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Meet the movement making companies show you what they're made of.

Ingredient transparency: It's about a lot more than chemicals in yoga mats.

Meet the movement making companies show you what they're made of.
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Seventh Generation

Do you remember hearing something about Subway and yoga mats back in 2014?

It's the kind of story that really stands out. In January 2014, health blogger Vani Hari wrote about her discovery that the bread used in Subway’s iconic sandwiches contained a scary-sounding chemical named azodicarbonamide.


Yoga mat: It's what's for dinner. Image by iStock.

Azodicarbonamide is used in commercial bread-making as a dough conditioner, helping to keep bread soft and spongy. It’s also used in some decidedly inedible consumer products — most famously, yoga mats.

Hari’s spark caught fire quickly. Her online petition gathered 50,000 signatures and lots of media attention. A few weeks later, a report titled "500 Ways to Eat a Yoga Mat" came out, showing the more than 400 supermarket bread products also containing azodicarbonamide. The outrage grew, and within a few weeks, Subway caved to pressure, announcing it was permanently removing the "yoga mat" chemical from its bread recipe.

Up next: getting the dog to nama-stay on his own yoga mat.

Interestingly, there is no evidence that azodicarbonamide as a food additive is harmful to human health.

A 1999 World Health Organization report on its effects found almost no effects to animals, except in massive doses. In human subjects, there’s no conclusive data, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows its use as an additive in cereal flour and bread-making, along with thousands of other common products.

In the end, all the research in the world wouldn't have mattered. It really boils down to trust and transparency.

Although azodicarbonamide doesn't seem to be harmful, the public believed it was. People felt there was no way to know or agree to the chemicals being put in their food and that Subway was concealing something from them. The only option for Subway to regain consumer trust was to remove the ingredient.

Stories like this seem to happen all the time.

A consumer notices something strange about a particular ingredient in a common product. Companies assure us it's completely safe, but the public doesn't trust them and remains concerned. Eventually the pressure mounts until the company comes up with some fix to regain consumer trust. It's happened before, with "pink slime" in menu items at fast food restaurants, wood pulp in shredded cheese, and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in makeup and cleansers.

And although those things might be technically "safe," it's clear consumers want to be a part of that decision-making process to select what goes in their food, cleaners, makeup, and other products.

This kitten doesn't know what he doesn't know — but he knows he doesn't like it.

It's clear the public wants to be more knowledgeable about what is in their products and how they are made. But currently, it can be really hard to find that information.

Ordinary people demanding transparency from the products in their lives is a fast-growing movement. To understand why and what they want, I looked to one of the most visible names of the transparency movement — the Environmental Working Group.

The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, knows firsthand how crucial consumer trust is.

Protecting children is a big driver for people in the ingredient transparency movement. Image by iStock.

Started 22 years ago by founders Ken Cook and Richard Wiles, the EWG initially focused its energy on researching the impacts of pesticides on children. But after learning more about pollutants in other areas of modern life, they expanded their efforts to include food, cosmetics, household cleaners — even tap water.

The EWG maintains massive and hyper-detailed databases of products available in the United States. Their food database — containing ingredient lists for most commercially-available foods — is what allowed them to quickly turn around the 500 Ways to Eat a Yoga Mat report. Their world-famous cosmetics database Skin Deep, is so influential that, according to the EWG Deputy Director of Research Nneka Leiba, companies have begun to reformulate their products in order to omit potentially-dangerous ingredients and get higher ratings.

Leiba explains the ingredient transparency movement using body lotion as a symbol of the deep trust consumers place in companies.

"Our relationship with our body lotions is extremely personal. We bring it into our homes, use it twice a day. Over time, it becomes an extension of our personal identity. Our trust in the safety of this lotion is extended to the company that makes it. They can choose to strengthen that with honesty and transparency. Or they can break it by doing the opposite."

In the last five years, massive corporations, including Mars, Kraft, Kellogg's, and Campbell Soup, have voluntarily opened up about the ingredients in their products and removed ones considered unsafe.

When S.C. Johnson & Son Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson announced his company would disclose everything in their fragrances — an ingredient category protected by government regulation as "trade secrets" — he promised complete openness: "Transparency doesn't mean cherry-picking which things to share and which things to hide. It means opening the door and letting people see what you’re made of."

There are, of course, plenty of financial incentives for companies embracing ingredient transparency.

The market for natural products is continuing to expand every year. Companies selling products with very few ingredients are channeling consumer distrust into constructive purchases they feel good about and feel safe about bringing into their home. It's a growing world of products — encompassing everything from organic food to natural cosmetics to household cleaners to clothes — that's likely to get even bigger as millennials start having families and flex even more of their buying muscle.

The much sought-after millennial consumer in its natural habitat. Image by iStock.

"Consumers are demanding change, voting with their wallets and saying they won’t buy products with ingredients they don't trust," said Leiba. "So large companies like Revlon, Johnson & Johnson, and Proctor & Gamble are removing phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde-releasing additives from their products — and then advertising it as a point of pride."

Ultimately, the ingredient transparency movement is about trust — and consumers only have a finite amount of it.

The more companies treat the people who buy their products with respect, honesty, and inclusiveness, the more likely consumers are to take them at their word.

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels

A professor's message to students has gone viral.

If you know any teachers, you probably know how utterly exhausted they all are, from preschools all the way up through college. Pandemic schooling has been rough, to say the least, and teachers have borne the brunt of the impact it's had on students.

Most teachers I've known have bent over backwards to help students succeed during this time, taking kids' mental and emotional health into consideration and extending the flexibility and grace we all could use. But teachers have their own mental and emotional needs, too, and at some point, something's gotta give.

A college student posted screenshots of a professor's message on Twitter with the comment "someone PLEASE check on my professor." It's simply incredible.

The message reads:

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

man and two children on grass field

When I conceived my first born, I was elated. I took four at-home tests to confirm the news, peeing on my hand four times — and on four different sticks. I rushed to the city to tell my husband, with a congratulatory card and a few goodies in a yellow gift bag. There was a pacifier, a bottle, and an adorable Big Bird brush and comb set. And I called my doctor within hours. I scheduled an ultrasound the following week. But when I told everyone else the news, they wanted to know about my unborn baby's sex. Did I want a boy, they asked, or a girl?

I said I didn't care because I didn't. I wanted a child, to be sure. A happy, healthy baby who could (and presumably would) grow to become a happy, healthy kid. But everyone was focused on colors. On labels. Would I be a dance mom or a soccer mom? Would my shower be decorated with pink balloons or blue? And while I learned at my 20-week checkup that I was having a daughter — that I would be having a baby girl — I didn't identify as a "girl mom." My daughter is 8 and I still don't. Because sex doesn't define my daughter. It doesn't dictate her interests or mine, and it doesn't affect how I parent. I treat my son and daughter (more or less) the same. Because I'm not a boy mom or a girl mom, I'm just Mom, and that's an important distinction.


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Mom gets surprise call from daughter.

A FaceTime from her daughter is the best surprise this mom could ask for. Why? Because unbeknown to her, the daughter arrived back home from college in secret. And she shared this touching impromptu reunion with TikTok for everyone to enjoy.

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