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!)

Related posts:

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!