What happens when a makeup-loving, environmental activist teenager learns that the cosmetics she uses are harmful to our bodies and the planet? For Erin Schrode it meant the beginning of something big.
The 20-year old NYU student co-founded (along with her mom Judi Shils) Teens Turning Green, a “student-led movement devoted to education and advocacy around environmentally and socially responsible choices for individuals, schools, and communities.” The organization, which Schrode founded when she was just 13, has lobbied for safer beauty products, launched its own line of eco-friendly cosmetics and initiated tons of grassroots programs — from Project Lunch, which promotes healthier and more sustainable school lunches, to a 30-day Project Green Challenge, which encouraged students to transform themselves from “conventional to conscious” consumers.
These days, between classes, a budding modeling career, speaking at conferences and international travel, Erin works as Teens Turning Green’s spokesperson. Somehow amidst her busy schedule, she found a minute to speak with Repair the World about the hidden dangers of conventional cosmetics and clothing, what it’s like to work with her mom and best friend, and why the Jewish value of tikkun olam has always been her “bottom line.”
What’s your background with service – is it something you’ve always been passionate about?
When my mother was pregnant with me she read the book Diet for a Poisoned Planet and it changed her life. She went completely organic, bought local foods, and gave up plastics. Growing up my mom also consulted with the California Coastal Commission, so clean up days were a big part of my life.
In 2002, my mom went to a meeting with a friend who had just finished chemo and found that the cancer rates in our county, Marin County in northern California, had some of the highest cancer rates in the country. My mom, who had been a television producer for most of her career, launched an organization called Search for the Cause that did different studies to find out why the cancer rate was so high. One major connection they found was our day-to-day lifestyle choices, particularly beauty products. That really hit home for me as a 13 year old girl. I loved my mascara and other cosmetics, and had no idea their ingredients could negatively impact my health. That realization was really the impetus behind the organization, and our entry into the non-profit world.
How did you come to found Teens Turning Green?
The movement really grew from there – we quickly realized that we couldn’t stop at cosmetics. Take fashion, for example. Cotton is one of the most pesticide-laden crops in the world. It’s aerial sprayed, which means those pesticides end up in the ground water and into farmers’ bodies. So we started thinking about how can we re-purpose, up-cycle and recycle – not just with plastic and glass, but with clothes. How can we move away from our society’s dependency on single use and disposable goods? How can we break our addiction to “fast fashion?” Teens Turning Green grew out of questions like these, and has brought these ideas to high schools and colleges around the country.
What sort of work have you done?
One of the first things we did was to lobby for legislative change. I’ve gone to the capitol multiple times – starting from before I was old enough to vote – to talk about safe cosmetics and green chemistry. You need both grassroots consumer awareness and also political sway to shut down bad practices. We also work with companies to make change directly and create alternative beauty projects that answer the question, “so what should we use?” Teens Turning Green worked with seven companies and had beauty products in 300 retail outlets.
In 2009 I started college at NYU and did a project called Project Green Dorm, which got students thinking about their entire space – bedding, decor, lighting. We even had a pop-up store – it was a ton of fun. We now have Teens Turning Green chapters at campuses and high schools all over the country.
Our most recent initiative was the Project Green Challenge – a 30 day challenge to move participants from conventional to conscious. It was all about changing your mindset. Every day there was a different theme for the challenge – energy, water, personal care, locally grown food. Over 2,600 students from 510 high schools and colleges participated and it was a ball.
Do you still work directly with your mom? What’s that like?
My mom is the co-founder and Executive Director of Teens Turning Green and I’m the co-founder and spokeswoman. We have 1 or 2 other staff members depending on what projects we’re working on and an army of amazing interns, but this is really our project together. Luckily she’s my best friend and we’re great collaborators. She’s a total dreamer who comes up with insane ideas. I’m an executor, and help make things happen. It’s amazing what we’ve accomplished in just 7 years with almost no staff and not a huge budget.
Do you feel that young people have a particular responsibility to promote and live sustainability?
Yes, I think we have a huge responsibility. We’ve grown up with buzz words like green and eco – they are in our system. And the social and digital media tools we have are unbelievable. Never before have we had this ability from our bedroom or our dormroom to speak to the masses and impact tangible change. We’re much more aware globally and nationally than other generations – so it’s a really rich and exciting time to be working for change.
I also think today’s younger generation is particularly poised to make a big impact. I’m part of One Young World a global forum that brings together 1,300 young leaders from 170 different countries. The organization brings incredibly inspiring, powerful people – like Kofi Annan, Jamie Oliver, and Desmond Tutu – to speak to the young leaders and impart their wisdom, but also to listen and support us. The truth is that people, even world leaders, really when listen when young people open their mouths and are educated and articulate. They want to hear our point of view for the future.
Where do you see Teens Turning Green growing next?
The growth is very organic and driven by the campaign members – it’s an ever-renewing crop, which is part of what inspires people to get involved. It’s really cool to see how teens and college students have really different interests and passions, and our goal is to support them and provide resources and connections to help them do the legwork. In that respect, the Green Challenge was so exciting because it reached so many new audiences – we want to bring it to an even bigger national scale so the most possible people can know that they can “be the change.”
Do you connect the work you do with your Jewish heritage and spirituality?
Absolutely. Tikkun olam is my bottom line for everything. I don’t always actively think about it, but my Jewish identity informs everything I do.
How do you balance your school commitments and your non-profit work?
I don’t really sleep! I studied abroad last year in Ghana, spent time in Israel and have traveled many times to Haiti in the last year and a half. I go to a lot of conferences to present and moderate panels, and I love every single thing I do. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel so passionately about this work . Not only does it fulfill me and feed my soul, but I honestly feel like it’s making a difference, and that I’m impacting people and the environment for the better. Sometimes I just have to crash of course. But for the most part it’s great work, it’s a great world and I have incredible people to collaborate with.