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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Could Martha Stewart Ever Wake Up and Be a Force for Good?

English: Martha Stewart at the Vanity Fair par...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s amazingly easy to like Martha Stewart, despite what comes out of her mouth. An interview with her Blondeness was the lunchtime entertainment at the BlogHer 2012 conference today, and it didn’t disappoint.

In her tapered orange pants and matching sandals, Stewart appeared relaxed, or at least as relaxed as she ever probably gets. Yet she still managed to project a dizzying number of expectations about women, the priorities they should have, and the preeminent importance of “perfection.”  Even some of her attempts to relate were drolly inept – at one point, she actually said that feeding and patting her horses in the evenings is an example of how all of us should “keep it real.” Yes, she said that.

Also, when her dog jumped up and busted her lip, she made sure to mention that her driver was there at 10 pm in a blizzard to drive her to the hospital where she had bought a wing, or something. Yes, that does ring so real to me.

Predictably, she extolled the virtues of home-cooking and talked proudly about the number of home and consumer products her team designs, 8,500 of which are for sale in stores today. She also made clear that her team works long hours, and was breathtakingly judgmental about the talented women who work for her and decide not to come back after having a child. (Um, could it be the grueling hours?)

It’s not just Stewart, of course. After the dismissive statements by incoming Yahoo exec Marissa Mayer about “working through” her maternity leave, I for one think that it’s about time we ask women in positions of tremendous power to send a more respectful message on work-life balance.

But Stewart missed that opening, despite the thousands of moms in the audience. Instead, about two seconds after she admitted that her career drive had cost her marriage, she said, kind of creepily, that she could always pick out the women who were and were not coming back after a child, and, without a trace of irony or self-reflection, that “you just have to decide whether you want it all.” She almost growled this line, in an implied threat to any women who choose, unaccountably, to step off the career ladder at her much-coveted design juggernaut.

Apparently, her keen sense of the Twitterverse and social media excluded the recent heated debate over the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece on the impossibility of “having it all.” Even Slaughter has recanted that theme, noting that no one, not only women, gets to have it all.

That is, except maybe, possibly Stewart. Or at least that what she really, really needs us to believe. While she talked a good game of how social media has influenced her to get more personal about her own life, when asked in a final question to come clean about something she’s “bad at,” she produced a perfectionist tic in lieu of a genuine admission, actually offering us the lame “something I haven’t tried yet?”

In fact, the DIY emphasis she’s so famous for is just something else on the long list of self-improving, pure activities we should be doing and can’t. But Stewart has an answer for us: when we run out of time, her products side stands ready to sell us all the stuff we didn’t have time to make.

After all, our lives don’t look at all like the image of relaxed afternoons picking raspberries that Stewart (patently falsely) claimed she enjoys and that are all over her media marketing channels. And she knows that, of course. As she put it, “women don’t have time to sew anymore, because you’re busy blogging or whatever, so you need a place to buy that dress you saw in the magazine.”

This really makes her the worst part of both sides of the problem. On the one hand, we get to feel guilty for not making the damn dress, while on the other, she gets our money so that we don’t have to do without the thing she just guilted us into wanting. She creates desire and then is there to fill it, albeit always in a way that leaves us chasing the dream of that more authentic garment that we could have, should have, made ourselves.

What was so sad about her taut, demanding version of femininity was the utter lack of mission reflected in her choices. While selling us the unhurried, authentic life, she’s really all just lifestyle marketing, with emphasis on the stuff. I kept thinking about how her power is enormous, but it remains untapped for real good.

While it’s likely the case, as she remarked, that partisan politics could be damaging for her, that certainly wouldn’t bar her, or her company, from taking on any real social justice issue. Really, any position would be better than none. She could pick toxics, and work to reduce the chemicals in all the consumer stuff she sells, or worker’s rights for her factories around the world, or even, better work-life balance for the talented moms she obviously loses from her own company.

Perhaps when she’s out patting the horses of an evening, she could reflect a little more on why DIY became DIMS, and whether American “home cooks” really need another newly designed dishtowel, or her hard-working designers could go home early, to spend a little more time with their kids. Now that would be keeping it real.