Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thepurplebook is going green - interview with Ian Anderson, co-author of the Green Edition

What do you do when you want to buy a shirt made of organic cotton or organic shampoo? If you're lucky, you may have Whole Foods or a local store nearby that offer green products. For many, the best option will be to search for these green products online.

Hillary Mendelsohn, the founder of thepurplebook, and Ian Anderson have published last month a guide made especially for these eco-conscious online consumers - thepurplebook Green Edition. It includes a list of the 400 or so best earth-friendly stores currently doing business online.

The Green Edition of any guide is a great news and especially when it's an online shopping guide such as thepurplebook. I decided to learn more about the new book and interviewed Ian Anderson, one of its co-authors. Ian is a multi-tasking author and web-savvy beatnik with a softspot for grass roots environmentalism. He surfs online and off, traveling extensively and looks forward to an endless summer, just so long as it doesn't come at the expense of the earth's climate.

What brought you to write a green edition of thepurplebook?

I've been interested in doing a green edition since Hillary Mendelsohn first established thepurplebook back in 2000. Pinpointing the best online shops was a great and necessary idea, and tying it in to my environmental interests seemed like a natural fit, no pun intended.

We've been gathering research on various eco-friendly shops all along, but it's only been the past couple years that have really seen green commerce flourish on the web. And boy has it. Between regional brick-and-mortar stores that finally established sites and a new generation of socially-conscious businesses entering the marketplace, we found more than 2,000 shops striving to embrace the green economy. The timing finally seemed right to sort out the best and say, "Okay, which of these are going make a difference?"

Can you tell us what you can find on the book and what makes it unique in comparison with other green guides?

Primarily, we feature the 400 best online shops offering eco-friendly goods, plus 20 others that were just too good to leave out. These sites might offer products made from recycled content, all-natural health and personal care items, goods made with fair trade or fair labor policies, organic foods, fashion and furnishings made from sustainable materials, renewable energy sources and plenty of other low-impact wares. Obviously, that's a lot of ground to cover. Which is why the first two chapters of the book examine the basic concepts and challenges we face as eco-savvy consumers.

We try to answer questions everyday shoppers might have, like how to decipher the meaning of different organic labels, or which natural fabrics have antibiotic qualities. Several books approach these topics with greater depth, and a lot more science to explain it. What makes thepurplebook Green Edition different is that we're not just trying to tell you how to shop green, but also showing you where to go to find these items we suggest.

We also kind of avoid speculating about doomsday scenarios in favor of a more optimistic, even funny vibe. I mean, we're not so much trying to point out the problem as we are trying to offer a solution, and the last thing green-minded people need is another lecture.

Who is the main target market of your book - new greenies or people who already buy green and look for more resources?Is it fair to say both?

It's definitely true that someone with little or no prior eco-awareness could pick up this book and, within a month or two, drastically reduce his or her day-to-day impact, and with very little effort. But I am also sure that even the most seasoned environmentalist has something to gain by browsing our list of shops. I personally gleaned a lot of new knowledge just by researching what's out there. I'd considered myself to be fairly green going into this project, but today I am a decidedly deeper shade.

What did you learn on the green market throughout the work on the book?

First and foremost, the green market is growing, and I am proud even to bear witness to that. There are thousands of dedicated individuals out there, working alone or together to bring more innovative, sustainable products to the light of day. I've spoken to a lot of them, and their commitment to our planet runs deeper than any passing media interest or publicity plan. Which is to take nothing away from the large companies that are coming around and committing their vast resources to sustainability - without them we might just be whistling in the wind.

But one aspect of the book that Hillary and I both relish is the opportunity to support the smaller businesses, which are often family-owned-and-operated. It's kind of stimulating, the idea that, here in the 21st century, there is still room for an entrepreneur to start something on a small scale and have it really succeed amid all the fierce, multi-national competition. But some of these small outfits are really on to something, and we look forward to watching as they establish themselves as the foundation for a new, greener economy. Sounds a little lofty, maybe, but some of these shops are pretty inspiring that way.

Is the book only encouraging people to green up their shopping or also to reuse and buy less when possible, as two other green consumerism alternatives?

I'm glad you ask that. Of course, our chief aim is to promote shopping alternatives, but we also stress the notion of maintaining and recycling what you already own; reusing things such as bottles and bags; minimizing packaging; reducing household waste; and-though it sounds counterintuitive in the context of e-commerce-buying local when possible.

When applicable we mention where in the country a shop is located so our readers can choose to minimize the energy costs of delivery on common terms they can't find at home. We do also offer a special rating for those sites that have adopted recycled packaging and/or carbon neutral business practices.

Another facet of green shopping we like to endorse is the simple act of buying products made from recycled materials. Our culture's gotten pretty good at sending cans and bottles to the curb, but a lot of our outbound recycling still sits in landfills waiting to be reused. Many of the business we've highlighted repurpose used materials in fascinating, ingenious and even fashionable ways.

What's the green shop that made the most impression on you?

Wow, that's tough. I guess, as a writer, I am particularly drawn to a site called It offers journals and stationery made from Lokta paper, which is made from the leaves of a bush native to the Himalayas. As a single bush may be harvested every two-to-four years, these fair trade tree-free paper products are fully renewable as well as durable and quite beautiful. Then again, I happen to be fond of blank pages.

I could also point to sites offering green travel accessories or rechargeable batteries. Someone else might be more interested in furniture made from retired oak wine casks. We've tried to include a variety of lifestyles and interests.

How important you find the role of green consumerism in fighting climate change and other environmental problems?

Oh, I'd say it's of paramount importance. Like it or not, businesses take their cues from consumers, so it's the people paying dollars who need to initiate the change. I think there's been a perception that the free market has been prohibiting the change to a green economy, which is true to the extent that a lot of bad business practices have not been corrected. But once we, as shoppers, show support for green concepts, and make sustainable products profitable on a larger scale, adopting environmental business practices will ultimately be seen as good business sense.

Short of an act of congress, it's hard to imagine existing companies making any lasting, across-the-board changes otherwise. And since politicians themselves seem slow to respond.. Well, I'll leave it at that or I'll wind up giving one of those lectures I mentioned. It's a tough pitfall to avoid when you're trying to promote a cause.

As a green guide for online green businesses, it seems only natural to have an electronic version of the book online - are you planning to have one anytime soon?

Yes. We currently offer a free subscription to, where you may browse and search past editions of thepurplebook for a host of web shops covering dozens of categories. Although our online selection of green shops is currently limited, in time we will find a way to incorporate more earth-friendly selections to this service. For now, it's all about putting the book in peoples' hands. Paper still seems to carry a lot of weight over the net when it comes to ratifying ideas.

How about the footprint of the book? is it printed in an environmental-friendly manner?

Both thepurplebook Green and our other recent release, thepurplebook Wedding, were printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper.

What's next? what's your next project?

More books in the works, and further expansion of our web site. Our Fifth Edition of the Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping is due by the end of the year. This will cover a lot more ground than the Green Edition, including categories on art, entertainment, travel and more.

thepurplebook will continue its mission to bring the best of online shopping to light, and given the all-around stellar performance of some of our favorite eco-friendly retailers, I'd anticipate seeing a heavier green component in this, and all subsequent editions. The hope is that, one day, the term 'green shopping' will be redundant.

Thank you, Ian!

Raz @ Eco-Libris

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