Interview: Lisa Jackson, Former Head of EPA

5 years ago

Lisa Jackson recently retired as America’s top environmental CEO. For four years, she was the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a job that put her right in the middle of the nation’s most important and high-profile environmental controversies. (She was also the first African-American to hold that position.)

Lisa recently spoke at the US-China Greener Consumption Forum, a conference sponsored by Big Green Purse and the International Fund for China's Environment that drew women from the world’s two consumer superpowers together to discuss women’s consumer clout and ways we can band together to use the power of the purse to make a difference.


Image: © Zhang Jun/Xinhua/ZUMA Press.

I interviewed Lisa two days before the Forum to get her thoughts on motherhood, the role of women in protecting the planet, and even Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg, who has put the topic of working women back on the national agenda. Here’s what Lisa had to say:

DM: You’re speaking at a Forum on women’s consumer clout and how it could be used to protect the environment. Why is this a hot topic?

LPJ: Women don’t take enough advantage of our economic power. Women in the US and China have tremendous buying power; we can and should be using it to buy products and services that are the best for us, our families and our communities.

DM: You have often mentioned in your public speeches that your son has asthma. How has his condition influenced you, either at EPA or in other career choices you have made?

LPJ: You bring your whole person to work but you don’t make decisions that way. My son’s asthma made me keenly aware that asthma impacts the whole family, not just one person. There were days when the whole family was in the hospital or on asthma watch. We never knew when we might have to go to the hospital. It impacted our vacations and family plans. There’s a real human cost to diseases like asthma. It frustrates me greatly when people say we’re overestimating the health benefits of addressing pollution in terms of dollars and cents. I felt like we were underestimating them because we weren’t considering the hidden costs – the cost of my mom or my relatives pitching in to help.

DM: What about as a consumer?

LPJ: The majority of our power comes from fossil fuels, so every time someone doesn’t use a kilowatt hour, she’s choosing not to burn fuel to make energy. I insisted on buying energy efficient products. At EPA, we encouraged people to look to look for the ENERGY STAR label when they shop and to make their homes more energy efficient. But it’s also important to let companies know how you feel, whether about energy or toxic chemicals or recycling.

DM: Legislation like the Clean Air Act and issues like climate change haven’t been on the top of moms’ agendas. Why should moms care about these issues? How do you think we can get moms more fired up about participating in the conversation on these issues?

LPJ: The thing we need to do as communicators is explain the issue in ways people can relate. If you’re talking about folks on a limited budget, they can cut their energy bill by using energy more efficiently. That should be a central part of the message to them. If talking to women in the military, they care about national security. In rural America, it’s about the legacy of the land they want to leave to their families. Consumers may not buy into every scientific tome. But every adult understands the concept of insurance: you buy it for your home, your life. So talking about the impact that catastrophic events can have on your family is very persuasive. Taking action on climate change is insurance for the future.

DM: Many women are getting into farming as a way to restore their communities and produce the safe and healthy food they themselves want to feed their families. Yet seed monopolies make it difficult for farmers to remain independent. And it seems that, increasingly, the lines are blurred between government agencies (especially the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer. Do you have any thoughts on how women can become successful farmers today?

LPJ: Women are becoming a larger force in agriculture in general. It’s an incredible opportunity for women to move into agriculture and respond to the desire to have assurance of safety and security in the food they feed their families. The issue for those who want to be independent is to figure out what’s working. I hope women are forming mentoring and support groups to help each other so they’re not starting from square one every time. There is also something generational going on. Younger farmers may be realizing they don’t have to be as dependent on toxic chemicals as the farmers who came before them.

DM: There is a lot of talk today – inspired by corporate executives like Google CFO Sheryl Sandberg, author of the controversial new book, Lean In – about how difficult it is for a women to be a mother and a successful leader, too. As the nation’s most prominent environmental leader, how did you juggle motherhood and your role as the country’s top eco CEO?

LPJ: It’s important for women to have these conversations. But it’s also important not to let our male colleagues inadvertently or on purpose make us feel that we’re the only ones deal with work/life issues. I had 17,000 employees at EPA and I know that that’s not true in this day and age.

DM: How did you balance it all, get it all done?

LPJ: It takes a lot of friends, a big support system, and it’s incredibly helpful to have technology. I can check my kids’ homework from anywhere in the world. I can see their faces if I have to. I think about my mother, who worked most of my younger years and relied on my grandmother; she didn’t have those advantages. So I have a system I can tap if I need to. But it’s important to remember that, for every woman executive out there trying to get the balance right, there are women workingtwo or three jobs who don’t have access to the technology or resources that would make it easier. We need to continually improve the system for them. At EPA, we had on-site child care and flexible work schedules, and it’s still hard. If it’s hard for us, how much harder is it for a nurse working a 12-hour shift or a woman in the military?

DM: What about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to stop telecommuting and working at home, and requiring all Yahoo employees to work in the office?

LPJ: I haven’t spent a lot of time with Marissa Mayer. But it was a little troubling to see only women speaking out about her decision. At EPA, many men, many partners would have real concerns about sudden changes at work. At EPA, the flex schedule policy allows us to recruit people who might command a higher salary in the private sector but who prefer our working conditions.

DM: There have now been several women who have run EPA. Do you think women bring anything unusual to the job?

LPJ: Empathy. In fact, I can’t think of a more important quality for anyone to bring to their job.

~Diane MacEachern

Big Green Purse

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