Why I became a teenage eco-warrior

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Environmentalists have shed their poncho-and-sandals image and are now the height of 'cool', says Elen Griffiths

Becoming an eco-warrior was one of the most satisfying and frustrating things I have ever done. Satisfying, because it opened my eyes to man's quirky relationship with the Earth, and made me feel that I could "make a difference". My "making a difference" schemes varied from the reasonable to the downright fanatical. I petitioned for recycling systems at home and school, bought recycled everything, insisted on walking everywhere and grew vegetables in our allotment.

My more bizarre actions included reading in near darkness (unnecessary light wasted electricity) and turning mouldy jam jars into pencil pots (contrary to common eco-beliefs, some things are better off in the bin!).

At one point I labelled every appropriate container in our kitchen with a "please recycle me!" sticker.

Environmental involvement is satisfying because I do occasionally make a difference. I have made speeches on London pollution, which affects me as an asthmatic. I armed myself with my inhaler, some shocking statistics and simple suggestions (like walking to school), and my speech left students breathless. The next day my entire class walked to school, and beaming friends approached me with their bicycles.

The best bit about being eco-friendly is fair trade. All that lovely dark chocolate which you just have to eat because it's so ethically sound. I volunteered in an Oxfam shop last year, and every Saturday I would treat myself to fair-trade chocolate. I worked with several other idealistic teenagers and we had a laugh. It was valuable work experience and gave us a feeling that we were "making a difference". Volunteering for Oxfam was brilliant - something any adolescent can do. I would definitely recommend it to all those lazy teens who spend hours in front of the telly - it far surpasses watching Melissa snog Ryan on OC.

Through Oxfam, I got involved in many fair-trade events. The funniest one involved chasing good-looking guys down the high street with a box of fair-trade taster chocs whining, "why don't you want the fair-trade chocolate? Go on! It's soooo tasty!" Then there was the fair-trade quiz we launched in school, where teachers competed for bars of fair-trade chocolate. The hall was packed with curious students, who left several statistics wiser and chocolate bars heavier.

Being an environmentalist can, however, be frustrating. Preaching about wasting water and saving electricity turns people off. After I announced my "eco-freak" status people would blink, smile and stride away. Five years ago, the assumption was that "environmentally friendly" meant "comes with poncho, sandals and organic handbook". Eco-warriors were not cool. Yet.

Now, as G8 members release a statement acknowledging climate change, people are gradually warming to environmental awareness. This is partly a fashion thing: the recent food fads lend themselves to organic, free-range and fair-trade eating, appealing to health-freaks, teen queens and yummy mummies. For teenagers, the cool factor is very important when shopping.

The Body Shop and Lush are two cosmetics companies which claim both "cool" and "environmentally aware" status. Starbucks has also latched on to the green craze, so coffee-shop kids can opt for fair-trade tea, coffee and chocolate. As for younger pupils, fair-trade chocolate and orange-juice cartons should be in everyone's lunchbox. Kids must learn to turn off lights when leaving a room - small eco-friendly actions can make all the difference.

Being aware of packaging is another easy green step - do you really need another plastic bag? What about recycling all those glossy teen mags? More students should walk to school with friends. This gives them a chance to save bus-fares and get fit as well as being eco-friendly. Perfect for the dieting teen queen!

So next time your teenage daughter demands that you give her a lift, tell her to walk. Remind her that she, too, could make a difference!

Elen Griffiths is in the sixth form at Henrietta Barnett school in north London. Further reading: Dirty Planet by Caroline Clayton, Livewire Books for Teenagers - the book that got me interested in environmentalism

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