Chicago businesses encourage sustainable shopping ahead of Earth Day

Local entrepreneurs help consumers see through deceptive marketing practices and offer fair trade-certified places to shop for food, clothes and other goods.

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Phil Shoemaker, grocery and speciality manager, pulls out Too Good To Go boxes at The Dill Pickle Food Co-op at 2746 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Logan Square, Thursday, April 20, 2023.

Phil Shoemaker prepares boxes of food to sell on the app Too Good To Go at The Dill Pickle Food Co-op. Too Good To Go reduces food waste by giving stores and restaurants a way to sell leftovers or food near its sell-by date.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mollie Hughes used to struggle to shop for sustainable products.

She and Kathryn Decker, a classmate in an executive MBA program, were looking for products that were compostable or made in the United States. But it was often hard to figure out how a product was actually made.

“We were both having that frustration,” Hughes said. “I thought, ‘Well gosh, maybe we can develop something that can help other people.’”

That’s how the pair founded Softly, a Google Chrome browser extension that helps online shoppers find more sustainable products. Their mission was to help shoppers “tread softly on our world,” said Hughes, now CEO of Softly. So far, she said, Softly has about 400 users.

This Chicago-area startup’s technology is particularly relevant as people mark Earth Day Saturday.

The Softly team works remotely, Hughes said, but the company is registered in Illinois, and she works from Genoa, which is about an hour northwest of Chicago.

Part of the frustration Hughes and Decker encountered is caused by the deceptive marketing practice known as “greenwashing,” which Softly hopes to help consumers see through.

Greenwashing uses vague language and fine print to make products seem more environmentally friendly than they are. Hughes said to watch out for terms like “all natural” and “green” because companies do not have to follow any set of standards to use these terms.

I’Talia McCarthy, general manager of the Dill Pickle Food Co-op in Logan Square, said consumers should look for legitimate certifications, like fair trade, which require companies to follow stringent standards. Fair trade-certified businesses must meet standards for environmental stewardship and fair treatment of workers.

At Dill Pickle, a community-owned co-op grocery store with over 4,000 owners, McCarthy said, “sustainability is at the core.” The store encourages customers to use reusable bags and containers to buy bulk products and sells food through the app Too Good To Go.

Food items that will be donated instead of thrown away at The Dill Pickle Food Co-op at 2746 N Milwaukee Ave in Logan Square, Thursday, April 20, 2023.

Sustainability is a core value at Dill Pickle Food Co-op, general manager I’Talia McCarthy said. The store partners with the app Too Good To Go to reduce food waste.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The app reduces food waste by giving stores and restaurants a way to sell food they would otherwise throw away. At Dill Pickle, this usually means food about to go bad. McCarthy said the store typically sells bags with $20 worth of food for $5.99 through the app.

Laura McMahon is a co-founder of the Guild, a store in Lakeview selling ethically sourced clothing, accessories and home goods. She said she became interested in fair trade and sustainable fashion after seeing the work of weavers from an Indigenous tribe in Colombia, where she is from.

She recommends consumers dig a little deeper and research the items they are about to buy. Information about how products are made is often just an online search away, she said.

“A lot of us are just comfortable going to Amazon,” McMahon said. “There are sustainable brands on Amazon as well, if you just filter out a bit of your search.”

Hughes’ goal is to help consumers find those more sustainable brands being sold on Amazon.

Right now, the Softly extension only works on Amazon, but Hughes said the company plans to create an app and expand the technology to work across all online shopping platforms.

Laura McMahon sorts through fair trade shirts by The Fair Shirt Project made by a small artisan group of refugee women in the south of India at The Guild, 3717 N Southport Ave, in Lake View, Thursday, April 20, 2023.

Laura McMahon stocks local and international designers and brands at The Guild in Lake View. She co-founded the store as a place to sell ethically sourced clothes, accessories and home goods.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The web extension creates a tab on the side of users’ screens while they shop on Amazon. Users can click on the tab to filter products and show more eco-friendly replacements for everyday ones. Hughes said Softly has 70,000 products in its system, most of which are household items, personal care and cosmetics and baby care products.

Users can filter by a variety of criteria, including where the product was made, what ingredients it was made with and whether it can be composted.

Another way consumers can shop more sustainably is to shop locally, whether that is for a new handbag or fresh produce.

McCarthy said Dill Pickle tries to source its products locally and seasonally and recommends consumers trying to cut their carbon footprints do the same. She said the co-op focuses on carrying products made or grown within 100 miles of the store, which helps reduce the emissions caused by transportation.

“Figure out whether the products that you’re buying and consuming are made locally in your region and whether they’re seasonally appropriate as well,” McCarthy said.

For instance, she said, strawberries are not in season here, so the berries in stores were transported greater distances, creating more carbon emissions.

The Guild stocks many Chicago-based designers for the same reason, McMahon said. She added that her store carries designers all over the Chicago area, including the South Side, Little Village, Logan Square and the suburbs.

“In every neighborhood right now in Chicago, you have small shops, small brands, places where you can shop locally,” McMahon said. “Just by doing that, you’re already helping the environment, and you can get beautiful, amazing things.”

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