Author David Mahood speaks to us ahead of his panel this Sunday (July 28) with Frances Moore Lappé
This year, environmental activism is on the agenda of the Porter Square Books “Be the Change Community Action” series, a “civic engagement program to provide … resources to those who want to make change at all levels of government and in society in general.” This Sunday (July 28), three speakers from different generations with varying perspectives and philosophies on green living—longtime activists and authors David Mahood (One Green Deed Spawns Another) and Frances Moore Lappé (Diet for a Small Planet), and Alex Figueroa of the Sunrise Movement—will discuss climate change from 3 to 5 pm. BINJ sat down with Mahood ahead of the event to discuss his own personal journey to becoming a climate change activist.
You asked a lot of people what their one green deed was. What is yours?
My one green deed is to share my story and the story of others to get people to accept the responsibility that we all have and to provide a certain amount of motivation. My green deed will always be to make sure that others see complacency is a problem and to help them understand we have a moral responsibility to preserve the planet. I want to make sure others’ voices who aren’t being heard, or need to be heard, are shared and maybe in some small way I can say I’ve made a difference.
You were in the furniture-making business for a long time—can you tell me how you transitioned from such a corporate business into advocating for environmental sustainability?
It struck me that I was in a business that wasn’t very environmentally forward and was different than my burgeoning interests in the environment. I became very dissatisfied not being directly involved—it was a crossroads and I realized that if I was going to really follow my passions, I needed to do something relevant in my career, which then allowed me to start my own business, pioneering commercial furnishings. At that stage no one was really addressing sustainability or looking at it from a product standpoint.
We don’t always get to choose what our careers are right after college—I just happened to go into commercial furnishings—but in hindsight now I look at it and I realize that was a good training ground to see if businesses were ready, suppliers were ready, people were ready because there are a lot of steps that go into making a piece of furniture, there are a lot of hands involved. It was interesting to begin conversations about sustainability and green products and ultimately making an impact. I had to look deeply inside to see how I could make a difference and could I make an impact in the business, but would it also satisfy my environmental expectations and passions.
At one point in your book you touched on one moment of conscious awakening to sustainability, can you speak a little more on that?
I go back to one specific article that I was reading about how endangered sea turtles were. You would think that’s totally irrelevant to what I was doing as a career, but I began to connect all the dots in my mind—why were we endangering sea turtles? They’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They need land and water and we seem to have an abundant amount of that. It seemed to me if we keep making anything and not paying attention to our fellow species and our joint habitat, then we are going down the wrong road, and I didn’t want to spend one more day going down that road.
How did you go about bringing sustainable business practices into your company, Olive Designs?
There wasn’t a guidebook or a playbook at that time; it was simply trial and error. I read a lot about what people were saying about what it was going to take to have an ecological balance between production and goods. For me, I looked at the bigger picture—that triple bottom line on sustainability—and said, how do I factor that into a business? I wasn’t going to simply compromise just to have products out in the marketplace. Sustainability really needed to be the foundation of the operation. As a result, I got involved, but getting like-minded suppliers back in the late ’90s wasn’t easy. Most of the time I had the door shut in my face or they would ask me absurd questions like, “Does anyone even care about this?”
I just tried to think about how to reduce the environmental impact when making anything and to ask the bigger question: Do you have to make something? Is there another option already in existence and is it a product that’s going to be worthwhile to make and inspire people to look at things differently? Those are some of the philosophical questions I had to answer if I wanted to start a business and ask other people to question their own practices.
Thinking about super-consumption, as a green consultant, how do you begin to approach people about changing the way that they live when consumerism and a throw-away culture are built into the American lifestyle for so many?
It really doesn’t matter where you live, we are consuming, we’re consumers; one of the things I talk about is, where does the responsibility for those products lie? When you go to buy something, we’re all looking at the price tags, who doesn’t? Yet, we pay no environmental price tag. I always say, it really is critical that we place responsibility where it belongs: on the originator of the product.
It’s somewhat ingrained in our capitalist market that we are going to consume and we’re all going to make money by consuming goods consistently. With that comes a certain environmental price.
When I talk to companies that don’t have any kind of top-down approach to sustainability, it’s quite a challenge as a consultant to help them really understand what their role is. I try to explain that sustainability is not a marketing campaign, it’s a corporate philosophy that will lead them forward. It’s not something they will ever truly achieve because they are working towards being much more sustainable with their products and practices.
The positive that always comes out of those conversations is that you end up getting much more integration of a successful business because most people want to know what a company stands for. I make it very clear that there are really only two roads going forward: One comes to an end and the other continues on, endlessly. If you have no sense of your environmental responsibility as a company, your road’s going to end pretty quickly.
There’s a lot of information available on how many industries are not practicing sustainability, but there still seems to be a willingness to consume regardless of environmental impact. How do you explain this disconnect?
As long as we have the ability to consume without paying any environmental price tag, this problem is never going to go away. Our system doesn’t understand that there is a price with consuming natural resources. We don’t pay that in the bill and we don’t pay it in disposable, but any product that uses natural resources has to factor that into their costs to move towards a truly green economy. For example, when we look at what we consume in the US and how we have somewhat abdicated our manufacturing capabilities, we didn’t bother to factor in a green standard for how products where going to come into our country’s marketplace despite the fact that we set up a global economy which relies on other nations to produce our products. So of course, resource consumption isn’t factored in, of course we are still consuming products that are unsustainable. Until we come up with a system where a product truly pays its environmental price tag, this will never change. It isn’t that I want people to stop consuming; I want them to stop consuming blindly.
How do you get people to start taking those first steps towards environmental sustainability?
We talked earlier about that epiphany that I had. When that journey began I happened to meet some very amazing people that had such a unique philosophy when it came to the environment, sustainability and democracy and I thought it was important to share stories. One Green Deed was really meant to be shared. By inspiring others to take of a green deed and share it sounds very simple, but people get inspired be ideas that seemingly anyone could do, that they’re not doing
We all have roles to play and we all have green deeds in us. It’s important to connect with others around us and not get overwhelmed by the problem.
How do you see organizations like the Sunrise Movement fitting into the new era of environmental activism?
What’s great about Sunrise and some of the other youth-based groups is that they provide a fresh voice—when we see them we are looking into the faces of the future, and they’re concerned. I see these youth-based organizations as the biggest catalysts for change right now. It’s great that we have people like Frankie [Frances Moore Lappé] and me out there doing things, but it’s going to be these youth-based movements who change things.
It’s very difficult to look at them as someone who could be their father’s age or their grandfather’s age and say, “Oh, you’re just being silly,” because we didn’t give them another choice. I see the engine of the future right there in Sunrise, and Extinction Rebellion, and all like them. And how lucky we are that they’re out there fighting for change. It’s hard, we’ve been at it for 25 years. And if it takes a Sunrise Movement to get to a point where we don’t create total climate catastrophe, then I’ll do whatever they need me to do.
What are some things that people who are just starting to get into the climate change movement can do to as their own green deed?
First and foremost is to be active. There is no time to sit on the sidelines. If there is one thing you can say is positive about having an anti-environment president [it] is that he’s gotten people active. For anyone that wants to get involved, seek organizations that are like-minded—we can’t sit this one out because there won’t be another chance. Certainly, as an author I’m always going to advocate reading. Read! The information is there; believe in science because there are a lot of amazing people who have written about climate change issues. But mostly, get active, find a way that suits you to support our future on this planet.
David Mahood is the author of One Green Deed Spawns Another. He founded Olive Designs, one of the first sustainable furniture making companies, in 1998. Mahood currently runs his own consulting business working with companies in the furniture and hospitality business on cultivating eco-friendly businesses. He is currently working on his second book.
BE THE CHANGE COMMUNITY ACTION: CLIMATE CHANGE. 7.28. 3-5 PM. PORTER SQUARE BOOKS. 25 WHITE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FREE. CO-SPONSORED BY DIGBOSTON AND THE BOSTON INSTITUTE FOR NONPROFIT JOURNALISM. PORTERSQUAREBOOKS.COM/EVENT