Overcome by eco self-loathing, writer Henry Alford turns to a “green life coach” for help in becoming more environmentally conscious.
Fifteen minutes before the eco coach arrived at my New York City apartment, I frantically pored over all the food in my house in search of anything that would make her like me. I rifled through my kitchen cupboard like Keith Richards at a medicine cabinet. Seizing the one organic thing I could find, a bag of sugar, I anxiously placed it in a prominent—no, a wanton—position on my kitchen counter. It looked about as unassuming as a nuclear explosion.
It is not Maggie Wood’s intention to make her clients frantic. Rather, the 28-year-old, Long Island–based “green designer and lifestyle consultant” is simply looking to reduce their carbon footprints. (Wood is also an architect—most of her work focuses on making building and renovation projects more ecologically friendly.) This new career category has sprung up in reaction to a burgeoning amount of greenwashing, or false claims of eco-correctness, in the marketplace. It’s hard to know how to be environmentally conscious about food, especially fresh food. So I asked the peppy, instantly likeable, six-foot-one Maggie to spend an hour in my New York City kitchen and give me some pointers.
Maggie’s first piece of advice was to replace my old, electricity-guzzling refrigerator, which she called “an energy pig,” with an Energy Star–qualified one. She also suggested that I buy a filter for my water tap and replace my ordinary garbage bags with biodegradable BioBags, which are made from corn. She urged me to be especially vigilant about buying organic when it comes to foods that generally test high for pesticides—such as strawberries, peaches, nectarines, peppers, lettuce and spinach. And she recommended I link up with a local farm by buying its produce through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. We discussed the aggravation of having to decide whether it’s better to buy food that’s transported from California on a tractor-trailer or from South America on a more energy-efficient boat; when the locavorism-preaching Maggie confessed that she herself buys Italian olive oil and Spanish vinegars, I couldn’t help but blurt, “Caught ya!” “There are problems with being a locavore,” Maggie acknowledged. “Like, what do you do about coffee?” (She suggested buying Mexican, as it is most proximate.) She urged me to avoid eating canned foods altogether, buying only ones from Eden Organic when necessary. Unlike other canned goods, Eden’s are not lined with plastic containing Bisphenol-A, a chemical that studies have shown may be linked to obesity and prostate and breast cancer.
To Maggie’s credit, she was able to suggest this overhaul of my life without making me feel like an eco-slob. Her bedside manner is patient and calm; she wields a velvet hammer. And when she complimented my choice of organic sugar, I felt alluring and dewy. I wished I could tell her that I sun-dry all my produce for winter and that my floorboards are sustainably hewn from kiln-fired reindeer dung. Instead I told her, “I’m Al Gore trapped in the body of Julia Child.” She smiled knowingly.
But then Maggie had her freak-out. She opened the cabinet door underneath my sink and screeched, “What is this?” Reader, if you, like me, have a pet, you may be familiar with the work of genius that went by the name “the Shampoozer.” It’s a plastic bottle of rug cleaner with a brush built into its top so that you can apply cleaner and scour at the same time. Maggie seized the Shampoozer as if it were a hairpiece that had fallen into a toilet. Glancing over the list of harsh chemicals, she gasped, “Holy smoke! Is this even legal?” She implored me to replace my Shampoozer with either hydrogen peroxide or Seventh Generation kitchen cleanser, into which I should add 10 drops of grapefruit-seed extract—a clear, odorless liquid that looks like airplane glue. We made an appointment to talk again in a week.
After Maggie left, I made soup with some sorrel she’d given me from the organic farm she lives on with her husband, and contemplated the task before me. Getting a new refrigerator and installing a water filter were more than I was prepared to do, and joining a CSA, like fixing the ceiling in the guest bathroom, is something that I know will happen very, very soon—like, yesterday.
But over the next week, I shopped for as many organic foods as I could find within a 10-block radius of both my home and office. It was easy and not hugely more expensive than what I’d normally buy (and knowing that Maggie was “watching” definitely helped motivate me). But if I was going to do my ecological bit, I’d need to expend a little more energy and cash than is my wont. I bought two cans of Eden Organic beans. When I found them on a shelf at Whole Foods next to items put out by Walnut Acres, Health Valley and Muir Glen, I wondered why all organic food brands sound like sanitariums. The only BioBags I could find were also at Whole Foods and were too large for my non-leaf-raking lifestyle, so I ordered some online. The $5.99 shipping-and-handling charge was irritating to me, but the bags were wonderfully slippery and baby’s-bottom soft. When I asked a tall, skinny Whole Foods employee for grapefruit-seed extract, he led me to the vanilla- and almond-extracts section, whereupon I explained that I was going to clean, not bake, with it. His mouth said, “Whole Body department,” but his expression said, “I pity you.”
My first big success came with restaurant take-out containers. Because my boyfriend and I often order take-out for dinner, our apartment is a way station for small plastic containers. So, taking one of Maggie’s suggestions, I nervously approached my local Thai restaurant one night bearing two Tupperware containers. When I asked a shy, sweet Thai waiter if he’d put the two curries I’d ordered into my Tupperware, he said, with some slight internal drama, “It’s complicated for us.” I told him, “It’s for the environment.” Lifting the two pieces of Tupperware to chest level, he bowed twice as he said, “Environment, environment.” Five minutes later, he brought the curries out from the kitchen in my Tupperware. “Did they give you a hard time?,” I asked. “No, no complications!” he cheered. I had similarly good experiences at a deli and a sushi bar (although the sushi chef, somewhat rattled by the transaction, forgot to give me any wasabi or pickled ginger. I thought about pointing this out to him, but my brain flashed, “Possible hara-kiri.”)
My second success centered around a guitar-size coffee stain on the sisal rug in my office. Having found that Seventh Generation cleanser spiked with grapefruit-seed extract was, in fact, an effective kitchen cleanser, I tried some on the coffee stain. It worked well. But so did hydrogen peroxide. As did the Shampoozer. What to do? I threw the liquid that was in the Shampoozer away and filled the bottle with a mixture of Seventh Generation, hydrogen peroxide and 10 drops of grapefruit-seed extract. Success. At last, a “responsible” cleaning cocktail.
I talked to Maggie a week later to report on my progress. We discussed BioBags and my food containers (Maggie: “Nice!”). She mentioned that she likes to put a few drops of grapefruit-seed extract into orange juice when she’s coming down with a cold. She said she would send me a sorrel tart recipe. But it was the repurposed Shampoozer bottle that was the jewel in our conversational crown. “I think that’s great!” she enthused. “You might want to make your own label.”
Which of my planet-saving measures will stick? It’s all very well to pay someone to monitor, or be, your conscience, but when no one’s looking, who are you? I will continue to buy organic foods and BioBags, but only if they’re at the stores I already shop at. I will try to buy noncanned versions of the two foods (beans and soup) that I normally buy in cans. When I buy a new refrigerator, I will look at Energy Star ones. But I will not cart my Tupperware around town anymore, as it makes me feel like Mother Courage.
Maggie’s greatest legacy in my life is definitely stain-related. I’ve taken her advice and made a label for my artisanal cleanser. I needed a name. I briefly contemplated the Grapefroozer, Citrusbomb and the Strong Arm of Nature, and I had a three-day romance with Rugbitch. But in the end, the name I’ve chosen reflects the fact that making my product requires trips to two stores and the purchase of an obscure seed-based extract that fetches $10.95 for two ounces. I call my baby An Inconvenient Cleanser.
Henry Alford writes often for the New York Times. His book about the wisdom of old people, How To Live, is due out in January.