May 10, 2011

Interview with "Get Real" Author Mara Rockliff

I had an opportunity to interview the author of the book that started my interest in this great topic (see my review of her book here). I hope you find it as interesting as I do! 

Q: If you had to describe what Get Real is a sentence or two, what would you say? 
A: It's a book for teens that talks about the stuff we buy and use every day-a chocolate bar, a cell phone, a pair of jeans-and how our buying choices affect the planet, other people, and ourselves. 

Q: What sparked your interest in being good to the earth, fair trade, etc.? 
A: You know, I wish I had a great dramatic story about the one thing that suddenly converted me. But really it was a long, gradual process of learning about what was going on in the world-from talking to friends, from following the news, from reading books and watching documentary films. I think that's how it usually happens. It's not that most of us don't care about the environment or world poverty or our own health. It's that we aren't aware.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, I thought "organic" meant "expensive food for fussy people." Eventually I came to realize that organic food was not just healthier for the person eating it, but also for the people growing it and anyone whose air or water is affected by the toxic chemicals spread on the fields. I also learned that it's expensive not because it is a ripoff, but because our tax money is being handed out to giant agribusiness instead of smaller sustainable farmers. 

Q: What advice do you have for a teenager who wants to leave a positive impact on the world but doesn't know how to start? 
A: Quit drinking bottled water! Studies show it isn't any better than the stuff that comes out of the tap-in fact, many brands such as Aquafina are just filtered tap water, taken from public water sources and then sold back to us at a price higher than soda, juice, or gasoline! 

Bottled water is awful for the environment. To make the plastic for the bottled water that Americans drink every year, it takes a million and a half barrels of oil. That's enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a whole year! And that doesn't even include the oil burned in shipping bottled water all around the world. Plus, there are people in places like India, Fiji, and even here in the United States who lack drinkable water because bottling companies have sucked it all dry.

Switch to a reusable water bottle (and a filter if you don't like your tap water's taste) and fill it up. You'll save money, help people, and cause a lot less wear and tear on the environment.

Q: Are there any companies that are doing good that you would like to spread the word about? 
A: I am a big fan of Better World Books ( This is an online bookstore devoted to recycling books and raising money for libraries and literacy. They sell both new and used books at great prices, and shipping (in eco-packaging, with carbon offsets) is always free. Forget Amazon!

Q: So many of the problems discussed in your book (child labor, sweatshops, etc.) are occurring in faraway countries. What can we do here and now to make a difference? 
A: Well, what we do here and now does make a difference far away. If we buy a fair trade chocolate bar or ask our supermarket to stock fair trade chocolate, that may help a kid in Africa whose family can now afford to buy him a pair of shoes so he can walk the ten miles to school. If we call up Hershey and ask them to stop buying cocoa grown by child slaves, that helps somebody, too. (Check out Or if we write to our elected officials and ask them to change "free trade" policies that hurt the poorest people in the world-all these things make a difference.

But the impact of our buying decisions is all around us here at home as well. Our air and water are polluted by leaking landfills, pesticide-sprayed fields, and toxic runoff from the giant parking lots surrounding big chain stores-and thanks to those stores, lots of people in our towns have crummy jobs or no jobs at all. When we shop at locally owned businesses, buy fresh food from small growers at a farmer's market, or try to cut down on what we throw away, we're voting for a happier and healthier life for ourselves.

Q: What do you think is the main thing keeping people from making better choices? 
A: I think the problem is that we don't see the impact of the things we do, good or bad. Imagine if a pair of jeans we tried on at the mall came with a photo of the teenage girl who made them, along with details about her hourly wage (six cents) and working conditions (eighteen-hour days, meager food, snatching a few hours of sleep on a hard wooden bunk jammed into a tiny room with twelve other girls). Imagine if a cell phone came with a list of all the toxic chemicals inside, along with a description of the damage done to the environment in making it, and the further damage it would do after we threw it out.

We don't get that kind of information, and in fact, it takes a lot of work to learn how to make better choices. It's hard to find a pair of sneakers that isn't made in a sweatshop. It's confusing to hear people argue about whether to buy local or organic. (Either is good! Do both!) I think many people feel overwhelmed, helpless, and guilty. But we shouldn't feel guilty. What we should feel is ANGRY. Why should shoppers have to search for special "sweatshop-free" clothes or "fair trade" chocolate? Why is it even legal to sell anything else? Why are giant corporations allowed to poison our air and water? Buying better is a good start, but we need to act as citizens as well as consumers. We need to change the rules.   

Q:What would you say to convince someone to make changes in their life to help the world? 
A: I guess I would just say, don't wait until you feel ready to totally change your life. Start small and start today. Choose the easiest thing, or the thing you think is most important, or the thing that sounds like the most fun. Stop by the farmer's market for a snack. Call up your favorite sneaker brand and ask questions. (For tips on what to ask, download Clean Clothes? from my website) Go to the library and check out one of the great books or movies I recommend in Get Real. Just choose one thing and do it right away!

Q:Is there anything else you would like to say?
A: If anybody wants to learn more about all these issues, I've got lots of info on my website (, including links to some hilarious and eye-opening video clips.


  1. Loved the book, however why was it printed in China? Doesn't seem like you are practicing what you preach.

  2. I was wondering about that too, but on the inside of the cover of the book it says the publishing company is certified as being a place that treats its workers well.