Jack Johnson: Green as it gets

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By Sarah Sekula; published in USA TODAY’s Green Living magazine

Jack Johnson is easygoing, but he gets super stoked about plenty of things. Oranges from his own backyard. His neighbor’s breadfruit hummus. The water catchment system he built with his kids.

And nurdles.

Nurdles? Suddenly, I feel a bit lost during our recent phone conversation.

Before I can ask, he explains. It’s the raw material that makes up most every plastic product on Earth. And tons of those pesky pellets wash up on the shores of Oahu where he lives with his wife, Kim, and their three children.

“Especially along the windward side of the island where basically the island acts as a filter in the middle of the Pacific,” Jack Johnson says, sounding more marine biologist than chart-topping recording artist.

If you sort through the trash that washes up, as Johnson often does, “you find all these little clues,” he says. Meaning, the beach cleanups he leads—just like so many things in his life—are more than meets the eye.

Johnson points to a case in Australia where the discovery of nurdles led to a lawsuit against a major plastic plant. In other words, for Johnson it’s not just about scooping up other people’s litter and putting a band-aid on the situation. He wants to get at the heart of the problem.

That said, he’s sailing from the Bahamas to Bermuda this summer on an 11-day voyage with ocean researchers to collect and analyze marine debris. He’s fascinated with it all. But these are just a few examples. His eco-sensibilities extend far beyond that.

All in the details
His green mindedness, in fact, funnels all the way down to the compact fluorescent light bulbs used at his touring venues. That’s right, while some bands demand bowls of M&M’s with the blue ones picked out or bottles of vitamin water to bathe their dogs in, Johnson asks for quite the opposite. His EnviroRider (aka tour agreement) has venues buying carbon offsets and composting organic waste. His goal: to leave towns in better shape than when he showed up.

“We could stop touring altogether to have the smallest impact,” says Johnson, whose everyday voice is, by the way, not much different from his singing voice. “But the greater impact could be to find ways to make the industry more responsible.”

That he has done. His tours are, hands down, the greenest of the green. He says it all stems from being on tour with fellow green-hearted musicians Pearl Jam and Willie Nelson early in his music career.

Likewise, his concerts serve as part think-tank and part fundraising-machine. Fans get connected with local eco-minded programs in the Village Green area. And his social action network, All at Once, keeps those like-minded people in touch, encouraging global change.

And to top it all off: From 2008 to 2013, 100 percent of his touring revenue went to non-profit groups around the world.

“What’s inspiring to me about Jack is that he lets his appreciation of the environment guide everything he does,” says Jessica Scheeter, the wife of Jack’s keyboardist and the executive director of the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation.

That includes sourcing most of the food on tour from a certain radius. “We will have somebody go shop at the farmers market to make sure we support local farms in the area,” Johnson says.

“With Jack, tour greening is not just an after-thought,” says Scheeter, “It’s the foundation of the entire process.”

From the drivers who fill up the tour buses with bio-diesel fuel to the vendors selling 100-percent post-consumer products, they all believe wholeheartedly in the mission. Likewise, it’s reflected back at The Brushfire studios in L.A., powered by rooftop solar panels, insulated with cotton from blue-jeans scraps and decorated with rugs from recycled plastic bottles.

The ripple effect
After being on the road for months at a time, there’s nothing Johnson loves more than 1) tending to his organic garden full of peppers, spinach and herbs (not your typical rock-star past time), 2) surfing (Pipeline is practically in his backyard) and 3) passing along new ideas.

“When I take my music outside of Hawaii, I’m sharing a piece of Hawaii with the world,” says Johnson, who is known for hits like “Banana Pancakes” and “Better Together.” “At the same time I’m learning as I’m out there. You can’t help but want to bring it home to share these ideas.”

Sharing, in fact, is Johnson’s modus operandi. Take the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, which Johnson and his wife launched in 2003. It connects kids in Hawaii to their food from seed to table with school gardens, recycling programs and farm field trips.

“It’s sad to say, but some kids don’t know that certain foods grow on trees and certain foods grow underground,” says Kim Johnson, who has gotten kudos from the Environmental Protection Agency for her work.

Not to mention, the ripple effect is just plain cool. First graders are asking their parents if they can grow green beans at home. Others are gung-ho about making pesto. And many lecture parents who accidentally toss plastics in the trash.

“If children grow their own food, they will eat it,” says Natalie McKinney, director of program development for Kōkua.

Kim agrees: “You have these kids who might have hated cherry tomatoes, but if they grow them they will just be eating them like candy.”

In turn, the hope is that the students will become lifelong stewards of the planet.

“Ninety percent of our food is shipped in to Hawaii,” Jack says. “A lot of the farmlands are getting rezoned. Once they are rezoned and something’s built on it we loose that farm land forever.”

To sum it up: Most people would agree that if there’s one thing that matches Jack’s oversized talent (his albums have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide), it’s his generous heart (Jack and Kim have donated more than $25 million to charity since 2001).

“It feels good to know people appreciate what we are doing,” says Jack.

“I’m the most unlikely rock star,” he admits. “I had no idea this was all going to happen. I had the best job in the world; I was making surf videos. I wasn’t really looking for a job change.”

That’s just part of his appeal. He never asked for the limelight. Now that he has it, he angles it on things much bigger than himself.

And the world is better for it.