The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 27, 2009

Personal Changes Do Make A Difference: An Interview with Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse

Yesterday, I asked whether personal changes at the individual level can truly change the world. Today, I’m happy to share with you an interview with a woman I have truly grown to admire and who believes that shifting our personal spending towards greener products not only makes a difference but is actually more effective than waiting for governments to act.

I reviewed Diane MacEachern’s book, Big Green Purse, a year ago. Since then, I have had the pleasure of knowing her through the Green Moms Carnival, working with her on the BlogHer Green Team, plotting World Greenification with her in her hotel room at the BlogHer conference last month, and watching her cut loose on the ballroom floor. I have the utmost respect for her integrity and personal commitment to environmental work. Please enjoy my interview with this inspiring woman. She gives me hope!

Beth: You’ve had a long career in environmental education and activism. And I see that you have a degree in Natural Resources & Environment from the University of Michigan. What originally inspired your interest in environmental issues?

Diane: I grew up in Michigan. As a kid, I loved playing outdoors — until the lakes got too polluted for us to swim in, pollution got bad from auto manufacturing, and the milk had to be thrown away because it became tainted with fire retardants. I was active in my church group, where I learned to value citizen activism and be inspired by the idea that one person could make a difference. After a college stint working in the Tetons in Wyoming, I decided to focus on protecting the planet. I’ve never regretted it.

Beth: From your work with Sierra Club to starting your own communications company, to writing books and blogging, how have your ideas about effective environmental activism changed over the years? What have you learned about what does and doesn’t work to motivate people, companies, and governments to change?

Diane: For thirty years, my focus was really on public policy. I thought passing laws to address environmental issues was the most effective way to make a difference. We still need stronger laws and enforcement of regulations on the books. But the last few years, I’ve become convinced that the marketplace moves faster than the halls of Congress! Companies fight legislation tooth and nail – but consumer dollars are their lifeblood. If we use our money to make a difference, we can accelerate the transition to a cleaner, greener world. So…money motivates companies, and even governments to change. People, generally, are mostly motivated by self-interest. That’s why messages about personal health and safety and how they’re impacted by pollution and water quality and toxic chemicals are so powerful.

Beth: Your book, Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World, is based on the idea that individuals can make a difference through what we choose to spend, and not spend, our money on. What are some examples of companies that have responded positively to consumer pressure? (Note: If you purchase Diane’s book via the link above, I will receive a small commission to support my plastic-free work.)

Diane: Well, of course, one of the best examples is the Take Back the Filter campaign you ran to inspire Brita to recycle its water filters! Consumer demand for safer water bottles has persuaded Nalgene and many other manufacturers to produce BPA-free bottles. Phthalates have been removed from many nail polishes because women clamored for safer personal care products. Progress may seem slow, but the list is growing, which gives me hope!

Beth: While appropriate for both genders, Big Green Purse really targets women. Why is that? What kind of power do women have?

Diane: Women spend $.85 of every dollar in the market, and they’re not just buying cheese doodles and diapers! We are buying more clothes, cosmetics, food and cleaning products than men; as many cars; we’re responsible for most household purchases; and over 50% of the people responsible for buying supplies for companies are female. I’m talking to women because women are spending the most money!

Beth: What do you think holds us back from using our purses to make a difference? These days, do you see women as becoming more or less motivated to make spending decisions based on environmental considerations?

Diane: There are a lot of legitimate reasons why we’re not using our purses more effectively. One is time – between managing our households, attending to our families, and holding a job, most women don’t have the time to research different choices from the ones they’re used to making and thus are easiest to make. One of the reasons why websites like yours and mine are so important is because they give women fast access to useful information so they can redirect their spending in a thoughtful and meaningful way. And based on the number of visitors the “how to” websites are getting, I’d say that there’s a lot of interest in making change.

Beth: I love that your book not only provides information about which products and companies we should and should not support but also provides contact information and urges readers to take the next step and ask for what we want. Do you think Big Green Purse readers are using those resources? Have you heard of any examples of women writing to companies and getting positive feedback?

Diane: I’m not sure how many women are writing to companies, but it does seem like women are shifting their spending. Almost 5,000 women have joined our One in a Million campaign, which urges consumers to shift $1,000 of their household budget to the safest available products and services. Companies are getting the message – maybe not in their mailboxes, but in the marketplace, and that’s a pretty effective way to make your opinion known.

Beth: In your opinion, what are the 5 main steps individuals can take to make the biggest difference for the planet?

Diane: 1) Consume less. Just stop buying so much stuff!

2)Simplify more. Spend more time connecting with family, friends, and nature, and less time literally buying into a culture that focused too much on the material and not enough on the spiritual.

3)Shift your spending to products and services that offer the greatest environmental benefit. Give up bottled water and start buying organic milk or produce. Forget the paper towels in favor of reusable sponges. Simple switches will actually save you money and help protect the planet, too

4) Share. Somehow, we’ve developed a “me, me, me” focus rather than an “us, us, us” perspective; that’s what drives so much overconsumption today. Sharing reduces overconsumption, builds community, and saves us money, too.

5)Vote. We need to elect officials who will put the health of people and the planet before corporate profits. We can’t make a real change unless we change the people who make our laws.

Beth: Because this is Fake Plastic Fish, I, of course, have to ask you a plastics question. For you, what are the main concerns about plastic? Are there certain types of plastic or certain plastic items that are of more concern for you than others?

Diane: Increasingly, I’m concerned about all the plastics that fetuses and infants are exposed to. Those IV tubes laden with BPA? Outrageous! And that huge plastic gyre that’s collecting millions of tons of plastic into a big messy swirl in the Pacific? Another outrage! Plastic is insidious because it is everywhere – my kids have never known life without plastic, they can’t imagine life without it, and they generally think the health and environmental concerns are somewhat overblown, just because they’re so used to it. It’s one of the reasons why your plastic-free lifestyle is so inspiring. It shows others that we can have quality of life that’s not all wrapped up in plastic.

Beth: What is your personal favorite green step? The most enjoyable? Most rewarding with the least sacrifice?

Diane: Whooaaa – I don’t think I can pick just one. I love organic gardening; it makes me feel good to recycle; I’m very big on sharing among my family, friends, and neighbors; shopping at my local farmer’s market…The most rewarding with the least sacrifice would probably have to be walking. I try to walk just about everywhere I can – it makes me feel good and generally doesn’t feel like a very big deal.

Beth: And what’s been the most difficult but worth the effort?

Diane: What’s been most difficult is giving up printed newspapers and magazines. I can read them online, but it’s just not the same. Recycling is good, but I don’t think it completely offsets the impact printing and delivering them has. So I’ve cut back and read online — but I still miss them!

Beth: Tell us about your partnership with Whole Foods and about work you’ve done with other major companies.

Diane: My work with companies really focuses on public education. We’ve put Big Green Purse shopping tips in Whole Foods stores in the Northeast to help consumers understand that their environmental choices are better for their health and offer greater value, too. I’ve also done book signings in the stores, and we’re building fans on the Big Green Purse/Whole Foods [Facebook] fan page!

We’ve also had events at Whole Foods with the mayors of local towns; we’re going to be doing workshops in some stores in the future. I did a promotion with Home Depot’s Eco Options program that went to about 350 radio stations; we offered tips, environmentally-certified products (like organic garden soil) to callers, and a week-long series of shows. I’ve done employee engagement workshops for companies like Frito Lay, American Bankers Association, and even Clarke Mosquito, a mosquito abatement company.

Beth: What kinds of additional resources can readers find on your website/blog?

Diane: We offer product reviews (look for our Environmental In-Box and Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down categories); Top Ten Lists; “How To” suggestions; money saving ideas; and hundreds of links to green living and green shopping resources. You can sign up for the One in a Million campaign and get some ideas on how and where you can shift your spending. You can subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter and keep up with our blog posts, Twitter feed, and Facebook updates.

Beth: Do you have anything exciting coming up that we should know about?

Diane: I’m about to raft the entire length of the Grand Canyon! At least once a year, I like to completely immerse myself in Nature. For ten days, I’m turning off my cell phone, pulling the plug on my computer, and recharging my spirit in a spot that’s about as far away from the commercial world as I can get. I can’t wait!

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12 years ago

Great interview! Thanks so much for sharing with us. Stay positive!

Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama
12 years ago

Great interview Beth. It is always interesting to find out more about people, and Diane is quite amazing.

mother earth aka karen hanrahan
12 years ago

This is a fabulous interview! I always appreciate knowing more about what motivated someone to do the work they do. I can see how from early on Diane, not only found her cause. She began walking the talk and being what she's ever so passionate about. Both of you are an inspiration