Eco-Libris: An Interview with Diane MacEachern, Author of “Big Green Purse”

biggreenpurse.jpgEditor’s note: This week, Eco-Libris blogger Raz Goldenik talks with author Diane MacEachern about her new book Big Green Purse. This post was originally published on February 22, 2008.

Can women make the world a greener and a better place with their purses? Diane MacEachern believes they do and she wrote a great book Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power To Create a Cleaner, Greener World, which is a call-to-action for women to use their power as buyers (women spend 85 percent of every dollar in the marketplace) to make a difference.

MacEachern’s message is simple but revolutionary: if women harness the “power of their purse” and intentionally shift their spending money to commodities that have the greatest environmental benefit, they can create a cleaner, greener world.

We covered the book few weeks ago, and since I was fascinated with the simple but yet powerful message of the book, I wanted to learn a little bit more about it from the author itself and interviewed Diane MacEachern. I know that not all of you see green consumerism as the best way to fight global warming and achieve sustainability, but Diane makes a very good case here in explaining how realistic and powerful option it is. you are welcome to read and judge for yourself. The book was published last Thursday, February 28.

To those of you who don’t know her, Diane is a bestselling environmental writer, sought-after public speaker, and founder of http://www.biggreenpurse.com. She has advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and many other agencies and nonprofit organizations focused on protecting the planet. The author of the bestselling Save Our Planet: 750 Everyday Ways You Can Help Clean Up the Earth, she lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the energy-efficient home that she helped design and build more than twenty years ago.

What brought you to write the Big Green Purse?

Environmentalists were trying to protect the planet by passing new legislation and enforcing existing laws and regulations. But especially under the current administration, we were getting nowhere. On the other hand, the marketplace – which we were trying to regulate through policy – was responding at breakneck speed to what consumers were demanding. It seemed to make sense to focus on increasing consumer demand for responsibly made products and services as a way to force manufacturers to be more responsible.

Also, getting consumers to demand products that are certified sustainable seemed like the fastest way to get manufacturers to pursue sustainable production processes. It was a way of beating the “greenwashing” that otherwise dupes consumers and lets manufacturers profit from green marketing without being truly green themselves.

The book tries to show how women can change the world through smart and green shopping. Shouldn’t we focus on trying to influence decision makers and companies? Isn’t political activism a better way to achieve results?

It’s not either or. Sure, let’s pass strong laws whenever we can. Let’s enforce the laws and regulations already on the books. But let’s empower consumers, too, especially in areas like personal care products where the laws already on the books just don’t do enough to protect people. Besides, look at the track record. Under the current administration, no major environmental legislation has passed. Some wilderness has been protected, but no where near what’s under siege. The new fuel efficiency standards that Congress approved don’t go nearly far enough in helping Americans achieve energy independence.

On the other hand, during the same time period, green manufacturing has taken off. Thanks to choices consumers are making in the marketplace, companies are producing packages in bulk to save energy and reduce waste. They’re innovating to develop more fuel efficient appliances. They creating toxin-free cosmetics. None of these developments would have occurred without consumer demand.

Just in the area of personal care products like shampoo and make-up, consider this. The Toxic Substances Control Act actually permits companies to use over 65,000 chemicals that could create health and environmental hazards. Even with new laws, all those chemicals will be allowed to continue to exist. You and I can protect ourselves from those dangers based on how we shop. And if all shoppers avoid them, companies will be less likely to use them. That makes sense to me.

We see that markets for green products such as organic food or hybrid cars are growing fast, but their market share is still very small. How much green consumerism can really make a difference?

The tipping point in the marketplace is actually pretty small. At some point, and some point soon, companies will decide it just doesn’t make sense any more to squander their capital – and their company’s good name — on products that are bad for the planet. Plus, look at how much innovation is happening in the marketplace simply because consumers have created demand for green products. That innovation will have an enormous ripple effect throughout manufacturing.

Your book is full with information that will make anyone who reads it very concerned about the environmental and health impacts of almost everything we do on daily basis. Yet, I also find it optimistic – where is this optimism coming from? Can you share with us a specific experience that helped to generate your optimism?

I’m generally a “cup is half-full” kind of person! But also, I’m really thrilled with how much innovation is happening in the marketplace, how short the turnaround time is between increased consumer demand and manufacturer response, and by how many millions of people have taken the environmental crisis to heart and vowed to do something, anything, to help protect the planet.

There are critics who see in green consumerism no more than just a way for consumers to feel better about themselves with no real added-value, as they see consumerism in itself as the problem. What do you think of it?

I talk to thousands of consumers every year. Many people are actually tormented by the dilemmas shopping poses. They need to feed and clothe their families, they need to drive to work every day, and they understand that all of these actions have an environmental impact. It does make them feel great when they can buy the product with the least impact – and there’s nothing wrong with people feeling good for doing the right thing!

I’ve never come across anyone who says, “I just can’t wait to spend more money.” Most people are trying to economize. But they still need to live. The critics should be encouraging responsible green consumerism. They should also realize that, at least until the political reality changes, green consumers are going to be the most powerful force for change, especially change aimed at manufacturing.

The book is full of great tips in many areas, from clothing and cosmetics to furniture and transportation – if someone who wants to start their journey towards sustainable living is reading your book – would you recommend her to focus on one or two areas or try to make changes in each and every one of these areas?

Most people start with a single step. What makes sense for someone depends on their lifestyle, their means, and their comfort level. Probably the most important step to take is to figure out when you can reduce energy. Can you install a programmable thermostat to use less energy to heat and cool your home? Can you plug your computer and other office equipment into a powerstrip to avoid wasting energy when electronics aren’t even being used? Can you drive a more fuel efficient vehicle, and drive it to save gas? Alternatively, can you carpool or take mass transit a couple days a week? Start with one step; it will lead you to others.

What’s the most interesting thing you have learned through the work on the book?

There is green innovation happening in every sector of society, and in every industry. We face tremendous opportunities to make our money matter by taking advantage of what’s before our very eyes. And the more we do so, the more opportunities we’ll create.

How about men? Aren’t we expected to take part in the creation of a greener world?

Absolutely! Every man, woman and child can and should participate in creating a greener world. No one has the corner on the market when it comes to using whatever skills, knowledge and resources they have to protect the planet — and themselves.

Can you tell us about the “One in a Million” pledge?

The One in a Million campaign urges consumers to pledge to shift $1,000 of money they’re already spending on products and services that offer the greatest environmental benefit. If you’re already spending $1,000 a year, you can join, too. The idea is to continue to give momentum to the creation of a truly green marketplace, as well as making it easy for consumers to participate in that marketplace by shifting money they’d be spending anyway on household products. Consumers can shift money in any category, but the campaign recommends some specifics for consideration, like food, coffee, appliances, and so on.

The green markets are evolving very fast. How you intend to keep the information in the book updated?

The website will be an invaluable tool for keeping information updated. I hear constantly from readers and companies about new developments, which enhances the research I do myself. I welcome feedback, suggestions, ideas, and input.

What’s next? What your next book will be about?

I’m very interested in the impact China is having, not just on our own environment (through the China-made products we buy), but globally. If we really are a small planet, we have to help China clean up its “neighborhood” just as much as we focus on our own.

Thank you Diane! As I mentioned, the book in now available, and printed on acid-free recycled paper. For further and updated information, please visit http://www.biggreenpurse.com.

  1. Kiashu

    I got an eco-spending tip for how to use that purse: keep it closed. Ain’t no spendin’ greener than no spendin’.

    We’re not going to buy our way out of these problems. We’re going to have to change the way we live. Part of that is consuming less.

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