Sustainable, Ethical DelightsCurated by Sarah O'Malley, BitterSweet Sr. Designer
About ten years ago, I took a viral online quiz and learned that most of my personal possessions (toiletries, clothing, food brands) were made by people trapped in forced or abusive labor conditions. For the first time in my life, I considered that even my most minor purchases impact the livelihood of an entire globe of human beings. Thus began my decade-long journey through and into conscientious consumerism, defined by agood company as, “deliberately making purchasing decisions that … have a positive social, economic, and environmental impact.” What for me began with buying clothing secondhand or from brands with verified ethical labor standards soon expanded into low-waste home goods and practices, and ultimately an overarching posture of mindful minimalism and sustainability.
It’s important to note, adjusting a lifestyle to be more “sustainable” (a loaded term that means something different to everyone) is not one-size-fits-all. What feels right for me may not be right for you, and almost no choice is perfect or without some downside. Access, income, and individual needs are not equal, and every person is considering an infinite number of competing convictions, necessities, and preferences whenever they make a choice.
For example, composting is a simple and free concept. One could fill a bucket with food scraps and dump it onto their lawn, or walk it to a local collection center. On the other hand, if you don’t own land, or live in a city where composting collection is non-existent or expensive, an electric countertop composter could make all the difference for your waste reduction practice. No choice is perfect, but in living with sustainability mindfulness, we are constantly making the best choice we can.
Usually, the most sustainable item available is the one you already own. Do you already have a perfect at-home coffee system? Will you never be in the market for running sneakers? Then I celebrate your rejection of my every recommendation below. Reducing, reusing—as the saying goes—and repairing are far more impactful than recycling or replacing. Over-consumption of the “right” materials can harm our world all the same, and still, in this wonderful life, there is room for delight, drinks, and delivery. So, let us be thoughtful in how we build our lives, with beautiful treasures and useful necessities, both human and resource-friendly, enjoyed for years to come. I hope, however you are compelled and capable, you’ll join me in this kind, imperfect, ever-evolving practice.
Below, I’ve collected a few products that make me happy knowing that they leave the earth a little happier too.
The Rounds zero waste delivery service
I have been an evangelist for The Rounds since a targeted ad found its way to my Instagram feed early this year. Every week, a friendly face (usually zipping away on a bicycle) drops a black tote bag on my porch, full of unwrapped toilet paper, cloth-bagged laundry detergent pods, local sourdough from Seylou Bakery, glass dispensers of hand and dish soap, and more. The Rounds is the most convenient and affordable way I have encountered to shop package-free in the District. Users manage their weekly deliveries online, adding anything from glass jars of coffee to olive oil to shampoo to all-purpose cleaner to matcha powder. Containers provided to customers, once empty, are returned the same way they are delivered: placed in a tote to be collected weekly. This is what allows the Rounds to be a closed system. When my hand soap runs out, I put the empty vessel in my Rounds bag and plop it on the porch, which is collected and replaced with a full one. The whole thing is magic, local, and truly zero-waste. The Rounds has expanded to several cities outside of the District of Columbia, so take a look at their website and grab a gift card for your out-of-state friend looking to make their meal-prepping and essential groceries a little more convenient and a little less trashy.
Allbirds shoes and sneakers
Allbirds has been around since 2016, making carbon-neutral sneakers for both fitness and fashion. Over the years, they have expanded their styles beyond their original Merino Wool Runners, but remain a Certified B Corporation, committed to sustainability and ethical sourcing of their materials. Allbirds measures everything that contributes to their carbon footprint, from the factory floor to the lights in HQ. They’re also working to reduce carbon use beyond neutrality, with ambitions to eventually become climate-positive, utilizing regenerative agriculture, renewable materials, and responsible energy. Plus, the shoes look cool! While you can take a quiz on their website to find your perfect shoe, I love their running shoes, a great alternative to less sustainable global brands.
LUCE cold brew carafe 1L
I love popping out for “a little treat” twice as much as the next person, I’m sure. There’s something uniquely wonderful about stepping into a beautiful day with a freshly foamed latte from a favorite local cafe. Still, the art of the at-home brew has captured me over the last three years as a meditative beginning to my day, and I am regularly re-inspired by the countless ways to make the perfect cup at home. Not only is this cold brew carafe a stunning piece of art, worthy of any counter display, but at-home brewing reduces the waste generated by disposable to-go packaging. I have found delight in refining my personal cold brew, and your style-minded, would-be-barista loved one surely will, too.
Lomi Countertop Composter
As mentioned above, this solution to composting is not a fit for everybody. It is expensive, requires materials you must reorder, and uses electricity, which certainly keeps the Lomi composter from being a carbon-neutral product. That being said, if you or your loved one is haunted (as I am) by the mountains of plastic-bagged food waste filling landfills across the world (one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions globally), and composting the old-fashioned way simply does not fit their lifestyle, the Lomi, as functional as it is aesthetically pleasing, could be just the thing they’re looking for.
The Lomi is odor free, mess free, and makes composting convenient no matter the weather or accessibility to private land or composting programs. It fits in any kitchen, big or small, and turns your food and material scraps into usable potting soil! As someone who has struggled to maintain the practice in my own life, I know composting can feel like a burden, hard to incorporate into the familiar rhythms of our busy weeks. Lomi elegantly removes the stress (and stink) from the process, in exchange for a sleek, plant-friendly solution.
Little Saints non-alcoholic and sustainably-sourced cocktails
The non and low-alcohol movement is booming, with so many new and exciting brands launching each year, coming to both specialty stores and mainstream grocers, at-home cocktail bars, and your local haunt’s menu. As someone who is personally trying to reduce my alcohol intake, Little Saints has caught my attention, self-proclaiming a commitment to “promote environmental sustainability and conscious capitalism through our sourcing, partnerships, and distribution purchasing decisions.” Additionally, the brand’s founder set out to create something not only delicious and non-alcoholic but functionally beneficial to the consumer, leaning into the nutritional and mood-supporting qualities of plants. Even better, the mocktails are distributed in aluminum cans, one of the most recyclable materials as they are infinitely recyclable. All in all, the Little Saints products are sending good vibes from plant to processing to tasty Paloma.
Practice ImperfectionCurated by Kate Schmidgall, BitterSweet Founder
A sandbox for small, insignificant failure is the greatest gift I can imagine. I tell myself that every time I pull a sour-brick out of the oven after a weekend of turning dough ever so diligently. Because of the “you can always be better” tape that plays in my mind, I find it helpful and even fun to routinely sabotage perfectionism. Painting without instructions helps me tame self-judgement and practice a kinder alternative mental tape. Sinking my hands into soil helps reset my preferences for control and clarity. Trying something new that I have no reason to be good at helps to restore emotional buoyancy. What I mean to say is that tiny adventures in failure brings me back to life sometimes.
I tried making applesauce the other day. I only had four apples and the recipe (yes, I need one) called for eight. “How perfect – I’ll just halve everything,” I thought. And I did. Or I thought I did. It wasn’t until several hours later when my delighted husband pulled the container out of the fridge and shoveled a spoonful into his mouth that I realized my mistake. I saw his body writhe in confusion. He very mechanically put the spoon down, lid back on the container, and applesauce back in the fridge. He didn’t know I was watching from across the room. Later I recounted the scene as I’d watched it unfold and admitted my mistake – I’d doubled the salt instead of halving. He was relieved it wasn’t his fault for hating it. In the end, such innocent imperfection lent us the most precious nourishment – laughter.
And so, with that, I offer you these few risk-free adventures to dabble in failure as your heart desires. I’ve chosen these specifically because your adventures in non-catastrophe might also be a good story or gift or invitation for someone else in your life. This way, we can share a laugh and a good intention, and who knows…maybe it will all turn out okay after all. But it doesn’t have to, and that’s the gift.
Just a little mess for the recovering perfectionist in your life, which may very well be you. What could be more meditative and reforming than chiseling away at a small block of clay? Sculpting reminds us that there are not always right answers. And it can help us ask different questions—what do I feel, see, want from this little moldable mess? Free imagination blending with our laughable limits of skill might reawaken an appreciation for discovery and wonder. What can we create here? There are no wrong answers.
Dabble and Dab
This is fun because no matter how awkward or nonsense the final piece, it will bring far more delight than the $3.99 greeting card from the Hallmark aisle. I guarantee it. Watercolors would be a wonderful way to start since they’re so easy to clean. Dab of water with a hit of color and away we go—washing the canvas with whatever blend flows from the brush. Write a note inside or put a stamp on it and watch it flood a friend with joy.
- Set of 10 Fluid Acrylics
- Set of 12 Acrylic Brushes
- Paper Pad for Acrylic
- Set of 24 Watercolors
- Watercolor Paper Postcards or Notecards
- Set of 4 Watercolor Brushes
Bake Some Biscuits
I am determined to make a biscuit that is better eaten than used as an anchor. With infinite free recipes and few ingredients, biscuits delight all the senses and offer endless opportunities for experimentation. Even tiny hands can help cut the rounds and lay them on the tray. Since there’s almost no chance of getting it right the first time, perhaps invest in extra butter and honey to make the most of it, come what may.
I’m out of easy-to-clean ideas, so here’s one for the real adventurer. Homemade jam is the stuff of mythology in our house. I’ve never been brave enough to venture into jam-making, but I’m determined to save at least a little over-ripe fruit from the compost and stock our pantry with loving goodness as best I can. The problem here, to me, is that I won’t know if it’s truly good until months later when we need it most. But no matter. To cherish, savor, and steward the beautiful I suggest we start with appreciating and preserving the overly ripe and imperfect goodness that’s rotting right in front of us.
- It Starts With Fruit – jam cookbook by Happy Girl Kitchen Co.
- Jam-making kitchenware (list pulled from Epicurious)
- All-Clad Stainless Steel Stock Pot
- Norpro Stainless Steel Funnels, Set of 3
- Columbian Graniteware Canner Pot
- Star Kitchen & Home True Blues Ultimate Vinyl Gloves, 2 Pairs
- Escali Primo Digital Kitchen Scale
- Craft Basics American Flour Sack Towels, Pack of 10
Ode to the (Home) OfficeCurated by Dave Baker, BitterSweet Managing Director
If someone walked into your “office” (read: work, cube, coffee shop, home office, bed, insert pretty much anywhere work happens these days), what would they find? For me, (I office out of my home) you’d find a bamboo, L-shaped standing desk with a laptop placed on a stand, next to an iMac and extra display, headphones resting nearby on a neat leather desk mat also holding my keyboard and mouse. You’d find a stack of books, plant, Rubik’s Cube, and a handful of hard drives all illuminated by an old fashioned library lamp off to the corner. In the Zoom background, an old card catalogue (look it up, Gen Z) sits with a photo printer and a framed aerial photograph of an elephant herd migrating across the Kenyan landscape taken by my good friend (and past BitterSweet contributor) Bobby Neptune. Serene right? That is until you notice my stash of used coffee cups at various levels of completion scattered among pens and stacks of loose paper. Sorry, not sorry.
I admit I have a problem. When my office is clean or simply organized, it’s one of my favorite rooms in the house. So, to that end, my contribution to this year’s gift guide is an ode to where we work — wherever that may be — and how we can be slightly more organized.
The items below include something for everyone — desktop items for those who keep an office at home or have a dedicated space in some other building, a backpack for the in-between or can’t be tied down, and a journal we can all use to store our notes, thoughts and todo lists. From the mountains of West Virginia, to the streets of New York, to works by artists all over the world, these products would be thoughtful gifts for (or for someone like me who needs a backpack to carry my coffee mugs back to the kitchen). Enjoy!
For every bag purchased, State provides support to American children and families in need. The company partners with charities and schools and donates fully-packed backpacks at their signature “bag drop rallies.”
Denik provides a channel for artists of all skill levels to team up with consumers to make an impact in the world. When you purchase one of these notebooks, you’re supporting education initiatives around the world. So far, Denik has funded six schools and other projects in Mail, Guatemala, Laos, Ghana, Nicaragua, and the U.S.
Mountain Mindful Home Office Furnishings
Mountain Mindful is a lifestyle brand headquartered in Huntington, West Virginia that makes apparel, furnishings, and self-care products made from organic, reclaimed and recycled materials. Each pound of wood product purchased is a pound of an abandoned building that would have otherwise been wasted in a landfill. These quality products are creations made to be handed down generation to generation.
Sacred HospitalityCurated by Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo, BitterSweet Creative Director
Growing up I was the kid who constantly went out of my way for other people. I'd be the first to volunteer my time to help peers with projects, even do their homework. I was a delight to my friends’ parents after meals as they'd often find me suddenly at the sink doing the dishes. My mother, on the other hand, was regularly frustrated by my near-pathological apathy at home. You can imagine her confusion when hearing the neighbor kids' mum rant about how well-behaved and helpful I am, knowing the hard-fought daily wars we'd wage over chores at home. All while my homework lay undone and projects untouched. Sometime after each cease-fire, she would say some form of the statement, "Charity begins at home." It's a statement I wouldn't fully understand the complexity of till much later in life. But right there, at the end of that platitude, lay the explanation for my apathy. I know now that my childhood home - our house - never really felt like home to me. Formative years marked by many moves had made me more at home in transition than in any one place. With hindsight as my guide, I can finally say Mum was right - charity, hospitality, care, anything that is a service to neighbor, starts at home.
"Love thy neighbor as thyself,” I was taught. Or similarly in Muslim doctrine: Loving for one's brother what one loves for oneself. Or, said yet another way, The Golden Rule would have us "treat others as you would want to be treated." It seems we're all engaged in the cosmic conflict of what comes first: a hospitality for another or a hospitality for self.
Sacred hospitality is a perpetual pouring out and filling up. So much that neither vessel ever feels anything but full. It's an uninterrupted cyclical care for others as a means to care for oneself and a caring for one's self as a means to care for others. The following is a list of products that help me do just that and might help you do the same.
As Mum said, it all begins at home. And home, we'll say, begins at the door. I'll admit I was never much of a slipper person. Growing up, we were a no-shoes-inside house. I can still hear the chorus of my mother and aunts crying in frustrated harmony, "You're tracking outside dirt in!!" every time I forget to remove my shoes at the door. It didn't matter too much to me; my preference was to walk everywhere barefoot or, worse, in my socks. When I was a child, I thought like a child; but when I became a man, I decided to stop ruining my socks and realized the beautiful comfort that is a ritual transition in how my body meets the ground. Removing the outside and donning the interior prepares both mind and body to be at home. There is also no more excellent welcome you could extend to someone in your space than to invite them into that ritual with you. So buy a few pairs in different sizes. They're easy enough to toss in the wash. These comfortable Waffle Slippers are made of soft cotton with an absorbent cross-woven waffle texture and a non-slip rubber sole. Start cozy stay cozy!
I once read that the first thing the mind perceives, consciously or not, when we walk into a space is smell. No sense conjures memory like the olfactory. Steeped into a sense of every place is its smell. What did your childhood home smell like? How about your college dorm? There are many ways to make a place smell good. I choose incense for two primary reasons. One, there is something primal that feels inherently spiritual, lighting an incense brick or stick, and the same is true about candles. It pulls you away from being a busybody for a moment long enough to make an alter of your credenza, hutch, or bedside table. But unlike candles, incense gives you more bang for your buck with less material waste. I chose the Elemense products precisely because of the care given to crafting their products. Each scent in their line has an elemental connection that presents itself beautifully in the unique material blend of everything they sell. I'll tell you because I'm sure you're dying to know our house fragrance Kiyobi is inspired by the "Fire" element. The fragrance starts with the radiant purity of coniferous hinoki, and then it releases the sweetness of sandalwood and agarwood. One of my favorite thing about Elemense is the potency of their incense. Sometimes all I need to do to fill the room is leave the box open on the coffee table.
NON3 Toasted Cinnamon & Yuzu
I'll keep this one short because Sarah has already waxed brilliantly on the renewed wave of no or low-ABV libation. There has always been something frustrating about restaurants or brands that completely phone it in when it comes to serving people who have chosen to sip differently. A cranberry juice with a splash of poorly carbonated club soda does not an N/A cocktail make! Enter NON, an Australian beverage company that has truly crafted a line of wine alternatives with as much depth, care, and complexity as your favorite cab sav. With ingredients you can pronounce, layers of flavor and nose to be unwrapped in every sip, and 0% ABV, NON presents a beverage option that can stand delectably with a decadent ribeye dinner and guilt-free with an egg-on-toast breakfast.
MadeIn Carbon Steel Wok
My guide's final gift is heavily influenced by a bias toward almost anything Kenji Lopez Alt has spoken about cooking. In a VOGUE article by food writer Leah Bhabha titled, "Kenji López-Alt Explains Why a Wok Is the Only Pan You Need", about his most recent book release, "The Wok: Recipies and Techniques," Kenji explains just that. The book, comprised of chapters edited out of The Food Lab, lauds the versatility of an excellent wok to do everything any home cook could ask of it. A versatility I've put to the test at home
The MadeIn Carbon Steel Wok is a stunningly designed tool that I reach for to do everything from frying a single egg to braising short ribs for hours. Unfortunately, one myth about hospitality that also persists about cooking is that to do it well, one must be fussy. This notion that all the gadgets to be bought are what is standing between you and greatness has kept many a curious soul away from what may very well be a calling. Yes, having the right tool matters. But it helps immensely to know what that right tool might be. For any kitchen with limited space or more cabinets than I have square footage, this is the right tool to care well for yourself and the people you love.
Desert Island Books
One of the markers of a Nigerian home is the CONSTANT presence of food and not just a little bit. We're not talking about snacks for friends but meals for small families. People would often just show up to our house, knowing beyond hesitation that my mum had something to eat and that the door was open. That's how I grew up and how I determined I wanted to be, even from a young age. Cooking was something I found as a teenager. A revelation that taking on breakfast or a midweek dinner was a way I could kill two birds with one stone; by serving my tired mother while taking on a "chore" that I didn't absolutely hate! That interest turned into a fascination in my teenage and college years working in kitchens and restaurants all over San Antonio. There was a lot of learning by doing, stumbling through recipes, and relying on a limited set of greatest hits, but it wasn't till my mid-20's that kitchen skills grew from a "nice to have" to a full-blown must-have obsession. And it began with a book. "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science" by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is a world-renowned chef, food scientist, food critic, and brilliant badass. He brings every facet of himself into this volume that I can only describe as a textbook for the self-taught culinary enthusiast. Here's how the book describes itself "In The Food Lab, Kenji focuses on the science behind beloved American dishes, delving into the interactions between heat, energy, and molecules that create great food. Kenji shows that often, conventional methods don't work that well, and home cooks can achieve far better results using new--but simple--techniques." My next desert island book is "The Noma Guide to Fermentation" by Rene Redzepi, the mind behind the best restaurant in the world, Noma, and David Zilber, his longtime collaborator, Head of Noma's Fermentation Lab and one of the world's foremost experts on the matter of fermentation. If I had to sum it up in my own words, this book is, much like "The Food Lab", a great effort at simplifying something that often feels scary or even dangerous for many people. Turns out botulinum toxin is harder to grow than you might think. If Food Lab provides a foundation, then Noma Guide is a masterclass in flavor - its preservation and amplification! The last book I'd reach for in a displacing disaster is "Pizza Camp" by Philly pizza whisperer Joe Beddia. Why? Because a pizza is a perfect canvas to apply all manner of culinary knowledge and experimentation.
Now, to be fair, I know cooking isn't everyone's bag. There might be many ways to be hospitable without setting foot in a kitchen. The problem is that, for the life of me, I can't think of one. Pair that with my compulsion to do anything I do "well" enough to silence my screaming imposter syndrome, and this is what you get. What I'm struggling to say is what I've already said. Hospitality is a pouring out of your heart for the people who step into your home. Consider these three books if your heart is anything like mine, connected to your stomach.