by guest blogger Wendy Gordon, pioneer in the green consumer movement
In The Iron Lady, the actress Meryl Streep “nails the former prime minister’s look, sound, and spirit” according to Matthew Parris, who worked with Margaret Thatcher long before she was prime minister. It’s “like an apparition from the past,” he writes, “with liveliness and youth breathed back into her.” The actress is world-renowned for her ability to transform herself into a character. But few know her as I do, in her real-life role as a transformational environmental health activist.
We first met in September 1988. That summer, the ozone hole had been discovered over Australia, where she was filming A Cry in the Dark, and she was moved to act. Upon her return to the States, she offered to help Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) raise awareness about environmental issues. At the time, NRDC scientists were working on a report about weaknesses in the regulation of pesticides used in food production. The report, released in March 1989, became known as the Alar Report (after the growth regulator used on apples), and Alar in turn became the symbol for lax regulations of toxic pesticides that could be found in and on common fruits and vegetables. Meryl and I worked together to create Mothers & Others, a campaign that rallied concerned citizens who supported NRDC in the fight for tougher pesticide residue standards, standards that—thanks to a law passed 10 years later—would protect particularly vulnerable subpopulations such as infants and young children.
We went on to turn the Mothers & Others campaign into an organization by the same name. The organization’s mission was to arm consumers with information they could take into the marketplace and into the halls of government to demand safer products and smarter, more sustainable production practices on the part of industry. We encouraged stores to stock organic products, and shoppers to support farmer’s markets and CSAs [Community-Supported Agriculture]. We distributed lists of rBGH-free milk and safer food and beverage storage containers. We published dozens of product reports on everything from paints and wood finishes to personal care products, home furnishings, and children’s toys. Mothers & Others was transformational, using the power of the concerned consumer to change the marketplace, everything from the way we grow our food to the way we make our stuff. And Meryl was a transformative leader in the environmental health and green consumer movements. She connected the dots for people, brought it home, made it personal.
It’s been 22 years this month since NRDC’s pesticide report was released and Mothers & Others was launched. I wanted to take stock of all that has happened, and catch up with Meryl to recall what really mattered to her most back then and what still matters today. I had that chance recently, over breakfast in a quiet tearoom in New York City. I’ve shared some of our conversation here:
WG: Thinking back, what first drew you in to environmental health issues?
MS: Humans are very self-interested, I became interested in all these things when I was feeding a baby and had a sense that everything you do is going to have an outcome further down the road. So I was very conscious to try to do the right thing and do well by our kids. Being naturally sort of slovenly, I had to sit up and pay attention, because I really think about my work most of the time, and I love that. When kids came into the picture, everything I read made me think, “Yes, you are right, you are right,” and everything we know now about the developing brain, young children, the first things even in utero that you introduce into their little fragile developing systems will bear an outcome later on.
WG: I remember you once saying that consumers need to be like chemists or toxicologists when they go shopping. What did you mean by that?
MS: I was being facetious to make a point. There are so many thousands of chemicals used to make—and that are in—our everyday products. Most of these have not been adequately tested for their effects on health. That’s what I meant. If I were a young mother now, had an infant and was trying to figure out what nipple to put on a bottle, I would be reading all these things, finding out what BPA is; I’d be reading about endocrine mimickers and reading all those things.
I do lament the fact that I didn’t know anything about the problems with plastics when my oldest was born. I have such a wide range of kids; my oldest is 12 years older than the youngest. When Henry was little, I was throwing these bottles in the microwaves, the way we all were. I don’t think you ever stop being worried. So I did all those things, and then stopped by the time the last one came along, I think I weaned her from the breast to the cup pretty much and she didn’t really have a lot of bottles. But she had those plastic suckies, the pacifiers, with the phthalates.
WG: That’s why we created Mothers & Others, to inform and engage concerned consumers.
MS: Yes, and that’s why we called it Mothers & Others, because frankly, it is the mother with her child that’s the most invested relationship. I guess it’s probably the great balance of life: We are there to go “wait a minute,” to look deeply into these things. The other side rushes headlong into the new technology and then they go, “Oh, woops” 10 years later. We are the brakes on the car—a good thing to have, not just the accelerator. And that’s why it has to be nonprofit media bringing this information to people, because with for-profits this is never going to be the sexy story. They will always go after Brangelina. This is what we care about.
WG: That was the value proposition of Mothers & Others, and now, 22 years later, moms are still on the front lines fighting these fights.
MS: Absolutely. In a way, it’s like the mass: They say the same thing every week, but you have to go back and hear it over and over again. It’s for each successive generation.
WG: You spoke of the media, the profit motive, and the need for nonprofits to sound the alarm on threats to our health and the environment. I wanted to ask you about the counter-campaign, led by Elizabeth Whelan and the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH), which sought to de-legitimize the science behind NRDC’s report on pesticides in the diet of infants and children. It’s complicated to be sure, but can you explain to me why the media seemed to fix on the propaganda story of “the Alar scare” and mostly miss the much bigger and more exciting stories brought about by the events of that year? As you know, it had been established by independent bodies that NRDC’s science was sound. And a few years later, Congress did act to change the way we regulate pesticides in order to protect kids. Meanwhile, the impact on the marketplace was profound. Consumers began to think differently about their food and to ask where it’s from, and how it’s grown. And the organic industry responded to consumer concern by going mainstream.
MS: The press got it totally wrong, thanks to the ACSH propaganda machine about “the Alar scare.” But the truth did get through to consumers, opening the door to all these other things. It was an incredible turning point. The actions [of that year] did change how pesticides are regulated, how tolerances are set. And we still have Delicious apples, right? They just are grown without Alar. It [Alar] is only used on flowers now.
WG: What would you advise people to be mindful of today?
MS: The shopping. Before you take your food home, you need to consider where it comes from. It’s about being a careful consumer, the thoughtfulness applied to every decision. The idea that your food budget is a really important thing, maybe as important as your cable budget. Maybe you don’t need 20 channels of ESPN. Maybe you spend less over here so you can spend more on healthier, safer foods. Some foods may be more expensive, but they’re cheaper in the long run. It’s all about the long run, in my view.
WG: Do you buy mostly organic? Local?
MS: Yes. I buy organic, though not everything. I buy local mostly. I live in the city. I go to the farmer’s market. I do shop at Whole Foods, but I shop at my local Food Emporium, which carries a lot of things it didn’t used to, which is sort of wonderful. I remember back in the olden days when I had to drive 45 minutes for just apples that were not sprayed.
WG: Didn’t you help set up a CSA when you were living in Connecticut?
MS: We set up a CSA, and a food co-op and all those things. We still have a food co-op up there, but the food that we want is pretty much available. The farmers are growing it; they’ve been encouraged by the market, there’s been more attention paid.
WG: Do you pay attention to the meat you eat? Do you eat meat? Does it matter whether it’s organic or grass-fed?
MS: I pay attention to everything, Wendy. Yes, I eat meat. I really like meat. I eat much less of it, though. I try to get grass-fed, organic beef; the bison burgers I like‚ some of those are good. All the sourcing questions that I’ve been trained by Mothers & Others back in the ’90s to pay attention to, I pay attention to all that.
WG: And as for what you’ve taught your children?
MS: Mothering is full of boring things, full of things that you say that they remember— only, 20 years later. You see it now with my own kids; all they wanted was Fruit Loops and crap, but they don’t want that now. Information went in somehow, even though on their face in the moment they were going, “I hate you.” It comes back later. You just have to have faith that it will.
You know, for me it was keeping them home if they were sick. It’s about the simple stuff, the basics: teaching them to use their imagination rather than play a video game, teaching them to go outside, showing them where the door is.
WG: Thinking about the basics, our values… Are you reminded these days of the wiser ways of your parents or grandparents, of the things they would say, or how they would do things? Is there any story/bit of wisdom you would like to share?
MS: My parents were children of the depression. My grandparents really suffered during the depression and had a hard, hard time. My grandmother saved every single piece of aluminum foil and she’d make a ball that would grow and grow and grow, and each time she needed some, she’d pull off the outer skin and use it again, as if it were an onion. I don’t do this, but it is a mindset and it went into my little brain. And I sort of think like that. I think what the problem might be for people now is that they, we, grew up in a time of plenty, the throwaway, built-in obsolescence. How to get rid of all these electronics devices, computers, and TV screens that are just proliferating, that’s our main thing—that we consume and they are piling up and being picked apart by children in Africa, who are getting cadmium poisoning and everything from it. We have to be more responsible, and we have to hold all these so-called good guys who make all these things, the evolved Californians from Silicon Valley, responsible for the things they make.
WG: Are you a label reader? Do you look at the ingredients on shampoos and such?
MS: Yes, but I try not to buy plastic bottles anymore. When I do, I look at the bottom to see if it’s recyclable. But, I just think a faster way and the way the market really responds is to name the brand that is good. If you draw people to a brand, the other brands get the picture. To tell people to turn the product over, there’s all that small print, which by the way, now, forget it. The shortcut is to say, ‘You know what? This brand is good’ and draw traffic to it.
WG: One final question, in your view, what truly motivates individuals to action?
MS: I think it is always personal. It’s a combination of what you have been taught, in my own case my parents’ carefulness with their resources, so that translates to me. Even though I have the ability to buy a vast amount of stuff that I want, I don’t really want a vast amount of stuff, and the stuff that I want, I want it to be really good and for my kids. I think altruism is lovely, but I think self-interest is what motivates people.
Wendy Gordon is a leader in the green-consumer movement. She founded Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet and Green Guide, a resource for the eco-conscious consumer. She is now a consulting editor for the Natural Resource Defense Council and OnEarth, its online magazine.