You Don’t Have to Do This


Shop for a new smartphone and the choice of operating system appears limited to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The choice of wireless carrier network for the new smartphone is limited to five or six companies, and while there are more than a dozen smaller carriers, they all lease their networks from the larger carriers. Mergers of technology companies and globalization of supply chains have made it difficult for consumers to entertain enough options to simultaneously suit their desires for reasonable prices, efficient service, and in the best case scenario, ethical marketplace behavior.


To be a large player in the technology industry, as in many other industries, it seems engaging in horrible practices is simply a necessary cost of doing business. It’s as if economies of scale and ethical behavior are mutually exclusive. Apple iPhones are manufactured under terrible labor conditions in China, and the cobalt required for manufacture of those iPhones is mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all sell their users’ information to advertisers while double-dipping by generating enormous ad revenues from the wide use of their services. That’s the cost of “free” to the users. As an online retailer, Amazon’s reputation for egregious labor practices is as bad or worse than that of its major brick and mortar competitor, Walmart.

Ilhan Omar speaking at worker protest against Amazon (45406484475)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking in December 2018 to about 200 workers protesting conditions at an Amazon workplace in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Protests by workers in this country against unfair labor practices by giant companies like Amazon would get a slingshot-like boost if lawmakers would repeal the anti-union legislation passed in the last 50 years at the behest of corporations.

That is by no means a comprehensive list of all the technology companies with reputations for treating customers, workers, suppliers, or the environment badly. Just as Americans are becoming more concerned with what is in their food and how it’s produced, they can devote some time and attention to how their technology products are produced and how companies are using the personal information they hand over in the course of using their services. It may seem like there are few to no alternatives to some technology products and services, but there are alternatives, and it may require effort put into research to find out about them, and then some sacrifices as it turns out they don’t offer absolutely everything consumers are used to getting from Microsoft’s Windows operating system, for instance, or Facebook’s one-stop social media and news sharing platform.

Some people simply won’t care, of course, and will remain interested only in what’s easiest and most convenient for them. This is not for them. Others who are concerned about voting with their dollars, however, should know there are ways to find alternatives to signing on with the big technology companies, and that informing themselves doesn’t have to suck up an inordinate amount of their time and energy. Currently there is almost no labeling on technology products and services such as there is on food for sale in supermarkets, informing consumers of organic and non-GMO options, and of nutritional content. There should be similarly easily apparent labels for technology, listing ratings from an impartial source, if such is possible, on a company’s treatment of workers, suppliers, and the environment. The companies are now required by law to enumerate the ways they use customer information, but that is for the most part buried in fine print legalese that few consumers bother to read.

In episode #1938, “Theresa Syndrome”, from the radio show Car Talk, the portion of the show relevant to this post starts at the 10:45 mark with a call from Brian in Harrisonville, Kentucky. Questions of ethics come up every day in everyone’s lives, and in this case as in many others, arguments of efficiency that mask motives of self-interest are all too common.

Until the technology industry catches up with at least the halting steps the food industry has taken to inform consumers about what they are buying and what kind of ethical or unethical behavior they in turn support with their purchases, it will remain up to individual consumers to inform themselves. Globalization has made it easy to hide the ugly details of technology manufacturing halfway around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not as if things were far better 100 years ago, though, because at that time for most Americans a sweatshop on New York City’s Lower East Side was as much on the other side of the world as a sweatshop in Bangladesh is today. Speed of travel and communications have changed the seeming size of the world, but sadly not the willingness of businesses and governments to exploit the less fortunate, and of the more fortunate to turn a blind eye.
— Techly

Editor’s note: Bonus points to readers who note advertising on this site for the products of one of the companies criticized in this post. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to exist in the modern world without some compromises, and like everybody else, writers have to eat. With a little effort and attentiveness, people do what they can to make the world a better place, but no one is without faults, and as Joe E. Brown said at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”


It Grows without Spraying


A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.

Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.


Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.


Empty Glyphosate (Herbolex) container discarded in Corfu olive grove
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.

The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.

Because scientists have found traces of glyphosate in the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
— Izzy


A Corny Time of Year


October is corn harvest time in much of the United States, and popcorn has this month dedicated to it in all its glory. The sweet corn harvest was earlier, in August and September, but for field corn and popcorn, October is typically the month when farmers cut the stalks. The Harvest Moon was on October 5th, and at the end of the month corn and corn stalks figure in Halloween decorations and celebrations. Corn will have a part in the celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, too, though for Christmas its part will fall mostly to strings of popcorn for garlanding Christmas trees.


Popcorn is made from a special variety of maize, called Zea mays everta, the special popping characteristic of which Native Americans may have discovered long ago when some kernels fell near a cooking fire. It was a long time between that discovery and the one in the 1960s by Orville Redenbacher and his business partner, Charlie Bowman, of a hybrid strain that popped more reliably and twice as large as earlier popcorns. The “gourmet” description added to the packaging of their product was purely marketing. In the meantime, popcorn had become a favorite snack food in America by the early twentieth century and had even become ingrained in popular culture, with the merchandising of Cracker Jack caramel corn and peanuts in a box with a prize, and the baseball song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, which included a reference to Cracker Jack.

“Shine On, Harvest Moon” sheet music cover from 1908, with corn shocks included in the artwork. This songbook standard was written by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. Norworth also co-wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the same year, with Albert Von Tilzer.

The biggest boost to popcorn sales came from movie theaters, even though theater owners initially resisted selling popcorn in house because of the low brow connotations of the snack. Popcorn was cheap, and movie theater owners in the first few decades of the twentieth century sought a slightly higher class clientele. That changed during the Great Depression when theater owners took concession sales away from independent vendors out on the sidewalk and brought the selling of high profit items like popcorn under their own wing in the lobby. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that popcorn sales saved many a movie theater from bankruptcy during the darkest years of the Great Depression.


The next big boost to popcorn sales came in the 1980s with the simultaneous advent of home video rentals and the widespread appearance of microwave ovens in homes and, with them, microwaveable popcorn. Suddenly people could save money on a trip to the movie theater and still enjoy a facsimile of their favorite movie theater snack at home. There have been health concerns about both movie theater popcorn and microwaveable popcorn, each for different reasons. Lately there have also been alarms about the use of neonicotinoids, implicated in honey bee deaths and colony decline, as a seed coating for planted popcorn. The good news is that popcorn has not been swept up in the GMO madness.

Cracker jack newspaper ad 1916
1916 newspaper advertisement for Cracker Jack.

The Swedish Chef grooves to the tune “Popcorn”. For an added treat, turn on the captions.

The best tasting popcorn and the healthiest might have been the batches people cooked up themselves on their stove tops at home in the days before they gave in to the tempting convenience of microwaveable popcorn. It’s still possible to make it that way, of course, and it is really not that difficult. The home cook also has the advantage of controlling the amount of butter and salt added, the two ingredients that turn popcorn from a relatively healthy snack into a not entirely healthy one. What makes the concept of home cooked popcorn even more attractive and plausible is the addition to the home entertainment system since the 1970s of video recorders and DVDs, all with associated remote controls featuring pause buttons. No more rushing to pop up a snack during a commercial break! Take some time to relax and do it right.
― Izzy


Don’t Look Now


National Ice Cream Day came and went on July 16, but in case you missed celebrating it, there are still plenty of opportunities to do so even if you are only a hot weather ice cream eater. In 1984, President Reagan set aside the third Sunday of every July for celebrating the frozen treat, timing it to occur smack in the middle of summer. By 1984, the ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in Vermont in 1978, was gaining traction regionally in New England and within a few more years would start opening ice cream parlors in the rest of the country and selling pints of its ice cream in stores nationwide.

Children's paintings-sculpture-prints, WPA poster, 1936-41
Works Progress Administration (WPA) poster, circa 1938, for the Federal Art Project, Art Teaching Division exhibition of children’s art in Brooklyn, New York, showing a child’s painting of a cow in a field.


By 2000, Ben & Jerry’s had become a publicly traded company, and when the multinational corporation Unilever made an attractive offer for the company, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Greenfield yielded to shareholders’ demands and sold the company. Since 2000, Unilever has retained the same look to the product packaging, and kept Cohen and Greenfield on the payroll as front men for the Ben & Jerry’s brand, though the two have limited input and no authority. Some loyal customers of the brand may still be unaware the company is no longer run by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield; others may not care.

There is reason to care, however, on the part of those customers who continue buying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in 2017 at least partly because of the reputation the former owners established in working for social justice and environmental causes. Unilever still allows their front men to put that kind of thing front and center when it comes to selling ice cream, but the multinational giant operates differently on the production end in how it treats cows and human workers who are the source if its business. To begin with, the phrase “All Natural” on the label means nothing. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is not certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is a label that would have some meaning to consumers concerned about healthy ingredients in their food, though it would not assure them that cows were being treated humanely in the production of milk for ice cream, or that workers were being treated well and paid fairly.


Ben & Jerry's truck
Truck from Ben & Jerry’s in Waterbury, Vermont, August 2006; photo by Hede2000.

Recent accounts of the production of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream under the stewardship of Unilever state that the company fails in all areas except continuing to charge a premium for the pint containers of its greenwashed product. People will pay a premium for high quality, to be sure, but some conscientious and health conscious individuals will also pay a premium for a product that is produced in a humane and environmentally sensitive way, among other things. Corporate executives have learned this and smelled profits in it. But hewing to those goody two-shoes methods can be expensive and appear costly on the fiscal quarter balance sheet. What to do? Produce the ice cream with low wage labor, even below minimum wage where you can get away with it, and subject the cows to factory farm confinement conditions. That keeps production costs low, while the price at the store stays high because of the goody two-shoes reputations of your front men. What’s that smell? Profits!

Cows on a farm - by Eric Dufresne
Cows on a farm; photo by Eric Dufresne.

Testing of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has shown traces of Roundup in it. The amounts are within federal regulatory limits for supposedly safe consumer ingestion, but still this is Roundup (active ingredient – glyphosate) in a product that touts itself as environmentally and socially concerned. That is greenwashing. The happy cows depicted in pastures on the packaging bear no relationship to the reality of cows in confinement and fed grain from Roundup ready Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) instead of the pasture forage that is their natural diet. That is greenwashing. The company exploits human workers, too, despite the support of the founders for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his progressive initiatives, one of which is the Fight for $15 (raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour). That also is greenwashing, and it stinks like hypocrisy for the sake of corporate profits.
― Izzy


Let It Go


Following on the heels of the news story about Internet Service Providers (ISPs) astroturfing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to influence its decision on rolling back net neutrality regulations, and in some cases preceding it by several years, is the revelation that Monsanto, makers of Roundup herbicide and a world leader in producing genetically modified seeds, has allegedly been paying shills to post positive comments online about the company and its products, particularly on websites which portray them negatively. Even more disturbing has been the information from internal company memos which reveal its strategy for tilting scientific opinion in its favor by funding biased think tanks, funneling grant money to friendly scientists and academic institutions and even ghost writing papers for them, all of which are meant to appear as impartial efforts, while debunking contrary news articles and impugning the motives of the journalists who write them. Monsanto refers to its policy as “Let Nothing Go”.
Anti-Monsanto stencil “Monsanto – Siembra Muerte” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013 reads in English “Monsanto – Seeds of Death”; photo by JanManu. Monsanto’s policies and practices have engendered large scale protests in Argentina, as well as elsewhere around the world. Strangely, in the United States, the land where Freedom of the Press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the mainstream media is largely silent about agribusiness misconduct. Test that yourself with an internet search.


Monsanto is not alone among companies in tasking their public relations people with promoting a positive image online in comments sections, forums, and social media. That’s a very good reason for taking such comments with a large grain of salt. It’s akin to what you may hear around the water cooler at work, only in this case one or more of your fellow gossips makes oddly stilted remarks in favor of the company way, as if speaking from a script. When one of those gossips dons a white laboratory coat and purports to speak with scientific authority on the subject at hand, the discussion moves magically from around the water cooler to around the executive conference table. There the discussion is not so much about influencing public opinion as it is about setting the parameters for debate and ultimately public policy.

Robert Morse learns under the tutelage of mail room boss Sammy Smith as they sing “The Company Way” in the 1967 movie of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

However, just because a shill wears a lab coat and has a list of academic degrees behind his or her name does not make that person any less of a shill than the one who makes a few dollars trolling comments sections on behalf of a corporation. The scientific high priest type of shill is morally worse because he or she exploits the respect and gullibility of the general public when hearing pronouncements from them. Not all of the science shills know what they do, of course, because they may be true believers. The others, who know what they do, but go on anyway because of greed and ambition, deserve no leeway from the public or their peers, and more likely deserve condemnation. Jesus knew as much when He denounced the Pharisees.

A scene from the 1970 movie Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Martin Balsam. Snake Oil Salesmen and their Shills by no means disappeared with the 19th Century.

For whatever topic you care to name that puts at risk the finances of large corporations – tobacco, climate change, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the herbicides that accompany them – you can find a corporate funded think tank with outreach to a handful of friendly scientists and institutions who scramble to debunk legitimate research and hold back a growing avalanche of negative public opinion. The agribusiness funded Genetic Literacy Project has nothing good to say about U.S. Right to Know, an organization largely funded by the organic food industry. Similarly, U.S. Right to Know dismisses the science of the Genetic Literacy Project. The organic food industry in the United States has about 5% of the market and is steadily growing year after year. Organic foods are by definition non-GMO. You are free to make up your own mind about who to believe, of course, and it’s a good thing then that to help you decide, many sellers of non-GMO foods have begun labeling their products as such. This was after giant agribusinesses successfully lobbied the government to scuttle labeling of products that do contain GMO foods. The big corporations apparently don’t trust you with the facts and with making decisions for yourself based on those facts.
― Izzy


You Are What You Eat


The garden catalog dreambooks are starting to arrive in the mailboxes of home gardeners as 2016 ends and 2017 begins. Those gardeners who have ordered from online companies in the past and haven’t unsubscribed from their email list are receiving notices in their inboxes. Winter is the time to sit indoors in warmth and comfort and look over the seeds and plants on offer, either by scrolling through websites or paging through catalogs.


Some garden suppliers tout their seeds as being “not GE” or “non-GMO,” by which they mean the seeds are not Genetically Engineered or produced from Genetically Modified Organisms. Of course they’re not, since those kinds of seeds are available only to commercial growers, not to home gardeners. A different, though somewhat related, concern some gardeners have is whether the money they are spending on seeds will ultimately line the pockets of Monsanto and a few other large agribusinesses because those companies hold the patents on thousands of seed varieties.

World War II poster from the
Office for Emergency Management

Home gardeners can allay their concerns on both counts by doing a little research on their suppliers. The GMO concern is easier to dismiss than the one regarding the ultimate source of the seed. The best thing is to rely on suppliers of heirloom varieties or on open source suppliers who create and share new varieties without taking out a patent.

Deposit Seed Co Victory Garden Catalog 1944 - Flickr - USDAgov
Deposit Seed Co. Victory Garden Catalog 1944;
poster from the USDA National Agricultural Library

A much larger concern for everyone, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, is the prevalence of GMO foods in supermarkets and restaurants. Gardeners at least can sidestep that by growing as much of their own food as possible. Everyone else needs to watch what they buy in the stores, and that is where labels stating “not GE” or “non-GMO” are most helpful since agribusiness has successfully fought off attempts to label some foods as “GE” or “GMO.” Agribusiness executives apparently believe, not without reason, that as the general public becomes better informed about these products it might come to view such labels with the same alarm as a skull and crossbones. Not good for business.


To cite the most prominent example of GMO products, there are the Roundup Ready crops of corn, soybeans, and cotton, which today constitute upwards of 90% of the supply grown in the United States. No one eats cotton, though as Joseph Heller portrayed with the character of the amoral capitalist, Milo Minderbinder, in his marvelous satirical novel Catch-22, it is not too farfetched to think of someone like that trying to convince people to eat cotton if he senses a profit in it. For the corn and soybeans that we do eat, and in prodigious amounts if we eat a lot of processed foods, where they are ubiquitous, the federal government has mandated supposedly safe levels of Roundup. Frankenfoods, indeed.

Lastly, gardeners who care about the fertility of their soil as well as their own health and the health and vitality of the plants they grow for food would do well to avoid using herbicides in their home garden. No matter what, there will always be weeds wherever gardeners and farmers cultivate fertile conditions for favored plants. Scientists have not yet discovered any weeds growing in the sterility of the Moon.
– Izzy