Friday, June 24, 2011

Eat Cupcakes for Small Business!

I love Cupcake Royale. I don't even know how to start.  Well, let's start with what most of us will love about them: their cupcakes are excellent, and their frosting techniques are superb.  Some will argue, that they are not the best game in town.  I can't speak to the truth of that argument. I don't care. I won't even think of visiting one of the three other cupcake boutiques I can think of just in my neighborhood.  Because Royale is unique and special in ways that out play what I could only envision as a marginally better cupcake, as Royale's are so near my idea of perfection.
I frequent this shop 1-2 times a week, and I will continue to do so in order to establish myself as a die hard fan.  They have a commitment to local, sustainable ingredients. Their chocolate, of course not grown in Washington, but sourced from the social justice-focused Seattle company Theo Chocolates, makes for rich and eco-guiltless treats.  They source their fruit, grain, eggs, butter and cream locally direct from farmers. That really only leaves the sugar, which is organic.  It's about as good as it gets without giving up dessert altogether, and no one really wants that.  Last winter I walked in and was offered a chocolate cupcake with strawberry frosting, but immediately assured that they were using house-preserved local berries rather than imported berries. Umm, yes please!
They are also a great company.  With 4 locations, it is growing but slowly, and they still manage to donate over 25,000 cupcakes a year to charitable fundraisers.  Currently their shops are offering "The Gay" cupcake, which benefits the It Gets Better Project. With a heart like that, how could you say no to cupcakes?
I think the cherry on top for Royale is their attitude.  Their merchandise is fun, sassy and amusing. The sort of kitchy rock theme they tend to have somehow works for baking, which has become rather badass thanks to certain Food Network celebrities. Sort of funny to like Food Network with badass, but it can happen. So, I encourage you all to get over your calorie guilt and embrace your local treats. The extra pleasure comes from knowing only you and your neighbors get to eat it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Corporations and the Supreme Court: Dukes v. WalMart

The Supreme Court decided today that WalMart would not be held liable for a mass of women claiming discriminatory practices by the corporation.  Statisticians have been able to show that women make less money than men and earn fewer promotions than men, even when compared to competitors.  So, 1.6 million women were suing the company for a cease of said behavior and back pay.  The Supreme Court basically decided that they were asking too much, that Walmart would run out of money or time or something if it had to process all claims made against it. The question buzzing around the media now is, "Can a corporation be too big to discriminate?"
The case itself is complicated.  I am sure that WalMart does not have an official Keep Women Down policy, so it's unclear how liable WalMart Corporate really is.  One could reasonably assume that many of WalMart's locations are in places where women are not valued in the work place, and therefore managers may not be so apt to promote women.  A good case can also be made that women tend to not push as hard for promotions and raises as men. So maybe WalMart isn't causing the problem.  I'm not really angry with the supreme court for ruing the way it did.
What isn't sitting well with me is that everyone is recognizing there is a problem, and rather than coming up with creative ways to promote the value of female managers, WalMart is simply throwing lawyers at the complaint and using its vast power to make it go away. The discussion we should be having is not "Is it WalMart's Fault?", but rather, "How can WalMart fix this problem?", and no one, not even the plaintiffs, is asking that  question.
It also reflects a disturbing trend in Supreme Court rulings that is decidedly pro big business, such as the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited political funding from special interest groups.  Basically the constitution is being interpreted in a way right now that allows money to be a form of free speech, making the tiny percentage of people or organizations with a lot of money the only voices with microphones.  This pro WalMart ruling suggests an even further, darker freedom: mulitnational corporations are too big to oversee widespread unethical practices, so they might as well not bother.
All this behavior is fueled by the American consumer's love of cheap and convenience.  Low cost business models mean employees are under trained and under valued, and easily replaced.  Paul Roberts cites in his book The End of Food that Walmart is likely responsible for significant reduction in food costs, but also the decline of middle class wages. 
In conclusion, I'd like to thank the supreme court for giving me yet another reason not to shop at WalMart. I'd rather be able to trace liability when evidence of discrimination is clear.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Shopping the farmer's market

Summer is here (rain or not) and that means markets! Where I live there are actually 3 markets a week, so I am definitely fortunate.
There is a lot of debate about whether or not eating local is viable, but it is hard to find an argument not to go to a farmer's market if there is one near you.  You can really learn what's in season, meet local producers and entrepreneurs, and fond some really great street food.  If something is in abundance, it's also a really good deal. I found asparagus last week picked that very morning for $2.50 a pound.  For the same price you can buy imported, flavorless tomatoes from Mexico, I found heirloom green house grown tomatoes that were fresh, flavorful and delicious.  Fresh bread, chocolate sauce, wild morel mushrooms, cured salmon, pasta, greens, lettuces and tacos! You get the picture.  You will not find finer food unless you catch, kill, forage or grow it yourself.  And when you buy fresh, you need to do so very little to your food that you can cut cooking time down significantly. Here's a recipe for my fresh bounty from last week.  The only ingredients I didn't buy at the market are salt and olive oil.

Fresh Pasta with Tomatoes and Herbs
2 Dinner Sized servings

1/2 lb fresh artisan pasta (4$)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (.50)
1 bulb garlic or spring onions, minced (3$)
1 large heirloom tomato (3$)
2 tablespoons basil, parsley, mint or tarragon, minced (.50)
Salt, to taste

Boil pasta according to directions. Reserve 1/2 cup salty pasta water.
In the mean time, heat the olive oil on medium low heat, and add the garlic and tomatoes. Cook gently for about 7 minutes, then add cooked pasta.  Let simmer another two minutes to let the pasta absorb. Add water gradually until the dish is a good consistency.  Turn off heat, sprinkle with herbage and serve.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Companies supporting communities- Teatulia Tea

Another company I am completely in love with is Teatulia, a Colorado based tea purveyor bringing sourcing to whole new level of sustainability. Check out their video below.
The farm they source from is owned by the women of the village next to it, and the crew at Teatulia not only buys their tea but coaches them in sustainable farming practices, and they recently spent 3 weeks there to build a library.  They also engage in microfinance, as well as provide livestock and other life-improving services to the people in that region of Bangledesh.
Did I mention that their tea is fantastic? So fragrant, so fresh, it's like all that human goodness went into the product.  Also, besides organic farming, they only thing they add to their tea are herbs from the same area. Pure, unadulterated lemongrass, tulsi, and ginger, creating natural goodness without the suspicious words like "flavoring" or "spices". 
And their packaging is 100% biodegradable. No plastic (they do make a bioplastic derived eucalyptus leaves for their sample packages), no unnecessary individual wrappings for the tea bags, and you can throw container, tea and all in the yard waste bin.
For about ten dollars, you can get a container of 16 tea bags. This might sound pricey at first, but if you are the type normally uses two tea bags per mug, like me, then it is well worth it, because I can make a great mug of tea with just one bag.  You can also buy it in loose leaf and make it in your french press.  Overall a great product supporting community and sustainability in smart ways.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why Small Business is Good for our Economy

What if I told you that someone in the 1980s was making more money doing your job?
We hear all the time that the middle class is shrinking. What does that mean? Watch this two minute video from Robert Reich for a summary (disclaimer, that video is sponsored by, liberal hippie etc etc), but let me lay some MBA knowledge on you.
Our economy is the largest in the world, meaning American commerce generates more money than any other country. We could match every state with an entire country that produces the same amount of dollars.  Our economy produces 14.12 trillion dollars.  Economists will argue until they are blue in the face, but the bottom line is that we became over inflated, and when companies began to figure out how to do the same amount of business with less labor, and layoffs began.
Companies aren't really not making money. CEO's could technically stop making tens of millions of dollars and hire people. But, why would you if you don't have to?  Maybe some of us would be willing, but I doubt any company would hire people just because they feel guilty that unemployment is high.
But, if we as consumers can support small business, they have room to grow. Small business is not focused on efficiency or cutting costs, they are focused on market share, differentiation and sales.
It is easy to be disgusted by wall street bankers and CEO's but we have to remember that they wouldn't have that money if we didn't give it to them.  Let's take control of our economy and support the underdogs!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Alta Gracia

When I was at Green Fest this year, I heard a talk by a representative from a company called Alta Gracia, which is a company that makes apparel specifically for universities, out of a factory in the Dominican Republic. 
She spoke about Knights Apparel, a major clothing manufacturer that decided, "Hey, let's try this fair wages thing in our factories." And so they opened a factory and installed revolutionary ideas like fans, lunch breaks, fair wages, health benefits and other little known amenities.  The employees are able to purchase a house, send their kids to school, and not worry about having enough food. That's nice, I think to myself.
Then she hits us with the real shocker. She asks us, "How much do you think it costs per garment for Alta Gracia to pay their workers a living wage?"
My immediate thought is that it must be outrageous, otherwise why would sweatshops ever exist...
Someone says 16 dollars. I think that's a bit steep, and the speaker shakes her head.
Someone says 4 dollars. The speaker grins slightly.
"It costs Alta Gracia 80 cents per garment to pay fair wages and provide good working conditions."
Eighty cents out of a 20 dollar tee shirt? You have got to be kidding me.
So you must be thinking, like I did initally, that sweatshops must be some heinous act of evil by someone who has no regard for human life.  But, the model of progress, the capitalist system, makes the CEOs only see it from one angle.  If you are churning out 1 million shirts a year as a company and someone tells you that you can save your company 800,000 dollars by shipping the work to country with little to no labor laws, you are suddenly the company hero.  You get promoted in business by either selling like mad or saving operational dollars.  When being faced with success our ability to look the other way at injustice become more trained.
But, Alta Gracia exists because consumers, in their case students, became proactive about how their clothing was being made. Companies start caring when customers use their voice. Good companies can only exist because we support them.  It has really made me rethink the clearance rack at Macy's.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Company Spotlight- Middlefork Roasters

My first company profile is about a great company that is near and dear to me, Middlefork Roasters.  On the surface, to you, the consumer, they are just another specialty coffee company, and in Seattle, they seem to be a dime a dozen. Coffee is sort of a big deal up here, not sure if you've heard. However, when you meet Matt and Macky, the co-owners, you realize they are the perfect example of small business owners living for their passion, and from day one I have tried my best to support them.
Coffee is a funny commodity.  It doesn't really provide calories or any nutritional value, and it is not widely consumed in the areas is grown. It also takes a lot of water to grow relative to other crops. So, it may not seem like the greatest thing ever for a locavore or environmentalist to consume. However, the coffee industry has some good things going for it, such as shade growth for birds, widespread sustainable farming practices, and the ability to participate in fair trade and organic certifications.  It also provides work for thousands of bean freaks, eager to share their philosophy on bean characteristics and roasting techniques.  Moderate consumption of coffee also has shown significant health benefits (with admittedly, some risks).  Overall, I think we can admit that coffee is pretty awesome and if we all had to choose one luxury in our attempts at being more disciplined coffee would be a popular choice.
So, accepting coffee as acceptable, the important thing to look for is generally a fair trade and organic label, right? Well, keep in mind that these labels are purchased by the farmer as well as the processing facility, and while oversight on these claims is important, it is not comprehensive.  The USDA won't certify something organic out of the goodness of its heart.  And in fact, it is illegal for any company that may be purchasing organically grown coffee to say that if the company or the farm is not certified. So, while it's understandable that the certification process can be costly, the regulations are asking the people with the least amount of discretionary income to fork out cash they don't have in order to secure your peace of mind as the consumer.  As far as I know, there aren't any grant opportunities or programs to ease this burden on new startups.  Then suddenly, you are wondering if these regulations are a result of large companies lobbying to block the threat of entry into the market? That is a fanatic insinuation, however, and has no factual backing.

So the alternative here is to embrace the small.  In most cases I think we can assume cheap and crappy is more or less covered by the economies of scale, so this is where Middlefork steps in.  They don't have the buying power to compete with Millstone or Starbucks, so they are already paying at or above market value for their green beans, which is mostly what fair trade covers. They build relationships with farmers and assure the beans are grown sustainably.  They are constantly out in the community, sampling their product at grocery stores and farmer's markets, and creating custom blends for cafes.  They are building relationships, and creating a customer base that trusts they are doing the right thing.  Not to mention their outstanding work ethic and their devotion to their company.
Last month, Macky and Matt threw a benefit for the Red Cross for Japan relief.  Macky and their other associate Theresa are also camp counselors for children with diabetes.  In the six months I have known them I have personally witnessed them giving time, product or money to no less than four charitable causes, including donating to a cause I had solicited them for, without hesitation.  Their custom-built roaster is made to reduce emissions and exhaust than traditional roasters.  All four of them are charming, considerate talented fans of the Seattle area and their company, and that is worth more than looking for a seal on a bag.  They are a new company, less than three years old, and already have been able to attain high coffee standards.  They will, I am sure, obtain organic certification this year or next, but in the meantime I support their mission to deliver the best possible coffee to our homes and our cafes.
Middlefork is an example of how you can go to local roasters, farmer's markets and supermarket demos to build relationships with the people providing your commodities.  You can learn who to trust, and go beyond labels and marketing and price tags.
I am, by the way, in no way related to Middlefork, they have not paid me in cash or merchandise to write about them, and they will probably be embarrassed by this post when (if) they read it.  Having said that, Middlefork has the Conscious Consumer Seal of Approval, which is free.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Pillars of Consuming Consciously

When you are an idealist, it's easy to feel guilty about... well, everything.  Eating conventional food, wearing anything fashionable, using electricity, not donating to good causes.  The truth is, even a perfect idealist would never be fulfilled because we will never achieve a perfect environment.  So, where do you find a balance?  It's important for me to communicate that this blog is not out to crush industry or progress. I am not expecting everyone in the world to give up drinking bottled water, conventional beef or shopping at WalMart.  I have chosen to give up those things, but I still drive a car, I don't have a garden, and (gasp) I am not a great recycler. 
I've realized that it's difficult for me to give up things I find very convenient.  For the same reason, someone else might put a lot of effort into recycling and zero effort into cooking from scratch, because they happen to have recycling pick up in their back yard but don't know how to cook.  Convenience is subjective, and everyone has different ideas about how to conserve time in some places in order to make more time for areas more important to them.  There's nothing wrong with that.  The convenience filter is necessary, in fact, in order to keep us all from going completely out of our minds.  It helps our minds prioritize, because it is impossible (especially in our current economic and values culture) to do everything "good" or "right", and there is also a lot of disagreement over what is good and right in the first place.  We have to choose a focus that sits well with us, something that makes us feel aligned correctly without feeling like we have to save the universe.
Consuming Consciously means putting your money in the places that fight for your cause.  I buy sustainably raised food because I believe it is better for our future.  I don't drink bottled water because it is not only a rip-off but an environmental disaster. My view is that companies like Walmart and McDonald's have driven our economy into a low profit, high volume model that small businesses can't compete with.  Business, however, will always be driven to expand, make more money, become more powerful.  The only way to change the ethical behavior of business is to change the ethical behavior of our consumption.  You can tell the world how you feel by how you choose to spend your money.  Would you like Hershey to buy fair trade chocolate? The buy fair trade chocolate.  You don't like the price of gas? Buy a bike.  Upset that Monsanto prevents GMO labeling? Give up processed food altogether.  I would never tell you what to care about, I just want you to care about something. Do you love local? Buy in season and go to farmer's markets.
The second pillar of being a conscious consumer is to learn to live on less. Americans consume a lot more calories than we used to, along with an excess of material things that we don't really need.  While it's enjoyable to have shiny electronics and their inevitable high bills, I would suggest, gently, trying a new hobby that isn't shopping.  Need a buddy? is a great resource if you live near a city.  We talk a big game about not being able to afford this or that, but we are reluctant to use things that are free, such as using the library, walking, or volunteering, and all of these things are usually more gratifying when we fight the laziness bug, and all of them can help you live more frugally.
Finally, consuming consciously will reflect a shift in values.  We are raised to believe that success in life means that you are financially successful.  Children are encouraged to follow lucrative career paths (although not entrepreneurship?) rather than ones they are passionate about.  We have become gradually more individualist, resulting in all of us standing alone on our islands, filled with our piles of stuff.  We work hard at jobs we hate so that we can take vacation, therefore spending even less time in our communities becoming connected to the people in them.  We should work on unlearning this, and instead of complaining about needing to get out of town, start thinking about what would make us more fulfilled (not distracted).  Consuming consciously means having purpose behind every purchase rather than using it as a tool for entertainment.
This post and the last one have laid a foundation, and now I will start sharing of my Conscious consumption experiences and likes, and I hope that this will become a forum for sharing as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Volunteering- spending time consciously as well

Companies saving the environment- United by Blue

Who is The Conscious Consumer?

When I was little, I wanted to be an actress more than anything. I loved the idea of becoming a character and existing in a world where everything was fantastic, creative and moving.  As I got older, I became interested in literature and writing, then language.  I always thought I had to find some career in the arts, so that I could surround myself with artists.  I also became more and more idealistic, imagining an environment where people respected and took care of each other.
I had a cynical side, however, and after experiencing some hardship; as well learning my tendency to become a mess in the face of rejection,and my youthful desperation to get out of town, I decided I would get practical and ended up joining the military. Other direction, much? I would say so.  Needless to say, it did not work out, but my creative urges by that time had centered to cooking.  Food is instant gratification as far as creation is concerned, and it was something I came to take great solace in.  I went to culinary school, become a line cook, and became easily discouraged by the absolute lack of creativity in the daily operation of a restaurant.
I continued to be passionate about food, though, and became more interested in being a locavore, supporting our brave restaurateurs and local farmers. I became more aware of oil consumption in the agriculture industry, where our food waste goes, and the frightening rise in empty calorie consumption in America. I slowly started thinking about the food I was purchasing, going to more local markets, and eating less meat.  My interests in fair and clean eating have expanded to all aspects of commerce, including wanting to learn more about working wages, social ventures, and safe and clean home products. 
A couple of years later, I found myself back in retail, going way back to my first job at my grandfather's pet and garden store.  Full circle, as we often find ourselves.  And as frustrating as retail is, it does give me one thing I have always wanted, the opportunity to connect with people. When I began buying for retail, I began to meet some amazing people who had braved the recession and broke out into business for themselves, fighting the hyper-efficient corporate machine that loves to screw the little guy, becoming the Davids in our Goliath economy. I fell in love with them, these tiny entrepreneurs.
When I began looking at ways to use my education benefits (oh THAT's why I joined the navy), I landed in business school, so that I could learn more about our economy and how to have a business of my own someday.  So here I am now, a rogue idealist in a sea of future suits, wondering why so few of us want to save the world rather than own it. 
This blog will reach out to those who want to support good business, learn more about companies that make difference for good, and incorporate practices that reduce our addiction to mass-consumption.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blog 2.0- The Reset

Ok, here's the story with me and blogging-
I think I have something to say, I start out saying it, then quickly decline into mindless ranting.
So, this is my pledge to the blogosphere:
I have deleted my previous, half thought out posts, and decided instead to devote my web space to celebrating companies I really love that I believe help make the world better.
While I love to complain, I really love spending my money on products made by companies that want to be more than financially successful.
So, stay tuned for a much more positive blog, with the occasional information piece on subjects I actually know something about rather than spreading the fear and frustration of idealists.
Thank you to my followers that tune in, and get ready for a do over in the next couple of weeks.