Show Me the Greenery — Sustainability Podcast by Sonia Barkat
You’re listening to Show Me the Greenery: for people looking to work for places that care. I’m your host, Sonia Barkat, occasional environmental writer, author of Winter Stars, and lover of all things wild.
Climate change is an ever-growing issue, and it’s something that affects us all. When it comes to making change, there can be a lot of factors to take into account. In this episode, I’ll be talking about sustainability, in businesses and schools, beginning by asking students between the ages of 17 and 24 what they think businesses should pay attention to. Here’s what they have to say:
LYDIA CRESPO: My name is Lydia Crespo, I’m 21, living in Utah. I think it’s good if they offer recycling. Actually a lot of people in my old school, they were really mad that there was no recycling in the break room. If you had a bottle or a can or something, you have to recycle it or else you have to throw it away and that’s not great. And, if they can minimize the wrapping of things, if you’re in a store, and you’re giving people plastic bags just ask them if they want the plastic bag instead of automatically giving it to them.
CLAIRE KHOKHAR: My name is Claire Khokhar, I am from Memphis, Tennessee, I’m a graduate student, at Be[…] University, and I’m 24. I would say, if there’s kitchen space, there’s no single-use plastics, I always look at what do I want… a lot of natural light, not using as much overhead light, having live greenery in the work space, just makes people work more efficiently; the office vibe is a little bit better. I have not had an experience where it’s been environmentally friendly.
SARAH WIEDENHEFT: I’m Sarah Wiedenheft, I’m 17, and I’m from Ossining, New York. It needs to be something that’s on their agenda, having people hold them accountable. It’s easy to just have that be something they’re saying. So I think having someone on the staff who’s holding them accountable to do what they say they’re gonna do. I also think having recycling around, easily accessible for people, having water fountains, and some places try to be paper-free, and do things electronically, instead of printing.
SOPHIA STEGER: My name is Sophia Steger, I’m 21 years old, and I’m from Peekskill, New York. One tip I have for an environmentally conscious workplace, and I’ve seen this put into effect, is to hold a mug drive. It’s often concerning when you see how many single-use cups get used in work spaces each day, but if each person could use their own mug, just think how much paper or plastic we could save! Plus, you’d have the possibility of competing for the funniest mug, or just having something more personal to get you through your day.
JOSIAH WIEDENHEFT: Hello, I’m Josiah Wiedenheft, I’m a student at Houghton College in New York. I think one way that’s striking me about how the organization could be a lot more environmentally conscious is seeing how they chose disposable eat-ware, a lot of places use cheap plastics and styrofoams, they’re just terrible for the environment. And I think that even if it took more of their budget, it would be worth the cost to have more biodegradable options.
SONIA BARKAT: A main theme seems to be recycling, and attention to renewable or reusable resources. This baseline doesn’t seem like it’s asking a lot, so why are these standards not being met in so many cases? To help us get some insight into how businesses can approach sustainability, I’ve reached out to Angie Kim, the sustainability coordinator at Purchase College.
What do you look at first, when assessing how sustainable an organization is?
ANGIE KIM: I know specifically at Purchase, that we set these very large goals for ourselves, while things don’t move as fast as we would like them to, any time that an institution makes a decision, it’s actively progressing toward a goal like that. When looking at a corporate organization, or someone in the private sector, a wonderful thing that a lot of the organizations are now doing are now producing annual sustainability reports. They’ll kind of talk about the achievements that they’ve made. A lot of those things is surface-level and factual information, you do want to kind of call for clarity and transparency and to see that these are the things that they are actively looking toward. You can see that a lot of companies may be investing in certain projects, but you do want to uncover behind the scenes to see, even on a day-to-day, what are they doing? Are they engaging with their employees? Are they promoting the type of sustainability in each of their internal offices? And what does that look like? When they’re hiring employees, do they include like a sustainability statement saying this is something that our organization really stands for, and we kind of expect our candidates to do and believe this mission? What are they doing from a groundwork point of view.
SONIA BARKAT: So if a company wants to be more sustainable, where should they start?
ANGIE KIM: I think it’s always wonderful when a company has its own sustainability department. That is kind of a first step in saying, we believe in this so much that we are going to pay someone to help us do it. That way, not a general, like, oh we’re gonna plant some trees, or we’re just gonna focus on recycling, it’s more about why are we doing that? There’s a lot of impact when you hire someone who knows what they’re doing, and understands the processes, and can turn some general mission into something greater, and something that’s so interconnected, into their whole mission and their goal. But like I said I think it really does start with doing the small things, laying out the reasons why and helping people understand that they are all part of this mission, and this goal. And I think something like that, has been very empowering to employees. One thing that I find is, through this empowerment process you sort of get people who really jump on board and get very curious about sustainability and the environment as a whole; they become the sustainability champions, and they’re gonna go the extra mile. In fact, they may come up with their own initiatives. Then they take that with them in their personal lives, in their home. You know it’s hard to make change when you’re just one person, right? But if you create a collective community action towards something? There’s a lot of buy-in into that. Once people at the executive level can see their community, their employees, are really into something like this? Then the company as a whole begins to shift. And I think that’s what we need.
SONIA BARKAT: In your view, what are the main things a company can do or focus on to be sustainable?
ANGIE KIM: I think there’s a lot of things that can be changed, both internally, but externally as well, in giving back to your local community. Depending on what sector an organization is a part of, whether it’s the consumer sector, or from an education sector, it’s really minimizing an organization’s footprint. If it’s more of a manufacturing company or business, where can they minimize their environmental impact. Making their operations more sustainable. Looking down their product line and seeing what are some sustainable slots[?] that they could make, maybe it involves investing some money. And paying a little extra for more sustainable and environmentally friendly materials. But also looking to the future, maybe it means making policies. Maybe it means making certain commitments, setting short-term, more tangible goals, but also setting long-term goals. Because alternately sustainability is about being able to leave this world for future generations.
SONIA BARKAT: If someone from the outside wants to gauge whether a place is really sustainable, what should they look at, or how might they tell?
ANGIE KIM: I think the biggest thing is to ask. I think you’ll never know enough information just by doing a simple Google search, or even just looking on a website, I think you wanna meet with these people and ask them these questions. What particularly is it that you’re interested in sustainability? An organization may only have the ability to focus on one or two sustainability efforts, but how much are they investing into this? It doesn’t have to be just money, it can be manpower. It can be meeting with their employees to talk about these things. And why is it important to them? I think that’s the biggest thing, sustainability may mean something different to each of us, and you find a company that’ll align with how you see it. Is that a company that you want to work for.
SONIA BARKAT: Why do you think some businesses ignore sustainability, or have trouble implementing plans for it?
ANGIE KIM: It’s difficult because you may not have the knowledge. The biggest thing that I’ve seen with my colleagues across the SUNY network and across the New York State network, they’re constantly wanting to learn, eager to learn about the new research, or the new technologies. And you need the ability to just adapt, absorb a lot of information, because there are groundbreaking things happening every day and that totally changes what sustainability encompasses. I talk about creating this simple policy, you know if you bring up to some executive at a large corporation that you just wanna do this one goal, they’re gonna ask how is this gonna impact the rest of our operation? Maybe that’s why certain organizations might not be able to do this, or aren’t willing to put in a lot of the energy and the money to make these changes. And so you need someone who’s resilient enough and won’t give up and isn’t tired of hearing no… at least once. Because it’s not an easy thing to do. Unless there is some sort of mandate or policy that they must abide by, y’know it’s not necessarily a requirement. Because it depends on how much your executives are welcome to the change, and how much they’re willing to invest in something like this, and see the positives in it.
SONIA BARKAT: Previously, I asked students what they would want to see a business doing. Most answers focused on reusable, or recyclable items, in the office or kitchen spaces. Why do you think that is, and do you hear that often?
ANGIE KIM: Yeah. No, that’s totally common. I think when people think about sustainability their mind immediately goes to like, recycling and waste efforts, and it makes sense, because this is something that’s totally tangible. It’s a decision that we make, and deal with, multiple times a day. I think that’s kind of the first entrance into sustainability for most people, right it’s like, going to a trash can and you’re, faced with a recycling bin and a landfill bin, you’re kind of like, what am I supposed to do with my water bottle? Why do I even have this single-use plastic water bottle? It’s always the first thing that’s on people’s minds. I always say that recycling is the gateway drug into sustainability, because people get hooked on something like that. And then you cross your fingers and hope that that leads to something bigger, and it leads to them being more curious about the environment, and thinking about, other changes that they can make to their lives.
SONIA BARKAT: Lastly, do you think it’s hard for people to seek out workplaces that care about the environment?
ANGIE KIM: If this were like, twenty years ago, I would say yes. But I think now, a lot of companies and organizations are really waking up. And they’re understanding how important this is. How much their consumers, and their constituents, are taking this seriously, and the fact that we’re being faced with climate change. It’s in our faces, and if we don’t do something about it now, y’know who knows what will happen. And there’s a spectrum, but there are organizations that focus on this. And this is their mission, and this is part of their plan. So I wanna say no? But because this is also the world that I live in, maybe I’m in a sustainability bubble, but I do think it is about asking, and maybe a company doesn’t do a great job of promoting some of their initiatives, and they [give answers that they’ve made]. I feel like every company does participate in it in some way, but it’s just a matter of figuring out in what way, how much, and why.
SONIA BARKAT: There’s definitely a two-way street between a company and the people they employ. If no one is on board, or if no one wants to take the first step, change just won’t happen. Let’s take a look at Poetic Earth Month, a month and website created by T.S. Poetry Press, with the intention of promoting ecofriendly lifestyles for their employees, their community, and beyond. Tweetspeak founder L.L. Barkat created Poetic Earth Month a year after running a company-wide ecochallenge. Ecochallenge, formerly known as the Northwest Earth Institute, is an organization that runs challenges that companies, schools, and individuals can take part in, joining teams, and taking sustainable actions, in order to win points. In essence, it’s taking a gaming approach to better the earth. After taking part in the challenge, Barkat wanted to give Tweetspeak’s following a resource that could feel more lasting than an annual challenge. Poetic Earth Month was also designed to extend Earth Day, with the feeling that many companies celebrate earth day when it comes around, but they could use some inspiration that lasts longer than a single day. When it was first created in 1970, earth day was a big deal, because it raised awareness about sustainability.
HISTORIC NEWS CLIP: A unique day in American history was ending, a day set aside for a nation-wide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival. Earth Day. A day dedicated to enlisting all the citizens of a bountiful country, in a common cause of saving life from the deadly byproducts of that bounty.
SONIA BARKAT: It took inspiration from the student anti-war movement, and organized teach-ins at universities. This even led to organized protests about the deterioration of the environment. That was all 50 years ago. And, though Earth Day continues to be important, some people feel it doesn’t quite have the same edge it once did. To avoid being an annual event that sparks temporary change, Poetic Earth Month wanted to become an active year-round resource, with articles aimed at everyday individuals, about easy changes they could make. L. L. Barkat describes their approach like this:
L.L. BARKAT: The environmental movement has been mostly for activists—at least in my opinion—in the past, and I feel like that’s why it’s not actually gained what I call traction. You did have, like, Greta Thunberg, who stirred up a lot of activity, but again it was kind of concentrated in that arena of people who want to live an activist life. I think if we’re really going to reach tipping point, with involvement, which is what we need, you have to involve the average person. So I talked to a lot of people, and they will tell me on the side, I don’t wanna be an activist. They’re kind of afraid of that. And it’s not for them. And yet they don’t know what else to be. Like, I either have to be an activist, or I’m not making a difference. So Poetic Earth Month is a place where ordinary people can come to learn how they can make a difference on a regular basis, without having to claim the life of an activist.
SONIA BARKAT: Poetic Earth Month often focuses on topics that relate to the Top 80 game-changers named by Drawdown. Drawdown, a 2017 book by Paul Hawkin, combines information from different sectors, to create a plan to reverse climate change. Scientifically, the term drawdown is defined as the time at which greenhouse gasses peak and begin to decline on a year-to-year basis. And the book Drawdown identifies climate solutions with the greatest potential to reduce emissions, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. The project brought together an 120-person advisory board, from geologists to engineers, to agronomists, politicians, writers, climatologists, biologists, botanists, economists, and so on, and so on, who all reviewed the text. The book’s solutions are rated by effectiveness, and categorized by sector. For example, food, transportation, education, and so on. T. S. Poetry Press published a book in relation to Poetic Earth Month called Earth to Poetry, which covers a broad number of those issues. An upcoming book, Poetry on the Menu, looks specifically at the issue of plant-rich diet, a solution that Drawdown ranks highly at number 4, right under reduced food waste. Sara Barkat, an author for Poetic Earth Month, works on a lot of the online articles.
So what kind of articles do you write for Poetic Earth Month?
SARA BARKAT: I’ve written a few articles just about ideas, like I wrote one that I really like about the idea of buying used stuff instead of new. I’ve also done stuff that isn’t technically articles; I filmed and edited a couple of meditation videos which is just, I went outside on an afternoon, filmed the trees, flowers… the first one I did was during this rainy afternoon, it was so peaceful… you get to see, in one of them, autumn leaves, and it just lets you experience what it’s like, just all the small moments of nature that is right here, you know it’s not some big dramatic thing but just a very quiet focused [in one]. Pretty stuff, all right.
SONIA BARKAT: Tweetspeak’s hope is that Poetic Earth Month will help show people how accessible sustainable living can be, and promote earth-friendly lifestyles, one change at a time.
After seeing what a company has done to promote sustainability, and after our conversation with Angie Kim, I wonder how individuals feel about taking action. When they see something unsustainable, what do they do? Have they said anything about it? Why, or why not? I followed up with the students from earlier, to ask them just that.
LYDIA CRESPO: I don’t think I did anything because it’s hard to, like… there’s lots of policies and things like at my job right now, say there’s like bottles of water in the fridge, that they sell, they have to throw it out when it’s expired, even if it’s perfectly good water. They can’t have the possibility that someone would pretend it’s expired and just take it home. If you just say, oh this one’s expired I’m gonna take it with me, you could say that about anything, and then you could have anything. That’s annoying. And I was like, I can just take the water bottles, they’re perfectly fine, and they’re like no we have to throw it out.
SONIA BARKAT: At the school you were at, what was it there, they didn’t have recycling or something? Did anyone ever say anything to them about it?
LYDIA CRESPO: They did, it was something about like the city doesn’t do recycling pickup for businesses, only for houses, so they would have to have someone physically take the recycling bins to a center to drop them off, and nobody was willing to do that.
SARAH WIEDENHEFT: Where I work at the farm, they don’t have recycling or anything, and I guess most things that they sell aren’t recyclable, but… yeah, I never say anything because I assume it’ll probably be more work than it’s worth, and also, I don’t know my bosses, like, well enough, so I feel like maybe if I was kind of part of things, like running things I’d feel comfortable, but, I don’t feel comfortable because I’m, just, a worker. Among hundreds.
JOSIAH WIEDENHEFT: My situation would be more one that occurred this past semester. The dining hall in the school was just using styrofoam boxes for takeout meals, which are of course, very important during this pandemic, the styrofoam is generally [?] materials, sustainability. I wasn’t able to do much at first personally, except to eat in when I could, so that I would use the slightly more ecofriendly paper plates. There’s also I asked my friend to help out with getting a petition signed by other students to change those takeout containers, unfortunately I’m not sure anything came of this, we saw no change in styrofoam boxes this semester, but we did what we could.
CLAIRE KHOKHAR: I honestly can’t say that I have said anything explicitly to anyone about it, it’s all like single-use plastics that we have available, and… we do have mugs that we will wash and reuse and stuff like that, we did switch to a different water system, so that it is not using plastic cups, and also like wasting the water, but I had nothing to do with that. I guess in the future I would like to be more proactive about bringing something up though we could improve
SOPHIA STEGER: At my performing arts conservatory, I noticed that there was a lot of single-use plastic waste on campus, and especially in the dining hall. Fruits were being individually wrapped in plastic and there was so many so many plastic bottles going into the garbage because there were so few accessible recycling bins. Some friends and I got together and started an environmental student organization, and we met with members of the school administration to voice our concerns. At first there were some challenges, for instance the dining staff told us that fruit had to be individually wrapped for safety reasons. But eventually, after several meetings, changes were made. We helped bring in new, clearly-labeled recycling bins on every floor, water bottle refill stations were installed by the practice rooms and dance studios, and you can buy an apple without a plastic wrapper. The student organization now hosts lots of events that engage with New York environmental efforts, as well as artistic projects in our school community. Even through video recordings and zoom, now, during the pandemic. I was actually initially surprised by how many students were so passionate about sustainability. I think it might sometimes seem like people are too busy going about their lives or practicing their artform to tackle something as large as climate change, and sustainability, but once there is a place for people to gather together and to discuss concerns and share ideas, there is so much that can be done, and you learn that so many people want to do something, and maybe just don’t know where to start.
SONIA BARKAT: Sometimes there are rules or regulations that make things hard to alter. Sometimes the problem is a bit larger than expected, like recycling that a town just won’t pick up. Yet, even on the small scale, new solutions and persistence can still have an impact. It all starts with noticing what’s around you, and seeing what you can do.
You’ve been listening to Show Me the Greenery: for people looking to work for places that care. A huge thank you to Angie Kim, L.L. Barkat, Sara Barkat, and all the students who participated in this episode. Until next time!