How Little Voices Change the World

Amelia Zimmerman
Jul 5, 2019 · 9 min read

There’s a stack of empty toothpaste tubes under Jess Phillips’ kitchen sink. You can’t put toothpaste tubes in the recycling bin (they’re made of too many composite materials) so Jess collects a year’s worth and then posts them to the only organisation in Australia she knows that will correctly recycle toothpaste tubes: TerraCycle.

She buys her grains in glass jars she brings to the store, walks where most people drive, and grows her own herbs and greens. In the storage cage at the back of her car park sit four five-litre tubs of shampoo, conditioner, cleaning spray and dishwashing liquid — it’s less packaging that way.

Recycling a tube of toothpaste, walking to work and buying liquids in bulk are tiny, microscopic acts in a world eaten up by movie-scene deeds and front-page stunts. But Jess Phillips believes in tiny. Her dad’s favourite form of torture when she was little was slowly dropping the wrong material into the wrong bin: cardboard into landfill, polystyrene into recycling, it got her every time because even then, Jess Phillips knew something most adults still don’t. The biggest problems in the world start with the smallest solutions.

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jess Phillips knows. Ten years analysing the impact of chemicals on our environment — she has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Analytical Chemistry focusing on environmental chemistry and toxicology, a Master’s in Environmental Policy and several years under her belt working as an environmental chemist — has made her a living, breathing, recycling encyclopaedia about the chemicals in your daily life.

She knows things that would surprise you — maybe even shock you. Things you probably should have been told about, things intentionally kept quiet. Like how black plastic can’t be recycled because rubbish-sorting machines use a light-based sorting system that can’t penetrate black plastic. Or how the pile of receipts in your wallet are coated in a complimentary layer of BPA.

For a long time there were things Jess knew that but didn’t say. Something ingrained in her humble heart convinced her that people wouldn’t understand — or worse — wouldn’t care. Then one day she sat on a mutual friend’s couch and listened to an entire presentation of false truths and oversimplifications about “natural” chemicals and what makes a product good for the humans and the planet and realised that other people needed to know what she knew. But making a fuss in someone’s living room is not exactly Jess’s style, so she took another approach.

Today, Jess runs @ecobeautyedit, an Instagram account that rates health and beauty products for their environmental impact. The very idea roused her internal scientific monster: how do you quantify environmental impact? How do you compare greenhouse emissions to potential toxic effects on fish? How do you compute a thousand incomparable complexities without spiralling into confusion?

So she started simple. A five-point system rates a product’s environmental impact in relation to its shelf neighbours. Or, she’ll compare two similar products: “good” vs. “not great.” It’s simple, digestible, and totally Instagrammable.

Jess is intent on educating people because she believes consumers can drive the environmental change our planet depends on. The capitalist infrastructure doesn’t have to work against us. Consumers form the end and the beginning of the capitalist cycle. The institution doesn’t function without us; they make what we buy. It’s a special kind of power.

Consumers can drive the environmental change our planet depends on.

Changing consumer behaviour is a start — the first rung on a long and steep ladder of change. But working with businesses directly to reduce their environmental impact can fast-forward the change the health and beauty industry needs to see.

It’s early days, but Jess is simultaneously knee-deep in setting up The Good Ones Co, her consulting company that helps healthy and beauty businesses audit their environmental impact, make changes that benefit everyone, and pro-actively educate consumers about how they’re reducing their impact, and debunking myths and oversimplified ideas.

But myths and their false truth cousins spread like wildfire, are virtually impossible to put out, and often leave permanent damage. Take palm oil. The save-the-orangutan backlash against palm oil led many health and beauty products to source alternative vegetables oils for their ingredient lists — but it’s based on unfounded assumptions about sustainability. It’s actually more sustainable to use certified palm oil than it is to switch to many of the vegetable oil alternatives currently available. Palm oil is actually the highest yielding oil crop available; it produces more oil per square metre than any other oil crop. If companies (en masse, too) suddenly change their oil sources, we’re looking at further deforestation and environmental damage. Certified palm oil isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s the best compromise the world has devised right now. “We have to be realistic about the incremental chances we can achieve. We can’t just not take any action because none of them are perfect,” Jess explains. And so she carries on.

Each year in July three million people live without plastic. It’s called Plastic-Free July and it’s a kind of non-rhyming non-mainstream Dry July for earth-lovers: a thirty-one-day abstinence from single-use plastics. It means she can’t buy muesli in a bag or meat on a plastic tray. It means she can’t accept water in a disposable bottle. It means when she goes to a conference and afternoon tea comes as little jellies in plastic cups, she’ll politely decline, even when her colleagues grow concerned and insist on speaking to the kitchen to accommodate her unusual dietary requirements. She really didn’t need the jelly.

Some people take things too far. Her grandma can’t understand how she can use her credit card during Plastic-Free July. It’s palm oil all over again, that umbrella fix, the complex masquerading as simple. People hold onto a single idea — plastic is bad, plastic is bad — and it morphs into a mantra. But plastic as a substance isn’t a problem. It’s an ingeniously practical substance for long-term use. It’s one-time, throw-away, single-use plastics that cause problems. Some forty percent of the plastics we use daily are single-use, and collectively we produce more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year.

Jess grows herbs and vegetables in a twenty-four-square-metre vegetable garden in her apartment courtyard. There’s parsley and rosemary and oregano; thyme and tarragon and sage; chives and basil and mint and fennel. There’s bok choy and radishes and pumpkin (did you know you can eat the leaves?) and sorrel, a lemony leafy green that’s best eaten cooked — Jess puts it in stews or sauces or, like the other day, in a wheatberry-instead-of-rice “risotto.” (Rice for an Australian has a questionable environmental footprint. She’s trying to cut down.)

She doesn’t own a car because she doesn’t want to own a car. Some people don’t understand this and offer her lifts as favours. It’s awkward to decline, to explain that accepting a lift defeats the purpose of not owning a car, that she sees no need to contribute carbon to the atmosphere when she might just as well walk.

Her head is full of chemical equations and supply chain domino effects and policy impacts and three sides of any debate at any given time — but there’s really nothing complicated about Jess. Her hair bobs naturally above her shoulders, her skin is clean and make-up free, she wears a cream sweater and a grey jacket, and she lives her life on a simple Hippocratic oath: do no harm. But the faces that change the world — the Joans of Arcs, the Martin Luther Kings, the Greta Thunbergs — are usually the plainest; their ideas the simplest.

The faces that change the world are usually the plainest; their ideas the simplest.

There’s a kind of quiet self-assuredness in her voice and words and eyes; a rare and reassuring trait that comes from knowing herself inside and out, from living in accordance with her highest values and strongest beliefs.

What she struggles with most is keeping it all in balance — harmonising her higher values with her small daily habits. She wants to read, she wants to volunteer, she wants to garden and cook dinners from scratch and live a slower, more grounded life. But it’s tough when you’re working for the government four days a week and launching a startup all on your own on the fifth day and trying to spread the message in the in-between time. But if Jess represents anything, it’s integrity. She’s determined not to lose sight of the smaller applications of her higher values, even as she works towards bigger executions.

There’s a constant ping-pong dialogue inside her head that erupts every time there’s a decision to make. Accept a lift from a friend, or walk like she’d planned? Buy that plane ticket to attend that environmental conference? Drink the bottled water because it’s late and it’s free and there’s nowhere else to get it?

At some point you have to draw the line, and the line cuts at a different place for everyone. She’s a rational person, she’s a scientist, she’s a pragmatist: she knows it’s impossible to live a life with zero environmental impact. She can’t even curl up into a ball and die from the impossibility of it all because even dying leaves an environmental footprint.

But the guilt’s probably never going away. She loves hiking, enjoys the occasional camping trip. But you need a car for these things, so maybe they’re not the best hobbies for an environmentalist to have. It worries her. But how else do you stop to breathe in the Earth you’re trying to so hard to save?

Maybe it’s all too small after all. Maybe none if it makes a difference. Maybe she’s a tiny David in a ground-floor apartment five kilometres — a sixty-minute walk, a seventeen-minute bike ride, an eight-minute Pop Car ride — from the country’s loudest and proudest Goliaths.

But people are listening. This quiet, preach-not judge-not beacon of change has found herself a following. She educates without trying to persuade; she doesn’t need to. People reach their own conclusions. Colleagues approach her at work to show her how they’re no longer bringing their lunches in Glad Wrap. Two close friends have gone car-less, and a third seriously considered it — all because she showed them it was possible. She has one hundred and sixty-nine Instagram followers and something like forty likes per post. Yes, it’s small, but it’s multiplying. Compounding. Snowballing.

Jess Phillips believes in little voices — in tortoises among hares, the Davids among Goliaths, the Jacks among giants; the plain among the bejewelled, the Canberras among Melbournes and Sydneys, the ones hiding in plain sight. What excites her most about the recent school climate strikes is not the possibility of a government response than on the effect of children talking about issues that upset them at the dinner table. Change gains momentum when it infiltrates from below.

This is a problem of centures, of generations, of entire continents. Of seven billion people, eight and a half million species, five hundred and ten million square kilometres of land, three hundred and sixty-two million of ocean.

This is a problem of centuries, of generations, of entire continents.

But big problems start with small solutions. Small can move fast, adapt easily, leverage the power of invisibility. Small keeps her focused, makes it easy to execute. She knows that little voices and little actions stack up to big wins. Like little tubes of toothpastes, stacked fifteen-high under a kitchen sink, stacked a billion high in landfill.

Jess Phillips cares about toothpaste tubes. She cares about the environmental footprint of rice. The cup a jelly comes in. Jess determined a long time ago that she’d leave a positive impact on the world: on people and on the planet. And it starts with her morning toothbrush. With being kind to the people around her. With the little things.

The Eco Files

Amelia Zimmerman

Written by

I write about humans and the things they care about. 👫

The Eco Files

Climate change, conservation and sustainability have been thrashed to death, dissected in every light from denial to doomsaying, but the conversation can’t stop here. Climate change is dangerous if ignored, and fatal if out of fashion. Here, the conversation continues.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade