San Francisco Bay Area readers: Want to make a statement against Mars Corporation’s unethically sourced cocoa and have fun at the same time? Conceptual artist April Banks is seeking models of varying ages, races, and physical characteristics so she can shoot portraits of them spitting up M&Ms. (Actual vomiting not necessary.)
If you’re interested and free on Nov. 10 or 11, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Choose a two-hour time slot between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and indicate your race, gender, and approximate age. Saturday’s shoot takes place in Oakland; Sunday’s is in San Francisco. Wear a white T-shirt.
Pumpkins are sprouting up on front steps, and synthetic spiderwebs are spreading throughout windows and doorways in my neighborhood. In a week, trick-or-treaters will blanket the area to collect all manner of sugary confections. But just as Halloween has a dark side (from its origins in warding off evil spirits to such present-day irritants as oversexualized kids’ costumes), so do all those sweets.
Top candy manufacturers such as Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé—the makers of most of the treats that will fill those bags on All Hallow’s Eve—have long been criticized for sourcing their cocoa from West African producers with unsavory labor practices. Chocolate isn’t the only culprit, of course; social and environmental injustices can lurk behind other ingredients and in other parts of the supply chain as well.
Then there’s the health aspect of the annual feeding frenzy; the statistics on childhood obesity today are nothing if not worrying.
In response, some forward-thinking people and organizations have come up with a couple of interesting twists on Halloween. Corey Colwell-Lipson, a mother who was inspired by the households in her Seattle-area neighborhood that gave out non-candy items last year, founded Green Halloween, an initiative that encourages parents hand out healthier edibles (like organic juice boxes) and keepsakes instead of confections. It also advocates for focusing more on costumes and the social aspects of the holiday than the caloric ones. (Thanks to Lonnie for turning me on to this one.)
Meanwhile, Global Exchange is publicizing reverse trick-or-treating, in which costumed kids give fair-trade sweets and informational postcards to the households they’re supposedly hitting up. I tend to share World Changing’s skepticism of just how fun this would actually be for the little tykes, but hey, it’s worth a try.
In any case, I like the fact that so many people are “thinking outside of the candy box” (to quote Green Halloween) this year. Hmm, Mr. Wallet Mouth and I have a bunch of leftover blinky dice we had made as gifts to hand out at Burning Man; perhaps those would make good treats (not for compulsive swallowers, though). At the very least, we’ll have to scare up some fair-trade chocolate. Mmmm!
To Mr. Wallet Mouth’s general relief (if occasional chagrin), I’ve never much gone in for haute couture. That said, I do wish I could teleport to Paris for the Ethical Fashion Show, which starts today. Now in its fourth year, the conference touts itself as a “unifying event” that fosters dialogue between industry players and promotes responsible designers.
And of course, it promises to be quite a spectacle, with exhibitors bringing the latest in catwalk fare from such far-flung locales as Chile, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan.
The 100-odd participating designers were invited only after meeting demanding criteria. They must comply with International Labour Organization rules concerning wages, health care, and the right to unionize. Dyes or other fabric treatments used must not be harmful to the environment. A portion of profits must be reinvested into local communities. Working with local craftspeople and making frequent use recycled materials is encouraged. And so on.
The show also features lectures examining ethical fashion entrepreneurship, responsible fashion in education, and the market for ethical fashion.
The latter topic is the one I find most interesting. As is the case with so many “sustainable” products, ethical clothes often come with a high price tag that puts them out of reach for many consumers. Apparel that doesn’t harm people or the environment shouldn’t be a luxury, but all too often it is.
The flip side is that events like this expose more companies to the idea of ethical threads and generate ever more demand for them. This should lead to economies of scale and to wider availability of nonexploitative fashion.
But in the meantime, many of us slumming at the bottom end of the market can rest easy shopping in an already-ubiquitous low-impact way—at the local secondhand shop.
Last month I blogged about Project Good, an upcoming collaboration between World of Good and eBay to create a large online marketplace for ethically made products. The unnamed marketplace is still in the works (it should launch before the holidays), but you can get the latest scoop on it—and do some good at the same time—by signing up for the Project Good email list. For every 20 people who sign up, Project Good will donate a fair-trade soccer ball to Better World Cup in Africa.
In other news, October is Fair Trade Month. The fourth-annual one, even! To celebrate, Trans Fair USA, the organization that certifies fair-trade products in the States, is holding a video contest. Submit five minutes or less of footage demonstrating what fair trade means to you, and you could get flown to Peru to visit a farmers co-op (hmm, I hope they’re going to offset all those carbon emissions).
Also in conjunction with Fair Trade Month, the Fair Trade Federation is launching the Fair Trade Towns initiative, modeled after the first such movement, in the U.K. This is not a certification program: unlike a package of fair-trade coffee, a fair-trade town does not get independently audited to ensure that it follows certain standards. The Fair Trade Federation doesn’t own the term fair-trade town.
Rather, the initiative is an invitation for municipalities to declare themselves as fair-trade towns, based on guidelines laid out by the Fair Trade Federation (that don’t necessarily have to be followed). A fair-trade town should have a steering committee, for example. It should pass a resolution in support of fair-trade principles. It should also have a certain number of fair-trade products widely available, and one or more of its larger institutions (such as a hospital or house of worship) should use mainly fair-trade products.
Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about the Fair Trade Towns program. Does it really mean that much for a city to declare itself a fair-trade town? Fair-trade products have to undergo rigorous certification programs; I fear that using the same name for a municipality—which facilitates and encompasses so many different kinds of economic forces and transactions—waters down that rigor and could potentially cause confusion. (When I first heard the term, I imagined a city where everything—all products, contracts, etc.—were fair trade.)
I suppose it raises awareness of fair-trade principles, and that’s
good, but I worry that the designation implies something more concrete than it
really is, a vague statement of support with little to back it up.
I’d heard of blood diamonds before, but I’d never given much thought to the ethics of the wider jewelry industry
until the other day, when a friend told me about a local shop that’s working to further the cause of nonexploitative jewelry.
Lori Bonn Design, in Oakland, Calif., has spearheaded an effort to develop an industry-wide standard for ethically made jewelry called Clear Conscience. It’s a multiyear process involving lots of meetings at industry conferences, Lori Bonn co-owner Bill Gallagher told me, and it sounds like it may be a couple of years before anything final is hammered out. But it’s something to look forward to. “Consumers want to know that they didn’t harm the environment or people with this pretty thing they’re wearing,” Gallagher said.
What does that harm look like, and how does it take place? One biggie is the extraction of the metals used in jewelry. You can read all about the horrors of acid leaching, air pollution, and the exploitation of indigenous peoples associated with mining on the No Dirty Gold campaign’s website. Another good source of information is Ethical Metalsmiths, which works to stimulate demand for responsibly sourced materials.
Then there are the gemstones. The Kimberly Process was designed to address concerns about blood diamonds, but it doesn’t cover other gems. “We buy from apparently honest, ethical people, but there’s a whole progression of things before the stones get to the dealers that we don’t know about, and until there’s a standard, there’s no independent way to know,” Gallagher said. He added that “there are beginning to be sources of gemstones whose path can be verified,” such as Columbia Gem House, which Lori Bonn is starting to use as a source for its offerings.
Finally, there are the working conditions of the actual jewelry makers to consider. Lori Bonn has its designs executed by facilities in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. Gallagher said that when checking out possible factories to work with, “we go there to see what it looks like and smells like, and we follow our gut. We know that our workers generally can afford an above-average standard of living, and their kids are in school.”
An argument can be made that having any jewelry made outside of the first world is necessarily exploitative. Gallagher counters that it’s not so simple. “If you just
source from developed countries, you’re taking away the livelihood
potential from poor countries that are deeply dependent on this work,” he said. Furthermore, he added, “there’s a level of craft,
detail, and workmanship that’s not available on any kind of scale in
the U.S. It’s inherent in other cultures, and I think it should be
One thing is clear: momentum for responsible jewelry is building. Twenty-six companies, including Tiffany & Co. and Wal-Mart, have signed on to No Dirty Gold’s Golden Rules protocol. The Fair Trade Jewelry blog hums with news. And last year saw the creation of the Madison Dialogue, an initiative for businesses and interested parties to encourage verified sources of responsible metals and gems. Next month the Madison Dialogue will hold the Ethical Jewelry Summit in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the Clear Conscience program will gain some traction there.
It’s only a matter of time before ethical jewelry hits the mainstream. Already, retailers like Brilliant Earth are responding to demand for conflict-free diamonds and renewed metals. That’s great, but I look forward to the day when consumers can depend on a recognizable label or logo to assure us that, whether it’s a diamond engagement ring or a pair of casual earrings that we’re after, we can have a clear conscience about buying it.
I learned about Fair Trade Sports, Inc. the other day, when founder Scott James commented on my previous post, and it’s so cool I just have to blog about it. Who knew there was such a thing as a fair-trade pigskin? I certainly didn’t, until now.
James’s company, which was started about a year ago, is the first in the U.S. to sell fair-trade sports balls—for football, futsal (indoor soccer), rugby, soccer, and volleyball—as well as sweatshop-free sports apparel. And if that weren’t enough, it donates all after-tax profits to domestic and international children’s charities.
It’s worth checking out the site, which contains lots of interesting articles and links. I particularly liked the explanation of where FTS balls are made and by whom.
When I first learned about World of Good, I was pretty excited about it. Unlike other web retailers of housewares, accessories, and gifts, it peddles only fair-trade, sustainably made products. It also actively supports worldwide community-development projects through its nonprofit arm.
Granted, World of Good’s selection is somewhat limited, but that’s because of the stringent process it follows to choose its vendors, most of whom are small groups of artisans. All are affiliated with social and economic development programs, and each product is screened in regards to its environmental footprint, production process, and community benefit.
All very cool.
But what got me really excited was talking with World of Good’s global marketing associate Matt Levinthal about an upcoming project: a joint effort by World of Good and eBay to create a large online marketplace for ethically made artisanal products. The platform itself doesn’t have a name yet, but the initiative to develop it is called Project Good. The goal is to launch before the holidays.
Levinthal says the site will feature multiple sellers (including World of Good), thousands of products, and, most important, about 25 different “trust providers”—independent, mission-driven verifying organizations with clear sets of standards—to give users the type of information that is so sorely lacking in most shopping environments: details on sustainability, labor conditions, etc.
“People really want to make good choices, but it’s just not easy for them to do it,” Levinthal says.
Don’t expect to be able to buy any type of product on the site. It’ll be a source for things like handmade jewelry, apparel, home furnishings, and chocolate, not DVDs and lawn mowers.
But the important thing about this project is that it will advance the notion of social responsibility as an in-demand product attribute—as well as the idea that we consumers have a right to know what goes into the making of all the stuff we buy. If this initiative takes off, there will be a demand for similar enterprises that cover even more product categories. (The closest thing I can think of that currently exists is Alonovo, which I’ve blogged about before, but for it to reach the next level, it needs to provide ratings for far more goods than it is currently able to.)
“Access to information enables consumers to make good choices,” Levinthal says. “Companies will have to follow. That whole idea of a third-party
verifier, trade organization, or some other body that provides approval will
become the only thing that people trust, and will become the norm, we
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).