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Considering what we know (and have seen) about the climate crisis, Earth Day should be an everyday occurrence. Perhaps then it would be a regular reminder to consciously reduce waste, reuse something before buying new, or honor the voices of indigenous cultures of the very land we live. It might even inspire the brands we love to adopt more responsible means of producing products that don’t come at the expense of exploiting the planet or labor. These are by no means easy or uncomplicated adjustments to make, but the tasks look a lot different when they’re built into your daily structure. Such is the case for the five sustainability thought leaders and entrepreneurs below.
Even with a common goal in mind — a better, healthier future for the planet and all its inhabitants — these women represent varying approaches to addressing climate change on a local and global scale. That includes building and running platforms where scientists and experts can reach engaged, young audiences; fostering digital communities that prioritize intersectionality; and producing responsibly sourced stationary that addresses a longstanding lack of diversity in the greeting card aisle. In the spirit of celebrating their ongoing work, we’ve teamed with Patrón, who’s likewise committed to a better quality product at the lowest impact possible on the environment. Together, we’re toasting those who have been, and continue to be, devoted to change. Ahead they share their personal paths to sustainability, inspiring us all to be a part of it.
What initially sparked your interest in sustainability?
“My sustainability journey started before my professional career. My parents grew up in rural parts of China and my grandparents are Buddhists. They always had a very symbiotic relationship with nature — my dad always understood farming and regenerative agriculture. Sustainability didn’t have that name then, but it was always part of the lifestyle that we grew up in. Also, because of my upbringing in China, I could see firsthand impacts on major cities like Beijing and Shanghai and what pollution was doing to them. Every summer I would visit and it was blue skies — it looked like it did in the U.S. Then, later on it was just fog, and to see a blue sky would be a rarity.”
In your previous fashion media roles you often covered the climate crisis and the need for greater environmental justice. How have you been able to lean into this more in your freelance life?
“When I left my role as Entertainment Media Editor at Vogue, my first mission was to fully focus on what I dubbed ‘conscious content.’ When I left, the articles that had the most views were short-form articles about [celebrity] date night looks and it was so infuriating because we would spend months covering COP 21, the Paris Agreement, the election, or the Keystone Pipeline and they would get nowhere near as many views. It’s an age-old problem in the media space. It’s so easy to say audiences just want clickbait, but we’re actually feeding into content pollution. Because my background was initially in journalism, I wanted to redefine what news meant in the 21st century and I wanted to humanize it. When I first was taking on freelance projects, sustainability wasn’t even an option in the fashion space to make a living. I was starting to work with fashion and beauty brands and I would be like ‘What’s the messaging here? Are we just advocating for consumerism?’ The truth is consumerism isn’t going anywhere. How do we make consumerism something that’s intentional that can better serve the climate crisis?”
You recently made a big announcement about the launch of your new climate-focused talk show, All Of The Above. How will this be a unique addition to the sustainability space?
“That’s something I’m proudest of at the moment. My partner Céline [Semaan of The Slow Factory] and I have been working on the show for a year now because we just realized everything in the sustainability space is a binary. It’s either good or bad, it’s either zero-waste or you don’t want to do anything at all and would rather be ignorant of the whole thing. We need to bridge these extremes and show that sustainability is a spectrum. Also, right now we approach the climate crisis through a fear and scarcity level, as in ‘there’s not enough time.’ But fear and panic freezes us into inaction, it gives us more apathy and eco-anxiety. This show is bringing this love and abundance back into our relationship with the climate crisis and Mother Nature. Because when you think about what abundance means it is Mother Nature. She is the most abundant thing we will ever know. And if we understand how to approach the climate crisis through love the entire energetic frequency of it changes.”
When undertaking a task as huge as addressing the climate crisis, how do you go about measuring and defining success?
“For the majority of my 20s, success was a byproduct of what society told me success was: your salary, your title. Once you start a journey with sustainability, you realize sustainability has nothing to do with what you buy at all. It has everything to do with this symbiotic relationship with nature and understanding success is rooted in yourself instead of what society tells you what you should be doing. So, now I measure success by really just having autonomy to say ‘yes’ to the projects I believe in and ‘no’ to the projects I don’t believe in, no matter how much money it may be. In the sustainability scope, I ask, ‘what are my intentions for doing this’ and understanding if it comes from an ego side or a grounded side. Ego is a byproduct of consumerism and capitalism and the opposite of ego is being aligned with ourselves, our spirit, and our intuition. It’s very easy to know if I’m doing things for my ego because it doesn’t serve anything, rather when I know I’m doing it for a greater purpose.”
What are ways you sustain yourself in order to do the work that’s important to you?
“First off, I have to really understand how I operate and process information in the world. Everyone in society plays a role in sustaining Mother Nature. I have come to realize when I’m doing my best work, I’m processing information and sharing it, being a storyteller and bringing it to the public. It doesn’t mean it’s not emotionally tasking to speak out against climate justice, social justice, and racial justice, it’s just that that’s the role I have decided to play and has been assigned to me.
“The biggest thing people ask me is about what they can do in the sustainability world. What’s the first step? We have to be so self aware of ourselves first: our actions, our biases, our preconceived notions, of how we behave in the world. We don’t need any more critics in the world, we need more self-awareness. That leads to a more sustainable life because you’re more intentional with what you consume, with who you vote for. You’re not thinking about yourself anymore, you’re thinking about the collective. The most ironic thing is, the more self-aware you are, the more you think for the collective more than your individual self, because you understand how you’re connected to this larger whole.”
Do you think it takes a heightened sense of empathy?
“100%. Sustainability at its core is understanding the love that happens between ourselves and treating everything that we love in this respectful way. And if we don’t love ourselves or have self-respect for ourselves, how are we ever going to do that for the world we live in, the home we live in, our community we’re serving? That’s sustainability at its purest form.”
What’s been your journey in the sustainability space, and how has it evolved into your role today?
“This all came together when I was at university. I was a fast fashion addict for a few years, but at the same time I was an environmental studies student and always had a love for our earth. It wasn’t until I picked up Ecologist Guide to Fashion when I bridged my two worlds. That was an eye-opening book for me because I realized how my personal choices in fashion were directly contributing to my concerns for our earth. At the same time, I learned in an environmental policy course how difficult it is to actually change policies through government because of this iron triangle where there’s corporate interest, bureaucracy, and legislators — it takes time to change policy. So my understanding was that conscious consumerism was one of the quickest ways to go about change. That’s when I started blogging about a conscious lifestyle.
“As I dug deeper, there were so many issues of access and greater systems of justice that predetermined choice for a lot of people. A lot of people don’t have access to fresh foods, let alone organic or regenerative options. And with increasing wealth disparity, more people are reliant on purchasing cheap goods just to survive. These things then bleed into the exploitation of more land and labor. So it’s kind of a vicious cycle that requires a more systemic and holistic approach. I’m a curious person but at the same time it’s overwhelming to learn about these issues and sit with the immensity of everything. That’s what led to me starting Green Dreamers, for me to be able to interview people working on solutions in all sorts of different areas and to be able to connect those dots.”
Which episodes of your podcast have shifted how you think about sustainability going forward?
“There are now over 300 episodes, and every conversation has been integral to my personal growth and learning. A topic I’m interested in right now is biocultural diversity. It speaks to how there are aligning trends between biodiversity loss, cultural diversity loss, and language diversity loss. And it isn’t a coincidence, they should really be seen as one and the same. Indigenous language and cultures emerge from place, so place-based knowledge of care-taking for very specific, unique landscapes is also embedded in native cultures and world views and vocabularies. I learned a lot of this from my conversation with Galina Angarova, the director of the nonprofit Cultural Survival.
“Another memorable conversation I had was with chef Sean Sherman; the question he raised was ‘Why is it that we can go to any major city in the U.S. and dine at restaurants with cuisines from all over the globe, but not the cuisines native to the place that these cities are?’ That really illuminated a deep problem with our food system, in that it has no relationship to these native landscapes because indigenous ecology was destroyed and wiped out as intentional colonial efforts to control native peoples. A third one was with Sanjay Rawal, the director of the film Gather, who says that we can’t see ecology being separate from culture and language. All this points to the fact that if we want to heal our lands, we can’t just focus on the ecology aspect, we also have to heal the historically harmed communities and honor and support indigenous leadership, rights, and sovereignty.”
How do we apply that approach to the sustainability choices we can make individually each day?
“Ultimately it’s about building relationships to place. Oftentimes in the mainstream environmental movement people will ask, ‘What is the most sustainable XYZ?’ but I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘the most sustainable.’ It’s more about what’s the best fit for this bioregion, taking into account history and culture. The broad [pieces of sustainability advice] still stand. But in terms of buying new things and supporting the regeneration of ecologies, that’s when it’s important to look to place-based solutions. The beginning would be learning whose indigenous lands you’re on and engaging with and supporting indigenous rights struggles of the people who call those lands their ancestral homes.”
What has the past year taught you about being a thought leader in sustainability?
“I learned that it’s important to keep sharpening your critical thinking skills. There are a lot of narratives coming out of the sustainability space that might be influenced by corporate interest, so it’s important not to take anything at face value. The environmental movement and sustainability often get co-opted by corporations wanting to greenwash it into things that people can buy, but we really need relational shifts with the earth, deeper transformations, and systemic changes.”
What are some of the inherent challenges of running a stationery company while prioritizing sustainability and how do you address them?
“Paper takes up most of the space in landfills even though it’s one of of the materials you can recycle, reuse, and biodegrade, but there’s such a lack of information and responsibility on part of both industry and consumers as far as what we do with paper products when we’re done with them. One of the misunderstandings in sustainability is the weight of personal action. I do things on a daily basis on my own but where I feel the most impact is through Aya, because of the whole production process and helping all my vendors. Some of my vendors are sustainable and some I’m working with to get them to understand why you might want to change a process to be more environmentally responsible.
‘The thing I’m most proud of with Aya is seeing the grand scale of that impact, even with people we work with on a one-off basis. For example, we worked with Netflix last summer to create custom cards that they sent to their Emmy nominees and that was a great opportunity to get them to understand that they can be environmentally responsible without sacrificing quality or style. I think that’s what Aya does for a lot of people.”
How did you develop your own relationship with sustainability, and eventually make it a focus of your career?
“It took me a while to have a relationship with sustainability. Going up in northern New Jersey, it wasn’t something that was talked about or that I saw. As I got older I realized that communities like mine are where you’re most impacted by these issues. I grew up seeing litter all the time and didn’t think anything of it until I went to other neighborhoods and saw people who didn’t look like me and realized that wasn’t a problem. That’s one of the things I’m trying to dispel with Aya: You may not see people who look like you when you’re looking at sustainability, but it does matter for you and does impact you. I want to help people understand, from the small scale to big scale, the things we can do and ways things are impacting us that we may not always realize. Also, understanding how sustainability is tied to racial justice, and how it’s tied to gender justice, and how it’s tied to health and equal rights. Aya has a unique opportunity to use design to bring these things to people’s awareness and get them invested in what they can do.”
Aya speaks directly to communities of color who have been underrepresented in the greeting card industry. What has been your experience of bringing more options to the market?
“I’ve always been into greeting cards and stationary. Growing up, I was the designated card-writer in my family. But I always realized when I was in stationery stores that so many of the designs looked the same and none of them identified with me. There was a section made for Black people, but even then I would feel isolated because the line had very religious undertones and if you’re a Black person who isn’t a Christian, how do you find yourself represented? Or if you’re a queer person of color, you can’t find a Valentine’s Day card to celebrate your love. What does that do for how you express your love if you can’t find something that represents you? I wanted to use Aya as an opportunity to do that for people.
“Whenever I talk about Aya I bring up the beauty industry because that’s the perfect example: Growing up, I constantly saw products telling me my hair wasn’t right, and how to fix it. It felt like a dramatic shift in my teenage years when all of a sudden there are products made for Black, natural hair and there’s pride in that. That’s the goal I have with stationery and gifting. I love that the industry is growing and there are more alternatives to choose from aside from the standard thing you might have at your convenient store, and hopefully one day soon we can be one of those options, too.”
How do you sustain yourself so you can continue with the goals you’ve set for yourself and Aya?“
When I was first starting to understand sustainability, it was very complex. You think about sustaining the earth and its resources. But the other way to understand it is, ‘How does this lifestyle sustain me as a person?’ There are no black-and-white rules, there’s no one way to do it. For me, that means giving myself grace to not be perfect at it. At home, I want to cook all my food but sometimes I have to order out because I’ve been working all day. I give myself the OK to do that sometimes. Even with the business, all our products and packaging are made with recycled materials, but for stickers, there are almost no options that are 100% recycled. It’s about not feeling like a failure just because every single thing isn’t perfect. It’s about being clear about our definition of sustainability, what our values are, not comparing ourselves to others, and being open to constant evolution —because our capacity to do certain things will change as we grow.”
What brought you to working in sustainability, and eventually co-founding Intersectional Environmentalist?
“I started my environmental journey when I was in college. A friend of mine proposed this idea for us to live zero-waste. I gave a lot of pushback at first but after challenging ourselves to try it out, I started appreciating it. I started a blog a year later called Sustainable Sabs where I documented my journey and shared zero-waste tips, vegan recipes, and other things. It was very insightful and very much an unlearning of a lot of ways. Later, I moved to New York and got connected with the sustainability community here.
“I started learning more about how the environmental movement is larger than just plastic waste, it’s larger than just buying second-hand — there are so many ways and people that are impacted by the climate crisis. I adopted a lower-impact lifestyle that encompassed a more holistic perspective of sustainability. Low-impact living lowers the pressure of perfection toward living zero-waste and allowed me to have a more well-rounded perspective on environmentalism. That was two and a half years ago.
“This past summer, after the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of silence within the environmental community and big zero-waste accounts, which I’d looked up to. The zero-waste community online is very white, elite, and privileged in many ways and doesn’t really hold conversations around what an accessible zero-waste lifestyle looks like. Can everybody afford to buy organic vegetables at the farmer’s market? That pushed me toward adopting this idea of intersectional environmentalism, which is when the company was founded.”
How does low-waste living take some of the perfectionism out of being sustainable?
“I’ll never knock individual action. It’s so important, especially when we realize the ripple effect that our actions can have, but it’s also important to remember that there are a hundred companies that are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions. When individuals are told we need to recycle more and cut down our waste, it’s shifting the blame to the consumer about things we didn’t necessarily have a choice in. So recognizing that we as individuals are not the culprits of the climate crisis is an important mindset. I always encourage people, even if there’s one thing they can do each week or month, just to adopt that new habit. Once you have that habit down you can adopt another habit. After a year changing your habits, you can look back and be like ‘Hey I’ve actually been able to cut down on 50%, 75% or 90% of all the waste I produce.’ And hopefully at that point you’ll encourage the people surrounding you to create positive change.”
The last year has shown huge growth for IE, but as a whole has been incredibly difficult for so many communities. What has that taught you about being a thought leader in sustainability?
“It’s really important for us to have decentralized leadership in any justice movement. If there’s only one person at the top, that person is subject to being wrong sometimes or missing the mark and there are so many incredible voices that we should be listening to that don’t get the amplification they deserve. So, as much as possible it’s important to shift the narrative and bring these voices to light.
“What I’ve learned the last year is everybody can be an environmental advocate. You don’t have to have all mason jars in your pantry, you don’t have to give up every little thing in your life to be more sustainable. We can all take steps towards sustainability and be an advocate in our own right, whether that’s saying no to a plastic straw or calling a representative. We shouldn’t be intimidated by the idea that we have to be perfect to be a leader in this movement because we need as many people as we can get in order to combat this climate crisis.”
Kristy Drutman, creator/host of Brown Girl Green, consultant, and assistant lecturer at UC Berkeley
How do you personally define sustainability?
“Being able to provide clean air, clean water, and healthy soil for people from all different backgrounds, regardless of your socioeconomic background, gender, race, religion. Whatever mechanisms, whether institutions or social, that allow for that to happen, I view that as sustainability.”
You’ve been vocal about wanting to redefine what it means to be an environmentalist in the 21st century. What led you on that path?
“I grew up in a conservative hometown where I wasn’t exposed to these issues. I knew caring about the planet and recycling was important but I didn’t know how deep these issues were that were systemically impacting and oppressing marginalized communities. I didn’t realize it until I went to college, especially when I found out that Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, where my family is from. Climate change became very personal to me. I studied environmental policy and city panning in undergrad in UC Berkeley because I really wanted to figure out the solutions to these issues. But unfortunately, I felt really isolated because I didn’t see many people who looked like me in my classes or my instructors. I got burned out in my second year of college and felt a huge disconnect; I couldn’t relate to the work and didn’t know why I was even in the field.
“A few years later, I found other people of color in my undergraduate studies who felt similar, so we formed a group called the Students of Color Environmental Collective and it led me to this new journey. I realize from those who came before me that there are a lot of justice concerns even within advocating for environmental issues. It validated for me that it wasn’t all in my head: There was this divide of resources and attention that’s placed on BIPOC people in this space and a lack of representation. I realized there needed to be a space where environmental issues and sustainability are accessible to more people. Specifically, we need to uplift the work of environmental justice organizations that are on the ground doing that work and not getting the same amount of attention as mainstream organizations. For me, that’s changing the image of what it means to be an environmentalist. That’s where the Brown Girl Green podcast emerged from, where I can actually interview people who do have that cultural nuance I’ve never heard or seen in the media.”
Since your podcast launched in 2017, what’s been one of the most impactful discussions you’ve been able to facilitate?“
“The episode I did on climate change and disability. People don’t really think about the disabled community when talking about the climate crisis. The folks I interviewed were so brilliant and talked about how even disaster response programs don’t prioritize disabled people. You need to have disability advocates at the table when talking about these issues. It also made me start thinking about the accessibility of my own content: The way I display content, be it the size of text or color, impacts how well I can reach an audience that has disabilities.”
When you’re collaborating with brands and nonprofits, what does the process look like so you don’t compromise your sustainability standards?
“I have a scorecard for when I work with brands. I crowdsource information from my audience about what they feel is important to know to determine whether or not a brand is greenwashing or is genuinely sustainable or ethical. I grade a brand based on the company’s labor practices, environmental standards, and other things related to my brand and personality. I also always ask a series of questions before agreeing to work with them. At the end of the day, it’s more important for me to have integrity than to get that money. And that’s definitely being in a privileged position.”
Learn more about Patrón’s efforts to limit environmental impact here.
THE PERFECT WAY TO ENJOY PATRÓN IS RESPONSIBLY. ©2021. PATRÓN, ITS TRADE DRESS AND THE BEE LOGO ARE TRADEMARKS. HANDCRAFTED IN MEXICO. IMPORTED BY THE PATRÓN SPIRITS COMPANY, CORAL GABLES, FL. TEQUILA – 40% ALC. BY VOL.
As we move on to the next post, may I add that geoFence blocks unwanted traffic and disables remote access from FSAs!