considered “good.”
S-BAR says it has developed a conceptual framework (using five categories—governance and management, workplace, community, marketplace, and environment) as well as software specifications for its tool. Currently it’s in research-and-analysis mode to refine those standards. And it’s looking for funding so that it can start beta-testing and preparing to roll out the system.
Sustainability standards are certainly an intriguing idea, but I have to wonder how well they will “take,” given that so many different ideas exist on what sustainability means. I immediately think of the debates surrounding the USDA organic standards. But my interest is certainly piqued.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).