I've never been big on brands. I haven't worn a shirt with a logo on it since high school, and can't understand why any self-respecting adult would do so today. (You are literally paying these corporations to be their walking advertisement.) However, in the spirit of the Christmas shopping season, there are some companies whose products I truly believe in - and even evangelize for. Here are nine of them.
- LUSH Cosmetics. Call me girly, but I'm a huge fan of this UK-based company's richly-scented soaps, shampoos, and lotions, made by hand and packed with organic ingredients. Still privately owned by Mark and Mo Constantine, who founded the company in 1994. I can't say anything bad about LUSH except that their prices are exorbitant. Nevertheless, their Cosmetic Lad moisturizer, T'eo deodorant, and other products have made me a true believer. Want me to love you forever? Buy me LUSH stuff.
- American Apparel. It's too bad that this clothing company has turned away so many potential customers because of its sleazy ads (and even sleazier founder, the since-ousted CEO Dov Charney). After all, who wouldn't want to wear high-quality clothes made in the USA by garment workers making fair wages? True, I don't buy their '70s-inspired outerwear, but for socks, T-shirts, and undies, AA can't be beat. Prices are high, but no higher than other upmarket brands (e.g., Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein) that employ sweatshop labor and fall apart more quickly.
- Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day. These household cleaning products smell great, come in delightful retro packaging, and get the job done. (I am especially enamored of their dish soap.) Alas, despite its folksy image, Mrs. Meyer's and its small parent brand Caldrea - founded by Monica Nassif (daughter of the real Mrs. Meyer) in 1999 - were bought by the mega-conglomerate SC Johnson (Windex, Ziploc, etc.) in 2008. It's still good stuff.
- Trader Joe's. Southern Californians still feel local pride over this hip supermarket chain, even though it's been owned by ALDI, the German supermarket giant, since 1979. (Trader Joe's launched in 1967 with a single store in Pasadena.) It's hard to explain the appeal of TJ's, but it's a combination of low prices; tasty, unusual foods; a policy for non-GMO and preservative-free products, many of which are organic; cozy stores; friendly (and well-paid) staff; and quirky branding (most of what's on offer is the "house brand"). Downsides: wrapping up much of their produce in plastic, a secretive policy about where they source their goods, and a habit of discontinuing beloved, one-of-a-kind items without warning.
- H&M. Though it is difficult, I try hard not to buy clothes made in Asian sweatshops. To this end, I buy a lot of second-hand clothes (most of which were produced in sweatshops, but at least I'm reducing waste) and American Apparel for my "basics". But when I need skinny pants or a cheap T-shirt, I head to H&M, sort of the IKEA of clothing stores. This massive Swedish chain, a publicly-traded company owned mostly by the Persson family, is making efforts to pay their third world garment workers a living wage, and has an impressive transparency for such a large corporation. Mostly, though, I like H&M because the clothes are affordable, attractive, sturdy, and well-fitting.
- Toyota. The companies on this list keep getting bigger and bigger, don't they? But unless you have the dough for a Tesla, it's impossible to buy an "indie" car label. My first car was a Ford. It was a piece of crap and I'll never buy a Ford again. My second car was a zippy little 1989 Toyota Tercel, which lasted 14 years; I only got rid of it because my wife gave me her Prius as a hand-me-down, as we bought a second Prius together. (This makes us sound richer than we are.) I'm not saying I'll only buy Toyotas for the rest of my life, but I like what they make.
- Tito's. I want to wrap up this list with some truly independent companies. I'm not a big vodka drinker, but Tito's is a great brand. I think this corn-based vodka tastes better than the many wheat- or rye-based brands. It's handmade by a small 50-person operation in Austin, Texas and it's been the sole proprietorship of Bert "Tito" Beveridge ever since he founded the company in 1997. One day a booze giant like Diageo may buy Tito's, but until then, drink up.
- DRY Soda. Even tinier than Tito's is this Seattle-based boutique soda company, founded by Sharelle Klaus in 2005. I'm not the soda drinker I was as a teen (thankfully), but I hope DRY, with its low sugar content (45-70 calories per 12 oz. bottle, compared to 140 calories for a similar amount of Coke), elegant design, and wacky flavors, catches on with the soda crowd. It's got a nice clean taste and doesn't make you feel gross.
- Native Foods Cafe. You may know that I'm married to a vegan, and thus about 95% of what I eat is vegan. (Don't feel sorry for me; I eat very well.) Native Foods, founded in 1994 by Tanya Petrovna and run since 2009 by Daniel Dolan and Andrea McGinty, is a great plant-based "fast food" chain, with fresh, high quality ingredients, yummy dishes, and even a sweet "frequent eater" rewards program. They have about 25 restaurants (as does their worthy competitor Veggie Grill), mostly in Southern California, but with branches in Colorado, Oregon, Chicago and Washington DC.