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Green teen reaps rewards of eco-friendliness
Marin County teenager Erin Schrode is a bit like Elle Woods, the gorgeous and bubbly character in "Legally Blonde." Like Woods, Schrode is beautiful and vivacious - and not to be underestimated. Erin Schrode is on a mission to get harmful chemicals out...
Where Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, campaigned in the "Legally Blonde" sequel to outlaw animal testing in cosmetics, Schrode is on a crusade to get harmful chemicals out of beauty products.
The 18-year-old - who moonlights as a model and was recently featured in Seventeen magazine - has testified before the California Legislature, helped found a national coalition called Teens Turning Green, and started an eco-friendly body care line now sold in Whole Foods stores nationwide.
Erin packs her last two suitcases from the floor of her bedroom with clothes before she heads to New York to start college. Photo: Brant Ward / The Chronicle
At the end of August, the "ultimate green girl," as she calls herself, was one of five teenagers from California honored for her activism and impact. She received $36,000, to be applied to college or to her activist work.
"As a teenager, there was a point where I thought, 'Hey, I'm just a kid. What can I accomplish?' " Schrode said, sitting in her home in Ross. "I've answered that question. I went to Sacramento, looked lawmakers in the eye and told them why I thought it was important to take lead out of lipstick and chemicals out of products teens use every day."
Laughing, she added, "When I began this journey, I had no idea what a powerful voice I possessed and that I can use it for the greater good."
Beauty products are but one part of a "whole eco mind-set," notes the teen, who lists offending everyday cosmetic contaminants such as parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, and petrolatum like other teens trade gossip.
Head to toe
Schrode, a long-limbed brunette, is green from head to toe, from hair products to nail polish, from the toothbrush with 100 percent recycled materials that she uses to the organic bedding she sleeps in. Her garbage bags are biodegradable. Her back-to-school supplies consist of 100 percent post-consumer waste. Her iPod docking station is made of sustainable bamboo instead of plastic.
Even the family dog drinks filtered water.
"I think for my generation, being green is hip," Schrode said. "It's cool. It's not the granola-hemp-Birkenstock-hippie-thing of the past. And it's only becoming more mainstream."
For Schrode, who was raised primarily by her mom, Judi Shils, a former television producer turned environmental activist, eco-consciousness started early.
"There were no plastic bottles that went to kindergarten with her," Shils said. "When other kids pulled out their packaged Lunchables, Schrode had a ball of mozzarella and a tomato. As a child, she always went to the farmer's market and talked to the farmers."
Schrode nodded. "I liked to know who grew my food. I remember being in preschool and telling everyone about pesticides."
Teens Turning Green
In 2005, when Schrode was 13, she and her mother started a group called Teens for Safe Cosmetics, which would eventually become Teens Turning Green. Schrode invited friends to her house and asked them to bring their favorite beauty products. With products in hand, she consulted with a chemist and came up with "The Dirty Thirty," an easy-to-use resource listing the most egregious chemicals found in commonly used products.
"I asked my friends, 'Is this what we want to put into our bodies?' " Schrode said.
The same year, she lobbied before the state Legislature in support of the California Safe Cosmetics Act, which passed. Then in 2008, she was testifying again, this time before an Assembly hearing in support of a bill to remove lead from lipstick sold in California. Schrode told the legislators, "As a teenager, I should not have to choose between beauty and health. And if there is a way that I can reduce the burden on my body, I choose to take that action."
The bill was narrowly defeated, but Schrode's group, Teens Turning Green, is talking with legislators in hopes of getting a similar bill introduced.
In recent weeks, though, Schrode's focus has been on preparing for something else monumental - college life. She is attending New York University, and will use her $36,000 award to help pay her tuition.
Shils gets teary eyed talking of her daughter's cross-country move. "As a newborn, Erin just appeared so wide-eyed and ready to take on the world. She's my best friend. She's a good girl. It's her time to shine. She will change the world - or keep changing it."
Schrode returned from NYU for the Aug. 31 award ceremony and private luncheon held by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which selects five teenagers each year for the $36,000 award. Helen Diller and husband Sanford are philanthropists who live in Woodside.
"This is our third class of students," said Phyllis Cook, a philanthropy consultant who has worked with Helen Diller and her family foundation since its inception. "Helen is committed to recognizing teens and giving them encouragement. This award is based on merit, rather than need. It's about encouraging young people in their ideas and energy."
Schrode, who calls herself "such a dork," and likes to hang out with friends, blast Lady Gaga and sleep until noon, acknowledges she has few "eco-sins," as she puts it.
"I search for eco-friendly products until I find one I like," she said.
Mother and daughter laugh recalling a recent conversation about college life. Shils had asked her daughter what she planned to do with her newfound freedom.
"I told her I might use a microwave," Schrode said. "But I told her not to worry. I will only use it to heat Amy's Kitchen organic frozen dinners. And I promise not to heat anything in a plastic container."
Online: For information on the national coalition Teens Turning Green, go to www.teensturninggreen.org.