It Isn’t Easy Being a Green Mom

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Employees hand out free reusable grocery bags at a Whole Foods Market natural and organic foods stores which is ending the use of disposable plastic grocery bags in its 270 stores in the US Canada and UK on Earth Day, April 22, 2008 in Pasadena California. Little changes can go a long way in living "green." David McNew/Getty

I’m the type of mom who rolls her eyes at plastic containers with BPA; who will not feed her kids anything but gluten-free, no-added-sugar, 15-grams-of-grain bread; forces them to walk or bike to school; shocks them by saying that fish are dying when they waste water while brushing their teeth; and shames them to tears when they waste food on their plate.

It's okay to laugh. It's also okay to roll your eyes. But I am committed to providing a sustainable, responsible, balanced and healthy lifestyle for my family, and doing my share for the environment and community in three ways: as a mother, an employee and a citizen-consumer.

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Life as a Green Mom

Johnson & Johnson (#17 in the 2015 Newsweek Green U.S. Rankings; #2 in the Pharmaceutical industry) products like baby powder, Q-Tips, Band-Aids, and shampoos are part of every mom’s shopping list — including mine. Those extra wary of their environmental footprint can choose from one of the 30 products in J&J’s Earthwards portfolio of environmentally-conscious health care and pharmaceutical products.

The prescription medications, vitamins, lotion, sunscreen, laundry detergent, dishwashing soap are essential ingredients of daily life, and almost all connected with Dow Chemical (#134 U.S.) and related subsidiaries. Dow is currently seeking to become “net positive” for the environment by 2025, by producing three times more clean water and renewable energy than it consumes in the future.

Our kitchen is filled with Kellogg’s (#67 U.S.; #6 in the Food Products industry) Fruit Loops cereal that my kids eat in the morning, as well as tons of stuff from General Mill’ (#47 U.S.; #5 in the Food Products industry): Cheerios cereal, Cascadian farm products, Annie’s pasta, Green Giants frozen vegetables, and Häagen-Daz ice cream.

Even though I can spend my entire month’s paycheck on one grocery shopping trip to Whole Foods (#149 U.S.; # 2 among Food Retailers), I prefer to shop there for the quality of food and for the fact that it leads all other grocery stores except CVS (#16; #1 among Food Retailers) in the Green Rankings on energy, water and waste productivity. I am also driven by the company’s commitment to creating economic partnerships with poorer farmers in the developing-world communities that supply their stores.

There are challenges. On days when I get home from work on the late side, Chipotle (#428 U.S., last in the industry category) is a good option to take the kids for a dinner as they serve food that is organic and GMO-free. I also get an opportunity to educate my kids on how to recycle and how to separate compostable. Chipotle’s salad bowls and napkins are made from recycled newspaper, which makes them compostable. Chipotle also provides separate recycling and composting bins.  Despite all these actions, Chipotle does not report to outsiders on the details of the environmental impact of their business, nor link it to executive pay explicitly, whereas, for example, even McDonald’s (#163, #2 in the Restaurants industry) does. Our choices are influenced by various factors, and to me healthy and organic food trumps environmental reporting, so I am sticking with Chipotle.

Life as a Green Employee

Bracing for my daily 45-mile commute to work, I often find myself wishing I had a gas-free Tesla (#364 U.S.; but lagging well behind Ford and GM in Automobile industry rankings) to be more green. But I take pride in my efficient Volkswagen (#189 Global, #1 in the Automotive global industry) Jetta to the office.

My job is the head of sustainability for the University of Texas, and I earn my paycheck by making the workplace green and sustainable, and by working to educate students, faculty and staff on how to be more eco-conscious about all their actions. In 2010, UT-Arlington adopted a green procurement policy in to buy recycled paper from companies like International Paper (#235 U.S., the only paper company ranked); we also use waste-management contracts with companies like Republic Services (#276 U.S., which lags behind, for example, Waste Management Inc., #217, on the Green Rankings, partially due a higher intensity of fossil fuels.)  

Pepsico (#136 U.S.) meets the student’s demand for beverages on campus and helps with recycling efforts on campus by providing recycling machines — but could definitely be more efficient when it comes to water, energy and waste, especially compared to competitor Coca-Cola (#33, #2 in the Beverage category).  UT-Arlington also has energy management programs supported by Siemens (#15 U.S) to monitor, control, and conserve energy for 110 buildings on campus.

Life as a Green Citizen-Consumer

I have ample choices as a U.S. consumer. But the products that stand out to me and have my loyalty are the ones made by companies clearly aware of the social and environmental issues, and which have sustainability woven into their supply chain.

For example, I wear Nike (#52 U.S., #1 in the Textiles and Apparel industry) shoes both because they are comfortable and reliable, and because their manufacturing processes uses water-based glues that are safer for employees handling them and less toxic to the environment. Then there are the Apple (#12 U.S.; # 1 in the Technology Hardware industry) iPads, iPhones and laptops, and Hewlett Packard printers and ink (#40 U.S.; #2 in Tech Hardware) that serve our family.

Like most people, I succumb to the siren song of chocolate on occasion. Hershey’s (#6 U.S.; #1 in the Food Products industry), the U.S.'s biggest chocolate maker, is working to bring the full benefits of sustainable farming to West African cocoa farmers it currently buys from. For me, Keurig Green Mountain coffee (#14 U.S.) and Nespresso by Nestle (#130 Global) are the greener answers to the long lines at Starbucks (#218 U.S.) coffee shop in the morning.

Often, I do make purchasing decisions out of convenience. Luckily, many of those places that are easiest to shop at are also environmentally conscious, including Home Depot (#124 U.S.; #3 in the Specialty Retail industry) and Kohl’s (#121 U.S.; #2 in the Multiline Retail industry. However, my patronage at Macy’s (#323 U.S., below average in Multiline Retailers) and Amazon (#414 U.S., tied for last in Internet Retail) may need to be reconsidered given their lower green performance.  These companies need to build greater trust by disclosing their use of natural resources and how they manage environmental issues.

Ask and Receive

Our society can become more green and sustainable if all of us — beyond Millennials and moms — think more about how we use water, fossil fuels and other natural resources. We can help make the planet more habitable and hospitable by making better choices about what we buy, where we work, how we raise our families and how we invest. What we produce as a society will impact the environment, from manufacturing to disposal. If we step back, we should be able to see the social, environmental, and technical systems of which each and every product is a part. This can help identify new possibilities for innovation, and create a substantial social and environmental impact.

The good news is that a shift in thinking is already happening: climate change, rising seas, declining air quality, shrinking animal habitats and lengthening droughts are all real concerns like us driving consumers to connect the dots back to their own purchases and habits. And companies are responding by focusing on reducing their environmental impact. Ask and you shall receive.

Meghna Tare (@meghnatare) is a Texas mom, Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington, and MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School.