The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

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I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

Some related posts:

At Long Last: My Greener, Healthier Baby and Toddler Supply Guide

Many of my friends have asked for the “list” of baby items that we bought based on my research. I’ve finally scraped it together, as a reward for their kindness in pretending to pay any attention at all to my enviro-babble.

There are some healthier baby things now being sold – and there are gazillions of on-line retailers happy to bring these items to you. Below is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is the things I liked among what we personally have used.

In buying things for our family, I managed to tease out, mostly through trial and error, some overall principles for environmental health in children’s stuff. Some thoughts on what to look for, and what to avoid, are also below.

Before I get to the good stuff, as nerdy as I am, I feel compelled to put some caveats before you:

  1. There are a ton of Web sites for product reviews, including “green” products, with widely varying levels of green-washing and blogger integrity. In contrast, the product list below is stuff I bought and used when Maya was a baby or use now. The links here don’t trigger any commissions or the like – I’m just not that organized. If that ever changes, I will note it here. In the meantime, click away, knowing that I am only rewarded by the pleasure of knowing what I pulled together was of use to you.
  2. Products can change over time – particularly things with ingredients, like wipes and lotions. What I bought and liked may not be what’s being sold today. So for those kinds of things, I would encourage you to double-check for any negative product reviews on the Web sites selling the stuff, as well as with the consumer guides linked to below. (If you see something alarming about any of the items below, please do comment and let me know!)
  3. Generally speaking, I’m not making an environmental sustainability claim for these items, though, as noted, some of them are made by companies with a greener outlook, and ones I’m happier to support. (And I do think it’s important to specify whether we are talking about environmental health or sustainability.) I haven’t investigated what went into their manufacture, or the sources for wood, for example. I’ll also note that being this picky about the stuff we use often means a lot of packaging and shipping, which is not really that great for the planet.
  4. I tend to order stuff from Amazon, due to the free shipping: I’m cheap like that. But I don’t feel good about it, especially given how terrible it is a place to work (I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that this recent Mother Jones article describing a hellish nether-region of robotic inhumanity is about one of their warehouses, though the article doesn’t clearly say so). If you want to be better than me, and it’s not that hard to do, order directly from the companies that make this stuff where you can, or from a “greenie” retailer that doesn’t treat its workers like bots.
  5. Normal concerns about product safety – stuff like choking hazard levels and recalls – are also an ongoing issue. Obviously, if I hear of problems with something, I’ll change the post. But the idea of “endorsing” something still makes me nervous. So of course apply your own judgment and monitor your child’s use of whatever it is carefully.

Lastly, some explanation is needed regarding the consumer guides. There are others out there, but I use three:

  1. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: They closely examine the safety and health impacts of ingredients in personal care products, including subscreen, lotions, etc. Their scores run 0-10, with higher being worse for you. I try to ensure that everything in our home is a 0 or 1, but this is not easy. The scores are very cautious – for example, even essential oils like lavender are given scores. If allergens are not a concern, you may want to check to see the basis for the score, as some things are upgraded for merely being irritants. If you have chemical sensitivities, obviously, this information is a goldmine.
  2. Good Guide provides an overall score and several detailed subscores for a much more comprehensive set of data points on a wide range of consumer products. Their scoring system includes scores for environmental health, but also corporate sustainability practices and labor conditions. Confusingly, their scores run the opposite way as EWG’s, with 10 as the best score, and 1 the worst. As I care most about environmental health, I tend to look at that particular score first, and then be pleased, as a bonus, if the company overall is doing well. Their overall score may be quite different from the environmental health indicator in many cases. Unfortunately, Good Guide used to, but no longer, rates toys. (We owned several of these very popular toys they found to be toxic, including the Rainforest Jumperoo, which was upsetting. I’ve used the Wayback machine at times to dredge up their old ratings.)
  3. HealthyStuff.org tests toys, clothing and other items for environmental health concerns using an XRF gun (like the one used in your home for lead, if you had it tested, which shows what is in a product several layers down). They test mainly for four dangerous substances, including lead and chlorine, and assign a high, medium or low rating. They maintain a searchable database which may or may not have the toys in your home in it, but even flipping through the listings shows how many times these substances are found in highly common toys.

Now that my throat-clearing is over, here’s some of the fun stuff.

The Quick Version: General Things to Look For

These are good:

  1. Simple, wooden toys (made from solid wood, and not particleboard, plywood, fiberboard or other pressed “wood” products);
  2. Organic textiles (particularly ones that go in the mouth, like loveys, and for bedding and clothing for brand-new babies, whose skin is very thin);
  3. Products that qualify for Oeko-Tex, a fairly protective European textile standard;
  4. Books and musical instruments, including photo albums of family and baby pictures that tell your child’s life story — identity development is a major issue for babies and toddlers. Our “Life with Maya” board book is a huge hit (for a clumsy but functional place to order a board book version of a photo album, see here);
  5. Stuffed animals and dolls that can be thrown in the wash (“surface clean only” usually means plastic pellets inside);
  6. Stainless steel dishes and containers, and glass bottles and containers, for food storage and serving;
  7. Fragrance-free (many fragrances contain untested substances, and include harmful pthalates);
  8. Ingredient lists for products like toiletries that are written in comprehensible English with terms all explained on the packaging;
  9. Buying less stuff, and nicer toys, for the reasons I suggest here — after all, you have to look at them and pick them up a million times a day;
  10. Finding used stuff that fits the above guidelines from yard sales, book sales and thrift stores (a few tips for greener thrift store shopping are here).

These are good to avoid:

  1. Polyurethane foam (to minimize flame retardants);
  2. Electronic gizmos, because they often contain heavy metals (though we have some, certainly, and just try to keep them to a minimum);
  3. Soft, molded plastics (as in bath toys, bibs, teethers and teethable items on toys), because they are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and older ones likely contain pthalates (see more on why to avoid PVC in toys here);
  4. Plastic plates, utensils and cups (including those cute melamine designs), as they go in the dishwasher, and heat makes plastic degrade and get into the food;
  5. In toiletries like lotions and such: parabens (like methylparaben or butylparaben), sulfates (like sodium lauryl sulfate), PEG (which is usually followed by a number), and either a) long, incomprehensible lists of gunk in products; or b) products that fail to list all of the ingredients on the bottle and refer you to some stupid Web site you’ll never get around to checking (like Method does). Talcum powder is also out, because natural talc can contain asbestos, and is an inhalation risk;
  6. Unneeded big hunks of plastic indoors (we do have some of those enormous, ugly plastic vehicles out in the back yard, purchased well used);
  7. Traditional pack-and-plays are a bundle o’ suspect plastics and foams and a pain to pack up; we used a Baby Bjorn travel crib, which is certified compliant with Oeko Tex. It was expensive, but it still works well for traveling;
  8. Stroller covers – they are awful. Most are made of PVC. Babies and children would be far better getting a little wet and breathing outdoor air. Also made of PVC are those cool decorative wall stickers for nurseries, which likely off-gas above the baby for quite some time;
  9. Foam play mats, which, by one manufacturer’s (SkipHop) own admission to me, all contain formamide, a carcinogen created in the foam-making process that was the basis for a ban of the mats in France and Belgium last year. For Maya’s rough-and-tumble period, I used a couple of jute yoga mats (there is a plastic backing on these, but regular yoga mats are all PVC, which is awful when you think about it. Hot yoga, anyone?);
  10. Crocs are made of the same material as foam play mats (called EVA), and the company will not say whether formamide is in them, so I wouldn’t put them on children, certainly;
  11. Art supplies, which can be problematic, particularly paints, markers and white-board pens, and face paint at fairs and used at Halloween is typically loaded with lead and other harmful heavy metals (if you really need some for a costume, try these instead);
  12. I do not use infant or children’s Tylenol. It’s subject to all-too frequent recalls due to manufacturing problems, and the children’s form contains butylparaben. In addition, a meta-review of 20 studies on the issue strongly links aceteminophan to asthma in children. (Yet my own pediatrician still passes out dosage information!)
  13. Heating food in plastic (and I would include the steamer-blender type baby food machines, as being labeled BPA-free doesn’t mean an item is free of plastics or other chemicals that act like hormones). On baby food, actually, you can’t win: some commercial baby food in jars has BPA under the lid, yet most mini-choppers and food processor bowls are polycarbonate, and can contain BPA or similar chemicals. We use either a glass blender or a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything (works like a VitaMix, but for less than half the price);
  14. Cheap children’s furniture, including play kitchens, bookshelves, tables, etc., is often made of pressed wood products that contain formaldehyde, which is linked to leukemia. Solid wood, when you can find and afford it, is far better as it won’t off-gas (ask for a natural oils or beeswax finish in lieu of varnish);
  15. Noxious odors: keep in mind that your sense of smell is a decent indicator of when there are solvents and other harmful chemicals around. If it stinks or is making you woozy, get rid of it.

I’ll also just note that I’m (perhaps unjustifiedly) suspicious of silicone teethers, dishes, food storage, baking items, etc. While the silicone may be inert, I’m not convinced that anyone’s looked closely enough at the plastic additives that give the silicone its color and shape. (If you know more about this, please let me know.)

One overall tip is to look for “Waldorf” items. Whether or not you’re on board with the educational approach, these items are all natural and are often handcrafted and beautiful.

It’s no accident that many of the companies I prefer are European. Under both an agreement on chemicals called the REACH treaty and various country-level rules, they impose more protective environmental standards on textiles and chemicals, among other things.

If you have too much stuff, as we do, you can create novelty (which is a trigger for the brain) by cycling toys. I use cute animal fabric bins (though these are not organic) to take things in and out of circulation, which helps to declutter, keep the sets together, and to maintain Maya’s interest in what we have.

Below, I emphasize the stuff that you can buy for a baby, but that also works for a younger toddler or beyond, so that it’s a better investment.

Companies I like for toys, gear, toiletries and stuffed animals:

Toys and stuffed animals, etc.

Gear

  • iPlay (raincoats that are PVC-free, for example; they still are fairly plastic-y, so there may be better ones)
  • Baby Bjorn (items are Oeko Tex certified)
  • Naturepedic (crib mattress and changing pad)
  • Lunchbots (stainless steel snack containers; plain is best as some complain of chipped enamel on the colored ones)
  • 3 Sprouts Organic (storage bins and hooded towels are organic; other storage may not be)

Toiletries and Cleaners

Favorite Retailers

Here’s the Exact Stuff I Used and Liked:

Nursery

Decorating

  • Mythic Paint (Zero VOC-emissions paint) (goes on smoothly; we painted right before a vacation and still let it air out for more than a week; I still wouldn’t get near it if I was preggo)

 

Infant Toys Only

Infant to Toddler Toys and Stuffed Animals

Toddler Toys Only

Big items

Gear

Newborn Baby Clothes, Swaddlers and Wipes

Toddler Clothing Items

Food-related or Kitchen Gear

Toiletries

Greenish Stuff I Didn’t Love

Pending Attractions

  • I’ll do a future post on formula and its various issues, including the packaging and presence of Bisphenol-A (BPA) and the use of a toxin, hexane, to get DHA/AHA out of seaweed to add it to formula and enhanced milk, a basically unregulated process.
  • I’ll also do a post as well on child safety in cars, including some thoughts on car seats. We use a Britax Advocate 70 CS Convertible Car Seat for its long rear-facing ability and side-impact protection, but it’s not perfect by any means, as I explain in this post. If you want a car seat without any flame retardants in it, Orbit’s is the only one currently on the market, though Britax has committed to a phase-out this year. [Update: see comments on this other post.] To minimize exposures, I used baby slings for shopping, etc., when Maya was little, rather than a removable car seat-type stroller. It did mean I had to wake her up sometimes, which was a drag.

Do you have green products you use and like? Please do tell in the comments, so that everyone can benefit from your experience.

And if you’re looking for something, please let me know, as this is not an exhaustive list…

Sources for more Information on products’ environmental health and safety:

Other sources may be found in the blog links to Eco-Stores Online, in the side-bar. Hope this is useful to you!