A Conversation that Could Change the World

Some Things Never Change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we buy stuff for our homes — like food or personal care products — many of us, including my own family, try to do the best we can for the planet and our own health. Conscientious consumption, or a genuine attempt at it given the limits of our budget and information, is a glossy new trend, as we can see from shopping sites like “Ethical Ocean” that have recently sprung up and claim to tailor offerings to your values. (On my recent visit, not all of the things for sale at EO were as good on public health grounds as I would like, but most were more thoughtful than average.)

Yet outside the home, we all find ourselves in situations with far less control, even around food. We end up in hotels, airports, restaurants — spaces, which appear cold, impersonal and impervious to our desires for a better way of being in the world. I’ll often take a minute at the start of a conversation with a waiter to send them back to the kitchen with a pointed question — one that risks comparisons from colleagues to that truly hilarious Portlandia episode in which they track down the provenance of a chicken, including his name (Frank).

Still, I’m undeterred by the joke, and try not to be cowed by the need to seem cool. It’s not about hipsterism, really to ask basics like: “Is the salmon farmed?” “Is the coffee fair trade?” “Are these eggs from free range chickens?” Even when the answers come back as unpleasant ones, as they normally do, the kitchen has been put on notice.

Michael Pollan put it this way last night at his eloquent book talk here in DC, “Food is about our relationships with people, animals, the environment.” You have a relationship, for the moment you are ordering in a restaurant, with the choices they are making for you, with the waiter and the people behind them. Why not use it, just a little, and trade on it, in order to make a statement for good?

Of course, many stores are no better. I can still vividly recall one day, not long after Maya was born, when I walked into a local CVS convenience store and realized with a sudden shock that there was almost nothing in the store I would consider buying. I wandered the aisles piled high with plastic and chemically-laden baby products in a stupor, coming to the slow, somewhat painful conclusion that the state of my own information had far outstripped where the marketplace was. I felt discouraged at the amount of work ahead of me, the decisions that would have to be made about what options were, truly, better ones. And yet I was also determined, even proud, that I was taking a stand, that I knew better than to buy the stuff on offer and slather it all over my newborn.

Being me, I also had to suppress an urge to stand in the aisle and preach to other shopping moms, about whom I felt a little sad. While other parents are wonderfully potent allies in this fight, as I’ve found on this blog, any attempt to convert unsuspecting shoppers with our missionary zeal is more like to alienate than educate. In many ways, our fellow customers are the wrong target, anyway, stuck as we all are with the choices in many stores and with the markup for better things that would decimate too many family budgets.

The real target for our attention and action should of course be the corporations. And it could be so simple! I was moved and inspired by my recent action to tell Safeway to “Mind the Store” by asking them to work through their supply chain to rid themselves of toxic chemicals. All Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force and I did was to look over some items in the store and present a letter to the store manager during our brief and friendly conversation. We were nervous, because any kind of confrontation inherently makes humans nervous, but really, it was all good.

Since that day, I’ve been mulling over how to do more of this addictively easy, heady but minimalist activism. It took 3 minutes! And it made me feel great. You should do it too, IMHO.

As I”m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a world in which 300 people just died in a building collapse in Bangladesh, after major international brands like Walmart, The Gap and H&M refused to agree to a union proposal that would improve the safety of factories. (Most piercing detail: two women in the factory were evidently so pregnant that they gave birth while trapped inside the rubble.) This refusal continued even after last year’s devastating fire, in which more than 100 workers were killed after being locked into a building by managers.

So I’m sure your inner skeptic is whispering in your ear, as mine does, asking, why bother? Just how powerful is it to do this kind of thing, in terms of actually getting changes? That’s a fascinating question.

Most of us are passive about the things that make us unhappy. We listen to the skeptic before we even know what we’ve listened to. Paradoxically, though, this means that those who do speak up are understood as voicing the views of potentially hundreds of other people who didn’t bother to raise the point. Because companies hear from so few customers, you have more power than you may know.

One classic study on how businesses should respond to consumer complaints urges companies to see them as “gifts” that provide a company with the chance to improve and continue the dialogue with consumers. Even companies that lack responsiveness to individual complaints will see a pile of them as a possible new trend that threatens their business model, and will, if they are any good, eventually pay some attention.

Because I tend to go to places with the possibility of healthier food or better products, there’s even more interest there in real dialogue. I’ve given lists of better children’s products to my local co-op, requested product additions from Whole Foods, bothered the management at Trader Joe’s repeatedly with complaints about the BPA lining in their canned goods, and complained at local eateries about styrofoam to-go packaging. Just this morning, I asked the manager at Panera about their eggs, which disappointingly show no sign of being organic or even “free range.”

While it does require a little nerve, and a few minutes of your time, if we all did it instead of assuming that our conversations will be met with indifference, I think we would amaze ourselves at the pace of changes in some (better) companies.

You could also print and hand them a little, friendly card making your point. Or make your own on the spot with a napkin or scrap of paper. It could say: “Hi there, I would be a more loyal customer if you would do X.” Making a record of the interaction makes more of an impression, and links you to others who may be doing the same. And of course, there’s always social media — a FB post or tweet takes seconds, and a video or photo of the action can speak volumes, influencing everyone else in your networks to do the same.

For certain companies, their leadership regarding the environmental practices is on the line. And they’re not always doing all they can. Flor carpeting, for just one example, has excellent sustainability practices in general but lines the bottom of its products with PVC, a so-called “poison plastic.”

For these kinds of companies, as well as all the others who are not even trying, we should hold their feet to the fire and push them to pioneer truly better products and packaging.

First, we have to get over our skepticism, our natural feelings of embarrassment, and our shame in all of the choices we’ve already made. We have contact with literally hundreds of companies every time we shop or eat out, and those relationships are within our power to change, if we only we were to take that power seriously. Its our assumption that how we feel doesn’t matter — and that we have to live, silently, with our complicity in these systems we know enough to despise — that will kill our spirit, in the end.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?

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Tell the Manager: Your Company Can Do Better

Three simple thoughts on the nuts and bolts of shop-tivism:

1) Break the stereotype: be nice. Most of the time, the person you are speaking with has little power to impact the situation. Be clear and be heard, and ask them to act as they can, but a little smile and eye contact can make it more likely they will.

2) Make a record. If you have a minute, write down your issue with specifics so someone can pass it along. It makes much more of an impression, and helps to ensure that someone up the food chain hears from you. Below are some examples:

3) Follow up as you have time. Told to contact corporate HQ? Do it if you can, when you can. Emails, tweets, Facebook are also all great.

If you are voting with your feet — you can let stores and restaurants know that as well: for example, a note to the manager saying this kind of thing can be powerful: “I’m not a customer of yours — Wal-mart, H&M, Gap — because I don’t shop at businesses that won’t ensure the basic safety of workers in their factories around the world. I’m appalled at your anti-union activities and the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and enough is enough.”

Last, please share your stories: let me know if you’re as inspired as I am to get out there and get heard!

(A special shout-out to my new friends in Reno — Lindsay told me you are out there, which was so lovely… so stop lurking and say hi!)

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A Shrinking Ocean: Parenting in an Era of Climate Crisis

Ocean Acidification and Coral ReefsOn this morning’s commute, I happened to tune in to NPR’s story about the impact on coral reefs from climate change. Scientists off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, on Heron Island, are conducting a kind of no-duh experiment on the subject of ocean acidification from carbon emissions. They set up a series of tanks to mimic various climate change scenarios from before the present day to now, and into the not-nearly-distant-enough future.

Richard Harris, NPR’s reporter, described one tank as “what the world’s oceans are likely to look like later in this century when the schoolchildren visiting this island today reach middle age.” So what was in that tank? Well, brace yourself.

By comparison with the “present-day” tank, which showed some continuing growth in the coral, or with the pre-industrial tank which contained a more vibrant eco-system, the future is a place we wouldn’t really want to inhabit, filled as it will be with swirling masses of bacterial detritus and dead rock:

DOVE: OK. So there’s lot of this slimy, yucky mess(ph) of cynobacteria.

HARRIS: Clumps of black gunk swirl along the surface of the tank.

DOVE: We find that cynobacteria tend to do really well in the future. The slippery slope to slime seems to be the way to go.

HARRIS: Not so for the coral. Most of it has either died or turned white, which means the organisms that live inside the coral have moved out.

The “skeptic” quoted for the program did complain that the experiment imposed these dramatic changes suddenly, saying that species could potentially adapt. But Dove, the scientist who set up the tanks, doesn’t see any evidence of the capacity for such adaptive changes in the fragile corals.

More to the point, the levels of carbon and heat in the tank were modeled on scenarios for this century, so the adaptation argument makes little sense. We just don’t have the time for transformation on an evolutionary scale, which takes thousands of years, to allow creatures to transform over generations to suit their new environment.

Instead, the future is almost upon us. Science has now advanced to the point where we can clearly see where this — namely, the fossil fuel economy — is headed. Given the revelations that the pace of change is likely sooner that anyone guessed, we’re way past “inconvenient” all the way to panic button. But our political institutions evidently lack the willpower to do much about this dystopian future in which Maya and all of our children — and certainly our grandchildren — will live.

When I imagine the oceans as dead, full of floating slime chunks of bacteria, I get both angry and panicked in more-or-less equal portions. There will little fish in that world, no snorkeling worth the time and expense, and few startlingly gorgeous sea-creatures flashing their brilliant colors. The millions of people all around the world who make their living from the reefs or the oceans will have to find something else to do.

I also wonder what it will mean to Maya and her peers: the uncomfortable fact that we have destroyed the life-sustaining capacities of these vast and complex ocean systems. Like the view of the planet from space, or the development of nuclear weapons that could obliterate the planet, our self-regard as a species will be inevitably and deeply altered by this enormous hubris. How will this unmistakeable evidence of our tragic inability to act impact my daughter’s view of what it is to be human?

It has always seemed obvious to me that the predators from outer space in movies like Alien are based on a deep concern about our own relationship with the planet. After all, we are the species out-of-line with the natural order. We are the ones that — as Avatar brilliantly showed — take without any thought of giving back. In Louie C.K.‘s hilarious new HBO show, he celebrates the fact that we got “out of the food chain” and are therefore not subject to attacks from say, cheetahs, while waiting for our morning train. This is doubtless reason to cheer.

Nonetheless, as I try to raise my daughter with a sense of her own power to shape her world, and as someone who chooses to take responsibility for her actions, I can’t help but think that the patent irresponsibility around her will create a world — literally — of depressing limitations. Once we’ve killed the oceans, how is it again that our self-concept as an empowered — or at least benign — part of life on earth survives? I don’t see it.

Another story on NPR a few weeks back discussed the challenge of adding climate change materials to high school science classes. The major problem, it seems, beyond the predictable non-sequiter from (non-scientist) deniers, was that high school kids, with their optimism and sense-making, truly struggled once aware of the facts with the level of puzzling inaction by politicians, as well as with their own complicity in a fossil-fuel system to, say, get to soccer practice.

You’ve got to love them for it. Once their attention is raised, these kids would like to get something done about the issue, given the alarming nature of the information. So our lack of a forthright response to the problem is already impacting our children, who are rightly struggling to reconcile their sense of moral right with the reality of our deep political dysfunction.

One of the great pleasures of going to the shore — where we all take our families — is of course to stand at the water’s edge and contemplate how small we are in the place of things, how vast and mysterious the expanse of water is as it stretches on forever.

Whether from exotic invaders, pollution and plastic, chemicals and oil spills, or rapid acidification from excess carbon, it seems certain that without decisive action, for our children and grandchildren in the foreseeable future the ocean will be smaller, far less full of life, and considerably more dangerous and dirty.

It breaks my heart, as both a parent and a person, that this moment, for Maya and others of her generation, will someday perhaps no longer be this essential experience of breathing in the fresh air of limitless possibility, and thereby finding our proper place in the order of things. Sadly, for our children, the ocean may — or will? — instead be tragic, like a crime scene or an horizon of another kind: a place where something important about who we are to ourselves, and to each other, was — perhaps irretrievably — lost.

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I’ll note that it is already difficult to responsibly eat from the oceans, due to both over-fishing and the gross levels of chemicals found in farmed fish (including dyes, PCBs, and antibiotics). The dearth of certifiably sustainably raised fish, healthy as it can be to eat, in both grocery stores and restaurants, is a real problem. We order bulk salmon from a certified sustainable seafood buying club, delivered locally directly from the fisherfolk who maintain a wild reefnet fishery around twice a year. They keep all of the mark-up, and we get a better source of Omegas.

And at least our stuff is never mislabeled! The enormous fakery around seafood, sadly, also conceals the ways in which we are strip-mining the oceans of the most valuable fish and other creatures.

I also try to harass restaurants with farmed fish or less sustainable fish on their menus into changing their offerings. And I won’t touch shrimp, due to both the chemicals in both Gulf and imported shrimp as well as the grotesque overseas working conditions.

It’s deplorable that such enjoyable aspects of living — and our connection with the ocean from which all life came — is now fraught with this sadness and human greed.

Update (4/26/13):

A few restaurant chains in my area — including Blacks, which is opening a location right here in Takoma Park, Maryland — are kicking off a traceability program to verify the sustainability of their seafood. (How I forgot to reference the This American Life piece above defies explanation, as pig bung now comes to my mind every time squid appears on the menu!). The program is called “REEF.” From an article about it:

Are you suspicious of seafood these days? It’s understandable. In January, a This American Life investigation questioned whether some “imitation calamari” is actually sliced pig rectum; not long after, an Oceana report revealed rampant fish mislabeling.

D.C.-based Black Restaurant Group and the Congressional Seafood Co. last week launched The REEL Story, a seafood traceability program, to address these concerns. The concept is simple: each menu item is associated with a QR code; scan the code with your smartphone to see a complete history of your dinner, from information on where and how it was harvested, to recipe ideas and cooking methods.

What a great idea!

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The Un-Toy: A Celebration

IMG_6368Toys, it must be said, can be as annoying as they are delightful. Toddler toys have gazillions of pieces, some of which are required for the set-up to work. Puzzle pieces and the like inevitably end up in the sofa cushions, the car seat, even the refrigerator, making it part of the puzzle just to keep the darn thing together!

So I’ll have to give credit to the inventiveness of Maya’s former preschool in showing me that excellent toys need not be, well, toys. They used tennis balls with mouths cut into them and eyes drawn on for holding buttons, lovely little thrift store change purses with zippers, snaps and clamps for practicing fine motor skills, and even several sizes of old sets of hair curlers with the bristles for building blocks. And of course, there is the always popular cardboard box, which can be a fort, hiding place, or other retreat.

Then there are natural un-toys, like acorns, dried leaves in fall, stones, pine cones, shells and other wonders. These can be displayed on a nature table seasonally with small dolls or building structures if you have the space and patience with all the bits that will inevitably end up on the floor.

Sadly, thrift store toy aisles are rather depressing, plastic-filled places. So get out of there and into the tchotchke aisle instead. Here are some things to look for while at thrift stores, on-line on places like Ebay, or at yard or estate sales:

  1. Old fantasy chess sets or other interesting game pieces, the more elaborate the better;
  2. Sets of interesting similar items, like the three bags of miniature painted duck decoys I found for a buck each;
  3. Small wooden figures;
  4. Small furniture that can serve for dolls;
  5. Glass baubles and stones for a light table (easily made with an upended plastic storage box and flashlight or light stick);
  6. Small figures for the sandbox or a shadow box;
  7. Craft supplies (I found a large bag of simple wooden blocks that Maya has had a ball painting; also birdhouses for painting and raffia for use in 3-D constructions);
  8. Dress-up clothes and small purses;
  9. Large pieces of nicer fabric and scarves to use as forts, dress-ups, etc.
  10. Stamps and batik blocks, rolling pins or cookie cutters for tracing and playdough;
  11. Muffin tins, measuring cups, wooden bowls and nesting bowls;
  12. Baskets to keep all the toys (and un-toys) organized and accessible.

Here’s some of our current items in circulation, including these cool stamps:

IMG_6370 IMG_6367 IMG_6366 IMG_6365 IMG_6362There’s nothing I enjoy more than inventing a new purpose for some castaway that gives it renewed life. What are some things you’ve scored along the way?

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Asking Safeway: Who Will Mind the Store?

Yesterday, I gladly joined the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign to ask retailers to do a far better job of screening their products for hazardous chemicals. The group has developed a list of 100 plus chemicals identified by scientists or regulators as hazardous, including such substances as triclosan, which was featured in the recent Dateline piece, and parabens.

Before work, I ventured out with my friend, Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force, who writes about our visit eloquently here, to check out products and deliver a letter to the local Silver Spring Safeway store manager, to make the case that people in their own community care about getting rid of toxics. When we got to the store, we perused the aisles, looking at labels with their tiny print, and trying to figure what, exactly, was in what.

We had a hard time with many product categories — cleaning products, for example, don’t actually have to say what’s in them. For example, here’s one that is clear as mud:

mystery cleanerYet all the overwhelming smells of the fragrances and perfumes (that could be harmful pthalates, as Dateline explained) in that aisle actually made me a bit dizzy.

We did find some products with triclosan, clearly labeled, including the Hello Kitty hand soap Dateline identified — which is particularly upsetting given its cutesy child-appeal marketing — as well Dial Complete, another cleanser, which (dubiously) promises a “Healthier You.”

HK front

HK showing triclosan Dial complete triclosanIn addition, through careful scouring, we were able to spot some products with parabens in them, including this antacid called “DiGel:”

Digel frontdigel backIt was difficult, even with a list of chemicals, to decipher everything. Molly put it well in her great post:

We felt lost in a thicket of chemical names, tiny fonts on tiny labels, and terms we didn’t understand.

And we were aware that we weren’t able at all to figure out packaging concerns like the Bisphenol-A (a chemical which acts like hormones in the body and has been linked to numerous damaging health impacts) that is in most can linings and on receipts.

After wandering the aisles for half an hour with our brows deeply furrowed, Molly and I approached the store manager to present a letter asking Safeway to do this kind of work on behalf of consumers. The letter was an invitation for retailers to get ahead of the consumer wave that I truly believe is coming — which will demand that products we use in our everyday lives not damage our health.

Retailers — who have everything to lose when customers vote with their feet — also have tremendous power over what they sell. They could be major drivers for change, if they saw it as part of their job. So our job is to make them see the appeal of changes that would drive their supply chains to do better — not just for products with niche appeal to organo-Moms like me, but for all the millions of Moms, Dads and others who don’t compulsively read labels on everything they buy and really shouldn’t have to.

David, the store manager, was welcoming about our message and received our letter and the list of 100+ hazards with warmth, promising to pass it along. He even let us take a picture, which spoke volumes for the people managing retail stores like Safeway, who want an authentic connection to their communities and customers. There would truly be nothing better than if a retailer like Safeway were to take this letter seriously and work through its supply chain to remove these toxic chemicals from its stores.

Me and DavidThis action was fun, easy and made me happier all day long. Even if you don’t have a great partner like Molly, it’s easier than you think to speak a little truth to power while you are shopping. So go to the campaign Website and register, then empower yourself to be bold, friendly and clear about your priorities next time you go to pick up groceries — it only takes two minutes to let the store manager know where you stand and what matters to you.

And let us know how the conversation goes with tweets and posts! I’ve been very inspired by the other mom bloggers and activists who’ve joined in the campaign:

See you out there!