Episode 44: Bad Habits into Healthy Living: Ellen Strickland

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Passion. Purpose. Possibility. You'll be inspired by Ellen Strickland's transition from old habits, unhealthy living into a green business owner and eco-activist. when Ellen was diagnosed with MS many years ago she took the opportunity entirely remap her life. Learn how toxins from carpets to paints affected her and how her specific transition into healthy materials increased the quality of her life immensely.

If you're looking for inspiration to continue blossoming on your path, this show is sure to remind you how far you've come as well as infuse you with the energy and ideas you'll need to continue forging ahead on your path of wellness.

Transcript

Meredith Medland: You’re listening to Living Green: Effortless Ecology for Everyday People. My name is Meredith Medland and I’m your host. We’ve got a great podcast ahead of us today. I’ll be interviewing Ellen Strickland who is the founder and owner of Livingreen. Hi Ellen. Welcome to Living Green. I love that we have names in common. Tell us a little bit about Livingreen; how it’s spelled and how it came to fruition.

Ellen Strickland: I started Livingreen back in the late ’90’s, it was ’98, ’99, and we came up with the name because we wanted something that really felt like it was a name of community and collaboration, and we wanted it to really reflect a sense of lifestyle even though what we were doing was selling materials to people for their remodel project.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. So the special note is, so you’re listening to Living Green show and this is, that has two g’s and yours has one g….

Ellen Strickland: Mm hmm.

Meredith Medland: Just so if people are looking on the website or if you’re looking along in the show notes, you want to make that distinction, and also I just want to let you know the website is beautiful and has lots of information, so if you happen to be online right now and you want to pull up the website and be tooling around that while you’re listening to this interview, that should be fun for you too. So Ellen give us a framework for Livingreen and the products and services, as well as shades of green, which is one of your signature offerings to the consumer.

Ellen Strickland: Well, when I first started working as a designer, in the exhibit designer, about maybe 20 years ago now, I was very much involved in outreach education and making sure that the habitats and the things I was doing for zoos and aquariums and museums around the country would best reflect the, not only design that the material and the things that were apart of that project to making it grow and build. So in doing that, I discovered over the years that there were a lot of things that I was using that in fact were not as healthy, or environmentally friendly if you will, that should be used in some of these projects. And in the process of some of my own work over the years I discovered that there were things I was specifying that were not great and not good ideas to put into a project. So I had started doing my own research, and then eventually by about 1995, ’96, I was starting to collect files and files of information that I had been gathering for at least a decade, but there wasn’t necessarily a lot of products available that I could use in my own projects at that time, so I was just gathering information about how things were made so that I could then find specific things.

Meredith Medland: I like that because a lot of our listeners are interested in the how-to, not necessarily how, you know, how to build green, but how to be the kind of person that you’ve become through taking your passion and having a successful business. We were talking before this recording began about your experience creating an environment in a walrus tank at a zoo…

Ellen Strickland: Mm hmm.

Meredith Medland: And I’d love you to tell our listeners a little bit about that.

Ellen Strickland: I was on a project for a zoo where we were actually trying to become more friendly with habitats and learn more about what really made these special places for animals, why they live where they do. So, for a walrus, for example, you want to have a rough surface as something where they can rub up against and abrade their tusks, so they, like brushing your teeth, get to wear them down with time, and in an enclosed environment or space where they’re not out in the wild, they definitely need that kind of surface around. Well it turns out that the material that everybody at that time would go for to in fact make that surface happen was something that has silica and chemical and material in it that if ingested is actually quite harmful to the animal. Well as a designer I had not learned or trained myself through work at that time to think about what ingredients were involved and the impact those would have. So horrified, I started to try to repair my own damage, and that since I’ve learned a different approach to how to specify and look for materials that I would use in my own projects. And that’s what kind of led me into doing it, not only for them exhibits and animals, but for humans as well.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. Lets give an overview of the store, so that our listeners understand where you’re located and the services that you offer here.

Ellen Strickland: Well Livingreen is built upon a concept of creating an environmental resource center and sales showroom, a place where you both can learn the information about what makes something green as a product for your home, as well as then what you can select or choose as your options to buy and purchase. We started it out as a resource center back in ’98, ’99, but then it became a retail center because it was more important we discovered to have things available for people to buy onsite. So we started working both for the trades and homeowners. And over the years I’ve discovered that, well I may have thought the trades would be the people to come first and then bigger numbers; it’s actually the homeowners who come. They’re much more motivated and just educated in a lot of these things right off the bat because they’ve been spending time trying to figure out for themselves how do I clean up my own environment.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. You’ve developed a pretty amazing system, Shades of Green. Tell us a little bit about that.

Ellen Strickland: Shades of Green came out of just working with our homeowners and our customers, and learning that they needed as much information in some kind of organized fashion that would help them understand how to rate products against each other, and also in categories; why should I pick a certain kind of flooring over another, how is it really a green product, how far does it travel to get to their home and first to me as the vendor and then to them as the purchaser? We also rate products against each other for their own criteria. For example, I realize that as a seller here in California where I’m located both in Central Coast and Southern California, I have certain products that are probably greener than if I were selling them in New York, because they take different routes to travel, they have different sources from where they come from, and then even in fact in their recycle phase, they may have a different impact on the environment depending on where the end user is situated.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. If you look back to the time in your life when you created that particular system, when that idea was birthed, what were you doing that had you recognize the need for a specific system?

Ellen Strickland: In building the store, I was a retailer by training, so I have learned a lot of this on the fly, as I go. Over the years, I’ve had to create signage systems, or explanation systems if you will, as a sense of labeling for my own stores to help people understand what they were buying. We get so many questions from people who come in informed about a lot of these products, but they know I have things that they ask me, that stump me, but they stump each other in terms of what they’re actually trying to purchase or decide upon, so in trying to create better labels and better information for customers, we discovered that we really needed to have a rating system that would help us evaluate, and organize the material if you will, for everybody. And the existing systems at that time when I first started thinking about this, it’s probably about five or six years ago now, we were trying to figure out how to connect and collaborate with existing rating systems that are already out there, sort of like doing consumer reports or, I don’t know, some other government rated program, and the things that were being developed were lead, which are nation wide, an evaluation program you can use for a lot of these materials. However, it works better for, at that time anyway, commercially rated programs and projects; whereas for a lot of my customers who were homeowners, we needed a different kind of language that was more a consumer-based rating program that allowed us to figure out how best to sell these products.

Meredith Medland: And is that rating program something that other stores or green retailers might be able to implement?

Ellen Strickland: We find that lots of different people make up different systems for themselves. This is one we started for us. I have noticed that there are different kinds of quote “shades of green” type programs out there now. I’m sure other companies have developed for themselves. We trademarked this name because it works for us, and it’s something that we have out both through the website and through the stores now, so nationally I believe we’re known for it and it’s been very helpful.

Meredith Medland: Mm. Thanks Ellen. We’re going to take a minute to thank our sponsors, and when we come back from the break we’re going to learn about how Ellen’s diagnosis with MS had her actually catapult a whole new way of living. Thanks for listening to Living Green. I’m your host, Meredith Medland, and you can visit the show notes page at www.livinggreenshow.com.

Commercial Break

Meredith Medland: So that’s our break.

Ellen Strickland: Okay.

Meredith Medland: You want to continue?

Ellen Strickland: Whatever you, I’m fine at the moment. I just, I’ve lost my voice ‘cause we were talking so much at the party the other night, that it doesn’t always stay with me when I’m talking, so that’s why I drink the water.

Meredith Medland: Yeah.

Ellen Strickland: It’s fine.

Meredith Medland: Great. Alright.

Meredith Medland: Welcome back from the break. You’re listening to Living Green, and I’m here with Ellen Strickland, and we’re right here in her store in Santa Barbara, Livingreen, and remember that’s just one g. So Ellen, you were diagnosed with MS, and at that time in your life you were living a very, very different lifestyle than you are now. You even said it had a little bit of laziness to it.

Ellen Strickland: Well I was definitely in my late 20’s, early 30’s when that all occurred and I had a different energy base and lifestyle and lots of bad habits that definitely impacted the way my health was evolving at that time, and it happened that I was diagnosed in a time period of very high stress in my life as well, and I definitely was not living what I would call a healthy lifestyle at the time. I was very active, I did a lot of sports, I worked very hard, I played very hard, and so a combination of those things impacted I think the level at which I was impacted by MS at that time, and I had to learn to do a lot of things very differently. I didn’t have, I was stricken quite dramatically with it, so I didn’t have that same ability to cope as I would have now if I had been living a healthier kind of approach to life. And what I have evolved into and learned over the years is that the way I create my exterior environment and my interior environment will have to be working together, they have to be integrated, and I may not be able to cure myself of some kind of a disorder, but I can certainly manage it better and differently so that it actually has more optimal effect for me.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. When you say interior and exterior, what do you mean specifically?

Ellen Strickland: Well what I probably focused on first was my interior lifestyle having to change. I was disabled quite a lot in the very beginning and I wasn’t able to get around and do my work or live my life the way I had been used to, so I had to make a lot of changes internally to try and improve my overall health. So I changed my diet, I shifted what I eat, what I surrounded myself with, mental health care, getting counseling, doing the kind of therapy that I needed to do to improve the way I looked at living. And then I ended up trying to translate that also into my exterior environment. I found that because MS does affect your immune system and your ability to respond or react to your environment, that there were a lot of products, materials and things I couldn’t use anymore. I was definitely compromised in that way. So what I found over the years was that the more I started cleaning up my physical surroundings as well and creating a healthier place for me to live and breath that it had a huge impact on the way I was able to now respond to my life. And it’s interesting, since having the stores, which I have now had for, I guess it’s ten or eleven years here in Santa Barbara, I don’t get sick the way I used to because I’m not living around a lot of those same chemicals and products that I used to. And I find that I breath better, I, when I do get a cold or something like that, I actually respond to it much differently than I used to because of this combining of internal and external environment.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. What resources did you use to give up or transform maybe three of those bad habits as a problem?

Ellen Strickland: For me, for the external I would say that I had to do a couple of different things. I had to evaluate the kinds of places I was living and make choices about size, the kinds of cleaning products I was using, the kinds of materials that I used to create the interior space. And one in particular that was huge for me was bedding. When you think about it, you spend one third of every day, you hope, I mean, right, eight hours approximately, in your bed face down in materials that you’re then absorbing into your system. Your skin breathes and oxidizes so that it’s actually like a, you know, a filter that’s allowing things in and out, and so whatever you’re exposed to for those eight hours in that area, being your pillows, your mattress, your sheets, all that stuff, the quality of those materials and what they’re surfaced in and what they’re treated with and what they’re washed with all has huge impact. So if we do nothing else, that’s one place that we should definitely try to make an improvement, ‘cause even if you can’t control all the materials at your workplace, you can certainly do it in your own home, and especially where you spend the most amount of time. If you’re a couch potato, then I would recommend looking at sofas, for example, as something that you really, you know, make sure you clean them up so that as you spend all that time there, you have the ability to at least do it with some quality.

Meredith Medland: Do you have a suggestion on organic cotton or other sheets that our listeners might look up or buy?

Ellen Strickland: Well we sell a couple of brands. For example, one we do is actually bamboo and they’re called Dream Sacks. They’re fantastic. We, they’re, they come in different colors and they have different sizes, so they adapt to most bed systems. There’s also another brand called Pursue Me that we sell as Native organic, and it’s organic cotton and it’s grown regionally in our area, southwest here, as well as being processed or milled here. And so those are two products that we’ve found in our area that makes sense to sell here. We also address cleaner, so it’s laundry soaps and detergents and fabric washes and the ironing sprays and the things that actually come in contact with those same sheets, so that you have the best opportunity to keep them as healthy as you can.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. Thank you. Now, when we come back from the break, we’re going to talk about something super fun, which is called Connect the Dots, and this is essentially speed dating for the ecologically minded person, so we’ll have lots of fun on that coming back right after the break. We’re going to take a break to thank our sponsors. My name’s Meredith Medland, and you’re with Ellen Strickland of Livingreen. You can visit our show notes, as I said earlier at livinggreenshow.com.

Meredith Medland: Welcome back from the break. My name is Meredith Medland and I’m here with Ellen Strickland. We’ve got a great, great answer coming up. So Ellen you made a choice to involve the community in everything you do; it’s a huge part of the matrix of how you live your life. You came up with a program called Connect the Dots, and you’re bringing people together. What’s happening when they get together?

Ellen Strickland: We started this in Los Angeles, and actually in Culver City, because, partly because of just this year and the economic times that we’re in, we wanted to find a way to allow other likeminded businesses to join together and take advantage of each other’s resources, opportunities, and just give us all a chance to work together where we can. We found that in Los Angeles anyway that there’s a huge neighborhood, if you will, or community of likeminded people, but because of its size and the way it’s spread out you just can’t find each other all the time, so even in our own world of Culver City down there, turns out there’re actually a quite a number of likeminded businesses that we wish we had known about at various stages. So we started something called Connecting the Dots, which we think of as kind of like doing speed dating for green businesses because what we do is we give every businesses a few minutes, three to five minutes, to profile their company and talk about what they do, how they’re already working with some green businesses, or give them a chance to in fact make their wish list of who they’d like to meet, who they’d like to get involved with, and just help them build a better directory of resources there in the city.

Meredith Medland: Are you doing that at all your stores?

Ellen Strickland: We haven’t started doing it up here in Santa Barbara yet, but we look to do it if we can. It seems like so far it’s a good idea, so it’s also another way for us to introduce more people to the store.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. And if other businesses or people in different cities across the nation want to try that on, can they contact you and get the rules?

Ellen Strickland: Absolutely. It’s, I suppose, similar to a lot of these other kinds of networking events like Green Drinks. We just aren’t featuring the drinking part of it in this case because for us it was more about helping businesses connect. And also, when you start out and you’re small or you’re a consulting business or you don’t have as many resources to advertise or promote yourself, you’re looking for ways to do that, and like lead groups that meet for lunch or breakfast or that kind of thing, this is another way for a focused group of people who are talking about environmentally friendly objectives to get together.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. Thanks. I’d like to transition and talk a little bit about the myths around using green products in your home. And one of the things, as I was researching this interview, that I’m surprised at is that generally it’s only about five percent more right now to choose materials that have a green component to them.

Ellen Strickland: I think it’s, you’re bringing up something that is a combination of topics for me. There’s some problems and challenges with green washing, and then on top of that there’s a mindset that goes about consumerism, that we actually find ourselves running against sometimes. So what I discovered with, you know, just years now of trying to sell these products, one of the things we try to help people understand is you can actually save money by using green techniques or methods to your design build projects, or even smaller remodels, or just quote “small decorating ideas” that you do on a Saturday, but sometimes you have to adjust the way you think about the way you’re going to do it. So there’s some long range planning that you may have to do with yourself in order to make the adjustment to find ways to save money using these products at the same time. A good example might be if you were building a deck and you have to think about the materials that you use to build the deck and then how you’re going to maintain it over the years, then you want to think about, “Well what’s the most efficient way that I can do this for myself?” Well with a deck, you can either go to wood materials or you go to stone, or you can go to things made out of recycled content for example. So, if you build with some of these products that are made out of recycled plastics, but they make building materials to look like decking and wood planks, you can incorporate those and they don’t need oils or stains or finishes over time to keep maintaining them because it’s a different kind of material to start with. So where that material might cost you more per square foot in the very beginning, you actually save on the labor and the maintenance materials down the road because you’re not going to be using those in the same way. Sometimes you can incorporate recycled materials where you’re not spending dollars to go buy new products, and you’ve got some beautiful old other antiques or just reclaimed materials that you can build into your project. Another way to look at it is simply that not every remodel project means you have to go out and buy a lot of big new materials; sometimes you’re buying paint or plasters or finishes that you’re just using as new coatings, and with just that new color you give an entire new look to a project. So, part of it is working with the materials and your designers and your builders and your store owners to help you figure out different ways to approach the project, so that you can think about ways to save money and not just always thinking of it as, “Oh, well these materials cost more.” Sometimes they have a reason for being a few dollars more, and sometimes you have to also simply ask yourself, “How much is my health worth?”, because in a lot of cases some of these materials, yes, might cost a dollar or two more in per gallon quote or per square foot quote, but in fact they end up saving you time and effort because you’re improving your health at the same time, and not only yours, but everybody around you.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. And that really brings us back to the reason that we’re even in this interview, is you made a conscious choice to choose healthy living, and that choice included your individual habits, your community outreach and really the direction that you took your life. As you look back on about the last ten years, what are some of the either spiritual practices, books, inspirational moments or resources that you used, or used in the past, to cultivate the energy to build a business?

Ellen Strickland: I’ve been lucky most of my life to find ways to work with the community where I live. And it ends up being very important to me because what I have found is especially in times of challenge or difficulty, I have always benefited from a sense of fellowship, so whatever I’m getting out of my community I want to then be able to return and give back so that I, in that sense, can keep recycling the good will if you will. And so in my case, I have found that organizing projects or developing events or doing outreach education that continues to give is one of the things that I benefit from the most. When I was my sickest I found that some of the best input I got was from a sense of fellowship with friends, family, coworkers, people that I met through the project, and so I have had to develop with myself a sense that the most important thing for me to do is feel like I can continue to pay that forward as I go. And in my case this is not a hard thing for me to learn how to do with the environmental side. Having a green store actually brings together so many of my own interests and talents, that it allows me to do my best job because I really believe in it and I’m living it, and so consequently it’s much easier to take it back out to my community than if I were trying to do something I didn’t know as much about. So it fits me more naturally than it might, you know, being a technician in some other field that I don’t know very well. It’s also the kind of thing where when you build a community resource, it allows you to bring as many different talents and skills into it as you should, and in fact, it allows me to work with many more people that also have a lot to give to this that I don’t. We, we have survived and done as well as we have because we’re definitely a team or group effort, and I couldn’t do this store without the staff, and I couldn’t do it without all the people that I’ve been able to bring into it in one way or another, and that includes all the marketing and the sales and the design and the technical skills and the talents that we’ve been able to gather. It is definitely a cooperative effort, and so that’s what makes it a success.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. When you look back on the last year, you’ve obviously had a lot of economic changes, what’s a moment that you had a little bit of like, “Oh, Jeez”, as a retailer?

Ellen Strickland: Well I’m still having those, they’re those gut fears. I would say we’ve had a couple of interesting shifts happen in the last year in particular. For us in Culver City, for example, it started with the writer’s strike. That time period really had a big impact on Culver City in L.A., and that in combination with housing markets falling or changing and shifting in their effectiveness, also that then coupled with the sort of elections and all the changes with the change in presidency. And then on top of that, the economic times of the market, and all of these together have definitely impacted and affected our business in terms of how and where we put our attentions and energies. And I would say we’ve had to really look, be more reflective and say, “Well, at this time we need to be more flexible, we need to be more creative, and we need to think about really offering the things that people need. We find that probably the sales we’re focused on now are more practical, hands-on, what are, give you the most immediate change for the dollar, your bang for your buck. And we find that we in fact made a change here in Santa Barbara where in downsizing into a smaller more efficient space, I think now we actually have a better showroom and we have a more effective sales approach that we can use, so downsizing became right sizing for us here in Santa Barbara. In Coast Village in Montecito, we have a shop that actually is a better right size for that community I think, and we therefore have to just work with ourselves to make sure that how we communicate between each neighborhood is effective. And so we’re trying to learn how to do that between the various members of the staff and the store sizes and what we offer in each one. In Culver City it’s a very big building that is, allows for more stuff because we’re in a bigger area and we have a bigger draw of people down there, so we have different challenges in each place. And my biggest job is probably to remain sensitive to that and be as flexible to it as I can, especially in hard times.

Meredith Medland: Mm hmm. We have just a few minutes before we wrap up our show today. Thank you so much for sharing all the ins and outs of retailing and your journey. I’d like you to share a little bit of your advice, particularly to people who have big ideas, lots of passion, perhaps a lot of time on their hands right now, maybe they’ve been laid off or things are changing for them, and so they have more time to actually think and prepare for what they might birth in the future. Could you give maybe the tenets or beliefs or the, just some advice?

Ellen Strickland: This is a hard question for me because I’m not as slow in the planning phases as I should be, or as cautious. I am cautious to a certain extent, but I wish now, I mean obviously, hindsight always improves everything, but I wish I had spent more time really planning out the steps of what was going to be involved. And at the same time I could tell you that quite honestly I probably, if I’d spent all that time maybe I wouldn’t have done it, so it’s hard to say which is right. But I think before taking the big plunge of going into business for yourself, for example, it’s really important to start thinking about how this is going to impact your personal life, your financial life, your work life, your community life because it does sort of take hold of you in a very different way. You don’t turn it off at 5 o’clock. You take it home, you take it with you everywhere, and so it’s a very different kind of way to live than I was doing before. So that’s one thing I would say, is just really do take the time you need, and get, my suggestion to everybody is always to get as many opinions as you need until you feel like you have all the information you need. Read the information carefully, make sure that you actually think about following a decision all the way through, and look for those expert opinions where you need them. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know. I mean, in ten years I’ve learned a lot about this field, but I always go out and ask for more so I can make sure that I have everything I need to know to make a decision properly.

Meredith Medland: Thank you. Just a few more questions. What are two of the most fond moments that you’ve had in this whole journey?

Ellen Strickland: I guess the first time I actually had an opening at the store, probably about nine years ago, and I saw people’s faces. That was probably one of my best moments because seeing their excitement made me realize that it worked. And then the other thing that probably has been the most important to me is when we have customers who have come in and they have been really challenged because of health or whatever their reason is, and they find something through what we do here in the business, and they actually have taken the time to write us and thank us. That means the most to me because that proves to me over and over again how much it works. And so, that inspires me to want to get up and do it again a lot of days.

Meredith Medland: Excellent. Yeah, the acknowledgment is great…

Ellen Strickland: Yeah.

Meredith Medland: knowing you’re doing this service. So last question; if you propel yourself out five years from now, and you’re taking some time to either reflect in a journal or you’ve maybe gone away for a weekend and there’s no cell phones and web and you’re taking some time off, what will you have created that will feel incredible to you, where you realize that you’ve made an enormous defense in the last five years?

Ellen Strickland: Hmm. I hope what I’ll still see, if I’m still doing this business for example, what I hope I will still see within our walls or our boundaries, is that we’ve created a really good communication system that allows us to get the information out about these products as efficiently for everybody as we can. I wish that price wasn’t so much a part of retail. I wish that price didn’t always affect everybody’s ability to get a hold of something. And it’s tough as a business owner because I want to be as fair to everybody as I can, and at the same time I have to make money so I can keep doing it, so that for me is one of the biggest challenges is how to make it feel as democratic, if you will, as possible. I just, I want to know that as many people who need and can benefit from these products and things are getting that opportunity. So that would be for me a good one.

Meredith Medland: Fantastic. Thanks Ellen.

Ellen Strickland: Yeah.

Meredith Medland: Thank you so much for listening to Living Green. In upcoming episodes you’re going to learn about Musashi, who wrote The Book of Five Rings, and interestingly enough one of the quotes from his book, he’s a Japanese Samurai who was born in 1564 and created a philosophy book that’s similar to the Vog Divakita, things like that, and one of the things he said is “the most crucial thing to do is to plan.” So, listeners if you have a little extra time on your hands, this is a great time to put that plan of action in place and keep that inspiration all together. Just a reminder that you can check out blog at personallifemedia.com, and you can certainly contact me by emailing [email protected] or you can go to my website which is meredithmedland.com. Thanks so much, have a great day, and Ellen thanks to you.

Ellen Strickland: Thank you.