WORDS & IMAGES: Freweyni Asress
The zero waste lifestyle is a movement that has been popularized by bloggers such as Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer and grassroots organizations such as Be Zero. Be Zero defines “zero waste” as an industrial term referring to a circular economy. Mainstream media defines zero waste as a lifestyle in which one does not produce any trash. Though the movement has gained attention for its amazing efforts, it has not been sufficiently challenged on its lack of representation. This is especially troublesome considering that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change.
As a person of color who leads this lifestyle, I began to ask myself many questions including: how is it that environmental movements can fight for change without including in the dialogue the populations that are most affected? I started thinking about the sign I held at the Women’s March: “Feminism without intersectionality is just White Supremacy”. But isn’t any movement without intersectionality just white supremacy? If environmental activists aren’t using their platforms to speak on the oppression of people of color they are passively contributing to systemic racism. Are environmental movements that are not intersectional perpetuating environmental racism by creating an elitist culture for sustainability?
If environmental activists aren’t using their platforms to speak on the oppression of people of color they are passively contributing to systemic racism.
The first time I came across Chanelle Crosby was while I was scrolling on Be Zero’s website. At this time I was feeling desperate and hopeless due to the election season. Despite feeling that everything was going to shit in our world, I knew I needed to mobilize. I needed to be a part of something larger than me in order to affect real change. But where could I start? I was feeling divided on what injustices I should put my attention towards. On one hand, I am a black female immigrant, but I am also a human who depends on the planet for survival. Because I’ve never felt like I could affect real systemic change if I were to be a racial justice activist, I chose to focus my attention towards environmental justice and, more specifically, helping communities to reduce their trash.
After not finding success connecting with the global zero waste community, I was happy to discover Be Zero. I was excited to discover a zero waste non-profit that focused on looking at trash consumption on a macro level and examined how systems, institutions, and policies have impacted a disposable lifestyle and culture. When I joined Be Zero, I found an environmental space that showed me I could belong. Growing up in rural Vermont, I have always had a deep connection to my local ecology. However, I have never felt like I could express that admiration and desire to preserve the natural world in white dominated environmental spaces.
Speaking to Chanelle for this first time was a breath of fresh air. I was so ecstatic to find her, and other people of color, who were part of the team. My first conversation with Chanelle was when she was giving me an Ambassador tutorial. It was my first time ever talking to another black woman about the intersection of racial justice and environmental justice, black feminism in agriculture, and why it is critical for the zero waste movement to be more inclusive. Chanelle taught me that I don’t have to choose between identities or what I want to advocate for and that, in fact, it’s important that we fight to end all systemic oppression. Since then I have identified as an Intersectional Eco-Feminist.
Chanelle’s pivotal role in my understanding of activism has inspired me to learn more about her thoughts on these issues and to open up further discussion.
Freweyni Asress: How were you introduced to zero waste?
Chanelle Crosby: Andrea Sanders at Be Zero introduced me to zero waste. We met a few years ago at a networking party in Boulder, CO and hit it off. Andrea is an amazing human and I’m sure I’m not the only person that leaves meeting her feeling incredibly inspired. I started to see ways I could apply my budding “minimalist" mindset to all of my consumption, not just my clothes and closets. When I was a kid, I was taught to “take what you need” and over time in adulthood I lost sight of that and bought into latest trends, collecting shoes, and even Dunnies. I learned about zero waste at a good time for me (I was moving from an 800 square foot apartment into a small bedroom). I began to make huge shifts back to giving and taking in a much more responsible way.
FA: Upon your exploration of the zero waste movement, how aware were you of the overrepresentation of white activists?
CC: I wasn’t! Not at all. I was excited and dove right in without thinking much about it at first. I wasn’t actively involved in social media at that time and really focused on having conversations with friends about zero waste in person or over the phone. Once I created an Instagram account, it became blatantly obvious who had space for the zero waste movement online. I also work in the nonprofit world and the overrepresentation of white activists, especially women, is something that can’t be ignored.
FA: Was this daunting? If so, what was/is one challenge you face being a person of color in this predominantly white space?
CC: Oh goodness, yes. It’s something you can’t “un-see.” I began to ask myself, what is the motivation and intention of the zero waste movement? Who is it for? What are the people sharing in the movement fighting for? I feel there’s a lot of room for education within the zero waste movement as a whole, and specifically around environmental racism. There’s an awareness that is missing and, as a person of color, it can start to feel daunting if you constantly take on the role of educator.
FA: What are some reasons why you believe this movement could be exclusive to POCs?
CC: The way it’s marketed now is a hot, new trend. There’s fancy upcycled you name it and beautiful bamboo and white everything. When you scroll through social media pages dedicated to zero waste you see a very small, privileged population of people who are able to spend a lot of resources (like time and money) to transition their lives to zero waste.
If we are simply replacing the “bad” things with “good” things and calling that a zero waste movement, we’ve missed the point. “Zero waste” is an industrial term used to describe how products move through the economy. For example, a circular economy is zero waste. A linear economy, the one we are in now, creates products that are designed for single or limited use and then meant to be discarded.
If we are simply replacing the “bad” things with “good” things and calling that a zero waste movement, we’ve missed the point. “Zero waste” is an industrial term used to describe how products move through the economy.
To me, zero waste is part of a solution to the worldwide environmental problems we’ve created driven by our economic values. We want more stuff. We’re dependent on oil. Plastic is oil, so we use it (a lot).
A poet, Rudy Francisco talks about why black people are underrepresented in X-Games sports in a video I recently saw online. He says being black in America is an extreme sport with everyday threats of violence and discrimination solely based on race.
To me, the zero waste movement as it is presented often comes across as extreme, elitist, and superficial. Honestly, sometimes I’ve even pushed away—and it's my way of living. We can change the representation of the zero waste as people of color by sharing our stories and allowing space for everyone in the zero waste movement to see the big picture (which is definitely not matching mason jars!) We need to be active, not just hopeful and well meaning.
We can change the representation of the zero waste as people of color by sharing our stories and allowing space for everyone in the zero waste movement to see the big picture (which is definitely not matching mason jars!) We need to be active, not just hopeful and well meaning.
FA: Why do you believe representation matters in environmental communities?
CC: Because people of color are impacted by environmental issues more than anyone else.
If we don’t see ourselves there, we may not participate and the majority is less likely to include us; they simply won’t notice we aren't represented. We need our voices heard in the zero waste movement because the outcome directly impacts people of color.
FA: Do you have any advice for how to make the zero waste movement more inclusive to people of color?
CC: Firstly, don’t assume you know what other people want. Secondly, decentralize yourself from the movement. Thirdly, collaborate and combine efforts to create more impactful change. And lastly, discover your own unique intention behind participating in the movement. Why are you here? How do you show up? How do you want to show up? What does it mean to you, your community, your neighbors, your country, and our planet?
And if you’re a person of color reading this, please join us in the conversation!
FA: What would your message be to members of this community?
CC: If you can’t draw the line between environmental racism, gentrification, and the zero waste movement on your own, do your research, listen, and then listen some more.
I feel we can create an inclusive zero waste movement by approaching one another with respect, by showing appreciation and gratitude for the conversations and hopeful action we take and by being open enough to not put each other down for not knowing what we don't know. In other words, let's keep the conversation going, uplift one another, and be kind. There's no way in this movement besides together.
All this to say, I feel we can create an inclusive zero waste movement by approaching one another with respect, by showing appreciation and gratitude for the conversations and hopeful action we take and by being open enough to not put each other down for not knowing what we don't know. In other words, let's keep the conversation going, uplift one another, and be kind. There's no way in this movement besides together.
Chanelle Crosby works in the zero waste industry professionally as a Program Manager in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is also an aspiring farmer-herbalist, Creator & Consultant at thinkfeelbe.co and Board Member at 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Be Zero.
Freweyni Asress is a Be Zero ambassador and racial justice activist. She is a recent graduate of Lyndon State College with a B.A. in Applied Psychology and Human Services. She began her transition to a zero waste lifestyle in January 2016. Through Be Zero she works to bring awareness to environmental racism and to provide platforms for POCs in environmental communities, which are traditionally predominantly white spaces. As a community organizer and activist, Freweyni is drawn to making the zero waste community more inclusive. She does this by organizing community discussions that address, educate, and work to dismantle systemic oppression.
Instagram: Zero Waste Habesha