Less Than vs. Empathy

Close-up of struggling carved human figures

One night the other week I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic while I ate dinner (as is my nerdy custom), and I was struck by a passage in an article about the conflict in Central African Republic. It was the account of a teenage girl who had been sexually abused by a French peacekeeping soldier. The girl and her mother had taken refuge at the Bangui airport, which was protected from feuding militias by peacekeeping troops. She claimed the soldier promised her food in exchange for sex and threatened to beat her if she cried; the girl was five months pregnant at the time of her interview.

It’s probably naive of me to be shocked by this story, which I’m sure is no surprise to those who avidly protest human rights abuses (and indeed, I’ve found with some quick research that these allegations are all too frequent), but it stopped me in my tracks. The idea of exploiting someone who is relying on you for protection is so sickening that I struggle to wrap my mind around it.

I tried to put myself in the position of the girl. She said at first the soldier was friendly. I imagine the confusion and then dread as the situation changed and she realized what she would have to do. I imagine how during and after such an encounter, a person must feel like no one in the world is looking out for them, and that the world is full of unpredictable violence and danger.

I tried to put myself in the position of the solider. What would motivate someone to threaten and sexually exploit a teenage girl, especially one who is under your protection? Notwithstanding the possibility that the perpetrator was a psychopath, I could only think of two other scenarios. The first is if the soldier was embedded in a culture where this type of behavior was accepted or encouraged by his peers. He did it because others did it. Initial hesitation may have been overshadowed by assurance that it would be enjoyable and without consequences. The other scenario is that the soldier actively resented the Central Africans he had been sent to protect and believed himself to be superior in some way, and that he was justified in exploiting the girl. He may have even felt his behavior reinforced the power structure, reminding the Central Africans who was really in charge.

Both of these scenarios boil down to a common theme: the soldier viewed the girl as less than. Either because she was African, a female, or both, the soldier felt it was acceptable to threaten and abuse her, because she was somehow lower, different, other.

In the past I’ve been involved in organizations that fight human trafficking, but beyond that I’ve stayed pretty ignorant of crimes against human rights, mostly because they seem too complicated to do anything about and are too horrifying to dwell on. (Controversy regarding sexual abuse allegations against peacekeeping soldiers has apparently been on the global stage since 2015, despite my blissful cluelessness.) I keep myself similarly unaware of accusations of war crimes and human rights abuses at a political level. How do you even begin to address evil at that echelon? But on the other hand, how can I attempt to be connected to others in the world and not know or care about these injustices?

It isn’t connected or harmonious or empathetic to distance myself from the suffering of others. I don’t want to fall into a white savior complex, but I’m reminded that it’s important not to become blind to these types of atrocities, especially when people of power and privilege are exploiting the vulnerable. (I shudder to think what injustices some American soldiers perpetrate, either by command or in secret.)

There are human rights groups who focus on these issues, but I’ve never been drawn to getting involved with them because it seems so daunting and disturbing. But the daunting and disturbing injustices are probably the most important ones to pay attention to. However, they also get the closest to what one might call pure human evil, which I’m not sure the efforts of an organization can ever eradicate. Stopping human rights abuse seems to me like a Sisyphean task: you can stop one dictator from killing his citizens, but another will rise up somewhere else in the world. I like attacking the root of a problem, but what is the root problem of human rights abuse?

The best answer I can come up with is seeing people as less than. Lack of empathy. Seeing others as “other.” People don’t typically abuse people they view as equal to themselves. They abuse people they believe are inferior, dirty, wrong, immoral, weak, offensive, blasphemous, stupid, evil, unimportant, inconsequential. The wellbeing of the other is not as important as my own wellbeing, so I am justified in exploiting them for my gain.

If I were to stop avoiding human rights issues out of self-preservation (which I hope I have the guts to do), I think the root issue I would want to target is empathy, and support organizations and efforts that aim to foster it. The more I dwelled on empathy today, the more it seemed like the solution to many of the world’s ills: racism, sexism, violence, exploitation.

This probably isn’t a revelation to most of you. “Yes, empathy makes people nicer to each other, duh.” If you had asked me before reading that article what one thing would solve most of the world’s problems, I probably would have landed on empathy after some thought. But sometimes you re-realize something you’ve known for a long time and start to think about it differently, which is what happened to me the other day. And hopefully it deepens my connection to humanity in a way that using a reusable shopping bag doesn’t quite accomplish on its own.

Eco-Friendly Bedding: Shopping for a Flame-Retardant-Free Mattress

Close-up of mattress quilting

I’ve been vaguely intending to get a new mattress for a couple of years. My old one was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old, first having served as a guest bed for a few years, then as my bed since I was about 10. She was trusty and sturdy but starting to get saggy. After moving into the house I decided it was finally time to do the upgrade from full to queen and treat myself to a more supportive night’s sleep.

Obviously for such a large purchase I wanted to make an ethical and sustainable choice, but I wasn’t totally sure what that meant for a mattress. The three factors I pondered were:

  • The presence of flame-retardant chemicals (I wanted a mattress without them)
  • Use of sustainable/renewable materials
  • How and where the mattress is made

Another caveat for my buying process was that I wanted to be able try out the mattress in the store before ordering. This requirement ruled out the many eco-friendly mattress brands available online. (If you’re less squeamish about picking a mattress without trying it, The Good Trade has an excellent rundown of sustainable online brands). My final requirement was staying within a budget of about $1,200 for a queen-sized mattress and box spring.

The mattress I ended up choosing is the Celebrity Soft Top from Holder Mattress:

Celebrity mattress from Holder Mattress

Ignore the bad lighting and focus on the pillowy quilted goodness.

Celebrity mattress label

Celebrity: No longer just *NSYNC’s mediocre final album.

If you haven’t heard of Holder Mattress, that’s because to my knowledge it isn’t a nationally-distributed brand. When I first heard about the company a few years ago, what intrigued me was that Holder has its factory and headquarters in Kokomo, Ind., about an hour north of Indianapolis. In terms of getting a locally-made mattress, you can’t get much closer than that.

Since mattresses are so large and heavy, I like that these finished products aren’t shipped all over the place before reaching their final destinations. Holder has a showroom in Kokomo and another in Carmel, which is the one I visited. I tried out one of the floor models, and then they made my mattress to order and delivered it to my house. Each mattress is handmade, and in addition to the minimal-shipping factor, I liked supporting a fairly small and family-owned business.

As with food, I assume the transportation footprint of a mattress is relatively small compared to the footprint of its production overall, so I don’t wave the local flag as a huge and definitive sustainability win. Rather, I consider it a positive factor that combines certain environmental and community benefits. Following my purchase, I learned that there are in fact many mattress brands that manufacture within the U.S. Holder still seems to be the closest to Indianapolis, but if you live elsewhere you likely have other local mattress options.

The other factor on which Holder Mattress won me over was the fact they don’t use flame-retardant chemicals in any of their mattresses. Why did I want to avoid flame-retardant chemicals? First of all, it’s not 1960; I don’t smoke in bed (or at all). Second, as our guest blogger Travis Nagle briefly touched on in his post about eco-friendly furniture, flame retardants have been questioned as ineffective precautions that are also linked to a variety of health problems. A new study out this month finds an association between certain flame retardant chemicals and thyroid cancer.

One of my early furniture-buying regrets is that I let the salesperson who sold me my sofa talk me into a stain-resistant chemical coating. I hate to think what invisible chemicals it’s been off-gassing for the last five years. I definitely wanted to avoid any unnecessarily chemicals in a mattress that I plan to sleep on every night for the next 10–20 years.

The sustainable characteristic I didn’t really get with this mattress was the use of natural materials. The Celebrity is one of Holder’s lowest models, so it contains less-expensive materials such as polyurethane padding and polyester fabric. I initially felt strongly about getting a petroleum-free mattress—people used to make mattresses before we turned liquid dinosaurs into fabric and foam; why can’t we now? But ultimately, cost is what deterred me from pursuing a more natural mattress. In its higher-end lines, Holder does produce mattresses using wool fabric and latex foam, but their most natural option was $3,600 for a queen set—three times my budget. Depending on the brand, queen sets using latex foam appear to start around $2,000 and go up from there.

I’m about 80% satisfied with the mattress choice I made, but If I were to do this process again, there are a couple of things I would do differently:

  1. Attempt to find a latex foam mattress to try in-store. One reason I was hesitant to order a natural mattress from an online brand is the fact that I haven’t encountered a latex foam mattress in person before. I don’t know if I would even like what it feels like to lay on one. However, this type of mattress is becoming more popular. I could have tried one in-store (such as the high-end Holder version), and then perhaps felt more secure ordering a less-expensive latex mattress brand online.
  2. Do more research about the benefits of natural materials in mattresses. Once I found a flame-retardant-free mattress I could try out in a store and that was within my budget, I didn’t really pursue any further research into natural materials. In hindsight, I wish I would have done more research about both the individual and systemic benefits of using renewable materials in mattresses, and used that information to decide how much I was willing to spend on it.

Responsibly Disposing of Old Mattresses

Another reason I initially wanted a mattress made of natural materials was to give consideration to the eventual end of the mattress’s useful life. When a mattress is no longer supportive or comfortable to sleep on, what can be done with it? Most mattresses today end up in a landfill, and my thought was that a mattress made of natural materials may be easier to recycle. However, after some light Googling, I’m not immediately finding any programs that claim latex mattresses are any easier to recycle than conventional mattresses. Latex mattresses are indeed recyclable, and so are the majority of components in a traditional mattress. The tricky part is actually finding a facility that will pick up and recycle your mattress.

The challenge of responsible mattress disposal is also one of the reasons I was hesitant to try an online-only mattress brand. Most of these brands offer some version of the “try for 100 nights” plan where you can return the mattress if you end up not liking it. However, I think “return” is a misleading word in these programs, because once a mattress has been in use for 3+ months, the company can’t turn around and re-sell it to someone else. I discussed this briefly with my salesperson at the Holder showroom. Holder also has a try-and-return program, and the salesperson said the company used to be able to reuse the inner components of a returned mattress, but now if a mattress is returned they throw the whole thing away. I’m not sure if this is due to a specific law, concerns about bedbugs, or both, but the fact remains that at a minimum, a significant portion (if not all) of a mattress goes to waste if you decide to return it after trying it.

After being unable to find a local charity that accepts mattress donations, I decided to keep my old mattress and box spring as a combination of lounge seating and a guest bed in my basement (which I affectionately refer to as “the tacky den”). After I set it up I actually got giddy about how awesome it is. Behold the majesty:

Mattress seating in basement den

*cue angelic choir*

I threw my old college bedding on it, and boom! A relaxing and decadent seating area only enhanced by its wood paneling backdrop. The height is perfect for seating but not too awkwardly low for a bed. My roommates John Cena and Frodo approve.

If you aren’t blessed with a room free-spirited enough to have a mattress couch, I did come across 1-800-GOT-JUNK in my research, a company that will pick up old mattresses and purportedly recycle them if possible. You can also check out this directory of mattress recycling locations; however, the facility in Indiana no longer appears to be in operation.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, in which I delight in the eco-friendly features of my new queen bedding.

Have you purchased an eco-friendly mattress, online or otherwise? What brand did you go with, and how did it work out?

Changes Are Coming

Sky turning from blue to gold during sunset

Things certainly have changed since I wrote my last post (the federal government doesn’t look like it will be taking notes from European sustainability programs anytime soon). I remain hopeful about the positive steps that individuals, cities, states, and organizations can continue to take for the benefit of the planet, but the election results do represent a significant setback for climate and environmental progress. Here Bethany considers what the new presidential administration may mean for our environment. — Julia

Changes are coming.

To quote a recent Vox article:

If Donald Trump and the GOP actually follow through on what they’ve promised, … Federal climate policy will all but disappear; participation in international environmental or climate treaties will end; pollution regulations will be reversed, frozen in place, or not enforced; clean energy research, development, and deployment assistance will decline; protections for sensitive areas and ecosystems will be lifted; federal leasing of fossil fuels will expand and accelerate; new Supreme Court appointees will crack down on EPA discretion.

I’m struck by the difference between Julia’s last post and this one. While this blog is primarily focused on personal responsibility, we do touch on public policy and politics. Julia said that people want the U.S. to take “clear and decisive action on waste and the environment.” Well, that’s exactly what is happening. Our new president is taking a clear and decisive action on the environment: he doesn’t care. The people he is considering for his cabinet and as part of his team are people who are climate change deniers, people who are high up in corporations with long track records of environmental issues. Just look at this list compiled by the New York Times.

Several proposed members of Trump’s administration are people who believe we don’t have to care for our planet or think about the consequences our actions have on it. They don’t see a need to pursue policies that ensure our environment will be here for the next generation, and the next, and the next after that.

Changes are coming.

I have spent the past week in a constant state of emotional upheaval. I have been upset, terrified, angry, depressed, violently ill, cried for hours, laughed out of sheer disbelief… but most of all, I have been afraid. I have been afraid of the changes that I see coming.

I am still afraid. But I have decided to hold on to the acronym that a friend shared with me:

Fear = Face Everything And Rise

Changes are coming.

Should the U.S. Try to Keep Up with Europe?

Empty plastic smoothie cup sitting on pavement in park

By 2020, all disposable dishware sold in France must be compostable.

This week I learned about two exciting sustainability updates from Europe:

  1. France passed legislation banning disposable dishware and cutlery. By 2020, all disposable dishes sold in France must be made of biologically-sourced materials and be compostable.
  2. Sweden introduced legislation dramatically cutting taxes on repair work to encourage people to fix rather than replace broken items.

When we see another nation pass groundbreaking legislation, our initial reaction is often to say, “The U.S. should do the same thing!” I don’t think most people who express this sentiment are saying the system that works in XYZ country should be applied to the U.S. exactly as-is with no adjustments. So when we say we want the U.S. to follow another country’s suit, what are we really asking for?

I think the main thing people yearn for the U.S. to emulate about these laws is a willingness to take clear and decisive action on waste and the environment. Requiring disposable dishware to be compostable is bold, concrete, and clear in its goal. It’s ambitious yet attainable. The only comparable legislation in the U.S. has been regional bans on plastic bags and styrofoam, but nothing as clear and concrete as France’s law has been gone into effect at a state or federal level.*

(The more I think about France’s new law, the more I love it. It doesn’t eliminate a product or industry, but rather modifies them, which could head off concerns about potential job loss. It also supports the creation of a more robust composting infrastructure, which should make composting of other materials more accessible as well, and it increases production of an agriculturally useful product. Is it possible to have a crush on a piece of legislation?)

Beyond the desire for the U.S. to take decisive action, I think people have a desire to know that the U.S. is even paying attention to these programs around the world, and is studying them to learn whether similar programs could work here. Our tax structure is different than Sweden’s, but how could we incentivize repairing over replacing within our system? What are the results of Sweden’s plan—does it actually yield a change in consumer behavior? In France, how will they educate consumers about the changes to familiar products? Sustainability-minded citizens in the U.S. would be heartened to know that someone here is at least taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from other nations’ programs.

The responsibility to learn from these programs and take decisive action on waste isn’t limited to the government, especially given how entwined the private sector is with policy in the U.S. Private businesses also have a responsibility to reject the status quo and pilot progressive solutions within their own operations. Arguably, a company like Apple taking a stand on a particular type of waste could have a greater impact than a small country doing the same. When corporations operate at a massive global scale, their responsibility is just as great as governments’.

And at the very minimum, we want the United States to not actively prohibit progressive action for the environment. Indiana’s recent ban on plastic bag bans comes to mind as an example of action whose spirit is the complete opposite of these two European laws. Arizona, Idaho and Missouri have similar laws. When you live in a world where your legislators take such big steps backward, a world of all compostable cups seems like an unattainable fantasy.

You may have noticed that the United States is not the most agile in terms of political or social change right now. While that’s certainly not an excuse for inaction, perhaps smaller countries are currently better positioned to be groundbreaking and take the dramatic steps forward the planet needs. If enough smaller players take those first steps, it may be easier for the U.S. to follow suit and create programs that are truly effective. We would have case studies to learn from, and systems would already be in place for us to take advantage of or emulate.

And because the U.S. is so much larger than most of the countries that implement progressive sustainability programs, individual states (or companies) within the U.S. may be better suited to learn from those programs and develop their own. The smaller the body, the more flexible and innovative it can be.

So, Indiana—now you know about the sustainable ground being broken in France and Sweden. What are you going to learn from it?

*Hawaii has a de facto plastic bag ban because all of its counties enacted bans, and California’s plastic bag ban is under a referendum on Nov. 8. The District of Columbia enacted a plastic bag ban in 2009.

How to Give a Charitable Donation as a Meaningful Holiday Gift

The article below was originally published by Alden Wicker on EcoCult, a guide to sustainable and eco-friendly living in NYC and beyond. I’m in the process of cobbling together my year-end giving plan, so I was stoked to come across Alden’s excellent tips for charity selection. Whether you’re looking for a charity that speaks to your own values or a donation to give as a gift, Alden’s tips from #GivingTuesday will help you cultivate a generous spirit throughout the season and the year. Enjoy! —Julia

Red glittery gift with gold bow

I started putting together a Christmas wish list gift guide for myself, and then I realized: nobody is going to buy me any of it.

My step-dad donates to charity on my behalf, which I enjoy. My mom gets her Christmas shopping done long before Black Friday – it’s a point of pride for her – so I’m too late for that. My sister always handcrafts something really special for me. My aunt does her shopping at cool museum gift shops in Arizona. The other part of my family who usually relies on my gift guide I don’t think we will see this year. And I will have a long discussion with my fiancé about how we want to thoughtfully gift each other this year. Maybe a nice dinner? So, the gift guide will be completely ignored. Which is just fine.

I decided to take this opportunity on #GivingTuesday to talk about donating to charity instead.

Donating to charity on someone’s behalf is awesome on so many levels. First, you are not giving your money to a large corporation, which in turn gives money to overprivileged CEOs and hedge funds managers. Your money is going to people and organizations who will put it to work not buying third homes, but fixing the food system, restoring wetlands, feeding hungry people, teaching work skills to the underprivileged, etc.

Second, giving to charity is inherently sustainable, even if it’s not a environmentally-focused charity, because it doesn’t involve resources to produce, package, and ship a gift. It just requires an infinitesimal bit of energy to digitally wire some money over. And then, it won’t end up in the landfill when the recipient tires of it.

Third, donating to charity can be one of the most thoughtful gifts out there … if you do it right. (Do not be like that one distant aunt who donated on my behalf to her fundamentalist church. That is weird and so self-serving.) By donating to the right charity on someone’s behalf, you’re saying, “I think your values are amazing and important, and I want to support you in that.” It demonstrates that you have taken the time to find out what they love, do, or believe in.

My biggest tip, and one that I’ve used successfully in the past, is to search on Charity Navigator. Not only does this website allow you to find organizations by keyword, title, or location (the advanced search is awesome) it tells you how efficiently and transparently each organization is using donations, helping you avoid exploitative or even fake charities.

Here’s some questions to ask to find just the right charity:

  • What organizations support their favorite pastime? For example, if they enjoy classical music, you could donate to the local symphony. If they like to garden, you could donate to Seed Savers Exchange. If they enjoy art, donate to a local museum. If they listen to the radio, donate to NPR. Or donate to the local library if they enjoy reading.
  • What organization has supported them in the past or supports them now? My grandmother is part of a wonderful church that is about so much more than Sunday service. The ministers are non-judgmental and welcoming of all races and sexual-orientation. When a member is going through a challenging time, they assign him or her a buddy, who will talk to and check up on him or her. She’s met many of her best friends through the church, one of whom moved in with her for a time when they were both widowed within a year of each other. Everyone knows my grandmother’s name. It’s her community. So donating to her church is a way for me to almost gift her directly, by ensuring they can continue their programs and support for members like her. This isn’t just religious – you could also donate to a research or clinical organization if your recipient is struggling with a health problem, for example.
  • Where do they volunteer? If they volunteer at an organization, not only does it make it an obvious choice where you should donate, they’ll see your money at work firsthand, making it all the more special.
  • What is their career? Some careers will afford obvious choices. If they are a teacher, Donors Choose, a charity that lets teachers ask for money to purchase certain items, is a great choice. If they work in fashion, Dress for Success might be meaningful. If they work in medicine, Doctors Without Borders does the trick. For me, I use the Environmental Working Group‘s research and Skin Deep database constantly for EcoCult, so I would appreciate someone donating to them for sure!

Continue reading on EcoCult >>

The Perils of Palm Oil

Misty green jungle landscapeI’ve danced around educating myself about palm oil for several months. I know it presents a great threat to the rainforest, but as I’m not primarily a wildlife or biodiversity advocate, I thought I might be able to file it away as someone else’s problem. Sometimes you just don’t want to take on one more cause.

However, as several articles rolled out recently calling into question the validity of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), I was drawn to learn more. Seeking an expert, I interviewed fellow Ethical Writers Coalition member Magdalena Antuña, editor and founder of Selva Beat magazine. An avid advocate for changes in the palm-oil industry, Magdalena publishes content focused on ethical and palm-oil-free living.

Through the interview, I learned several shocking facts. First of all, palm oil is not a threat to the rainforest alone: Through the destruction of peatlands, palm oil agriculture emits thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making it a significant climate change offender. Second, palm plantations have been identified as sites of human trafficking, and plantations often grab land from vulnerable populations in order to expand. Third, palm oil can legally go by over 200 names on product packaging, making it difficult to avoid.

I’m now convinced that consumers (myself included) can no longer ignore the abuses of the palm oil industry, and we have the responsibility and power to demand better environmental and social practices. Read on for my full interview with Magdalena to learn more about the perils of palm oil as well as how you can help.

Fair for All: Where does palm oil come from?

Magdalena Antuña: Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, extracted from the fruit which grows on African oil palm trees. As the name denotes, these trees are native to Africa but are primarily grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, oil palm trees can only be grown ten degrees North or South of the equator, a band of Earth that scientists have deemed incredibly bio-rich, rife with endemic and/or endangered species. So, though SE Asia is the primary market for the production of palm-oil, we see similar issues emerging in Africa and South America where this industry is beginning to pick up considerable momentum.

How is palm oil related to deforestation? Are there other issues with palm oil in addition to deforestation?

Palm oil is directly tied to deforestation because, like most vegetable oils, it must be farmed in order to be extracted for use. The global demand for this oil is so incredibly high that millions of hectares of land—which, in this region happens to be primarily rainforest—must be cleared and/or primed for monoculture plantations.

But not all of this land is free of human life. Another issue we see with palm-oil is land grabs, which rob indigenous peoples of their only homes. Though palm-oil creates many jobs, the labor standards—much like those in sweat shops—on plantations can be frighteningly low. Our rapid consumption stresses the system, in turn asking more and more of plantation workers. It’s also important to remember that while this booming industry means big money, this wealth is not necessarily well distributed. Previously, we’ve seen many cases where in laborers are lured from other cities and countries, promised good work, and fooled into what is essentially indentured servitude—practically starved and barred from communication with their loved ones.

Orangutan looking calmly to the side

Orangutan habitat is threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations.

Deforestation gets a lot of attention for two reasons: endangered wildlife and global warming. Many areas where oil palm plantations can be found—in Africa and South America, too—were originally suitable habitat for some of the world’s most beloved animals: endangered orangutans, tigers, pangolins, sun bears, chimpanzees, the list goes on. Today, we watch the Leuser Ecosytem dwindle away, primarily at the hands of conflict palm.

Because of global warming, we also have to monitor peatland destruction. Peatlands hold far more carbon than your average rainforest (up to 28x more) and when you cut down just a hectare, thousands of tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The recent fires that devastated Indonesia, caused largely by irresponsible paper and palm oil companies illegally clearing land, created more greenhouse emissions in just three weeks than all of Germany does in one whole year.

The oil itself is not evil, but our gluttonous consumption and reliance on it has, no doubt, made palm-oil one of the largest environmental and human rights issues the world has ever seen.

What everyday products contain palm oil?

Our rule of thumb is that if it’s packaged, there’s a strong possibility that product contains palm-oil.

Anything from the cereal you eat to the almond milk you drink to the shampoo with which you wash your hair. Toothpaste, easy spread butter, foundation and vegan products, too. Palm-oil is extremely versatile, so it can be the basis for a lot of other ingredients like glycerin, sodium lauryl sulfate, cetearyl alcohol, etc.

Here’s a full list of the 200+ names palm-oil can legally go by in stores.

Full frame of breakfast cereal O's

Packaged products from breakfast cereal to snack food to toiletries often contain palm oil.

You’ve written before about your disapproval of the RSPO and the responsible palm oil certification process. Are there ways a consumer can know for sure that the palm oil in a certain product is truly responsible?

In light of several recent ‘bombshell’ articles regarding the RSPO’s credibility, I can’t say with confidence that there’s one fool-proof way for consumers to identify ethical palm-oil. This article is a great primer on how the supply chains work, as well as, how to speak with companies about their usage.

Put very simply, the word sustainability means little to nothing. Grill companies on their ability to trace their palm-oil from plantation to shelf. If a company says they use certified sustainable palm-oil, dig a little further. Traceability is key. No deforestation and peatland protection agreements score high, as well.

The world does need a governing body, like the RSPO or POIG, but it is similarly important that we remain critical of that body’s ability to police these practices effectively.

What are a few of your favorite palm oil-free products?

That’s actually kind of tough! I have a lot to choose from but perhaps my top three right now would be:

  • Earthpaste Toothpaste in Peppermint
  • Meow Meow Tweet’s Beer Shampoo Bar
  • Axiology lipstick in Elusive – perfect for fall!

What can the average person do to help the palm oil situation?

I believe passionately that consumers can make a difference regarding the palm-oil problem. It is genuinely ridiculous that the entire world should rely on the forests of only a handful of countries. Our view is that all palm-oil should be traceable, conflict-free, and ethically produced. But, that doesn’t mean that we should still have to eat and use it in everything.

We absolutely can, as a society, lessen our reliance on palm-oil. Begin by mitigating your consumption of packaged and processed foods. Fall in love with whole foods, local and organic produce. Rally with your community against irresponsible brands, urging them to fulfill their basic obligation to the planet. Start a Palm-Oil Action Team in your hometown via the Rainforest Action Network. Get into the habit of writing just one e-mail a night before you go to sleep.

It seems daunting, I know. But there will always be someone telling you that your contribution isn’t big enough to make a difference and you must remember that they will also say that to the next person, the person after that, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there that share your passion, you just have to find them.


Thanks to Magdalena for sharing her knowledge and passion! For more information about palm oil advocacy and palm-oil-free living, check out Selva Beat.

The Only Thing that Has Changed the World

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

– Margaret Mead

I’ve always been a big fan of this quote. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll realize it aligns well with my belief that individual actions can create real change. This quote came to mind again today and I wondered for the first time about its origins. Who is Margaret Mead? What was the context for the quote? Is she really saying what it sounds like she’s saying?

Margaret Mead in 1948

Margaret Mead in 1948

Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist the the mid-1900s. She was a controversial figure throughout much of her career for her reports about sexual behavior in various traditional cultures in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Her work helped inspire feminism, the sexual revolution and other movements in the 1960s.

According to the Institute of Intercultural Studies, which was founded by Mead in the 1940s but shuttered in 2009, there is no definitive source for the widely attributed quote: “We believe it probably came into circulation through a newspaper report of something said spontaneously and informally. We know, however, that it was firmly rooted in her professional work and that it reflected a conviction that she expressed often, in different contexts and phrasings.”

I was disappointed to learn that the quote wasn’t intentionally composed in a specific context and likely has been altered from its original phrasing. However, I was reassured to learn on the IIS website that Mead did actual research into the role of small groups in cultural change in her 1964 book Continuities in Cultural Evolution. She believed in the power of small groups not from wishful thinking but from her research.

I appreciate this quote because I know of so many small organizations and companies working to do things differently to make the world a better place. From fair trade cooperatives to neighborhood revitalization committees, each group has the power to make positive change and grow a small movement into a big one.

Margaret Mead quote

What’s your favorite quote that inspires you to change the world?

A Primer on Product Stewardship

Warning: It’s about to get a little technical up in here, but stick with me, it’s worth it.

Product stewardship is a concept I only recently became familiar with, but it kind of blew my mind. In a nutshell, this concept aims to address the question of who is responsible for the impacts of a product throughout its life cycle. According to the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI):

Product stewardship is the act of minimizing the health, safety, environmental, and social impacts of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages, while also maximizing economic benefits. The manufacturer, or producer, of the product has the greatest ability to minimize adverse impacts, but other stakeholders, such as suppliers, retailers, and consumers, also play a role. Stewardship can be either voluntary or required by law.

Basically, product stewardship puts the onus on manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the items they are putting out into the world. To me this feels like a radically different mindset from mainstream industry, but it makes a ton of sense. Consumers don’t have the capacity to sustainably handle the end-of-life of today’s increasingly complex products, and the public sector shouldn’t be responsible for cleaning up messes that can be avoided with more intelligent product design or end-of-life planning from the manufacturers. I agree with PSI that ultimately a team effort is needed, but I appreciate the emphasis on manufacturers not being able to wash their hands of the things they produce once they’re out the door.

In fact, PSI also defines a sub-concept specifically related to manufacturer responsibility:

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a mandatory type of product stewardship that includes, at a minimum, the requirement that the manufacturer’s responsibility for its product extends to post-consumer management of that product and its packaging. There are two related features of EPR policy: (1) shifting financial and management responsibility, with government oversight, upstream to the manufacturer and away from the public sector; and (2) providing incentives to manufacturers to incorporate environmental considerations into the design of their products and packaging.

Whereas product stewardship is a general philosophy, extended producer responsibility appears to be a policy-specific initiative with the goal of establishing EPR regulations for various industries.

Definition of product stewardship

The linear economy vs. the circular economy

The Product Stewardship Society frames the impact of product stewardship this way: “If the ‘linear economy’ is characterized by a ‘Take, Make, Use, Dispose’ philosophy, then the circular economy is an alternate concept, aimed at keeping products and their materials in play for longer periods of time.”

John Ortiz, a product stewardship manager at Hewlett-Packard, says the design of products in the circular economy may include “upgradeability, refurbishment, or empowering customers with service options.” This is a refreshing change from industry’s current focus on planned obsolescence and turning durable products into disposable ones.

Examples of product stewardship

End-of-life management is especially critical for products that can be hazardous when disposed of improperly. One example of product stewardship success is the paint industry, which has launched a take-back program in several states to safely handle the recycling and disposal of household paint. The pharmaceutical industry is currently under pressure to implement a more comprehensive drug take-back program to prevent the social and environmental hazards of unused or expired medications.

Various brands from Samsung to The North Face have implemented take-back programs with varying scopes/ease of access:

I feel like we’re at a revolutionary point similar to the stage in the Industrial Revolution when people began mobilizing for basic labor rights. We realized then that you can’t treat people as if they are disposable, and now we’re realizing that you ultimately can’t treat materials as if they are disposable either.

If the circular economy gains traction, it’s going to look totally different than today’s economy—imagine being able to repair products, pass them along to someone else in good condition, or turn them back in for safe disposal or reliable recycling. Instead of constantly chucking our goods to upgrade to the latest minor enhancement or trend, we can focus on enjoying the value that long-lasting products add to our lives. And for items that are truly consumable by nature, like paint or medication, we can dispose of them safely and confidently.

Do any of your favorite brands have take-back or recycling programs not listed above? Let me know about them in the comments!

Thoughts on Embracing Responsibility


Those who have known me since I was a kid know that I’ve always been unusually conscientious. The story I tell to illustrate this point is when I was about eight, I was playing at a friend’s house and we decided to do some prank phone calls. We called some random number and made incoherent jokes about refrigerators running—or maybe we just giggled and hung up, I’m not sure. What I do remember is that this occurred right when caller ID and *69 were becoming a thing. The guy called back and told us to stop bothering him, and I was mortified.

This having taken place at my friend’s house, I went home and my parents were none the wiser. However, I couldn’t sleep, lying in bed wracked with guilt, so in the middle of the night I got up, went into my parents’ room, confessed, and grounded myself.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a kid with that intense of a conscience grew up to become invested in issues like human trafficking and economic justice. But what I’m only recently realizing is that my aggressive personal Jiminy Cricket has a counterpart that’s helped shape my lifestyle and worldview—a sense of power and responsibility.

What has kept me from curling into a ball of anxiety from my conscience is the fact that I’ve always believed I can do something about it. My eight-year-old self solved the problem by doling out my own discipline. Today, when I feel a sense of moral urgency or concern about a social or environmental issue, I just decide to do what I can about it.

I can choose fair trade chocolate over conventional brands. I can put off replacing those shoes that only show a few signs of wear. I can choose packaging-free food, secondhand clothes, slavery-free gifts. I can say “no” to things I don’t really need.

Will my actions alone change the world? No. But the beauty of lifestyle changes is that you’re not alone—it’s about being part of a community of people seeking change, who are willing to incorporate pieces of that change into their everyday lives. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is only cliché to people who aren’t actually doing it. Once you’ve started, it’s just common sense.

Our responsibility to each other is something to embrace, not avoid. All of us on this planet are connected to one another. My actions and your actions have ramifications for those around us and for thousands of people across the globe who we’ll never meet. Instead of that truth freaking you out, let it excite you, because that means you have the power to make life better, in varying degrees, for those people you’re connected to.

That’s what I want this blog to be about. It’s bigger than ethical shopping or tips for reducing waste, though that’s part of it. It’s about a belief that together our choices build a better world, and everyone has the power to participate.

Be the change you wish to see in the world

Find Pretty Much Anything Ethically with These Directories

Ethical Shopping Directories header

Once upon a time, the Fair for All Guide was the Fair for All Shopping Guide, and it was our dream to create an all-encompassing directory of ethical products and brands and to be a one-stop shop for anyone who wanted to make any kind of ethical purchase.

Our plan ended up being a little bigger than our britches, and we retired our directory in 2014. However, there are many other blogs and websites that feature ethical shopping directories, which we share on our Resources page. We recently added the following new directories to the list—check them out to help you find what you’re looking for!

Note that each directory is maintained according to its owner’s ethical criteria, which may differ from Fair for All’s. Be sure to look at the ethics of any specific company before purchasing.

EcoCult screenshot

EcoCult Shopping Guide

Includes several categories like clothing, jewelry, accessories, lingerie, men’s, beauty, and home.

Shop Conscious screenshot

Shop Conscious

Shop Conscious focuses on fashion brands and enables you to filter by a plethora of conscious factors including Handmade, Fair Trade, Empowering Women, Recycled Materials, Made in the USA, Vegan and more.

Top 10 Fashionable Fair Trade sites screenshot

Top 10 List of Fashionable Fair Trade Companies

Looking for some chic wearables? This top ten list (actually featuring twelve items!) is for you.

Global Stewards screenshot

Global Stewards Directory of Online Fair Trade Shops

Lists fair trade websites only. Categories include the usual plus some more obscure ones like toys/hobbies/entertainment, seasonal items, food, and flowers.

One of a Kind Sustainability screenshot

One of a Kind Sustainability Where to Shop Directory

Focuses on environmental sustainability rather than human rights, but several brands cover both bases. Includes categories for clothing, shoes, accessories, beauty and home, plus helpful notes about the product style or ethics/sustainability of each link.

Fair Fashion Finds screenshot

Fair Fashion Finds

This Tumblr shares sales, discounts and deals from ethical shopping websites.

With the addition of these links, our Resources page is becoming a kind of mega Frankendirectory, which is pretty wicked if you ask me. If you have a favorite ethical shopping directory that isn’t listed, tell us about it and we’ll add it to the monster!