Good Parenting for the Chemical Industry

This is cross-posted from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families blog here. Much thanks to the wonderful folks there for publishing it!

Here’s a basic truth every Mom knows: it’s far easier to avoid making a mess than to clean it up after the fact. And here’s another fundamental rule we all tell our kids: do not lie.

Sadly, in the case of chemical flame retardants, both of these rules for responsible behavior have gone by the wayside. As the powerful Chicago Tribune series, Playing with Fire, showed last spring, the chemical industry created “Citizens for Fire Safety,” a front group which lied to lawmakers in California about the need for chemical flame retardants in furniture. Yet research shows that there is no proven safety benefit from using flame retardants.

As it turned out from the painstaking investigation by Tribune reporters, the group’s main “safety” representative, Dr. David Heimbach, actually invented details about children who had burned to death in tragic circumstances, twisting the terrible, heart-breaking stories to serve the lobbying goals of the three chemical company backers for the astroturf group. This went beyond the typical obfuscation in industry lobbying – it was fraud on the legislature.

Here’s something interesting: unlike the federal government, the state of California does not have strong laws to penalize people who lie to government officials. In contrast, if you lie to a federal official, you can go to jail or pay a hefty fine. When I scoured documents submitted to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission when it was considering its rule on flame retardants, I found nary a story about burned babies. My own conclusion: they chose to lie when they thought they could get away with it.

So that’s the whopper. What about the mess? A new study out just yesterday shows that a stunning 85 percent of sofas contain harmful flame retardant chemicals, and that of couches sold over the past seven years, nearly all – 94 percent – have them. Researchers surveyed the foam in 102 sofas from all over the country through aptly named “couch biopsies,” analyzing the chemicals. The industry’s veil of silence and repeated refusal to share with researchers what’s in their sofas makes this painstaking approach necessary.

The study also found that pounds of chemicals are used, as much as 11 percent of the overall foam. This confirms what we all thought, but is still outrageous when you consider that my family, and perhaps yours, spends a small fortune on organic foods to eliminate parts-per-million of pesticide residues.

Chemicals being used as flame retardants are linked to health harms, including lowered fertility and IQ and cancer-causing impacts. We also know that these substances break down over time, becoming part of household dust. Once they are in the dust, we all breathe them in. Toddlers and young children, who spend a ton of time on the floor and who put everything, including their hands, into their mouths, have three times more of these dangerous chemicals in their blood than do adults. A recent study also found a correlation between a pregnant woman’s level of one chemical and negative health outcomes in the child at age 7, linking it to decreased IQ, fine motor coordination, and an ability to focus attention.

The real up-shot of this study is that we now have a huge mess on our hands. There are the human costs: most American homes are now polluted with pounds of harmful chemicals, and we will have to measure, as we did with lead pollution, the value of our children’s lost IQ points, likely for several generations. And then there are the ecological costs, which are also staggering.

Furniture sales (though not just sofas and upholstered chairs) totaled about $8 billion per month in 2012. Consider the resources involved, the packaging and shipping of such large items, and the pride everyone feels in refurnishing their home. And now think about the landfills as many people replace these items with safer sofas and chairs. This foam will break down for years, getting into our environment and bloodstream of humans and animals.

My blog lists some options for buying sofas without flame retardants in them, and my traffic was through the roof yesterday. The most common search term was “sofa without flame retardants.” (The amazing Green Science Policy Institute also has a nice list on their front page.)

Given that the rule in California was suspended by order of the Governor, companies should now realize the significant opportunity to sell couches without these chemicals in them to a newly awakened American consumer. And they should consider that at least one of these chemicals – chlorinated tris, or TDCPP – now requires a label as a probable carcinogen under a separate California disclosure law. The new study found that tris is the substance most commonly used in furniture after 2005, but I doubt consumers will be happy to buy furniture with cancer tags sticking out of them.

And what about a more radical idea: requiring furniture makers to take back and replace it with furniture without chemical flame retardants? If the government made them collect and remediate the chemicals, we would get far less of it dumped into the environment. And it would only be fair: consumers should not have to pay to replace new furniture, just so they – and their children – are not poisoned in their living rooms. Instead, those that profited should pay for the clean-up, just as we do with tire recycling programs or Superfund sites.

Of course, that’s just a fix for sofas. We’ll see this story about greed, lies and profits on chemicals over and over again, unless we do something fundamental to require the industry to put people first. The Safe Chemicals Act, which got a hearing in a key Senate committee last spring, is the answer, because it would set up a system for approval of chemicals that requires real consideration of the impacts they may have on health, including the health of vulnerable groups like children.

Here’s how to ask the Senate to act. You can think of the bill as the good parent that the chemical industry obviously needs, to teach them the basics of how human beings should act.

New Study Released Today Confirms: 85 Percent of Couches Contain Toxic Chemicals

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Environment Science and Technology, was just published today by Heather Stapleton. Its results confirm what she has been saying about the ubiquity and harm from flame retardants in sofas, and gives more credence to my incessant complaints, but that doesn’t really make me happy. At all.

A good number of foam samples — 102 — were gathered from around the U.S. and tested for chemicals added as flame retardants. In sum, the study demonstrates that:

  • 85% of the couches tested had toxic or untested chemicals in the foam.
  • The newer the couch, the more the toxic flame retardants were used.
  • Flame retardants use by furniture manufacturers across the country is increasing. Of couches purchased in the last 7 years, 94% contain toxic chemicals added as flame retardants.
  • In samples purchased prior to 2005, PBDEs were the most common flame retardants detected (39%), followed by tris (or TDCPP; 24%), which is a suspected human carcinogen.
  • In samples purchased in 2005 or later, the most common flame retardants detected were tris (TDCPP; 52%) and components associated with the Firemaster550 (FM 550) mixture (18%).
  • Since the 2005 phase-out of PentaBDE, the use of tris (TDCPP) increased significantly. (Note: this means that my experience of buying an Ikea couch because there were no PBDEs in it, only to find that it contained tris, is more common than anyone knew…)
  • Flame retardants were found at levels of up to 11%, or 110,000 parts per million, by weight of the foam. (Translation: this stuff is measured in pounds, as the Chicago Tribune stories said.)
  • Almost all couches (98%) with the TB 117 label (indicating they comply with rules for flame retardants in California) contained the chemicals.
  • Recent studies show toddlers have three times the level of their moms.
  • Previous studies show that children of color have levels higher than the general population. (So depressing!)
  • These chemicals continuously migrate from products, to house dust, to children and pets.
  • There are no data that show any fire safety benefit from using the flame retardants to meet the California flammability standard. (Here’s a link to a very clear and helpful post from a Ph.D. student in toxicology who walks carefully through all the evidence on this point.)

My pal Lindsay Dahl over at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has already written a great post on the study. As she says, the real solution to this problem is to address the elephant-sized toxic couch in the room: for Congress to get off its duff and enact comprehensive chemical reform, by passing the Safe Chemicals Act.

The bill that would establish a system for ensuring chemicals are safe before they enter the market, and therefore our living rooms. The bill had its first historic vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee this past summer, has 29 Senate co-sponsors, and awaiting a Senate floor vote. Take action here, and let the Senate know the time for action is now. Not tomorrow. Now.

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New to the issue or the blog and want to know more? Start in this happy place, and all the other links are at the bottom.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, All Over Again in Bangladesh

English: Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ...

English: Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 – 1911.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fire that killed 112 people and counting in a nine-story high-rise building in Bangladesh last night was in a sweatshop in which people were working late to make clothes for Walmart and Sears, news reports indicate. There were evidently no exterior fire exits, and people jumped from the top floors to get away from the flames.

ABC News also reports that Walmart was aware of issues at this supplier with safety as of last year, noting both that this is the worst fire on record in terms of fatalities, and that the death toll is supposed to increase.

In fact, this is merely a small part of the overall mortality from clothing factory fires in just the last five years alone, as they explain:

The Tazreen fire is the latest in a series of deadly blazes at garment factories in Bangladesh, where more than 700 workers, many making clothes for U.S. consumers, have died in factory fires in the past five years.

Ugh. This is so upsetting.

The utterly pointless sadness of this story eventually made a little angry, reminding me that I’d been meaning to put together a post about how completely unnecessary it is to buy any new clothes for children. Basically ever. Turns out, you can opt out, more or less completely. Which sounds better and better to me all the time now.

I’ll be the first one to admit that this kind of terrible tragedy was not my motivation when I resolved last year to buy all of Maya’s clothes (and many of her toys and books) used. But it sure will help motivate me to see the project through.

When I hatched my plan, I was thinking of reasons like those in this fascinating Slate piece by Elizabeth Cline, based on her book about the used clothing industry. Much like this 2001 documentary, Cline follows our castoff threads back to Africa, where a glut of cheap Western clothing has helped to decimate African clothiers.

Cline writes:

Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”

Then there’s the high cost in natural resources that Tom Philpott pointed out in “Are Your Skinny Jeans Starving the World?,” in which he describes how the rising world demand for cotton produced in places like China is supplanting food crops.

He’s right, of course — clothes cost much less than they used to, at least in some shops, and that is leading us to buy more:

In 1985, Americans on average bought 31 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy roughly 60—more than one per week. And when we lug home our haul we’re not shy about making room in the closet: We throw out 78 pounds (PDF) of textiles per person—five times as much as we did in 1970.

Even setting all these high-minded reasons aside, when I think about Maya’s wardrobe, I also see the problem as a Mom. I’d like her to be decently clothed, but I also don’t want to fuss when she predictably ruins something, or grows out of it before she even has a chance to put it on. And I really am far too cheap to pay what children’s clothes cost new, just to have her wear it for the two seconds that she can fit into something.

Thus far, I’ve managed to keep clothes on her, and have bought new items on only, say, three occasions in her two years (excepting shoes, which are harder to come by in good condition). I’ve also collected sufficient used clothes to see her through, at this point, for several years to come, and so am actually done for a while, which is a relief of sorts.

One side-benefit of this approach is that I don’t go into big box stores much, which keeps the crazy requests for owl pillows to a minimum. Also, she has a lot of jumpers and dresses, which seem to end up on the used clothing racks for little girls in disproportionate numbers. I actually like the look of dresses, and with most, you can use them for two seasons because they pose as a “frock” in year two.

Here are few tips if you want to join me in my quest to recycle children’s clothing, one family at a time:

1) Buy ahead. Look several years ahead while you’re there in the store. Once you get a bunch, sort them by size, season and store away. I plan on telling Maya the “clothing fairy” has come again. We’ll see if she’s as naturally skeptical as her father.

2) Keep track of discounts. The thrift stores in my area have “customer appreciation days” where everything is even more marked down.

3) Get there early or very late. Most of the good items go quickly at yard sales, but you can also find worthy stuff on the last day of multi-day rummage sales, when it will be deeply discounted, typically by half.

4) Look it over. Check for loose buttons, stains and hanging threads.

I’ve found Hanna Anderson silk dresses for two bucks, like-new shoes for five, and wonderful winter coats for eight. You may still need to buy something like tights, but the bulk of the shopping will be done, with little money spent, and mostly just your time invested.

When you’re done using the items, be sure to find someone to pass on your goodies to, in order to keep the cycle going. Unless an item is stained or ruined, if we repurposed all these things our kids go through, we could really make a dent in the amount of clothing we all buy.

Obviously, there are other sources besides thrift stores, both for buying and selling used clothes. Here are some helpful links:

  • ThredUp.com and Mommy Cycle are sites that allow you to list like-new items for sale, and get a nice price for them, with a premium for higher-end labels in particular;
  • Craigslist, Ebay, and neighborhood list servs are always a good bet (though my local parents’ listserv is cutthroat, and I never seem to respond in time for the really great stuff), and here’s some alternatives to those as well for other types of items, like furniture;
  • Mom’s groups yard sales, church rummage sales, consignment shops and stores like Once Upon A Child, and locally staged events like those hosted by JBF are good options for donations or shopping;
  • If you are bold, you can let friends on Facebook know you need or want to unload items and see if there are givers or takers, or start a Facebook group for selling items and let folks in your area join;
  • You can also give them away on Freecycle.org, where the receivers are more likely to make use of the items;
  • Last, you can host a clothing swap — which  works well for both child and adult clothes. I attended a lovely one a few months back that had been going on every six months or so for years, and was overflowing with new fashion options. The ladies all brought booze and goodies, along with the unwanted clothing, shoes and jewelry, and it was quite the social affair! Great fun, as well as good for the closet, workers and the planet.

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I also held onto some of Maya’s smallest newborn items, which make nice baby doll clothes without the added expense of having to buy those. (And for a few more tips, here’s an earlier post I did on my love of the thrift, Green Tips for Thrifty Parents, and one on a thrift-store dollhouse I upgraded a bit.)

For more sentimental items their children have worn, I’ve seen people say on the craftier list servs that they plan to make a family quilt or a pillow from the fabrics, which would be a nice way to recycle those beloved reminders.

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Needless to say, in context, I’m well aware that all of this is a rather frivolous response to a serious tragedy. And even if some considerable number of us stopped buying new clothes tomorrow, would Walmart and the other major manufacturers wake up?

Maybe, but just for good measure here’s some information from a group working on the problem of deadly working conditions, the International Labor Rights Forum. They have been at the table with clothing manufacturers over the past few years, trying to broker an agreement on the most basic and fundamental of worker safety issues in Bangladesh: fire safety.

Here’s what their press release says about the latest on that:

In March 2012, PVH Corp. (owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen, IZOD, ARROW, G.H. Bass, and Eagle) signed an agreement with Bangladeshi unions, international unions, ILRF and other labor rights groups to develop a fire safety program to prevent future deaths in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The program includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.

These steps certainly make sense to me. But there’s a catch:

Other brands implicated in large, deadly factory fires in 2010 – including H&M, Gap, JCPenney, Target, Abercrombie, Kohl’s and Carter’s – have also been invited to join the agreement. “Unfortunately, Gap Inc. withdrew last month from fire safety discussions and instead announced their own non-binding program, which lacks central elements of the fire safety program signed by PVH and Tchibo,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labor Rights Forum. Gearhart added: “We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh’s low wages to make a profit. Their voluntary and confidential monitoring programs have failed; now it is time to come together and make a contractual commitment to workers and to involve workers and their organizations in the solution.”

Carter’s? The Gap? H&M? Target? It’s very disappointing that this agreement’s truly basic set of precautions is missing from factories. I would hope, along with the ILRF, that this fire serves as a wake-up call to these big international brands that the world will sit up and take notice of this terribly ugly situation.

I really don’t want anyone to die — half a world away, trapped in a sweatshop — for any stupid shirt, and I’m sure you feel the same.

A fire exit — which is something we get here in the U.S. every time we merely go to the movies — plus some basic worker protections are not too much to ask. In 2012. A full 101 (freaking) years after people died in our own New York City under basically the same circumstances.

So it certainly wouldn’t hurt to mention these feelings to the folks at Walmart, Carter’s, H&M, Target or The Gap.

You could also consider sending along to the ILRF the proceeds from any yard sales you might have, as we will next spring, to support their sensible efforts to fix this awful, but eminently solvable, problem. Any little bit counts, and the justice of putting that kind of money back into fixing the dire problems in the clothing industry could give you just that extra wee fillip of satisfaction as you go through the unpleasantness of sorting and unloading your duds.

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Update:  

The Diane Rehm show ran a terrific segment this week on the situation with garment workers’ conditions in Bangladesh, and the guests also were unabashed in comparing the situation there to the labor conditions that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. As one guest remarked, the textile manufacturers have managed the feat of “time-travel” — recreating the terrible working conditions from the U.S. in 1911. As in 1911, the managers of the factory had locked the doors, trapping people inside, due to a concern that workers would steal the goods. How sad.

At least the 1911 fire galvanized reforms. We can only hope that this one does the same.

Used Wooden Blocks and Trucks — Made New Again

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make me happy.

I love finding castoff items and making them new again, or at least more attractive and interesting to use. Knowing this, when my mom’s neighbor offered some battered and hideous wooden blocks for free, in a dirty state, she knew they were for me!

Here’s the before:

New solid wood blocks are frighteningly expensive, and can cost as much as $100 bucks for 32 nifty blocks. Of course, if you or someone you know are handy with a circular saw and sander, there’s really no reason you couldn’t make these yourself in some interesting but perhaps more basic shapes. (And here’s a link to an amazingly cool shop in Maine that sells wood pieces in shapes of all kinds, including cubes and eggs, for great prices.)

After giving them a good clean and dry, and even letting them hang out on the back porch for a while, I took some linseed oil to them with a lint-free rag. I also removed a few stray nails. It took a lot of oil, but they are now a beautiful chocolate color, and the Playskool logo even shows up on the ends. Of course, they do have some character, but all the better.

I also had stumbled across some plain wooden trucks — one was in a bag on the last day of a church rummage sale for a quarter, and another for a dollar at a yard sale. I bathed these in oil, and they look far better, even with their very simple wood design.

Before:

And after:

What fun! And to see Maya playing with them now is even more delightful.

Hope everyone is having a relaxing holiday weekend! Going to warm up some cider and pop some popcorn now. It’s just that kind of evening, isn’t it?

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Sofa Saga, Part 5: A Happy Place to Sit

Everyone, exhale. Our (cleaner, greener) sofa has finally arrived!

I was very concerned that after all these months of anticipation, it would not measure up. But it is well-made, truly comfortable, roomy and fits my living room like it was made for it. Which it basically was.

Going couch-less was not easy. With this dark period now behind us, we can breathe a sigh of relief, fuss a bit over the cushions, and celebrate the close of our odd social pariah status. No longer will we have to burden casual visitors with an alarming earful concerning how and why I put my toxic Ikea sofa out on the curb, just to address the paucity of seating options.

We ended up with a couch from Robert Craymer, who had great designs and gave us a price break even before this blog started sending traffic his way, as I explain here. It was a long wait, although some of the delay was my responsibility as well, as I contemplated the materials, color, etc. Robert’s recently down-sized his operation and closed his storefront, and, as he told me, he’s happy to do orders, but they will take some time to fill.

It was finished in a simple, child-friendly brown, pre-washed twill. For filler, I did not go with latex, instead opting for the polyurethane foam with no flame retardants in it. (But others should at least review the excellent and detailed exchange in the comments to this post about the latex option, and the eco-issues with polyurethane foams.)

Here’s a picture with the pillows that I had on hand, which look great mixed with the four brown ones that came with the couch:

Happy thanksgiving! This year, we’ll be thankful for furniture that doesn’t add flame retardants to our house, and is lovely to sit on as well.

Now, about those chairs…

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If you’re new to the “Sofa Saga,” or the issue of flame retardants, these other posts may be of interest to you:

And here’s sobering coverage of a study released Nov. 15, 2012, linking maternal-fetal levels of PBDEs, a particular and ubiquitous flame retardant found in 97 percent of the study subjects, to delayed development in the child at age 7.

There’s more! Coming attractions include a guest post by Ken Fonville, of Eco-Select Furniture, with an update on the California process from his perspective.

Full disclosure: I have not been paid any commission whatsoever by either company for this review or any other post, but Robert did rather casually mention that he might send along some additional pieces given the referrals he’s getting from the blog mentions. Lucky me!

A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

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How it Ought to Be, One Dollar at a Time

I was at the park last week, chatting with a friend about how hard it is to figure out what toxic stuff is in our food. An acquaintance of ours within earshot leaned in and said, a little pointedly, “you know, even if you got rid of all the chemicals, you still won’t live forever.”

The jibe stuck with me, because it points back to what the New York Times profile of my alleged hazmat parenting also got completely wrong. While it may be the case that a protective impulse — like getting that cancer-causing couch out of my living room — is a strong motivator, it’s certainly not the only one.

After all, I don’t really want to live forever, and there’s so much potentially harmful stuff in our environment that I harbor no illusion that even my best efforts can address it.

It’s not actually about my health, or even my daughter’s, most of the time. Instead — and I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way — it’s a matter of using my purchasing decisions as another way to express my values: as a way of voting with my dollars for the world I want, and of working hard, and sometimes too hard, to find the companies that are allies in this vision.

It’s also about justice. I remain outraged that companies can keep secrets about the hazards of products in our homes and what they know about their health impacts. I’ve worked with grieving parents who had lost a child or loved one due to a defective product, and you don’t forget their sadness, or the sense that a more caring approach is sorely needed.

In fact, I’ve done advocacy work for progressive causes for years. What sense would it possibly make to use that income to pay companies that do things that are counter to the world I’ve been working for? Of course, I hasten to add, anyone can feel this way about they way they spend their money, regardless of how they made it in the first place.

And there are lots of signs that people do subscribe to conscientious consumption — from the popularity of Annie Leonard’s original Story of Stuff video, to the growth of certification regimes for products from chocolate to lumber, to the burgeoning homesteading movement, to the fact that organic produce, even with its higher price-tag, is now ubiquitous.

As our recession drags on, there is also a sense that all of us with our diminished spending power would like to stop and think a little more before we buy. Obviously, this is not a new idea. As my dad wrote once, Aldo Leopold, the great environmental philosopher, coined the phrase “intelligent consumption” (pdf). I’ll note that this was, sadly, long before much was ever intelligent about it.

As we all know in our hearts, as consumers in this moment of mass-produced commercialization, we participate in so many systems — many global in nature, and many of which are hidden behind a virtual information blockade. We never meet the agricultural workers — including children — here in the U.S. or abroad that pick our food, the factory workers at places like Foxconn in China that make our gadgets or household goods, or the trafficked and enslaved adolescents that provide 40 percent of the world’s cacao beans for chocolate.

Most well-bedecked Western homes likely include hundreds of items. Yet we have no idea how they were made, where they came from, who has handled them, and whether suffering — workers’ or ours — is involved.

But once we acknowledge that we are, in some broad way, responsible for this chain of production, of course, it can be a crushing feeling. The questions multiply, and you must push through the discomfort, relinquish the squishy space you lived in before you asked any probing questions, and look at whatever you find.

Here’s my real point: staying receptive and open, when you can, to asking those hard questions is the only real step needed to engage with the growing movement about the ethics of consumption. We all feel so guilty, whenever we pause to think, that it’s critical to understand that integrating your values into whatever you buy is a process, not an end result.

Given how complicated it is, you’re unlikely to get to a place where you can ever look around your house and feel completely at peace. But that’s no reason not to start digging in. It’s perfectly fine to tackle one thing, and then another, and not everything at once, doing it as you can afford to, and as you can mentally afford to consider the change.

Actually, it’s the orientation to thinking about something that matters: the willingness to have your ears perked up and your nose open to something smelly, and to listen to your gut when a decision feels like less than what you really could do.

And here’s what else I’d really love you to know: if you let one small belief-driven change into your life, and take it seriously, other issues and concerns will also find a way in. The changes you make will grow into a habit over time, and after a little while, your choices will be transformed. The only real trick is to believe that what you do matters in the first place.

And yes, it’s true that we can’t shop our way to a better world. We still need lawmakers to make better rules. To get these rules, all of us must make full use of the still-functioning parts of our democracy. So we should pick up the phone to Congress, write letters and do the organizing it takes to enact chemical reform, improve conditions for workers, end modern slavery, and manage our resources and wildlife sensibly.

That said, most days, all of us also consume. When we do, we can look for ways to buy better stuff, or buy local, certified, organic, hand-made, fair trade, or used goods, or even to make things ourselves. We should tackle what we can, when we can. Shrug it off when we fail, and try again tomorrow.

And if this list sounds like a left-wing snob’s fantasy la-la land, well, so be it. We should be quietly confident about making an effort, rather than self-conscious or awkward. It’s not, actually, about being “holier-than-thou” so much as “this is what I want the world to be.”

It’s about taking some power back from the corporations: replacing “buyer beware” with “buyer believe.” And it’s certainly not about living forever so much as living my hopes for the world, for however long I am around and whenever I can make it work.

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What’s your process of thinking about what matters to you when you buy stuff? What changes have you made that you feel good about? And what’s next on your list?

Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?