Ethical living is possibly the hottest (and most-needed) trend of our times. Podcasts, documentaries and books on the topic fill up the media space, all aiming to teach us to live more ethically and with more respect for the planet. One of the people who speaks and writes passionately on the topic is Marieke Eyskoot, a Dutch sustainable lifestyle specialist who is behind the book This Is A Good Guide – an unusually stylish and joyful handbook to eco-friendly living.
Marieke is an event host, presenter and moderator for events such as the Dutch Design Week and Fairtrade International, an experienced keynote speaker who has held the stage at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and TEDx to name a few, workshop leader and panelist. She is also a consultant for fashion and lifestyle brands and stores.
Her book deals with all areas of lifestyle – from fashion and beauty to food and home, but also living, travelling and gaining knowledge. I received the book as a Christmas present, and I was struck by how informative, non-judgemental and incredibly stylish and aspirational it was. I knew I wanted to speak more to Marieke about the process of creating the book and her message to the world. Here is the result of that conversation.
Tell us about your background before writing the book. How did you get into sustainability? What sparked your interest for sustainable living?
I was born in the Netherlands, and got to live in that wealthy part of the world by coincidence, with a healthy economy, a good climate, human rights, women’s rights, democracy. I didn’t do anything to earn all that – I simply had it handed to me. And so I don’t have any more right to it than anyone else, I don’t deserve it more. I just as well could have ended up elsewhere, and be sewing our shirts, producing our sneakers or packaging our shampoo. This idea has always informed much of what I do. I want to use everything I’ve been given to make this balance slightly fairer. If only a little bit. So as a teenager I started eating vegetarian, I became a volunteer for Amnesty International when I was in university, and worked for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an organisation to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, for almost ten years. After that I co-founded one of the first ethical fashion tradeshows, called MINT, to get as much fair fashion into the stores as possible, and moved into sustainable lifestyle as a theme – so much is intertwined: what we wear, eat, which products we use, how we work, travel and how we live.
Writing a book like yours must have been very research-intensive. What are some interesting things you learned while working on it?
I learned a lot from writing my book, from small but impactful tips – did you know you you need to keep apples in the fridge to make them last longer but not tomatoes? – to very practical ones such as which certified organic lipstick will stay on the longest or how to charge your devices to improve battery life, and more elaborate ones about offsetting carbon emissions. Also I learned a lot through the facts I gathered to underscore the reason for change, such as:
80 billion – the amount of clothes we produce annually worldwide (11 items per person, 4 times more than in 2000)
7,500 – the number of animals a meat-eater consumes on average during his/her life (and one kilo of beef takes up to 25 kilos of feed and 15,000 litres of water (to grow the feed)
1/3 – of all food produced worldwide is thrown away before it reaches us (and some 842 million people do not have enough to eat, if a quarter of all food that is now lost or wasted could be saved, they could all be fed from it)
What are some areas of sustainable living that you find people are unaware of?
I think, the way we are being pushed to constantly keep buying, which makes it incredibly hard to live more sustainably. Nothing we buy can increase our self-worth and self-love, but the mainstream fashion, accessories, beauty, gadgets, sports and diet industries beg to differ. They want us to believe we are not good enough, not beautiful enough, your skin isn’t smooth, glowing or the right shade. You are not skinny enough, you don’t wear the right clothes and are not on trend. The ideal we have to live up to is ridiculously limited. In short: you don’t look like you’re supposed to look, only when you buy will you belong. Much of the messaging is specifically intended to make us feel bad about ourselves, to then offer the solution: their products. We know it doesn’t work, and yet we keep trying. And thus, we are not only talked into having a problem, and given a solution that doesn’t work – we are also tricked into incessantly buying more and more, which makes it nearly impossible to become truly sustainable. This commercialisation of our body image lies at the heart of our struggle to change our behaviour. We need to actively recognise and resist the way the industry makes us feel, to save both ourselves and the planet. It’s time to take that all back, and only buy things that we need and actually make us feel great!
What are the most frequent questions you receive about sustainable living, and what’s the most frequent advice you give people?
Over the last fifteen years, since I’ve been working in sustainable fashion and lifestyle, at every birthday party, event or meeting and on social media I get roughly the same ones – people want to know how they can start, what they can do, where to find ethical fashion, clean beauty and better food, what to look out for. Many really would like to live more sustainably, but just don’t know exactly how. So I wrote this book to try and give as many answers as I possibly can, to enable everyone to make different choices, and do good while living a good life too. These wonderful questions are the entire reason I wrote the book, and the response takes up about 280 pages!
What is your best tip for navigating a world where pretty much everything we use appears to be unsustainable? From coffee that isn’t Fair Trade to food in single-use plastic containers, to beauty products that are cruelty-free but might have toxins in them, to fashion that claims to be ethical but in reality includes the skins of abused animals? Many people just don’t have time to do extensive research on every little thing they buy. What’s your advice to them?
For me it’s important to stress that it’s about good, not perfect. About smart choices, doing what you can and what suits you. Looking at where you can have the biggest impact. This is why my book is called a good, not a perfect guide. I’m certainly no saint, and you don’t have to be one either. Don’t sell yourself short, and acknowledge the positive steps you’re taking. Striving for perfection only discourages and stifles you, because it’s simply not feasible, yet. So that makes some people feel that if they can’t do it completely right, they, never mind, don’t do anything at all, which is such a waste of all the great steps you could have taken, that would have made your life a lot nicer. Don’t hide behind those thoughts, just start. You will discover lots while you go. Being sustainable and conscious doesn’t mean your life should suffer, become meagre or boring. On the contrary, I’m convinced that it can be better, more interesting, and more varied once we stop automatically choosing the most familiar path. Sustainability doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything anymore, it actually gives you more: quality, possibilities, new flavours, positivity. This is what I want to show – and why I made the book: I’ve done the research into all these things and can help you make these choices.
What’s your stance on individual vs collective action? Vilda has written about it here. Our message was that consciously consuming is great but change also needs to come from companies and corporations offering sustainable options. What do you think is more crucial – making conscious shopping choices or pushing for change on a societal level?
For me there is little difference between these two. We are part of society, our choices shape it, and we are shaped by the behaviour of big companies. I absolutely think change needs to happen on all levels, only then real progress is possible. So conscious consumers, commercial companies and law-making governments all need to shape our common future. If you buy something, you actually say to the label or store, I love what you’re doing, here, please take my money to continue. Choose brands that prosper from treating us all, from the worker to the wearer, with respect. Small steps and actions can have huge effect, especially if we all do it together. We made this world, so we can also change it. Who else? This means taking small steps, but also means not shying away from looking at what in your life makes the most impact, and where you can be the biggest changemaker. Eating less (or no) meat and dairy is one of the most important things you can do for a better world, as is flying less for instance. And what do you do, eat or buy every day – make an alteration there, and you’re making a structural difference. On the other hand, companies need to start steering away from the narrative of everlasting growth. If you keep making more and more clothes, gadgets or accessories every year and flood the world with it, it is going to be very hard to be a positive force for chance. So not just offering more sustainable options, but radically adapting the actual core principles of their industry. Modern, forward-thinking companies see how they can benefit from lending, renting, sharing, secondhand – and step away from the old-fashioned model of producing more every year for less. Governments should of course force them to make money in an ethical way. How is it possible that people are being exploited to facilitate our lifestyle? For our jeans and earrings? Unbelievable that we allow our stuff to be produced elsewhere, in a way that would be completely unacceptable here. Why is that okay for them, but not for us? Why is it even legal to exploit people and the planet, for profit? And why can we choose in a store between products that were made through abuse, and ones that weren’t? That concludes the circle of shopping versus collective action – it really in the (hopefully) near future shouldn’t even be possible to buy non-sustainable options. Right?
Find out more about Marieke’s work here.
Photo of Marieke by Melody Liefting