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Ethical Shopping Pieces

the dirty truth about goldstarbucks for small farmers
dark chocolateLED's—lighting the future
murky or clear radio skiesgreen investing
organics evolving into wal-mart fare?fashion on the eco runway

The Dirty Truth About Gold

Standing in line at a favored restaurant or after-hours watering hole, where hands and fingers gesture and point and make conversation a ship-to-ship signaling; there is one thing that is very noticeable. Brightly noticeable. All the gold rings. Talismans of marriage, engagement, accomplishment, vanity and health. Then, there are earrings, bracelets, watchbands, charms, necklaces, pins. Across the great wrist-finger-ear-toe-ankle of human history our adornment (and for a long while—economics) is gold-centric. The pure nature and glamour (which has an original magical meaning) of gold veins deep into our culture.

As I step into a jewelry store to explore among the be-cushioned piles of gold stuff, which look so gorgeous and make me feel like a patrician just to be there, I mull over where our modern supplies of gold from. We all know from our California Gold Rush and prospector history that gold lies in veins and was panned in streams or mined with pickaxes or the first high pressure strip mining—leaving horrid scars in the northeastern California foothills still visible today.

The Dilemma: gold is in the earth
So I wonder if this has stopped—all these environmentally-scarring methods. It turns out, it has gotten worse as the supply of fresh gold diminished and world demand increased. The prospectors of our times are mining corporations, among the most ethically troubling entities to ever be dubbed a corporation. I look down at a beautifully wrought gold band, perfect for my girl friend's birthday, and I am struck (with shock, not wonder) with a fact: it takes an average of twenty tons of earth waste and toxic chemicals processed to create one gold ring. Landscapes are turned to craterscapes. That is an incredibly heavy conversion, and I have visions of my girl friend buried under twenty tons of stripped earth and toxic barrels.

Then, I realize there are workers involved in this processing. Workers in the African gold regions that are victim to daily toxic atmospheres and murderous gang territory wars over gold fields.

In effect, she would be wearing that legacy on her finger. Not a happy thought. The ring is so pretty and precious. It is the perfect gift, simply because it is so beautiful and eternally untarnishable. Yet, these issues kind of weigh in heavily.

Ethics at the Counter
Being a person of a budding social conscious, I ask the sales associate if I'm about to buy a gold gift for that special somebody, yet it will be forever tarnished with environmental, human and social wounds.

He says no. It turns out that over the past six years successful campaigns have reshaped the choices available to consumers and put some teeth into oversight of worldwide mining operations. In 2004 the "No Dirty Gold" campaign from the Oxfam nonprofit created a fairly good ripple effect into the jewelry industry, and at least brought the bad boy mining corporations into the spotlight. By Valentine's Day, 2006, eight of the largest jewelry retailers in the US pledged to move away from dirty gold.

The good guy retailers included: Zale, the Signet Group (parent company of Kay Jewelers), Tiffany, Helzberg Diamonds, Fortunoff, Cartier, Piaget, and Van Cleef & Arpels.

These jewelry retailers embraced a manifesto that includes:

  • Respect for basic human rights outlined in international conventions and law
  • Free, prior, and informed consent from affected communities
  • Respect for workers' rights and labor standards
  • Protecting parks and natural reserves from mining
  • Protecting oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams from mining wastes

So, who didn't sign on for this admirable and ethical commitment? JC Penny, Walmart, Sears and a few other big players.

I recall I'm standing in a Zales store. So, there is a sigh of relief as this particular ethical dilemma is neatly solved. If you want to buy gold jewelry with a clear conscience, seek out the eight committed purveyors above. Now, the dilemma of what in the heck my girlfriend will really like.

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Dark Chocolate: Underneath the Pleasure Zone

On occasion I like to peel back one of those thinly foiled, thickly rectangled chocolate bars and take a sheer bite of gastronomic heaven-savoring with an embarrassing mew of my mouth its melting all over titillated taste buds. It is goodness, as in the very definition of goodness: sweet, buttery, a faint sliver of tropical fruity bitterness. No wonder wine lovers use chocolate to describe one of the aromatic layers of rich red wine. I like chocolate, and I like to give chocolate on special or impromptu occasions. I'm a sucker for chocolate mint ice cream, Black Forest German chocolate cake, hot chocolate next to a blazing fire in an Aspen ski lodge, thick chunks of Ghirardeli Square chocolate (San Francisco). But I'm not a chocoholic. I don't need a fix every day, though a lot of people I know do—and chocolate is way up there in possessing the neural receptor molecules that jump to our brain's pleasure and mood zone neurology.

Surprisingly, when chocolate was first introduced into Europe through the Spanish colonial exploitation of central America (this leads to our ethical discussion), it was not sweet and buttery, but bitter. It was an appealingly bitter beverage-like coffee. In one of the thousands of happy happenstances in which new concoctions are concocted, somebody in Spain mixed the cocoa brew with sugar and a very expensive beverage was born. The Spanish kept their secret for about a hundred years. Then, the rest of Europe caught on and the sweet chocolate drink became so popular (and prized for its sexual stimulus) it was banned by the Catholic Church to children.

When chocolate was wedded with butter and sugar in a cooking alchemy, the chocolate solid candy created culinary history.

The Dilemma: about children and chocolate
While we eat chocolate in its many guises, we unwittingly are still engaged in the old colonial exploitation cycles of four centuries ago. The problem is still much the same: child labor or virtual slave labor used to tend and harvest the enormous tracts of cocoa plantations in west Africa, the new growing fields for cocoa.

For at least ten years human rights groups have been reporting on the mass use of child labor (9-12 years old) in cocoa-growing regions in Africa—often correlating it to slave labor.

I have eaten probably 50 chocolate bars since 2001, unknowing that in 2001 most of the US chocolate manufactures agreed to stop using child-labor chocolate by July, 2005. They did this under the leverage that legislation would be pursued to have their products labeled "slave free."

So far, three of the dominant chocolate makers—Hershey's, M&M's, Nestles—are still using cocoa from the Ivory Coast while hypocritically condemning the child labor practice. According to a widely-read article by Kate McMahon, many chocolate makers blame the families in the cocoa region for using or allowing their children to be used as virtual slaves. And they state they can't control the labor practices of their source.

The Name of Chocolate is not Hershey's
If you enjoy chocolate on occasion or are a hopeless addict, you don't have to be part of 21st century slave labor. There is way to alter your consciousness with chocolate without bugging your conscience. Inspired by the free trade philosophy and practice that has fairly successfully reshaped the economics of other third world export crops such as coffee, a good number of small chocolate purveyors offer fantastic chocolate without the stain of child labor.

These include: Clif Bar, Cloud Nine, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Denman Island Chocolate, Divine, Gardners Candies, Green and Black's, Kailua Candy Company, Koppers Chocolate, L.A. Burdick Chocolates, Montezuma's Chocolates, Newman's Own Organics, Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, Rapunzel Pure Organics and The Endangered Species Chocolate Company.

So, when I get that craving for chocolate or am shopping for a chocolately gift I search out one of these chocolate makers—available in most whole foods and specialty outlets. Many have online stores.

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Murky or Clear Radio Skies

Millions of us tune into radio stations at all hours of the day and night—at home, in the workplace, in our beloved cars glacially pinned in commuter traffic. I have favorite radio stations set on my tuning selector. As I travel from county to county stations come and go and I like to feel there is a definitive freedom in those airwaves. In the days of FDR, Route 66 and 70's king kong rock stations you could tune in dozens of stations, blast up the volume and you knew those stations were by and large independent and did not belong to the cultural pulpit of a single corporation. By federal telecommunications mandate, no single company could own more than 20 AM and 20 FM stations total.

Ten years ago that law protecting us from an economic (and by extension cultural) monopoly of radio changed. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 restricted the number of stations a single company could own in a single market (to eight), but removed the cap to total ownership.

Step in Clear Channel, a broadcast behemoth that now owns over 1200 radio stations, 35 television stations and 783,000 billboards across the US. The cultural monopolizing of our American airwaves has many people outspokenly concerned.

The Dilemma: Would the Founding Fathers listen to Clear Channel?
The Founding Fathers distilled the US Constitution and Bill of Rights out of the absolute atmosphere of freedom. Freedoms of the press, to assemble, of speech were carefully established and protected. Yet, unchecked radio and TV open ethical holes in those rights. Would Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin be cheery with Clear Channel and its widespread power over what the American population is exposed to? Doubtful.

Social pundits are clearly worried about the cultural power of mass radio delivery. In the entertainment industry, small players are frustrated at being locked out of valuable exposure time. Most people do not read to get their news and information on the world around them. They passively absorb through radio and TV. Clear Channel effectively is not an open bazaar of ideas and music forms but a channel for single philosophy demagoguery and very narrow musical tastes. Many opine it is about as close to propaganda in the free market that we've seen.

And the alarming concept of blacklisting from the Joe McCarthy days is making entertainment entrepreneurs fearful of Clear Channel's power. If they can't get air time for their performers, then we will never hear them. Fresh cultural innovation and the natural evolution of culture is stifled.

Tune in the low power boys, sat radio and internet radio
Fortunately, there are choices—depending on where you are. A decade of Clear Channel harvesting America's vast fields of airwaves has catalyzed the sporadic rise of radio revolutionaries. Using low-power radio technology these local stations can broadcast short distances with rich play lists and alternative-to-mainstream talking hosts. Clear Channel has played hardball with these upstarts but they are holding their ground. Independent stations still exist and thrive in many city markets. Satellite radio has brought greater range of music and fewer ads, but costs a bundle to get plugged in. The internet radiocast phenomenon is still taking baby steps, but there is some really great independent selections on the internet and much of it is ad free—kept afloat through listener donations.

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Organics Evolving into Wal-Mart Fare?

My first experience of organic was truly organic: a truck garden overflowing with richly colored, pungent-earthy smelling and succulent, intensely-flavored vegetables. The garden was tended with zeal and love as part of a food co-op, using all natural fertilizers and natural deterrents to pests and weeds. The meals out of that garden were sublime and oozed health. This was before organic saw its meteoric rise in the 1990's and was gradually transmogrified into the 2000's as a "brand."

Today, any supermarket or small village-style market worth its sea salt has a full blown organic section, complete with bushel and crate type displays to make you feel you're right on the farm inside Safeway or Piggly Wiggly. Organic is 50-100 percent more expensive, but shoppers are very willing to pay for the taste, health and environmental qualities of organic.

But to put Wal-Mart and organic in the same sentence is oxymoronic. Organic Wal-Mart? Yet, Wal-Mart has added an organic section to its big box high-volume, low prices warehouses. So has Dean Foods.

Growing organic labels
Wal-Mart and other uber companies tilling into the pure, earth-centric business of organic produce has sent up warning signals to a number of watchdog groups. Cornucopia Institute recently produced a pending study stating that large corporations are unduly shaping the "organic" label on food. Cornucopia contends that the Organic Trade Association engaged in "backroom dealings" that watered down federal organic guidelines—thus allowing huge corporations to come in with conveyor-belt organic foods that are not 100 percent organic.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), an advocacy group based in Minnesota observes, "Consumer spending on organic has grown so much that we've attracted big players who want to bend the rules so that they can brand their products as organic without incurring the expenses involved in truly living up to organic standards,"

One of the outcomes of the dilution of the organic label is three very different organic designations for labels, which should make shoppers carefully tend to reading the labels.

The three are:

  • "100 Percent Organic" label allows only organic ingredients and organic processing aids.
  • "Organic" label allows only foods containing 95 percent or more organic ingredients and only a limited number of strictly regulated non-organic ingredients.
  • "Made with Organic" must contain 70 percent or more organic ingredients.

Obviously, there is a huge difference between 100 Percent Organic and Made with Organic. Add up the amount of 30% nonorganic ingredients (meaning chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) over the passage of a year, and you've basically reversed all the benefits of buying the 70 percent organic.

You as the organic shopper
In October 2005, Congress weakened the organic-labeling law despite protests from more than 325,000 consumers and 250 organic-food companies. An added amendment to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill overturns a recent court ruling that barred the use of synthetic ingredients in "organic" foods. The OTA pushed for the change and claimed it will encourage the continued growth of organic foods.

With the OTA—which advocates for the businesses, and not the consumers—and Congress have presented us with another ethical choice in shopping for our organic fare. Do we settle for a mix of organic/synthetic (like a cotton/poly blend), or do we shop for the smaller, purer organic producers and outlets for the 100 percent Organic?

If enough consumers become aware of the labeling choices and realize that mixing chemical and organic is really a cancellation of the organic and is enormously profitable to the large companies—thus squeezing the smaller, purer organics—then the organic produce practice and philosophy may return to its roots.

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The Smell of Starbucks for Small Farmers

The last time I stepped into Starbucks was a couple of weeks ago. I went in for a Caffé Mocha to pick me way up, along with a herd of other coffee gazelles. The smells were, of course, roasting intoxicating, and there's always a feel-good sense of Starbucks, though the dent to the wallet if this becomes a habit is pretty hefty. I am one of the fifty-plus percent of Americans who indulge in coffee drinking every day of the week—a daily ritual as ceremonial and perky-calming as a Japanese tea ceremony. Another quarter of us drink coffee as an occasional beverage. Face it. We are coffee cowboys. The question is: are we fair coffee cowboys?

As I looked at the menu I noticed the Free Trade Certified coffee and I opted to try it in my caffé, giving me the extra jolt of knowing I was helping the coffee farmers receive a fair wage for their labor. It made my coffee that much more flavorful. Fair Trade means the coffee was paid for with fair market prices.

I think I was the only one at the counter who went for the Fair Trade coffee and it made me realize that for all the billions of cups of coffee we consume every year, a small margin of our money actually goes to the coffee farmers—independent and cooperative. They live in the borderland of near or actual poverty, victims of powerful coffee middlemen who force them to accept half the market price for their coffee. Their production prices are still the same. So, they end up in a steep cycle of debt and unremitting poverty. The coffee they produce largely goes to America, and Starbucks is an enormous buyer of middlemen-massaged low coffee prices.

Bean counters and Fair Trade
As coffalohics we spend an average of $200 a year on the brew. If you go into Starbucks regularly, it's probably four times that. Starbucks rakes in over $6 billion a year from about 10,000 coffee outlets in 37 countries. They are the gorilla on the block, and if they choose to bring more Fair Trade into their shops, things could really shift.

Fair Trade coffee is still a small cup of the traditional roasts—4 percent for instant and 18% for whole and ground. Further, the annual supply—170 million pounds—of Fair Trade is six times that of demand—about 37 million pounds. This is largely because of consumer ignorance, or apathy to the price. Fair Trade coffee costs $1.26 a pound, while conventional market coffee costs .60-70 cents a pound.

Starbucks buys 11 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee a year, which is a little under a third of the total amount of Fair Trade coffee bought on the market. Yet that 11 million pounds is only 3. 7% of what Starbucks stocks up on each year in coffee.

Economics espresso
As coffee drinkers we're being put in a hard place by the market middlemen. They engineer low coffee prices, which is attractive to the big coffee sellers, and we get coffee at low prices. If the world were all fair trade, we'd be paying double for our coffee. And all the coffee farmers would be earning a thriving living. That is a good exercise of global economics. Of course, we do have the choice to buy Free Trade Certified. To go ahead and pay the extra money. We can also make our voices known to Starbucks to start including more Fair Trade in their concoctions, and seeing if they can massage the price so there is more demand. Starbucks has the power to make an enormous difference.

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LEDs—lighting the future

Energy conservation through lighting technology has steadily advanced as our light bulbs went from incandescent (essentially, the same heat-producing and energy wasting bulbs that Thomas Edison invented over a hundred years ago) to fluorescent (with that very disturbing neon bluish light found in workplaces and box stores) to compact fluorescents. The compacts are very energy efficient, possess a much more pleasing light (especially the full spectrum variety), yet they don't appear to be the end of the evolution in light bulbs.

Displacing compacts as future of lighting in the estimates of many scientists and technology watchers are the LEDs—light emitting diodes. Small in size (a single diode is usually about the diameter of an ear swab stem), in the world of energy efficiency, they are about as efficient as our current physics allows. According to an article on MSNBC.com LED's emanate twice the light of 60-watt bulbs and burn for an amazing 50,000 hours. That is about 5 years of continuous light.

Technologists are predicting that LED lighting will be our standard lighting technology in the near future. The Department of Energy estimates that by year 2025 our energy consumption could be whittled down by 29% through LED technology.

No heat death
The conventional incandescent bulb (which creates light through electrical resistance in a filament wire) wastes 95% of its energy through heat loss. That means that all the world's incandescent lighting systems over the past century—plus have wasted 95% of the energy used to generate the light. That accounts for a huge chunk of our net energy budget.

In the LED technology there is zero heat generated, thus the energy going into creating LED light approaches very high energy to work output ratios—among the highest in science to date. A pair of good alkaline batteries can power a LED flashlight for years.

Further, LED's, unlike normal, fragile bulbs, are very hard to break.

The ethics of cost
LED light appliances are more expensive than compacts or incandescent. The technology for LED has been around for 30 years, but bringing it to market in usable forms and related manufacturing costs, and the fact that they last so long, contribute to a higher price. Further the LEDs are being primarily applied to focused light use—flash lights and reading lights. LEDs don't broadcast light in 360 directions as a normal bulb does. As thin tubes ending in the actual light diode they point in a single direction. Most flashlights use a cluster of diodes to gain more light projection.

Color LEDs have been in use by municipalities for traffic lights for a while, and they report recouping their costs for the more expensive LED system within a year. Similarly, a consumer could buy an LED appliance with a larger upfront cost, but gain it back in saved battery purchases fairly quickly.

There are a number of high quality LED appliances on the market, and it is rapidly growing from a novelty to a cultural must-have. Take a look at the products from the LED science—at the least you will be making a personal dent in our collective energy diet.

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Stock Investing that's Green and Viable

Investing in stocks or mutual funds is an important part of many Americans' plans for retirement or additional spending income. While many people look at the stocks performance metrics with a single goal of solid returns in mind, another criteria examines what the corporation's business is and how it conducts that business in relation to larger local, national and global concerns. This philosophy of investing is called Socially Responsible Investing or SRI. One of the more profound expressions of the ethical and social conscious emerging in our society is that of investments in corporate stocks that reflect environmental and socially responsible commerce or services. If the thought of your investments going into tobacco companies or paper companies that log old-growth forests really alarms you, then socially responsible investing is the most appropriate and viable alternative. As of 2005 $36 billion was seeded into SRI's (out of $5.6 trillion total in investment funds)—with the number of funds mushrooming from ten in the early 90's to fifty to choose from today.

Amy Domini, founder and CEO of Domini Social Investment observes, "People want to believe that some of what they invest is working toward a world of universal human dignity and environmental sustainability."

Funds not to go into and funds to go into
Essentially, in SRI, your money is being handled two ways. First, it is being steered away from corporations that are in some fashion harming the environment (directly or indirectly through policies) or engaging in business, labor or trade practices detrimental to the human standards of living and dignity expected in today's world society. In some cases religious filters are applied. Some religiously conscious funds, for instance, do not invest in the so-called sin funds of alcohol and gambling. One Catholic fund does not invest in hospitals that perform abortions.

With SRI you are confident your investment dollars aren't going into child labor on African plantations or to a company involved in weapons research.

Second, your investment is being directed into companies exhibiting good environmental policies and fair labor/social policies, or the religious/spiritual criteria that may be in place.

Green investment is growing, but is it competitive
While SRI's are great for ease of mind and an ethical expression of wealth generation, they still need to perform at a growing return rate for the fund owners. It is this concern that has been recently examined in newspaper articles and investor reports—with often conflicting conclusions.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor stated socially conscious funds and traditional funds were about even in performance, but the Domini Social 400, a well known SRI index, was lower than its traditional counterpart—the S&P—at the time of the article's publication. Some observers say this is because the Domini fund is not in tobacco and is lean on energy stocks. A Daily News article reported that 2/3rds of the largest SRI funds were behind their counterparts and some were losing money outright. Overall, since 2000, the SRI funds have lost 1.8 percent. SRI spokespeople point out that the corporate due diligence for their filtered funds is much more extensive and expensive than conventional funds. SRI managers of very successful funds also say they need to be compared to funds with similar investment styles.

On the other hand, Chicago-based fund tracker Morningstar says that SRI's assets have increased eight-fold, nearly three times that of traditional funds.

Studies have also shown that 75 percent of investors do perceive that the more ethical a corporation is in its policies and practices—including environmental, fiscal and social—the better it is as a long term investment.

Choosing green investments
Undoubtedly, the SRI's present a very ethical and responsible alternative to conventional investment funds. Yet, it is necessary to study the fund you want to invest with and ask the hard questions of the fund's people and track record. There are over fifty funds to choose from, and you need to look at both the short term and long term potentials.

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Fashion on the Eco Runway

Walk into any upscale boutique or clothing establishment that caters to new trends and there will be inviting feel-good floor displays and handsome shelves of apparel fashioned of organic, environmentally friendly and worker-friendly cloth. I went into such a store recently looking for a new shirt and was pleasantly surprised to sidle up next to organic hemp shirts that had a conscience. Workers were fairly paid for making them. The environment wasn't degraded and there weren't 17 teaspoons of chemicals used in processing this shirt (a true fact). Nice. And it's called eco-fashion.

Eco-fashion is a trend that is slowly catching fire as consumers realize they don't have to dress in nonorganics made for sweatshop wages and hurt the environment. Two successful shows in New York and San Francisco for eco-fashion were held in 2005. The doyens of major fashion houses and department store buyers are paying attention to this niche as are writers for the fashion magazine world—Lucky magazine for example.

Is this a real fashion change, or conjured out of whole cloth?
Designer Richie Rich says of eco-fashion: "It's definitely something we're going to continue toying with. People often perceive the fashion world as superficial, so it's great to work with materials that are actually good for the environment. I had my doubts, but when we actually saw the fabric swatches we were blown away. They were gorgeous, and it wasn't hard to design with them."

So the designers are weighing in with enthusiasm. No wonder. Among the sustainable materials used for cloth are bamboo, sea cell, soya and sasawashi (linen-like made from a Japanese leaf with anti-allergen and anti-bacterial properties).

Yet, with the attention, and there is nothing like the fashion world's attention, there is not a huge demand for eco-fashion—though there are no statistics on it yet. And there is the price. Eco-fashion is expensive. Critics are opining that eco-fashion is so expensive that it won't translate into a strong fashion appeal, and remain a niche that has little impact on the politics of environment and worker conditions.

Also, the pirates of knockoff are knocking off designer eco-clothes, attaching eco labels to clothes that may not have a stitch of eco in them. Further, there is no regulatory body governing this fledgling niche.

Some observe that designers are not creating new styles with eco clothes, but are refashioning existing lines—perhaps diminishing the appeal to more fashion conscious buyers.

On the more positive side, there is evidence that eco-fashion will have lasting power, as small retailers continue to serve the small market and larger companies educate their buyers in the virtues of eco clothes.

What to buy in clothing?
There is no doubt that shopping and buying eco clothing is the ethical thing to do. It's also kind of cool to think of the new materials being developed for the eco fashion wardrobe. Again, we're in this ethical well of being amongst a relative handful of buyers who buy with conscience yet are too few to influence the market. Is it a case of the power of one, or a hundred monkeys? Could be. And it could eventually make a long-lived change in the fashion world, unlike dead fads that were based on celebrity rather than conscience.

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