Eco Sin Confessions

By Alexandra Pecci

Holley Henderson dispels the notion that environmentalists have to be perfect to be effective.

Holley Henderson might be a vegetarian, but do not ask her to pass on bacon, especially if it is cooked by her mom. “Regardless of your carbon footprint, my mom’s bacon and grits can convert any vegetarian,” she says with a laugh and a subtle Birmingham, Alabama, twang. “I mean that woman can seriously cook.”

Being a bacon-eating vegetarian is not the only seemingly contradictory part of Henderson’s personality. Sure, she is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Fellow, an environmental building speaker and consultant, founder of the Atlanta-based H2 Ecodesign, and author of the book, Becoming a Green Building Professional. But she is the first to admit her own “eco sins.”

“I love a very long and very hot shower,” she says. In the car, she likes to turn on the heat, including the seat warmer, and roll the windows down.

Holley Henderson, LEED Fellow.

She regularly confesses these sins for a reason: to dispel the idea that environmentalists have to be perfect in order to be effective. In fact, when she gives talks, she will often open by asking the audience to think about their own eco sins. “What do you do that’s really naughty, that you should not do relative to the environment?” she asks. Then, she proceeds to list her own sins.

The minute she does that, she notices the posture of the people in the room begins to change, to relax. The realization that she is not perfect—that no one is—can motivate people to make their own small changes.

“And then they begin to build on that and get excited about it,” Henderson says. “I just start saying, ‘What could you do? Everybody could do something, what could you do?’”

It is that friendly, down-to-earth, easy-going pragmatism that has led Henderson to be known as the “commonsense environmentalist” and to lend her green building skills and expertise to projects around the world that are as diverse as the LEED Platinum 1.5-million-sq-ft Enco Energy Complex in Thailand and the LEED Silver Pierce Chapel at Wesleyan College in Georgia.

But what does commonsense environmentalism mean? It means just what it sounds like: environmentalism that makes sense in the real world and is balanced with practical needs and expectations. For instance, Henderson says it is all fine and good to install water-saving automatic faucets. But if no one can get water to come out of them, they don’t make sense.

“I don’t really care if it’s environmental or not. I don’t care if it’s saving money. I don’t care if it’s saving water,” she says. “If it doesn’t function, it doesn’t work, it’s not the right solution.”

Henderson strives for a good environmental, social, and economic balance in every project she tackles, and rejects the idea that sometimes the environment should be a priority at the expense of the other two ideals.


“I might be a weirdo environmentalist by saying that, but I really don’t think so,” she says. She understands that for people to really adopt environmentalism, it has to fit into their lives, not the other way around.

Practicality is not the only thing Henderson looks for in helping her clients achieve their green goals. She also encourages them to find a personal connection to environmentalism. She insists that everyone has a connection to the environment, regardless of whether they realize it.

“I think it’s important for our teams that we work with to know their story,” she says. “I think when people understand their story and their conviction around it, they’re able to better communicate it.” For instance, maybe a client has a daughter with asthma or an elderly parent with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), maybe they are avid recyclers at home. Henderson remembers one client who was ultimately moved by seeing a mattress floating down the river outside his home.

“That’s really the connection,” she says. “Once they personalize it—that’s up to the CEO level and everywhere in between—they own it; they can begin to achieve more.”

Henderson’s own story starts in the art and architecture world, trying her hand at jobs ranging from designing large-scale public works projects to being a United Way ambassador. However, nothing fully stuck for her until she remembered how much she loved her environmental science class at Auburn University, and eventually founded the sustainable design studio at TVS (now tvsdesign).

“I think I’ve always had a distinct sense of purpose. I tend to go to the grocery store with vigor. Life’s a sponge, and every day I’m trying to wring it out,” she says. “It sounds so cliché, but I can make a difference…I guess I looked at environmentalism as stewardship, responsibility.”

As she encourages companies and the people who run them to discover and connect with their own environmental stories, Henderson finds that her clients often evolve in their environmental goals. Whereas at first they may simply consider “going green” a way to respond to their customers’ expectations or market trends, they quickly want to do more and push their goals even further.

“What I’m constantly amazed at, and excited by, and what gives me hope is that once they get into the process, they get really excited by it,” she says. “They want more.”

Although she finds apathy disheartening, Henderson believes that the best way to combat it is by making that personal connection. To that end, she says that she will work with clients that do not have a perfect lifecycle or footprint, clients that others in her field would not dream of working with.

“I’m one of those environmental consultants that will work with anyone,” she says. “Everyone deserves to be helped, and I want to help them. And sometimes I prefer those jobs because they need the most help.”

She recalls being in a meeting with one of those companies when one of its employees started to talk about what an avid recycler he was at home. “I almost started crying. It’s the revealing of those stories that they don’t even know are inside them that makes me excited,” she says. “I can help someone foster that story and what that story leads to…multiplying hands is probably my most motivating thing.”