Following zero-waste practices as a business owner

For the past couple of years, the zero waste movement has grown more and more into mainstream culture and with that, it has also been controversial. Can anyone really be zero waste? If you order products to support a zero-waste lifestyle, does the carbon emissions associated with creating new products and shipping them to a customer outweigh the benefit? Isn’t it better to have a plant-based diet instead?

I think about this a lot as some who tries to lead a low waste lifestyle and I have even built my business around it. I think about it when I’m ordering a drink with an added plant-based milk and I see it coming from a plastic container or when I’m ordering my tags from my manufacturer and thinking about what packaging waste was made to use to create this.

I’m going to say this flat out: I don’t have “perfect” or “golden” solution. However, I do think there are zero-waste practices and mindsets we can follow to be better owners of sustainable businesses.

I hope that this can start the conversation to help us not be so rigid and defensive, to listen, and to acknowledge when we might not know everything in the world of zero waste and sustainability. So here we go:

1. Know your values. Acknowledge your gaps and limitations.

One of the most frequent comments I get with my bags is about the fabric. I get a lot of suggestions like, “use second-hand fabric instead of ordering new fabric,” or, “Cotton is more carbon and intensive” and, “organic is also more water intensive.” I personally am aware of that, but I know that those don’t fall under my values.

My personal belief is that we should be using and creating products that can and are safe to go back into our soil during its “end of life.” So I acknowledge and share that I won’t use second fabric because I don’t know the toxic chemicals that go into it, or if there is added plastic to it. I’m aware that cotton is more carbon intensive but cotton is the only material that I can find that is certified organic. I would rather have something that is non-toxic and more water-intensive than conventional cotton.

2. Listen without getting defensive.

When someone brings up a concern about my products or my process, I listen and try my best to not get defensive. The sustainability field is too broad for everyone to be the world’s expert in every aspect. There’s always a chance I could be wrong. Having another person challenge my approach is a way to re-confirm that I’m either doing the right thing, or I need to do more research.

As mentioned in the previous point, I have designed my process around my personal values. It’s likely that someone else in the sustainability field has different values and will disagree with how I run my business. In those cases, I’ll explain my value system, the research that went into my business, and the path that led to my decisions. As business owners, we should do as much research as possible and never assume we’re correct, but have research to back up all our decisions.

3. Admit when you’re wrong.

About half a year ago, my friend was in town and I had just started The Zero Waste Habit a couple of months ago. I told him that my produce bags can be put in the compost facility. He previously worked for the city government back in the Bay Area and he pointed out that I can't put any fabric in a compost facility. I got defensive, I even thought he was mansplaining. There may have been steam coming through my ears; I was irritated for the rest of the night. When I went to bed it occurred to me, "What if he was right?" Early the next morning, I did a little more research, also hoping to prove him wrong, I realized that he was right. I then admitted that I was wrong. Although my ego was bruised, I realize that now I learned from my mistake and that I could actually tell my customers the proper way to put away my produce bags at the end of their life. Now, I tell my customers to put their bags in their backyard compost.

As designers and business owners, we have a responsibility to understand the whole lifecycle of our products to our best abilities, to know where our knowledge gaps are, and to be honest with customers about our limitations. .