Conscious Consumerism with Janice Townsend - Ep 34

This episode of the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast aired on Tuesday, December 12th. This episode can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

0:00:00.4 David: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Social Enterprise Alliance podcast. Today's episode is an interview with Janice Townsend. And today's episode is unique compared to many of our other episodes in that we are looking from the consumer side of the perspective, specifically around conscious consumerism. After owning and operating a retail coffee brand for fourteen years, Janice Townsend recently sold her business and has become fascinated with sustainable living. She is currently studying for a Master's of Sustainability at the Harvard Extension School with a particular focus on the circular economy. Janice lives in the near south side of Fort Worth, Texas, with her partner. She loves to write, travel, read books on spirituality and ecology, cook for friends and do yoga. Welcome Janice, to the podcast.

0:01:17.3 David: Well, Janice, welcome to the Social Enterprise Alliance podcast. Just great to have you on. And I'm excited to hear a little bit more from your perspective about what it means to be a conscious consumer. So the first question, just where does your story begin? That's normally where we begin is what brought you into this idea of social impact. But from the consumer side, tell us where this begins in your journey.

0:01:43.6 Janice: Yeah. So the story begins for me when I opened my two coffee shops back in 2009 and then also in 2019. And fair trade was kind of at the heart of those coffee shops when they opened. And relational trade and direct trade. And that kind of is what first sparked my interest in this whole idea of knowing where your products come from, knowing where your food comes from. So it's really been working on me for a long time. But since I sold the company last year, I've had a lot more time to think about not only the social implications of the things we buy and where they come from, but also the environmental implications.

0:02:20.0 Janice: And so over the last year or so, I've been kind of digging more into that. And that kind of culminated this summer in a zero waste month. And so I kind of took on this big experiment of I wonder if I could live low waste, not quite zero waste, but low waste for an entire month and what that would look like. And so I documented my journey on social media and kind of just tackled different areas that people had questions on. Everything from is what I put in the recycling bin actually recycled to how can I reduce my impact just by using less to how to grocery shop, zero waste and all sorts of stuff like that. And so I learned a ton. And eventually that from that experience decided I wanted to go back to school to study these kind of issues. So that's what I'm doing now.

0:03:07.9 David: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I love that. In many ways, your journey began with so many of our listeners in the business space. Like, OK, so here's this vehicle. Here's how I can have some impact. Now you're in a different stage of life and you're now thinking of it exclusively from that consumerism side of things. When you hear the phrase conscious consumption, what comes to your mind as you're like entering this part of the journey?

0:03:37.6 Janice: Yeah. So, yeah, you're right. It is kind of a shift from being on the business side of things to now just being a consumer and thinking about the impact of the things that I buy. The first thing that comes to mind, I think, is just that we all probably need to be buying less. Consumption is kind of baked into the American way of life. And we really don't need probably half the things that we buy. And in all honesty, if the whole world were to consume the way that Americans consume, there wouldn't be enough. Like, there just wouldn't be enough for everyone. We consume so much more. And so that's kind of what it started with for me was just this idea of less. And to get into that idea of less, I think we really just have to shift our mindset. We have to change our awareness from, I'm just going to buy that because I want that or that's going to make me feel good or it's easy or convenient to, Do I really need this? Is there a better way to buy this? Where did this come from?

0:04:35.9 David: Yeah, I think that that's a really healthy perspective. I know for me personally, also on the journey of coffee traveling outside of the US, you do see how much you have. I would never consider myself a wealthy person. But then when you step into other parts of the world, I'm extremely wealthy. And it's pretty obvious to see right away.

0:05:00.3 Janice: Yeah, absolutely. And I think even just seeing that the more stuff we have doesn't really make us happier beings either. Because when you travel and you see people with less, they seem a lot of times much happier and more content than we do in this country. So I think that's really interesting too.

0:05:15.8 David: Yeah. I think the first time I met you was in a random social event. And this concept of a consumption problem was first and foremost in a lot of your perspectives. So as a consumer then, I'm curious to hear comments about how all of us can be better consumers. So that's the one thing I think every American has in common with each other is we all consume things. But also from the business side, what as a consumer you're hoping to communicate to other social impact businesses? Where do we all begin? How do we address maybe the consumerism problem? Like, if I own a business, my goal is to encourage you to buy from me, right? That's an engine that helps me to bring about some of those changes. How do you wrestle with that tension?

0:06:13.3 Janice: Yeah. Well, first off, just on the consumption side, I think it's really important to understand the true cost of products. And so not just what did I pay or how much did it cost me as a consumer? But, what's the total impact of this product from its creation all the way to its end of life? And so that's something I think we can be thinking of as consumers and then also as business owners. One big thing that a lot of business owners, I think, kind of it falls to the side is packaging. There's a lot of unnecessary packaging, especially in small retail businesses like coffee shops and coffee roasteries. And packaging is just one of those things that I think needs to be redesigned and rethought on so many levels. Once I've become aware of how much excess packaging is on things, especially grocery items.

0:07:01.1 Janice: I don't know if you've ever gone to the grocery store and it's like, why is this cucumber wrapped in Saran wrap? It's cucumber, it's fine. Or, why is this in a plastic bag when it could just be loose? But yeah, there's a lot of unnecessary packaging everywhere. So that's one thing I think when I think of businesses, like how can you just use less packaging? Is the packaging even necessary? How can you use some kind of like bulk refill system or reusable containers? A lot of coffee shops are piloting really interesting programs, I think, with reusable cups and not even offering to go cups anymore. Which I think is really interesting and very brave because you might lose a lot of business doing that. But you see things changing slowly. So yeah, but as a consumer, understanding that true cost, it's not just, again, what was paid but thinking about, okay, what were the people that were working in the factory paid?

0:07:56.1 Janice: How did it get to me? What was the transportation like? How many fossil fuels were used in the transportation for it to get to me? Is it packaged in plastic? Is it packaged in plastic multiple times? That's something you see a lot too is a book that's wrapped in plastic, wrapped in plastic, wrapped in plastic, and then shipped in cardboard. So yeah, there's just a lot to consider along the process. And then also the end of life of the product. So when this product has reached the end of its useful life, where is it going to go? Is it able to be reused, repurposed, shared? Is it going to end up in a landfill? Was it made of toxic chemicals? What's that going to do to the earth and to the water supply? And so you're really thinking about the entire lifecycle of this product. And my hope is that we can move from more of a… Right now, we're in this kind of linear model of product lifecycle, where you make it, you use it, and it becomes waste. So like the take-make-waste model. And my hope is we can move into a more circular model, where products are designed to be kept in the system for a lot longer. Yeah, that's a lot.

0:09:02.5 David: No, totally. It's totally a lot. And even just hearing and thinking about it, I know that I've personally thought about it some. But I'm being reminded of just how big it is, right? And it really makes me now have more questions for you around… Tell us about that zero-waste attempt of a month that was just this past summer. So it is so overwhelming. Where do you even begin with that? And tell us about maybe the biggest struggles that you had in that month. What were the things that you really had to throw away and you had to participate in the waste system, even though you didn't want to?

0:09:40.7 Janice: Yeah, absolutely. So kind of how I started was I looked at my trash and I was like, what's in here? Like, what am I throwing away on a regular basis? And so a lot of it was food waste. And so I was like, in the city I live in, which is a major city in the US, we don't have like a curbside composting program. And so it's like, okay, I need to figure out a way to compost my food waste so that's not ending up in the trash. So I bought a Lomi. I don't know if you've heard of Lomi, but it's a little kind of countertop composter. And I love it. So it basically takes all of my food waste and turns it into soil that I can spread around the garden outside to fertilize the garden. So it's very cool. So that kind of took care of my food waste. It is some extra steps, but it also keeps your trash in your kitchen from filling up super quick.

0:10:28.6 Janice: And it keeps it from smelling bad, which is kind of awesome too. A little bonus there. So now I don't take my kitchen trash out except for maybe once every six weeks or so, which is cool. So getting rid of food waste was a big part and finding a way to utilize that better. Other than that, I kind of looked and was like, oh, there's a lot of plastic bottles from personal care products or like kitchen products and a lot from like food. It's mostly food products. So think about the canisters your plant milk comes in or, anything else you can basically find in your refrigerator that's in plastic. And so it was either trying to figure out how can I make this myself or how can I utilize some sort of reusable system? How can I eliminate this plastic? So for a lot of the personal care products, I ended up switching to like a package free solution. So like a shampoo bar, for example, or conditioner bar, bar soap instead of body wash, a natural loofah instead of a plastic loofah. I invested in a metal razor instead of plastic disposable razors. That will last me hopefully forever.

0:11:38.3 Janice: And just kind of gradually switched out all of my personal care products to become zero waste product. The one I couldn't get on board with was the toothpaste tablets. Those were a little rough. I think we need some more innovation in that space still. But really cool thing is there are a lot of alternatives to the products you find in the grocery store every day or the products you might find on like an Amazon. So there's a really cool site called Zero Waste Store and they offer kind of like subscription service similar to Amazon where you can get low waste or zero waste products for your house and home. So that's something really cool I found out about.

0:12:10.5 Janice: I just didn't know that existed. There's also like a lot of options for refilling products. A lot of cities have these concepts called refilleries that are popping up everywhere where you can go and refill your own bottles with dish soap or hand soap or shampoo or cleaning products or olive oil, all sorts of stuff. So that's kind of a cool option too. So the hardest thing I think was the plastic waste in the grocery store it was really hard to eliminate, things like bags of tortilla chips or like, seafood is always packaged in plastic. Pretty much anything that is processed is packaged in plastic. So it turns out to also be better for your body and better for the earth when you go low waste or zero waste because you just can't opt for those really easy, convenient processed food kind of snacks.

0:13:04.0 Janice: So, yeah, but it was fascinating. At the end of the month, the trash I created was about a quarter of a kitchen trashful for the entire month. So and it really didn't require that much change, which was the surprising thing for me. It just required some intention of like, I'm going to bring my water with me everywhere and I'm going to bring a reusable cup with me everywhere. And I even like had a little fork that I kept in my purse. I wouldn't have to use single use cutlery, just like little moments of intention so that I wasn't creating more waste.

0:13:39.6 David: Yeah, I love that last statement too, because I think that that's the whole key of all of it is the little moments of intention. It does feel so overwhelming. I'm hearing your story and it's been something I've been wanting to do for a while. But it looks like our coffee roasting business is going to… We're going to get ready to move in the next few months. And one of the things that I want to integrate in that move is a wall of refillable coffee beans rather than plastic. And then quite honestly, I've been disappointed in the coffee industry because I'd want backyard compostable packaging. It doesn't exist. So the best thing I've got, in my opinion, is a recycled plastic option, which is OK, but it's still not the best.

0:14:25.5 Janice: Yeah, and most coffee is interesting. There's. There hasn't been a ton of research, but it's really hard to find a coffee packaging that is fully recyclable. And then it depends on where you live or one that's fully compostable, biodegradable doesn't exist. So It's a unique industry in that way. I think there is a really cool resource I want to point out for business owners. If you're looking to transition to more circular practices, less waste, maybe more of like a refill reuse model. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has a ton of resources about businesses that are really leading the way in regards to some of these principles. And so I highly recommend checking out that website and the work they do.

0:15:08.7 David: Yeah, I love that. It was kind of going to be where my next question was heading. It was right Now you don't own the coffee shops anymore, but I'd be curious to know through your journey of very intentional focus on reducing your personal waste. What things would you have learned that would have applied to your business right away?

0:15:27.9 Janice: Yeah, man, I think there's a lot more opportunity when you're just starting off with a new business to be like, OK, we're going to build our business around these principles because a lot of them are design principles. You can design out waste if you start with that in mind. But once you've started things, it's a whole lot harder to change them down the line. I think it's really admirable when people that own businesses take these things on. But yeah, I think just in regards to like businesses looking at what do you throw away? Some of the easy things for like offices are just to eliminate single use plastic. So instead of having like water bottles or bottles of water available for clients or for staff, installing a water machine that has filtered water and everyone has their own cup.

0:16:15.2 Janice: There's really no reason that we need bottled water in office buildings. Simple things like that. Kind of thinking about what are we printing? Do we need to print all these things? Could this be on an iPad or an iPhone or someone's personal computer instead? And then thinking specifically about retail businesses, I think the idea of like a bag. Like, why do we always bag everything for people? Why do we put coffee cups in more single use items to carry them out? Why do we always assume someone wants a straw? So a lot of it is just eliminating the need for that excess paper, plastic, whatever else by just not offering it or only offering it upon request. So those are some of the things I'd probably start with just to encourage reuse and to eliminate those things in the coffee shop specifically.

0:17:08.8 Janice: Maybe even not offering a lid unless it was requested, which also ends up saving the coffee shop money, which is kind of cool. And then also offering, everything for here if possible when it comes to like restaurant. So I know when I look at restaurants now and coffee shops now, I try to only go to the ones that offer for here where I can eat my meal on an actual plate with real forks and knives and drink out of a glass cup, versus a paper or plastic cup.

0:17:38.4 David: Well, you definitely hit on why we do all this work. I think the tools of business can help us to see a lot of things and lead, I think, by example. One other thing that you hit on, I think, that is a part of this as well is the idea of like maybe buying better products. So things that are closer to you, things that are maybe, you mentioned the natural fibers, not the plastic fibers. How does this play a role into what you're looking for as a consumer?

0:18:12.9 Janice: Yeah. So thinking about the material health of the products we buy, I think is really important. So I've learned a lot about plastics recently and how harmful they are for the environment and also for the communities that surround plastic production plants. Yeah, plastics can be really dangerous and we don't yet fully know the full extent of how dangerous they are. So, yeah, thinking about not just where the product comes from, but also what it's made of. Most of our clothes are made of plastic. When you see polyester, rayon, there's a lot of versions of plastic in clothing you'll see on a list on a clothing label. And the problem with plastics in clothing is when they're mixed with organic fibers, they're impossible to recycle.

0:19:00.0 Janice: And so there's no way to pull those things apart unless you're using some very expensive technology that's just usually not efficient. And so when you see clothing that has maybe organic cotton, but it's got 5% elastane or 5% polyester. Once that clothing has reached the end of its useful life, it's going to a landfill probably. So buying clothing made of pure fibers is one thing that's really good to do. Another thing is just buying used things, basically eliminating the need to make new things. That's a great thing you can do, especially if you're on a budget, making use of places like Goodwill or estate sales or yard sales, thrift stores.

0:19:39.0 Janice: That kind of stuff because you can keep out the demand for new products. But yeah, also thinking about, let's see, so thinking about like children's toys, choosing like a plastic children's toy, your kid's probably gonna have its mouth all over, might be ingesting microplastics probably pretty harmful versus maybe choosing something made of a natural fiber, a cotton toy or a wood toy that hasn't been treated with some kind of polyurethane. But you really have to think about all of the components of the product, not just the original state as well. When you're choosing furniture that comes from a sustainable source has been sustainably harvested and hasn't contributed to deforestation, has coatings on it that are natural, that kind of thing. A lot of our textiles are treated with flame retardants that can be carcinogenic. So there's a lot of things to consider and it can feel really daunting, I think, 'cause it's like wait, I have to go do research for every product I'm gonna buy.

0:20:43.3 Janice: And I think that's the tough part is you kind of do. You kind of have to look into it, especially big purchases like where's this coming from? Who made it? What's it made of? What was the environmental considerations? But I think that also kind of contributes to this whole idea of consuming less, 'cause when we have to look into the things that we're buying, we can't just buy things for convenience and we can't just buy things kind of flippantly. We have to consider the cost and not just, again, the cost that we're paying, but the true cost of that product. So it automatically helps us buy less things, but yeah, for a culture that's kind of oriented around ease and convenience and buying things when we want to buy things, that's a really difficult mindset to shift.

0:21:31.9 David: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you said that the big purchases, and it made me think like that is a good place to begin. Just because I think when I think of even the clothing, the times that I am spending more for a sweater, like I have sweaters that are over 10 years old, but they're made of a high quality. So I am paying more, but I also am buying that higher quality with the realization that it's gonna last me a while. So if there is that big purchase of a couch or something that just requires more, that gives us the space maybe to begin researching that item because it is such a big purchase. But also with the mindset of we're gonna make it last for awhile.

0:22:17.6 Janice: Yeah. And maybe that becomes a legacy item that you pass down through the generations in your family which is not really possible with IKEA furniture.

0:22:28.8 David: Right. Right.

0:22:31.7 Janice: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

0:22:31.8 David: Well, one of the reasons why I also wanted to bring you on now is because we are entering in the number one consumer season of the year, right?

0:22:45.0 Janice: Yes, we are.

0:22:47.4 David: And that's good in some ways, like we want to give people that's a healthy thing. But with kind of everything that you've been able to learn over this last year, what are some tricks or tips that you might share to consumers as they are thinking about those purchases for gifts and for other people?

0:23:06.8 Janice: Yeah, great question. So I kind of have it boiled down to one sentence which is buy healthy products from local sources in minimal packaging and use them until they wear out. And so when I say, first of all, just buy less. Like first ask the question, do I actually need this? Is this actually something I'm going to use for a long time? And once you determine, yes, I need this thing, try to choose a healthy product. Consider the material. So thinking about organic food, clothing made from natural fibers, not plastic. Well-made things that are gonna last a long time from sustainable materials. And then think about where you're getting it. Can I get this locally? So the closer, the better. If you can get it close to you or from a local maker or a farmer or artisan, like that's the best way to go to support local and keep the money in your local economy.

0:24:00.7 Janice: And then in minimal packaging. So look at what it's packaged in. If it's packaged in plastic, see if you can find a better option. Or maybe if you're at a store a local store buying something, bring your own bag. Just little simple things like that. And then this isn't really for gifting, but use things until they wear out. So don't dispose of things until they've come to the end of their service life. And if you're done with it, then find someone else that can use it. And those are some of the easiest things you can do to kind of keep things in the economy and not ending up in a landfill. But specifically for the holiday season something I recommend and something that I personally love is gifting experiences instead of things.

0:24:40.4 Janice: I think this is such a better thing to do and much more meaningful and memorable. And so if you can find a way to give someone like a food experience or an adventure experience or even just something really thoughtful, some kind of thoughtful experience that applies to that person, like I think that's such a great thing. And then there's no, not no environmental impact, but very little. And it kind of takes away that consumption mentality. And then I think if you're gonna gift things, choose those well-made healthy products and maybe even items that promote reuse, like a great reusable water bottle.

0:25:17.2 David: That's cool. Yeah.

0:25:19.5 Janice: Something that someone can use for a long time. And then you can also like choose local or make your own holiday gifts. So last year for some of my friends and neighbors, I bought spices and I made everyone kind of a homemade chai mix and I put it in little mason jars. And that included my favorite recipe for it. And that was my gift to a lot of people. So it was homemade without having to be crafty. 'cause I'm not a crafty person. Yeah, And then I also think the wrapping should be considered a little bit too. I haven't bought gift wrap in years because I always save all the tissue paper and all the bags and I have a whole closet full of them. So if you just start doing that this holiday season, you'll find next season you probably won't have to buy any type of packaging or wrapping which is pretty cool too. And you can also choose like natural twine over like a plastic ribbon.

0:26:09.8 David: Right, right.

0:26:12.4 Janice: Or something like that. We use a lot of stuff we don't need to use. It's just in excess a lot of the times. But yeah, those are kind of my recommendations. It's like experiences not things, reusing your gift wrap. And then if you're going to gift things, maybe choosing local things or making things instead of buying something. So the last resort is Amazon.

0:26:28.9 David: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, and what I love about all of those pieces of advice are again, I think this particular topic can be so overwhelming. But those are all practical things. Those are things that we can use. I think all of us that are in the social impact space and social enterprise world are thinking of making the world a better place. And starting with the products that we are buying is just a huge piece. Just as we close. Normally we would say, okay, where can we find your work? You are just an average citizen, so I don't really wanna flood your email inbox with people reaching out, but I am curious, like you do have that lens of the business. What would be one final piece of advice that you would give for social enterprises that are looking to sell their product to that conscious consumer? What piece of advice would you give them as we are trying to think through how do we engage that consumer to be part of our financial engine, which will help make the world a better place?

0:27:33.1 Janice: Yeah. I think people vote with their dollars. And so I think when you begin to offer products that are a little more conscious of the environment and of people, consumers respond to that. And so I would say it seems a little scary at first to think about, oh my gosh, what if I didn't offer coffee in a single use cup? Or what if I spent all this money to do this three stream waste system for my office? It seems kinda scary to think about that, but in my experience, when you lean into your values and you practice what you preach, people really respond to it and it ends up making your business go much, much better, rather than hurting financially. So that's been what I've seen, at least in my experience with the shops of like when we started doing a composting program and making single use a little, we still had single use, but we tried to figure out a way to where things weren't going directly to the landfill.

0:28:40.5 Janice: And when customers saw that, they were like whoa, you're doing this. This is so cool. And of course, some people didn't get it and we had to explain it a lot like what we're doing. But for the most part, I think things are shifting a bit and consumers really want to do better. And they just are looking for opportunities to do better. And so if you offer those opportunities, consumers will choose you, especially younger consumers especially Gen Z. Gen Z is very, very interested in doing better when it comes to the earth. So yeah, I would just say don't be scared. Like not only will you feel better about what you're doing, people will respond very well to it in my experience.

0:29:29.7 David: Well, very good. Again, thank you for your time on this and I hope that we're all walking away with words of encouragement and practical steps that we can all take. And I think that that's what it comes down to is if we wanna see the world become a better place, see the planet become a thriving place to live, then if we all do the something small that we can do today, then the impact that we can have will be tremendous. So I appreciate your perspectives and taking your time out today to join us.

0:29:53.5 Janice: Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much, David.