The Many Facets of Ethical Cookware
It’s clear that COVID-19 has sent us all into the kitchen for a crash course in menu planning. Many of us are brushing up on ingredient sourcing and preparation techniques. Cooking, which used to be either a chore, hobby or Instagram photo-sharing opportunity, is now more of a daily sanity anchor. We are paying attention to our culinary skills and their familial importance the way peasants have for centuries. The kitchen is now the center of many a household universe.
But what are we cooking with? As we rediscover what is important and what is meaningful, are our cooking tools up to the quality, decency and ethical standards we aspire to? Or are our tools the cheapest, low quality, unethically sourced/produced ones that we used to think were OK?
As Sarah Willersdorf, head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group, put it in an article for Financial Times, “What the new normal looks like…is not clear yet, but we do expect enduring changes in consumer behavior—with customers being even more health and environmentally aware…”
Enter Bryan Hurley, president of Americraft Cookware and owner of 360 Cookware by Americraft. For over 40 years, he and his father Dave have been outliers in the cookware world. Why? Because they make everything they sell in the world’s most environmentally advanced factory. That factory, by the way, is in America’s heartland, Wisconsin. At 360, people are actually paid a decent living wage. And, they have health and retirement plans, too.
With many of us focusing on impact investing, it may be time to realize there is also a category one could call “impact purchasing.” If your goal is to make the world a better place, then impact purchasing should also be a component of your lifestyle “portfolio.” It may be time to realize that being ethical is the definition of a luxury purchase.
I sat down with Hurley, social distancing observed, and asked him a few questions. “We are a small, family-owned company focused on one thing and one thing only—making heirloom quality cookware and bakeware in the most ethical and environmental manner possible,” he explained.
Nice words, but let’s get granular. What makes a pan or pot “heirloom quality?” According to Hurley, it starts with “sourcing the highest grades of materials possible, like 400-series and food-safe 316-series stainless steel. Then, bending and finishing them only by the hands of true veteran craftspeople. The mirrored finish is achieved entirely by a mechanical process. No chemicals are used.”
That seems clear, so let’s move on to the ethical part. “If you ever saw how a Chinese factory makes the pots and pans you cook with, you wouldn’t believe it. Workers are like slaves. They often don’t have legal papers to work in the factory, so the company can do anything they want to them. Long hours, unsafe conditions, zero benefits or protections when…not if…they are injured. Then, the super toxic pollution from the manufacturing process is just dumped into the nearest river or left to flow untreated into the earth. People die from this poison,” Hurley said. “There is a reason a complete set of cookware in a box store can cost as little as $99 dollars. The cost of human and environmental suffering is put on Chinese and Asian workers, and the earth.”
“Our factory in Wisconsin employs more than 20 team members, and each of them has every protection American law provides, plus we care about each and every one of them,” he added. “They are paid a competitive living wage. We provide health care, IRAs, and we accommodate personal needs. We care about when their kids graduate. We trust and love these people so much we don’t even have a time clock. People are not expendable commodities to us. They are our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings.”
Regarding the environment, it is hard to be ethical if you ignore this aspect of manufacturing. “At 360, we have the greenest cookware factory in the world and not because we recycle our office paper,” Hurley elaborated. “I know factories that think they are ‘green’ because of their recycling efforts alone. Not us. We go the extra mile with high-tech finishing processes to ensure there will never be a Dow chemical truck parked outside. We received a letter from the EPA years ago thanking us for implementing processes from day one that placed us in a manufacturing category that requires zero EPA permits. Also, for me, the ‘greenest’ thing we do is we make a product that will never end up in a landfill. You want to be green at home? Stop buying junk that gets discarded. An article years ago stated the average American will buy nine fry pans in their lifetime. That’s nine hunks of steel, plastic and aluminum that will eventually get buried when you could have bought 360 once and passed it along to another generation.”
Given the above, why is 360 not the hottest of brands? “It’s probably our fault. We are so focused on making a quality product that we have not focused as much as we should have on marketing, creating buzz and promoting ourselves,” Hurley explained. “That is not to say we don’t have tens of thousands of happy customers. Occasionally, I will replace a product made long before I was born as we honor the lifetime warranty, even of our legacy brands.”
“As I look around, it’s clear that the way things are done is not sustainable. Cheap (poorly made) imports resulted in the loss of high-wage American jobs that came with health care. We need to reshore our manufacturing. We all need to recognize that the earth can get sick. To me, it’s no coincidence that the place the COVID-19 virus started is the very place with no environmental controls.”
“When people stop eating out, they cook at home again,” he continued. “I think maybe it took a crisis for people to realize the value in cooking at home. I hope it’s over soon, but I also hope the crisis will give people the gift of knowing that often the best restaurant in town was their home kitchen. We’re experiencing this. It’s no coincidence that our sales year-to-date are up 105 percent over last year.”
If Hurley is right and the kitchen is to regain its place as the heart of the home, we should all think about what we bring into that space—what we eat, what we cook with and how they affect others and the earth we share.