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Sustainability

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Alexandra Ferguson

July 9, 2015

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When I was getting ready to head over to Alexandra Ferguson’s pillow factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a few other members of the UncommonGoods team, I honestly had no idea what to expect. Not only was this my first studio tour – it was my first day of work, and the word ‘factory’ was emboldened in my head. The automatic image of a dingy, windowless environment I had cultivated growing up clashed with the sense of handmade authenticity and vibrancy I associated with UncommonGoods. Visiting Alexandra’s studio factory was initially an incredibly dissonant experience – but we’re talking a good kind of dissonance: one that adhered to none of my preconceived notions of what a factory was, and rather showed me what a factory could be.

Photo by Colin Miller

Just a few blocks away from the UncommonGoods office in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Alexandra’s studio is lofted high up on the 6th floor of the massive Industry City complex. We made our way into the building, dodging a slurry of outbound shipments that left us frazzled by the time we reached the elevator. Yet when the doors opened, Alexandra’s head popped into view, and we were immediately greeted by her distinctive brand of inviting pep. She welcomed us in and led us down a short hallway lined with pillow fills towards her main assembly floor.

The space that unfolded around us was – in two words – collected and comfortable. Sewing machines and pinning tables stretched from end to end of the long, bright space, one side of which was almost entirely lined with windows boasting inviting views of the Statue of Liberty and the NY Harbor. The room was warmly decorated but economical, with little (literal) fluff for a pillow factory. As Alexandra walked us along the sunny assembly floor, she gestured towards the colorful walls and washed away the monochromatic filter I was still half-clinging to, saying: “My goal is for my factory to be a colorful place, where we make colorful things, and ultimately to change the way people think about factories.” Not only is this idea sustainable – so too are her exclusively recycled and eco-friendly materials.

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Alexandra is a self-described “factory girl;” having toured assemblies all over the world, she emanated an almost infectious sense of pride as she talked excitedly about her set-up. We moved into her office – open and connected to the main floor – where she energetically floated over stacks of ‘I’ll-get-to-this-later’ mail atop tables and chairs, and decommissioned sewing machines encouraged closer exploration. After she showed us her camera and photo shoot area, she explained that, since locating in Industry City two years ago, she and her six full-time employees have been conducting every aspect of her business in-house.

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Read on for more on Alexandra’s impactful ideals for industry, the story of her six-and-a-half-year-old startup, and that time that Snoop Dogg endorsed her custom pillows.

Continue Reading…

The Uncommon Life

This Just In: Our Top 5 Most Creative and Head-Turning Greener Materials

April 22, 2015

Back in February, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver opened his show with a hilarious segment of reporters who all agreed that “infrastructure is important, but not sexy.” As crucial as infrastructure improvements are, Oliver proclaimed that “most people actually think it’s boring!” (Unless, of course, the infrastructure is blowing up in an action movie.) But in reality, Oliver admitted that he thinks infrastructure is quite fascinating.

Greener Materials | UncommonGoods

Photo via Collectively.org

I would argue that the same holds true for manufacturing. It’s not a word that typically riles up the masses. It’s never trending on Twitter, and there isn’t an app that would make manufacturing any more sexy (with the exception of 3D Printing). Yet, the manufacturing industry touches almost everything we use. As you may have read in our latest Uncommon Design School post, in the decades preceding the first Earth Day “the manufacturing industry was more interested in making green than going green: factories belched out clouds of black smoke; toxic chemicals were dumped carelessly, polluting the soil and groundwater; and bottles, cans, and paper were all destined for the landfill after just one use.” Well, could that sound any less sexy?

Greener Materials | UncommonGoods

Photo courtesy of Barry Rosenthal’s Studio Tour

Lucky for us, this 20th century model of capitalism is becoming less and less acceptable. According to B Lab Co-Founder Jay Coen Gilbert, we are moving toward a stakeholder capitalism, where business is not only concerned about creating value for shareholders, but also concerned about creating value for society, the workforce, the community and the environment. Organizations like B Corporations are making sustainable business more important and attractive to consumers. In this way, I would argue that sustainability is one of the main factors that make manufacturing a really cool topic. Green design is only becoming more innovative and valuable than it’s ever been.

This realization got us thinking: What are some of the most surprising, head-turning green materials in our assortment this Earth Day? What are some of our newest items that make us excited to talk all things materials and manufacturing?

Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug

Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug | UncommonGoods

The Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug immediately caught my eye the day it entered our assortment. As I was reading the product description, I was particularly impressed that this artist uses the discarded bicycle tire tubes, gathered from bike shops in her area, and yarn scraps reclaimed from industrial production. I was even more intrigued how this hand woven rug seamlessly combines Old and New World techniques. But it was one concept in particular that made my head tilt sideways: this item is “waste negative,” meaning it removes waste from the environment, rather than adding to it. Brilliant!

Recycled Plastic Duck Family

Recycled Plastic Duck Family | UncommonGoods

Whereas reuse is the reinstallation of materials in their original form, recycling is the collection and remanufacture of materials into a new material or product, typically different from the original material. Handmade from recycled newspaper, recycled water bottles and clay, this Duck Family is a very creative example of attractive recycling.

Fire Hose Products

Fire Hose Products | UncommonGoods

Here at UncommonGoods, we are huge fans of upcycling, the process of converting old materials into something useful. When you upcycle an item, you aren’t breaking down the materials, but refashioning them. As the Upcycling Fashionista puts it, “upcycling only requires your own creativity and elbow grease.” Micah Landworth’s line of fire hose products is a really unique way to transform discarded materials into something beautiful and true to its original character.

Pride & Prejudice Throw

Pride and Prejudice Throw | UncommonGoods

I immediately loved this throw because P&P is one of my favorite novels and movie adaptations. What makes this throw truly special, though, is how it’s made. The makers repurpose, or adapt, pre-consumer cotton scraps, and shred and spin them into new yarn. How cool is that?

Vegetable Parchment Platter

Vegetable Parchment Platter | UncommonGoods

Artist Margaret Dorfman has been part of the UncommonGoods family for more than 15 years. She has an extensive jewelry collection that’s made by hand from over 40 different varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables that are cured, dried, pressed and aged in a 10-14 day process. She calls this Vegetable Parchment, because the texture and translucency calls to mind the vellum parchments of medieval Europe. I was really excited to see that she is expanding this technique into other products besides jewelry. Even more awesome, her new Vegetable Parchment Platters are made with recycled glass.

 

See More Recycled Gifts | UncommonGoods

The Uncommon Life

Instagram Challenge: EARTH DAY

April 8, 2015

Instagram Challenge | Earth Day | #UGInstaFun

 

 

The next Instagram Challenge theme is EARTH DAY! This year marks the 45th anniversary of the day that many people consider the birth of the modern environmental movement. Whether you’re planning your own Earth Day event, exploring a new landscape, or opting to bike more and drive less, we encourage you to spend more time outdoors making a positive impact. Big or small, every action counts. We want to see how you’re showing your appreciation! While sharing your Earth-loving photos, be sure to use the hashtag #UGInstafun for a chance to win a $50 gift card. Visit here to see the entries we’ve received so far.

From all of us at UncommonGoods, we hope you have an impactful Earth Day!

Congratulations to @jce for winning our Architecture Instagram Challenge with this stunning shot of Taos Pueblo.

Instagram Challenge Winner | Architecture | #UGInstaFun

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!

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