Should we be more generally conscious rather than self-conscious? This is the question raised in the latest issue of Ever Manifesto, an eco-conscious publication initiated by London-based duo Elizabeth von Guttman and Alexia Niedzielski. For the occasion, H&M teamed up with the magazine to launch its new eco-friendly, Spanish-inspired Conscious Exclusive collection, which will be available in 150 H&M stores worldwide as well as online (with a few select pieces at yoox.com). The range of clothing and the stone-paper-printed issue were launched together last week in Los Angeles. The issue’s awesome cover, a chimpanzee sporting a bindi, was orchestrated by Belgian artist Carsten Höller, whose comment on animal self-consciousness was inspired by Gordon Gallup Jr., a seventies evolutionary psychologist. A few people featured in the magazine attended the L.A. event, including myself. Past the meet-and-greet typical cocktail-hour chat, I was looking for a more substantial conversation with someone truly interested in the topic. I found that in Brooklyn-based food-loving model/soon-to-be organic farmer Elettra Wiedemann. I was not disappointed.
I heard you’ve been an active environmentalist for a while. When and how have you become conscious of the fact that our world is going through an environmental crisis?
My love and concern for the environment started as a child because I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE animals. When I was little, there was a big push to “Save the Whales,” and from there I learned about whale hunting, ocean pollution, environmental degradation, etc. Then it seemed like everywhere I looked, animals were under threat because their homes were being polluted or destroyed. I have also always been a very active person…. My father and I would go on long hikes and camp when I was little, and it used to make me so sad to see garbage in a beautiful forest or along the coast of a pristine beach.
You are a food lover like myself! Where did this passion come from? Is it hard to reconcile the love of food with a modeling career, which demands constant restraint?
I started cooking because of modeling. I was never concerned with looks or my weight as a kid! I was more concerned about playing outside. When I started modeling, I had to figure out how to keep my weight within a certain range, and so cooking for myself became a way that I could eat my favorite foods and control what was being put into the meal—olive oil rather than butter, for example. Then I went to the London School of Economics for my master’s degree and wrote my dissertation on the future of feeding urban populations. It was in my research that I discovered how incredibly wasteful the global food system is, and how much I had been a part of that. It really made me sick and humiliated to think of the damage I had participated in without realizing it. My studies really changed my approach to food. It used to be something I had to restrain and control; now it’s something I am thoughtful about, celebrate, and am grateful for every time I sit down for a snack or a meal.
Do you agree that if we change the way we eat it will have a substantial impact on the environment long-term? What advice can you give to people on choosing what to put on their plate?
Absolutely. The food system is one of the biggest contributors to air, water, and land pollution; soil degradation; and the human carbon footprint. But, as I said in my interview in Ever Conscious, the answers are not always straightforward. For example, being a vegetarian can have a huge positive impact on the environment. But if you are in NYC in the winter and buying fruit and vegetables that are being imported from all four corners [of the world], the carbon footprint is still enormous. You have to think that that piece of fruit is being transported by trucks, planes, and ships; it’s being refrigerated before/during/after transport to maintain the freshness. As Joan Dye Gussow points out in her wonderful book This Organic Life:
“…the high water content of these foods (88 percent of a peach is water) and their tendency to rot if they get warm means we are, in effect, burning lots of petroleum to ship cold water around.”
So if the choice is between an avocado shipped in from Israel versus an organic, free-range steak from a family farm forty miles up the road, and that family engages in environmentally conscious grazing/pasture practices, you are likely better off eating the steak, as far as your carbon footprint is concerned. If you are a vegetarian for animal rights reasons, obviously that is a separate issue. But if you are a vegetarian (as I was) for environmental reasons, the most straightforward answer is not always the right one. It can be difficult to navigate, but making conscious choices does have a major impact.
A corporation like Monsanto (voted most evil corporation in the world) is very powerful in the U.S. and has spread its tentacles to the rest of the world. In your opinion, what can we do as humble individuals to resist this?
Everything in our capitalist system is built on dollars. People underestimate the impact of how and where they chose to spend their money. Of course, there will always be Big Ag to contend with, but if millions of people make a conscious choice to not give money to Monsanto by buying their products, there is nothing [Monsanto] can do about that. That is your right as a consumer in this free market system. What big companies have everyone hooked on is the ease and convenience of their products, which I admit is very seductive and sometimes impossible to resist. But if everyone would just make a little extra effort to research, to walk a few extra blocks to go to a farmers’ market just once a week, all of that adds up and makes a difference to your health, the planet, and your local community.
You have a European background [Elettra's mother is actress Isabella Rossellini], but grew up in NYC. Which culture do you feel the most close to and why?
I always say to people that I feel like a New Yorker, which is geographically and culturally located between Europe and the rest of the U.S.
Do you notice a big difference between the way people eat in Europe and in the U.S.? If so, in what ways?
There used to be a big difference, but I see that it is changing and that’s really sad. Europe still has its precautionary principle in place to protect from things like GMOs, but I think the quality of its foods has diminished over the past decade. That being said, in Europe and the U.S. there has been a wonderful renaissance of small, organic farms run by young people. This gives me a lot of hope.
What are your environmentally conscious actions on a daily basis?
I really try to make conscious food choices in my purchases whenever possible. I also really try not to waste any food. The other night I made way too much spinach and I’ve been using it over the last two days in things like omelets and as a side dish for roasted chicken last night. A few weeks ago, I was making lamb chops and I got worried they were rotten (they looked grayish and smelled a little off). Rather than throw them away, I put them in a plastic container and brought them to my mother’s country house out east. At dusk, I walked out into the woods and threw them into the brush—some eagles or raccoons would have a lovely lamb chop dinner, or they will just disintegrate and become worm food, which in turn enriches the soil for the carbon sequestering plants. I also try to keep my consumption of electricity, heat, and A/C as low as possible. When I travel for long periods of time, I shut down all the electricity in my house that is not necessary, like cable, TV, Internet. If I am gone for more than a week, I’ll also clean out my entire fridge and unplug that, too (harder to do in the summer, though; in the winter I can store remaining food on my little balcony in a plastic bag). If I am in Europe for a job and I have another job a week later, I’ll stay the extra week in Europe and visit friends, or maybe check out a new city and take a train to the next location.
Do you feel sometimes the “environment friendly” label has become a marketing tool for some brands? If yes, how can we distinguish a genuine conviction from a communications stunt, in your opinion?
I think there is no better thing than to read and research. It’s a pain in the ass, but if you are really concerned about these issues, then that really is the only way you are going to be able to cut through all the noise and make choices. Think about it as uploading new software to your brain! I also love NPR podcasts. There are a lot of great shows on NPR that you can research, download, and listen to for free while you’re out on a jog or walking the dog or cleaning the house. For example, “Intelligence Squared” has some great debates on environmental issues like fracking. I am also auditing an online class right now, and it’s really helpful to have the structure of a class and the reading list without the pressure of papers and exams.
What is your most exciting forthcoming project?
I am taking classes now to learn to be an organic farmer, including
soil-balancing workshops, and I am loving it and am so excited!
So you are a good cook. Which are your top-three signature dishes?
My secret vegan pesto, roasted chicken, broiled salmon.