May 16, 2007

Product Review: Certaintees

[Full disclosure: I received this product free of charge. Do with that info what you will.]

I generally avoid buying decorative items that espouse some political bent; I don't have bumper stickers on my car (yes, I have a car—boo, hiss—and yes, I have a small Red Sox stickah on it), I don't have buttons and pins all over my bag, and I don't wear t-shirts with philosphical statements printed across the chest. Until recently.

When I was contacted by artist Lee Tracy about her new line of bamboo, hand-screened shirts, I was a little skeptical. I get a lot of emails about new "green" products and the bulk of them lead to nothing more than claims of carbon neutrality or some such token gesture. Thus far I have simply avoided the whole thing by reviewing products very, very irregularly. But as always, I took a look around the website and was surprised at what I found.

First and foremost, I actually liked the designs offered. This was hand-printed, custom art, and it was clear that they were made with care and respect for the craft of printing (this is actually very important to me as a graphic designer). I wasn't sold on the concept of "wearable wisdom" that drives the company's commitment to social responsibility, though (see first paragraph). Then I read that $5 of each t-shirt sale goes directly to one of several very cool nonprofits. Then I read a list of incredibly impressive facts about bamboo and bamboo clothing. Then I read about how everything was packaged with ecological care. It went on and on.

So I decided to see just how normal a bamboo t-shirt is. Before placing my order, though, Tracy mailed out a shirt for me to "experience." It arrived inside a plain cotton tote that I now use for hauling veggies around from the farmers market (bonus!). The shirt was a large (I'm paranoid about undersizing), but a little too large for my 5' 4" frame. Dang.

It was also incredibly soft and the colors were intense (if I recall, Tracy mentioned giving it a double blast of ink). One problem, though: the fabric was so thin that I was showing a little more than I would have liked (a tank top underneath fixed that, of course).

This is a comfortable shirt! My office gets pretty chilly, and the shirt was actually much warmer than I expected for the weight. I have no idea if the other shirt styles are as thin (I suspect they are), but it's actually well suited to the delicacy of the designs printed on them. These aren't rough-and-tumble work shirts here, and they also aren't cheap (then again, I'm generally a $5/3-pack Hanes undershirt kind of girl, so what do I know?). But then again, you're getting a whole lot more than a production-line commodity.

Check 'em out, and take the time to read the backstory throughout the site—this is a great example of a commercial enterprise that effectively marries sustainability with commerce, and produces quality products to boot.

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April 23, 2007

Discover Planet Earth From the Comfort of Your Own Home

Earth Day has come and gone—ours was marked by a massive spring cleaning, which brought many new green housecleaning discoveries. But that icon of edutainment, the Discovery Channel, celebrated differently, by airing a marathon of their new series, Planet Earth. If your officemates are more interested in discussing the Sopranos over the bubbler every Monday, you might not realize that this documentary series is one of the most striking nature shows ever filmed.

Producers and their crew sometimes spent months on a given shot, creeping and hiding to capture many scenes that have never actually been recorded for broadcast. You'll meet animals you've never seen before, view arial shots that make your heartbeat skip and, hopefully, be truly moved by the interconnected nature of the plant and animal species that keep this ball breathing.

My only criticism of the series is the writing. Powerfully narrated by Sigourney Weaver, even she can't elevate the typical, often trite text to anything that comes close to matching the images on screen. That said, the focus is clearly those images: the intense blues and greens and fiery oranges; the textures of sand, sea and scales; the bizarre and yet familiar behavior of species we may never have seen before. I can't even imagine what this program looks like viewed on HDTV.

The final episode, featuring the filmmakers' story, will air this Sunday, April 29. But Discovery will most likely air reruns, and you can purchase the entire series on DVD.

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March 13, 2007

Welcome to the World of The Greens

Children are sponges, aren't they? Izz and her older cousin, Dez, are no exceptions. A couple of wacky kids with some wacky friends and some wacky family members, Izz and Dez appear in monthly online episodes, their own blog and some interactive learning games aimed at the tween set. Through it all, they discover what it means to be green and how kids can make an impact on the world around them.

The Greens has some great things going for it, not least of which is the braintrust behind it. Created by WGBH (close to my heart, as a Boston girl born and raised), the entire thing started with—not surprisingly—TED. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is an annual smarty-pants conference in which rich, left-leaning movers and shakers come up with crazy ideas to make the world a better place. Last year, photographer Ed Burtynsky won a wish from the TED community and The Greens were born.

Although the show is quite funny and graphically very engaging, it has some growing and stretching to do. Writing about the environment is tough, even when you're aiming at grown-ups. Making this stuff understandable and attractive to young kids is even tougher. The Greens cleverly rely on plenty of sarcasm and pre-teen angst to earn street cred among their target audience but the incorporation of the actual green stuff can be a little dry. "Ask Hector," a bit in which Izz's buddy advises us on how to save water in just ten words, falls a little flat (it is essentially a list of ten questions with yes or no answers). Contrast that against the engaging interactive quiz game and you can see where the site's strengths and weaknesses lie.

That said, I'm not a kid anymore (I've been told immaturity doesn't count). The little monsters will ultimately be the ones to determine if The Greens are a success or not. And I hope they do; as the group discussed at this year's TED conference, one of the best ways to get mom and dad to change their ways is to convince the kids to do it first (just think about how persistent kids are at getting what they want). If all goes according to plan, each monthly episode of The Greens will continue to make green living fun for kids and their grown-ups.

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February 23, 2007

A Hug From Treehugger

Small Failures is honored to be chosen as one of Treehugger's green blogs of the week! We're certainly in good company, and it's great to get the nod from one of the leading online green magazines. Check out the other mentions as well:

Ivan Enviroman
Greener Magazine
It's Getting Hot In Here
Jen's green Journal

If you're curious as to what piqued Treehuggers interest, it was our recent post about teaching kids to eat sustainably.

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December 04, 2006

Sustainability is Closer Than You Think

Do you have a Sun Fat? How about an El Chico #4? These are just a couple of the neighborhood markets we've been frequenting recently as we try to wean ourselves from the expense that is Rainbow Grocery and the chain that is Trader Joe's.

Don't get me wrong—I love TJ's, especially their seemingly unlimited house brand selection and the fact that their staff is always—and I mean always—friendly and helpful. And I love Rainbow's selection of cheeses and craft beers. But not only do I have to drive to either of these places if I want to buy more than one bag of groceries, Rainbow is frighteningly expensive and TJ's ships their products all over the country to a rather gas-guzzling degree.

So in an effort to stay local, we went exploring. My 'hood really is just that—corner liquor stores every two blocks (one of which brilliantly blasts classical music at night to keep the thugs from hanging on their corner), dollar stores, about a dozen bars in a ten-block radius, gang members every now and then, dirty streets.

But it is also a thriving neighborhood—one of the few places in the city where families and immigrants (mostly Mexican) can afford to live. A tiny little park was just completely overhauled, and there are mom-and-pop shops everywhere. These are the places that often have more to offer than meets the eye.

These stores don't look like much from the outside. They might be in older buildings, or lack the branding of an Ikea or Starbucks. Most of them have signs that aren't in English, so unless you either know about them already or are willing to poke your head inside and get a strange look or two, you might never even notice them. But shopping at these stores reduce your environmental footprint, keep your money in the local economy, and often encourage a tighter community overall.

Some of our favorites are:

El Chico #4: A Mexican grocery that has a great selection of really good-looking produce, sundries and meats. They are always friendly and the store is always clean. The best part? I can walk out weighed down with two full bags of groceries for less than $10.

Sun Fat Seafood Company: I don't eat meat, but the ol' man does. And in his effort to cut down on red meat, he discovered this gem after searching high and low for a fish market worth frequenting. I generally don't like the smell of fish, but this place is incredible: immaculate, odor-free, well-stocked and cheap. Even I thought the fish looked appetizing, and the ol' man reports that it tastes "really good."

Philz Coffee: I've taken a break from Philz because his Turkish coffee is so intense I can only take it in small doses. But holy crap, is it good! He hand brews every cup from any of a dozen or more different hand-roasted blends.

Maybe I'm lucky that I live in el barrio because it puts me within walking distance of so many incredible family-owned businesses. But no matter where you are you likely have some, too. And the only way you'll ever discover them is if you leave your car at home, your expectations and hesitations aside, and take a walk around the 'hood.

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December 02, 2006

Safeway “O” Organic Mac ‘n’ Cheese

It’s been getting mighty wintery around here lately, at least by San Francisco standards, so last night I figured to make myself a comforting bowl of macaroni and cheese. Lately I’ve been trying to master the art of Mac ‘n’ Cheese but that cheesy, creamy phenomenally addictive quality keeps eluding me. With my recent failures, small though they may be, still lingering, I opted instead for the box of Safeway “O” Organic White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese that had been tucked away for weeks in my kitchen cabinet.

I was leary as I eyed the box, wondering just how much cheesy goodness could really lie within. Would this grocery giant, whom I generally dislike for being one of the most inefficient, un-customer friendly chains I have ever experienced, really be able to pull off organic?

I even went so far as to rummage through my fridge to see what I had for Mac ‘n’ Cheese-worthy cheese. Nothing. The box it would be. After going through the typical Kraftesque motions, I sat down with what appeared to be a quite normal bowl of that most perfect of comfort foods. And to my surprise, it was halfway decent. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but what cardboard box full of powdered cheese ever is?

Packaging: Standard cardboard box with envelope of powdered cheese, apparently not made from recycled materials. Not too surprising, as the O brand is focused on health, not sustainability or eco-friendliness. It carries the USDA Organic label. As with most foods, the actual food fills up only 1/3 of the entire package. C-

The same as any boxed mac ‘n’ cheese. For once, the boiling time (8-10 min.) is actually accurate. Add in a little butter, milk, and the accompanying powdered cheese and you’ve got yourself a dinner. The only problem was that the cheese wasn’t easy to melt (even though I left it simmering while I added everything in). B

Looks darn good, if you ask me. White cheddar cheese means there’s not much color, but it looks creamy and cheesy. B+

Taste: It tastes like quality cheese, as opposed to fake powdery stuff. It doesn’t have that addictive quality (I prefer Annie’s for that), but it also doesn’t feel too heavy. Because the cheese didn’t melt very well, the result was a somewhat uneven cheesiness. Ah well, you can’t ‘em all. B+

The upshot:
A great alternative to any of the conventional brands. I have yet to try Annie’s Organic Shells & White Cheddar, but my local Safeway charges almost a dollar more for it. That’s one of the advantages of the house labeled products. If Safeway were my only shopping option, I’d likely keep a couple of boxes on hand for emergency dinners. But for now, I’ll stick to scratch until I master the Mac ‘n’ Cheese. B

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