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In Conversation With
Can Our Own Small Actions Really Have an Impact on Climate Change?
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If you’re starting to feel bleak about the future, you’re not alone. The sheer scale and complexity of the Climate Crisis can be enough to make me want to crawl into bed, pull the cover over my eyes and start writing my own eulogy… But the apathy driven by this sense of powerlessness is our biggest enemy when it comes to conquering the challenges that lie ahead. That’s why Paula Miquelis and Stephanie Dickson founded Green Is The New Black together in 2015, an events company and online platform promoting a more conscious way of life.

Now they’re on a two-woman mission to give sustainability a makeover, breaking down seemingly insurmountable obstacles into ‘little green steps’, which we can all take daily, pushing change from the roots up. The duo claim our own small actions can dramatically reduce carbon emissions en masse, while forcing the private sector to respond with the large-scale system changes necessary for reaching zero emissions by 2050. With upcoming festivals in Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris and – hopefully – London in the near future, they’re certainly causing a stir…

I caught up with the two powerhouses behind the project for An Honest Conversation at the Curtain Hotel in Shoreditch, where they were being put up for the night thanks to HSBC, who recently enlisted them for a campaign that took them all the way to the Arctic…

Stephanie, I’m curious to know how your background in luxury events and fashion lead you into the work you’re doing now

Stephanie: So I used to run fashion festivals around Asia and it was really my dream job, I had so much fun. But then I started down the very slippery slope of watching documentaries and reading articles about the industry and I eventually came across The True Cost documentary, and realised that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world and also one of the most socially corrupt. I’d been working in this industry for 4 years at the time and dreamt of working in it my whole life and had no idea what was really going on behind the scenes. Then I started thinking, are all industries like that? I like to think in other industries you probably know more of the dirty things that go on… but anyway, I just felt so naïve.

So, I quit my job with no real plan and then started trying to find a community where I could put my hand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m new to sustainability, I don’t really know what I’m doing but I want to get involved!’ But at the time I was faced with three different stereotypes: people were either too preachy, too business-y or too hippie. And coming from fashion that was so not what I wanted to get into! [laughs] So I just started trying to do my own events instead, and started The Wedge, which is a series of smaller, panel talk events, and this led into doing our first Conscious Festival and then founding GITNB with Paula.

And what was the idea behind the festival?

The idea was just bringing together brands which were more conscious to start with; l’d done research in the fashion industry and found that people were really interested in finding jewellery or clothes that were sustainably sourced, so I started looking for those brands.

At first it was very hard for me to curb my fast-fashion habit because it was kind of like an addiction, so I had to break my addiction and try to find better brands and support that.

I think a lot of women can relate to that…

Stephanie: Right. It’s a challenge… But my skill-set of learning how to do large scale events meant I was able to transfer that to sustainable events, and over the years we’ve made each event more and more sustainable.

Paula: [laughs] yeah, they’re better now…

Sephanie: [laughs] At the first one we just did this event, called it a ‘Conscious Festival’, but looking back, it was 2015 and we still had all this single use plastic and other stuff,  but then luckily that’s when I met Paula who helped navigate us through the web of sustainability… We’ve done eight festivals since then and every event we get a bit more green, always getting more clued in… that’s why we really push our hashtag #littlegreensteps, because sustainability is a journey and we’re still learning, every day new things. We’re just bringing the community with us on that journey, so we’re very transparent about what works and what doesn’t work.

For example?

Sephanie: In Hong Kong we were told we couldn’t do certain things on our zero single-use packaging agenda because we weren’t legally allowed to, for example there was some food that we had co-branded with for the event which the government said, by law we could only serve that food with single-use packaging, so our event couldn’t commit 100% to being single-use packaging free due to that, it just wasn’t an option.

Stephanie Dickson, Co-Founder of Green Is The New Black

So your mission is to inspire people to join you on your journey of #littlegreensteps to deliver big change… Have you been inspired by the community joining you on this journey in turn?

Stephanie: We’re inspired more and more by the people we meet, especially, for me, the youth – obviously Greta, but also our Asia-based youth are doing incredible things and I always get really excited about their stories and giving them a platform. This year, for our Conscious Festival in Singapore, we actually have a whole youth panel, where they’re all under the age of 21, all are part of different movements, all Singaporean and they’ve been doing this incredible work; so yeah that gets me really excited. And then also the brands that are always using innovation to solve some of the big problems, like around food waste or fashion. We’ve got these shoes that we love from Indosole that use recycled car tires to create flip flops – that’s so cool, right? It’s helping solve the waste problem in Indonesia and it’s making something that everyone needs over there from tires… that’s just so cool to me.

Paula: I think it’s the one-on-one integration with people that makes me the happiest in the work we do. The reason that I came into my work and wanting to connect with the planet was for mental health issues. I studied business and I thought I wanted to become a banker and make money but these were just the dreams that society is selling us and not my dreams. So I started working in an investment bank, but I didn’t last long, I had one depression after another…

And then I realised that we could combine impacting the smaller communities on the planet while growing a profitable company – and that’s social entrepreneurship.

So that’s when I founded GITNB with Stephanie. For me, the struggle is real internally for what I should be doing with my life all the time, and that’s how the movement has helped me and continues to help me personally. Through connecting more with others and with the planet I connect more with myself; so, it’s all about self-discovery too.

I was going to ask about that… GITNB takes a 360 approach to system change. You include well-being and social responsibility in your values alongside environmental conservation and regeneration. Did this 360 approach evolve as you connected the dots on your journey, or was it there from the beginning?

Stephanie: We started out by realising that if we can look after ourselves better then we have more to give to the world. So that’s where the well-being aspect comes in and it’s been there from the beginning, it wasn’t that we started with the environment and then tagged on the social part, it was always together.

That’s why we talk about ‘Conscious Living’. That, for us, is the word that encapsulates everything, because when you’re conscious about something you have an awareness that your decisions aren’t only impacting you but other people and also the planet. So yes, it’s about sustainability and green living, but it’s more about being conscious and choosing to live better. So that’s what we started with, that’s why the festival is called the ‘Conscious Festival’, and that’s why our first hashtag was #livemoreconsciously.

Paula: Being kinder to yourself and to others is part of a holistic journey for us. One of the things that was a real cause of the division when we started GITNB was the image linked to sustainability at the time, which was really hippie; the products weren’t so cool, there was nothing really aesthetically good-looking to find on the market. And we’re still girls and we like to wear cool clothes and nice bags, which isn’t a contradiction, although at the time I thought it was. But then I realised we can still wear nice clothes and cool bags while making sure that what we have is also ethically produced. So we wanted to solve the issue of making sustainability sexy, and I think that was part of the angle that we started with too.

Why are we consuming so much?

Stephanie: Because our whole system has been designed so that we consume that much. We’re brought up in a society where everything – our fashion, our phones, it’s all designed to get us addicted to that pattern and that level of consumption and now we have to break free of it and re-design the way that we live and it’s very challenging and overwhelming for people because it’s all they’ve known. But it’s not impossible because if war happened – I don’t want to dwell on “end of the world” stuff – but if we end up getting into wars then life would completely change and consumption will have to stop because there won’t be anything left to consume.

Paula: To me, the end of the world sounds like a negative thing but the end of our society as we know it sounds like a good thing. Going back to local roots and village community mindsets.  But it’s true that if wars break out to achieve this it will be at the expense of the poorest people and communities, who will suffer. That’s why we can’t let it happen that way. But I came across another explanation about our consumption habit from a psychologist, who said that our animal brains have an anxiety mechanism for keeping us protected from danger…

The ‘flight or fight’ mechanism?

Paula: Yes that’s the one, and this psychologist described it as an ability to fear future events, which used to be catastrophic, but now we have no immediate dangers and also we have been manipulated by advertising in such a way that our future-fear event is now ‘to be seen without an iPhone’! And so it could be an explanation of our wanting to release this kind of anxious feeling when we shop. It’s released once we get the thing but then this never stops because we are creating it anyway in our brain.

…and it needs relieving again and again because we are using the wrong set of objects or practices?

Stephanie: Yes, and it’s continually reinforced by our society and media with branding, marketing, everything…

Paula: It’s like food also, why are there more overweight people than ever before and there is way too much food available?

It’s like we’re turning to the wrong things and our consuming should be, like you said earlier, more about turning inwards and readjusting our sense of balance…

Stephanie: Yes but I think people are realising it slowly but surely. There are more and more people doing ‘digital detoxes’ on weekends and not looking at their phones for an hour before bed and finding that the more we disconnect the more we actually get more connected to our lives, to ourselves, to other people. And that is where you find the real beauty of what life is about, you find love again, and that’s why for us the well-being part is so important and we’re still on that journey. We’re constantly pulling each other along to different types of therapies or retreats to learn about this sort of thing, becoming more mindful.

Paula: But there was a point where I wanted to go through all of the mindfulness therapies and books on meditation and then I was getting really in my head and I realised I’d stepped away from the material consumption to this, like, spiritual consumption! And this was actually creating anxiety for me…

Crazed spiritualism… Sounds stressful!

Paula: It was! So now I’m just trying to go more into my body and out of my head. The spiritual consumption is all about asking yourself questions, like why am I here and why am I feeling this way… And that can give you anxiety. So it’s about a balance and using body practices for some people, and now I’ve been advised just to walk for 1 hour per day, which I’m finding really helpful.

Paula Miquelis, Co-Founder of Green Is The New Black

On your webpage you say you’re interested in making sustainability more mainstream through smart design and communication, can you share some of the new ideas you’re exploring?

Paula: Did I say that? [Laughs] well yes, there was a project I based on National Geographic (which for me is the absolute dream, the company and their work is so high quality) and their model is to inspire people to care about the planet. It’s all about inspiration to lead to action and I wanted to translate that into the context of what we were creating using the pop culture of sustainability principles and products. I wanted to use that model for a different audience. So National Geographic is for the adventurers, people into crazy extremes or remote countries, which makes you see different landscapes and animals that nobody has seen, it’s like, ‘wow, I want to be that explorer!’ etc. So for us, it’s about making switching to e.g. sustainable fashion mainstream by using the extremes of that industry: super-mainstream models who you know of and dressing them in really cool clothes. So I got my inspiration from Nat Geo for that.

Tell me more about the young people you’ve been working with

Paula: I feel I’m also young, I’m not sure how I feel about this category…

Stephanie: Well, unfortunately they are a different decade babe…

Paula:  Well the spiritual therapy that I’m doing is all about finding your inner child, so for me, these children are the most intuitively connected to themselves because they haven’t been…

Stephanie: …Brainwashed as much as we have… I think the kids that I’ve spoken to have all been super blunt and super honest, they just see it black or white. This is wrong. Why hasn’t something been done about this? And I guess with Greta and the movements she’s created and also with other youth activists in different cities, they’re galvanising the other youths and that is so powerful because they just get it much faster. You know, I hear a lot from my friends who have kids that they’re teaching them all about sustainability because they learn it in school and they kinds are like, ‘I don’t want to eat that anymore.’ They’re being dictated by their children, which is awesome.

But in Singapore, on the flip side, there’s also lots of of eco-grief and eco-anxiety among the young people and that’s upsetting because they should be worrying about normal things, stressing about their exams and stuff but they’re stressing about their future and the planet and what kind of life they’re going to live and they feel completely disempowered because they can’t do much about it. That’s the distressing side I think, but then in the end the ones that I’ve known, they’re going out and doing it, and they’re doing it in a really beautiful way that’s non-aggressive, non-shamey… They have their own way of doing it that’s much more approachable and soft and that gives me a lot of hope. Because we’re not in a fear-mongering or preaching or shaming space at all – and there’s a space for that somewhere – but if you’re going to try and convert the masses it has to speak from the heart. They need to feel something.

Kids are able to get in, much easier, to that hot space, and then help to ignite passion in people so they can do more.

Paula: When I was a child I used to ask, ‘why do you do that, mum?’ and ‘why?’ and, ‘why? Why?’ and you’re told that it’s too complicated for you, you will understand when you grow up. But nothing is too complicated, if we had this mindset to break all of our issues down to simple things with effects solutions then everything would be way simpler. I feel we tend to be brainwashed into thinking that climate change is too complicated to understand and there are some people who are just overwhelmed and not sure what to do, whereas if you break it down into smaller parts and say this is what we’re going to do and we’re going to collaborate, and there is no one single answer, it’s a combination of everything, I mean we need to be very approachable to adults, as if they were kids. With colours, with explanations, we need to be told things in a way that we are all kids, and kids should also be spoken to like adults in some respect. But now I sound like Jean Claude Van Damn, this is terrible…

I think… I love Jean Claude Van Damn

Paula: Me too! [Laughs]

The kids believe in the spiritual revolution also, which involves at some point creating the biggest visualisation of a better future which has ever been built at one moment, and by tuning into what we want to see and then making it happen in front of us!

Stephanie: I prefer the word ‘conscious’ revolution. Spiritual still has weighted, hippie connotations that I think we want to avoid. But Consciousness is still… OK.

And it’s a bit trendy…

Stephanie: Yes, true

Good SEO…

Paula: Also that… We still need that!

What’s your message to the people, Paula and Stephanie?

Paula: We just came back from the Arctic, we left with Foundation 2041, on a mission led by Sir Robert Swan. He’s amazing, he’s been campaigning since the eighties, on a three-decades mission to spread the message about international collaboration for sustainability… So we got the opportunity to go there with him because we were sponsored by HSBC Private Banking. They wanted us to create a campaign and a documentary, which we called ‘The Naked Arctic Adventure’!

The nakedness aspect was twofold. The first was to say: just go back to basics, back to the roots – the naked truth – slow down and be at ease with buying less clothes, occupy ourselves less with what we’re putting in our mouths and on our bodies and feeding our minds more instead. And then the second part of the naked aspect is that we got naked and jumped into the Arctic ice water!

Oh my god! Did you lose your breath?

Both: YES!

Stephanie: A million pins and needles going into your body, you feel like you’re dying… But then you feel so reborn and alive afterwards.

I bet that’s a good watch…

Paula: Yes it definitely is [laughs], and the main message of it is to say we all rely on fossil fuels whether we like it or not and this is causing the majority of climate change; and once we understand this we just feel very useless and naked as individuals but we wanted to make the link with our #littlegreensteps because we have been intuitively advocating for little green steps ever since we started GITNB. The fact that, as individuals, we could collectively make an impact leading to sustainable changes with select small actions. And before going to the Arctic this got questioned by people saying, ‘no, it’s not the way to go, we need to act faster, with big steps, etc’; but when we went to the Arctic and took the small step into the ice water we felt no, these small steps are huge and they are very empowering and if we do that collectively then together we will have a huge impact. So we reinforced our initial message that does get questioned, and we justified it through the encounters we had in the Arctic and the people we met. Plus, a new view and research, which came out of The Anarchy of Action [Colin Ward], which is proving scientifically that individual action through little green steps is leading to sustainable changes!

Brilliant. Thanks for talking to The Boiler House guys, you were great!

You can find GITB at their next Conscious Festival on South Beach in Singapore on 2nd and 3rd November… Register your tickets here if you’re that side of the pond, or check out their site for news, tips and updates from their Conscious Living journey.

This has been An Honest Conversation with Juliet Kennedy for The Boiler House, London.

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04 / 10 / 2019 // Written by Juliet Kennedy
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