Zero-Waste Activist Lauren Singer Defines Wellness As Living in Alignment With Your Values

Photo: Courtesy/W+G Creative

Lauren Singer, a zero-waste influencer who founded Package Free Shop and blogs under the cheeky alias @TrashIsForTossers, inadvertently created waves in my personal community last year when she helped me detox my home from single-use plastic. After she opened my eyes to the myriad ways in which I was not just creating unnecessary waste, but also spending money I didn't need to spend and making myself less healthy in the process, I couldn't help but preach her gospel to friends and family. A couple of months later, my best friend's brother begged me to tell his sister to stop harassing the whole family about their plastic use, to which I responded that I couldn't because I was the one responsible for converting her to a zealot. This is what I call the "Lauren Singer" effect, and it's why she's been named one of Well+Good's 2020 Changemakers.

Singer got her start in the environmental science program at NYU, where eventually the dissonance between what she was learning and how she was behaving struck her as problematic. So, she embarked on a zero waste journey at a time nearly a decade ago when, to our collective shame, waste awareness was still extremely fringe. She began sharing tips for following her lead on her blog and Instagram and, in 2015, gave a TedX Talk which has been viewed almost three million times. In 2018, she opened her first Package Free shop in Williamsburg, New York, the brick-and-mortar predecessor of her online shop, both of which sell sustainable consumer packaged goods like shampoo bars, bamboo toothbrushes, menstrual cups, metal straws, and more.

In 2019, Singer landed a major coup for the zero waste movement in the form of $4.5 million in funding for the Package Free business. With it, she hopes to take the movement mainstream and democratize sustainability by making Earth-friendly goods as wallet-friendly as their disposable equivalents. I spoke to her about how these efforts tie into the wellness of not just the planet but also its people, her hopes for a more sustainable wellness culture, and her predictions around the future of single-use plastic.

Well+Good: First of all, congratulations! How did it feel to land a $4.5 million deal to further the zero-waste movement?

Lauren Singer: Tackling something that I thought felt impossible and was anxiety-inducing because I couldn’t understand it or visualize it, and then taking the small steps every single day to do it, and then finally having it be done is one of the most gratifying feelings in the whole world. That’s the feeling I’ve learned to chase through running a business. There are things every day that I don’t know how to do or I don’t understand that in the past I would’ve let block me, but now I think of it as, "I don’t know how to do this, but I can and I will." So I’d say closing the fundraising round was probably one of the biggest examples of that. Eight months ago I had no idea what raising venture capital even meant, and now I’ve done it and am one of the 2.2 percent of women who has raised venture capital out of all the people who’ve raised it. If I can do it, there are so many other women with positive ideas who can do it, too.

I also think the function of business is to solve problems, and getting venture capital funding is a validation of that. This problem of waste is real, and it’s not just real to me and the people who care about sustainability but also to the people who control the money and which brands grow.

What's your vision for Package Free in light of this financing?

My goal is to manufacture products at economies of scale, but make them price-point competitive with the products that you’d see from a Unilever or a Procter & Gamble. I want to get them into places that aren't just places sustainable shoppers shop, where they have to go out of their way to buy things—like Package Free’s retail store or a Whole Foods or something like that—because it's exclusionary to a huge percentage of people. [My plan is] to get them into corner stores, to get them into places that are food deserts or have lower socioeconomic median incomes. So that’s really my goal, to start manufacturing these products and get them in the hands of not just people who have the privilege of thinking about sustainability but also people who just need products. I believe it’s a basic human right.

It seems to me that everything that's good for the planet is good for you, so it makes sense to umbrella your efforts under wellness. Can you connect the dots here a bit more between how what you're doing relates to health and wellbeing?

The concept of zero waste really led to me thinking about all aspects of wellness in my life—trash was kind of my gateway into wellness. So by asking myself the question, “What are my values, and am I living in alignment with them?" I was able to reassess all aspects of what I was doing in my life, whether I was eating the right food to align with environmental practices that I agree with or supporting the right brands, businesses, etc., and all of those choices ultimately led to me having a more holistic, sustainable lifestyle. This led to things that improved not just my physical health and my wallet but also my mental clarity and stability as well. So things like not buying packaged processed foods and saying no to things I didn’t need and becoming more of a minimalist, just having a day-to-day lifestyle that aligns with creating positive impact, all of those things led to what I believe is just an overall more positive wellbeing.

Where do you think modern wellness culture has room to grow?

You can go to Expo West, for instance, and see all these brands in wellness that are using so much plastic and creating so much waste that you have to ask yourself how this "wellness" is contributing to an overall more positive environmental impact and system that we live in. I don’t think wellness is there yet in terms of sustainability, there are a lot of pieces missing in the overall conversation; however now, for the first time, people are starting to put those pieces together. It’s not just, "Oh the insides of my product are more clean," but also the outsides are clean and the agriculture required is sustainable and the human impact is sustainable, etc. So I think this is a really exciting time. That’s one of the reasons I liked this [2020 Changemakers] list so much, because it’s so diverse. A lot of the people on it are people who don’t just think about wellness from a single vantage point, or through a single lens, they think about it through all the ways you can impact overall personal wellbeing, and I don’t think that’s happened before.

Also, one of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about since launching Package Free is, "Why is it that only a select group of people have historically had access to sustainability?" I believe there are so many ways to incorporate wellness into peoples' lives from all corners of the world, at all levels of income, and I think entrepreneurs and people [Well+Good is] highlighting are making it their missions to achieve that. The systems weren’t in place maybe 10 years ago, but now there’s meditation in public schools, there’s healthy food being brought into public schools, there’s fitness education and mindfulness being brought to places that it never was, and I think what I'm trying to do is apply that principle to consumer products, because a criticism is that it’s not available to everyone—and that’s a problem. I believe that access to sustainable products is a basic human right, I believe access to mental and physical wellbeing is a basic human right, and I think people are really prioritizing that especially as we go into 2020. I’m really excited by all the innovations that are happening in the space because of course change doesn’t happen overnight, but if we have people who have missions to make it more accessible to everyone, then that’s what going to start happening.

You inspired me, and my whole community, so I'm curious as to who inspired or inspires you.

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring changed my whole life and really pushed me into studying environmental science, and then I'm really grateful to NYU for offering the environmental science program. It was a small program with a lot of really passionate people and professors.

Josh Fox and his documentary Gasland opened my eyes to corporate and political powers that create large-scale devastating change in the environment. That was my motivation to get into activism and then ultimately to ask myself, "Why am I blaming everyone else for the state of the world?" and look at how I am living and whether or not I'm contributing to what the world looks like. That was my impetus for living my values. And then I started reading about the zero waste lifestyle through Bea Johnson, who is the first [zero waste] person I found. I’m so grateful to her.

I'm guessing it hasn't always been easy to be the zero-waste girl, especially pre-2019 when it seems everyone finally awoke to the nightmare of the climate crisis. What kept you challenging the norms despite ridicule or critique?

I grew up with a family who loves to poke fun, and so I grew a really thick skin because of that. Any time you try to do something that’s different from the way everyone else is doing it, you’re going to face criticism. So instead of taking it as something that made me sad or feel bad about myself or insecure, I thought of the weird looks at the pharmacy or grocery store when someone was trying to hand me a plastic bag or the shrugged brow when I asked for something without a straw not as criticisms or attacks but opportunities to show people something they haven’t seen or heard before. So it’s an opportunity to be an educator. We are only capable of doing what we know how to do, so unless we know there are other ways to live, we’ll continue living in the way that seems most obvious to us. So to me, the idea that I didn’t have to live in this consumerist society in the way that I thought I did gave me the freedom to learn about my alternatives. Any time people judge you for offering an alternative is an opportunity to show them that there are so many ways to live.

Another thing that helps is trying not to deliver this message in a preachy way. Coming from a background of activism... activism comes from a place of wanting to create positive impact but often it's fueled by anger and blame. That’s what I encountered when I was protesting the oil and gas industry. I realized telling people why they’re wrong and bad works sometimes, [and] it’s a great motivator for change (especially for corporations), but it doesn’t make people feel that great. So instead, deciding just to live my values and be a champion of my belief systems and show how I live in a way that feels non-judgmental has helped a lot, because nobody wants to be told that the way they’re living is bad. Even I had studied environmental science for three years before I even started thinking about my own personal impact. People can think they’re in a really good place, but if you tell them that they’re not and they’re bad, that’s never a good motivator for change.

Speaking of being a motivator for change, you totally made me look at using single-use plastic like it was the equivalent of smoking cigarettes. Do you think single-use plastic will be a thing of the past in the next decade?

The next decade seems really ambitious. I wish the answer was "yes" but I don’t feel like that’s going to happen. I do think that a lot of powerful people, industries, and decision-makers will be steering towards that direction in a way that they definitely aren’t right now. Scientists estimate that we have eleven years [and change] to take action on climate catastrophe. Unfortunately, catastrophe breeds change often, and while I hope we don’t realize any of that catastrophic change, if we do I think that will be a powerful driver and motivator toward more positive environmental impact.

What does wellness culture look like to you in an ideal, sustainable future?

I think a lot about how when I was younger, we were always taught to think about how other people would think about what we did, but not necessarily to ask ourselves what it is we want, what would make us feel good, what is the world we’d like to see, and how can we work towards accomplishing that. A lot of the time, power was taken away from individuals as change-makers and put on outside powers. I think the future of wellness is people having the power to make choices that have a positive impact for them, and for people to be aware of what they want and want the world to look like and be aware that they have the power to do something even if it’s a tiny little decision. We have powers as individuals, the power to make change in the world.

I guess for me, the future of wellness is people having clarity around their values and living in alignment with those values.

Zero waste living is not easy—here's what happened when one writer tried it. If you're not yet quite up to the challenge, you can start by taking this one meaningful step instead.

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