We spoke with Alexandra Zissu (as we are often fortunate to do around here), eco-obsessed journalist, mom, speaker, and consultant. Alexandra has written for many publications including The New York Times, and Huffington Post, and has authored Planet Home, The Conscious Kitchen, The Complete Organic Pregnancy, and The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat. Here are her thoughts on being green in the city, the army she’s creating, and her own eco sins.
You didn’t take up writing until after college, so what did you want to be when you were growing up?
A French soap opera actress. Not kidding.
As someone we value as an incredible leader in being “green,” do you have an eco-sin?
I’m on a plane as I answer these questions, which feels sinful. But I fly very rarely. I find myself in cars more often during the summer than I’d like to; I love being outside and so tend to go upstate. But I’m rarely in a car during the rest of the year, so I tell myself it evens out.
With so many products claiming to be eco, natural, and green, how do we know what’s actually good for us, and the planet? Which brands you trust?
I think it’s a matter of putting on your green goggles and being a smart, conscious shopper. Whether you’re buying toilet paper, a new couch, or toothpaste, look for third party certifications that you trust, read ingredients (and avoid products that don’t list any!), and avoid last minute random purchases. Steer clear of ingredients you cannot pronounce or understand. Rely on people who have done the research for you–like certain online databases for safer products, cosmetics, and more. There are tried and true materials that are known to be safe (think glass instead of plastic)–so look for these over and over again. Consider what you don’t need as much as what you do think you need–the less stuff you have, the less exposure there is to potentially harmful substances. Embrace durability over things you know will break and quickly wind up in the landfill. Vote with your dollars for products made from renewable and recycled resources. Clean with and slather your body with ingredients you think are safe enough to eat. Eat things that safeguard your health–as well as farmers’ health and the health of our shared land. These general principles will really guide anyone through the sea of products currently available. For what you don’t know enough about, do a little research. Consumers are really guinea pigs. In the absence of stronger regulations and better labeling, it is unfortunately up to us to do some research from time to time. Once you know that, it’s easy to make better choices. And call up manufacturers if you have questions! The more they hear from conscious consumers, the better.
It can be hard for anyone–me, included–to tell the difference between a marketing claim and a true certification. There is, for example, no U.S. government office of what is “microwave safe” or “BPA-free.” But when you see those on a bottle, they feel trustworthy. So does the word natural, also largely unregulated. This is upsetting as clearly these things should have meaning. But once you know they don’t, you’ll be on your way to questioning claims put on products to make consumers feel safe.
Knowing how to figure out what is truly green is like learning a language. No one is fluent right away, but with practice, it’s totally doable.
I don’t generally name brands, though there are some named in my books. And if I’m working with a brand, I’m up front about that. I prefer to help people get to a point where they can understand how to cut through the claims and find the trustworthy brands themselves–I’m helping create an army of conscious consumers who will demand the right things.
You’ve been called “green goddess” and “green culinary queen.” Do you like and agree with those titles?
I’m tickled and flattered by them! Agree? I don’t think I’d ever refer to myself as a goddess or a queen, unless playing dress up with my daughter.
Is it hard to be eco living in New York City? Do you think it would it be easier in the country?
There are amazingly green aspects to urban living. Public transportation galore! And I hardly even take the subway or the bus — I walk everywhere. I love that. Living in a large apartment building offers energy efficiency and more. I have incredible access to local foods at farmers’ markets. That said, the food from the farm needs to be trucked in from the country. Some urbanites have outdoor space, which I sadly do not, so I can’t grow any of my own food or keep chickens–which I’d like to do. I can compost though. I find eco living in New York City easy, but then again I’m a goddess. Kidding! (makes us want to come to NYC now!)