How Are We Supposed to Recognize “Good” Products?
On the Thinx lawsuit, “smallwashing,” and how consumers are expected to shop ethically.
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Recently, I learned that Thinx, which makes reusable menstrual underwear, settled a lawsuit regarding misleading information about its products. Thinx has marketed itself as sustainable and non-toxic, but a report from the Sierra Club confirmed that its products had “high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS),” which “are associated with cancer, decreased immune response to vaccines, decreased fertility, and more. Exposure to PFAS at even the lowest concentrations has been shown to harm human health.” This information was pertinent to me because I have an underwear drawer filled with Thinx products.
The Sierra Club report came out in 2020, but it was only when the lawsuit was settled earlier this year that news outlets began picking up the story. Like many, I found the news alarming. And yet, as I angrily scoured the internet looking for alternatives, I uncovered very little information about which period products I should buy, or which ones were actually safe for people to use.
Maybe you haven’t bought any Thinx underwear yourself, or don’t shop for menstrual products. But I bet that if you’re reading this newsletter, you do consistently ask yourself one question: What coffee should I buy? Menstrual underwear and coffee may seem worlds apart—but the ways that we interact with both goods, the narratives that dictate how we shop for them, and the assumptions we make about their quality or goodness actually have a lot in common.
What Lies Beneath
On January 25, 2023, GrubStreet published a piece called “Welcome to the Shoppy Shop,” which examines the proliferation of “fancy pantry” shops, or what one TikTok user describes as “shoppy shops.” These stores are small, cute, and well-curated, providing an array of so-called artisanal goods that feel locally sourced but are often available in similar shops nationwide. These shops’ decor seems to imply that the items they display were hand-picked by the proprietors themselves (one of the retailers mentioned, Big Night in New York, calls itself “a jewel box of a shop”). The shelves simultaneously feel abundant, filled as they are with colorfully packaged goods that look handcrafted, but just empty enough to signal exclusivity.
In the piece, the author interviews Allen Dushi, the COO of Graza, an olive oil brand that describes itself as “high-quality olive oil that’s meant to be squeezed, not saved.” Graza’s About Us page cites problems with traditional olive oil brands: They might use oils other than olive oil, or blend old oil. As you scroll down, a flashing warning sign cautioning against canola oil appears. “Please never use Canola oil,” it says. “It’s very unhealthy for you and is just tons of empty calories.”
I had first seen Graza’s olive oil on Instagram several months ago, and when I noticed it at my local butcher shop, I bought it—it’s in my pantry right now, and I genuinely enjoy using it, primarily because it comes in a handy squeeze bottle. But there was something about seeing it in that particular store—a small, non-chain butcher shop that sources meats I love—that likely influenced how I viewed the product.
So I was surprised to read that Graza’s entry into small retailers like this one was incredibly intentional. “The small stores were very much a part of our launch strategy and go-to-market strategy,” Dushi told GrubStreet. “We wanted to look like an online brand and smell like an online brand and talk like an online brand but build the business through retail.” As the article continues, Dushi discusses subsequently entering larger retailers, like Whole Foods and Walmart.
The GrubStreet article was the first time I heard the term “smallwashing,” which it defines as “when a brand positions itself as a small business and shows up on shelves as if it were small, even though it has probably been through at least one comfy fundraise and a hotshot General Catalyst VC sits on the board.” American society has placed a lot of value on small businesses: We have specific holidays where we encourage people to shop small, and small business owners make up an entire bloc of voters that political candidates harness every election season. For many consumers, small equals authenticity, quality—something real and true.
Nowhere on Graza’s packaging does it claim to be a small business. In a way, it is almost refreshing for an upstart brand to be so open about its marketing strategy. But that strategy relies on a small, local, and handcrafted aesthetic to garner attention, and is actively leveraging that belief to build an audience. Graza isn’t actively making any false promises, or telling any mistruths—as far as I know—but there’s still something that feels manipulative or misleading in this approach. It makes me wonder how many of the other products we engage with are marketed to us in this way—how much we assume about what we consume, and how much we don’t actually know.
It’s this tension that I’m interested in: how a business positions itself versus what it really does and aspires to be. As a consumer, it’s virtually impossible to parse the two. How are you supposed to know if what a company is telling you aligns with how it actually does business? Most companies haven’t gone as far as Thinx by actively lying about their intentions, or the supposed purity of their products. (Some commenters have pointed out that many period products contain PFAs, but other brands haven’t centered their messaging and marketing on being toxin-free and environmentally friendly like Thinx has.)
It’s even harder to navigate that gulf in coffee, in part because so much of its messaging is conveyed via nebulous storytelling. If you go to any given coffee roastery’s website, for instance, you’ll almost certainly find some level of narrative-building that goes beyond basic facts and tasting notes. Most people don’t base their buying decisions on detailed information about how a coffee is produced, or which farmer grew it. Instead, they’re left to rely on factors like convenience, or on largely aesthetic cues.
I don’t point out these gaps to suggest there’s some widespread conspiracy within the coffee industry—I don’t think there are hundreds of folks working together to mislead or lie to you. Instead, I want to examine what many of our coffee-purchasing decisions look like—and how such decisions are made based on signals we’ve already internalized.
If we go to the grocery store and are confronted with a $3 block of ground coffee versus a $20 whole-bean offering, we want to know where the difference lies, and rightly so. “Third Wave retailers go to great lengths to justify their prices through objective quality as measured by tasting standards and conventions,” writes Edward F. Fischer in his book, “Making Better Coffee.” He describes how many roasters rely on farmer narratives to sell their coffees, a move that isn’t itself dubious but which does require the translation of a specific narrative (this is how your coffee is grown) into a social good (you are a better person for buying this coffee). “Still, just as important are the symbolic and imaginative values at play: the relative positioning of conspicuous consumption; the imagined relationship with a producer; and, underwriting it all, the cultural and market shift among the global affluent toward less generic products.”
When I bought the Thinx underwear, I did so with a clear understanding of their quality, a promise the brand made upfront. When I purchased the Graza olive oil, that promise was more implied than concrete, seemingly based on context clues and a set of recognizable aesthetics which I took for symbols of meaning and value.
Specialty coffee combines overt and covert tactics to justify its price differential—a justification that isn’t unwarranted. Coffee should cost more than it does, and the reasons for that are complex, so roasters must use the tools in front of them to communicate value. It’s when we get swept up in the narrative—when we choose to buy products because we like their looks, and we like what their looks say about us as tasteful or selective consumers—where things can get dicey. “Selling products in these markets,” Fischer writes, “requires invoking narrative backstories that can become intertwined with a consumer’s sense of identity, insinuated into people’s lives through their views of themselves and their place in the world.”
‘I Know It When I See It’
There was a time when I thought about specialty coffee shops the way that US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart thought about pornography: I couldn’t define them, but I knew one when I saw it. Now, I wonder what set of words and signals I had internalized to make that judgment.
These days, at least, I have a few more tools to help me ask questions and not always take things at face value, but that’s because I’ve worked in coffee for over a decade. We can’t expect customers, even the most engaged and thoughtful of us, to know what to look for to verify most brand claims. Instead, we must make inferences, and brands know that we need these shortcuts to decide if something aligns with our values.
I once had a friend tell me they could guess a natural wine nine times out of 10 because of the label: ones that were messy or seemingly hand-drawn were a dead giveaway. And coffee companies do this, too—I’ve been inside coffee shops decorated with images of farms and farmers, and the implication is clear: You are supporting the farmers you see in the photos by buying this coffee. That may or may not be true—but if it isn’t, the coffee shop hasn’t claimed otherwise.
Relying on such symbols as a source of information is clearly risky, especially if they lead us to assume a company’s intent or ethics. Doing so also makes it easier for other actors to co-opt the aesthetics and language of “specialty products” to sell us something that might not actually align with our values.
I wrote this piece to work out my anger towards Thinx—it did something that could harm countless people. It’s unclear if the company knew its products contained carcinogenic chemicals, but what is clear is that it was targeting a particular audience and unwilling to take the steps required to verify its own claims.
I stewed on this for days, contemplating how easy it is to claim something as true. And in a way, I was also mad at myself: How did I accept something like this at face value?
I found the room to give myself grace in an unexpected place: ¡Hola Papi!, a newsletter advice column. The author, John Paul Brammer, describes how, via a letter from a discouraged writing circle member, our identities have been subsumed by our consumer choices, and we make binary judgments of one another through our purchasing decisions. “So we arrive at a place where art is constantly screaming its own virtues at us,” Brammer writes. “All the rough edges get sanded away, and the lines between ‘good person’ and ‘bad person’ are boldly drawn with one of those ridiculously large Sharpies in mass-produced, infantilizing literature that reassures us that we are good people for putting it on our shelves.”
Brammer writes about “incuriosity,” or “renouncing critical thinking in favor of asserting a frustratingly simplistic ‘thing good or thing bad’ mindset,” which he connects to the infiltration of corporate interests into our personal values. I have to imagine smart businesses know this fact all too well, and use their marketing platforms to try to appeal to our sense of self-worth and vision for the world without actually promising that their products can deliver on said promise. And for the most part, people don’t—or can’t—notice.
In a piece for the New Yorker, Kyle Chayka writes about the direct-to-consumer culinary brand Great Jones, which makes pots and pans in millennial-approved colors that are constantly promoted on Instagram. A report by Insider revealed infighting between the two co-founders that led to one of them leaving and all six full-time employees departing, and yet sales continued on. “The saga suggests the gulf between the messaging and the reality of a certain type of online brand, and the ease with which customers accept the stories such companies sell,” Chayka writes. “Verifying the quality of a product before buying it is not an option; finding anyone responsible for the end result is a headache.”
As individual consumers, we can’t verify everything—there are too many questions to ask, too much information we’re inundated with. But I think it’s enough to be inquisitive, even if we can’t always see the answers clearly. You’re not always going to get it right—especially because there’s rarely an instance where there is a right answer. You’re much more than your purchasing decisions.
Photo by Nikola Đuza
Another excellent piece that really illuminates something that has been a trigger for me in the industry, that disconnect between the marketing and the buying practices of many coffee companies. Thanks Ashley!
I've never heard of the term "smallwashing" but have completely been sucked into such stories by brands moonlighting as small businesses. Now I'm going to question my small business purchases a bit more before I buy.