Talking Zero Waste with Fashion Conscious Collective

Yesterday I caught up with Elle Cooper, the founder of Fashion Conscious Collective, for a chat on IGTV about living a zero waste lifestyle. Fashion Conscious Collective, is a female black-owned company that aims to empower women-led startups and small businesses that sell fashion, beauty and lifestyle products. They advocate for supporting local produce and shopping responsibly. 

There’s so much more I felt I could have said so I thought I’d put down a summary here as well as add in the extra information and tips that I forgot to mention. If you’d like to watch the full interview, you can find it here. 

What is a low waste or zero waste lifestyle and what is the difference between zero waste and low waste?

I’d like to mention upfront that I’m not an expert on living a zero waste lifestyle as my journey only began about a year ago but I’d really enjoyed the process thus far and would love to be able to inspire others to be more conscious about reducing their waste. I started my journey to low waste living after reading Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. While I prefer using the term “low waste” as I’m far from reaching Zero Waste status, Bea Johnson, importantly, uses “zero waste” as that’s the goal we should all be striving towards. The process took her 7 years to get to so it’s a good reminder to all of us starting out that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s about making small, incremental changes and eventually, I hope to also fit all my annual waste into one tiny jar. 

Living low waste involves making conscious decisions to reduce landfill waste in an effort to lower our carbon footprint and reduce plastic pollution. It involves minimal living and when it comes to fashion, emphasises the need for a capsule wardrobe where multiple outfits can be created from only a few essential pieces. 

Explain the 5R's of living zero waste and how we can easily incorporate them into our daily lives.

When I was growing up, I only ever learned about the 3R’s - reduce, reuse and recycle. I thought by recycling I was being super eco-friendly. In fact recycling should be one of our last options if we want to truly live sustainable low waste lifestyles. 

  • Refuse - don’t accept freebies - pamphlets, free conference pens, shopping bags, hotel amenities etc. 

  • Reduce - minimise the groceries you buy, do a massive clean out of your home and wardrobe - those exercise pants that you never feel comfortable in - get rid of them and stop buying new clothes - buy thrifted items instead. Low waste also incorporates services and utilities - reduce the amount of water you waste during your 20 minute long showers and reduce the amount of electricity you use by switching off the lights and switching to more sustainable solutions.  

  • Reuse - here’s where zero waste can become a little too trendy and lose the essence of what it’s trying to achieve. Although you will need a few essential refill containers to get you started - you don’t need to go out and buy new ones. Use what you have or collect glass jars from the products you use and over time you’ll have a beautiful matching set. Consider whether you really need your own metal straw, or could you just do without it? Could your reusable water bottle double up as your take away coffee container? 

  • Recycle - plastic, metals, paper and glass are some of the traditional things that can be readily recycled. Beware when it comes to recycling that plastic-coated papers are near impossible to recycle. Most zero waste stores will also offer a collection point to responsibly recycle electronics, light bulbs, batteries etc. 

  • Rot - in a zero waste home whatever can’t be reused or recycled should be able to rot. Anything made from a natural fibre can rot so things like pure cotton, bamboo and hemp clothing could also be buried at the end of their lifespan. This is a good one to remember when you really can’t find a specialised piece of clothing at a thrift store - buy natural fibres instead as they’ll decompose at the end of their lifespan. 

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Is it possible to live a zero waste lifestyle? 

If Bea Johnson can do it I think we all can. It’s certainly been possible to live a low waste lifestyle although zero waste may take me years of changing habits it’s certainly something to aspire towards. 

What are some of the benefits of living  a zero waste lifestyle? 

It may not always seem like it when you’re at the zero waste store, buying organic brown rice but living low waste does save costs. For example, I no longer have to buy cotton pads to clean my face as I’ve switched to reusable ones and switching to a menstrual cup means I don’t have to buy tampons. 

I also enjoy it because, with my current nomadic lifestyle, I can buy as I need. This is great for travellers or occasional bakers as you could go to your local waste store and literally get 2 teaspoons of baking powder if that’s all your recipe asked for. I top up my 100ml travel bottles with just enough shampoo and conditioner to last me for two-week trips, they fit in my carry on and reduce the weight of my luggage.  

Lastly, it lends itself to other healthier, more sustainable ways of living. By shopping low waste, you’re avoiding those middle sections of the supermarket that are filled with processed foods that are bad for your health anyway and most of them contain palm oil.  By shopping low waste you’re more likely to buy whole foods and detergents that are chemical-free - enabling you to eat a whole foods, plant-rich diet that is also low tox. 

How do you gradually introduce a waste-free lifestyle in your home?

  1. Start by minimising, go all Mari Kondo and look at what items actually bring you joy. This was by far the most enjoyable part for me. It was so refreshing to look at my wardrobe, after I had cleaned it out and go, “Ok, I only have these clothes to choose from now.” It freed up so much space in my mind to focus on other important things in my day.  Is there a shirt you keep but every time you wear it you don’t feel good in it, why hang on to it? Repurpose it or donate it. 

  2. Start shopping in the bulk or loose produce aisles at your local supermarket. Take your own bags along and ask the teller to stick the prices directly on to your reusable bag. 

  3. Locate a zero waste store near you - these can be costly as most zero waste stores tend to also support organic, ethically produced foods so if budget is tight try to source as many items as you can from your local supermarket or bakery. The Refillery is a really nice one in Johannesburg and I shop at The Hive when in Kuala Lumpur. 

  4. Ask for digital gifts for special occasions. Elle mentioned that she also asked for no cards which I loved. Can you write your special message as a text or on a leaf instead? When you’re ready - try no gifts at all. 

How can we effectively reduce waste in our kitchen?

  • Start with a clean out - assess what you actually use. Do you need 5 serving platters or will 2 suffice? Do you have the “special occasion” mentality where certain crockery is only used on specific days of the year? Why not enjoy those items everyday? 

  • Gather containers - zero waste doesn’t need to be Instagram worthy and if you really want it to be collect the same glass jar over time. The deli across from our apartment sold all sorts of condiments in the same glass jar with a gold lid. Over a couple of months I gathered 20 jars and had a pretty good looking collection for my shelves.

  • When you absolutely can’t shop zero waste, choose paper, tin or glass over plastic packaging. 

 Can you explain composting and how it can be achieved in small homes?

As I’m still starting out and have lived in an apartment building for the last year and now travel full time, I haven't figured this area out as yet. It’s something I can’t wait to start doing when I am more settled. 

How do you make time to prepare and cook meals ahead?

I’ve tried meal prepping but I didn’t enjoy the inflexibility of it or the lack of spontaneity. I don’t make time for meal prep but really admire people who do. Because I’m 90% plant based I do buy dried beans and soak them overnight - so usually I’ll soak them on Sunday night, cook them the next day and have them for the rest of the week. I also roughly plan my meals for the week ahead of a grocery shop so I don’t end up buying things that will go to waste. 

One helpful tip I picked up from Bea Johnson’s book was to cycle your meals. For example, you could always have a pasta dish on Monday nights, rice on Tuesdays and potatoes on Wednesdays. That way you know that each week you do your grocery haul, you need to get the same amount of pasta, rice and potatoes. It might sound like you’ll end up the same thing every week but it’s really not the case. The possibilities of what you pair them with or how you flavour them are endless. 

What impact do our products have on the environment? Particularly those that aren't made sustainably?

  • They pollute our fresh water systems, fresh water is not a renewable resource. 

  • They end up in small organisms at the bottom of our food chain, larger animals eat them, we eat those animals. 

  • They exasperate rapid growth of certain species which then dominate the ecosystem. 

  • Depending on how they’re made they may even exploit the human rights of the people who make them. 

What are the number one eco-conscious practices we should introduce in our bathrooms? 

  • By eco friendly soaps, toothpastes etc - when you shop zero waste, you’ll be doing this by default. 

  • Swap plastic cotton buds for bamboo ones or don’t use them at all. 

  • Swap cotton swabs for reusable ones

  • Get your own dispenser bottles that can be refilled at the zero water store - they look way prettier that branded packing anyway. 

  • Ladies, ditch the tampons for a menstrual cup or period underwear

 

What are some of the products we should avoid buying?

 The beauty of shopping low waste is that you’ll avoid a lot of harmful chemicals and for the most part, be supporting a more sustainable community. Some things I try to avoid are: 

  • Anything that’s tested on animals

  • Any product from a company that exploits the rights of their workers or provides poor working conditions

  • Synthetic colours and fragrances

  • Palm oil which can be disguised as many different ingredients

  • Parabens 

  • BPA in bottles can be carcinogenic 

  • In SPF - Oxybenzone - look for reef safe sunscreens

What’s been the biggest challenge when shopping low waste? 

I’m a bit conflicted between shopping low waste or organic because I’m reading an amazing book called Food Fix that looks at how industrial agriculture, GMO’s, pesticides and fertilizers are not only harming our bodies but through the degradation of soil, are the main contributing factor to climate change.  When it comes to fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, I’m not able to find organic produce that’s loose or in bulk so if I want to shop organic I have to compromise on the plastic. Right now I don’t know if one is worse than the other so it’s a contentious issue in my brain but when I get back to Joburg I’m looking forward to ordering from The Munching Mongoose who provide farm to table organic produce at specific collection points. 

 

Thanks to Elle and the team from Fashion Conscious Collective for having me as your guest on IGTV. Check them out to see the amazing work they’re doing in the sustainable space.

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