In the latest installment of our Life as I know it series, our social media editor Julia O’Driscoll shares her journey in sustainability so far and the impact it has on her career and daily life.
I’ve tried to start my Life As I Know It several times since joining Eco-Age – there have been scribbled post-it notes, multiple first sentence rewrites and even a dating profile-writing tool kit put together by the lovely Sophie to help get me on my way, but with no luck.
In true Carrie Bradshaw style, I couldn’t help but wonder (sorry, couldn’t help myself): why does it seem so daunting to put my journey in sustainability down on (virtual) paper? I suppose it’s that niggling concern about it being judged as not really good ‘enough’ by the wider world. But then, isn’t that exactly the problem: we too often uphold a widespread belief that there is an ideal of what sustainability should look like when, in actuality, there are many thousands of ideas of what sustainability could look like that we ought to mull over instead.
My journey in sustainability has been a little messy, and is probably best viewed as more of an aimless, somewhat accidental ramble. There was no lightbulb moment but more slow-burning realisations and sparks of understanding accompanied by a love of jumble sales and several failed attempts at vegetarianism. As such, it seems best to share a few episodes from the last 25 years that might help you to piece together your own picture of my version of sustainability.
When I was in Year 5, my middle school got really into arranging talent competitions. After failing to impress with dance routines to Build Me Up Buttercup and I’m Still Standing (still a sore subject), I roped in five good-humoured friends to put on a fashion show. Rummaging through cupboards at home, I spent two weeks making oufits completely from plastic bags, bubble wrap and other non-recyclable household materials.
The plastic cones marking out a “catwalk” down the middle of the sports hall were a far cry from a green carpet and the looks would only be considered GCC-worthy in my dreams. But even before I hit my teens I had started to question what is considered “fashion” and the stories that clothes can tell – as well as looking at ways to get creative when thinking about the waste we all generate in our daily lives.
Tailored plastic bag shorts and a tinfoil top hat: a SS20 trend to watch
Living in Bristol for three years helped me along my sustainability journey no end. While at university, between hosting radio shows and trying to figure out what my degree (Liberal Arts) was all about, I was involved with a student-led international development charity, working to coordinate and promote sustainable overseas projects with grassroots NGOs. This involved a fair few evenings spent in the pub debating what sustainability really means (among other serious activities, of course…).
Meeting and working with people who were far more environmentally-clued up meant I had to up my game quickly: enter the first attempt at going veggie. I read, watched and consumed information on the environment and sustainability in an effort to learn more, and start to make my ways of living more eco and ethical. My housemates were an incredible influence during that time too; we swapped supermarkets for local veg stores and trips to the bulk food shop, and our combined wardrobes of charity shop hauls were an unending source of pre-loved dressing up opportunities too.
Figuring things out
In 2016, I spent two weeks volunteering with Help Refugees in Calais, sorting shoes and upcycling unsuitable donations as part of the charity’s work to support people living in the unofficial refugee camp, commonly known as The Jungle. Migrants living in the camp were primarily asking for dark, dry and weatherproof clothing – and yet we were sifting through bags of party dresses, trench coats and misshapen bikinis, sometimes unearthing an appropriate item but often rebagging items for textile recycling and waste. This bizarre situation made apparent that there is a significant gap between people wanting to help and understanding how to help in times of crisis, something I wanted to overcome when I got back home and started looking to post-uni life.
During that fortnight, I was surrounded by resilient, creative individuals determined to make a difference in the world – a perfect place for eye-opening conversations. It was there I met the co-founder of Nuw, a social clothes sharing platform providing a sustainable alternative to buying “new”. Talking to Ali, I learnt about the scale of slave labour inherent within the fast fashion industry, and discovered more sustainable and ethical alternatives; returning to a warehouse that was filled with unwanted clothing was when things started to come together for me.
Keeping in touch with Ali, I became a community ambassador for Nuw before working on a variety of digital content and campaigns with the team after graduating, helping at swap shops and attending panel discussions to learn more about sustainability in the fashion industry. As I continued to meet more and more interested and engaged individuals, I realised that this was a community I wanted to play a bigger part in – and luckily, it was through Nuw that I discovered Eco-Age.
Ali in Calais; Working at Eco-Age
I now get to spend the majority of my week working on the topics that most interest me, building a corner of the digital world where I can help to both brighten and broaden people’s day to day goings-on. Three years ago I’d never owned a smartphone, so more than a few friends were surprised when I became a social media editor – but knowing what Eco-Age is all about, they knew it would be good fit.
Still a bit lost?
Don’t worry, me too.
Recently, I was put on the spot and asked “But Julia, how sustainable are you really?” – well Kelly, how long is a piece of sustainably-sourced string? It’s really stuck with me, because I’m still trying to figure out how to answer that question.
My longest relationship is a love affair with blue cheese, and I haven’t managed to go flight-free in 2020 (incredibly poor work considering we’re less than two weeks in) – no one is more aware than me that I’ve got a bloody long way to go in making my lifestyle more eco, and I’m trying to turn that awareness into manageable, everyday actions as much as possible. But, an inevitable part of that has been letting myself down and getting back up to try again.
For me, my ethical and eco agenda has always been fashion focused. I still wear items that I salvaged from the unsuitable donation charity shop in Calais, and each time I’m asked where I found them I’m reminded that my wardrobe is a testament to my ethics and the path I am choosing to carve in both my personal and professional life.
This year, my sister is going to try and quit fast fashion – and to be honest, that feels like my greatest sustainability achievement to date (although GCFA Italia was pretty amazing too). I’ve kept quiet about her shopping habits over the years, but knowing that my choices have influenced this decision makes it feel like my ramble in sustainability has been impactful beyond my own life – and surely, that’s all we can ask when looking to make tangible change in the world on a personal level. And I’ve not even shown her the True Cost yet!
The driving force behind my continued sustainability learning curve has been building my inspiring eco community. First it was school friends who didn’t mind wearing sweaty Tesco bags in front of hundreds of other students so that I could experiment with turning waste into fashion. Then, it was environmentally-conscious housemates, students driven by social justice, and a gang of Nuw mates. Now, it’s all of those pals with the addition of the incredible people I get to work with day in, day out, who constantly open my eyes to new developments in the sustainability conversation and inspire me to be more active and aware in how I choose to lead my life.
There’s a long way to go – but who knows, maybe by the time Kelly gets back from maternity leave I’ll have a better answer to her question…