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The Uncommon Life

Better to Give: Doing Good in the New Year

January 12, 2012

This holiday season, the term “Secret Santa” got a new meaning when mysterious donors paid off Kmart layaway accounts across the country. This heart warming story definitely helped get us in the holiday spirit, but it also got us thinking about ways to do good all year long.

We try to make it easy for our customers to help us give back through our Better to Give program. Through this program, we donate $1 to the Better to Give charity of your choice each time you place an order with UncommonGoods. Here’s what our partners were up to in 2011, and how you can get involved in 2012.

AmeriCares provided aid around the world in 2011, including continued work with earthquake and tsunami survivors in Japan, providing emergency relief to victims of recent flooding in the Philippines, awarding more than $600,000 in disaster recovery grants to nonprofit organizations across the United States, and much more. With your help, we donated $7,928 to the humanitarian relief organization between October and December.

You can help AmeriCares continue to do good in 2012 by donating online, volunteering, and getting creative.

AmeriCares delivers food to mothers and babies in need in Somalia. Photo via AmeriCares by Jaya Vadlamudi, International Medical Corps.

RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, expanded their programs, helped thousands of people through their online and telephone hotlines, and educated millions about sexual abuse. Customer’s choosing RAINN as their Better to Give organization helped us give $18,910 to the nonprofit in our fourth business quarter last year.

The organization is currently working with sexual assault victims from Penn State, and are supporting Penn State Alumni in White Out Child Abuse, a national awareness event. If you’re in one of the eight major cities involved, you can participate on January 21, or visit their website to donate online.

You can also help by joining RAINN in supporting the SAFER Act, a “no-cost bill that will create the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER), which will track the status of DNA evidence collected in rape cases.”

American Forests is the nation’s oldest nonprofit citizens’ conservation organization. With your help, we gave $19,082 last quarter to help make America a little greener.

In 2011 American Forests established the Science Advisory Board, a diverse group of scientists from different fields, geographic areas, and work experiences, to help address the complex issues America’s forests are facing.

American Forests also launched the Forests for Fifty campaign, an effort to complete reforestation and education projects in all 50 states. Through this campaign, the organization will plant more than 5 million trees throughout 2011 and 2012.

You can get involved by helping American Forests plant trees, or by planting a tree of your own.


The UncommonGoods team isn’t afraid to get our hands dirty and get planting!

City Harvest Since 1982, City Harvest has been collecting excess food from all segments of the food industry, including restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms and delivering it, free of charge, to nearly 600 community food programs throughout New York City. In 2011 the organization delivered more than 30 million pounds of food to hungry people. The organization also provides education and assistance when it comes to nutrition counselling, prevention of diet-related diseases, and bringing sustainable, affordable food to low-income areas.

On May 11, 2011, City Harvest raised almost $500,000 to help New York’s hungry through their annual Skip Lunch Fight Hunger campaign. We helped by taking part in last May’s event, and by donating $17,431 as the year came to a close.

Licensed food businesses help City Harvest every day by donating food, but you can help even if you don’t own a store or restaurant. Individuals can donate funds,volunteer in one of City Harvest’s programs , or attend one of their upcoming events.

Do you volunteer with a nonprofit organization? Are you helping others in your community? Whether you’re gearing up to get involved with one of our Better to Give Partners, or making a difference in your own way, we’d love to hear how you’re doing good in 2012.

The Uncommon Life

Urban Gardening & Fire Escape Flora

January 11, 2012

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Especially not self-improving ones. What I believe in is hobbies. Hobbies take you out of yourself. That’s an improvement right there.

One of my hobbies is gardening. Helping seeds burst into life and transform into flowers or food gives me thrills. I live in a 4th floor tenement building in Brooklyn, NY. But the lack of an actual garden has never gotten in my way.

I started out knowing, truly, nothing. In fact, I’d always had a black thumb. The few plants I’d ever owned had died from neglect. Yet I developed a yen for pretty, blossom-filled window boxes.

The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farmer I bought vegetables from one summer said, “Seeds want to grow, you know.” I couldn’t believe mine would. But they did! The very first year I tried, I had adorable flowers in every window, all summer long.

This created happiness. Which made me want to continue. That’s what hobbies are all about. You want to do them. They’re not “shoulds.” Unlike New Year’s resolutions.

I had an actual garden plot, in the ground, at a local community garden for a year. There, I took my first shot at tomato-growing. Holy mother, were those things delicious. And gorgeous. And basically, free. A packet of seeds costs about the same as a couple of New York City farmer’s market tomatoes.

But the community garden wasn’t quite local enough for me. My fire escape – that was local.

I’d heard about the Topsy Turvy Upside Down Tomato Planter (“As Seen on TV! World’s easiest way to grow tomatoes!”).

Reading the paper one day, I came across the idea of making my own version with empty soda bottles, a resource NYC has in abundance. I made a bunch of them, stuffed them with my old potting soil after enriching it with finished compost, and planted each one with a tomato seedling.

This was the result.

(Note: Although I had a decent tomato crop with these, I decided that even the largest bottles I used were too small. My tomato plants’ roots were way too crowded. So if you want to try this, use bigger containers, like I’m going to this year.)

Now, in early January, all that glorious green growth seems like a mirage. It takes a leap of faith to believe that if I buy a few handfuls of tiny, dull-looking seeds and put them in dirt indoors (or outdoors, which I haven’t tried yet) in February or March, then re-plant them in their permanent summer homes after the last frost… six or seven months from today, they’ll look like that.

It is literally a miracle. But – as opposed to the notion that I could resolve on January 1st to quit even one of my lifelong bad habits and actually succeed, it’s an entirely plausible one.

The Uncommon Life

Marie Antoinette, Grace Kelly and the History of the New Year’s Toast

December 30, 2011

(source ChampagnePascal Vuylsteker)

In a couple days we will gather with and count down the New Year. Whether you are watching the ball drop from your television or in the center of Times Square, there most likely will be a glass of champagne in your hand. I was curious as to why we choose champagne for toasts on momentous occasions like weddings, birthdays and holidays and found out some pretty interesting knowledge.

(source NotCot)

For the longest time, champagne was mostly drunk by men who were attracted by the unofficial endorsement of royal and noble men. Men of all classes and statures flocked to the bubbly on a regular basis, but in the early 19th Century champagne manufacturers thought it was time to start appealing to women. In order to get the attention of ladies, bottles were designed with labels depicting beautiful scenes that like romantic dates, weddings and christenings (not as romantic but very important to women as a special event). The tactic worked but also influenced drinkers to save champagne for more special occasions instead of daily happy hour.

Most drinkers reach for a champagne flute, a tall thin glass that connoisseurs recommend for a better drinking experience. A flute will not over-expose the drink to oxygen and directs the nose toward the wine allowing for optimal flavor. However, coupe glasses are known to come in and out of style for their chic shape although they may weaken the flavor of champagne. They are rumored to have been made from a mold of Marie Antoinette’s left breast as a birthday present to her husband Louis XVI. They were meant to signify the drinks coming from the kindness of her heart. I prefer these shallow, bowl-like glasses because they make me feel like Grace Kelly.

(source Anatomy of a Classic)

However you choose to drink your champagne this New Year’s Eve, please do so safely. When combined with carbonated water, alcohol is consumed more rapidly and champagne’s bubbles work the same way. They aren’t lying when they say champagne goes right to your head!

The Uncommon Life

Meet Gaby!

December 14, 2011

Hello there! My name is Gaby and I am the newest addition to the Uncommon Goods team. You are going to see a lot of me as I will be writing on this blog pretty often. Here are some other things you should know about me.

I have my own lifestyle blog, Paperplanes & Maryjanes where I talk about food, clothes and décor. I have also recently opened Paperplanes & Maryjanes Handmade where I currently sell a collection of knit and crochet bows.

I recently moved back to Brooklyn from San Francisco where I was living for 6 months. I competed in a Facebook contest and won the opportunity to work as a blogger for Levi’s as The Levi’s Girl!

One of my most beloved possessions is a 65 Schwinn cruiser named Ursula. I am most likely to be found riding around the park blasting Mama Cass from my iPhone in my front basket and singing along.

I eat an embarrassing amount of tacos and Tootsie Rolls- but never at the same time.

When not on my bike, I sing along to songs on my ukulele which I taught myself how to play this summer. (I also just chopped off all my hair and miss it dearly.)

The Uncommon Life

5 Original Christmas Cocktails

December 13, 2011

The first bloody mary was mixed at the St. Regis in NYC. Mojitos were invented by Cuban sailors. And apparently Mai Tais were first enjoyed in the tropical paradise of Oakland, CA.

Unfortunately, some cities aren’t lucky enough to have a hometown drink. To help fill this need, we’ve concocted some cocktails for several identity-starved cities. After all, it’s holiday party season, and every city deserves a reason to say cheers. Whether you hail from these cities or not, you can celebrate by toasting with these unique traditions-to-be.

Wondering how we picked these cities? Well it’s funalytics my friend! We wanted to find the thirstiest cities in America, ones who would really appreciate our cocktail chemistry. So we looked at sales data from our popular Whiskey Stones and Bike Chain  Bottle Opener. We figured that if a city was buying up whiskey stones at a faster rate, they would probably love our amateur mixology skills.

Here’s a toast to the thirstiest cities in America. Join us in raising a glass, won’t you?

DUMBO BUBBLYORLANDO, FL

(image courtesy of Disneyland Bronze-Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse; Denise Cross)

Remember when Dumbo got drunk with Timothy Mouse? Here’s a Disney-inspired punch that will have you hiccuping and seeing everyone through a rose-colored glass.

– 2 bottles of champagne, chilled.
– 4 oz X-Rated Fusion Liqueur
– 1 cup passion fruit juice
– 2 blood oranges, juiced

Mix ingredients in punchbowl.  Serves 8.

FROSTY THE SLUGGERLOUISVILLE, KY

(image courtesy of Baseball on a Mailbox; Noah Sussman)

Iced and peanut-flavored, it’s equal parts snow balls and ball park.

– 6 oz. coffee liqueur (Kahlua)
– 12 oz. milk
– 4 scoops vanilla ice cream
– 4 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
– Club soda

Blend liqueur, milk, ice cream and peanut butter until smooth. Pour and top with splash of club soda. Serves 4.

GOVERNMENT GRADE EGG NOGARLINGTON, VA

(image courtesy of the nog, the stache or the sweater?metropolitician)

This ‘nog could be considered a weapon of mass deliciousness- thick, creamy and not intended for civilians.

– 12 egg yolks
– 12 egg whites
– 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
– 1 quart brandy
– 1 pint rum
– 1 gallon heavy cream
– 1 cup powdered sugar

In an extra large mixing bowl, beat yolks until lemon colored. Add sugar and beat until creamy. Add brandy and rum, alternating between the two. Mix well. Stir in 3/4 gallon heavy cream. In a separate bowl, lightly beat 6 egg whites and then fold into the large bowl mixture. Reuse bowl to beat remaining whites until very stiff, and add powdered sugar and rest of heavy cream. Fold remaining egg white mixture into eggnog mix. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 12.

COLUMBUS WASSAILING CIDERCOLUMBUS, OH

(image courtesy of Christopher Columbus; Conspiracy of Happiness)

Columbus wassailing, and now he’s not.

– 2 quarts apple cider
– 1 1/2 cups orange juice
– 3/4 cup pineapple juice
– 1 tablespoon brown sugar
– 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
– 2 cinnamon sticks (3 ins)
– dash ground cinnamon
– dash ground cloves

In a large saucepan, combine all of the ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 20-30 mins. Remove cinnamon sticks. Serve pioneering carolers in blue vessels for a mariner feel.  Serves 10.

SWELTERING SANTAPHOENIX, AZ

(image courtesy of Arizona Christmas; Kevin. Cochran)

A festive, frozen margarita to get you in the (slightly sweaty) spirit.

– 6 oz. white tequila
– 6 oz. Triple Sec
– 8 oz. cranberry juice
– 6 oz. lime juice
– 6 oz. sour mix
– 8 cups ice

Mix ingredients in blender until smooth. Serve in a coupe glass. Serves 4.

The Uncommon Life

Holiday Party Hosting Perfected

December 7, 2011

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  We’ve got gift-giving covered, but we’re leaving the party planning to other experts.  Take a look at some ideas we’re building on and borrowing from in order to host the perfect holiday get-together.

Set the scene for your party with DIY decorating ideas from interior designer and stylist Matthew Mead, who shared his tips with blogger Centsational Girl.  His number one piece of advice?  Keep it simple, which will help both you and your guests feel at home.

(Image courtesy of Centsational Girl)

Once the table is set, fill it with delicious dishes to impress your guests.  Food blog 101 Cookbooks has a comprehensive collection of holiday recipes to draw inspiration from, including hearty dishes like this Hazelnut & Chard Ravioli Salad and festive snacks such as these Butter-toasted Hazelnuts.

(Image courtesy of Heidi Swanson)

Don’t let your dinner table take all the attention – just because you’re staying in doesn’t mean you can’t dress up!  Refinery29 has a variety of outfit ideas, ranging from celebrity-inspired looks to key bold red pieces.  Just don’t fall prey to any of these common holiday faux pas pitfalls!

(Image courtesy of J. Crew)

For a comprehensive guide to hosting a holiday cocktail party, the Drinks team at Serious Eats has compiled a complete how-to for hosting.  Michael Dietsch suggests crafting and creating signature cocktails in advance, anticipating 1-2 drinks per guest per hour, and stocking up on bagged ice.

(Image courtesy of Jennifer Hess from Serious Eats)

Close out the night with a variety of Christmas cookies to serve as dessert or to give as parting gifts.  Bree Hester of Baked Bree is sharing 12 weeks of Christmas cookies, including these unique Hot Chocolate Cookies and the Canadian classic, Nanaimo Bars.

(Image courtesy of Bree Hester)

And if you can’t share the joy of the holidays with friends and family in person, make sure to send along season’s greetings with an uncommon card, stocking stuffer, or personalized gift.

The Uncommon Life

7 Curious Truths about Christmas Gift Giving

December 1, 2011

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, the Christmas shopping season is in full swing. Here at UncommonGoods, we like to celebrate the act of giving, but let’s face it – it’s also fun to receive. So I thought it would be fun to mine through some of the data we’ve collected from holidays past and see if any patterns emerge that indicate who gives the best gifts. That way, I’ll know who to be *extra* nice to when next Christmas rolls around…

Below are 7 interesting trends in Christmas gift giving.

(Note: Because we’re a privately held company, I’m not at liberty to divulge just how much data was involved in doing this analysis, but let’s just say it’s, like, a lot. There are also some cases below where I realize seeing the actual dollar figures would be nice, but again – it’s not something I’m really allowed to share. Sorry.)

1. Men procrastinate.

This first observation might seem fairly obvious to some people, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless to see it played out in the data. Women plan ahead; men procrastinate. Women consistently get their holiday shopping done earlier in the season – it’s not until about December 6th that men start to get their act together and their buying rate starts to surpass that of women. So if you want a well thought out gift, you’re more likely to get it from a woman than a man.

(Since we’re an internet retailer, we necessarily have shipping cutoffs somewhere between Dec. 21-23 – otherwise, I’d expect there’d be a big blue spike around 11pm on Christmas Eve.)

But even worse than men in terms of planning ahead are college kids. Splitting the data by age group, we can see that the older you are, the earlier in the season you get your shopping done.

Breaking it down, it looks like the 65+ age group has 60% of their shopping done by Dec. 4. It’s not until Dec. 10 that the 18-20 set get 60% of their shopping done – almost a full week behind their grandparents. I guess experience teaches you not to wait until the last second. Again, it may seem obvious, but if you’re expecting a gift chosen with a lot of forethought, it’s less likely to come from a teenager.

2. 1999 called… and it’s got a great gift for you.

People who are still on AOL are often mocked. But maybe they shouldn’t be. They do, after all, give us the best gifts.

We found that the average dollars spent on gifts was pretty flat across email providers, with the notable exception of AOL. AOL users spent on average 12.2% more than users of other email services.

So while a recent study by Hunch.com found that Gmail users are more attractive, better educated, and better dressers than AOL users, they are also apparently more likely to be cheapskates.

3. Real Americans live in California.

For a number of reasons – economic, social, environmental – we try our best at UncommonGoods to carry products that are made in the USA. We’re not perfect at it – sometimes a product that is really cool or innovative is only available from overseas manufacturers – but when we can, we try to support local artisans and producers. So who does this really appeal to?

I thought we’d find that America’s heartland – the Midwest, where “real” Americans live – would be buying our American-made items at a much faster clip. And I thought we’d find that those treehugging, Che-loving anarchists out on the West Coast could care less about the issue.

Not so. In fact, looking by region at the percentage of all orders that contain items made in the USA, we see the exact opposite.

It’s one of the most striking statistics that I came across in doing this analysis. At least amongst our customer base, people on the West Coast are 21% more likely than average to buy American-made, whereas in the Midwest people are 24% less likely than average to do so. That’s a huge difference.

So if you want something that supports artists and designers that reside right here in the good old U-S-of-A, expect it from a Californian.

4. Men have no imagination.

I hate to pile on men here (being a man myself, after all), but apparently men are a lot more likely to run out of good ideas and just buy someone a gift certificate.

In our data, men are 23% more likely to give a gift certificate than women are. I guess a more positive way of putting this is that men are more utilitarian, and more likely to give you the gift of options, guaranteeing that you’ll like what you get.
Still seems kind of lame to me. If you want a more personally meaningful gift, you’re more likely to get it from a woman.

5. The older you get, the more you care about other people.

OK, so we have this program at UncommonGoods called Better to Give, where we give $1 from each order to one of four non-profits that customers can choose from at checkout. It’s a cool program – it really reflects what UncommonGoods is all about and it’s one of the reasons I was really excited to work here in the first place.

The thing is, many of our customers don’t actually pick a non-profit to have us donate to. That’s always puzzled me – I mean, there is really no catch and no cost to customer, other than the maybe 15 seconds it takes to read the description of the program and make a selection. But still, a lot of people don’t do it.

What’s interesting though is that the level of participation in Better to Give goes up with age. It’s not because older people have more money – again, these donations come out of our pockets, not our customers’. It just seems like older people have more patience to read through a little text. Maybe they have longer attention spans.

It’s also interesting to look at the geographic breakdown of Better to Give participation. Amongst states, Vermont leads in participation, with customers there being 32% more likely than average to select a non-profit. Given the Vermonters that I know personally, that’s hardly a surprise – they all seem like do-gooder, save-the-world types. On the other side of the coin, New York and New Jersey ranked 49th and 48th in participation amongst states (at 17% and 9% less likely to participate than average, respectively) – I guess being jammed together with other people on the Q train every morning makes you kind of hate society a little bit. (For the curious, North Dakota was dead last in charitable giving, being 31% less likely than average to participate.)

So if you want to receive a gift with a conscience, look to old people. Preferably from Vermont.

6. We get it, New England, you’re better than the rest of us.

Another area that we here at UncommonGoods try to emphasize is eco-friendly product. Again, we’re not perfect here, but we try to offer things that are sustainably produced. And once again, it’s those goody-goodies from up North that tend to lead the pack here.


(The regions above are grouped according to census bureau definitions.)

New Englanders are 2.8% more likely than average to buy eco-friendly products. People from the West South Central region – which is Texas, Oklahoma, etc. – were the least likely to buy earth-friendly things, at 6.8% less likely than average. Which reminds me of my favorite quote from this guy on The Simpsons: “In Texas, we got rid of the environment, and everyone was a lot happier.”

Actually, that’s not quite fair. Texas was not on the bottom of the list of eco-friendly states. The bottom five were actually Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Texas was actually only #40 in eco-friendly purchases – not great, but they are being brought down by their regional neighbors.

And this time around, Vermont wasn’t quite at the top. The top five were actually Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado – all outdoorsy-type states, which makes sense. These people care about the environment, probably because their environment is so beautiful.

Generally speaking though, if you want a gift that is good for Mother Earth as well, someone from New England is more likely to get it for you.

7. Generosity is a ten-letter word.

Lastly, perhaps the most surprising thing we found is that there seems to be a correlation between how much someone spends on a gift and how long their last name is.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this. People with very short last names don’t spend much, whereas people with names 14 letters long spend 16% more than average. Maybe they’re more understanding of others, given how often they’ve had to correct people’s pronunciation of their names. Maybe they’re more compassionate because their names were made fun of as children. I’d love to hear other theories about this. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, with an r-squared of 0.52, it’s not an insignificant correlation.

(And no, unless Malcolm X and U Thant were UncommonGoods customers, I don’t know who these people are who have one-letter last names. And yes, I know that U is a first name, but I’m having trouble coming up with other examples here.)

How to get a great gift

So, taking all this data together, we can form a picture of an ideal gift-giver: a woman with an AOL email address, 55 or older, who lives in California or New England and has a long, complicated last name. Does this sound like anyone you know? Then you’re in luck.

As for me, let’s see: my mom is definitely older than 55, lives on the California border, and we have a sort of complicated last name. I think she cancelled her AOL account in like 2001, but if I can just find her one of those old signup CD-ROMs, I’ll be all set…

Brian Hashemi is the Marketing Director at UncommonGoods

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