Bringing your own produce bag is a simple and easy way to reduce plastic waste at the grocery store. But as Vanina Howan, a small business owner, knows all too well, we as a society are numb to the plastic around us and reach for that free bag instinctively. Last week I met up with Vanina at a coffee shop in Portland to learn all about her business, The Zero Waste Habit, and how she is fighting our wasteful ways on a professional level.
Update: The Zero Waste Habit has since closed as a business. Vanina is now running a podcast called The Ecopreneur Show which you can check out!
Vanina isn't a Portland native, having grown up in Berkley, California and studied clothing design there. Before starting The Zero Waste Habit, Vanina was a clothing designer and worked on creating sustainable fashion lines. Working within the fashion industry though didn't meet her need for sustainability. "It didn't resonate with me anymore because it felt like we were creating for the sake of creating", she said at our meeting. The design industry is filled with wasteful practices and clothing getting dumped or left on shelves just because it isn't sold. Vanina ended up quitting her job and eventually moved up here to Portland.
When Vanina arrived in Portland, she opened up a small business called The Zero Waste Habit, offering reusable produce bags for bulk shopping. Vanina first started sewing produce bags back in California and selling them at the local farmer's market. "There are so many things that can link together and that can be kind of daunting", Vanina admits when discussing making changes toward sustainable practices. "But plastic is tangible" and it's something consumers can see much more easily. Switching from disposable plastic produce bags to reusable ones is a simple, tangible, and visible way to make less waste. The Zero Waste Habit proudly markets 100% organic cotton and plastic free reusable produce bags for customers.
I first met Vanina at a Zero Waste PDX meetup back in June so I wasn't surprised to hear that she was modeling her business off of the principles of zero waste - avoid having to recycle and toss everything possible. I was impressed to find though, that she was actually pulling it off when it came to her manufacturing process. Many businesses rely on the concept of "green washing" to market their products to eco-conscious consumers, saying something is 100% natural when never defining what "natural" means. The Zero Waste Habit, though, takes their commitment to the environment seriously and is pulling out all the stops to make their products as eco-friendly as possible.
The produce bags they make are 100% plastic free, down to the thread, fabric, labels, and draw strings. They're also 100% Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) - and Vanina even hand makes her own draw strings because she can't source 100% organic cotton ones any other way. That's dedication! The fabric is shipped from India which Vanina explains is because "there are only a small amount of mills in the U.S." and she hasn't been able to find one that makes lightweight woven fabrics yet. But they are sewn right here in Portland! "When I reach out to suppliers, I make sure they send it to me in recyclable packaging", she added and they mail their products to customers in plastic free packaging.
The Zero Waste Habit also prides itself on using every bit of fabric possible. Not just cutting out the pattern and tossing the rest. The small amount of scraps they do make are gathered up and donated to a fabric recycling organization here in Portland. Even the thread pieces are composted if they can't be used!
Not only can you purchase her produce bags online, Vanina is working to get them available at local stores for purchase. You can also schedule a sewing class with her to learn to make your own! Vanina wants people to be inspired to come learn how to sew and also "learn a little bit more about this process of making these bags". She also assured me that you don't have to know how to sew or "have ever touched a sewing machine in your life". You can sign up for a workshop with Vanina through her AirBnB experience page.
Towards the end of our chat, I brought up how Vanina was feeling about the future of our planet. "I'm really optimistic about people and [...] no matter what we come against we will be able to think things through", she said with a smile. "Especially designers. We're problem solvers". The Zero Waste Habit is working to solve the problem of the disposable plastic bag, and showing that zero waste business practices are truly possible. It all started with one switch - a reusable produce bag.
Have you switched to reusable produce bags yet?