When Emma Street moved from New York City to Bangalore a year ago, she was little prepared for the turn her life would take in her new home. As a designer for a major international apparel brand, she was no stranger to the enormous pollution the industry is responsible for. Midway into her stay in India, she made two huge changes in her life - she quit her job of 8 years and decided to start living a minimal, zero-waste life.
Her blog The Sudie Mae School is where she documents her sustainable lifestyle, shares her progress, learnings and DIY tips, and inspires people to make changes in their own lives to reduce the amount of waste they create.
We spoke to Emma about about her waste-free journey so far and how it's changed her life.
What inspired your journey into zero-waste living and how did the the Sudie Mae School come about?
The longer I spent in the apparel industry, the more it bothered me because it’s really a wasteful industry in terms of the volume of stuff produced, the life span of goods, and how long they last before people throw them away and buy something new. In addition, production can be really wasteful with all the water and fossil fuels used, and the chemicals that go into the water, all of which add to our overall imprint. We’re probably the second most polluting industry in the world.
In addition, throughout my travels in India, I've been seeing that there’s waste everywhere and lots of plastic pollution in canals and waterways. Hiking in Kerala is what really got the wheels turning. We were in Munnar hiking up a gorgeous hillside and we came down through a gorgeous tea estate. As we approached the village, there was just trash everywhere. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen in my entire life and I just couldn't believe it, but it started to get me thinking. Americans create 3 times more waste than the average Indian but just because we put it some place you can't see it doesn't make it any better.
I started researching other people who are trying to cut back on their waste and I came across lots of zero-waste bloggers. At the time, I didn't even know there was a movement called zero-waste living where people try to live without creating any waste whatsoever and learn little switches they can make in their life like carrying a reusable water bottle or coffee cup instead of buying disposables. I got fired up about it. That got me thinking about all the people I know who live with minimal impact and I thought of my grandmother who is Sudie Mae. Growing up, I always thought she was weird but I find her so inspirational now - she lived in a tiny house, had exactly what she needed, grew her own vegetables and didn't waste anything ever. What I'm now trying is to cut back so I named the blog after her.
Have you made lifestyle changes gradually or all at once?
It’s definitely been gradual and anybody who’s ever attempted this knows it’s not something that can happen overnight. I started with little things like buying a bamboo toothbrush and decided not to use plastic toothbrushes anymore. We used to get plastic water bottles delivered to our apartment and now we just got a filter and stopped the bottles. We have reusable water bottles that we fill them up before leaving the house. I’m trying to do my food shopping with my own shopping bags, trying to buy produce that’s not packaged, and trying to choose glass packaging over plastic whenever I can. Once you start thinking about your impact, it extends to all areas of your life so I've been thinking about food choices and the impact of animal agriculture. My husband and I are trying to experiment with being vegetarian and vegan and get informed about where our food comes from, and make choices that have as small an impact as possible. We're both big into cycling and we try to bicycle whenever possible, take trains instead of planes, and carpool. I haven’t researched too much into alternate energy but rainwater harvesting is something we'd definitely like to do in the future.
You were in a new country when you began a new lifestyle. What have been some of the challenges?
In India, sometimes I wonder sometimes if there is any point to doing this and if I am making an impact. I feel the odds are stacked against me because when I go to stores where I can take my own bag and buy in bulk to avoid plastic packaging, most of the staff who help me are confused about why I want to use my own bag. After explaining, they get it and want to help me. But most of the time people don’t get why I’m doing it. Similarly in the apartment where we live, our dry waste is collected everyday so I wanted to know if it went to a proper sorting facility and what happened to it. When I asked, they said ‘But we clear your waste everyday.' They were so baffled that I was even asking the question. It’s hard for me sometimes that there’s a language-culture barrier so people don't usually understand why I pick regular filtered over bottled water or why I don't want a straw in my drink.
What’s been the most rewarding part?
Connecting with other people who are on a similar path and knowing that there are others who get why you’re trying to do this. To have these conversations with like-minded people has been awesome. Also, just feeling that I’m living according to the values I talk about and to make actual changes that reduce my impact feels good. Getting out of my apparel industry job helped because it felt a bit hypocritical saying I want to reduce my impact by giving up plastic bottles and taking shorter showers while working in an industry that is so harmful to the environment. Stepping away from that has been rewarding because I feel like I don't have my hand in this any more. I don't have to participate in it.
How does fashion fit into your idea of sustainability? How do you balance your personal style with your zero-waste lifestyle?
There are a lot of brands that are on top of ethics and sustainability in their supply chains. But I still tend to be suspicious of any brand that claims to be sustainable because I’ve worked for a company that received awards for their work in sustainability and human rights. Their intention was good, but, in a huge supply chain, it’s really difficult to enforce sustainability at every level. So even if brands have good intentions, it can be hard to really know what’s going on at the farm, at the mill, or at the factory. But there are brands that are small enough that do have good oversight and they prioritise both sustainability and human rights in their supply chain.
This might sound hypocritical coming from someone who spent most of her life selling stuff that nobody really needs. But in general, the answer is to buy less stuff and own stuff until it wears out. Repair holes and restitch hems when they come apart. Don't participate in the endless cycle of buying new, buying more, and getting rid of stuff that’s a season old because it’s no longer socially relevant. Because, no matter how sustainable a brand's supply chain is, that purchasing pattern is never going to be sustainable. I’m a big proponent of buying things secondhand. In New York where I used to live, it's easy to find beautiful secondhand clothing that’s been very lightly worn if worn at all. And that’s a good way to stop contributing to the endless cycle of the production of stuff.
Are you shopping any differently since you began living this way?
Yes, I’m shopping a lot less and hardly buying much. I've also pared down my wardrobe to see what I actually wear, what I can give to somebody who needs things from my closet that I never wear, simplifying, and making do with less. It’s actually a relief to have fewer decisions to make in your wardrobe. Just have 2 pieces that you really love, wear them until you can’t wear them anymore and then recycle them as best you can.
What are some things you’ve given up using that don’t fit into your current lifestyle?
Cotton buds, disposable tissues which I've replaced with handkerchiefs, paper towels that have been replaced with cleaning rags. I carry a bandanna to dry my hands after washing them. I've completely stopped using disposable water bottles and rely 100 percent on my reusable bottle. I plan on using my own reusable cup for takeaway coffee once I get back home. I ask for my drink without a straw at restaurants. Takeaway containers have been swapped out with my own reusable containers to pack food, which most people are happy to do. I'm also trying to revamp my beauty regime because I have lots of plastic bottles and packaging in my bathroom. I’ve narrowed that down to fewer things and mostly those packaged in glass. I’ve also been making my own cosmetics like body lotion, lip balm and face moisturiser.
You regularly blog about the financial savings associated with a minimal lifestyle. What impacts has it had on your wallet?
I’m definitely spending a lot less money since I’ve started thinking about this. Buying less clothing is a huge thing. Now, before buying anything, I ask ‘Do I really need this?’ and most often, the answer is no. We buy all of our produce from local sellers where nothing is packaged in plastic and it’s super cheap. Buying fewer cosmetics and making my own cleaning supplies has been total money savings. There’s no doubt it’s benefitted my finances.
How do you balance living a zero-waste lifestyle while also participating in the modern world without coming off as a hippie?
It’s important to be realistic about participating in the modern world while trying to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle. I don’t think it’s possible to do it perfectly and we’re all going to create waste in some amount. The important thing is to be aware about the ways that you can make a change. Being prepared alone is a good way to live a zero-waste life without needing to be preachy about it. If you always have your own water bottle, then you never have to worry about it, or your own food container so you never have to worry about wasting a takeout container. There is a way to inform other people about it without coming off as a hippie. That’s one of my goals with the blog.
I don’t want to forego hairstyling products or makeup or getting dressed up for a nice dinner. And, that’s not necessary to live a life with a smaller footprint. Being informed goes a long away as does knowing and caring where your food comes from or what goes into your cosmetics. There are options that are less harmful to you and the environment. Care where your clothing comes from. Care what your favourite brands are doing to reduce their impact and benefit the lives of workers in their supply chain. Little changes that everybody can make everyday really add up in the long term. You don’t have to give up on conveniences and style and participating in social activities in order to live this way.
How important do you think is the role of individual action in creating environmental change?
The first zero-waste blogger I found was Lauren Singer of Trash Is For Tossers. I stumbled upon her because of a simple Google search. I literally googled ‘how do I live a life without waste’ and her blog was the first one that came up. She has millions of followers and not because she’s involved in any kind of policy making or an advocate at the governmental level. She is someone who made a lifestyle change and talked about it and a million other people saw that change, said ‘that’s amazing’ and tried to do the same thing. Walking the talk, trying to make a difference in your own life and being vocal about it can make a huge difference. I’ve got so many positive responses on my blog - so many people who’ve reached out and said ‘I love what you’re doing and this is what I’m doing in response in my own life’. I’m not someone who can be effective bringing about massive change on a huge scale. Where I can be most effective is by making a change in my own life and sharing that with people and that has tremendous power.
Would you say living without waste has changed you as a person?
In my job in fashion. I spent so many days working to create products not necessary for anybody’s survival without asking what value it was adding to customers’ lives: Are they more fulfilled people because they bought a t-shirt I designed? Am I more fulfilled because I have so many clothes or drive an SUV that pumps so much carbon into the atmosphere? When you try to reduce your impact, it automatically opens up your mind to thinking about all the things that bring you fulfilment and what it is you actually need. It’s definitely not the stuff in your house or the stuff you throw away. For me, it’s gone hand in hand - my mind has opened up to thinking about how much money I really need or how much do I have to work to be a fulfilled person, do I have to continue participating in this endless cycle of production to be happy with my family and friends or feel more connected to the environment.
What advice do you have for someone looking to reduce the amount of waste they produce?
Just start with one thing. Swap out one thing in your life that’s wasteful for something else. The place most people start is their toothbrush and getting one they can compost, or swapping paper towels for dish rags. Make one small change and then another when it feels right, and once you start doing this, it just turns on your brain to asking, 'Is this wasteful?' or 'Is that waste necessary?' And that changes your whole perspective every single day.
Featured image: Litterless