Tomorrow is the March for Science, coincident with Earth Day. I’ve been a fan of the “Every Day is Earth Day” mentality for a long time and so to recognize this particular Earth Day as unique, is a mindshift. It is unique. It is a day to focus on the direction we want to go.
To that end, I dialogued with multiple-award-winning eco-Interior Designer Tracey Stephens of Tracey Stephens Interior Design, Inc.: EcoSmart Kitchens & Baths about recent proposed cuts to the US federal government’s Energy Star program, operated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the direction in which we might choose to go as a result of such cuts. Tracey’s passion about the March for Science and the overlap of our interests in green design spurred us to a dialogue about those proposed cuts around the corner for the EPA.
These are our back-and-forth questions and answers.
Maia: Tell me in a couple of sentences about your work.
Tracey: Using my 25 years of interior design experience, I help homeowners bring their vision to life by creating kitchens & bathrooms that reflect who they are and how they really live. From space planning to selecting cabinets, tile and other finishes, my goal is to turn the daunting task of renovation into a fun journey. And with my background in green design, my interiors make the planet happy, too.
Maia: What kinds of products do you specify?
Tracey: I specify both building materials such as non-toxic stone sealer, formaldehyde-free insulation, and LED lighting and finish materials such as cabinetry, appliances and tile. I find my clients are eager to choose healthy products that don’t harm the environment so my job is to stay informed and share with them what’s available. I refer my kitchen clients to appliance showrooms — the technology changes so frequently I rely on my network of experts to help them. People also really want to avoid adding to the landfills so I coordinate donations of items like old kitchen cabinets or bathroom sinks to places like Habitat For Humanity. If something is too worn or broken I use a construction debris recycling company that grinds up materials into either alternative wood fuel (lumber and paper) or road paving materials (toilets, tile, concrete).
Maia: How do you use ratings systems as a guide for making product recommendations to clients?
Tracey: Product information can be very technical and vetting very time consuming so I rely on ratings systems evaluations. I prefer 3rd party certification to guide my decisions on what to recommend for example Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that cabinetry lumber has been responsibly harvested and GreenGuard for indoor air quality. But I have not found FSC certified kitchen cabinets within my New Jersey 500 mile radius so I buy from companies who participate in the Environmental Stewardship Program of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (2nd party certification).
Maia: What do you think of the Energy Star rating system? How have you used it in the past?
Tracey: I’m a big fan of the Energy Star program. It’s an easy way for the average person to compare products while shopping. In a nod to the program’s popularity and recognition, many websites now have a search function that allows the buyer to select only Energy Star products.
Since its launch in 1991 starting with rating light bulbs, the voluntary program has grown to include office equipment, heating/cooling, audio/visual equipment, windows and appliances and even certification of buildings. Since 1992, the EPA reports that the Energy Star program has helped families and businesses save an impressive $430 billion on utility bills, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 billion metric tons.
Maia: What options do you see available instead of using the Energy Star system?
Tracey: If there is no independent rating system then the average consumer will have only the information from a company rating its own product which I do not feel confident about. Trade associations will likely step up with more 2nd party certifications. Consumers and designers will still want to know about the environmental impact of the products they’re buying.
Maia: How do you feel about the proposed elimination of the Energy Star system?
Tracey: Protecting the environment used to be a bi-partisan issue with wide support. The EPA was created under Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. While not surprising considering Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it is infuriating to hear Budget Director Mulvaney say “We’re not spending money on [climate change] anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” The Trump proposal to slash the EPA budget by 31% and eliminate 56 of its programs is short sighted. As part of the Climate Protection Program, the Energy Star program is on the chopping block, along with the Green Power Partnership (encouraging the use of renewable energy).
Fortunately there are many manufacturers, states and countries who have committed to sustainability regardless of which US administration is in power. For example, California will not roll back fuel economy standards.
Maia:What recommendations do you have for other designers in light of this proposed change?
For designers who care about sustainability, and honestly that should be all people everywhere, it is time to become an environmental activist.
If the federal government is going to roll back protections and programs we need to push our state governments to step up. I’m very hopeful about the state of New Jersey right now. An exciting new broad-based coalition of labor, faith, social justice, community and environmental organizations has launched Jersey Renews to urge our NJ elected officials to act now in support of climate justice, clean energy and good green jobs. And the People’s Climate March on April 29 in DC is going to be massive! We have at least 6 buses going for the day from Montclair. Click here to sign up to join a bus ride to Washington this weekend.
Maia: What recommendations do you have for legislators in light of this proposed change?
Maia: What could be an upside to this proposed change, that others might not have seen yet, and that you have a unique perspective on to share with other design professionals? What is your big picture scenario?
Since so many of us feel under attack, we are galvanized and energized to act.
Maia: There’s one last thing I would add to your big picture thinking scenario, and it comes directly from your website. It’s quote from Sufi poet Rumi, and I think if we step out with this attitude blazing forth, we will find a path to a new system, or way of thinking of these systems:
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now. -Rumi