A Facebook for Federal Bureaucrats, or What Real Government Transparency Might Look Like

LikeWatching Aneesh Chopra rather lamely defend the Obama Administration’s record on its use of information technology on The Daily Show this week, I was struck by the same problem that Stewart was struggling with — the very slow pace of change, and the unmistakeable disappointment that has set in concerning the early promises that were made by the incoming Obama folks way back when about sunshine in government.

More recently, the debacle of the Obamacare rollout became Exhibit A of government’s incompetence at a time when faith in government to take action about Things That Matter was the issue being debated. Of course, those serious hiccups have now been more or less resolved, and millions have used the Web and other means to enroll in the much-demonized health care coverage.

Although not without its flaws, this is a major advance, both for the country and for covered families and individuals. Perhaps one day soon (though presumably not before we all re-live it via the next election cycle), these significant positives will block out our collective trauma over that massive technical fail.

Yet the overall picture — including Stewart’s example of rampant mismanagement of the databases on veterans at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs — is dismal. While some groups at the state and federal level like the Sunlight Foundation continue to make progress on interactive tools for impacting proposed legislation in Congress or a statehouse, the federal agencies today remain largely impenetrable fortresses, accessible to lobbyists and others who know the ropes, but inexplicably mysterious for most Americans.

The federal departments, commissions and agencies preside over the details of all the rules that most affect the lives of millions of Americans, deciding everything from auto and consumer safety standards to environmental and business rules. While they do have to conduct a public process (called notice-and-comment rulemaking) on the most significant decisions, much of their internal workings remain shielded from any real public disclosure. Only the true Washington cognoscenti — and the allies they inform — are aware of the timing of rules and the process for commenting.

The text of these proposed rules, and I’ve suffered through more than 70 of them over the years, are written in dense bureacrat-ese, typically with lamentable passive voice and ample application of jargon. Although they all live on-line at regulations.gov, understanding the issues and what’s at stake in particular decisions is a form of inside baseball that is so complex that it almost always gives organized corporate stakeholders an outsized role in decisions.

Even if the public at large would benefit from a decision, they are simply unlikely to know about or be able to join the debate in a manner that evens the playing field. Underpowered non-profits like the ones I’ve worked for struggle along, staging battles on principle and always aware of their limited resources and the political realities.

Of course, the public’s larger interest could be represented by the Congress, which doles out assignments to the agencies. And sometimes a very strongly written law does result in a rule that is not too watered down by the inevitable industry response. But many of the best laws were enacted by a prior version of Congress, often several decades ago or longer, and some are showing their age.

Yet advocates are, for the most part, too frightened by the politics and dysfunction of the current Congress to suggest that they be re-written. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance limitations, the money of corporate donors speaks even more loudly on the Hill today than it does within the agencies.

Of course, for better or worse, the agencies also answer to an elected official — the President. They could be much more vigorous defenders of the public interest if allowed to be. Although they must heed the language handed to them by Congress, within those terms, they have tremendous power and discretion over their enforcement activities and priorities. But whenever they do wield power in ways that business interests find unreasonable (often with rules that merely require business to internalize the costs of their actions), the conventional script allows them to be accused of unaccountability, facelessness and all the rest.

It occurs to me, then, that the real goal of government’s use of information technology should be to give the government a face. Or Facebook. Or Facebook-like tool, without ads or annoying apps.

The real information gap in Washington is not about databases that should be shared by federal agencies, though that should certainly be addressed forthwith. The problem is that the map of influence and power — identifying the decision makers, their powers, and the ways to engage them — is utterly obscure except to an elite few.

Today, agencies often hide their internal processes behind an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that covers agency “deliberation.” This is a legal privilege that can be — though need not be — invoked if a federal agency wants the freedom to think about an issue inside the government before coming to a decision. The notion has some merit, as we do want agencies to think.

But it would be no impediment to require the federal agencies that conduct public business to publish information on a Web site about which employees within an agency are tasked with which decisions, and to put all of their meetings and meeting notes with outside parties also on-line as a routine matter. The expertise of government employees, their backgrounds and work history could be included in this “map” of who is thinking about what. Not everyone would need to be listed, of course, just those with decision-making power. And perhaps there’s other information that would belong on these pages as well.

Simply put, it should be far simpler for ordinary citizens to understand the arcane workings of an agency on an issue of concern to them, and to contact the right official if they have relevant information. When I worked on automotive safety, one of the best sources of information were retired engineers, a few of whom had worked for automakers and knew how their decisions happened. They sometimes had extraordinary amounts of information about industry’s bad habits, but no one to tell. A truly transparent government structure might similarly elicit troves of surprising and useful information from sources that remain unidentified today.

Unlike combining millions of government records, this system could be built fresh across the agencies as new hires are made. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that most of our government’s civil servants are nobly trying to do the right thing. It would be of great assistance to our tired political debate about the “role of government” if the agencies looked less like blobs and more like real people doing their jobs — you know, the ones that Congress (and therefore, we the people) gave them.

With the unleashing of the money rules for elected officials thanks to SCOTUS, it’s also our next best line of defense. But the agencies today are under siege, and have been for decades. Figuring out how to engage the public far more directly in their important decisions would better equip them to stand up for their legal principles, and defend the actual public interests at stake. Who knows? It might even lead to some stronger health, safety and environmental rules, thereby showing government at its best.

The agencies have breathed life into accomplishments ranging from the Clean Water Act to the rules that took lead out of gasoline. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes (see No Child Left Behind), but we should be able to talk to them when they are screwing it up more directly. We need them to succeed and be understood, and not to be so easily demonized. As long direct conversations with agency officials are generally reserved for issue experts and corporate lobbyists, the democracy part of our project remains an up-hill fight both inside and outside their walls.

So innovate on that, please. Information transparency is nice — all well and good. Figuring out a workable, clear system to create influence transparency, however — now that’s a ticket for institutional transformation.

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Why Telling Working Moms to Lower their Standards on Parenting Is Actually a Bit Insulting

cartoon made using Toondoo

cartoon made using Toondoo

An acquaintance from law school recently posted the following on Facebook:

Just wondering – are there any parents out there who work full-time and don’t constantly feel like they are coming perilously close to failing at everything? If so I would like to know your secrets, especially if they don’t involve substance abuse.

My friend is an accomplished legal professional and mom of three. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability, so I weighed in with my own 2 cents about the challenges of work and parenting.

Including mine, there were about 25 responses. Most were kind attempts at reassuring my colleague that she has high standards and is doing a great job. One suggested that she might ease off at work at times (alternating by easing off at parenting). Others chimed in to say, with sympathy, that they experience the concern about failing at parenting as well. But what struck me was the unmistakable sub-current through the comments that parenting — of the two “jobs” — was the one she should worry less about.

One friend said: “Parent” is more or less a pass/fail course, and failure is a flexible concept.” Another came outright with: “Lower your standards. Do not let the great be the enemy of the good.” Another, sweeter version, was:

I think that parenthood, by definition, means feeling like you are, or are about to, fail. But, you aren’t! You are doing fabulously. But, when you feel like you aren’t – cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission to let go of things that don’t have to be done, ask for help when you need it and know that as long as your kid is clothed, fed and loved you have done your job. Oh, and wine.

I have no doubt that the intent of these comments was entirely positive. They were merely trying to cheer up a friend: one with high standards for many aspects of her life and aspirations. And the last one was funny, and had some sound advice. I happen to agree, among her other points, that wine is a necessary aid to family life.

But I came away wondering whether a quiet but clear devaluation of the skills and time needed to be a great parent is in fact one of the problems working moms face. It’s so much a part of the culture it’s an essentially invisible bias. Just ask yourself: of the jobs that working moms have today — is it really the case that their paid work is more important? To whom? Even those of us (like me) who find tremendous satisfaction in our work, and work on issues we find meaningful, still love our kids more than our work. Of course we do.

Just at the level of practical demands on parents, here are the tasks involved to do that job:

  1. Finding affordable, reliable, safe and appropriate child care arrangements, schools, after-care, holidays and summer activities;
  2. Attending events related to the above, paying bills on time as needed or volunteering as expected;
  3. Cleaning the house, doing laundry, dishes, etc., or paying others to help with same;
  4. Shopping for groceries, seasonally appropriate, suitable and correctly sized clothes, any needed sports equipment, car seats or other gear, as well as developmentally appropriate books and toys;
  5. Making breakfast, lunches, snacks, dinners;
  6. Celebrating birthdays and holidays;
  7. Finding suitable, well-located physicians that accept your insurance, including pediatricians, eye doctors, dentists, and any other specialist needed; oh, and…
  8. Playing with, talking to, and reading to your child.

Even if we were phoning it in (and let’s face it, none of us really are), this is a ton of real work. Yet the hard truth is that you could do all this and still feel like, at some level, you are failing. Does that mean that the folks on Facebook are right to tell my colleague to let her hair down a bit?

I’m going to climb out on a limb here and say, no. While it shouldn’t be about generating anxiety, thinking hard and carefully about how well we did today (or are doing generally) at this most important job — helping to guide a human being in formation — strikes me as, well, another job of parents.

If we feel something isn’t right with how we are making choices, or in our conversations with our child, or how we structure the time we do have with our kids, we need to take a closer look at see if something large or small should shift to make it better. The intuitions involved here are important, and should be valued. Our gut is telling is something about our relationships, or what our child needs. There are no do-overs on this one: paying attention in real time is the best guide we have to what’s going on, what could be improved, and when we need to call in the Calvary.

There is a tremendous amount to learn in parenting, from the practical to the emotional, and thinking about parenting (and unpacking our own inherited family baggage) is an important part of the learning process. All of us intend to be great parents, but it’s a job that changes rapidly all the time, often without notice, and that inevitably triggers left-over stuff from growing up. There’s almost always things to notice about your child and yourself that surprise, challenge and humble you.

Yes, trying to be good at it (as my friend clearly is) matters, and keeping kids clothed and fed and safe is essential, but trying is not enough, and those other pre-requisites are not enough either. It’s not a surprise to me that women who are high achievers in their professional lives want to reach for more with parenting, too. Creating a real, stable bond with any child requires responsiveness, patience, steadiness around limits, highly intentional communication and a crazy-making level of tolerance for needless emotional outbursts over the wrong shoes. At least if you have a kid like mine.

And our lives are hectic, ruled by contradictory impulses and goals. A parent’s time and level of availability to accomplish these moods with our kids are under constant pressure. Even when we do have time together, slowing down to have a sense of ease, to allow for play, and to create calm is often not easily accomplished. Becoming a parent who says less, but is emotionally present, who observes more, who is earnestly delighted by their child, who finds pleasure in between the hassles and deadlines and schlepping, this is the goal, and everything about the way we live inveighs against this connection.

There are also steep — even untenable — political costs to the pretense that the current situation is acceptable for working parents. We are the first generation, really, of women committed equally to work and family. What we are discovering is that there is incredible meaning in both work and parenting (which is one reason I object to Sheryl Sandberg’s framing: “leaning in” and “leaning back” implicitly assumes the thing that matters most is work).

Yet there are not supports for parenting that both value who we are — and what we aspire to — and hold open space for us to do other things when we are ready. The New York Times piece last week on the shrinking options for women who left the workforce to have families a short decade ago made maddeningly clear the punishment they face for their choices.

Add to that the grotesque over-burdening of families from the lack of reliable, affordable and safe daycare and preschool options, the anemic child care tax credits, the inflexibility of employers on workplace policies, including flex-time and part-time work, and the generally terrible economy, and you have a recipe for trapping women (and men) in ambivalence, feelings of incommensurability, and yes, even failure. Other countries have solved these issues far better than we have here. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic social science.

It is up to us, then, to talk clearly, even angrily, about the impossibility of our lives in this uniquely American and ruthless economy. Given all this, I don’t want to be told, even by sympathetic friends trying to be kind, to lower my standards on parenting. I want a system that works for everyone — working moms and dads, work-at-home moms and dads, and those without families too.

The kids we are raising today in this stretched-tight world are the grown-ups of tomorrow. They will inherit a complicated world, and have much repair to do. They need what we have to give them, as parents, and as people who speak up for the significance of parenting. Let’s not accept less on their behalf, and reassure each other it has to be enough. Instead, let’s make space to make sure they get what they need, first, and aspire also — dare we dream? — to love our lives as parents and workers, both.

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Infographic: The Power of Imagination

Parenting as Infographic, #6.

This happened last week, but is still cracking me up.

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Sheepish: An Easy Needle Felting Tutorial for a Handmade Toy

IMG_6580 Needle felting is an inherently satisfying little craft, as I’ve mentioned once before. The materials are simple, the design principles easy to learn, and the results are wonderfully cute.

Of course, having handmade toys in the mix also makes your home feel more cozy. As a bonus, kids notice when you’ve put the effort in to make at least a few of the objects in their lives. It gives them a sense that things in their lives can be an act of creation, not just purchases from a store. And it may even inspire them, someday down the road, to make their own toys, which could never be a bad thing.

Below is a step-by-step guide to needle felting a sheep. But the principles could be applied to make virtually any animal at all (like these in my prior post), which is another aspect of this craft’s creativity. If you need more inspiration, there are wonderful felted animals and characters by crafters on Etsy (like here or here), or you could always check out a local wool and sheep festival. Our Maryland event last spring had a ton of vendors with lovely little creatures for sale.

IMG_6525Here’s what you need:

  • A block of some material that can be poked (since I bought this poly foam, which is really the only un-green thing about the craft, I found a shop selling foam rubber, which I have not used but would be greener);
  • A few felting needles (they break easily, so you’ll want a few to start, from Amazon or far better priced in bulk from wool shops like one, which usefully color coats their needle sets, or this shop on Etsy). Definitely pick up some larger needles, like a 38 gauge, as well as finer ones for finishing. As a favorite supplier explains:

    The needles are available in several sizes or “gauges.”  Most dry felting work, done with medium grade wool, uses 36 or 38 gauge.  For finer surface work, or finer fibers, move up to 38 star or 40 gauge.  For coarser fibers, move down to 32 gauge.

  • A wooden handle for the needle if you like;
  • Perhaps, if you like, a multi-need tool for the early stages (though this works better for flat projects, as I find multi-needle tools have a flattening effect);
  • Some sharp scissors or wire cutters;
  • Some roving in colors suited for your project (on Amazon here, or from a much better and cheaper selection on Etsy, e.g., here or here; you can also find even more eco-friendly plant dyed selections). Avoid superwash roving, which is used in spinning but which is not good for needle felting. To make the sheep, you’ll need a little black for the eyes, some gray and a chunk of off-white; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. White works well for this project.

The concept is straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid. The only rule is to keep the needle moving straight up and down, as the tip breaks easily.

The other precaution is to try to keep from poking your fingers, as the needles are super-sharp. This does not keep me from doing it in front of the television, though, so some injury is likely inevitable. But the sheep is worth it. Kind of.

To make the sheep:

Decide the dimensions. This sheep began with a ball of wool about 4 inches long and two inches across, and I wanted an animal about those proportions in the end, so as it became more compacted, I kept adding wool around it.

To save roving, you could also use wool batting in a ball on the inside, or even old balls of yarn, tightly wrapped, and wrap the cream colored roving around it by laying it out flat first and folding it around the ball, as I do with the Easter eggs here.

Poke the ball of wool with a needle (larger number needles or a multi-needle tool works well for this early stage). Turn the wool over and over to maintain the shape evenly and keep it oblong. Push on it with your finger to determine how felted it is becoming and measure the springiness, to keep it roughly even.

IMG_6526Once you have a nice shape formed, but before it becomes too tightly felted to create too much resistance, poke two pipecleaners through it at the front and rear ends of the sheep, which will form the basis for legs that allow it to stand up.

IMG_6527IMG_6530Trim the legs with sharp scissors or wire cutters so that they are even and fold over the sharp ends slightly to form the beginnings of feet. Stand it up to see whether it works, and adjust as necessary. The pipecleaners may not be of exactly identical length, because where they go through the shape may require more or less of the pipecleaner to be inside the body of the sheep.

IMG_6529Wrap additional roving around the sheep to add bulk and secure the legs inside the body. Poke and shape with your needle until the new wool is integrated, but leave what will become the neck area less worked than the body as a whole.

IMG_6531Rolling a small ball the right proportion for the head, add it to the body where a neck should be and secure it by poking the edges together with a needle.

IMG_6533 Form the head, which on sheep is a bit oblong, and further shape the body. I find it helps to refer to pictures of the animal on line for details like head shape, which are critical to recognizing the animal.

IMG_6535 Once the basic form has been created, shape the head into a triangle to form the nose and angle the shape towards a blunted point, adding more roving as you need and poking aggressively to flatten the sides.

IMG_6538Finish forming the head and neck, which on sheep I found requires a ring of additional roving around the back of the head and through the neck, which is thick but distinct.

IMG_6539  Add gray to the front of the head.

IMG_6541Separately felt small circles the size for ears in grey wool, leaving one edge unfelted. Attach to the end to head at the two top corners and secure by poking with the needle.

Then flatten a handful of roving, aligning the fibers, and wrap the legs, poking through and around the pipe cleaner and trying to avoid the wire. Add grey to the end when you are satisfied that the leg is thick enough. Repeat for each leg.

IMG_6546 IMG_6548Needle in two small balls of black roving for eyes, poking with the needle in the same spot over and over to keep them medium-sized. You may also want to add, as I did, some additional small amount of gray felt to make a ridge above the eyes to make them appear deeper-set.

Then add small tufts of white to the inside of the ears if you like, putting the sheep on its side and the ear against the block. You may need to add a small amount of gray to the back to thicken the ears if the white shows through.

Then, add a tail. Sheep actually have a natural tail that is long with a stringy end like a horse, but these are often docked on farms so a triangle is also fine.

Last, evaluate and wrap and fill in extra roving to really fill out the body and create more bulk. For the top coat of wool, leave some parts less felted in order to create a fluffy look.

IMG_6581Baa. Baa. Voila!

Other Crafting and Upcycling Ideas for Greener, More Sustainable Living:

Infographic: Have you had this conversation with your child?

All-You-Need-to-Know-About-Parenting-In-A-Handy-Infographic, #2

Try not to let all the artistic details distract you.

cartoon love 2 So, is this:

How kids deal with the ineffability of love? How they address their need to connect about something when they have no words? Or just a shameless bid for our attention by telling us what they know we long to hear?

I dunno. You tell me.

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?

###

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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10 Fascinating (and Sometimes Hard) Things I Learned at BlogHer 2012

My little moment of snark about Martha Stewart notwithstanding, the Blogher12 conference was amazing and worthwhile. It was full of energy and wit, I learned things from each of the panels, and the workshops, in particular, were incredibly helpful.

The highlight for me was today’s lunchtime conversation with Katie Couric, who was insightful, substantive, funny, honest and warm. I hope that her new daytime program finds the viewers it deserves, both because it sounds great and because its success would flag the need for smarter programming for both women and television talk shows generally.

Second, I loved meeting all of these interesting, talented women. At lunch, I just happened to be sitting next to Globetrotting Mama, who recently completed (and blogged about) a year-long trip around the world with her family. She was full of practical advice about how to take that kind of a trip, and really clear about its value for her two sons and their family bonds.

Then, as the coup de grace when things were winding down this afternoon, I stumbled upon Beth Terry, one of my personal eco-heroines, who just published an incredible book, My Plastic Free Life. I’ll be posting a book review soon, thanks to my newly purchased (and signed!) copy. Beth and I had lots to talk about!

Below are a few things I think I learned (subject of course to your review, correction and further explication):

  1. Blogging is just one platform for increasing social influence. While it may be the heart of what you do, as it is for this wonderful blogger who led my workshop, in the end its traffic, readership demographics, time of stay, etc., measures just one form of social media footprint. Your value will be judged by the total picture across platforms, i.e., your blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc. As this implies, shortcomings in one platform can be compensated for by connections and influence in another.
  2. Metrics and stats matter. This is true not only because they will help to measure your social influence (what old timey poli-sci types call “social capital”), but because you can and should use them to see what kinds of materials, posts and tweets gets your community revved up and rarin’ to go. Then you can give them more of the good stuff they like, and, if you’re lucky, the virtuous cycle takes over.
  3. Social influence =’s trust in you. There are two main pathways to monetizing your activities, neither of which are really about your blog so much as they are about your social influence, and marketing you: 1) becoming a trusted, reliable marketing pathway for products and services (sponsorships, product reviews, give-aways and all that); 2) becoming a trusted, reliable expert on an issue or segment of the market, which can include freelance writing or a book, and/or selling yourself as a spokesperson or writer on other platforms or to traditional media. For both, you need the basic materials in your “media kit,” and the saucy Cecily K even gave us a link to her terrific guide for using picmonkey to make one. (I’m mainly in the second bucket, if I’m in any bucket at all. As both Cecily and the incredibly helpful Marcy Massura pointed out, if you’re pitching yourself as a writer, obviously including published clips and highlighting those in the kit is key.)
  4. Be your best self. Despite the sneers that mommy bloggers often surreptitiously receive, expectations for people working in this space, unsurprisingly, are the same as in any other profession. You’re ideally supposed to be organized, professional, truthful, be aware of and follow the law, and generally be nice.
  5. There are a truly unfair number of platforms, technologies, applications and measuring systems to try to get your head around. Of course they also change all the time. In one session alone, panelists mentioned Klout, Peer Index, Cred, Alexa, and Picmonkey. Others talked about Google Analytics, Google+, Survey Monkey, instagram and Tumblr. Many of these are useful tools, I’m sure, but I was unnerved by visions of myself floating aimlessly from platform to platform managing my Interwebs identity, and wondered when the writing and research might actually get done to make decent content.
  6. Connections, as in anything, still matter. But making connections, thanks to the unabashed, and even sometimes forced, intimacy of Twitter, is now far easier than ever before. From panel to panel, the advice was the same: be bold in approaching people, once you know what you want to accomplish and have your materials and story straight. Talk up your strengths and value, and advocate for yourself and your ideas.
  7. Be inventive with DIY publicity and promotions. In the book talk, one very crafty craft blogger shared her kamikaze marketing tactics, which included calling up the sewing machine company featured in her novel for a give-away, barnstorming the book signings of authors she liked to build goodwill towards her own book blurbs, and holding workshops with the purchase of her book built into the cost. Another made satirical videos to promote her book, as well as educational guides for schools. The takeaway was that the more channels and promotional avenues you have for your content, the better.
  8. There are a lot of people trying to do this, and (understandably) to make some money at it, and it’s not easy to do it well. While the Expo Hall was full of potential sponsors who want to engage the viral marketing potential of female bloggers and their audiences, it also seemed clear that the number of people who will dramatically succeed – at least enough to make a living at it – is far smaller than the number of us interested in making a go at it.
  9. Many people just use the Web – and blogging and other social media – for connection, personal journaling, and to give voice to fears and feelings. There was the wonderful woman I met who blogs about her depression and thoughts of suicide anonymously but courageously, and the woman with an autistic child who studies and writes about the science on autism. Blogs are places to share, build community, and get a comforting and perhaps even therapeutic confirmation that the things about us that make us feel alone are almost always things that other people are experiencing right now.
  10. This avenue for expression is not going away. It remains a very powerful way to find like-minded people and to give a thousand voices to the many ways we navigate our lives. While there were nice breaks for informal networking, if I had one suggestion for the next BlogHer, it would be that there should also be space on the official calendar for like-minded bloggers to find each other, so that they can better get to know each other in-person and discuss common interests. BlogHer could be a place to create networks across many more spaces – with less being talked to, and more talking to each other. In this kind of space, bloggers could hatch ideas to help each other out, pooling technical or other expertise, or maybe even share their ideas for changing the world to reflect the many things we all dream of and hope for, both on-line and off.

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What did you get out of the conference? What nuggets of wisdom do you have on the event or blogging in general? I’d love to hear!

Un-Canny: What’s the “Instead of” for BPA?

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup I, 1968.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup I, 1968. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looks like I’m not the only one wondering exactly what food packaging suppliers are using in cans and bottle lids if they are NOT using BPA.

The good people over at Healthy Child, Healthy World are also all over the issue, running a great social media campaign focusing on the iconic Campbell’s company. Andy Warhol would be most proud. Or not. He could be a little catty, so I suppose it’s hard to say.

Anyhoo, back to the issue of what’s in our food. As they say, some of the alternatives are no better, and could even be worse, than Bisphenol-A (BPA) for can linings:

There are a few alternatives to BPA that aren’t any better for our health. BPS, a “chemical cousin” of BPA is not a safer alternative…

The notoriously bad plastic PVC is an FDA-approved alternative for BPA in can linings, despite the fact that vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen.

 
There’s that vinyl again. As I noted in my recipe for coconut couscous, I remain concerned that Native Forestbrand has not responded to my emails asking them what is the BPA substitute they are using for can linings. If it’s vinyl, it could be worse than BPA. I’ll be very keen to get their response, as we like cooking with coconut milk.
 
What to do about all this? Raising consumer awareness is the first big step towards change and accountability. Here’s the social media suggestions from Healthy Child, Healthy World:
 
 
Here are sample tweets you can use on Twitter or Facebook. And be sure to look at the Healthy Child Healthy World Facebook page for updates! Please share this action with your friends and family!
 
 
And here’s a link to Campbell’s Facebook page, which would be a great place to post similar messages!
 

What Does “Green” Really Mean to You? Getting Environmental Health versus Sustainability Sorted Out

A still from the "Sad Kermit" video

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy being “green.” In fact, much of the time it’s not even clear what it means.

What we typically label “green-washing,” or the marketing of eco-high points without mention of the ecological costs, is a real problem. One aspect of this problem is that it’s often difficult to tell, when you are choosing a product, whether it’s “green” because it’s safer or healthier to consume, or because less junk was produced or used in getting it to you in the first place.

For a concrete example of this, I constantly see items marketed as “green” – say, the furniture from West Elm made with some percentage of soy foam – that nonetheless is full of toxic chemicals, such as the flame retardants I’ve been blogging about somewhat obsessively. It’s also not helpful that words like “natural,” “non-toxic,” or even “organic” outside the context of food, have very little meaning.

And then there’s the debate in the comments of that recent post on the Sofa Saga, in which an eco-textiles expert takes issue, rightly in many ways, with the green claims being made about some of the furniture. Her concern is for sustainability and to reduce overall pollution of the environment from textiles, as far as I can tell. Yet I began my sofa quest from the simpler place of merely trying to get toxics out of my house (a task which turned out not to be at all simple, sadly).

So there’s a definitional problem that flows both ways. But this is not an unimportant distinction. If we want consumers to care about the impact of their choices on either their own health or the environment, we could start by clarifying our terms.

While sometimes the benefits might be related, the motivations in these two areas are not the same, from a practical or psychological perspective. My desire to protect my child from toxics, at least for me, comes from a place where I’m basically kinda’ offended that some company wants to poison her. I just want to get that possibility to zero, and I’ll do a lot to make that happen.  (Including ordering healthier products shipped in individual boxes to my house, carbon miles, packaging and all. No one talks about these trade-offs!)

On the other hand, while I do feel deeply committed to whatever I can do to improve the health of the planet, on that scale, I’m also part of systems that do a lot of harm all the time, including everything from the electricity production that lights my house using coal-fired power plants, to, more directly, when I put gas in my car. Motivating real and significant change on these behaviors is far harder, in many cases anyway, and is more about my sense of wanting to do right by the earth than the highly personal health concerns that affect my direct actions in the first category.

Of course, the planet does provide a handy feedback loop, in that the stuff we use ends up in the environment eventually. But I would submit that this kind of secondary effect is merely a nice outcome – the icing on my organic cake – for choosing healthier products. It is a weak force when compared to the incentive provided by health or safety issues that far more directly impact what’s in my family’s life.

In either case, eco-products mostly come at a premium, and “greener” items tend to be green in a number of ways, all of which raise the price. If I’m paying more for better health for my family, I’d like to know that. Similarly, if I’m paying more as an investment in a cleaner environment for all of us, including my family, I’d like to know that too. Having a transparent range of options and a sense of their impact would make a big difference.

Because these triggers for change are so different, and imply very different behaviors and tolerance of costs, in my view, the consistent confusion in messages we receive on what “green” means –  i.e.,, whether it should be judged on grounds of environmental health or environmental sustainability, or a mix of both – actually demotivates change by potentially willing consumers, and obfuscates choices on price and other trade-offs.

It also creates a space where consumers are told they are helping to solve a problem by going “green” in shopping for an item with some improvement in features, without the full set of possible choices on either health or environmental grounds – choices the company has made – being clear.

Questions like – How green (or non-toxic) is it? In what ways? And how green (or non-toxic) could it be? – are rarely answered with any honesty. (For some recent evidence on this, see organic tomato company Muir Glen’s weasel-y response on Facebook, banished from their front page, when I asked about the new BPA-free materials in their can linings.)

When we later learn what was missing from the full picture, it can create cynicism, and the sense that, whatever we’re told, it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. With so many choices to make in a day, and so little time to make them, most folks just make a call and move on. What else could they do, really?

The result is that the motivators on health are lumped in with vaguer concerns, and toxics continue being distributed, even through “eco” products. Savvy consumers have to become even savvier label-scanners, and the few hyper-researched worrywarts like me who do weed out stuff on health grounds, as we can, must peer through a thick haze of greenish claims to figure out what’s likely to be toxic or not, and better for the planet or not.

At a minimum, this is deeply annoying. But at worst, we’re blowing a chance to bring matters home that could be much more of a driver for consumer decisions. We could start to address this by putting companies – especially ones making claims to do better – through a much more exacting set of questions about what’s in stuff and why.

So, please join me in my persnickety questions and letters, and let me know what you find out. And what you can’t seem to get a straight answer about, even when you ask a highly specific question. I’ll post it all – the pursuit, the brush-offs and obfuscations, and the thrill of the chase. Or at least the exchange of impertinent questions and dodges.

If we could start holding companies far more accountable for their bogus “green” claims, and sorting out the ones who are willing to be accountable from those that clearly don’t want to be on health matters, that would be a decent start on addressing a few aspects of this problem. “Green” claims, at a minimum, should not shield companies from closer inquiries on the safety of their contents. (And if you’d prefer to work the reverse angle — figuring out sustainability issues for companies making health claims, that would be interesting too.)

Even if nothing else, please help me get real answers from Muir Glen, before they get away with covering over the information we deserve on BPA substitutes with a gloppy dollop of organic tomato sauce.

Tomato Twins

Tomato Twins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)