BETH FITENI ARTICLE
Sierra Club Environmentalist of the Year Questions-Beth Fiteni
You’ve devoted your life to environmental activism – as a consultant, radio host, activist, presenter. What led you to this career of educating others about the environment and green practices? Why do you feel it is so important?
I have always known since I was a little kid that I wanted to be an environmentalist. I remember always loving animals and it broadened into caring for their environment, and I had a natural affinity for science. I remember the first time I realized that I wanted to be an advocate for the environment —I was looking at a National Geographic book about birds, and was enthralled at how beautiful they all were. The last chapter focused on threats to birds and their habitats, and for the first time I saw a picture of a bird covered in oil from an oil spill. In that moment I knew I had to do something to stop that from happening, and that basically led to my whole career.
Tell me about your consulting business Green Inside and Out. What are your main business goals in terms of educating others both for their home and business? Any consulting success stories you can share?
The main goal is to help people understand that we are all part of “the environment,” as opposed to thinking of it as something external, something “out there.” Our bodies are made up of our environment so when the environment gets negatively impacted so do we. In buying products for our homes that are convenient purchases, but hazardous to our health, we are polluting the spaces in which we live.
Products we use on our body or our lawn, or to store our food, or to paint our walls can end up negatively affecting our health, if we don’t choose wisely. It’s not only our health that is impacted—but also the health of the people who make these products. I often think about the workers in factories who make toxic products, or the farm laborers who spray chemicals on their fields. We truly are all connected. When it comes to energy use, people need to realize that when they simply flip their light switch or get in their SUV, that has a direct impact on air quality for all of us, but people aren’t making those connections when an immediate cause and effect isn’t apparent.
I believe very strongly that people need to realize the concept of cradle to cradle instead of cradle to grave. In other words, when you choose a product or use energy, to think about how it was made, how its use will impact the earth, and how it will be disposed of. For example, is it biodegradable? Will it ultimately become soil that nurtures, or will it end up in a landfill as waste (the “grave”)? I like to leave people with a sense of empowerment—knowledge is power, so once you know about alternatives you can slowly make better choices and incorporate them into your daily life. This is what I try to do with my radio show and blog—bring forth positive solutions and focus on what people can do to make a difference.
There is always the debate about strategy—do we focus on government regulation or do we try to make personal differences through our individual actions? I have always felt that we deeply need both. There is a lot more to being an environmentalist than just recycling (though that matters too).
As for a consulting story, I was honored to advise the landscaper who was part of designing chef Bobby Flay’s LEED certified home in the Hamptons. He was seeking to establish an organic landscape from the soil-up, and the family was interested in learning about how to generally avoid toxins in the home.
In that regard, what are the most common “chemical culprits” found at home and elsewhere (i.e.: pesticides, cleaners, plastics etc.) and what are some alternatives to these products?
This is the part I find the most exciting—I have found a greener alternative to almost everything a person would normally have in their home. So many great companies have emerged as a result of more awareness and out of a desire to do lessen the impacts of products, but most just don’t yet have the fortunes to be able to put advertising on our TVs and billboards, so it’s a matter of knowing to seek them out. For example, I have a mattress stuffed with organic cotton and no synthetic fire retardants, and my towels and sheets are either organic cotton or bamboo. There are tons of body care products that don’t contain phthalates and parabens like most name brand department store versions do. Instead of plastic storage bowls that contain phthalates, use glass or ceramic instead. Instead of plastic wrap I use wax paper. Instead of using a conventional dry cleaner that uses the carcinogenic solvent Perchloroethylene (“perc”), choose one that uses a wet cleaning system (there is a list of these on greenInsideandout.com). Baking soda, vinegar, or other bio-based cleaners can be used instead of bleach and caustic cleaners that are full of toxic “fragrances.” Instead of toxic pesticides, any good nursery these days is carrying organic alternatives. And of course, whenever you can conserve energy, do so, and wherever renewables are appropriate they should be implemented. There are multiple programs being offered by the state and local utilities such as Long Island Green Homes that people should be making more use of. Other states are not as progressive as NY so we should take advantage of programs while they exist.
Likewise, what are some steps you’ve taken or encouraged in regard to reducing our dietary carbon footprint? (i.e.: meat, dairy, shipping etc.)
In my public presentations, social media, and mainstream media outreach, I have tried to help people understand the massive impacts of their dietary choices. I taught 2 classes at Molly College focused on food ethics, and tried to get the students more engaged in this awareness. It is an area where I think there is a huge amount of public education that needs to take place. The difficulty is overcoming our past comforts and all the paid advertisements from the meat industry which don’t show the truth of what goes on behind the scenes. Since the 1980s, there have been multiple studies, books, documentaries, and articles on the numerous ways the modern meat industry impacts our environment in terms of climate change, water quality, and air quality, not to mention issues of humane treatment of animals and workers. The research is there. I am encouraged to see more of the environmental community embracing this. Having worked for an the Farm Animal Rights Movement long ago and volunteered for Farm Sanctuary, HealthyPlanet, Slow Food and supporting groups such as Vegan Outreach, Fish Feel, Compassion Over Killing, United Poultry Concerns, and the Vegan Living Program over the years since then, I see two parallel movements just waiting to become more united.
With your background in environmental law, what federal, state and local Long Island issues do you foresee as being in the forefront now, and going forward? How can fellow conservationists get involved to combat (or support) these issues?
Climate change, and related infrastructure and energy issues such as gas exploration and pipelines should be at the forefront of federal policy. Also, I think genetically modified foods should be of much more concern in national press coverage. Many groups work on both of these issues and need our support. I see renewables, fracking and storm preparedness being at the top of New York State’s agenda. In terms of regulating toxic chemicals, there is a wonderful coalition called the JustGreen partnership made up of over 50 organizations working on legislative efforts to protect communities from toxic exposures. In Long Island, the current major issues are water quality and clean energy. Having worked on clean energy (efficiency, solar, wind geothermal etc.) for about 15 years now, I am encouraged to see some fresh blood and groups organizing to speak up and keep the pressure on to create this future for LI. We are all shaping the outcome, and should not be discouraged. I would just encourage people to take the time to know the facts, and to understand the complexities. Issues are not black and white, and decision-makers will take advocates more seriously when they understand the nuances and can bring value and solutions to the discussion. I think that collaboration ultimately will lead to more success.
You’ve also co-created educational materials to raise awareness about children’s environmental health. Tell me about the impact that has made.
For this opportunity I must thank Karen Miller of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition who has been the vehicle for so much work on environmental health to take place on Long Island. Thanks to Karen we were able to get grant money via State Senator Carl Marcellino to develop educational materials for children. Together with a committee including medical and public health advisors from the Children's Environmental Health Center (CEHC) at the Mount Sinai School of medicine, our work resulted in a beautifully designed, fun and attractive set of tools for kids including a game, coloring book, and set of “choose/avoid” index cards for mom and dad. The LEAP kits focus on Lead, Endocrine Disruptors, Air Pollution and Pesticides (L.E.A.P.) and can be found on Ribbet.org. The kits are distributed via the Children’s Environmental Health Centers of Excellence across NY State and are available at speaking and outreach events we participate in. For this LEAP kit our team was awarded the regional EPA’s Environmental Quality Award in 2010.
Environmentally speaking, what are your future plans and hopes for Long Island, and globally?
On Long Island and globally, I definitely hope all advocacy groups continue to work collaboratively, to help spread awareness to more people, and that we can be savvy about using the media effectively to make positive solutions more common. For example, I have been filming short educations segments with Fios1 on green issues. I think more outreach should include people in low income communities and also those who do not speak English. Spanish was my minor in college, and I have offered a few presentations to Spanish speaking groups and written articles, and would love to be more of a catalyst to bridge connections. Demographics are changing and I hope that the environmental movement grows to be even more diverse. In general, I see myself as a connector working behind the scenes—a lot of what I spend time doing is connecting good people who share similar goals with each other, so I hope it has a multiplier effect.
I hope globally that we all come to realize the incredible urgency of addressing climate change, and get all countries on board with solid commitments, and that we can educate more people about the science behind climate change, and the ways in which we can address it. . We need to learn from what progressive countries like Germany and Denmark are accomplishing with clean energy. (In this regard, I want to thank Gordian Raacke, my colleague and mentor, and a former Environmentalist of the Year, for being an inspiration to me and so many others.)
I also would like to see more global standards on toxins. Europe is far ahead of the United States, and most countries are far behind us. It should not be the case that people living in other countries work in factories where they are exposed to chemicals, especially while making items sold here in the U.S. for very low compensation. Businesses are motivated by money, so externalities need to be internalized economically, such as calculating the “Social Cost of Carbon,” into the value of renewables, I think we collectively need to keep our eyes on the win-win prize of economic activity tied to planet preservation.