Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Slow Food Nation

This weekend in San Francisco, Slow Food Nation will bring artisans, farmers, cooks, chefs, groupies and food connoisseurs together with apples, goat cheese, melons, pears, and heirloom tomatoes. The Slow Food movement started in the 1980’s as Italians, who have been cultivating and farming for centuries and centuries, saw a sudden shift to industrial agriculture that homogenized their food choices and harmed the environment. The event is considered to be the Slow Food movement’s American Coming Out Party and a celebration of more the twenty years of resisting industrial agriculture.

Slow Food Nation, along with
Slow Food USA , promotes a food system based on principles of high quality and taste, environmental sustainability, and social justice. The movement calls attention to the schism between our plate and planet and supports hard working, passionate and struggling family farmers across the country.

In college one of my favorite volunteer experiences was working on a sheep cheese farm,
Shepherd’s Way, in rural Minnesota. Earlier in the year a fire destroyed most of a barn and killed many of the sheep and when their insurance refused to cover all of the damages, the family, whose cheeses were award winning, was struggling to pay the bills. Through the help of the community they were able to get volunteers to help out with the day to day work, but even though their cheese was sold at high prices in expensive stores across Minneapolis and St. Paul, they continue to struggle.

It’s easy to dismiss the Slow Food movement as an elite pastime to complain about subtle differences in olive oils or fruit chutneys, but the movement is focused on fighting industrial agriculture practices that are bad for the environment and communities. Companies like AMD and Cargill make a ton of money by treating people and land merely as profits and make no consideration for the long term effects of their decisions on soil, water, food, nutrients, or communities. The Slow Food Nation event this weekend will do exactly the opposite of that. It will celebrate the people, the soil, the animals, air and environment that all come together to create the very essence of survival: food.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fine Wine in a Box?

What comes to mind when you think about boxed wine? For me, it brings back fond memories of drinking affordable Franzia in college. Well, the New York Times reported this week that more wine producers are packaging their fine wine in boxes too. Italy's Agriculture Ministry announced that some wines that receive the government's quality assurance label may not be sold in boxes. The concept of good boxed wine is nothing new--it's been around for more than 30 years, with Australia being the first country to popularize it.

So what's so good about boxed wine? The lighter packaging reduces the producers' carbon footprint, for one. According to the Times article, more than 90 percent of American wine production occurs on the West Coast, but the majority of its consumers live east of the Mississippi. A standard bottle of wine holds 750 milliliters of wine and emits 5.2 pounds of carbon dioxide while traveling from a vineyard in California to a shelf in New York. In comparison, a 3-liter box generates about half the emissions per 750 milliliters. If 97 percent of wines sold in the U.S. were put into boxes, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions within a year by about two million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.

With America soon becoming the largest wine market in the world, we should start thinking about all the greenhouse gases we're producing while drinking. The problem, however, is that boxed wine in America is hard to market because of its stigma as a cheap, lower-quality variety. It's admittedly hard to imagine an expensive wine coming out from a plastic spigot. It does have its advantages however, as boxed wine can be stored for about four weeks (compared to the bottled variety, which only lasts a day or two). More importantly, per glass prices of wine will be cheaper out of the box since producers can ship more with less weight and boxes are cheaper than bottles.

All in all, boxed wine seems like the right (and increasingly necessary) choice to make. Theoretically, the boxes should be recyclable too! I hope that wine producers and marketers can pick up on this trend and change the way Americans think about wine
. We've already switched from glass to aluminum soda cans, so it should not be all too difficult to make some changes for wine.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Voting Season

I’m not sure I can wait one more day to find out just who Barack Obama is planning to pick as his Vice President. I check my phone every 20 minutes to see if Obama’s campaign has sent the announcement via SMS!

Unfortunately my excitement is hindered by the recognition that as we approach the 2008 general election, I’m constantly reminded that the structure of voting in elections in the United States has become dependent on large corporations which are not accountable to the public. It is, in its essence, the privatization of yet another sector. On August 18th,
VotersUnite.org released a report entitled “Vendors Are Undermining the Structure of U.S. Elections”. The report, which is based on interviews with state and local election officials, news reports, reports from governmental agencies, vendor contracts and other public documents focuses on the control a handful of voting system vendors exercise over election administration in nearly every state.

According to the report which focuses on several case studies to prove its point, these vendors are unaccountable and untrustworthy. So my question is: How is that we have let voting system vendors undermine the foundation of American democracy? Is there anything that we can do about it?

Well don’t look to the
Help America Vote Act (HAVA). That’s an Orwellian term for a piece of legislation if I’ve ever heard one! HAVA effectively mandates unsafe and unreliable changes to electronic voting machines which are fraught with complications, leads to confusion and voter intimidation (through ID requirements), has caused massive amounts of misappropriate of funding, and generally complicates the voter registration process.

There is some good news though.
Some states are throwing out electronic voting machines. And check out the work of some groups that are working hard for election protection, like Voter Action.

There’s nothing more important than having fair elections. In fact, it’s integral to our democracy. As we prepare for another presidential election, the question persists as to whether voters will be able to access the ballot in an equal and meaningful way. Let’s hope that the political rights of every voter to independently cast a ballot and have their vote recorded and counted accurately is possible.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Language Power Punch: Green For All and Van Jones

In a movement in desperate need of leadership, Van Jones and his team at Green For All address racial, environmental and climate justice with poignancy and bite. Still less than a year old, Green For All has made a significant mainstream impact helping the term ‘green collar jobs’ convey a new category of opportunities that battle climate change and lift people out of poverty.

There is a lot of racket out there in the world. Between the media, academia, industry and non-profits tons of opinions are flying around about carbon dioxide particulates, impacts of government policies on communities of color, and economic recessions. Each issue is horribly complex and could take thousands experts to address and explain. Green For All really stands out in this cacophony specifically because of its ability to tie these concepts together and powerful use of language. Read a couple quote bombs from Executive Director, Van Jones:

“We cannot drill and burn our way out because we will bake this planet. We can invent and invest our way out.”

"The chief moral obligation of the 21st Century is to build a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty. Those communities that were locked out of the last century's pollution-based economy must be locked into the new, clean and renewable economy. Our youth need green-collar jobs, not jails."

These quotes are absolutely fantastic! They provide understandable imagery and explain really complex energy and racial justice issues simply and beautifully adding tremendous integrity to the environmental and human rights fields. To read more amazing lyricism, just go to the front page of their website, its incredible. Or help support Green For All by signing up for a “I’m Ready!” event on September 27 and tell America that you want new low carbon energy investments and to pivot the economy in a better direction.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

¿Habla usted inglés?

Anyone who rides the New York City subway in the morning knows there are a plethora of ethnic newspapers in this city. Well did you know that there are actually close to 350 ethnic and community newspapers? That’s nearly double what I guessed! And according to the Mayor’s Office on Immigrant Affairs, there are 1.8 million people in the city with little or no English-language skills. No wonder there are so many ethnic newspapers. How else would these communities get their news?

Unfortunately it’s pretty easy to see that ethnic communities, including minorities and young people, are often marginalized or even exploited in today’s mainstream media. The more these groups are better informed, better connected to one another, and better able to influence policy makers, the better they can serve their communities. These kinds of communities and networks flourish when there is a media that speaks for them. Luckily in New York there are organizations that support the basic ethnic media infrastructure, like
The New York Community Media Alliance (NYCMA). NYCMA is an organization that works to promote and support independent publications committed to social justice and a free press. In pursuit of this goal, the NYCMA provides technical assistance to its member publications and is a vigorous public advocate of the independent press.

Curious to see what some of the stories are that pervade the ethnic media? Well to view NYCMA’s weekly edition of Voices That Must Be Heard, click
here. And if you’re interested in seeing where there are offices of ethnic publications in New York City by borough, click here.

And although you might think that New York is unique as a hodge-podge of culture and ethnic media, the ethnic media is also the fastest growing sector of American Journalism across the country. Out in California there’s
New America Media which serves as the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 2000 ethnic news organizations, an “AP” of ethnic news.

To acknowledge that the ethnic media is “progressive” seems to state the obvious: these media outlets serve constituencies with the greatest stake in social change in our society. Yet, ethnic media remain largely off the radar or progressive policy institutes, media and communications strategists and even those working in the media reform movement. But through the efforts of organizations like New America Media and The New York Community Media Alliance which serve as vehicles for communication, we can build allies between progressive groups and ethnic minorities. Their work defends immigrant rights and provides a voice to a large segment of the population that has been excluded by the mainstream media from representation in the political process.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lame Green Poland Spring

In Monday’s post, Carolynn explained that term “lame green” describes companies whose businesses practices have a moderate negative environmental impact but are actually making weak claims about how their product improves the Earth.

Well, bottled water companies are one of the worst offenders of this type of claim. One of the most egregious corporate offenders is
Nestlé, which launched its new Poland Spring single-use eco-shape water bottle. It claims that the bottle uses 30 percent less plastic and 30 percent less paper for the label than the average half-lifter bottle and Nesté uses it as an example of the company “doing its part” to make a difference for the sake of the environment. But just how accurate are those claims?

I investigated three areas where I think Poland Spring has shown the company's true colors: energy consumption, environmental impact and false advertising.

Enormous amounts of energy go into creating and transporting these water bottles. In 2007, Poland Springs alone burned 928,226 gallons of diesel fuel. That energy used is wasteful and most of these recyclable bottles don’t even end up in landfills (which really negates the fact that the new bottle is touted for being 100% recyclable and “easier to crush for recycling”).

And what about the company's environmental impact? It's proven that taking water draws down on local water resources. With the market for bottled water continuing to grow, sources of freshwater are becoming more precious. Not to mention the impact of environmental harm that comes from groundwater pumping. According to the Sierra Club, Nestlé's bottling operations in the Unitd States have already degraded lakes, harmed wetlands, and lowered water tables, and its pumping continues to posea threat to residential and agricultraul water supplies. So much for the company whose slogan is "What it means to be from Maine."

And lastly this is a company that has a history of false advertising! In 2003,
Poland Springs was sued for false advertising in a class action lawsuit charging that their water, which supposedly comes from springs, is in fact heavily treated common ground water. Although the company didn’t admit to the allegations, they agreed to pay $10 million in charity donations. This was chump change of course, for a company whose profits in 2006 neared $7.64 billion.

I’m not denying that the bottle is more eco-friendly than some of the company’s other products. And maybe I’m too cynical for thinking that this type of cutesy marketing could actually turn away consumers. But given the company’s history, I just don’t trust them. I think for them, this bottle is an opportunity to pay lip service to a trend in green advertising, even thought it’s clear they are far from green.

So I’m sticking to good old tap water. Don’t worry,
it’s safe to drink.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Greenwash Watch: Exxon Mobile

In late May this year the Rockefeller family, whose great-grandfather founded Exxon Mobile’s predecessor Standard Oil Trust, filed shareholder resolutions to demand that Exxon take a deeper look at their role in climate change. Exxon, who lags behind other oil conglomerates like Shell and BP in low carbon alternative fuel research, was asked to do three things: research renewable energy sources, look at the impacts of climate change on poor countries, and reduce their emissions by a third.

On May 28th, Exxon rejected the proposal arguing that their only job is to deliver a product that is in high demand. Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive, said “We’re focused on safely and reliably meeting the growing energy demand while working to reduce our impact on the environment.” As well as, “A lot of climate change policy is still up for debate.”

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a conservative estimate and review of all climate change science, dispelled any serious climate science doubts with their Fourth Assessment in 2007. Climate change will cause profound and significant changes in our environment, society and economy in the next 100 years. The United States is the largest contributor of global greenhouse gas emission with only 5% of the population, but 20% of emissions. While ignoring their responsibility for those emissions Exxon is also ignoring just a few of the following consequences:

  • By 2020, between 75 and 250 million of people in Africa are expected be exposed to increased water stress due to changes in precipitation and drought. (IPCC)
  • Heavily-populated coastal regions in the megadeltas of South, East, and Southeast Asia are at very high risk of increased flooding due to both sea level rise and flooding inland rivers. (IPCC)
  • By 2020 in some African countries, agriculture yields could be reduced by up to 50%. Agricultural production is expected to decrease in many African countries severely threatening food security and increasing overall malnutrition. (IPCC)

But what’s worse is the company is also going around advertising that they are hard at work trying to reduce carbon emissions. Using images of friendly scientists and technology along with quotes like, “In the US, if just 10% of cars were replaced with hybrids you’re talking about reducing CO2 emissions by the equivalent of taking more than five million cars off the road”

The company isn’t explicitly lying about this. They’ve reportedly spent $2 billion over the last five years on carbon reduction programs. But for a company that just beat its own record of $11.68 billion in profits in this past quarter alone, $2 billion in 5 years is chump change.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Green Makeup?

The first topic we're looking at is "green lite," which describes the light environmental claims that business make through their advertisements. As Carolynn mentioned earlier, companies that use "green lite" advertisements are taking advantage of a trend to make their brands or products more appealing. I've noticed that one of the most common types of these ads is for cosmetics. What's interesting is that these ads are increasingly connecting the issues of health and environment. As such, being "green" is becoming synonymous with healthy and non-toxic.

Lucky for us, there are groups out there that are working to help consumers discern "green lite" ads. The Environmental Working Group is an organization that uses the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. One of its projects is a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products. Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database allows users to see which body products are safe (or unsafe) to use. The system pairs ingredients in more than 25,000 products against 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory databases, making it the largest integrated data resource of its kind. It's pretty scary to look up the soap or makeup you use everyday to see which chemicals are in them and what their possible effects are.

Let's take a look at an example of a "green lite" ad: Physicians Formula Organic Wear Makeup. According to the ad, the makeup promises the following: the first 100% Natural Origin Makeup formulated with certified organic ingredients; 100% free of harsh chemicals, synthetic preservatives and parabens; contains EcoBlend, featuring OrganiSoy and Eco-Olive; and Eco-Conscious packaging. The model appears to be completely one with nature--so much so that she's turned into a plant! Meanwhile, the question: "How green is your makeup?" sits at the very top of the ad.

According to Skin Deep, Physicians Formula Organic Wear Natural Origin Tinted Moisturizer, Fair to Light Organics, SPF 15 scored a 3 out of ten (moderate hazard). That's pretty good, especially compared to products like Revlon's New Complexion One Step Compact Makeup SPF 15 in Carmel color that scored a 7. The database found 32% of foundations with lower concerns and 26% of sunscreens spf 15 and above with lower concerns than the Physicians Formula product. Furthermore, ingredients in this product are linked to the following: cancer; developmental/reproductive toxicity; violations, restrictions and warnings; and other concerns for ingredients used.

While the ad may not be a lie entirely, it certainly portrays the image of being the first (and hence, most) environmentally healthy makeup. And according to Skin Deep, that's stretching it. But isn't that how advertising usually goes? It's good to pay attention to environmentally healthy products, but it's important to keep an objective eye and to double-check the integrity of its claims.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Authenticy in Green Advertising

This week on the Overbrook Blog we are going to highlight some of the different types of green advertising and test them for their authenticity.

We’ll start with “green lite” which are light environmental claims businesses make. These companies aren’t hiding and lying about anything, just extending the truth a little bit. For example, say you have been recycling in your home for the past 10 years and then all the sudden you decide to make it the focus of your marketing campaign. You aren’t doing anything wrong, but you aren’t making any additional actions, and you’re taking advantage of a trend to make your brand or product seem different or better.

Next, we will highlight “lame green.” Lame green advertising claims are made by companies whose businesses practices have a moderate negative environmental impact, but are making really ‘lame’ or weak claims about their how their product actually improves the Earth. For example, bottled water companies have recently come under a lot of flack for the impacts on public and local water rights, waste, and global warming contributions from production and shipping. Many bottled water companies are fighting back with advertisements that claim their products are inspired and reflect nature. That’s a lame green claim.

And finally we will talk about “greenwashing” which is the most serious. Greenwashing is similar to whitewashing and a deliberate cover up and deflection from environmental offenses. Let’s say you were running a business out of your garage and making a ton of money off of trinkets. Unfortunately, they created a ton of acidic waste which you then dumped into the stream in your backyard. When you came back tons of fish were found dead. Your neighbors got upset and called you environmentally irresponsible. Then in response you put a beautiful sign outside your house praising the beauty of freshwater streams and how we should all work to protect it. That’s deceptive. That’s greenwashing. The biggest companies acting this way are oil and car companies whose business practices are directly contributing to climate change. They are vehemently working behind the scenes to stop any legislation, however, they are publicly advertising their environmental and innovative practices.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Olympic Fever

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all summer, you probably know that today marks the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Whether you’re anxiously following Michael Phelps or were saddened when Morgan Hamm had to pull out of the competition due to his ankle injury, one thing is clear: Everyone, but in particularly the media, has serious Olympic Fever!

There are two stories in particular that have dominated the U.S. media’s coverage of this summer’s Olympics and I couldn’t help but notice how they touch upon some of the issues that Overbrook considers with respect to its grantmaking.

The first is the environment concerns over the issue of pollution in Beijing.
Yesterday, Beijing’s air pollution index was recorded at 96, which comes close to exceeding the national level for acceptable air (anything over 100 is harmful to sensitive groups, including children and the elderly). Many athletes participating in the games have chosen to train elsewhere voicing concern for their health. Although there have been some modest efforts to incorporate green building and solar power into this year's games, the larger questions of what exactly China’s environmental policy is and what its effect is on climate change still remain.

The second issue that has raised concern is with respect to China’s human rights record. There are legitimate concerns from several groups, including organizations such as
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which believe that China has wasted a historic opportunity for reform. According to Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, “The Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee have had seven years to deliver on their pledges that these games would further human rights. Instead, the Beijing Games have prompted a rollback in some of the most basic rights enshrined in China’s constitution and international law.” To see the specific concerns of Human Rights Watch, click here.

Watching all of this media coverage (which will only continue in its relentlessness over the next few weeks), I can’t help but wonder how these issues will play out along political, social and economic lines long after the Olympic Torch is extinguished. But let us also not forget that these are issues that we struggle with here in the U.S. on a daily basis. The issues of climate change, environmental policy, and domestic human rights are ones that I hope our media will cover in a thoughtful and serious way.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Earlier this year, WITNESS, an organization that uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations announced the launch of a beta version of its new “Hub” as a global platform for human rights media and action.

If you ever needed an example of the power of Web 2.0 and the potential it has to further the work non-profit organizations, this is it. Not only does The Hub serve as the first community-driven participatory media site for human rights, it’s an interactive community where you can upload videos or photos, watch what’s being uploaded, comment on and share what’s on the site. You can search for video based on highest rated, most viewed, by issue or by region.

The website has more than just video. There are also extremely valuable resources such as Video Advocacy Guides, Tool Kits and Resources. There are also chances to encourage individuals to learn more and to get involved in specific campaigns, advocacy groups and actions that can make a different. You can connect with groups, or create one of your own.

The Hub also works with partners and allies in the human rights movement, including Breakthrough, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. To watch a 60-second Hub Video click here.

The Hub is important not only for its ability to provide information to a large group of people, but also because it provides access to those who decide to use it. Its power come from its members. After spending some time on its website, you can tell that those behind it have truly looked at the landscape of the Internet and used new digital technologies to further its mission of documenting human rights abuses. Let’s hope it’s the first of many innovative projects of its kind.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hey Renewables, Don't Forget Climate Change!

photo credit from Angel Franco, New York Times

Throughout the election Obama and McCain have talked a lot about economics and energy. More and more people are starting to realize that our dependence on foreign oil causes economic problems. Renewable solutions like solar and wind are becoming mainstream and many traditional and even conservative players like T. Boones Pickens are picking up and running with the idea.

Take for example this article in The New York Times yesterday about Nebraska’s wind farms. Not only have these small towns discovered their abundance of clean energy, but the rural communities are taking pride in their wind turbines. One town even renamed their main street Turbine Avenue. A Turbine Mart popped up. An Iraq Veteran, now with a new job on the wind farm, gently said “I definitely would much rather be here than there.” Communities like this and all across America are great examples of the positive influence of renewable energy can have.

However, there’s even more reason to celebrate. Climate change is hardly mentioned in the article, but is fundamental in understanding why these turbines are so important. Right now most of our energy is not just coming from foreign sources, but its coming from carbon intensive sources. In order to prevent climate change and more of its effects we have to transition out of coal and oil which currently make up most of our energy sources. Renewable energy is an excellent way to do this.

However, even if renewable energy is hitting all sectors of America, its connection to climate change is not. When talking about putting up new turbines across the Great Plains it’s still uncommon to hear anything about taking pride in helping reduce emissions. Picken’s Plan, otherwise ambitious, makes absolutely no connection to global warming. That idea might be there, but it’s not prevalent yet. Transitioning to renewable energy must be tied to decreasing climate change, helping the rest of the world, and the future. To truly celebrate and understand the depth of the situation small Nebraska towns should really be naming their streets Future Generation Avenue instead.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The AIDS Epidemic

Last week two important news stories about AIDS hit the mainstream media. First, the Black AIDS Institute, an HIV/AIDS think tank released the report “Left Behind – Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS” in which it announced that the AIDS epidemic in black America is as severe as in parts of Africa. Then this past Saturday, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced it had underestimated the number of new HIV infections in the United States. In fact they estimated that approximately 56,300 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006, rather than the previous estimate of 40,000.

Given the report and the CDC’s new figures, which are especially enlightening when presented in tandem, it’s safe to say that AIDS is one of, if not the most, severe health epidemics that this country is facing.

What is perhaps most frightening about this news is the rate at which HIV/AIDS is appearing in certain gender and racial populations. Although African Americans only compromise 14% of the population,
they accounted for 50% of the new HIV infections in 2006. In newborns, blacks accounted for 65% of HIV-infected babies. AIDS is also the leading cause of death among black women between ages 25 and 35. Black women are 23 more times likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women.

If you read “Left Behind” (or even just the Executive Summary for those of us with less time), it’s clear there are many pressing problems that need to be addressed if we’re going to solve this epidemic, or at the very least, prevent it from getting even worse. These challenges including protecting young people from infection, preventing HIV transmission among homosexual men, addresses drug use and HIV infection, and promoting optical medical outcomes for people living with HIV. But perhaps the most important is addressing the epidemic along the gender and racial lines in which it is presenting itself.

It’s also important to understand why we’re seeing certain populations affected more than others. Is it simply a lack of education? Is it the stigmatization associated with the disease which prevents people from taking action before it’s too late? My suspicion is that it’s indicative of a deeper-seeded problem with access to health care in this country. But without understanding the causes of the epidemic, it will be all but impossible to address it any long-term meaningful way.