by Sally Kneidel, PhD, and Sadie Kneidel
VWOM: Sally, we're so pleased with this opportunity to discuss your latest book that you co-authored with your daughter Sadie Kneidel. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us! What are the most powerful choices consumers can make toward a greener future?
SALLY: The biggest challenge to the future livability of our planet is global climate change. So the most important choices we can make are choices to reduce our own contribution to greenhouse gases. Most people are surprised to learn that the food we choose, especially as Americans, is responsible for more greenhouse gases even than the cars we drive. (Google the U.N. document “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and read the Executive Summary for yourself.) Raising livestock requires burning or cutting of forests to create pasture, or to create cropland for raising their feedstocks. In addition, animal products involve more transit from one stage of production to another, often including refrigeration, both of which produce more emissions than foods from plant-sources. One thing we learned in researching Veggie Revolution is that Americans eat more meat per capita than any other country, by a long shot. We eat 248 pounds of meat per person per year in the U.S. In other rich industrialized nations, the average is only 176 pounds per person. In developing nations, it’s only 66 pounds of meat per year per person – just an occasional side dish or garnish. To read more about the global meat market, google “Happier Meals,” a Worldwatch Institute document.
VWOM: What are the greenest food choices for consumers?
SALLY: To minimize your ecological footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, eat fewer or no animal products and eat local foods. Dr. Richard Pirog of Iowa State University compared a local food system to a typical food system where most foods travel hundreds of miles to consumers. He found fuel consumption 4 to 17 times less and CO2 emissions 5 to 17 times lower with the local food system. In addition, farmers feel more accountable to customers who can drop in on their farms and see their methods in action.
VWOM: What are the most eco-friendly choices for traveling?
SALLY: In researching Going Green, we learned that this question goes far beyond what kind of cars we drive. The best thing we can do, as a species, is to design communities that allow us to walk or drive to work, shops, services, and entertainment. Secondly, cities need to provide affordable and convenient public transportation. As citizens, we need to be willing to fund public transportation, including light rail and city buses.
Before selecting a car, check out www.greenercars.org and www.fueleconomy.gov. My family recently bought a new (used) car and we chose a Honda Civic. It’s the “greenest” car other than a Prius or a Civic hybrid, which didn’t fit our budget. Greenercar.org rates not just by gas mileage, but also by emissions that affect our climate. If you do drive a car, try to consolidate errands, and carpool when you can.
VWOM: Do our clothing choices have an impact on the environment?
SALLY: We interviewed a lot of people in the clothing industry for Going Green. Most of us don’t think of clothing as crops, but in fact most clothing fibers are. These fibers come from cultivated plants raised on cropfields or plantations, or from livestock. So a lot of the same issues apply to clothes as to food.
Cotton, which is marketed as “the natural fabric” is actually one of the most chemical-intensive crops on the planet. It requires massive amounts of pesticides. In fact, the cotton that goes into producing just one pair of jeans and one T-shirt typically receives an entire pound of pesticides. Pesticides applied to crops run off into the soil, and wash from there into nearby streams and rivers, dispersing into wildlife habitat and animals’ bodies, as well as our own drinking water.
So buying organic cotton is a huge contribution to protecting the environment. If you google “organic cotton,” you’ll find dozens of vendors.
If organic cotton is too expensive for you, consider vintage or second-hand clothes. Three-fourths of used clothes wind up in the landfill, so when you buy vintage, you are in no way creating a market for anything toxic or damaging, plus you’re keeping a lot of bulk out of the waste stream.
Bamboo and hemp are often touted as “natural fibers” these days, but bamboo is really not. It’s ground to a pulp and mixed with chemicals, which are extruded from a sort of showerhead. Hemp does have many merits; it’s relatively resistant to pests and so requires few pesticides. But because it’s illegal to grow hemp in the United States, it’s grown mostly in China, and China is notorious for labor abuses. Bamboo is also grown and manufactured into cloth primarily in China. Going Green has more information about labor abuses associated with these fabrics. Also see www.sweatshops.org for details on low wages, hazardous working conditions, long hours, and child labor in China. If you do buy hemp or bamboo, ask where it came from. Tell the vendor you care about how the fabric was produced and how the garment was assembled. Many vendors try to conceal the ugly details, but if consumers inquire loudly enough, and boycott goods produced with exploitive methods, eventually production methods will change.
VWOM: What impacted you the most in writing Veggie Revolution and Going Green?
SALLY: Emotionally, what impacted me most was seeing how animals live in factory farms. They are treated as production units, as though they haven’t the slightest capacity for feeling or comfort. The animals we saw on factory farms endure lives of suffering and deprivation, sometimes very long lives, in the case of breeders. Our culture would call it torture, were it applied to a dog or a cat. But farm animals have been declared exempt from the cruelty laws in the United States. That’s a result of the meat industry lobby, trying to shave pennies from production costs.
VWOM: Did your research prompt you to make any different or more energy-efficient choices in your own household?
SALLY: We have made changes in our home that have decreased our monthly energy bill by about 30%. A lot of that decrease was due to just switching to compact fluourescent light bulbs, and turning down our thermostat. A great documentary about easy ways to cut emissions and energy use is Kilowatt Ours by Jeff Barrie. Of course when you use energy from your power company, the power company is creating greenhouse gas emissions (by burning coal, mostly) to deliver that energy to your home.
If I were building a new home, I would build a passive-solar house. It makes so much sense and cuts energy use so immensely, the government should do much more to provide incentives for builders and consumers to choose passive-solar. Going Green goes into much more detail about how to save energy on heating and cooling our homes, and on construction methods that make use of recycled and waste materials.
My husband and I carpool to work now, and we bought a fuel-efficient car with good emissions ratings. We live within walking distance of a lot of our shopping needs. Sadie either rides her bike or rides the bus to work every day. She lives in a communal household of 4 adults, which means that they’re using less energy per person than they would be in a traditional home with 2 adults.
VWOM: What was it like working with your daughter?
SALLY: It was a lot of fun. Sadie is one of my best friends. The only tricky part, for me, was trying to avoid ever acting like a mom. We have to be equals to work together, not mom and daughter. If I get an invitation to speak somewhere, I never pressure her to join me, and likewise she doesn’t pressure me. I try to treat her as I would any other valuable business partner.
She’s very funny, and she’s flexible. She keeps me from taking things too seriously. She also is a much faster decision-maker than I am, so she’s a more efficient editor, and that’s a great asset.
VWOM: The Green marketing strategy is used to sell a broad range of products, materials and services. For example, the Candian Fur Council advertises "Fur IS green" How would you define or describe the Green philosophy?
SALLY: Green has everything to do with sustainability. A product is green if its production does not deplete the resources used in its manufacture, and if its production does not pollute or degrade the environment (including atmosphere, climate, water, wildlife, wildlife habitat, human communities). A truly green product must, for me, also not exploit the lives of the workers who produce it. A sustainable process is one that can continue indefinitely without impairing its surroundings. To fit that definition, it must meet the criteria I mentioned.
I can see that fur could conceivably be green, if it were, say, rabbit fur, and the rabbits were all bred in captivity. But in spite of that, I object to fur for the same reason I object to most consumables produced from animal bodies. Vertebrate animals are sentient beings and deserve to have lives worth living. If they are raised on fur farms, they are certainly not living lives of comfort and freedom. If they are being trapped in nature, then they are suffering in the traps, and most likely their wild populations are being depleted. I think wearing fur is an arrogant act that declares loudly: “Causing the suffering of others means nothing to me.” Even fake fur propagates the idea that fur is “okay.” But if you must wear some fur, we have in Going Green a “fur test” to help readers choose fake fur instead of real fur.
VWOM: Today there's a headline on the very popular website treehugger.com, "How to Green Your Sex Life." Do you feel the term "Green" is overused, or in danger or becoming meaningless?
SALLY: It’s not meaningless to me. If it comes to mean “anything associated with nature” then, yes, it may be overused. It could, actually, encourage producers to use plant and animal ingredients in their products, which could deplete natural populations.
VWOM: Any future books in the works?
SALLY: I’m really interested right now in small communities around the world, in developing nations, that are trying to transition to sustainable livelihoods. We have visited some of these communities in Peru and Africa. One is described on our new website http://welverdiendvillagetours.blogspot.com. In many developing nations with growing human populations, natural resources are shrinking at an alarming rate. And this is very sad for impoverished communities, where traditional reliance on natural resources within their own community, such as wild foods and fuelwood, helps to buffer the effects of poverty. I was astonished to learn that Americans spend $12 billion per year on ecotourism in Africa. So right now, my attention is drawn to helping to funnel some of the ecotourism dollars into the hands of local and indigenous communities that need the income most. I’m doing some of that through my blog (http://veggierevolution.blogspot.com) but am currently at work to create a new website that will help more. I’m pretty excited about this – making connections between tourists who want an authentic cultural experience, and struggling communities that need the tourist income. I encourage people to avoid international hotel chains while traveling, and employ local providers instead. I am available to help anyone who needs assistance with this! (My email address is on my blog.) I imagine that at some point I may want to write a 12th book on this topic.
VWOM: If you were a non-human animal, what animal would you be?
SALLY: Wow, that’s tough. I don’t know. Almost every animal population on the planet is in danger these days, through loss of habitat. But if I can ignore their life expectancy for the moment, I might say I would choose to be a macaw. My son Alan’s devotion to bird research has strongly affected me. Macaws are social birds who delight in one another’s company, and they’re highly intelligent. Sad thing is, they’re extremely popular in the illegal pet trade, and their Latin American habitat is rapidly giving way to beef pastures. Save a bird! Don’t eat South American beef!