Ask Erin Schrode what she does, and she’ll say she’s a sustainable activist and speaker, as the founder of the advocacy group Teens Turning Green, a non-profit. But really, Erin excels at promotion. Promotion of the sustainable lifestyle, and in doing so, promotion of her personal brand of non-crunchy, non-crazy, not-weird-at-all, yet totally conscious, authentic, sustainable living.
I had been hearing about Schrode for some time – Lauren Singer of the no-waste blog Trash Is for Tossers is a friend of hers and fellow NYU graduate, and poked me a few times to reach out. Then Meika Hollender, co-founder of Sustain Natural (formerly Sustain Condoms) mentioned her during our interview. Given that I’m focussed more on the late-twenties NYC lifestyle and not the teenager cohort, I filed her information away.
Instead, she found me.
Well, more accurately, her PR team emailed me, and wouldn’t let up until an interview was scheduled. My curiosity was piqued by this glossy, early-twenties sustainability advocate, her laundry list of titles (ecopreneur, orator, media personality, corporate consultant), and her PR team. Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from this 24-year-old wunderkind. So I suggested we meet at Butcher’s Daughter, a vegan/organic/gluten-free juice bar/cafe/breakfast spot on the Lower East Side and talk. About what, I wasn’t entirely sure.
We’re all suffering from the same issues.
When I arrive to The Butcher’s Daughter, Schrode is already seated at an outdoor table, PR rep by her side. I’m not entirely sure where to start the interview, so I ask her what she’s working on. And with that, she launches into her founding story, starting 10 years ago when she was 13 years old.
“I was born and raised in the Bay Area – a little bit hippie and proud of it,” she says. When a study came out linking personal care products to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm, Schrode did her own linking of that to the mysterious and alarming cancer cluster in Marin County, a liberal and affluent country in the San Francisco area. Her mom, a television producer (and now executive director of Teens turning Green), had already launched a campaign in 2002 to figure out why cancer rates were higher than normal in Marin County.
“I thought I lived a pretty conscious life,” Schrode says. “I ate organic food, carpooled, drank out of a glass water bottle, in our house we had no plastic, we used paints that were no VOC. We were extreme for even Marin County. But Maybelline Full N’ Soft mascara was in my pencil case. I felt the need to tell my peers.” She started holding meetings for teens to discuss toxins in personal care products. Thus launched the career of Erin Schrode, environmental advocate.
(The cancer cluster in Marin County still baffles scientists, though one study is leaning away from environmental toxins, and one journalist believes it comes down to the affluent women getting more mammograms and thus getting false positives more frequently.)
At this point in the story, we take a break to order, and I’m grateful that I was prescient enough to suggest Butcher’s Daughter for our meal, since Schrode is vegan and gluten-free. She orders avocado toast and almond butter on gluten-free bread.
Schrode moved to NYC in 2007 to pursue a career in theater and modeling. In between walking in some fashion shows and shooting a couple of movies, she planned a sustainable prom pop-up. At NYU, she “did a whole green dorm thing. I’m totally fine to brainwash people,” she says of her getting students to switch majors to Environmental Science.
During college she studied abroad in Ghana, Israel, Spain, and Argentina. She “worked on recycling in in the public school in Accra [Ghana’s capital city], built the curriculum for the first environmental education center in the Palestinian Authority to bring together Palestinian and Jordanian youth to talk about these issues,” and attended conferences throughout Europe while she lived in Spain. She rattles all these CV notations quickly but adeptly. She addresses the white-girl-in-Africa trope before I can ask.
“I struggled with that, a lot. Food, water and shelter are basic necessities that people who don’t have access to. Here I am, a girl from California with a relatively privileged – unbelievably privileged – upbringing. The mandate came from outside. I started hearing all these questions, and garnering all this interest. It doesn’t matter what society or culture you’re in, as you grow up you make these personal lifestyle choices. The issues of waste, up cycling, of water, of finite natural resources – we’re all suffering from the same issues.”
Before that, when Erin was 18, she helped with disaster relief in Haiti after the earthquake. “I had never worked in disaster relief, I had never been to the poorest country in this hemisphere. I was taking care of these 12-year-old boys. Babies were dying … It was a horrific experience, but the most transformative one of my life. A teacher told me, ‘If I only had the materials, I would teach them myself.’ I lightbulb went off in my head. But I wasn’t going to bring back just any stuff. Post consumer waste paper, up cycled or second pencils. And I had to tell (she banged on the table for emphasis) people (bang) why! And they were interested! I was like, ‘You have ‘nothing’. Why would you care?’ No, people want (bang) to do (bang) right by their bodies (bang) and planet (bang). But the bottom line is they don’t know to know. Environmental justice is linked to every single thing in our lives.”
Thank you, mother, for making me warped.
After graduating, Schrode shifted into corporate consultancy for multinationals. She justified her decision to herself by thinking about the ripple effects even a small shift in corporate policy would have. But she grew disillusioned with the work. “I worked with some big companies, and I felt like it was a lot of lip service.”
The waiter brings her order, setting the avocado toast down. “Gluten-free?” She asks. “No,” he says. “Almond butter,” he offers the other toast. “Gluten-free?” she says again. “No,” he says, deflated. He takes the plates with him to get the right order.
“I’ll name names. Coca-Cola. They came to me. I had never drank a Coca-Cola in my my life. I’m weird! But that’s the case. My own mother, when I told her I was going to work with Coca-Cola, she was ready to disown me.” She pounds the table some more as she talks about the waste generated by bottles, which Coca-Cola was going to address with their Ekocycle initiative, a project that has since languished. “I think recognition of these issues is good, and believe in not letting perfect be the enemy of good.”
“Thank you!” She sings out as the correct toasts are set down on the table. “But there is a limit to how far I will go,” she says to me. “I realized a year and a half ago that I love working with young people. I’m a communicator, and I’m an educator.”
Now she’s back to touring college campuses, through the Midwest and down South. “I love speaking to those students in middle America, really!” she says. “I went to Tulsa Oklahoma, and walked into the only vegan restaurant there. For me, veganism is an environmental statement. It’s about the impacts of the food system and the agro-industrial complex. And they were elated to see one person who walked in and shared their world view.” I ask her if her reception changed as she moved from state to state. “Oh yeah,” she says. “I remember last year, so vividly, we were in Louisville, and this kid came up to me, and goes, ‘sus-sustaina..bility,” she drawls, “that is like that dirt, that uh dirt, that uh, that uh, uh … composting! Right?’ I was like, ‘Ok!'” she drums on the table. “Square one.”
“My motto is ‘dream and do.’ The whole campaign is student-driven,” she says. “We put out a video this morning about Monsanto. We have these high school students convinced that Monsanto is the devil; Monsanto kills. I’m like Fuck yeah! I get so proud of that.” This is a more controversial stance than you might think, but Schrode is OK with working in the grey area. “No definitive science, some very interesting studies, but I’m going to err on the side of caution,” she says of toxins in beauty products. “Thank you mother, for making me so warped.”
I’m struck throughout our conversation by Schrode’s desire to simultaneously broadcast two views of herself. 1. That she is a totally normal, twenty-something girl (not crazy, not extreme) that everyone can relate to, and 2. That she is living the sustainable life through and through – two positions that are often at odds with one another.
I’m not trying to turn every teen I meet into a crazy.
She’s not odd in that respect. Environmental advocates all have found themselves trying to balance on this line. They must live their life perfectly sustainably, lest they be held up to scrutiny and found to be a hypocrite, thus invalidating their message. But they also feel the need to broadcast a message that they are normal, just like you and me, so the sustainable lifestyle is so easy and accessible!
It’s a sort of impossible position, once you think about it. Living with your values requires you be a fringe character at points. There is some lecturing involved, pointed questions, turning down gifts and food, and a lot of uncomfortable moments, socially and physically. An example from Schrode herself: “You should see me in the aisles of the supermarket,” she says. “People reach for something and I’m like, do you really want that? My friends are like, what are you doing?”
And: “Safety, sustainability, and efficacy. Safe for your body, sustainable for the planet, and it works. If it doesn’t work then it’s going to end up in a landfill, and you’re going to be completely turned off from this hippie dippy hemp-wearing, crunchy, granola-eating, whole movement, right?”
And: “I recognize that people have passions that are different than mine. I’m not trying to turn every teen I meet into a crazy.”
And: “Look at me! I walk down the street. I don’t look like some hippie freak,” she says when I ask her what she’s wearing. (Vintage, Amour Vert, and PACT.) When I bring up the subject of straws, she says, “I’m obnoxious. I’m like, ‘I don’t want the straw, I don’t want the plastic. Next time can you please ask?'” (One NYC coup is that she convinced her friends at Candle 79 not to serve straws.)
This fight between being perfectly sustainable and being reasonable reveals itself most clearly when she talks about bottled water. “I’m not a crazy. If I’m somewhere and I need water and the only thing to buy is a bottle of plastic water, it kills me inside, I have a fight with myself. There is major inner turmoil, but I buy it. Everywhere physically possible were I can fill this up, and I will go extended periods of time where I probably should be drinking water but I don’t because I can’t fill it up.”
When I ask her about the extra work and time it takes to be sustainable, to pack all the reusable items in your purse, and look for places that are vegan when you’re out and about, she is dismissive. “It’s called Google. It’s an amazing tool; use it.”
I ask Schrode if she feels like the environmental community can be judgmental. “I feel personally attacked,” she says. “The infighting is the worst. We’re all competing for the same resources, and the same attention. We all have the same goal. Like, come (bang) on (bang)! We’re working damn hard to making the world a more just place. Then from the big entities, the people outside our bubble, it’s like, ‘that’s nice.’ That’s not nice, this is my life.”
“There’s so much doom and gloom. It’s so unattainable. I can’t put together the melting polar ice caps. I can’t take everybody off the grid. I can’t solve all the massive, massive injustices in the world, but I can change my lifestyle and have a ripple effect in my home, and my friends, and my community, and my campus.”