Woody Harrelson could put the crunchiest Grist staff member to shame. The Academy Award nominated actor lives off the grid in a solar-powered, organic farming community in Hawaii. He’s been a vegan for 26 years and eats a mostly raw diet. Scratch dairy or meat cravings. He just craves cooked food.
Harrelson, who calls himself a “lover of the forest,” first became involved in environmental causes back when he was playing the part of a bartender on Cheers. In '92, a bipartisan bill in Congress aimed to make millions of acres of virgin Montana wilderness available to logging companies. Harrelson joined forces with a coalition of environmentalists, including Peter Bahouth of Greenpeace, that was pressuring lawmakers and pushing to weaken the legislation. While the bill ultimately failed, it got him thinking, “Geez, even if you do stop the deforestation here or there, the timber industry just goes somewhere else. You really need to change systems.”
For Harrelson, that meant finding a replacement for paper made from wood. And so, in the late '90s, Harrelson started working with Canadian entrepreneur Jeff Golfman to figure out how to make paper without using wood. After 15 years of research and development, the company has a product made from 80 percent wheat straw waste. Today, the company, Prairie Pulp & Paper, is announcing the sale of its Step Forward Paper at Staples stores.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Harrelson made brief calls to the media about the announcement. I took the opportunity to ask him about everything BUT paper, but he managed to squeeze in some paper talk anyway. Golfman, Prairie Pulp & Paper's president, joined us for the call. Here's our lightly edited conversation:
I was 9 years old when the political first became personal. Swayed by stories of kids not much older than me stitching together soccer balls and sneakers, my sister, mom, and I made a pact to never wear Nike. In a sea of Air Jordans, I held my own in uncool shoes* against neoliberal arguments I could tell were bullshit years before I hit puberty.
Sixteen years later, I found myself sneaking stories about sustainable fashion into Grist. Why clothing? Why this issue, so often associated with vanity, and not another, more worthy topic? What about the local food movement? Or the multifaceted battles over renewable and dirty energy? The world is burning, and you want to write about jeans? Really?
That’s all important, but it wasn’t until I tried to write about the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh that I made the connection as to why this stuff matters so much to me. By last count, more than 1,000 people have died in Rana Plaza, making it the most deadly accident the garment industry has ever seen.
One-thousand. For comparison, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which spurred safety and labor laws across the U.S., killed 146. Last November, 117 people died in the Tazreen Factory fire in Bangladesh. And while they were still pulling bodies out of Rana Plaza’s rubble, another Bangladesh factory went up in flames on Thursday, killing eight.
Your favorite clothes always have stories attached. Like your best-loved jeans with the soft knees from hours of gardening or that shirt you wore on the blind date with the weirdo from the wine futures business who ended up becoming your husband.
But what about your clothing’s story before it ever held your body and softly whispered “Pinot Noir 2007” into your ear? Aside from that tiny “Made in Indonesia” tag, our clothing rarely tells us where it’s been, who made it, or how it was dreamed up.
Telling those tales is the inspiration behind the online apparel hub Of a Kind, which connects shoppers with small-time, and often sustainable, clothing makers. Working under a philosophy similar to the “know your farmer” creed of the food movement, the site aims to make “people feel like they’re investing in a person and not just buying a necklace or a bag,” says President and Cofounder Erica Cerulo.
Here’s how it works: Of a Kind works with a designer to release tiny batches of clothing or accessories that are usually made in the U.S. and often handmade. Alongside its wares, the site gives glimpses inside the designers’ studios and creative processes.
The next time your weird uncle Jim says it's arrogant to assume lil' ol' people can affect something as big as the atmosphere, try using the visual described in this video. All you need is a soccer ball, newspaper, and the patience to explain it again after your science-hating cousin inevitably kicks the planet out of your hands.
When Anslee Connell was growing up, her TV was always tuned to Nick at Nite. She was enamored with the fashion of TheMary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, and Bewitched and spent hours digging through secondhand shops and her grandmother’s closet. But the vintage finds just didn’t fit. “I’ve always been a big girl,” she says. “I remember saying, ‘One day, I’m either going to be able to wear this or I’m going to make something like this.’”
Luckily for full-figured vintage lovers in Austin, Connell not only picked the latter, she decided to make a career out of it. For the past three and a half years, she’s been designing clothing under the moniker Savannah Red. And the 27-year-old is committed to sustainability, with a sizable percentage of her materials coming from upcycled, vintage, or organic sources.
One of the few plus-sized designers working with a sustainability bent, Connell makes dresses out of old tablecloths and bedsheets and has a soft spot for reworking vintage polyester, as its colors hold much brighter than newer blends. She sums up her philosophy with a phrase she spotted on the side of an apartment building in Switzerland: “Whoever destroys the old does not deserve the new.” Making good use of existing materials and time-tested styles, rather than just chasing trends, gives her designs a timeless edge.
And the old can look damn good. “The ‘50s silhouette really comes in at the waistline and accentuates the natural curves of the female body,” she says. “Today’s styles don’t accentuate curves at all, especially for the plus-sized woman.”
On the business side, things aren’t always easy. Taxes and profit margins and reality can hit hard. And selling $200 dresses in a world brimming with $5 ware from H&M and Forever 21 will always be an uphill battle. “I’ve been running into so many ‘no’s lately,” she says. Connell works out of her garage and still babysits occasionally to make ends meet.
While this is dandy for formal events, if you’re like me, your idea of everyday luxury is a shirt with no visible holes and/or marinara stains. Renting something for daily wear seems far-fetched, obtuse. Not to mention, not-so-sustainable. If you’re so caught up in trends that you need to constantly update your wardrobe, the clothing selection’s rentability will diminish faster than your wallet and green cred.
Two sites that bridge the gap nicely are Mine for Nine for maternity rentals and thredUP for kid’s clothes. While we obviously don’t want y’all getting pregnant just so you can rent some flexi-pants and OshKosh B’goshes, it makes sense to quit buying clothing for rapidly changing bodies.
Amy Twigger Holroyd approaches fashion with sharing in mind. In one project, she created garments that could be shared by friends with different body types. By making clothes that don’t constrict in places where people vary the most, a size six could potentially share her sweater with a size 16. Yep. Her project basically takes the magic out of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (Unless you count buying a pricey sweater with the express intent of sharing it with friends a different kind of magic, which I certainly do.)
But Holroyd’s projects go beyond one-size-fits-all couture. Her PhD research on “fashion as a commons” is an exploration of how to democratize and disrupt the clothing industry. “If you’re not able to make, you’re dependent on buying,” she says. “And if you’re dependent on buying, you’re dependent on what those people [in the fashion industry] have chosen -- the quality of it, the design of it, the aesthetic of it.”
And so, under the umbrella label Keep & Share, she teaches folks how to fix and knit their own clothing, creates and sells long-lasting, sharable clothing, and hacks into cheap knitwear to send a message about the industry. Thanks to the independence of PhD funding, Holroyd is trying to figure out how to make this work in the real world without, you know, tanking her business in the meantime.
Holyroyd has been working and thinking about sustainable fashion since 2003 and describes her job as “designer-maker-researcher -- lots of hyphens.” I was curious about Holroyd’s experiments and called her up. Here’s our edited conversation.
Q. I first came across your work with sharable clothing inFashion and Sustainability. Judging from your website, your work is much broader than that.
A. My design philosophy has always been about trying to help people get more out of each item of clothing, but to do it in a gentle way. There are some approaches like creating clothes to be multifunctional -- it’s one thing then it transforms into something else. Whereas, I have always tried to take a more gentle approach. I try to create things that can be shared between purposes. So a garment which you feel comfortable and happy wearing in different situations. And also things that can be worn by different people so they can be handed down over time.
I've known for a while now that the real action on sustainability is happening in cities -- other than Washington, D.C., that is -- but a few months back, it came to my attention that many of the people leading the charge are women, often young ones.
While higher-up positions in city government are still skewed in favor of men, sustainability directors seem to be more evenly split between the genders. Because most sustainability director positions have been created in the last 10 years, there isn't the same good-ol’-boy hierarchy in place. And due to the fact that the field is so young, so are many of its practitioners. Take, for example, Katherine Gajewski, who was just 29 years old when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter asked her to head up the city’s sustainability department.
Inspired by the women who are leading the sustainability movement in cities big and small, I created Knope and change, a series named after Leslie Knope, the main character in the popular television show Parks and Recreation. Knope, played by the estimable Amy Poehler, is a mid-level bureaucrat working in her city’s parks department. She loves her city, works tirelessly to improve it, and never lets bureaucracy discourage her.
Over the course of the past five months, I found a lot of Knope-ish energy in the burgeoning field of urban sustainability. Although there are still female sustainability directors out there deserving of a profile, my compatriots and I felt 15 interviews were enough, so with this post, I'm wrapping it up.
I realize how lucky I’ve been to write this series -- talking to passionate women from around the country was like taking a carbon-free trip every week to a new city. I wish every young writer could do the same. I wanted to share a bit of what I've learned, in case you haven’t read and reflected on every piece. (Of course, you’ve read every piece. Right? Right?)
THE THINGS I LEARNED FROM THEM
1.When you’re building a new field, you need all the help you can get.
“Sustainability” is such a broad term -- and the resulting city policies and programs are just as wide. A sustainability director must be versed in local food, energy efficiency, waste management, and public transportation. “You have to be ADHD” to do the job, jokes Oak Park, Ill., Sustainability Manager K.C. Poulos.
The village of Oak Park might seem indistinguishable from its neighbors. A suburb on the western edge of Chicago, it shares a street grid with the city and a sustainability plan with a bordering village, River Forest. But this community of 50,000 people has a historic character all its own -- and is the hometown of an impressive range of talent, including Homer Simpson voice actor Dan Castellaneta, Ernest Hemingway, actress Betty White, political advisor David Axelrod, and journalist Tavi Gevinson.
Last year, Oak Park bundled its residential electricity accounts and went out to bid for a new energy supplier. Not only did it end up with a more favorable rate, but the deal included 100 percent renewable energy credits, adding 170 million kilowatt-hours of wind power into the regional grid.
And now, the village has volunteered to be a testing ground for “smart grid” technology that could someday revolutionize the way we generate, transmit, and use electricity. And we’re not talking about just smart meters here -- rather, a thoroughly digitized, completely transformed system that is tied into a network of renewable sources like wind and solar, and is capable of “self-healing” during storms and outages.
“Literally every piece of equipment along the way changes,” says Oak Park’s sustainability manager, K.C. Poulos.
The project, which will include a network of small solar-electric systems on residential roofs, is projected to cost between $5 and 6 million, and half of the cost will be covered by the Korea Smart Grid Institute. Oak Park is working with the International Institute for Sustainable Design to secure funding for the rest.
I talked to Poulos for Knope and change, our series about the women behind green changes in our city governments. Here’s an edited version of our conversation about their smart grid experiment. Hat tip to Oak Parker Doug Burke for the suggestion.
Q.Why are you working with the Korea Smart Grid Institute?
A. They did the demonstration on an island in South Korea called Jeju Island. It's kind of like their Hawaii -- it's a resort area. They were able to put up a demonstration that showed how distributed generation like solar can be connected to a network operations center. All of these houses got battery storage so when you weren't using your solar power in the house, you could store it in a battery system. When the grid on that island became overloaded with demand, the network operating system could send messages to those households saying, “You need to use to your battery. We're going to take all of the energy from your solar panels for the next four hours and put them right on the grid. And then we will send you a check next month. Thank you very much for letting us buy your power for four hours.”
A few months ago, an Austin writer took to the pages of the New York Times to fret about the fate of his city. Austin, it seems, is getting too big for its famously weird britches. Not too long ago, an older gentleman fond of wearing high heels and a thong in public ran for mayor three times, Richard Parker wrote. Now, Austin has a Grand Prix racing track, restaurants teeming with celebrities, and yuppies crowding out families.
“[I]n the wake of the Armstrong debacle, it’s hard not to think that pride does, indeed, go before the fall,” Parker wrote, referring to longtime resident Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year amid growing allegations that he cheated. “Hopefully, Austin can handle success without letting it go to its head; after all, that is precisely what destroyed the hometown hero.”
Parker painted a lovely, nostalgic portrait that simultaneously made me want to preserve Willie Nelson’s old stomping grounds and move there myself, furthering the problem. And indeed, to use Parker’s analogy, Austin is growing like it’s on steroids. The city’s population increased a whopping 51.1 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Is it possible for a city to grow quickly and retain its character? Can they keep Austin Austin? Lucia Athens, the city’s sustainability director, hopes so.
A Texas native, Athens grew up going to Sierra Club protests and outings with her father, who was chair of the San Antonio chapter. She learned the necessity of community organizing and why it’s important to get out in nature. “If you’re never out engaging with it, you never understand what you’re in danger of losing,” she says.
While she was well-trained in the old green tactics of protesting and planting trees in front of bulldozers, she saw a chance to effect change in a new way. “The green building movement became an opportunity to leverage something that was going to happen already in a better direction,” she says. She helped craft Austin’s first green building program in the early '90s before spending 10 years turning Seattle into a LEED case study. In 2010, she returned to Austin.
I talked to Athens several times over the phone for Knope and change, our series on the women working hard to green our cities. Here’s an edited version of our conversations:
Q.With SXSW's ongoing success and Austin’s perennial national reputation as a contender for coolest city, is Austin a victim of its own success? Is it possible to stay weird while getting big?
A. I think that’s the big conundrum. We’re experiencing very significant growth and we will be into the foreseeable future. That’s partly because we do have a very high quality of life here and a pretty good hip factor. We have a lot of young people who want to move here. We have a lot of jobs. With all that, it’s good for the economy, but we have to manage that increase in growth and population. That’s where we are going to be butting up against issues related to mobility, transportation, air quality, water. We’re trying to do a good job of balancing economic development and [population] growth with environmental protection and measures for quality of life. But there’s a long way to go. We just adopted a comprehensive plan that uses sustainability as its core principle, [and] it’s a pretty significant guiding document, [but] there are cranes all over town. We’re really trying to focus on steering that new development in the right direction and figuring out how we’re going to maintain the quality of life we have now with such a big increase in our population.
Q.How have you been able to steer development and population growth?