Maker Stories

Uncommon Impact: Margaret Dorfman Strives to be Sustainable in Drought-Afflicted California

July 17, 2015

As a B Corp certified company, UncommonGoods is excited about sustainability. That means more to us than just being “green” – we strive to offer products that reflect the environmental and social best-interests of everyone. So, when our makers are as concerned with sustainability as we are, we’re always excited to learn more about their process and the positive impact they’re having on the world.

While many of our makers rely on sustainable practices at one point or another in their process, we’re especially excited about those who place the wider world at the forefront of their craft – those who are making an uncommon impact. Meet Margaret Dorfman, designer of fruit and vegetable inspired jewelry and tableware like the Parchment Blossom Earrings and the Vegetable Parchment Platter, and see the ways that she’s striving to be sustainable in the face of drought in California.


“Sustainability is important simply because the trajectory of consumption and waste around us is not supportable.”

In what ways does sustainability manifest in your studio, materials, and work?
Because all my work celebrates the natural world, it seems especially important that everything involved in creating this work must demonstrate the values of respect for this world.

Sustainability manifests itself in ways beyond the reuse or recycling of materials . For me, this carries the intention that that the process of making my jewelry does not deplete or damage the environment in any way. It goes beyond just recycling and composting, and extends to the commitment of strictly avoiding the use of anything toxic or hazardous to humans, animals, or the environment.


I follow sustainable practices in my studio: the use of reclaimed water, recycling and composting, and donation of unused produce to local food programs. The packaging I use is made from a recycled content and is itself recyclable. My jewelry is lead, cadmium, nickel and mercury free. I was pleased to be one of the artists profiled in Buzz Poole`s 2007 book Green Design.


Map displaying the severity of the drought in California as of October 21, 2014

How has this been affected by the drought?
Here in California, everything is affected by the drought. It has had a profound effect on produce especially; prices are continuing to rise, and some produce is smaller as well as coming into season earlier than normal. Several local farms are not growing certain varieties of fruit this year due to water restrictions.

PicMonkey Collage

I am still buying fruit and veggies locally, in smaller quantities, and being more vigilant about waste. I am purchasing more from farmer’s markets. But most importantly, the small farmers – especially in the central California valley – are facing a real crisis due to a lack of water. Many farms are barely hanging on.

I am fortunate in that I have access to natural ground water run off that is collected in a sump pump. This water is used for the garden as well for all studio cleaning needs.

In what ways do you hope to further expand the sustainable nature of your studio in the future?
In the future I’d like to install solar panels on the roof of my studio. Though it is under a canopy of trees, I have been told enough sunlight would reach the panels to make it worthwhile! It would also be great to find a way to recycle the grey water from the sink.

If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I have always wanted to see the fruit and vegetable markets of Indonesia! I’ve heard there are varieties of fruit and greens and textures and colors that I can’t even imagine. I would love to spend a long day just wandering around looking in the different stalls. Talk about inspiration!

Exotic fruits in Indonesian produce markets

In what ways is the natural world an inspiration for your art?
From the time I was very young, the natural world was the main source of the materials I use and has been at the heart of everything I made. It was so much more interesting to find the fibers I needed to make a basket from the pine trees and plants around me, rather than buying yarn or rattan in the store. When I was older, I was always particularly interested in the ways in which objects in our material culture came from or were made from the environment.

The natural world and the fruit and vegetables it produces are the very source of my work, and also drive the execution of my work. My blossom earrings are folded so they take on the natural curves seen in real flowers, and I tend to use the more translucent fruit and vegetables for these. For the Vegetable Parchment Cuffs, I look at how the colors and patterns of the different fruit and vegetables work together to make a visually compelling composition.

 Check out more of Margaret’s pieces here>>

Thinking about this issue as merely ‘the California Drought’ is actually a bit misleading as to the cause and scope of the issue. Extreme drought – which is now entering its fourth year – isn’t so much the root cause of water shortages as is the depletion of the Colorado River. The river provides a constant supply of water to seven Western ‘basin states,’ 1/3 of which is allotted to California, gradual depletion of which puts pressure on water usage throughout the West. Nonetheless, states aren’t motivated to scale back effectively in response to receding banks due to arcane “use it or lose it” water laws, meaning that what we summarily think about as the ‘drought’ is caused moreso by resource management issues than by otherwise natural phenomena or global warming.

The white “bathtub ring” of deposited minerals on the shores of Lake Mead indicate the depletion of the Colorado. Lake Mead is able to store 2 years of the river’s annual flow, but held just 9 months’ worth in 2014. 

Extreme drought in California and other Western states exacerbates the issue, putting more pressure on the fragile river. Further complicating the matter, drought is also draining on the irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer – a major source of irrigation water – 69% of which will be gone in 50 years if farming continues at current levels (which it won’t). The aquifer will take 6,000 years to replenish naturally.

This water management issue is hardly only relevant to California. Yes, it directly impacts the wider Colorado River basin, but it cannot be divorced from concerns of the rest of the country. By eating food grown in California, the average American indirectly consumes 300 gallons of Colorado River water a week; when it comes to agriculture, we’re all in this together.

PicMonkey Collage

President Obama discusses the water issue with California farmers

Agriculture is ultimately at the heart of the issue; of the water California draws form the Colorado River, 70% is used in farming. While it’s easy to scapegoat especially thirsty crops like almonds and avocados, industrial meat and dairy are even less water efficient to scale. As Margaret described, farmers are feeling a crunch as the state unveiled new water restrictions this month that affect agriculture, putting pressure on local farmers – and the supply of fruits and vegetables.

It’s nonetheless inspiring to see Margaret’s deeply personal commitment to using water responsibly and as sustainably as possible. This respect is not just motivated by the nature of her art, but is also realized in the way she produces it:

 “Because all my work celebrates the natural world, it seems especially important that everything involved in creating this work must demonstrate the values of respect for this world.”

1 Comment

  • Reply Uncommon Impact: Clean Water and a Cleaner Earth - One Drop At A Time August 31, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    […] of their craft – those who are making an uncommon impact. Continuing the water theme from our interview with Margaret Dorfman, we spoke with Vince Purino – the Vice President of Aquaovo – about the sustainability […]

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.