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Good Green Gifts

11/25/2008 12:00:00 AM

Tags: holidays, Christmas, shopping, gifts

It’s time to think about Christmas gifts—and just about auld lang syne time as well. When I look back over the past year, one of Natural Home’s most exciting developments has been the launch of our new product line. (And at the risk of blatant self-promotion, our products make great gifts!). 

I love the products, which are now available online. They’re just the right combination of sustainable materials, good design and affordability. But I’d be lying if I said this whole process has been easy. After all these years of vetting products to make sure they’re worthy of a Natural Home endorsement and offering readers advice on finding the greenest of the green, we’ve learned a thing or two about the challenges of mass producing products that meet our own tough criteria. 

We wanted our products to be affordable for everyone, which meant they had to be manufactured overseas (my biggest compromise, honestly). They’re currently being made in Spain, India and China, though we’re actively seeking out U.S. companies to partner with us for the next round. Our agents have inspected all of the factories we’re working with, and no children or forced laborers are involved in making them. All workers are paid fair wages. 

I’m particularly pleased with the Indian textile factory that’s making our organic cotton pot holders and dish towels; it’s clearly ahead of the pack when it comes to sustainable manufacturing. The carbon-neutral factory in Haryana includes a closed-loop water recapture and filtration system, a windmill to generate power and a farm that feeds workers and staff. One of our representatives who visited the factory said the floors are so clean you could literally eat off them. “Every person there, from the owner to the factory workers, walk barefoot in the office and factory,” he told me. “They do this out of respect for the entity that provides food and enables their families to live and prosper.” 


Most of our recycled glass items are manufactured in Xativa, Spain, where an abundance of recycled glass is readily available. The Vidrios San Miguel factory uses only recycled glass from clear glass bottles—100 tons of recycled material per day. We’ve learned during this process that Europe’s deep green roots—they’ve simply been at this longer than we have—the factory has a well-developed understanding of efficient manufacturing and fair labor practices. “Europe is ahead of the United States by at least 20 years in terms of understanding how to recycle better and make use of those materials,” Bill Mitchell, who runs our manufacturing partner, Cataluna Enterprises, told me. 



Bamboo proved to be the most challenging material we worked with. Our bamboo bowls and utensils are beautiful, and we’re confident that the bamboo we’re using is sustainable. The Chinese factory we’re working with uses only bamboo that is older than four years, assuring strength and durability, and the stalks are processed within 15 days of harvest. 

Bamboo has become ubiquitous these days as consumers have discovered its virtues: This rapidly renewable grass has the strength and versatility of hardwood but because it self-propagates through underground rhizomes, it replaces itself every four to seven years. It resists denting better than hardwood and, if harvested properly, is harder than oak and rock maple. 

Bamboo’s biggest drawback is not the material itself, but the binder used to produce bamboo “boards.” More often than not, that binder contains urea formaldehyde, a carcinogen. We were well aware of that when we began developing our products, and my first—and most adamant—request was that our bamboo wares be formaldehyde-free. Natural Home has featured a few “formaldehyde-free” bamboo products in the past, so I believed that was possible—if not easy. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when we had our bamboo products independently tested and found that they outgas about .03 parts per million (ppm) of formaldehyde. This is well below the allowable limit of .1 ppm and within the new standards for formaldehyde content that California will implement in 2010. But I was sure we could get to zero…after all, those other products had done it, right? 

Wrong. Our third-party testing of two other bamboo products that claim to be “formaldehyde-free” found that they, too, contain trace amounts of formaldehyde—more formaldehyde than our products contain, as a matter of fact.

I’ll admit, this shocked me. I believe formaldehyde-free should mean formaldehyde-free; those claims are misleading. So in the interest of integrity and transparency, we are not labeling our products “formaldehyde-free.” We’re working very diligently to get there—and we will—but until then, we believe it’s most important to keep our readers and consumers apprised of the situation. We’re confident that the trace amounts of formaldehyde in our bamboo kitchenware are not dangerous—but we want you to know it’s there. 

For me, this has been a great learning experience. I have new respect for the commitment and determination it takes to create the healthy, eco-friendly products we feature in every issue of Natural Home. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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