Zero Waste Founder Wants to Help Consumers and Brands Be More Sustainable

Bea Johnson fueled a movement on alternative lifestyle that's impacting companies

Bea Johnson started the Zero Waste movement.
Bea Johnson started the Zero Waste movement. Jacqui J. Sze
Headshot of Richard Collings

At the start of the millennium, Bea Johnson’s family reflected the typical American household, living in a large suburban home on the outskirts of San Francisco. A decision to move to the city in 2006, though, would change the Zero Waste movement founder’s life.

During the transition, her four-member family moved temporarily into a two-bedroom apartment. They brought with them only the bare necessities. When it came time to move, Johnson realized that about 80% of what her family put into storage was unnecessary. That inspired her to embrace a whole new way of living. Johnson and her husband ended up either selling or donating a vast majority of their belongings as a first step toward waste-free living. Johnson’s family now produces between a jar and a liter of trash per year, compared to more than a ton for the average American family.

The term Zero Waste referred to manufacturing waste-management practices. Reimagined by Johnson in 2009, it didn’t take much time for the phrase to catch on to describe a lifestyle. By 2010, she was already gaining fame via her blog Zero Waste Home. A bestselling book by the same name followed in 2013, at one point becoming the No. 1 sold on waste management on Amazon.

Ikea was one of the first companies to approach Johnson. In 2014, a member of the retailer’s sustainability team stumbled upon her book.

“They were interested in picking my brain on what a sustainable home looks like,” Johnson said. So she gave a presentation on her lifestyle, the movement that emerged from it and how it affects purchasing decisions, including the materials used. She then provided input on the types of products and home systems that Ikea could offer to support a zero-waste home. It was not only products on the market at that time that she suggested, but also ideas of products that had yet to exist.

Today, Ikea offers a number of items tied to a zero-waste lifestyle from reusable glass containers to cloth bags to wooden toothbrushes. The retailer’s future concept kitchen even includes a composting system, as well as shelves filled with bulk goods stored in glass jars. Johnson has also teamed with Le Parfait to design packaging with no plastic. She has given presentations and tutorials at companies such as Amazon, L’Oréal and Starbucks to help them understand the lifestyle and the decision-making process so they can adapt their businesses.

Johnson has no intention of slowing down. She recently lunched with the first lady of Iceland and after that finished a seven-city speaking tour of Mexico with visits to package-free shops and recycling facilities as well as presentations addressing schools and companies. Johnson shares as much as she can of the events via Instagram stories.

“Every week is different. That’s what I love about my work,” she said.

Big Mistake

“Our biggest challenge was finding balance, figuring out what worked for us and what did not. There were no books or blogs on how to do Zero Waste when we started over a decade ago,” Johnson said. Some of the ideas she tried were too time-consuming, so she dropped them for the sake of simplicity.

Lesson Learned

“We found that for Zero Waste to be sustainable in a household, one has to adopt alternatives that fit his/her schedule and are feasible in the long run,” Johnson said. “For Zero Waste to become a lifestyle you have to simplify your life, not complicate it,” she added.

How She Got the Gig

Businesses often discover her either via articles, social media or by word of mouth.

Pro Tip

“Let your voice be heard. Propose alternatives. They might actually have a chance of being implemented,” Johnson advised. “An effective presentation is one that comes from the heart, from experience.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 10, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@RichCollings richard.collings@adweek.com Richard Collings is a retail reporter at Adweek.
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