Pop-up markets and crafts fairs attract curious shoppers hoping to find something unique that appeal to their aesthetics — the opposite of aisles and aisles of almost indistinguishable products far removed their origins. Shoppers have a chance to interact and to ask questions. Lightfoot Market, the first sustainability-minded pop-up market in New York City, really want shoppers to engage with their vendors. These artisans and makers are all enthusiastic storytellers — eager to share the vision behind their products and the values they uphold. This transparency is a core value of the market. Sarah Sproviero, a graduate of Columbia University’s M.S. program in Sustainability Management, co-founded Lightfoot Market, which launched its first pop up back in April 2017. This past winter, they came back with its first Holiday Pop Up. We had a chance to catch up on what planted the seed for this market (literally), how it is different than other pop-ups, and what it means to be a sustainable consumer.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
For my undergraduate, I actually started as an art major. I thought that I was going to be an artist, so I was taking art classes. And when it was time for me to study abroad, I studied abroad in Rome, Italy. I thought that I was going to leave, I would be so inspired by the classics, and by the masters. What ended up happening is I spent all of my time in Rome making notes, walking around, and exploring the natural and [its] urban nature. I started doing research on these birds that migrated through Rome; they created these beautiful — they look like clouds — because they swarmed together.
I started really noticing how nobody in Italy has a drying machine; most don’t even have a washing machine. They dry their clothes outside. I just start realizing the conservation, and lifestyle being more simplistic — meaning they are more sustainable. I started to understand that lifestyle more and just got really obsessed with it. Instead of going home and saying “I am now so inspired to be an artist,” I pulled a 180 — I transferred schools. I went to Skidmore College, and got my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, with a minor in Fine Arts.
Then I worked as an environmental project manager, writing phase one reports — basically trying to identify oil spills that could be impacting buildings. I did that for three years. Then I got my masters in Sustainability Management at Columbia University.
So after one semester of being in Rome — that was it. It all clicked in your head.
It did. It clicked — the place I felt most comfortable have always been outside and has always been nature, even in urban nature. My best childhood memories are being tummy down in the grass, with my face inches away from the dirt, looking at little ants. Those are my favorite memories. And I am Italian, so it was like going back to my roots in some ways.
How did Lightfoot Market come about?
My cofounder (now Head of Production), Isa Wang, lives in Massachusetts. He is a small business owner, and he has always cared very much about the sourcing of his materials when he makes his products. He makes a slew of products, but most notably he makes seed paper greeting cards. They have beautiful botanical and floral illustrations on them, and they are printed on seed paper. You can rip up the cards afterwards [to] plant them as seeds, and flowers will grow. The packaging is biodegradable. He’s very conscious of this.
A big part of his sales is going to markets, [mostly] in the East Coast. But he felt like there wasn’t a market that was catering to this type of investments that he was putting into his business. The shoppers weren’t really understanding the importance of these kinds of investments, so [the products] weren’t valued the same way. He was actively looking for more green markets to show at, or markets that had a focus on social and environmental values. That was where he was coming at.
And I had been surrounded by sustainability management [students]. The world that I was in, I really loved that. Something that I noticed as a consumer, was really having trouble shopping by my value. It’s just a really resource intensive process — to read every tag, to read every label, to really understand the ingredients and materials that you are looking at. A lot of businesses try to hide things.
But what I [found] was that there was a lot of businesses that [are] really transparent about what they were putting into their products. Isa called me one day, really frustrated about the lack of sustainable markets. And I was frustrated about how difficult it was to be a sustainable shopper. And it was like, lightbulb, there it goes!
I want to back to what you were saying about how hard it was to be a sustainability minded consumer. How did you make that transition?
I would say it wasn’t until my [time in graduate school] that I started feeling like everything I was buying was part of the problem. Taking a look around my kitchen and seeing plastic everywhere. My coconut oil is in a big plastic tub — and all of my lemons are in individual plastic bags. It’s really bad. I ended up feeling more paralyzed than anything. There was a ten-month hiatus of shopping, where I didn’t buy any new clothes, anything really. I mean I bought food — I’m alive, don’t worry!
I think that was my biggest call to action. When I was in stores, even if I liked something, I thought, “I just don’t know enough about this.” And it was just easier to not buy it. I think the first step after that horrible feeling, “I don’t know what to do,” was being kind to myself, and being kind to this movement. And what I mean by that is really being okay with taking baby steps to get there.
There’s no way for you to go from 0 to 100, and completely converting your lifestyle overnight. It really is going to take a mindset shift, and it takes just caring about little things, more and more, until it really becomes integrated into your life. So I would say it took me three years, to be like, oh I am a conscious consumer.
Every once in a while, I’ll still buy a product where I go, “Okay, this isn’t 100% in line with my values.” But every once in a while, you’ve got to be okay with that, and forgive yourself.
And I know that’s not what I’m supposed to be preaching right now. But I generally think that, what is at the core of this [market], is [to make] sustainable decisions and values in shopping life more accessible. And it means, more affordable, more palpable, and easier to approach. So Lightfoot has a whole educational component, we are trying to educate [on] easy things that people can do to get involved [in]. Or little lifestyle switches they can do that don’t feel like a compromise. That’s big! Sustainable shopping doesn’t have to feel like a compromise, and I think right now, we think it is.
Instead of saying, “this is a sustainability market and everything is good for the environment,” I know Lightfoot Market has its own rating system to show what values the vendors stand for. What was behind that decision?
Sustainability is a really loaded word — it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And it also means nothing to some people. It’s becoming a bit of a buzzword, which is unfortunate. But what we really want to do, was create that transparency, to break down what sustainability looks like, in these different facets of your life. There are social initiatives in our standards, [along] with environmental and economic. All of this filters into the umbrella of what sustainability really means for a business and for our consumer.
Those standards serve two purposes, one is so we can vet our businesses by a metric, “do you fall into this in any way?” We have four core standards that every product in Lightfoot Market needs to uphold, and that’s cruelty-free, conflict-free, sweatshop free, and non-toxic. Those are just the four core standards that we feel every product in the world should be, but obviously we only have the power to control Lightfoot Market.
Then we have 16 other building blocks that are there to create transparency for shoppers. Some examples are vegan, organic, local business, local supply chain, vintage. Somebody that’s vegan will certainly be able to walk through Lightfoot Market and look for the vegan icons, and knows which products are vegan right off the back. Same with fair trade. I think that’s a really important way to express that sustainability is some give and take, and we’re not trying to tell people that what they are doing is bad or wrong. We are trying to give that transparency so people can make that decision for themselves, on what they want to support. And they don’t need to make a compromise in doing that.
For example, somebody might care a lot about supporting their local economy, or local supply chain, because that’s a less carbon intensive footprint, in terms [less] travel by having the supply chain and the [point of sale] to be in the same place. But then somebody else might care more about supporting third world communities, or third world women upholding their cultural practices and crafts, and they might want to support a fair trade company. And those things really contradict each other.
Fair trade is super different than local business — both of those are really important values. We want our shoppers to decide what values align more with them, and understand that both are great choices. Both are sustainable thing to do, much better than going to your big box shop and getting something there.
There are a lot of popup markets during the holiday period. Is there a conflict with perpetuating that consumerism, where it centers on “buy buy buy”?
That’s [definitely] something that we talked about. We don’t want to contribute to this problem — we want to give thoughtful education and alternatives to this problem. In April, even though we were a market, we knew it wasn’t a huge consumerism time. People aren’t shopping a lot [around] time. We thought of it more as an educational market. People come, and we do hope [they] buy these products if it’s what they need. But we don’t want people to buy things they wouldn’t have bought otherwise. That’s why we were so thoughtful with our [vendor] selection in our April market.
And what’s different here, for our holiday market -people are buying gifts for loved one. And I think the more sustainable a gift, the better it is. There are definitely a ton of markets that’s happening. We are competing with the Union Square holiday market, there’s one in Bryant Park, one in Columbus Circle. There are craft fairs in Brooklyn happening. But none of them actually vet their businesses for sustainable practices, or for social good.
We are trying to create a new standard of what holiday shopping should be. On that note, we have a ton of non-profit that we will be accepting. While we are selling goods, we will also be selling “give a gift of donation.” Not every gift needs to be a product. Some gifts can be the love of giving to somebody else.