What work do you do?
I am the owner, along with my wife Sandrine, of the Washboard Eco Laundry in Portland, Maine.
How does it relate to the environment?
We have attempted to create a new model for the coin-laundry industry by designing our business around the goal of minimizing the environmental impact of cleaning clothes. We accomplish this goal in several ways: we use a solar system to generate the majority of our hot water; we have the most energy-efficient washers on the commercial market (all front-loaders); we have a comprehensive recycling program; we only sell detergents from bulk containers to reduce packaging waste; and we sell several natural, non-petroleum-based detergents and fabric softener and only offer a non-chlorine bleach alternative, called sodium percarbonate. In partnership with another local cleaner, we offer wet cleaning, which is a water-based alternative to chemical dry cleaning. Our building was remodeled using many local and low-impact materials and includes lots of windows for natural lighting, a radiant floor-heating system, four times the typical insulation found in commercial buildings, and a high-efficiency lighting system.
What are you working on at the moment?
My current project is to design a heat-recovery system for our dryers that will allow us to recoup some of the energy that is being wasted by exhausting 130-degree (Fahrenheit) air out the back of the building.
How do you get to work?
I ride my bike nearly every day, and if I have too many deliveries for my bike trailer to handle, I use our diesel VW Golf.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up on an organic family farm that my parents started from nothing more than fields and woods. This childhood experience made me an environmentalist and activist from an early age. I’ve spent most of my professional life working in the public sector, serving several terms in the Maine legislature, running a nonprofit alternative-transportation advocacy group, and coordinating environmental programs at Bates College.
About five years ago I decided to try something creative in the private sector, and applying my experience with solar and energy-efficiency led me to a laundromat. Frankly, I didn’t really consider that this choice would mean doing tons of laundry; I was excitedly focused on all the opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of cleaning clothes.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in the quaint village of Kennebunkport, Maine, before the election of the first Bush filled the town with tour buses. After trying out a few other areas on the globe, I ended up in Portland.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
The most stressful was going deep in debt to start this business and then having our new machines fail in major ways. I spent the first year of operation dealing with lawyers, machine manufacturers who were slow to take responsibility, and the creditor who would have gladly taken our house had we not been able to make the payments.
What’s been the best?
Seeing how popular this business has become. People have responded overwhelmingly to what we have created, and I am sure that we would not have made it in our competitive market if it were not for the environmental and community focus of the business. I am now even more convinced that making genuine environmental protection a cornerstone of a business generates deeply loyal customers who recognize that doing business with you has benefits far beyond the direct transaction.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I get very annoyed by people who claim that we can solve the terrible environmental problems facing our planet with “greener” technology. Certainly there is an important role for things like renewable energy and recycling technology, but I see far more evidence that technology ultimately leads to more consumption — and consumption is the fundamental problem. At some point, we’re all going to have to accept that people need to live simpler lives with less stuff, if the planet is to recover. Ultimately, that simplicity will be forced upon us by the limits of Earth’s resources, but it is not going to be an easy transition. The hope that technology can save us seems to be eating up precious time by softening our will to downsize our consumption habits.
Who is your environmental hero?
Jim Hightower has been an inspiration to me. I first heard him speak many years ago when he was Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and I was just starting my short career in politics. His sharp wit, strong ideals about local agriculture, and simple way of explaining even the most complex issues gave me hope and kept me laughing.
What’s your environmental vice?
I fly to France once or twice a year to visit my wife’s family and vacation. I do plan to start buying carbon offsets, which should make eating Camembert and baguette nearly guilt-free.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
Before I started the business, when I had free time, I spent most of it outdoors, kayaking Casco Bay, hiking in the White Mountains, and cross-country skiing the Maine woods. Now I just think about all that while I clean laundry. I do take time to read, and am currently enjoying Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. David Sedaris remains one of my all-time favorite writers.
What’s your favorite meal?
Lobster cream sauce on homemade ravioli with a mesclun salad from my parents’ organic farm, and my wife’s chocolate cream for dessert.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I loathe American-style consumerism. I just finished folding clothes for a family that had 50 pairs of brand-new infant socks for one baby! To me, this is a clear example of the false idea that “quantity = happiness,” which sadly seems to dominate the psyche of many Americans.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Acadia National Park in Maine is one of my favorite areas, but there are so many places to love.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Based on the theory that some human behavior can be changed by rewarding good choices and punishing bad ones, I would institute a carbon tax at the federal level. I think that the biggest challenge humans face in saving our planet is that there isn’t much incentive for the individual to significantly change behaviors, because each of us contributes such a tiny bit to a huge problem. Taxing consumption based on its carbon impact might help people make a connection between their choices and the impact those choices have on global warming.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I try to watch TV as little as possible and only get one French satellite station anyhow. As for movies, Napoleon Dynamite is one of my recent favorites.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
The only movie stars whose names I can remember are likely to be long gone before the screenplay for my life is written.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Hang dry your clothes. Dryers are energy hogs, and they make it easy to own and wear way too many clothes, needing too much closet space, in a too-big house.