January 21st, 2021
Read the interview below to learn more about Darby's experience as a business owner and hear some of her own personal philsophies about waste and sustainable living.
Maddie: Hi Darby! Thanks for joining me today for Tea With Friends! This interview series is dedicated to young professionals in the various realms of the environmental and sustainability field. Are you drinking tea right now?
Darby: Happy to be here! And yes, I’m drinking very strong ginger tea.
Maddie: Gotta love some ginger. I'm slurping down some ginger chai myself. So, Darby, can you tell our readers a little bit about Without Waste Shop?
Darby: My friend Charlotte and I started Without Waste Shop in 2019, out of a desire to help combat plastic pollution. The shop began as a farmers-market based ‘zero waste’ refill station in Los Angeles. Our customers could bring their own bottles to refill with home and body products, with the goal of keeping single-use plastic bottles out of the landfill and the ocean.
We stopped attending the market in March because of - you guessed it - Covid. By not attending the market, we had time to reflect on our goals and think about how our business fits into the bigger picture of environmental advocacy. We’ve evolved into a local contactless delivery service. We also have an online shop that sells a handful of ‘zero waste’ reusable products that we find are actually helpful in reducing personal waste.
These days, we focus a lot on our blog, where we can share resources for living more sustainably and with less waste. We want to take a holistic look at our waste problem and not pin all of the blame on individuals. Instead, we want to share how governments, businesses, and individuals can make a difference.
Maddie: It's really cool that you were able to identify a problem, a solution, and create a business out of it, especially a business with morals! I also want to ask, as a young professional and entrepreneur, what would you say led you to start your own business? Where do you draw inspiration?
Darby: I’ve always wanted to start my own business; I even majored in business entrepreneurship. But as I was finishing up college, I started to feel that business for business’ sake didn’t really align with my growing concern for the planet.
At that time, I had just moved onto a sailboat. Being around the ocean was part of my daily life, and it forced me to pay attention to the gross amounts of human garbage that end up in the ocean. After a rain, the marina was literally swamped with garbage, and I’d see that same garbage five miles out at sea.
Charlotte and I started attending beach cleanups hosted by the Surfrider Foundation. It wasn’t uncommon for the team of volunteers to collect over 500 pounds of trash in a four-hour timeframe. So much of this trash - the bottle caps, pens, straws, bottles, and plastic bags - were recognizable as objects from my own life.
We started making personal efforts to reduce plastic and other trash, but we knew it would take a village to make much of a difference. Plus, refillable and reusable alternatives were few and far between. By starting a zero waste shop, we could enable sustainable living and help groups like Surfrider to expand local environmental advocacy.
We’re inspired by companies that use business as a form of activism. The list of such companies is growing all the time, but some great examples are Patagonia and Bureo. They’re not nonprofits, but they’re not operating just to make a profit. Businesses certainly need to make money, but they should also operate with a higher purpose.
Maddie: It's really interesting to see how you were inspired through local activism and volunteer work. I am sure that collecting 500 pounds of garbage at your local beach can be really alarming and force you into taking futher action against waste. When we're talking about waste I wonder if you can tell us a bit more about what sustainability means to you and what it means for your business?
Darby: To me, sustainability means creating ways for people to live that does not compromise the health of the planet or the health and quality of life of the people on it. If our human world was sustainable, future generations could carry on doing exactly as we do now and not face the loss of liveability.
Today, we live in a linear, take-make-waste economic model that our finite planet cannot sustain. We have to transition to a circular economy, where everything can be repurposed indefinitely. If we fully applied our ingenuity, the human world could mimic the wastelessness of nature.
In my business, sustainability involves committing to do better than the triple bottom line so that social and environmental concerns pull more weight in decision-making than profit. We want to have a net positive impact by doing good instead of less bad.
Maddie: That's great! We need more business people thinking like this. I don't know much about starting a business, can you tell us what it was like to start your own business and create your brand? What were some of the challenges?
Darby: Starting any business is a massive challenge, but rejecting conventions such as plastic packaging adds a whole extra dimension of difficulty. Plastic is a major ingredient in the supply chain, and regulations make it practically illegal for most businesses to do without. Finding suppliers that were willing to go zero-plastic was challenging. And we still are not totally plastic-free. With our suppliers that will not refill our glass containers, we minimize plastic by ordering the largest shipment order possible. Then we deliver the plastic containers ourselves to a local recycling facility to make sure that the containers get recycled.
Another challenge specific to this business is the fact that refill is a new concept to most people. At the market, we explained to every customer what refill is, how it works, and why it is important. Luckily, 99.9% of responses were extremely enthusiastic. Creating our brand became a lot of fun when we were able to feed off the excitement of our customers. And realizing that so many people do care about the environment and want to make personal changes deepened our sense of purpose.
Maddie: I think businesses are moving more in this direction so I hope it gets easier to find plastic free suppliers. As we close out here, do you have any advice to give people just starting out in the environmental or sustainability field?
Darby: You should try to connect with like-minded people in the sustainability field. There are SO many jobs in sustainability and the environment, with more opportunities coming up every day as the world moves towards clean energy and improved waste management. Join Facebook groups and look around on LinkedIn to connect with other sustainability professionals.
Also, every single industry has and needs sustainability workers, from banks to utility companies to retail, so keep an open mind when looking for jobs. Green jobs aren’t limited to Greenpeace and Sea Shepard. You can even make a positive impact working at Exxon mobile. Just keep a vigilant watch for greenwashing jobs disguised as sustainability jobs.
Maddie: It is definitely tough to find jobs these days. I can see why creating a business and working for yourself seems appealing! Lastly, do you have a dream job?
Darby: My dream job would be to do exactly what I do now, but from a sailboat in the South Pacific or Norway, while spending half the year at my regenerative farm/food forest, where I also build earth ships.
Maddie: Well hopefully we will be sailing to Catalina Island with you soon, Darby! Thank you so much for all of your advice and inspiration. Let's catch up soon.
Darby: Thanks for having me!