Founded in 2015, City to Sea is the result of Natalie’s personal awakening on plastic. After watching the heartbreaking film trailer for Chris Jordan’s Albatross, she knew she had to do something about plastic pollution.

Now a team of over 30, and with a number of award-winning campaigns under their belt, City to Sea’s mission is to prevent plastic pollution at source, through people-powered campaigns that change behaviour. 

Plastic-free periods campaign. Image via City to Sea

I talked to Natalie about activism, life after lockdown, and her new book, ‘How to save the world for free’; a climate-friendly guide to everything from banking to bonking.

It sounds like something a superhero would get up to; do you think any of us really have the power to save the world?

“Individual actions matter. As I say in my book, we don’t need to be experts (or have superpowers) to make change happen. So, for example if 100,000 25-year olds, decided never to buy plastic-bottled water again, that would save around 86,000 tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s the equivalent to the amount generated from powering over 10,000 homes a year. And that’s from taking just one simple action.”

Supermarkets and retailers need us; without us buying their products, they can’t exist. Never underestimate how important you are to them and how, in fact, you have all the power. If you want refillable groceries in your supermarkets, tell them and get all your friends to tell them. If you want them to stop using palm oil, make sure they know you’re not going to spend your money in their stores until they do. If there’s a few hundred thousand of you saying the same thing, they will have to listen or risk losing customers. 

Using consumerism as a tool for change

Do you think COVID-19 is going to shock society into living more sustainably?

“The pandemic is about having less…environmentalism is about a better, more beautiful life.”

“On my street right now, there’s this amazing sharing going on…food sharing, tool sharing; I hope things like that will carry over. But as environmentalists, we should avoid drawing parallels between a global pandemic that’s rooted in fear about our health and livelihoods, to leading a more sustainable life. The transition we need to make is a beautiful one, it’s full of joy and fun – it’s a better life.”

The coronavirus and other emergencies from around the globe, like last year’s Australian bushfires, are leaving many people feeling upset and overwhelmed. How can we overcome this anxiety?

Eco-anxiety is very real; as our concern for the planet rises, so does the effect on our mental health. Firstly, I think we need to recognise it’s ok to feel grief, and the loss of what’s happening in our world. We need to go there, otherwise we remain numb and disassociated.” 

“One of the best things we can do to when we’re worrying about ourselves, our children or the generations to come, is to be of service.” 

“Give your talents to the world, in whatever way you can. That shifts the energy from anxiety to action.”

We seem to be living in the Age of Activism; Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg are just two headline-making examples of this. But not everyone feels comfortable with the idea of sticking themselves to an inanimate object, or letting their children skip school. Does activism need to be so high profile, or is there a less dramatic way that people can get involved?

Image courtesy of young climate activists and family, in Bradford-on-Avon

“Actually, I think there’s a time and a place for getting your hands dirty, or even painted.”

“Taking to the streets and engaging in a spot of direct action, (ideally, always of the non-violent kind), to show your support for urgent action on climate breakdown and ecological destruction, really counts. 

I think Extinction Rebellion have been very effective at getting environmental issues into the headlines. Not only that, they’ve given people from all walks of life (professionals, retirees, queer folk, BIPOC, young people) a safe space to get involved, and do something meaningful. But for those who don’t want to take to the streets, there are quieter ways to protest and make your voice heard.”

The best way to maximize your impact is, ultimately, to be yourself. Bending yourself out of shape to do volunteer work that doesn’t suit you, isn’t going to light you up. But doing something you love, or that makes you shine, will be irresistible. Build on your strengths, do what comes naturally to you and be who you are. Get clear on your motivation for changing the world and tell the story in a way that’s unique to you – knitting or fundraising, scientific research or filmmaking – wherever your talents lie, you can make them count by applying them to saving the world. 

Do what you love and love what you do

There is a definite rise in the number of brands getting involved in social causes – do you think that’s a good thing?

“It depends on how authentic they’re being. And, if they put their money where their mouth is.

Lush is a great example of a brand that lives and breathes its purpose, and puts its brand to good use – Patagonia, too. But there are some who just decide that cause marketing is the thing to do. If it’s not embedded in their values, people see through it, and it can really backfire.”

“It’s about authenticity of purpose, it has to come from their values.”

Image via Lush 5 Pot Program

Many brands have been accused of not doing enough, or worse, of greenwashing. City to Sea has been known to call out brands that are making misleading claims – I’m thinking of Coca-Cola – what role do you think business should play in tackling social and environmental issues?

“We try to be a critical friend, but we’re not afraid to call brands out.” 

“Generally we try and champion positive change, rather than naming and shaming.

The ‘Call out Coke’ campaign was about them saying that a plastic bottle was only single-use if you don’t recycle it. We challenged them on that because plastic bottles are the very epitome of single-use.”

If your favourite makeup brand has unrecyclable packaging, make a song and dance about it by writing to them or calling them out on social media. Or you could switch to a more ethical brand and champion them publicly for looking after people and planet, as well as their profits. In addition to encouraging them to keep doing it, thanking companies that are doing the right thing has the added bonus of promoting their product to other people who might benefit from your findings. Your voice can make a huge difference, so use it often. 

Naming, shaming and giving thanks

“I don’t expect businesses to just stop doing things overnight, as long as they work to change what needs changing. They need to put pressure on governments, and drive legislation that supports climate solutions. And, as employees we have a voice, too. Companies need to attract and retain talent, so we can use our influence to create change from within.”

I’m talking about changing the system, or the company you work for, from the inside out. Whether it’s bringing in speakers to open people’s minds on their lunch breaks, getting your canteen to choose local organic food, switching disposable cups and packaging for reusables, or getting the company to become a certified B-Corp – businesses that balance purpose and profit – you can be the activist within. And, when your employer has thousands of employees and a long supply chain, those small changes can have a massive impact.

In the belly of the beast

You once said that feminine qualities can heal and repair our planet – what qualities did you have in mind?

“Empathy, compassion, a sense of care; and collaboration as well – I think women are naturally more collaborative. And vulnerability – not needing to be seen to be strong all the time. We can admit when we’re still learning, and we can be honest about our mistakes.”

Jacinda Ardern – Prime Minister of New Zealand. Image via Four Over Four

“Jacinda Ardern is incredible. Everyone is like, can she just lead the world, please?”

“I still don’t know whether in the corporate world, women feel like it’s ok to be vulnerable or whether they think they have to be more masculine. So, we are seeing people like Jacinda Ardern role-modelling a new kind of leadership.”

While researching this book, I did a lot of crying. I cried over lives lost protecting forests from the impact of cattle farming in Brazil, over the lives lost making our clothes in Cambodia. I also raged over the way animals are treated and the injustice of our economic and political systems. And I had dreams in which I was talking to a dolphin behind glass about overfishing, and another in which I was proudly showing people at a conference the label in my knickers which stated who’d made them, which factory they worked in and how much they were paid.

So, you could say, the experience has been immersive. But beyond the grief, rage and strange dreams, I’ve mostly felt very grateful. To be in a position to write this book is a privilege, and to have you read it is an honour. And, on top of that, I am truly, madly and deeply in love with this planet. And, like any relationship that I care about, I want to look after it, cherish it, celebrate and nurture it, as if my life depended on it. Which, I suppose, in this instance, it actually does.

A better way that’s more fun

All extracts from How To Save the World for Free by Natalie Fee, Laurence King Publishing, Hardback, £12.99

Makin’ Whoopee for the planet! by Natalie Fee

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