Photo by KeremYucel/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by KeremYucel/iStock / Getty Images

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal mission statement and how Back to Basil ties into it. My real goal for this blog is to not only inform my readers on topics like self care, healthy foods, and natural beauty, but to inspire you to further research the issues you feel strongly about and to make concrete changes (They can be small!) in your life that will have a positive ripple effect in our world. Beyond this blog I want to devote my energy as a designer to educating consumers in the fashion industry so they can make better choices, to creating sustainable and ethical products, and to implementing easier ways for people to be better global citizens. Because doing the right thing for our planet and our people should not be the hard thing. It should become the default.

What an amazing species we are. We taught ourselves to communicate with languages, to read and write, and to record time and history. No other creatures on the planet record history! So as humans, we spend a considerable amount of time thinking about past and future generations. Because we are able to see the incredible progress man/womankind has made over the last thousands of years, most of us feel compelled to contribute in some way to the progression of our society. That is a fundamental reason why preserving the planet for future generations is so essential. As we gain more knowledge about the harm our species is causing and the consequences that are occurring and will occur, it saddens me that people still turn their backs and continue to knowingly contribute to the problem. Another issue I encounter all the time is that the proper infrastructure is lacking for people to be able to make the best possible choices all the time. It is my hope and one of my personal missions to make that change in our country. 

I live in New York City, one of the most progressive cities in the world, and yet we still don’t have recycling bins next to every trash can. Our country still has not banned plastic bags, and even though big chain stores are required by New York law to accept your plastic bags to recycle, I have been turned away from many a Duane Reade and CVS, stores that exclusively offer plastic bags to their customers! The drop off point for special waste is generally a pretty inconvenient location with very limited hours. For example, in Manhattan, the only station is at 74 Pike Slip, under the Manhattan Bridge. The site is only open from 10AM - 5PM on Saturdays as well as the last Friday of the month. So most people either don’t know or don’t bother to follow regulations and just toss items like nail polish and old remotes in the garbage. (If you aren't sure how or where to dispose of certain items, Earth 911 is a great resource.)

It’s easy to feel paralyzed, not knowing where to start when it comes to making a difference in our world. But lately a story from my childhood keeps coming to mind. Every September at my elementary school a faculty member would read it at our welcome assembly. The story is adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley; I’ll summarize:
An old man was walking on the beach after a storm. Thousands of starfish had washed up on the beach. The man spotted a young boy in the distance and as he came closer, the man noticed the boy was bending down every so often to throw a starfish back in the sea. The man asked the boy what he was doing and the boy replied, "throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can't return to sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water." The old man responded, "But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I'm afraid you won't really be able to make much of a difference." Unfazed by the man's words, the boy picked up another starfish and tossed it far out into the ocean. He turned back to the man with a smile and said, "It made a difference to that one!"

Maybe you won’t be remembered as an individual for winning a Nobel Prize, but you will still make an impact if you start to make better, smarter decisions in your own life. One day future generations will read about the people in the 21st century and it is my hope that the story will go something like this: as a society the people began to recognize the mass destruction they were causing to the planet and to each other and they actively came together, researched, and took necessary steps to reverse the damage; without their efforts we wouldn’t be here today. 

I wanted to provide a few simple ways you can start to make positive changes. If you’re already doing everything I list below, I encourage you to take the time to research something new you can take on. Please use the comments section to write the ways you are making a difference and encourage others to follow suit! Please share this post with anyone you think might benefit from reading it. The first step to change is having the conversation. 

I just finished taking a class on sustainable design taught by Kate Black, author of Magnifeco the book and the website. She opened our class by painting a picture of the current fashion industry landscape. It is the third largest industry in the world, worth around $3 trillion. It currently produces 150+ billion garments per year. Sadly, the latest data shows that 3 out of 5 of all apparel will end up in a landfill or incinerator within the first year. And as she pointed out, no one is naked. So whether or not you care about fashion, you are likely still contributing to the problem. Clothing was never supposed to be in landfills. But with fast fashion and insanely low prices, people don't value clothing the way they used to and often consider it disposable. Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, explains, "Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing. They've been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths." Alden Wicker writes in Newsweek, "Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and - in improperly sealed landfills - into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air. Meanwhile, synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade."

We need to change the system, and as consumers we hold a lot of power! Everyone loves a good deal, myself included, and an insanely low price tag really grabs our attention. But the takeaway here is that a $5 shirt should raise some serious red flags, not make you rush to the register. What corners were cut to get the cost so low? Who was exploited in the process? What harm was caused to the environment? If there's any hope for the future, we not only have to scale back our consumerism, but we have to become smarter shoppers. Make your purchases calculated. Buy less and spend more on ethical fashion pieces you will keep for years. Buy vintage when possible. Support brands that are doing the right thing, like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Maiyet. Only buy distressed denim from companies that have publicly banned sandblasting and seriously question jeans that retail at full price under $100; read why here. Demand transparency when purchasing leather. Remember that the country of origin does not mean the country of material origin. People regard Italian leather as high quality, but take a look at where a lot of it comes from. One statistic states that 90% of Bangladeshi tannery workers die before age 50. I encourage you to watch this relatively short video on the Bangladesh leather trade so you can be a more informed customer. 

If you have a couple minutes, please watch the trailer to The True Cost, a documentary highlighting the dark side of fast fashion. If you have more time, watch the entire documentary. If you have 20 minutes, please watch Behind the Swoosh, a real look into the dire conditions faced by Nike factory workers in Indonesia. 

The Environmental Working Group has a database that provides safety ratings for over 2,500 products. Please take five minutes to look up the cleaning products you use the most frequently and check their rating. Not only are so many cleaning products extremely harmful to the environment but also to ourselves! Creating a clean, "safe" space through the use of toxic products is a major oxymoron. I use bergamot hand soap, dish soap and surface cleaner from The Common Good. They are a smaller brand so they are not listed on the EWG database but you can read more about them and their mission here. I also use a surface cleaner from The Laundress in the bathroom (It smells so good!) and toilet bowl cleaner from Seventh Generation. The more people start to buy eco friendly products, the less demand there will be for harmful ones and eventually we can phase them out of production. Companies will evolve to meet the consumer's needs. Being a consumer means you can be part of the change. So easy, right?!

Guess what? They can't be recycled with your other plastics so if you are putting in them in the same bin they are just going to end up in a landfill. Instead you must return them to designated recycling bins. New York law states, State law requires retailers with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space, or those who are part of a chain with more than five stores (each with more than 5,000 square feet of retail space) to provide bins for the collection of used plastic carryout bags. I keep all my plastic bags in a tote bag in my closet and when it's overflowing I take it to Duane Reade and fill up the designated bin. Unfortunately I have encountered many retailers who do not follow this law, so I have started to call ahead to make sure the bin is available. You can report non-abiding NYC retailers here.

I don't expect everyone to be a vegetarian or vegan. But if you are someone who eats meat and dairy at every meal, please consider cutting back. This is one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to help our planet. The New York Times writes, "The impact of factory farms on climate change is also profound. These operations generate more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined." And when you do eat meat, seriously consider the source. Many people are so disconnected from their food, preferring to know less so they can have a guilt-free conscience when eating. Factory farms want to hide their unethical practices from the consumer, but it's up to you to seek out information and make calculated decisions. You may be eating meat and dairy for a healthy source of protein, but milk from a cow too sick to stand on her own without steroids, who is artificially inseminated every year in order to keep producing milk, and who is confined to a small indoor cage her entire life, isn't exactly nutritious. And just because you aren't technically killing the cow when you drink her milk, doesn't mean the animals are free from torture and suffering. I know ignorance is bliss, but as intelligent beings with information at our fingertips, we owe it to these helpless animals to promote awareness. 

Stores like Whole Foods are starting to implement the 5 step animal welfare rating, so the consumer can make a more educated choice when purchasing meat. The program was developed by the Global Animal Partnership. It still leaves a lot in question but it's a step in the right direction. Try to eat meat less and when you do, spend more on high quality meat. Look for ratings of at least 4, but aim for 5 and 5+. If you eat dairy, organic should be the bare minimum. Also, if you're a pet lover, show a little compassion for pigs. Most of us consider it barbaric that other cultures eat dog meat, but then many of us don't blink an eye when ordering bacon, hotdogs and pulled pork. PETA explains, "Pigs outperform 3-year-old human children on cognition tests and are smarter than any domestic animal, and animal experts consider them more trainable than cats or dogs." I encourage meat eaters to significantly reduce or omit pork products from their diet. Over time a reduction in meat demand will result in fewer animals raised for food.

People who already forgo meat often can try to choose vegan food options more frequently. And if you're already vegan, hats off to you because you are part of the solution. PETA writes, "According to the UN, a global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change."

Have one minute? Watch Vivenne Westwood's entertaining PETA collab video stressing the harm the meat industry causes on the environment. 
Have two minutes? Watch this one (scroll down within the link) on the same topic.
Have four minutes and a strong stomach? Watch this disturbing video on pig slaughterhouses. Images like these are jarring and turn many people away, but they are also powerful enough to make some people change.

"It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act." - The Dalai Lama