Sometimes, to prompt change, you merely need to ask
For 25 years, Stephanie Miller worked at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which invests in private businesses in less-developed countries as a means to alleviate poverty. For over 10 of those years, as Director of the Climate Business Department, Stephanie developed solutions to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of projects in which the IFC invested. For example, she and her team introduced what became a very popular certification for buildings in emerging markets that had reduced energy and water consumption by a minimum of 20 percent compared with local averages.
Burnt out and wanting to spend more time with her son before he left their home in Washington DC for college, Stephanie embarked on a gap year from her hectic career. During that time, she began to wonder how she could reduce her personal impact on the planet. Even though she had worked on climate solutions in her day job, she had always felt she was too busy to make changes in her own life. She told herself, “I’m too busy, have a crazy schedule, I need all the support and help I can get, like precut vegetables in plastic clamshells.”
One simple request creates a ripple
Stephanie and her partner, both busy working professionals, took turns dropping off and picking up clothes at their neighborhood dry cleaners a couple of times a week. The excessive amounts of thin plastic they brought home bothered Stephanie but she felt she helpless to do anything about it. Finally, one January day during her gap year, she worked up the courage to ask her dry cleaner, Yoon, to put her clothing in a reusable garment bag that she would drop off. Yoon immediately said yes and, recognizing the benefits of reusable bags, planned to order some from a supplier that would imprint them with her company logo.
But when Stephanie returned a few weeks later, she saw no sign of reusable garment bags, other than her own. Weeks later, she still saw no bags. When she asked Yoon and her husband Ki about the bags, she learned that Ki worried about wasting money on reusable garment bags that no one would want. Yoon eventually convinced him to buy 20.
Later, when Stephanie walked into the dry cleaners one day, Ki met her with a beaming smile. “Our customers love the bags!” he told her, thanking her for introducing the idea. Rather than losing money, the business’ bottom line had improved due to an increase in customers. Residents of this very green neighborhood were happy to pay a little extra to buy the bags in order to reduce plastic pollution. Today, Yoon and Ki ask every customer who comes through their doors if they’d like to buy a reusable bag. Six months after Stephanie’s initial request, they had sold 360.
Spreading the idea starts a wave
To get the word out about this service, Stephanie made fliers and posted them in the neighborhood grocery store and bookstore. She also approached other dry cleaners in the city about offering this same service. (Yoon had agreed to speak with them.)
Stephanie sent me files of the fliers (find them here). Please free to copy them if you’d like to encourage a dry cleaner in your city to do this. “But dry cleaning is terrible for the environment,” I hear you say. (Go here for info on alternatives to perc chemicals in dry cleaning.) To that I say, there is the world in which we currently live (millions wearing dry-clean-only clothing) and the world in which we wish we lived (everyone wearing machine washable clothing made of natural fibers, preferably hemp). And besides, this idea has infinite applications elsewhere.
Change at the local level
We absolutely need government and industry to implement solutions to the climate and waste crises. But usually, one individual can more easily implement wider change (beyond their own lifestyle changes) at the local level. So if you feel inspired by Stephanie’s story to initiate change in your community, just for a few examples, you could contact your municipality about instituting a ban on single-use plastic, or approach your favorite takeout restaurant to implement a reusable container scheme or ask your employer to install water fountains rather than buying bottled water.
Stephanie wants people to know that alternatives exist but she also stresses that those alternatives must be doable for busy people. “The dry cleaner bags are a no-brainer. You have to take your dry cleaning in, so you take your bag too. You have two bags—one to keep in the laundry basket where the shirts are and one at the cleaners that the clothes are in. There’s really no inconvenience at all.”
Stephanie caught the zero-waste bug back when the dry cleaner agreed to put her clothes in her reusable garment bag. (Once you catch the bug, you can’t easily shake it, nor do many people want to.) Her ensuing zero-waste journey made her realize that she does wield some power as an individual. This realization—and her experience working on climate solutions—led her to write her book Zero Waste Living The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person’s Guide to a Lighter Footprint.
In business, the 80/20 rule states that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers. In Stephanie’s book, she shows readers how to make their greatest impact (the 80%) from a small number of highly effective lifestyle changes (the 20%). She hopes to appeal to people who are in the same situation she was before she made her simple request at the dry cleaners. “I want to influence the people who are paralyzed and think they can’t make a difference.”
Stephanie Miller is the author of Zero Waste Living, the 80/20 Way: The Busy Person’s Guide to a Lighter Footprint. She founded Zero Waste in DC to focus on the application of zero waste strategies that have a real and sustainable impact. With a goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible, she provides advisory services to individual households as well as community and corporate presentations. Within her 25-year career at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, she served as Director of IFC’s Climate Business Department where she led global teams to find innovative solutions to climate change.