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Sustainability

The Uncommon Life

2014: A Last Look at a First-Class Year!

December 31, 2014

In 1999, UncommonGoods was founded as an alternative retailer driven by an emerging market for unique, handmade and environmentally friendly designs, as well as a conviction that business could be a force for good in the world. And over the past fifteen years, the people behind our efforts—our Brooklyn team, not-for-profit partners, and an array of independent artists and independently minded customers—have been the inspiration and can-do catalysts of our growing business. So, as we look back at 2014, we thought the best way to characterize the year is by profiling a few of the people and partners that made it one to celebrate.

Reach Out and Read: a Better to Give Success Story

Through our Better to Give program, UncommonGoods has donated over $1 million to our partner non-profits.

Reach Out and Read

As an independently owned business, we have the freedom to support causes we believe in, helping them to impact the world in a positive way. Through our Better to Give program, we make it easy for you to join us in supporting these great causes—with every purchase you make, we’re proud to donate $1 to your choice of one of our non-profit partners. Over the week of Thanksgiving, we increased the Better to Give donation to $5 for those visiting our site through a special email campaign, taking us past the $1 million donation mark on Black Friday!

Our newest Better to Give partner, Reach Out and Read, joined us in 2014, and was immediately a popular choice, gaining over 35 thousand customer backers, for a total of more than $35,000 in donations. Reach Out and Read serves more than 4 million children annually, sharing the transformative power of reading with families in need nationwide. As recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the program incorporates early literacy into pediatric practice, equipping parents with tools and knowledge to ensure that their children are prepared to learn when they start school.

With obvious passion for his organization’s work, Reach Out and Read’s Executive Director Brian Gallagher shared some of the ways that Better to Give has benefited their efforts over the past year:

Reach Out and Read’s Executive Director Brian Gallagher

“The support has allowed us to purchase brand-new books (our favorites include Goodnight Moon and Clifford the Big Red Dog) and to deliver critical literacy guidance to families in need. With the support of UncommonGoods and others, we have been able to grow our program in 2014, adding our unique early literacy intervention in 287 additional health centers, hospitals, and pediatric clinics nationwide, serving 230,000 more children. UncommonGoods has provided essential funding to keep our program expanding—truly helping us to change pediatrics, change families, and most importantly, change futures.”

Brian also commented on some of the benefits of our collaboration beyond the bottom line:

“In addition to the amazing financial support, the Better to Give partnership has helped educate an entirely new audience about Reach Out and Read—and the importance of early literacy and early intervention. We have seen our social media base steadily increase over the year, and feel certain that many of those fans and followers are UncommonGoods customers. We have also been able to reach shoppers who have a social conscience, and may have chosen to support Reach Out and Read additionally outside of the Better to Give partnership. We are so grateful to have had the chance to align ourselves with such a great brand, and use this platform to help us raise funds and overall awareness of our organization and our mission.”

Finally, he sees some important affinities between UncommonGoods and Reach Out and Read that make this partnership a great fit:

“We love that UncommonGoods is more than just a company—you give back to those in need and you strive to better the world, as we do through our literacy intervention. And based on the amount of support we’ve received this year, your customers are clearly people who also care about literacy and value the early interactions between a parent and a child. We are beyond thrilled with this relationship and look forward to all that is to come as our two organizations continue to work together to effect positive change.”

 

Nancy and Walter Warner: a Bigger Jam Session

UncommonGoods promotes the work of more than 600 small, independent makers; 80% of these have 10 people or fewer on their team.

Walter and Nancy Warner | UncommonGoodsNancy and Walter Warner, Beer Jelly Set

 Part of UncommonGoods’ long-standing mission is to support the work of innovative, independent makers—artists, designers, craftspeople, and…jelly makers. Each of the 600 makers that we represent has a unique story, and Nancy and Walter Warner are no exception. The two former archaeologists moved to Vermont to pursue new ventures: Walt pursuing a career as a cultural resource lawyer, and Nancy launching a business making distinctive, artisanal preserves. Their collaboration with UncommonGoods has allowed them to take their craft from cottage industry to a full-steam operation.

Nancy Warner put her spoon down long enough to reflect on the effect of their partnership with UncommonGoods over the past year:

“Working with UG has allowed us to grow our business with confidence in 2014. The partnership and the audience UG reaches has helped us more than double our gross sales from the previous year. We thought we were full time before our partnership with UncommonGoods, but teaming up has helped us become job creators: we’ve hired four employees, invested in new equipment, and have quickly outgrown our tiny spot on the town green and are on the hunt for our next home in Vermont.”

Beer Jelly | UncommonGoods

She also commented on the esprit de corps between her venture and the UncommonGoods team:

“I believe we are a great fit with UncommonGoods because the staff there is as excited about our work as we are. True believers in the creative and uncommon process, UncommonGoods has worked with us to develop new flavors like Cabernet & Cracked Pepper wine jelly, conferenced with us regularly to be sure we’re on the same page, and supported our use of environmentally-friendly packaging (even though it may cost just a bit more). Most importantly, the UG crew reaches out to us regularly to be sure they understand our process and our limits as small producers of handcrafted items. In some ways, UG feels like an extension of our own team.”

Kenesha Phillip on the People Who Drive the Success of UncommonGoods

UncommonGoods is committed to paying a living wage, with hourly team members paid 70% higher than the Federal minimum.

Kenesha Phillip | UncommonGoods

 Kenesha Phillip, UncommonGoods Area Operations Manager

UncommonGoods maintains a team of 120 year-round—and 685 seasonal team members in the fourth quarter (2014)—all under one roof in the historic Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Keeping all operations in New York and in a common space has been a priority since the company’s founding. And maintaining a great team by paying a living wage, providing opportunities to grow with the company, and valuing the potential of each individual have been essential elements in UncommonGoods’ success over the past 15 years.

Despite the frenetic pace of our warehouse in December, Area Operations Manager Kenesha Phillip—who herself started as a seasonal Team Lead in 2012—took some time to reflect on the character of UncommonGoods’ team:

“I think that the recognition of humanity is a really important thing. In the world that we live in now…it’s important that people know that you see them, and that they know they’re valuable, and that’s the most important thing that UncommonGoods does. Tom or Dave [company founders] will walk into the warehouse and say that the people closest to the customer are the most important people to the business, and that’s very nice to hear and very comforting and makes people feel appreciated. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being on the warehouse floor, it’s that people give their best effort when they feel like you see them and you value them…they feel like they’re here to help the team accomplish a bigger goal.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal

Brooklyn Army Terminal

She also commented on the challenges and opportunities that come with the company’s seasonal activity which calls for a high quality team:

“The human element here is really important, and something that we fight for all the time. And it’s not an easy thing to do—the bar is raised year after year, and we need better and better people to work for us. But it’s definitely an attraction when you know you can start as a seasonal worker and move into a management role. It helps us hire a strong team and keep a strong team here. I’d worked in retail before, so I know how people are typically paid in retail and what kind of environments they are…[here] it’s just different…we pay people a living wage, and we try to treat people with respect. If you walk over to the warehouse right now, you can’t tell who’s year-round and who’s seasonal. We try to make sure that everyone has a great experience, regardless of whether they’ve been here for a few months or for years. We work together as a team.”

Regarding UncommonGoods’ commitment to keeping the entire company under one roof in Brooklyn, she observed:

 

UncommonGoods Warehouse

“For us to be successful as a company, Operations has to go well, but everything else in the company has to go well too. We partner with so many departments every year to make sure that the customer has a good experience in the holiday season. We work with the Merchants…with Customer Service…with Human Resources…to make sure that those things all come down to the customer. So it’s a nice thing having the corporate offices in the same building as the warehouse.”

And she discussed the importance of paying a living wage for a company—and team—that calls New York home:

“It’s very expensive to live here, so people need the wages that we pay…and people always ask about it when they return because we do pay such a good wage compared to the Federal level. I know that it impacts the lives of the people that work for us in a significant way, even if it’s for a short time. It’s a significant thing, and it means someone being able to pay their rent. It makes all the difference in people’s living conditions. I know that some people that work for us have a difficult time financially, so it’s important that we continue to do this, and it’s something to be proud of.”

 

Always Becoming a Better Business

As a founding B Corp, we’re committed to sustainability. This year we made strides with our highest B Lab score yet.

B the Change | B Corp

 

We’ve always been passionate about sustainability, and back in 2007 we joined our fellow founding B Corporations in starting a global movement to redefine success in business. As the official B Corp website explains, by earning our certification we’re “voluntarily meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance, Certified B Corps are distinguishing themselves in a cluttered marketplace by offering a positive vision of a better way to do business.”

In 2014 we showed that we’re still going strong when it comes to sustainability. In fact, we proudly announced that our Impact Assessment came back with our best score so far: 111.4 points. (That’s 12% higher than our previous score.)

Many of the improvements we made in 2014 helped us earn our recertification and earn a higher score than we’d had in the past. We formed a sustainability committee to give employees opportunities to personally impact our sustainability decisions, we implemented composting and better recycling programs, and we improved our vendor relationships.UncommonGoods B Lab Scorecard

While we are definitely happy with the changes we’ve made and our improved score, we know that working to be a better business is an ongoing process. After our recertification was complete, we sent a representative from our sustainability committee to join other representatives from businesses in the B Corp community at the B Corp Champions Retreat to bring back advice on how we can continue to grow as a socially responsible company and make a positive impact on the world.

We’re excited to continue to make positive changes in 2015, to grow and nurture our talented team, and to keep building strong relationships with our Better to Give partners, makers and artists, and customer community. Happy New Year!

The Uncommon Life

How is UncommonGoods Improving Sustainability?

December 19, 2014

During the chaos, magic, excitement, and deliciousness of the holidays, it can be difficult to take the time to pause and reflect on the past year. The end of the year always seems to sneak up like a Secret Santa gift, something that you almost forget about until it pops up on your desk unannounced. Now that the end of 2014 is less than two weeks away, there’s no better time to think back about what we’ve accomplished over the past 12 months and how we want to move forward in 2015, especially when it comes to our sustainability efforts. Each year teaches us that positive change is the result of decisions that factor our  “triple bottom line,” our impact on people, planet, and profit.  We’re proud of the milestones we’ve achieved in 2014, as well as the initiatives that continue to support our company mission. Here’s this year’s impact in review!

 

B Corp Recertification

Improving Sustainability | UncommonGoods

In 2007 we took an important step when we became a founding B Corporation, a certification that has since expanded to a network of companies that use the power of business to help solve environmental and social problems. Earlier this year, we made another stride toward becoming a better business by earning our B Corp recertification, coming out with our best score yet! We earned 111.4 points this time around, which equated to a 13 percent increase over our 2012 score of 99 points. While some of the extra points were thanks to improvements to our work environment and green initiatives, we saw the greatest improvement in our “Community” score. Check out the full story!

 

Better to Give: Thanks a Million!

Better to Give | UncommonGoods

We launched the Better to Give program in 2001, which allows customers to select from one of our non-profit partners to receive a $1 donation from us at checkout. Over the week of Thanksgiving, we raised that donation to $5 for those visiting our site through a special email campaign. We saw the donation rate skyrocket during this time, taking us past the $1 million mark on Black Friday! Check out the announcement to learn how we’ve now donated over $1 million to our Better to Give partners.

 

#RaisetheWage

Improving Sustainability | UncommonGoods

 

At UncommonGoods, we pay all our workers, including our seasonal team, above the minimum hourly wage. Back in September, our Founder and CEO Dave Bolotsky participated in the #RaisetheWage campaign with Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. To show your support, spread the message by sharing this video with the hashtag #RaisetheWage and help “give America a raise!”

 

Composting

Improving Sustainability | UncommonGoods
Photo by Vokashi

 

Earlier this year, we teamed up with Vokashi Kitchen Waste Solutions to start implementing an in-house compost collection. Collection buckets are strategically placed around our headquarters to collect employee food scraps, which are used to compost at various community gardens and public green spaces. We’re excited to continue improving our waste management during 2015!

 

 The B Corp “Ripple” Effect

Improving Sustainability | UncommonGoods

Sustainability committee member Christopher McRae and CEO and founder Dave Bolotsky traveled to Vermont to attend this year’s B Corp Champions Retreat. Check out Chris’ experience from three inspiring days of learning from other B Corps, celebrating the movement, and discussing future goals.

 

Product and Operations

Improving Sustainability | UncommonGoods

From operations to product development, our team works hard to implement sustainable solutions whenever possible. We try our best to minimize our impact by shifting more business online, limiting how many catalogs we mail, and printing our catalogs on either recycled paper (virtually all of which is from 30% post-consumer waste) or paper sourced from FSC certified forests (which are harvested in a sustainable manner). Around 20 percent of our products are made from upcycled or recycled materials, and about 50 percent are handmade, none of which contain leather, feathers or fur. Additionally, we continue to save resources by using packing materials that can be inflated in our warehouse, and bale recyclable cardboard to return to our vendor, making for a closed-loop system. Throughout 2015, we plan to continue working on energy efficiency, sustainable sourcing, and sustainable product development.

We welcome you to send any questions, comments, concerns, or ideas to sustainability@uncommongoods.com. As always, thank you for supporting our mission. From all of us at UncommonGoods, we wish you and your loved ones a happy holiday season and a happy new year!

The Uncommon Life

3 Takeaways from 3 Days with B Corp Champions

December 18, 2014

Every year, B Lab hosts the Champions Retreat, where B Corps from around the globe come together to celebrate the success of the businesses and growth of the movement. This year I had the honor of attending the retreat in Vermont, where a multitude of events were lined up to teach, inspire, and challenge the individuals gathered to bring the dream of a sustainable corporate America into fruition.

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods
Photo by Emily McManamy

 

Day 1 Takeaway– Sustainable sourcing is not black and white.

For the first event of the retreat, we toured the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream factory. Believe it or not, I was looking forward to a treat even better than free samples of their chocolate cookie dough ice cream.

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods

Cheryl Pinto, Values Led Sourcing Manager, gave us the “inside scoop” on the amount of work and resolve needed to maintain sustainable sourcing standards within a company, a feat especially difficult since Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2000. Joining us as guest speakers were some of Ben & Jerry’s suppliers: Ted Castle, Owner & President of Rhino Foods, who supplies the cookie dough, and Michael Brady, the President and CEO of Greyston Bakery, who supplies the brownies. They spoke on their own experiences in building sustainable businesses, their reasons for doing it, the obstacles they overcame, and the importance in doing business with other individuals who value people, planet, and profit. With this, they opened the floor for discussion amongst our peers for ways in which we can source more sustainably for our respective businesses. The conversation was interesting. Although the brainstorming session ended before any universally correct conclusion was drawn, it opened the floodgates to the central focus of the rest of the retreat.

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods

Day 2 Takeaway– Ripples of inspiration and collaboration create waves of innovation.

The second day’s main event was entitled “Deeper Roots, Stronger Branches.” There was a series of speakers who touched upon the importance of spreading the message, the impact of being a B Corp, the development of the B Corp concept, and the furtherance of the initiatives created to raise awareness and encourage others to become involved.

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods
Photo by Emily McManamy

 

Ripple” is the term used when referring to B Corp leaders spreading awareness to other business leaders, thereby helping others to pay attention to the environmental and social impact of business.  Whether or not they are ready for certification, it is helpful for companies to complete the B Lab impact assessment in order for them to understand their current impact and make goals for future improvements.

 

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods
Photo by Emily McManamy

 

The speakers also discussed the social perception of B Corps on Millennials. Some speakers spoke about the increased demand for B Corps to come speak at schools and universities. By encouraging the next generation to pay attention to the values of their future employers, they argued that we can increase the demand for good business practices. In this way, we can collaborate with the next generation to turn ripples of inspiration and collaboration into waves of innovation.

 

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods
Photo by Emily McManamy

 

Day 3 Takeaway– Turning ideas and challenges into solutions is no small feat.  “B inspired” to keep moving forward.

On Day 3, B Lab assembled an assortment of speakers to challenge those of us who already have an invested interest to take it a step further.

For example, Ben Cohen, the Co-Founder of Ben & Jerry’s, talked about the imbalance of corporate influence in politics. He described that corporations, on average, contribute 1,000 times more than the rest of the population to political campaigns, thereby using this tremendous influence to further their own agendas. Sick and tired of money informing politics, he founded StampStampede, a campaign to encourage Americans to “legally stamp messages on our Nation’s currency to #GetMoneyOut of Politics” and amend the Constitution.
B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods

Another inspiring example is Juan Pablo Larenas, who our founder Dave and myself had the pleasure of sharing a cab with. He spoke about the annual International Festival of Social Innovation (called fiiS in Chile), which he organizes to help spread awareness, boost the economy, and offer entertainment to the locals of the poverty-stricken ghettos of Chile.

More than anything, this retreat drove home the indisputable fact that upheaving the current paradigm of a successful business to a model that puts others before its own needs is no small feat. But rather than discouraging companies from attempting change, the retreat emphasized setting realistic goals. Even if goals that you think are practical end up being a bit of over-ambitious, at least you will “fail forward” and create ripples for others to build momentum for a better future.

 

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods
Photo by Emily McManamy

 

The Uncommon Life

How to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Revamp Your Gift Wrap

December 18, 2014

One scroll through the 200+ pins on our “Yum” Pinterest board would reveal that we drool over a perfectly plated photo as much as the next social media fiend. That little extra TLC in the presentation makes all the difference in a meal. We think the same phenomenon applies in gift giving. Just like a perfectly plated meal, a beautifully packaged present makes the gift giving experience even more joyful. Careful wrapping can require the same attention to detail as decorating a cake. Finding the right spices is just as crucial as sealing a present with a beautiful bow.

B Corp Champions Retreat | UncommonGoods
Photo by Justina Blakeney

 

Just as we wouldn’t want a gorgeous meal to go to waste, we don’t want to see pretty gift wrap overflowing out of the trash can. Unfortunately, though, it’s said that Americans alone contribute around 5 million tons of extra waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, a great portion of which is from disposable wrapping paper and shopping bags. Yikes! Instead of feeling discouraged, it’s time to get creative and plan ahead! For those who opt out of our gift wrapping option, we gathered some of our favorite DIY wrapping ideas from Pinterest and the “blogosphere” that will give your wrapping game a sustainable face-lift while honoring the gift that you worked so hard to find.

Revamp With Nature

Justina Blakeney, one of our all-time favorites, finds creative gift wrapping inspiration in her own backyard! Check out how she made these “junglelicious” designs here.

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

 

Repurpose “Furoshiki” Style

Furoshiki, or “the art of wrapping with fabric,” is a creative way to give scarves, pocket squares, handkerchiefs, and other fabrics a second life. We recommend this step-by-step guide to Furoshiki gift wrapping and this tutorial by Omiyage.

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

 

Reuse Retired Maps

Your map collection shouldn’t be collecting dust now that smart phones are taking over. Wherever your gift is heading, this nostalgic technique by Country Living will be sure to make your giftee smile.

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

 

Revive Newspaper and Sheet Music

When you’ve already caught up on the Sunday comics, or mastered every chord of Jingle Bells, consider saving these elements for your next gift. See Page Smith’s design for inspiration!

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

 

Revisit Old Book Pages

Our team loves all things literary, especially literary gifts.  We instantly fell in love with Erin Nish’s vintage design below, which will make a great presentation for small gifts. For larger items, we recommend trying this DIY garland design by Better Homes and Gardens. 

 

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

 

Rip Out Your Favorite Calendar Pages

When you’ve flipped through your wall calendar and reflected on the last 12 months, save your favorite pages for your next gift!  Real Simple recommends this method for wrapping paperback books and other small items.

Sustainable Gift Wrap | UncommonGoods

 

Record with #BringBackTheBow

As you may have read in our last blog post, we’re pretty giddy about our newest social media contest: #BringBacktheBow. We’re asking the craftiest gift gurus around to share their prettiest wrapped presents with the hashtag #BringBacktheBow for a chance to win a $50 gift card! If you tag your giftee, both of you will be in the running for $50 at UncommonGoods! Extra points if you can exercise gift wrap RRR. Let the green “Giftstagrams” commence!

Enter to win our #BringBacktheBow contest!

The Uncommon Life

How is UncommonGoods Becoming a Better Business?

August 29, 2014

As a company, we’ve always been passionate about sustainability. To us, sustainability is about more than how we impact the environment. It’s also about how what we do as a company affects individuals and our community. In 2007 we took an important step and turned our commitment to being a better business from a passion to a pledge when we became a founding B Corporation. This year, we made another stride toward becoming a better business by earning our B Corp recertification, and coming out with our best score yet!

We’re proud to be a Certified B Corporation because the B Corp Community is changing the way people think about business. According to the official B Corporation website, “Certified B Corporations are leading a global movement to redefine success in business. By voluntarily meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance, Certified B Corps are distinguishing themselves in a cluttered marketplace by offering a positive vision of a better way to do business.”

Those “higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance” are evaluated on several levels, so becoming a B Corp does take time and effort. Companies must receive at least 80 out of 200 points on the B Corp assessment form, and they have to have the documentation to back up that score.

“One of the cool things about B Corp certification is that we get to back up [sustainability] claims with actual research. We can look at our numbers to see what we’re really doing,” said Rachel Foley, UncommonGoods Project Manager and a member of our sustainability committee. “You see so many products and companies out there that say they are ‘green,’ but by becoming a B Corp, you’re doing more than just talking.”

B Lab, the non-profit behind B Corp, provides an overall score and they break those numbers down into a scorecard so companies and their customers can get a quick look at the result of the assessment.

UncommonGoods B Corp Scorecard

We earned 111.4 points this time around. That’s a 13% increase over our 2012 score of 99 points. While some of the extra points were thanks to improvements to our work environment and green initiatives, we saw the greatest improvement in our “Community” score.

The Community section of the impact assessment evaluates how a company influences its community, from relationships with vendors, to diversity among employees, to charitable giving and involvement with the local community.

By hiring employees from chronically underemployed populations and communities, paying seasonal workers 50% more than minimum wage, putting in employee volunteer hours, and making donations to our Better to Give partners, our Community score is now 47% above the median B Corp score.

“We received points not only because of the things we do year-round, but also because our seasonal team is so large and diverse,” said Area Operations Manager and sustainability committee member Jason Gomer.

Jason also explained that small changes can make a big difference, and small changes are achieved when a company keeps the “triple bottom line” in mind. He explained that the triple bottom lines, or “3 Ps,” are the three facets of sustainability in business: people, planet, and profit. Our goal is to not only do good for people and for the planet, but to succeed as a business so we can continue to do good for years to come.

B Lab re-evaluates each certified company every two years, so our next recertification is coming in 2016. We hope that the next assessment brings an even better score, and we’re laying the foundation to achieve it.

“We had to reach out to many different departments [at UncommonGoods] to get all of the information we needed this time around, but once all of the information is in order we’ll be able to keep up with our internal evaluation,” said another member of our sustainability committee, ITC Coordinator Christopher McRae.

Christopher explained that going forward, our sustainability committee is working to impose company-wide criteria to not only make sure we maintain high standards in the areas where we currently excel, but also set new standards to meet attainable goals in areas where we can use improvement.

B the Change

Currently, we’re focusing on increasing awareness about B Corp initiatives to get more team members involved in composting and taking advantage of paid volunteer days. In the upcoming months, our sustainability committee will partner with teams across the company to offer resources to help them meet department-specific goals.

We’re certainly happy to be off to a good start when it comes to reaching those standards, and the 13% increase in our B Corp impact assessment score is encouraging. We’re on our way to, as Christopher puts it, “exponentially improving our overall positive impact on the triple bottom line.”

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Get Ready to Grow with the Gardener’s Compost Container

April 24, 2014

Kara | UncommonGoods

Product: Gardener’s Compost Container

Research:
I’ve decided to test a new product our Product Development team created, the Gardener’s Compost Container. It’s an earthenware compost bin used to collect food scraps in your kitchen, while keeping away odors and flies with its two piece charcoal filter. I was excited to try this product because throughout my experience of using compost bins, I’ve never managed to find one that offered the functionality and aesthetic that I was looking for. I was hoping that this one would fit my criteria. I’ve been getting ready for summer by preparing my rooftop garden and so this composting project will be a main component of that.

Gardener's Compost Container | UncommonGoods

Hypothesis:

Based on my research, I suspect that this compost collector will perform very well as a bin that eliminates odors and keeps away the flies. In the past, I’ve tested other charcoal filters in my bathroom and in other areas of the house with great success. They not only do keep away odors, but they also reduce moisture. Since composting tends to create a lot of moisture, I’m hoping that this filter will keep the moisture to a minimum and help prevent any mold from growing in the bin.

Experiment:
I began my experiment by setting up the compost bin in my kitchen. Even though I would have loved to display this beautiful compost bin on my counter, I have very limited counter space so instead I placed it under my sink. I had a little trouble when I first placed the bio bag in it. The bio bag that comes with the product isn’t a perfect fit, so the edges of the bag did not fasten securely to the sides of the bin. It was an easy fix, though! In order to keep the sides of the bag from slipping, I used a rubber band to fasten the bag around the edges of the bin. Once the compost collector was set up, I was ready to start testing.

Open container with bio bag
Bio bag with band

For the next couple of weeks, my roommates and I put our food scraps in the collector. Our food scraps included fruit, vegetables, breads, pastas, tea bags, coffee grounds, processed foods, and more. Since meat and fish are typically geared for backyard composters and not indoor compost bins (as they are likely to attract pests), we did not put this in our compost.

Full Compost Container

When we filled it for the first time, I ran into a problem when trying to empty the bin. When I tried pulling the bio bag up and out, it ripped due to the weight of the compost, leaving a mess of food scraps at the bottom of the bin. To remedy this, I recommend not waiting until it’s completely full to change the bag. Since my bag was so full, I had to dump the compost into a grocery bag, carefully avoiding any spillage. Not only was this a hassle, but it defeated the purpose of avoiding regular plastic bags, which will need to be thrown away in the trash because they are not compostable.

Removing compost bag

Throughout these weeks of composting, I constantly checked the bin with no signs of odors and flies. My roommates had confirmed that they had not noticed any odors or flies in the kitchen either since the start of this experiment, which is a good indication that the charcoal filter is functioning as it had been described it would. In addition, I did not see any mold growing inside of the bin, which indicates that the filter is doing its job of reducing the moisture created by the compost.

Conclusion:
In conclusion, I found that the compost collector performed very well when it came to eliminating odors, reducing moisture, and keeping away the flies. The charcoal filter functioned as it said it would, leaving me and my roommates very pleased with the sustained hygiene in the kitchen. Through this experiment, I did come across a couple of problems that I did not expect to run into. The bio bag that came with the compost collector isn’t specifically made for it,so it’s not a perfect fit. It also tore when I tried to lift it out of the bin.

5 - under sink

When I use this bin in the future, I’ll look for other alternatives that would function better. One solution could be to go bag-less and use Bokashi-style composting in order to keep the compost manageable. Bokashi style composting is a method that uses a bran (which consists of a mix of microorganisms) to cover and ferment food waste to decrease odor and flies. Without the bag, people may be concerned with the hygiene of the compost bin, but Bokashi is a great way to solve the bag problem while keeping the compost collector sanitary. Without the reliance on bags, the compost process is naturally more environmentally sustainable as well. However, this solution also creates inconvenience for those who need to carry their compost to a drop-off at a local farmers’ market or community garden. For those who would prefer to use a bag, I would suggest that they use a small, fitted burlap bag, which is sturdy and can be reused over and over again without the concern of wear and tear. These bags are also breathable, letting in plenty of air to help keep the compost from smelling. Most community gardens and farmers’ markets do not accept bio bags, so this makes for a great solution.

Kara with Compost Collector

Overall, the beautiful design and charcoal filter feature make the Gardener’s Compost Container a functional design without sacrificing aesthetic. With a few adjustments to the use of the bin (eliminating the bio-bags for a more practical alternative), it makes a perfect compost collector. NYC Recycles is piloting an organics collection program where they will be picking up compost in my area this summer. So I look forward to using this to collect lots of food scraps, especially in the upcoming months!

Design

Creative Design to the Rescue! (Of Homeless Cats)

March 7, 2014

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My cat Eddie thinking about cats who lack a nice warm bed like his

If you love cats–as we do–it’s painful to think of them having to brave the elements on their own during a freezing northern winter, especially this year. But here in New York City, tens if not hundreds of thousands of cats have no shelter. So, if you also love creative design, and believe in its potential as a force for good–as we do–it’s nice to learn about Architects for Animals’ “Giving Shelter,” a yearly funds-and awareness-raising initiative founded by animal lover Leslie Farrell.

CatHaus

“CatHaus” by Francis Cauffman Architects was voted the favorite of the 2014 attendees

Since 2010, every year, Farrell, Director of Client Development at architecture firm Francis Cauffman, has convinced a handful of top-notch architectural design firms to design, build and donate innovative outdoor winter shelters for homeless cats. Their creations are put on public display as a one-night benefit event for the Mayor’s Alliance for NewYork City’s Animals. Attendees vote for their favorite, then all the shelters are donated to caregivers who work with needy animals.

CatHive

“Cat Hive” by Incorporated Architecture & Design

Carlton

by Carlton Architecture PC

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“Time Machine for Kittens,” by Two One Two Design

Hairball

“Hairball,” by M Moser Associates

The creative designs of these shelters help the cause architecturally (they generate good ideas for future shelters) and in other ways, too, as Michael Phillips, Community Outreach Coordinator of the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the Mayor’s Alliance, points out. “The media coverage with pictures of the flashy shelters is an eye-catcher that many people examine with interest, whereas they will skip over an article about the plight of cats abandoned to the streets through no fault of their own.”

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Homeless cat in Brooklyn (rescued and adopted a few days after this photo was taken)

Nobody knows how many homeless cats there are in NYC, but estimates range from tens of thousands up to a million. Most of them are scared of us, so they keep out of sight, which makes counting them difficult. While people often think of cats as natural loners, they actually tend to form colonies near food sources such as garbage bins near apartment buildings. Some feral moms could very well be teaching their kittens to scrounge your leftovers as you sleep. (I’ve witnessed this, a sight both adorable and sad.)

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African Wild Cat at the Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa. Photo: Sonelle

These felines are all trying to survive in what, for them, is an unnatural habitat. It’s not just that it’s so urban and industrial, but also that they’re not native to this part of the world. All of the world’s domestic cats are descended from a type of wildcat that lives in the deserts of the Near East. These cats are not designed to live in the NYC climate; those pretty fur coats are not enough protection during the winter, no matter how thick they get.

They need our help, especially as it’s humans’ fault that they’re out there in the first place. This population is made up of of strays, who are lost or abandoned tame pet cats (some of whom have regressed to a not-so-tame state), and ferals, the essentially wild (that is, not socialized to humans) offspring and descendants of non-neutered strays and pets who were allowed to roam. They have neither a consistent and healthy food source, nor shelter from the elements, nor protection from urban dangers such as cars, rat and other poisons, and cruel humans.

NYFeralCatInitiative

New York Feral Cat Initiative logo

Fortunately, there are many (though never enough) animal-lovers all over NYC who work hard to rescue tame, adoptable cats and kittens, and feed and protect the ferals. The New York City Feral Cat Initiative is a coalition of more than 150 animal rescue groups and shelters whose joint mission is “to raise awareness about the thousands of… community cats living outdoors throughout NYC’s five boroughs, to offer solutions to prevent the number of homeless cats from increasing, and to successfully manage existing colonies.”

outdoorshelter

Standard outdoor cat winter shelter design by Ashot Karamian

Building shelters that enable these critters to avoid freezing misery or death during inclement weather is part of the last part, managing colonies. (To read about solutions to prevent increases in the number of homeless cats, start here.) Of course, it’s not really necessary to build shelters that are more than just functional. As far as we know, cats aren’t offended by a styrofoam-and-duct-tape aesthetic. Phillips described the minimal structural guidelines as follows: “No heavier than two people can lift easily. Inner space should be no higher than 16 inches to retain the body heat of the cats with room for straw bedding.Waterproof. Constructed with weatherproof construction materials.” He added, “Water is the most destructive force. Snow does not normally damage shelters or enter shelters in comparison to driving rain or flooding.”

rubbershelter

Rubbermaid container cat shelter by by Ashot Karamian (photo by Ashot Karmanian used with permission)

“You could use a basic Rubbermaid container for a cat shelter, which is quite common and perfectly fine because it works,” says architect Sofia Zimmerman, who, along with her husband and business partner, Adam, has participated in Architects for Animals: Giving Shelter three years in a row. “But as designers,”she continues, “we love the idea of someone walking down the street and coming across something that is artful, unusual, or even beautiful. Cat shelters are often found in alleyways, parking lots, and other places where finding something delightful is rare. But here’s a chance to do something nice looking–for the cats, their caregivers, and the people that might catch a glimpse.”

zimmerman

by Zimmerman Workshop Architecture + Design

“This third one, that we did this year, is perhaps the simplest, but in many ways our favorite. It was all about upcycling. We re-used a cardboard box and sealed it with duct tape. Inside, we lined it with styrofoam that came as packaging material for a lamp. And then we had to add another layer of insulation. This was the chance to do something delightful! We collected nine pairs of old jeans, cut them into long strips, and created a very very long braid. We wrapped it around and around the box, using as inspiration braided rag rugs–the ones you see in storybooks all the time with cats curled up on them!”

She adds that “During that process, we actually learned about the environmental impact associated with creating a pair of jeans….don’t get us started!”

fiberglasspod

“Fiberglass Pod,” by Elham Valipay and Haleh Atabaki, co-founders of MishMish, an example of a structure built with camouflage in mind

Different situations may call for specific architectural strategies. Phillips describes varying and “colony needs,” such as “camouflage; difficult specific dimensions to fit an exact spot; or fitting in visually with the design of a building nearby to please a particular property owner willing but not thrilled to have shelters placed on his property.”

If you want to help feral cats where you live, Phillips says, “Offering of your time to assist a local caretaker in your neighborhood is the best way to contribute to the long-term welfare of a community cat colony. The more widespread the support in a neighborhood the more likely the cats will accepted. Volunteering to feed the colony one or more days a week is a great help, when so often only one or two people shoulder the care for an entire colony.“

Or, if you’re crafty and love the idea of experimenting with small-scale architectural design that will actually be used, here’s your chance to do it, fur real! (sorry…)

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Above three photos: “Feral Vernacular” by deSoto studio architecture + design

All photos copyright Marisa Bowe, unless otherwise indicated.

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