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Seeking fulfillment out of material goods might be a thing of the past. You may ponder why the era of communicating affluence through conspicuous consumption and marbel-laden mega mansions is entirely passé, and paradoxically, modern life has paved way to a such a neo-Luddite movement as Zero Waste living, one defined by ditching the idea of living in piles of excessive material possessions and encouraging us to live in holistic harmony with nature and our roots. The new wave of role models show that living with less clutter does not mean transforming back to the Stone Age: on the contrary — a pursuit not to be mixed up with a degree of naive willfulness — hopping on the bandwagon of the modern movement mirroring a more mindful moral codex exposes a myriad of joy-sparking benefits. Living in perfect sync with one’s true needs paired with minimizing one’s ecological footprint invites less chaos and more clarity, focus and order in your life, as a result of breaking free from materialism. Applying rationalism to consumption may not come inhibitory, but those in the know are now stripping bare — the winner is the one who owns less things.
“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” as the 39th U.S president Jimmy Carter already famously put it in his Crisis of Confidence speech in 1979, narrowing down a timeless law of nature that owning more things might not make us any happier, but quite the contrary, “does not satisfy our longing for meaning”.
As a counter reaction, the Zero Waste movement is having a momentum celebrating a shift away from materialism. The movement’s root cause goes hand in hand with the backdrop of the media’s stark headlines giving a final warning to act upon impending climate change.
Climate change and the growing population outliving our natural resources given by the Earth are definitely playing a pivotal role in why people are reconsidering greening up their consumption habits and integrating the promisingly blissful ideologies of waste-free living, enabling us to contribute to the bigger picture. “Climate change can be really scary to think about, after all, how can you as one person fix something like that? Zero Waste living is a way to actionably be able to take some steps to help reduce our impact on the planet,” articulates Kathryn, author behind the Going Zero Waste (https://www.goingzerowaste. com) blog. Another contributing factor is the issue with plastic waste that has excruciatingly surfaced especially after the Millennium — according to University of California research, nearly all plastic ever manufactured has been made since 2000, and less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled globally.
Sugar-coating the reality here might serve no purpose: the destructive effects of overconsumption are also backed up by the latest statistics. According to Frontier Group, an organisation providing information and ideas to help citizens build a cleaner, healthier and more democratic America, the U.S. produces more than 30 percent of the planet’s total waste, while forming only 4 percent of the world’s population. A Columbia University study estimates that Americans throw out 7 pounds of materials per person every day — that’s 2,555 pounds of materials per American every year.
Yet understanding that the way we consume is toxic for our precious planet is just one side of the coin — we must understand that our each and every action does carry some weight, and to practice what we preach. To bridge the gap between a comfortable living and hitting the target in our personal contribution to minimising our ecological footprint, the key is to familiarise ourselves with the various approaches to curb down waste and stay adamant in setting a clear vision for long-term results. Luckily, the prevalence of new sustainable models integrating mindful living in harmony with nature proves that the movement might soon become a universal truth rather than a momentarily passing trend practiced by a few select ones.
Thus, by definition, Zero Waste economy encourages people to engage in minimal waste production and includes environmentally- friendly practices and circular models, such as recycling, upcycling, composting, increasing the reuse and repair of goods, going entirely plastic-free and opting for second hand clothing whenever possible, benefitting both the communities and the environment.
Apart from the current sociocultural climate, a movement towards minimalism also fits well with the notorious icons of our popular culture encouraging us to purify our surroundings. While Japanese tidiness expert Marie Kondo has brought on the trend of organising and maximising our ability to make our homes shine bright like diamond dust on her popular Netflix show ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’, advising us to keep only what ‘sparks joy’, French author Bea Johnson, on the other hand, has written an entire book on minimising household waste called Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order) is my family’s secret to reducing our annual trash to a jar since 2008,” states the Zero Waste author, proving that the comfort versus cutting down one’s ecological footprint dilemma can be effortlessly resolved with the right action plan.
And there’s more to the movement — instead of communicating affluence with marble bolstered mega mansions, eco-savvy Millennials are playing their part and are now opting for ‘tiny houses’ instead of glossy, super-sized penthouses fitted with all modern technologies. The progressive trend has been backed up by construction companies, such as Earthship and Tiny House CC, now accommodating a whole spectrum of tactile eco-conscious facilities for the Zero Waste newcomers’ growing needs. So why is generation Y voluntarily willing to pursue the most altruistic pursuit to cocoon in a home with less capacity for the material? It might be that the practice of living in harmony with nature is nothing new, but just the century has changed. “The tiny house movement has gained some notoriety because many individuals see the strain on our environment and the root cause is from humans and our way of life,” comments a representative from Earthship Biotecture team.
Even cities, such as San Francisco have gotten their act together to curb down the wasteful practices of the population. The Fog City now diverts 80 percent of disposed materials from landfills and incinerators thanks to its ‘Zero Waste by 2020’ program. Another example comes from closer to home, thanks to a variety of policies and programs, such as making manufacturers responsible for disposing of packaging, Germany now recycles and composts 87 percent of discarded materials and has no active landfills.
The movement has also inspired some significant documentaries centered around existentialism, making some brave ones truly question one’s raison d’être — the idea that we are constantly being brainwashed by technology, social media, advertisements and the entertainment industry telling us that we need more, bigger and better everything to be happy and fulfilled. Until one day we realise that whatever the amount of new and flashy possessions, we still feel empty and lost, alienated from the Self. So why are some of us letting go of the ideology that things define us and aspire to create more space for meaning and chase the pursuit of redefining their identities? Duo known as The Minimalists explores this link with existentialism. Their eponymous documentary tells a story of craving more depth in life — defined by other than the things we own — to make space for the simpler joy’s of life, like beauty, contributing to the community and seeking pleasure from other weird and wonderful things beyond advanced commodities. The concept was born when two ex-corporate world successes, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, quit their jobs, got rid of most of their belongings, started their website theminimalists.com, wrote their book Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists, and finally decided to document their full journey on film minimalismfilm.com. So could a purposeful shift away from materialism inspire life beyond having more flashy things and plant seeds to give our existence more depth? “Being more minimalist has the benefit to make you appreciate more than simply material possessions. You tend to see that there is more to life than simply purchasing unnecessary items,” a representative at the Earthship Biotecture team asserts. So indeed, the minimal movement could also be linked to that eternal urge to question the reason for one’s existence on this Earth, and find truth in one’s Self. Without the flashy add-ons.
Yet, on top of catering for the branch of existential ponderers and enlightenment gurus among us, we must say kudos to the instant speed of information exchange on activism, encouraging people to participate in productive planet-saving initiatives. The new media and various social media channels have brought on more knowledge on the rather gloomy outlook on climate change and plastic pollution, which also plays a key role in inspiring change.
Sinem Celik, a sustainability consultant, suggests that “a new level of consciousness has arisen with the environmental awareness and activism, which is spread by instant information and social media.” After 16 years of experience in the speedy spiral of the fashion industry, she has thus become a sustainability role model and set BluProjects — a mindful consultancy company in Istanbul — to share her expertise encouraging waste-reducing practices in the denim industry. So, after all, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Compared to the affluence era of early noughties when our purchases affecting our climate was still a mere afterthought, today it might not be so popular to in appear with a dozen high street fashion bags in your latest Instagram photo — let’s not forget we don’t live in the era of economic boom. Modern day it- girls of the L.O.H.A.S (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) influence group rather boast a green mindset and have gotten their act together in giving their all to reduce fashion consumption, cosmetics and household waste, even so much so that a carefully calculated CPR (item’s cost per wear) and ‘shopping detox’ have actually become a thing. But is there a way of cutting down on waste entirely, or this sounds an illusion too extreme to put into practice? These outspoken role models might unveil the mystical myth and gently guide a way from idea to action.
For Hanna Pumfrey, founder of UK’s first Zero Waste beauty retailer Acala, it all started when she was working as a marketing mana- ger in the city of London. She had her personal ‘wake-up call’ after encountering unbelievable amounts of plastic waste in the office. “I was sat at a desk in the office next to a bin. When I arrived at 8am, it was empty. By 10.30am, it had already been emptied twice by a facilities manager, as it was overflowing from people’s take-out breakfast waste. Then, the same again at lunch time — paper bags, plastic salad boxes, countless plastic knives and forks. And that was just one day,” explains Hanna. Witnessing mindless, unreasonable plastic waste inspired her to make a change in her own lifestyle and try out Zero Waste lifestyle, including going entirely plastic free. As she found making changes in the bathroom counter was the trickiest, highlighting the beauty industry’s shady other side, like unavoidable plastic packaging.
She took the challenge into heart and deci- ded to solve the problem head-on by setting up Acala, the UK-s first beauty retailer to go waste-free. And how to entirely fight the issue with all the plastic tubes and pretty packaging doomed to end up in the landfill with no afterlife in sight? “The vast majority of cosmetic products are packaged in cute, but totally unrecyclable containers. That plastic mascara tube, shrink-wrapped bar of soap, and disposable razor will just end up in the trash when you’re done with them. When you go Zero Waste, arrowroot powder replaces your aerosol dry shampoo and you invest in a stainless steel razor that has removable, recyclable blades,” says Hanna. “We also emphatically promote that it is not just about switching from a single-use plastic packaged product to another product in single-use packaging just another material”.
Ever since, more followers have become aware of the harmful impacts of plastic waste and contributed to the change of greening up their cosmetics and self-care choices. This is evident in the feedback Hanna gets on a daily basis that helps her to improve decision-making and take the market’s real needs into account. “At Acala, I get feedback daily from customers about how they are finding alternatives, where they are struggling and how cost impacts them. I also spend a lot of time researching supply chains and packaging for the business which has given me a much deeper understanding on things like bioplastics. This is all amazing learning”, she explains.
When asked about the importance of Zero Waste beauty, the founder brings out it all comes back to people understanding their bodies and (if going au naturel still seems too alienating) using just what they really need. To combat this challenge, she encourages to opt for refill options and ditch the packaging entirely, whenever possible. “Beauty is not about having the latest fad product. We promote DIY a lot, as this really reduces people’s consumption. We encourage and are actively working towards refill options. We already use reusable packaging for deliveries,” she reflects on her take on making a change in the beauty industry. She also reiterates that more and more people are getting engaged in environmental activism thanks to positive influencers spreading the do-good message via social media channels. More people are also willing to reconsider their values based upon other con- tributing factors, such as the growing transparency of brands, peer pressure and raw, investigative journalism. “We are heading towards a tipping point where it will become socially unacceptable NOT to care. It is at this tipping point that we will start to see real change.”
And there might be more to greening up your beauty counter beyond the evident contribution of saving the environment. Hanna’s most exclusive insider advice on going entirely waste free? “Ladies, if you dare, start using baking soda as a deodorant. It works wonders — and no waste, no clutter, no chemicals”.
For some, the reason behind a drastic lifestyle change would be more practical: going through money worries and living a lavish lifestyle beyond their means may become a contributing factor making us re-evaluate our consumption habits one day. Such epiphany stroke Mia Frilander, Finnish fashion journalist writing about her personal experience with Zero Waste living on Musla.fi. Mia describes the experiment as ‘relieving’, making her question whether she really needed all the stuff she was buying on autopilot. She actually went as far as giving up shopping entirely for a period of six months to see her destructive habit of consumption from another, elevated perspective. “It was nice to take a step back and not partici- pate in consumer culture. It felt freeing to not have to make decisions about sartorial purchases. This made me want to try to simplify other things in my life,” she reflects on her 6-month period of credit card swipe free living.
For Mia, on top of having a better overview of her finances, going anti-consumerist for a period also brought about other positive changes. It has helped to curb her insecurities and has made her rely on who she really is as a per- son, instead of masking her femininity behind flashy clothing and expensive, branded make- up. “I felt like I was in this spiral where I was constantly looking for the next thing to buy and not feeling content with what I already had. I now realise that I shopped because of insecurity — thinking that new clothes would make me a more interesting and successful person,” she explains.
Unfortunately, the fascination with the new and pursuit for the better are a cultural phenomena affecting almost all of us, and no doubt, it takes a lot of stimuli to break apart from the deeply-rooted cultural ideologies. “I think it’s a problem in today’s world that we like new things too much. Brand new clothes and things, flawless skin, youthful appearances. New stuff just for the sake of buying something new. This leads to overconsumption and low self-esteem that, in turn, leads to buying more stuff in order to fit into impossible beauty standards,” Mia shares her thoughts. As material things only guarantee an illusion of power, Mia suggests finding a strategy to break up with old habits. The young woman has gotten much help from practicing the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. What does the exotic concept actually entail? “The wabi-sabi concept is the cure for all of these things: it celebrates the old and worn stuff you already have, helps you to see beauty in everything that’s broken and a bit off, and makes you look at yourself more lovingly.” Practicing the ideology, thus, brings acceptance. “Every time I look at myself in the mirror and see cellulite, fine lines or enlarged pores, I try to remember that, according to the wabi-sabi philosophy, these ‘flaws’ are interesting. Of course, it’s hard to unconditionally love your appearance in this crazy world that we live in now, but I find this train of thought helps a bit,” she adds.
Although the benefits of cherishing Zero Waste living outweigh the obstacles, it’s not all as rose-tinted as it sounds having to adapt to change when the alienating ‘less’ suddenly replaces the comforting ‘more’. We’re all human after all, and staying on track still takes adaptation. She also highlights a few pain points that might come about when getting engaged in the brave new world, like feeling guilty when you’re unable to give your 100%. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the rules in place when there’s so much choice all around us. “Today, the hardest part is to say no to a lot of unnecessary things that weren’t even an option in the past: disposable take away coffee cups, food wrapped in unnecessary plastic, a lot of food that is available out of season and transported here in unsustainable ways, fast and cheap fashion,” explains Mia. Yet it is important to move forward even taking baby steps. “It’s better to do even a little than giving up and doing nothing just because you feel you can’t commit because of your circumstances. There are some complicated periods, like now, when I have a busy job and I’m renovating my apartment and living in a place without a kitchen, plus it’s winter in Finland, so there are no nice farmers markets around.”
However, how has the influencer managed to keep up with her love of fashion, what we would think is the most wasteful of all industries? Although she loves clothing more than anything and does not hold back from sharing her joy of clothes on Instagram, Mia is still giving her all to stay on the radar of going as waste-free as possible concerning her sartorial fashion choices. “I’d love to be an example that you can be into fashion but still consume mindfully by buying second hand and being creative with your wardrobe,” the young woman shares. When asked about her personal minimal wardrobe life-hacks, she assures there are plenty of possibilities, “I have identified the pieces my wardrobe lacks and I keep a list of them in my phone (for example: a short vintage sherling coat, simple black sunglasses). I rarely buy anything that isn’t on my list. So, I tend to only buy stuff that feels like me and that I keep on using for years to come.” She also emphasises paying attention to quality control and choosing timeless items. “I also always ask myself: ‘Would I wear this in 20 years?’. This rules out impulse purchases: stuff that is trendy instead of timeless, and stuff that don’t really feel like my own style. Luckily, I already pretty much know which silhouettes, colours and materials I feel comfortable in,” says Mia.
As part of his activism work, chef Shane Jordan, UK-based Zero Waste pioneer in the food industry and author of the cookery book ‘Food Waste Philosohpy’, fights food waste by using a melange of leftover edible fruit and vegetable skins in his tasty, imaginative dishes. For Jordan, finding his calling being related to the Zero Waste movement became clear almost accidentally. But how did the tentative journey cutting down on food waste begin for the modern-day Britain’s most innovative chef in the first place?
“What started me on this ‘food waste journey’ was a non-profit organisation called Food- Cycle. Without that organisation, there’s a chance I might not be in this line of work. To cut a long story short, a friend of mine invited me to have lunch at a community centre. After eating my delicious three-course meal of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and basil, mixed vegetable curry with salad and fruit salad as dessert, I noticed the organisers were wearing aprons with ‘FoodCycle’ written on them. I was curious to know more about the initiative.” Shane then started volunteering at the organisation, and had soon enough established a reputation as a good cook and won over people’s hearts. He decided to take a leap of faith and continue educating people on reusing food waste. “People were excited to see me cooking, so I decided to take the step and use my skills to educate others on how to create meals from surplus food. Continuing to volunteer in the community centre, youth centres and later contacting editors of magazines to include my recipes and waste reducing advice.” He has since expanded his horizons challenging the status quo. “Now I don’t just promote waste-free recipes, but creating raw food recipes, making a meal in one pot, storage advice and even best ways to wash up easier,” says the brave chef.
Yet what is the one weapon that helps his message to actually reach people’s consciousness? “My goal is to highlight food awareness and allow people to see food from a different angle. For example, look at the food in its natural form and think about whether the skin, stalk or leaves are edible or inedible on food. I’m trying to explore cooking from farm to fork, all the way to the recycling process so people are fully informed and given the chance to make their own decisions,” he says.
When asked, why are initiatives, like the Zero Waste movement, gaining more visibility, Jordan brings out customers’ growing awareness about issues related sustainability, as well as the more predictable money-saving factor. “A mixture of being profit driven and fulfilling the needs of their customers have started this new trend. Businesses have realised that reducing waste saves money, and at the end of the day, the money factor is an important incentive. Another reason is listening to consumers and fulfilling their needs — customers have become more socially aware, due to social media and documentaries such as Blue Planet II, and want companies to be socially responsible as well,” the innovative chef concludes. Another undeniable fact is that food waste also contributes to climate change. “Most waste left over from recycling ends up in landfill sites. Food waste that decomposes in landfills releases methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. The problem is much of the general public are unaware of what climate change is, by definition”.
So what are the food maverick’s best tips of curbing food waste in the everyday? “One of the easiest ways to cut down on food waste starts before you even enter the supermarket — have a shopping list, whether it is a physical shopping list or shopping list app. This way, you know what you need and resist the temptation of buying things you don’t need,” he advises. “If you can’t finish it all you could put it in Tupperware and offer it to a close neighbour or a local community group,” he adds. Another way of food recycling is sharing your leftovers using an innovative meal-share app. “There’s an app called Olio which allows people to share their unwanted food with their neighbours, so surplus food can be shared and not thrown away. You make the item available on the app, add a photo, description and when and where the item is available for pick-up. To access items, simply browse the listings available near you, request what you would like to choose and arrange a pick-up via private messaging”.
Beyond the effect on the environment and community, on a personal level, Shane lists the benefits of consuming food more mindfully: ”It gives you more options, leading to control of your decisions. Knowing what you’re putting into your body and where it comes from allows you to make more informed decisions, which could lead to healthier eating and positive lifestyle changes,” the chef enthuses, adding: “Social media has also played a pivotal role in the way we see and consume food, and exposed revealing facts about our food and the ethics behind it. This information can alter the way we see food and allow us to become more aware and take control of our lives.”
For Tessa Clarke, founder of the Ohio based ethical fashion brand Grind and Glaze, the reason behind getting curious about Zero Waste lies in learning more about sustainability issues in the media. “I was in school when I began learning about ethics in fashion, specifically the Rana Plaza incident [in 2013]. I hated that I was getting my degree in such an ugly industry. It was then that I vowed to myself that I would only work for a company with good ethical and environmental standards,” explains the designer. “When I created Grind and Glaze, I vowed to do what I could to combat the bad standards in the industry, become an advocate for sustainable practices, and create products that last and don’t harm the people making them, or the environment in the process,” she adds.
Establishing a value system the maker herself would strongly believe in then became the key to launching her label circled around sustainability. Now Tessa is doing everything in her hands to reduce waste in the design and production process — ethics are at the very forefront of Grind and Glaze’s designs and business. Her latest collection consists of transitional pieces made from 100% Oeko Tex 100 standard natural fibers produced with Zero Waste principles in mind.
Yet how does the Zero Waste movement manifest itself in fashion? It is estimated that about 15-20 percent of the fabric used to produce clothing winds up in as waste, which is pretty gloomy stats. So, Zero Waste designers aim to create clothing patterns that leave less fabric on the cutting room floor. With a bit of wit and creativity, new geometrical cutting techniques and fashion silhouettes allow creators to reduce their textile waste as much as possible. Wise use of materials and recycling are the key components of cutting down waste Tessa has given a go with Grind and Glaze. “I also use only organic cotton and other eco-friendly textiles, such as hemp, silk, recycled polyester (made from plastic bottles), and tencel. I also try to use as much of the fabric as possible.”
What is left over could also be recycled into smaller accessories, like head bands or jewellery, but the fact is that for most designers, it’s more cost-effective and less time consuming to dump the scraps than try to recirculate them. “I recently laid out all of my leftover scraps from production and was a little shocked at how many large pieces of fabric were leftover. So, I decided to design tops and accessories from those scraps. They are limited edition, but they use all of the leftover fabric,” says Tessa. It is clear that there are no right and wrong ways to be Zero Waste, so it’s pretty much trial-and-error for any new creator in the field. “I’m learning to be as sustainable as possible with every new thing I create. There are no set rules on how to be Zero Waste and a sustainable business. I’m learning as I go.” She also produces her collection only in small batches.
Why should we opt for Zero Waste labels doing their best to minimise waste? “I strongly believe that Zero Waste and sustainability in fashion and other industries should be the norm. I believe, sooner rather than later, it is no longer a passing movement, but a habit for all businesses to practice. Sustainability should not be marketed as a single product, but a har- mony of all of the moving parts.” After all, according to Tessa, it also brings about positive change, such as less waste in landfills and less excess in production of new textiles, meaning less waste of future fabrics.
But is the young designer as radical about her personal consumption habits, we wonder? Tessa assures being part of the movement has definitely given her a better understanding of her own spending habits. As a slow shopper, she also encourages others to act less on impulse before they reach out for the another latest fast-fashion item. “I’ve been mindful of how I shop for a long time. I do not have the habit to splurge a lot on clothing and material things. So when I do spend, I buy something of quality, and something timeless. I stay away from general trends and shopping fast-fashion.” Tessa reiterates the importance of the statement “buy less, choose well”, and staying well aligned with your values when it comes to making mindful choices. She also highlights the importance of being well aware of the quality of the fashion items to minimise irrational decisions made on the go. “Don’t buy just because it’s a good deal, take a good look at your wardrobe and decide if it’s something that you need. Take a good hard look at where your clothes are made. If you’re paying a small amount of money on something, it’s likely made by someone who didn’t get paid fair wages.”
“For me, it makes me feel better as an innovator and as a consumer when I choose to reduce my waste in my design process,” Tessa concludes the rationale behind her mission as a fashion industry professional with a bold vision.
Words: Hannah - Amanda Pant