You Want Me To Go Ware?

Allison Kade - Contributing Writer
Posted on Monday 1st June 2009

To-Go Ware is a brand of reusable eating utensils that seeks to overcome the need for disposable cutlery and food containers. The idea is that customers should walk around with trendy bamboo forks and knives in convenient karabiner cases, dangling at the ready whenever the munchies strike. Food carriers and bags are made from recycled material ranging from reused PET bottles to cotton scraps.

To-Go Ware tackles the problem of consumer waste, directly reduces waste products that would otherwise wind up in oceans or landfills, and also pursues social and economic justice. The WEAVE program employs displaced women in Burma, while the CONSERVE program pays “rag pickers,” people traditionally relegated to the outskirts of Indian society, to collect old plastic bags to be refashioned into colorful and pretty utensil holders. The WEAVE project enables Burmese women living in Thai refugee camps to earn money for their households even when they don’t have the ability to leave for work because they’re unwell, pregnant, tending babies, maintaining the household, etc. The CONSERVE project is run by a company that uses its proceeds to fund projects such as building schools and parks. According to a video on To-Go Ware’s website, some of the workers hired by CONSERVE were so poor that they had never even used scissors before. Now, they receive three times the living wage rate. In other words, this organization sounds like it’s composed of saints.

The obvious question: “What’s the catch?”

I contacted Shannon Laliberte Parks, who handles outreach for To-Go Ware. First, I wanted to know more about how plastic bags were transformed into usable products. Recycling is great and all, I figured, but what’s the environmental impact of burning a bunch of plastic in order to transform it into something else? Is the process of recycling performed differently in a cottage industry than in a large-scale factory? According to Shannon, “Although it may cost more to produce a recycled plastic item (sadly, producing virgin plastic material is less expensive)… making the product out of recycled plastic [removes] those items from the environment where it could have laid waste for hundreds of years.” As a result, she concludes that the overall environmental impact of producing recycled plastic is “less than that of a virgin, single use plastic item.” By plucking plastic waste out of garbage heaps, CONSERVE actively works to diminish the mountains of plastic waste that plague the globe.

To offset the pollution that is inevitably produced from production of recycled plastic, creation of these products, and shipping them out to customers, Shannon was careful to add, “Our warehouse/office space is 100% wind powered and we have offset all of our carbon for frieght (sic) and shipping (including getting items abroad to us and sending them to customers).” The company soon hopes to offer customers the option of adding a small amount of money to their orders to offset the carbon footprint associated with their purchases.

So far so good.

My next question revolved around To-Go Ware’s commitment to fair trade principles. Although the website touts the company’s respect for cultural identity and public accountability, the company does not officially qualify for fair trade certification. (This is in part because many of those certifications are related to food and agriculture.) Plus, many of To-Go Ware’s partners cannot afford the international certifications of “official” fair trade. As a result, To-Go Ware works “doubly hard to ensure that our partners are doing everything in their power to treat their employees with respect and that they are honoring the Earth in their business practices.” To accomplish this goal, the company requires their partners to undergo third party monitors’ audits. Their third party monitoring partner is Verite, a non-profit that performs labor auditing to ensure that workers’ rights are protected. To-Go Ware has also added its own supplemental audits, which were created using both SA8000 and ISO14001 standards.

For better or for worse, To-Go Ware is different from other companies in that it tries to work with its smaller partner companies rather than against them. Although To-Go Ware seeks to ensure fair labor practices, they do not want to impose prohibitive certification or unattainable requirements upon their smaller partners. The argument goes as follows: although fair trade is a high priority, immediately cutting ties with a company because of a breach in certification would hurt the workers even more by denying them the wages they need to survive. “So,” Shannon noted, “when we find…a business practice…that we do not agree with, we work with [the company] to see if we can change the practice so that it's more sustainable, etc. We know that folks who work at these companies are relying on pay checks they get in part [from] our business, so it is our commitment to support those local communities…rather than the conventional model of ‘cut and run.’”

One of my concerns is that foreign companies employing people in developing nations sometimes take a paternalistic approach to business. Even socially and environmentally sustainable companies sometimes have the mindset that they have come to sweep in and enlighten those in more benighted parts of the world. It’s the clichéd difference between fishing for a man and teaching him how to fish; conducting business somewhere is very different from teaching skills and empowering people, even if plain business produces income for those in need. It’s clear to me, however, that To-Go Ware is neither exploiting its workers nor self-righteously distributing handouts. Even To-Go Ware’s justification for its lack of formalized certifications convinces me that it is creating true partnerships with companies around the globe. Given its environmental mission statement, one could even say that it’s creating partnerships with the globe.

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