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Blog/Opinion: Compounded green consumer power

One good aspect of our consumer-driven economy is that each of us has the power to make change happen by the way we spend our money. And some positive changes are happening, at least around the margins -- the influx of stainless steel water bottles onto our supermarket shelves to replace the toxic plastic ones, labels disclosing (some) ingredients on a handful of household products, the armloads of newly-arrived organic personal care items. 

 

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Christine Gardner, a young mother of three, figured out a way to multiply her consumer power and educate her hometown of San Francisco about the toxic ingredients in our everyday cosmetics and personal care products. She created an appealing event she called The Girlcott (www.thegirlcott.com), to coincide with Earth Day.

Instead of a boycott, which drives change by saying “No,” a Girlcott is a collective exercise that says “Yes,” in this case to healthier alternatives. She first read about this concept in the book Not Just a Pretty Face, by Stacy Malkan, and decided to bring it to life in her community. 

Christine, who admits she has enjoyed many manicures in her day, says she built the Girlcott around the concepts of Awareness, Action, Alternatives and Advocacy. To boost awareness, she built a Web site of information that showcases the science revealing the chemicals in our cosmetics. 

The Girlcott -- the embodiment of Action, Alternatives and Advocacy -- took place on a sunny Saturday in one of the city’s most popular spots, the Presidio. Supporters arrived throughout the day to hand over bag upon bag of toxic cosmetics and personal care products culled from their purses and medicine cabinets. There they also found appealing benign replacements from the dozens of displays set up by collaborating green merchants and entrepreneurs. 

Spokespeople from environmental organizations were present to talk about the hazardous chemicals that lurk, unlabeled, in the products we routinely purchase, unaware of the harm they can do to us and our children. They even had pre-addressed envelopes ready for visitors to write letters to Nancy Pelosi and California’s State Senators demanding their attention to our growing consumer vulnerability.  

I asked Christine to explain how she pulled off such a major event with only her sister-in-law, Nisreen Gardner, working in support. First, she said, she convinced the city’s Department of Environment (www.sfenvironment.org) for permission to create the drop-off point in the Presidio. Through a series of cold phone calls, Christine lined up the participation of non-profits with special expertise in consumer products, including the Environmental Working Group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the Breast Cancer Fund and Teens Turning Green. They all sent out invitations to The Girlcott to their constituents across the area. Then she attracted the interest of companies with healthy products to sample and sell to a motivated and educated audience.

The city’s toxic waste manager collaborated by placing and then hauling away the large waste containers that filled up by the end of the day; the waste was transported directly to the transfer facility where liquids were neutralized, solids were burned and packaging was properly recycled

Now that the model has been tested, there’s no reason not to mount this kind of event in communities across the nation. Participants throughout the day were thrilled to rid their routines of potentially harmful ingredients and many remarked that they wished the service could become well-established, to keep these chemicals from polluting our water, our air and our land, much like composting now is required at every household in San Francisco.
 
San Francisco, not surprisingly, is rich in groups actively working on environmental health problems. There are, for example, various coalitions of Bay Area mothers (one of which includes Christine) that recently banded together to successfully halt a proposed aerial spray of pesticide over the city. “We understand how to demonstrate our collective power,” she says. The challenge, Christine adds, extends far beyond shopping our way to a successful green economy. “These moms know they have to learn where the dangers lurk and prepare to face them head on.” 

Christine has also devoted her organizing power to her children’s schools where she has worked with administrators, teachers, students and other parents to create “eco-Councils” that focus on campus environments, from reviewing the ingredients on the lunch menu, cheering for recycled toilet paper, and reading the labels of cleaning products, to exploring financing strategies for solar panels.

“These efforts are a win-win for not only our children, but for the planet they will inherit.” Christine is willing to serve as a resource for anyone interested in replicating and improving on her efforts. “This is only the very beginning of the work that must be done to deliver a healthier tomorrow for us all.  I feel a great responsibility to my own family to take these initiatives, with the great hope that others will not only follow but collectively demand new policies that ensure our protection and preservation." 

Christine is clear that consumer change will bring change only so far. If we limit our actions to consumer transactions, we’re relinquishing our power as citizens, which is really our central role. Though we contribute to the degradation of the environment by bad or uncaring or consumer choices, we’re not the ones creating the problem. So let’s never forget our power as knowledgeable activists, the only way to get at the real problem. And to think about this further, read Forget Shorter Showers, www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4801.

To learn more about Christine’s actions, look at the Web sites she’s set up:
www.thegirlcott.com
www.moregreenmoms.com/school describes the first steps she took to found the first eco-Council at her daughter’s school.
www.moregreenmoms.com is the repository of thoughtful pieces she’s written on subjects from the need for our kids to have more quiet time, to the (surprising) load of toxic ingredients in men’s personal care products. She recommends you start by reading what she calls “The Speech."

 

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Compounded green consumer power:  Created on March 24th, 2010.  Last Modified on April 11th, 2010

About Alice Shabecoff

Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of the book Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, Random House. See her website, poisonedforprofit.net.

 

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