Oprah Eco-Expert Simran Sethi Moves to...Kansas?
Sethi relocated to Lawrence in 2007 after snagging a tenured position at the University of Kansas, bringing her experience in social media and environmental communications to the Midwestern campus after living in urban areas like Mumbai, Los Angeles, and New York. Relishing the chance to "put down some roots," the North Carolina-raised educator has embraced the challenge to update a historic home to modern environmental standards while maintaining its unique history. She's also pretty savvy on everything from chopsticks and sustainable footwear to soda pop and energy-efficient appliances. (Another fun fact: her mortgage payment on a two-story house is equivalent to her rent on a studio apartment in Harlem three years ago!)
We spoke to Simran about making the leap from renting to owning a home, and how homeowners can make their abodes more energy-efficient without dropping a ton of dough.
Can you fill us in on the project you're doing in conjunction with "The Oprah Winfrey Show"?
I saw moving to Kansas as a chance to become a part of a community. I wanted a home with some character, and at first I was looking for a certain kind of turn-of-the-century regional bungalow called an airplane bungalow, prominent in both a part of India and Kansas. There's just something about a house with history. And it was a smart time to buy a house based on tax credits and the Obama administration... I drove by [this one] and didn't see anything special at first, then went in with a friend and made an offer 24 hours later!
It's a two-story house with sturdy bones that's 84 years old; it's only had two owners, the first of which was born in the house. It's been cared for. It's not like someone came in and painted over all the fixtures, and put down wall-to-wall carpeting. It has really nice fixtures and wooden floors throughout, and I've filled it with antiques collected over the years: old cabinets from Indonesia, spice cabinet from Malaysia, a dowry chest from India.
What are your goals in renovating your home?
The biggest goal is to make it something that fits my budget, while being more energy-efficient. The case with old homes like this is poor insulation. People didn't consider the cost of heating back then, because natural resources weren't a problem. I also want my home to be beautiful, because it's my refuge from travel and the office. It's a sacred place to me. Investing time and energy into a home makes a big difference.
The first thing I had done was insulate the ceiling. Next stop is the basement. Think of insulating a house like you would your body, it's like keeping your heads, hand and feet warm.
What are some eco-friendly choices you've made in outfitting your house?
I've used low-VOC paint for the walls [Ed. note: VOCs are volatile organic compounds, potentially carcinogenic carbon-based chemicals that evaporate easily and contribute to indoor air pollution], and a paperstone countertop for the kitchen made of compressed paper. Water efficiency is crucial. We are feeling the absence of water everywhere -- did you know: 40 states in America are going to experience some level of drought in the next five years! That's why I have a low-flow showerhead and a dual-flush toilet.
I don't have the resources to do it all at once, but I can put in my own sweat equity.
What are some of the smallest, simplest, most affordable changes people can incorporate into their daily patterns to help "green" their home?
Right after I closed on the house and Oprah asked me to write for her Web site, I figured it would be interesting and humbling to take my own advice. Energy, because of its high cost, is something I've focused on [in my renovation]. I wrote for Oprah about five small things anyone can do in ten minutes, like swapping out a regular thermostat for a programmable one. Twenty-five percent of our energy bill comes from lighting -- it's so easy to just swap out your bulbs! And now it's nearly affordable for everyone to use compact fluorescents instead of incandescent bulbs. I would also consider an aerator for the faucet, which adds more pressure without using more water.
Also think about what kinds of products used in your home -- the less toxic or non-toxic cleaners only cost $1 more. The quality of your indoor air is worth it. It all ends up in contact with skin, or a paw, or on your food. Are those chemicals what you want in your house? (The EPA has determined indoor air quality is twice as polluted as outdoor air!)
Another good reference is a report by Paul Stern that ranks the most effective things one can do within a household.
How did you first get inspired to become what Vanity Fair calls a "green messenger"?
What I care about most deeply are people and communities. I studied Women's Studies and Sociology in college. Actually, the only environmental class I took, I failed! Well, it failed me.... we mostly talked about tectonic plates.
As a news anchor and documentarian for MTV News [in Mumbai, India], I saw the impact of corporations on poor people. I wanted to talk about the ability of businesses to help people, so I got my MBA with a focus on sustainable business. Then I did a PBS series that ended up being canceled... I guess it was before its time! Then writing for Treeehugger.com got me back into the environmental conversation.
Having that television background and the MBA has helped people to understand when green became "hot" that I had held an interest in this for a long time.
What are some tips for finding a like-minded community of eco-warriors in one's own community?
I'm of the belief that everyone cares, you just have to figure out how they express their cares. Moving to Kansas made me re-evaluate who is "greener," the woman who works for an environmental website and wears an organic t-shirt (aka me)? Or the farmer who shops at Wal-Mart, isn't wearing or growing anything organic, but works on the land every day with his hands? How am I the environmentalist?
I didn't have the language to talk to businesspeople until I got my MBA. Now it's about communicating in a common language based on what you care about. Here [in Kansas], there's a movement based around the church. Every faith talks about caring for creatures and being stewards of the earth. Every business talks about being sustainable long term. Whether it's getting involved with chamber of commerce or joining a co-op or a congregation, you have to find that common interest.
What other projects are you working on in the near future?
I'm currently teaching two classes at the Universtiy of Kansas, taking students from my Green Reporting, Green Jobs, Green Justice course to Oakland this spring break to install solar panels on low-income housing. I'm also working on a book for Harper Collins on the psychological barriers to social engagement. I'll be blogging weekly for Oprah through November, on my first anniversary of buying the house. And I'm also working on a yard share with friends, starting to get my hands in the dirt.
Read more about Simran Sethi on her official website, and follow along on her green renovation adventures on her blog for Oprah.com.