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The kids are alright: Erin Schrode helps teens go green

I am an avid reader of Grist, a go-to for environmental news. It was an honor to chat with them about my start and where lasting change begins: with youth!


by Darby Minow Smith

Teens are terrible. I might get flack for saying that, but who among us wasn’t awful? Ask your parents, teachers, and siblings: They’ll confirm you were a raging sack of hormones, sadness, and confusion. (I’m not immune to my own assessment: Picture a Dave Matthews Band superfan in ill-fitting khakis, with the heart of Genghis Khan. See? Total nightmare.)

So expecting paragons of selfishness to care about anything outside of themselves — much less the fate of an entire planet — would seem beyond the realm of possibility. It’s certainly easier to throw up your hands, grumbling “Kids these days — amirite?”

But in order for the green torch to be passed down to the next generation, we should make some attempt to appeal to the young’uns. Thankfully, there’s Erin Schrode: She’s been wading into that teenage wasteland for the last nine years as the co-founder of Teens Turning Green. And she believes, contrary to previously stated expert opinions, [deep breath] teens aren’t terrible. Or at least they aren’t any more terrible than the rest of us.

We’re all a little self-centered, she says. Yes, introducing sustainability to teens in today’s climate has its own issues. “Why should I have to suffer for something my dumb parents did? The older generations messed the world up for me,” she says, playing the devil’s advocate. “If they did it then I’m going to do it too.” But Schrode has found a receptive and curious audience by approaching green issues in ways teens find palpable.

Teens Turning Green started when Schrode, then 13, discovered that the makeup she carried in her pencil case contained trace amounts of lead, formaldehyde, and other nasty ingredients. She launched an effort to educate other teens about personal care products, and soon her group of 13- and 14-year-olds traveled to local school campuses to collect the offending products. Meetings were held around her family’s kitchen table.

Teens Turning Green Executive Director (and Schrode’s mother) Judi Shils has always played a very active role in the group and her daughter’s activism. When Shils was pregnant with Schrode, she read Diet for a Poisoned Planet. By the time Schrode’s father came home from work, Shils had transformed their Bay Area house into an organic haven. Glass replaced plastic. Goodies from the farmers market filled the fridge. Cleaning products were swapped for lemon and vinegar. “It was the world into which I was born,” Schrode says.

By the time Teens Turning Green came along, sustainability was on the cusp of changing from a crunchy way of life to a hot-button, mainstream issue. In the past nine years, the group has grown to encompass outreach and initiatives on sustainable ag, fashion, recycling, dorms, transportation, and more. And they stay very busy.

In September, the Conscious Kitchen launched. The kitchen is a brainchild of Shils, who was horrified to learn a Marin City school had remodeled their kitchen to better heat and serve processed food rather than cook fresh ingredients. Teens Turning Green worked with local chefs, bakers, farmers markets, and foundations to design a local, healthy, and affordable lunch program (95 percent of the students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch). At the beginning of the school year, the 120 students started receiving breakfast, lunch, and a light snack for $5 a day.

Teens Turning Green finished its third annual Project Green Challenge at the end of October. During the month, 2,710 participants were asked to attempt a different sustainable challenge every day. The topics ranged from fashion to tech to Meatless Monday and were ranked from green to greenest. For example, calculating your water footprint was a green challenge — but drawing up a plan to get your campus to ban single-use water bottles was a “greenest” challenge. Participants were encouraged to blog, tweet, or Facebook about their challenges and reach a wider audience.

Schrode sees social media as an important tool to connect with teens. But she says “technology is not going to save us and technology is not going to doom us.” On the one hand, it can be used to connect like-minded teens in podunk towns. It can build movements and educate consumers. On the other, she’s wary of “slacktivism” or people feeling like they did their part by signing a petition or liking a Facebook page. Plus, she thinks everyone staring at screens all the time has “humanity going through a bit of a funk right now,” she says.

Growing up pushing the green movement set Schrode on an interesting path. She speaks at high schools and colleges regularly. Teens Turning Green works with more than 600 campuses and estimates reaching 100,000+ students in 2013 alone. Schrode consults with corporations — from Seventh Generation to Apple — about greening their efforts. The first time she showed up, they wanted to discuss millennials. “What’s a millennial,” asked Schrode? She insists she’s not helping them craft greenwashed messages for teens and only works with companies who want to make real, green changes in their supply chains. But that means occasionally working with businesses she grew up avoiding. “That’s very difficult for me,” she says. “It’s even harder for my mother. She’s a hard, hard, hard, hardcore activist. She called me a sellout [for working with Coca-Cola on EKOCYCLE] which battered my heart.”

But to Schrode, getting corporations to change is key to sustainability. Government moves at a “frightening and paralyzing” pace. And, she has high hopes for her generation. Growing up with technology, she says today’s teens have “the potential to become the most civically active, aware generation in history.”

Plus, teens have a potential that moms and dads just don’t have. “If a parent comes home and tells you to do something, you say, ‘Hell no — my mom’s telling me to do that.’ It’s not cool,” she says. On the other hand, if kids get excited about an issue, “they go home and tell their parents. I’m not a mother but I can imagine having my teenage kid tell me something mattered to them. It would really affect me in a big way.”

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