Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Freecycle to Freedom

Would you be surprised if I told you that right this minute there are 3,672,475 individuals or families who would give you, no strings attached, an item that you need if they owned that item and were done using it? A sofa, refrigerator, desk, clothing, computer, children's toys, just about anything you can think of that's legal and family-friendly could be yours for the asking. How? Freecycle.

The description from the website explains the way this on-line community works: "The Freecycle Network™ is made up of many individual groups across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them's good people). Membership is free. . . . The Freecycle Network was started in May 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson's downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills. The Network provides individuals and non-profits an electronic forum to 'recycle' unwanted items. One person's trash can truly be another's treasure!"

What a great way to get stuff for free, but, more importantly for many of us, what a great way to give stuff away. Let's say that you've tossed out the obviously useless things, you've handed off all that you can to family members and friends, you've done your eBay selling, you've consigned some antiques at a local shop, and maybe you've even put yourself through the torture of a garage sale. Well, first of all, congratulations on such an incredible achievement and please contact me immediately so that I can interview you because you are a rare soul indeed.

But now, what to do with what's left of the excess stuff? (I can guarantee that there still will be excess stuff, even after you've made all those other valiant efforts.) You don't just want to trash it because it's still useful. Sure, you could haul it over to your favorite local charity, or perhaps have them come by and pick it up, and I highly advocate that you consider doing so. But what do you do if you have items that aren't accepted by charities but are still in good condition? You may be surprised to learn that many charities don't take such things as mattresses and box springs or older appliances. Or what if you're moving, you absolutely must get that old dining table and chairs out of your apartment and you don't have the means to transport it all yourself? Or what if you just like the idea of giving away some of your stuff on a more personal level? Freecycle could be the perfect solution. You join your local group on-line (or consider starting a group if your area doesn't have one yet), post the item you want to give away on the website, and wait for responses. It's completely your choice how and to whom you give it away. (Freecycle offers suggestions regarding your personal safety, regrettably an issue that must be considered when dealing with others.)

Freecycle's goal is not to help alleviate the needs of the many impoverished citizens of our society; there are charitable organizations and government assistance programs that are supposed to be devoted to that mission. Freecycle's goal is to help keep things out of the landfill. It's a great example of the convergence of local environmental activism, on-line social networking, and recycling at its best.

Do we really need a program like Freecycle? Oh, yes. According to a Lubbock Online article by Marlena Hartz about their local Freecycle group, that Texas county has two landfills. Some 2,000 to 2,400 tons of waste are added to those landfills daily. The population of Lubbock County in 2006 was only 254,862. Extrapolate that to the population of our entire country, currently estimated at 302,438,836 people, and the amount of trash we're piling into our landfills is staggering.

We need all the help we can get and Freecycle is one of many programs that offer hope. In a CNNMoney.com article by Marc Gunther, Daniel Ben-Horin, the founder of the nonprofit Web site, TechSoup, says, "What is really interesting about Freecycle is that unlike a lot of virtual communities, something very concrete happens."

Making something concrete happen to cut the amount of waste we generate is crucial on a national level, but it's also important for us individually. If we've wised up enough to realize that we own more than we need and we're ready to let go of the excess, Freecycle offers us a unique way to part with it.

Got something you could Freecycle? Of course you do. We all do.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Connections: Fair Trade Jewelry

I went to a gathering at a friend's apartment this afternoon where an artisan was having a small showing of her hand-crafted jewelry, an artistic medium she had only recently discovered. It was beautiful, ornate beaded work that clearly showed the loving care put into its creation. The artisan was eager to talk about her process and delighted by the positive response she was receiving. At one point she commented to me that she had been surprised by much of the low quality jewelry that is being sold at very steep prices in many high-end stores and boutiques here in Los Angeles. Her work is certainly not inexpensive, and her profit will be cut at least by half should she decide to sell through retail outlets, but she plans to try to make her living doing something she loves. I find that admirable and bold. With hard work and good fortune, eventually she could find herself competing at the end of the jewelry spectrum reserved for exclusive "designer names."

But way down at the other end of the spectrum are the little trinkets that can be found at chain stores like Forever 21 and their jewelry-only branch, For Love 21. Referred to as "The Tiffany of Thrift" in today's LA Times article by Melissa Magsaysay, these shops sell style knock-offs ("homages?") that offer the budget-conscious shopper a chance to replicate the look of fashion mavens who sport the designs of Chanel, Hermes, and Cartier. For under ten bucks, you, too, can own the hottest, trendiest accessories, if only in their scaled-down versions.

How do they do it? How can so much jewelry be manufactured so cheaply for sale there and at so many other stores? I have absolutely no idea specifically where Forever 21, or any of the other large number of stores that sell cheap jewelry, get their products made or what the conditions of manufacture may be (legal disclaimer!), but I doubt that they come from women like the one I met earlier today at my friend's home. No, if I were a betting gal, I'd put my money on imports. And once we start talking about imports, we've entered the messy and complicated area of "fair trade."

According to a well-written explanation on Wikipedia, fair trade "is an organized social movement which promotes standards for international labour, environmentalism, and social policy in areas related to production of fair trade labelled and unlabelled goods. The movement focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries. Fair trade's strategic intent is to deliberately work with marginalised producers and workers in order to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security and economic self-sufficiency. It also aims at empowering them to become stakeholders in their own organizations and actively play a wider role in the global arena to achieve greater equity in international trade."

Fair trade promotes, among other things, fair prices for producers, gender equity, and decent working conditions. Most of us have heard about garment manufacturing in sweatshops in this country and around the world that resulted in cries of outrage over the shocking conditions that workers tolerated, but what about that cheap jewelry? What are the conditions workers endure who create it? Someone has to paste on those little crystals. Someone has to polish those less-than-gem-quality stones.

World of Good is a non-profit organization that actively promotes fair trade through various economic development projects. They offer internship opportunities and their website also offers a blog. One intern, Emily, recently posted her experience visiting a sweatshop in New Delhi. If you have the stomach to read it, it's quite an astounding report. The conditions in which these impoverished people, including young children and the elderly, create jewelry and decorative embellished items are appalling and, in fact, almost unbelievable.

In its article about child labor, Wikipedia surprisingly offers a defense of the practice, bolstered by the thoughts of the late economist, Milton Friedman, and research by UNICEF. Although naturally we're inclined to respond to the horror of the situation and may want to boycott companies that support such practices, the article points out that there are other considerations. "Poor families often rely on the labours of their children for survival, and sometimes it is their only source of income. . . . [A] UNICEF study found that 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese children turned to prostitution after the United States banned that country's carpet exports in the 1990s. Also, after the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as 'stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution,' -- all of them, according to a UNICEF study [1] more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.'"

The complexity of this issue demands thoughtful action, but what exactly should that action be? I can't even begin to fathom a solution for such an insidious, worldwide problem, but I can think of small choices to make as an individual who is concerned about it. You may wish to consider these choices, too: (1) support local artisans when it's feasible and affordable, or (2) purchase fair trade items when that's a better decision financially or aesthetically.

Of course, we've already discussed in other posts the fact that it's not possible to know the source of every item we buy, or avoid buying some items that come from less-than-impeccable manufacturers. Obviously, you can easily drive yourself crazy simply trying to be informed. But because so many of the items that are produced under completely unacceptable conditions are decorative rather than necessary for our survival, maybe sometimes it's simply better not to purchase anything at all. Instead, you could try being creative -- make your own jewelry and decorative things. Or just send that money to UNICEF or another organization that's trying to work on solutions to free all the world's citizens from such desperate poverty and intolerable working conditions.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Thinking Outside the (Mail) Box

People often talk about the Post Office the way they talk about the weather; they'll complain but figure there's nothing much they can do about it. And yet, just like the weather, things eventually do change, even at the Post Office.

A recent USPS press release announced that they have received "Cradle to Cradle" certification. If you're unfamiliar with the cradle-to-cradle concept, here's the basic tenet as it's expressed on the MBDC website, on-line home of the architecture and design firm of William McDonough and Michael Braungart:

"Instead of designing cradle-to-grave products, dumped in landfills at the end of their 'life,' MBDC transforms industry by creating products for cradle-to-cradle cycles, whose materials are perpetually circulated in closed loops. Maintaining materials in closed loops maximizes material value without damaging ecosystems."

This eco-friendly manufacturing and recycling design concept is being implemented at the Post Office by requiring ". . . all 200 suppliers contributing to the manufacture of Postal Service envelopes and packages [to]complete a demanding series of measurements and assessments of materials for human and environmental health. Maintaining these new, higher standards is now an integral part of doing business with the Postal Service."

This also means that, "based on the recycled content of the more than 500 million Express Mail and Priority Mail packages and envelopes the Postal Service provides its customers each year, more than 15,000 metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions (climate change gases) now will be prevented annually. Express Mail and Priority Mail boxes and envelopes also are 100 percent recyclable."

Pretty huge impact and certainly a laudable effort. But what if we take this kind of reform a step further?

One of the biggest organizational frustrations for most people is the huge amount of junk mail they receive. Even if you request the removal of your name from every available mailing list and through every available service, you will still get unsolicited mail, most of it junk. All of this unsolicited mail uses the Post Office's bulk mail rate. What if the Post Office required that every piece of mail that used the lower bulk mail rate also had to use mailing materials that were certified cradle-to-cradle? Think that would cut down the unsolicited mail we all get? Think that might make marketers a bit more selective when putting together their mailing lists? Oh, yes.

True, this could be a cost-prohibitive requirement for non-profit organizations and perhaps they could be allowed to make the change more slowly, over a period of a few years. But non-profit organizations already should be showing some discretion about the number of mailings they send out, even to supporters. I am very much in favor of donating to worthy causes, but I do get annoyed (and drop a charity from my list) if I see that my donations are being used primarily to solicit more donations through numerous mailings throughout the year.

I think this change would be a win-win situation, for the environment and for citizens. What do you think?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, July 06, 2007

What Makes a House a Home: Debt and Laundry

Big surprise. The housing boom is not booming anymore, at least in most of the country. During the boom, many homeowners, including a great many first-time buyers, took advantage of easy credit (especially sub-prime loans for people with less than stellar credit histories) and loans that were structured primarily for the benefit of the lender (such as interest-only loans). While property values were climbing and interest rates favored homeowners, many people took out home equity loans to get extra cash to pay for home improvements or, I suspect in a lot of cases, just to buy more stuff.

And now, with money tightening and refinancing interest rates no longer on their side, these folks are stuck and often can't make their home equity loan payments. According to a July 3rd press release from the American Bankers Association, delinquencies in this debt category rose to 2.15% in the first quarter of this year, an increase from 1.94% last year. It's a situation that presents an ironic twist on the old rule about gambling in Las Vegas: the House always wins.

Another ironic twist is that the very next day, "Independence Day," an article by E. Scott Reckard and Andrea Chang in the LA Times about consumer debt indicates that independence is the last thing many consumers are achieving. They cite information from David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies:

". . . anecdotal evidence reflects more people under financial stress. . . . [CCCA] members were reporting more debt-ridden consumers unable to make monthly payments, often on mortgages with adjustable rates that now are ratcheting higher after initial teaser rates ran out."

In previous decades, people sacrificed in other areas of their lives in order to pay their mortgages and hold onto their homes. That's no longer the case. Todd Emerson, president of Springboard, a nonprofit consumer credit management organization in Riverside, California, comments:

"People today, in order to keep themselves alive, they're paying off their credit cards first rather than paying off their mortgages first in order to keep an open line of credit. . . . Many of those homeowners bought expensive properties with a 'figure it out when they get there' mentality. . . . Trouble is . . . they never figure it out."

So the final irony is that after reading all about the debt problems plaguing homeowners, I recalled that a recent LA Times (June 28) had featured this Home Section's trend update for those who want to be considered fashionable:

"Is That Evian in the Washer? Conspicuous consumption creeps into the once-humble laundry room, where stone floors, chandeliers and other luxe touches are in."

Writer Janet Eastman's article explains:

"Now that kitchens are equipped to impress a chef, bathrooms look like spas and closets can hold a diva's wardrobe, the laundry area is ready for its close-up. It's moving out of the garage and into a larger space often near bedrooms — the starting and stopping points for most laundry. The room is being outfitted with warming drawers for clothes too dainty for dryers, rotary presses to iron sheets and laundry sinks with whirlpool jets to clean bulky comforters.

And for those who miss the simplicity of a clothesline? A $3,750 indoor air-drying unit promises to deliver something close to a fresh-breeze scent."

Stone floors? Chandeliers? An indoor air-drying unit? After many years as an apartment dweller, when we moved into a house I was thrilled simply to have laundry facilities that didn't require leaving the premises. Now that we're in a smaller townhouse, I'm still thrilled about that wonderful convenience and I cope quite comfortably with a washer and dryer hidden behind louvered doors in the first floor powder room. But, as is often the case, the perspective of the wealthier denizens of the Los Angeles area is different:

"In some estates in Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, the laundry rooms are 400 square feet or larger, allowing a maid and professional ironer to work together — not a concern for most homeowners."

No, most homeowners don't have to worry about the hired help struggling to function in cramped quarters. And because perspective is always important, I have no doubt that plenty of New Yorkers would have a few choice words to share about laundry rooms of that size. Four hundred square feet does make a pretty fine apartment in Manhattan.

So, what we can conclude from all this is that consumers are paying off credit cards first, thereby jeopardizing ownership of their homes, but if they own homes and want to be cool, now's the time to fill up those credit cards to make their laundry rooms elegant. Okay, maybe I do still have one more irony left in me: doesn't it sound like a lot of homeowners are being taken to the cleaners?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob