Living green: Start somewhere and see where it takes you

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Summer may be the season of green, but Mindy Pennybacker hopes to make living with an environmental consciousness a year ‘round habit. Pennybacker is a veteran journalist and author of Do One Green Thing published last March. While she thinks participating in events such as this Saturday’s island-wide Hands Across the Sand is an important catalyst for social change, she focuses on the necessary and often private activities of daily living to make a difference in energy consumption, waste reduction, and to maintain good health.

“We have the power of the purse as well as the vote,” Pennybacker says. “For 22 years, the organic marketplace has grown at 20 percent per year despite our having several recessions. It’s because we’re choosing it … one of us at a time. We’re 7 percent of the American economy.”

Food localism is a tenet of her philosophy. So is knowing what conventionally grown produce is okay to buy and what should only be consumed if it’s bona fide organic. Forget anything on her Toxic 13 list—mostly thin, edible-skinned fruit and vegetables such as celery and strawberries, which hold pesticide residue in their flesh. Environmental Working Group has most of the same items on its Dirty Dozen list.

Farmer direct purchasing is her preference; although shopping at supermarkets and warehouse stores is fine as long as the organic produce is from the United States and has the seal to prove it. There are many choices in the world of green, some far more healthy than others. Look past the feel-good words, she says, and really know what’s in or not in what you put in and on your body. Labels matter and so do the product miles to bring it to you.

“Patronize farm bureau or your city’s famer’s markets and look for sales, what’s in season,” Pennybacker says. “The farmers markets are required to be connected to a farm and what is sold from that farm. And that’s why organic is not just part of a trend, it’s being a good citizen.”

Most Americans, though, lead with their wallets. Whether for food, gas, or other shipped-in goods, the lowest price usually wins. Many of us are only mindful of the true price of our habits when catastrophe strikes.

“Over the last 35 years, American attention to the energy problems of the country has waxed and waned depending on how high the prices are at the pump,” says Elgie Holstein, Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. “What we’re experiencing right now in the Gulf of Mexico is not just a wakeup call; it’s a reminder that our continued reliance on imported oil in particular is simply an unsustainable model.” Holstein sees oil as part of our future but stresses now is the time to transition to cleaner energy, and make careful use of the fossil fuels we do use. If we don’t, “we will be doomed to not only gyrating prices at the pump but environmental disasters.”

Holstein agrees with Pennybacker and environmental grassroots organizations that citizens can create Congressional mandates. Events such Hands Across the Sand “send a signal that the public is not asleep and that people are making the connection between what’s going on in the Gulf and what we experience in our own use of energy,” he says. “We’re paying attention and we want change and Congress doesn’t move very quickly unless the public does send those kinds of signals.”

A message Pennybacker wishes would also arrive at the federal level is the need for better labeling on personal and cleaning products.

“Products are required by law to list all their ingredients, but there are certain loopholes like fragrance,” Pennybacker says. “It’s catch-all term that disguises the fragrance elements and usually means synthetic fragrance which includes phthalates—hormone disrupting chemicals that have caused some reproductive deformities in male infants and is also connected to asthma and obesity in men.”

Until the cosmetic industry is forced to be more transparent in its labeling, avoiding fragrance altogether is the safest bet unless the actual fragrance and source are listed. Pennybacker regularly updates her “Choose It and Lose It” lists of name products on her website, Although she advocates products whose ingredients she has vetted, other criteria about whether to make a purchase also include how much post consumer plastic and paper are used in the packaging of the product and whether there is too much packaging that has nothing to do with maintaining the product’s integrity and safety.

Consumers must be their own best advocates, she says, in big and small ways … which brings us back to Saturday’s events. Locals may get some help from visitors at prime tourist spots including Waikiki and the North Shore. While organizers including Blue Planet Foundation, Sierra Club, and Surfrider Foundation insist that none of the events is a political rally—perhaps an attempt to mollify Hawaii tourism agencies—the stated purpose is certainly political. Joining hands to stand in silence or to approximate an oil spill with trash bags (that one can only hope will find their way back from the beach) will get a lot of press coverage and highlight a growing contingent of folks who want clean energy near the top of the national agenda.
Working toward that is a good thing because we all know it won’t be tomorrow when clean energy will be plentiful and available to everyone. There’s the matter of infrastructure and transition time so we’re going to be at this for a while—hopefully no longer than necessary. We may even see a clean energy bill come out this year, albeit without climate change provisions. As we are continuing to push, tomorrow we can get some face or phone time with local farmers, merchants, and service providers. We can choose to spend a little less time on meaningless time wasters (you have yours, I have mine) and do something that may make a difference to ourselves and our families. Read a couple of labels to compare and investigate ingredients. Pennybacker says that’s the point of the book: Start somewhere and see where it takes you. 

The full interview with Mindy Pennybacker is on the Town Square archive; Beth-Ann’s interview with Francois Rogers, Special Projects Director for Blue Planet Foundation; Robert Harris, Executive Director of Sierra Club Hawaii; Stuart Coleman, Hawaii Coordinator for Surfrider Foundation; and Elgie Holstein, Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the Environmental Defense Fund is on the Energy Futures archive at More about Saturday’s events is at