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The rising power of eco-moms

November 19th, 2010

(Dominique Browning, author of Slow, Love, Life, blogs for the Environmental Defense Fund, where this blog first appeared on Nov. 17 in support of EDF’s campaign for stronger standards for toxic household chemicals.)

Dominique Browning

Yes! Prop 23—a proposal in California, underwritten by Texas oil companies, to repeal the strongest clean energy law in the nation—was resoundingly defeated on Election Day. But apart from that victory, media pundits seem to believe that around the country, environmentalists and their concerns were soundly trounced. I think they are reading the wrong tea leaves.

The Tea Party may be full of science Luddites, but there’s another important activist group in the U.S. and it is growing fast. It isn’t run by anyone, and has no political candidates—yet. I’m calling it the Green Tea Party, and it is made up of millions of women I think of as Eco Moms. It is going to be–it is already–a game changer.

I count myself among these women. EcoFocus Worldwide, a marketing research consultant, estimates that “the EcoAware Moms market includes more than 50 million women, 69% of [all] moms, and has more than $1.45 trillion in buying power.” Best of all, consumer power can translate to political clout.

Most of us wouldn’t say we’re out to save the planet. And we don’t walk around numb with fear, gloomy about the future. Raising children is anxiety-provoking enough. But we want change. We want global warming addressed. We want to protect our homes from toxic chemicals. We want the government to which we pay our taxes to keep our families safe.

Eco Moms teach our children not to keep the water running while they brush their teeth, to switch off the lights when they leave the room, to walk or bike to a friend’s house, to unplug chargers and shut off computers at night, not to let the engine idle at the mall. We’re about small actions that, within a family, express simple values: cherish natural resources; keep the world clean.

“Our children are growing up differently than we did,” says Lori Yanes, an Eco Mom from West Orange, N.J., who has three sons. “If I forget to recycle something, my kids are all over me. Being green is a way of life for them.”

These days, the news is full of reports that our lives are awash in toxic chemicals. They are hidden in plastics, in detergents, in beauty products, in foods—things no one worried about a generation ago. While there is only so much we can do, as individuals, about climate change, there is a great deal we can do about day to day pollution—especially exposure to toxic chemicals, whether they’re in baby shampoo, or in a child’s bracelet.

When I read a recent blog post by Richard Denison, EDF’s senior scientist, about a new study linking the chemical bisphenol-A to low sperm counts, the first thing I did was send the post to every young man I know, beginning with my sons and nephews. No mom wants her children to be used as guinea pigs by the chemical industry; we want regulations that ensure chemicals are safe before they get under our babies’ skin. But make no mistake: right now, we’re all guinea pigs

I had spent the summer ridding my own house of plastics with BPA (including those microwave popcorn bags with plastic liners), explaining to my sons the damage this chemical, an endocrine disrupter, can cause and how it can leach into food from plastic that is heated. BPA has even been found in some of the thermal paper used for cash register receipts—and it rubs off on our hands.

BPA is only one of many toxins we’re bringing into our homes. Every day, Eco Moms are learning about problems with chemicals, networking for advice and information about safe products. New websites and new support communities are springing up to keep us informed about the latest findings.

Judy Shils qualifies as one of the world’s most devoted and influential Eco Moms, and her work provides a model of how values are transmitted to the next generation. In 2005, while she was setting up the Marin Cancer Project to investigate why cancer rates there were soaring, she began working with a group of teenagers who were interested in what toxins were lurking in their beauty products. Teens for Safe Cosmetics played a key role in the passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act in October 2005, and the Toxic Toys Bill in 2007.

To take on broader issues, Shils also founded Teens Turning Green which engages young people from 12 years old through college age. The student-led movement started around her kitchen table in the Bay Area and now has a presence in schools across the country.

“There is a tremendous surge of green energy coming from Moms these days—and now it is coming from their girls, too,” says Shils. “We have an opportunity to mentor and support a new generation of change makers, and wow, are these young women ever powerful! When they see an injustice, they want to fix it. They will heal the world.”

The power of Eco Moms extends beyond idealism. We also have enormous purchasing power, especially when it comes to deciding what products we allow in the house. Increasingly, we are demanding stuff that is safe and respectful of our values. The result? So-called “green” product lines are proliferating.

Ten years ago, there was usually one choice: go to a health food store and look for Seventh Generation. Today some of the biggest brands in household products have started green, natural lines. Gerber introduced Gerber Organic Baby Food. White Cloud has Green Earth bathroom tissue, and even Scott tissue is up to 40% recycled in their “Naturals” line. A couple of years ago Clorox launched its Greenworks line (the company also bought Burt’s Bees).

But there’s also been a tsunami of bogus or misleading green claims to go with this shift, and it can be hard to sort out the truth. It’s instructive, then, to see how clear Clorox has made its Greenworks labels. (I learned that the secret cleaning ingredient in their products, alkyl polyglucoside, is extracted from coconuts.) And the Greenworks website is a model of communication; it is upbeat, even humorous, and offers easy tips for keeping unnecessary chemicals out of the house.

Manufacturers are going to the trouble of appealing to Eco Moms for a reason: they are influential early adopters of products. If we buy what you’re selling, you are likely to profit from the connection. The lesson for Eco Moms is that our everyday decisions are important. They give us a sense of control over our environment, a way to feel we are making smart choices, doing something good for ourselves and our planet. But these decisions also acquire critical mass in the commercial world.

Yes, rampant consumerism is part of the problem. Too much of what we buy is disposable or just wasteful. But the rising power of Eco Moms gives me hope for a change in values. We are asking, in hundreds of different ways, for healthier, more sustainable choices. And we are getting answers. But with the counterproductive regulations in place now, we cannot know the full extent of harmful chemical exposure from the products we use daily.

Now it is time to leverage consumer power into legislative clout. We have to make our voices heard in Congress. Let the new 112th Congress know that Eco Moms want immediate reform of our scandalously inadequate chemical safety laws. It is up to us to make sure that the laws that are supposed to protect us from toxic chemicals actually do. We can get this done in 2011: Never underestimate the power of mothers of nature!


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