Creating a Greener Economy with Green America’s Todd Larsen

March 16, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. Today we’re so excited to have with us Todd Larsen. He’s the Corporate Responsibility Division Director of Green America. Welcome to Green is Good, Todd Larsen. TODD LARSEN: Hey, thank you for having me as a guest. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Todd, before we get talking about all the great, important work you’re doing at Green America, I’d love you to share a little bit about your journey prior to getting this great position at Green America. TODD LARSEN: Sure, I’d be happy to. I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. Before I was working at Green America, I actually got a master’s degree in political science, which has helped me through all of my jobs. But then after that, I actually worked in the domestic violence field for several years, doing fundraising and media and helping to run organizations that work to end domestic violence. And then after that, I actually worked for a Ralph Nader organization, where I documented the ways that large corporations rip off consumers, and how consumers can fight back. We did a lot of media around that, around credit card abuses, utility billing abuses, medical billing abuses, all kinds of things to raise public awareness about that and how people fight back. And then after that, I was looking for something where I thought I could really help build a green economy in the United States, help businesses that are green, help consumers go green, and I found Green America, which is this amazing organization. At the time, it was called Co-Op America. They were doing exactly what I wanted to do in life, which was to do really positive things around building a green economy, while also encouraging large corporations to be more responsible at the same time. So, I’ve been with Green America now for 15 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. How long have you been in this position as Corporate Responsibility Division Director? TODD LARSEN: About seven years. Before that, I was a Managing Director. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Good for you. For our listeners who want to follow along and learn more about Todd’s great organization, Green America, go to greenamerica.org. It’s full of great information. You can become part of the network. You can become a member. It’s just a wonderful and great organization. Todd, can you share a little bit about the mission of Green America, and how it operates before we get talking about some specific other issues around greening this whole great world that we live in? TODD LARSEN: Sure. The mission of Green America is to create a green economy. For us, that means one that’s both socially responsible and environmentally sustainable. So, it’s always the two things twined together. I think what’s unique about Green America is that we work with consumers, businesses, and investors, so really everybody who’s putting money into the marketplace. We’re trying to work with them to make their money greener, to make their investments more sustainable, change the way they’re doing their purchases, change the way businesses run their companies. It’s the full range of activities across the economy that we’re involved in. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great. I’m on your beautiful website now, and there’s so much information here. It is truly remarkable all the work that you’re doing. We love being solution-based on this show. We love when great guests like you frame problems, and then also offer solutions, but then also offer solutions for our listeners on how to become part of the solution and how to take action. With that, Todd, in all your experience there, 15 years and the visibility that you have on where the green revolution and the sustainability revolution is going, can you share some of the higher impact actions consumers can take to improve environmental sustainability and social justice and what’s going out there right now? TODD LARSEN: I think one of the easiest things that any consumer can do is to change the foods that we eat. Obviously, we have to buy groceries on a regular basis or go out to eat on a regular basis, and every day you have the opportunity to shift the way that you’re purchasing food in a way that actually benefits the planet and benefits you at the same time. For example, Americans tend to eat a lot of meat. We’re one of the highest meat-based diets in the world. What happens is if you eat a ton of meat, as many Americans do, you’re actually creating a lot of climate change. I think most people don’t realize that a meat-based diet is kind of equivalent to driving an SUV. If you switched from mostly eating meat to mostly eating things made of vegetables, you’re actually going from driving an SUV down to driving a Prius as a car. It’s about the equivalent shift. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to move your diet than it is to sell your care and buy another car. So, it’s something that anyone can do. You don’t have to completely change your diet; you just have to start shifting your diet a little bit more in the direction of vegetables and lower impact foods. At the same time, you’re going to be helping your health because a vegetable-based diet is actually the healthiest diet for people to eat. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. I’m a vegan, so I get a pass on that one. At least I’m not driving an SUV today. I like that. That’s great. I’m on your website, and I’m not going to give out any brands or anything, but you do a great job of advocating change at big companies, companies that are still using GMOs, companies that should be using more organic products. Can you share a little bit about your thoughts on greenwashing, and what should consumers be on the lookout for when it comes to big company greenwashing? TODD LARSEN: Well, a lot of times you go to the supermarket, and all over the package, you’ll see that this product is natural. The word natural means absolutely nothing. It has no legal meaning, really, whatsoever. There have been some lawsuits against companies who really abuse the world natural when they’re talking about chemicals and GMOs in their products. It just doesn’t mean much. You can sneak all kinds of things in to a product, even though it has the word natural on the box. So, people should look at the actual ingredients of a product and see are these wholesome ingredients that I recognize before they buy a product and actually consume it. Also, there are a number of certifications out there that are all over products, and some of them don’t mean anything. For example, in the paper products industry, there’s an industry-sponsored certificated called SFI. When you see that on a package, you might think, “Oh, wow, this has been certified.” But really, SFI is not that meaningful. It doesn’t really protect forests. The certification you want to look for as you’re buying paper stuff is FSC, which is a nonprofit certification that’s pretty rigorous. You sometimes see things like eco and green. In packaging, you’ll see companies marketing themselves as either eco or green. Again, those words don’t really mean much. A lot of times you’ll see companies in the dirtiest of industries trying to portray themselves as clean. You’ll see all kinds of things about clean coal out there, or how natural gas is the clean fuel. Really, these things aren’t clean, obviously. They’re fossil fuels. They’re actually dirty, and it’s really misleading people into thinking that we can have fossil fuels and a clean environment at the same time, when the only way to really clean up the environment and energy is to move to renewables. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, in other words, clean coal is a huge oxymoron, and natural does not mean organic or non-GMO. People should not read “natural” and think that this is good for them. TODD LARSEN: Yeah, you’ve got to look for the USDA Organic label, and for non-GMO, you have to look for a third party certified non-GMO label, such as the non-GMO products certification that you can see on packaging now. Those are the only ways you can make sure that you’re not eating GMOs and that you’re getting organics. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Talk about what home consumers, our listeners, everyone lives somewhere, whether it’s an apartment, a condo, their own home. What changes can our listeners, wherever they are in the United States or around the world, can they do to save energy and cut costs? TODD LARSEN: No matter where you live, there are certain things that people don’t realize how much energy they’re using. For example, a lot of apartments that I’ve lived in are very leaky. The landlord hasn’t really sealed around the windows and doors. You can ask the landlord to do that, of course, but even if they don’t do it, caulk is a relatively inexpensive solution to that. You’d be surprised how much more comfortable your dwelling is going to be, as well as you’re going to save money on your energy bills. Washing your clothes. If you do them in cold water and then air-dry them, you actually save a fair amount of money, and it’s obviously much, much better for the environment. And then your thermostat, too. No matter where you live, you can in the summer put your thermostat at a higher temperature, particularly when you’re not going to be in your home. In the winter, you can put it down a little bit lower, particularly at night when you’re sleeping, you can put it into the low 60s. You’ll save a lot of money, and you’ll also be helping the planet that way too. So, there are different things that people can do no matter where they live. Also people around the country, increasingly as you’re paying for your electricity, you have the choice of buying from an energy provider that’s 100% renewable. There are several of them out there, and that makes a big difference because you’re really helping to support the construction of things like wind farms and solar, and not supporting coal, natural gas, and nuclear. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there who just joined, we’ve got Todd Larsen on with us today. He’s the Corporate Responsibility Division Director for Green America. To learn more about the great work that Green America is doing or donate or become a member, go to www.greenamerica.org. Todd, let’s go back and talk about Green America for a little bit. Let’s talk about your work in terms of certifications, the publications you put out, and how people can become a member of just get involved. Can you share with our listeners out there that want to get more involved with Green America how to get either certified or how to become a member or other ways to engage with Green America? TODD LARSEN: We do have two different kinds of members of Green America. One are our business members, and we have over 3,000 of those. Those business members actually go through a certification process with Green America to make sure that they’re truly green businesses. Those truly green businesses, then, we promote to the public through our National Green Pages, our Green Pages online. So, businesses that really have a green mission and are doing everything they can to be socially and environmentally responsible can join Green America that way. Individuals can take part with us, too. We have over 190,000 individuals across the country who are active with Green America. People can become members and they’re supporting our work and they’re also receiving our publications and learning more information from us about how to be active in the green economy. Then we have a number of people who are e-activists with us as well, and a lot of them take our petitions that go to companies to encourage them to be more responsible and get more information from us as well. Those petitions really make a big difference. I think people wonder, “Does it help for me to click onto some petition that goes to a company or to Congress?” And the answer is actually yes. In the last day, we sent 23,000 petitions to the Apple Corporation, encouraging them to remove toxins from the supply chain and protect workers who are being exposed to chemicals like benzene and X-10 hexane. Just yesterday, Apple agreed to ban those chemicals in the final assembly of their products and to really limit exposures down the supply chain. They need to do more. There are more chemicals that are out there in the manufacturing process, and they need to make sure that they’re rigorously tracking those and reducing exposure to those, and substituting safe chemicals for harmful chemicals whenever possible. But this is an important first step for Apple, and it’s really because so many people wrote to the company and said, “I’m really concerned about this.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, your petition process really does work, and people’s vote and people’s engagement with your organization really does create and effectuate major change, like this major development. TODD LARSEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’ve seen it over and over again. We’ve gotten magazines, like National Geographic, to commit to printing on recycled paper when they weren’t doing so, we’ve seen giant utilities agree not to build coal-fired power plants because of public concern about that, we’ve seen companies like General Mills removing GMOs from products like Cheerios. It’s really because of all the people who join with us and use their voice with those companies, whether they’re taking our petition, going onto a company’s Facebook page and commenting there, calling the company. People do a variety of things with us, all of which are very effective and very helpful. So, people really should feel like, “Yeah, my voice does matter.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. You said Apple could do more, but we could all do more, so that’s a major leap for them to take that first step, and that’s going to probably create major great waves in the manufacturing industry of electronics. TODD LARSEN: I think so. There is a lot of pressure, as you probably know, on Samsung as well, and there’s been a lot of exposure about the fact that they’ve been using chemicals in their factory that are causing severe diseases in factory workers, both in Korea and China. Also recently, it was disclosed that they were using child labor in one of their supplier factories. So, Samsung has a lot of issues as well, and so do all the other electronics manufacturers, many of whom do a significant amount of work in China. With Apple making this move and Apple being such a leader in the industry, it really does put pressure on the other companies to also make moves in this direction. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Apple, again, is proving they’re a leader, and it’s hopefully going to effectuate positive change throughout the supply chain of all the OEMs around the world. We applaud Apple’s great step in the right direction. Good for them, and good for you and all the great work you’re doing at Green America and the people who worked with you on that petition. We’ve got about five minutes, Todd. How can people use their investments to create a better, greener world? TODD LARSEN: Sure. There are a lot of things you can do with your investments, and a lot of people don’t realize. A lot of people buy green products, they buy organic, they buy nontoxic things, but then with their investments, they just put their money in whatever bank or whatever mutual fund, and they don’t realize that those investments are essentially your money voice acting in the world as well. If you have your money with a large bank, like a megabank, those are the institutions, obviously, that nearly tanked the U.S. economy, and we had to bail them all out. But in addition to that, they’re also the institutions that use their dollars to lobby for legislation that’s anti-consumer or to prevent any kind of regulation of their institutions that they don’t want to see, which is not in our interest as consumers. So, you can definitely make a lot of noise with your dollars as well, and you can have a voice there by moving your money out of the megabanks and putting it into local community development financial institutions. Those are the banks and credit unions in your community that invest into your local community. They support local businesses, create jobs, they lend to homeowners in a responsible way to help them own a home rather than put them into risky mortgages. They’re the kind of institutions you should support with your money, and they’re all over the country. We have a project called Break Up With Your Megabank. The website is breakupwithyourmegabank.org. It has a ton of information about how you can move your money from megabanks into those smaller banks and credit unions that are doing the right thing. Also, you can move your investments out of fossil fuels. We’re part of a coalition of organizations that are encouraging people to divest from fossil fuels, and our role is really to help individuals move their money. There’s a growing number of mutual funds, exchange traded funds, brokers, advisors, others, all kinds of professionals out there that can help you take the fossil fuels out of your investment portfolio. It’s getting easier for consumers to do that as well, and we really encourage people to do that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s interesting. In terms of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, how can people find the greenest products and services, and what Good Housekeeping seal of approval should they look for with regards to green products and services? TODD LARSEN: Well, Green America has the Green Pages. We’ve carefully screened all those businesses. Also, there are companies, increasingly, who are registered in states as B-Corps. This means they’re a benefit corporation, so they have a mission as part of their charter to actually create social benefit in the world. That is a great thing because those companies are saying that this is built into the DNA of the company. Even if we get acquired, this has to stay as part of the company. So, one of the things that’s happened is that a lot of successful green businesses as they grow, they get bought up. Then they lose their social mission somewhat, or there’s a risk that they’ll lose their social mission, or they try to attract more capital to grow, and that dilutes their social mission. The whole idea of a B-Corp is, obviously, that that won’t happen, that these companies are going to remain socially committed corporations. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Last question. We have about a minute-and-a-half left. Talk about renewables, Todd. What is the future of renewables in this country? You’ve mentioned fossil fuels, and we’ve got to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels as soon as we can. Do the renewables have a great future in terms of being alternative energy sources in this country? TODD LARSEN: Absolutely. I think most people don’t realize how fast renewables already are growing in the United States. We’re seeing tremendous growth of solar, for example. Solar is on track to be probably the major source of electric energy in this country within the next 20-30 years. Also, we’re seeing tremendous growth in wind, energy efficiency measures are exploding across the country as well, so we’re on a positive pathway. But there are still risks to solar, wind, and energy efficiency that we need to address. For one thing, Congress has not been authorizing the extension of tax credits and incentives that have helped fuel that tremendous growth, and those are in danger of not being renewed. So, Green America itself, actually, has legislation called Clean Energy Victory bonds that people can support, and that would be treasury bonds where all the money goes to support incentive programs for clean energy and energy efficiency in the United States. That would really drive the market even faster in the U.S. And then the other thing that people have to look out for is states that have renewable portfolio standards, which have driven the increase of renewables in those states, those are under attack across the country. People are fighting back locally. It’s exciting to see people defending their renewable portfolio standards, looking for a clean energy future in their state, but those are under assault by the fossil fuel industry as well. So, we need to be vigilant. We need to protect the growing clean energy industry, and I think it will develop into our major energy source in the next 20 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Todd, thank you for being our great guest today. To learn more about Green America or become a member or get certified or just donate to their great organization, go to www.greenamerica.org. Todd, thank you for helping our listeners green their lives and our world. You are truly living proof that green is good.