Revoco Talks…Sustainable living with Natalie Fée, Founder of City to Sea
Harry caught up with Natalie to talk more about her career path so far, City to Sea and how it’s turning the tide on plastic pollution and helping people live a more sustainable lifestyle. Have a read below…
HB: Natalie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Could you start off by giving us a bit of an introduction to yourself and City to Sea?
NF: Well, City to Sea is an environmental campaigning organisation which I set up in 2015 (which is when I think we run our first campaign). Our focus is stopping plastic pollution at source and I set us up as a not for profit to see where we’d go and what good we can make happen in the world. I’m also a speaker, an environmentalist and an author.
HB: Sounds like a busy schedule! What made you jump from a successful career into starting City to Sea. Was there a tipping point for you?
NF: Well, I was working in the media and I’ve had quite a coyote trail of a career. I started in recruitment back in the late 90s when the IT industry was booming and had a pretty good and lucrative time. That was a really interesting start as I got to cut my teeth in the business world. I didn’t go to university and I’ve kind of made my way through the ranks quite quickly when I was in my late teens. Throughout the years, I’ve tried different things and wound up as a TV presenter working in local television which I was really enjoying. But I was increasingly aware of the environmental crisis that we’re facing and the complete degradation of nature. I wanted to try and get more environmental, community-based and positive content on television and back in 2015, TV producers and commissioners weren’t on board with it. They said ‘No, it’s too worthy’, ‘people aren’t interested’, ‘it doesn’t make good Television’ and it was increasingly frustrating.
In 2014, possibly 2013, I came across this video online and it was just a short clip of a film about the Albatross Chicks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on an atoll called the Midway Islands. These incredible Albatross Chicks were dying in the nest because they were being fed by their parents a diet of plastic, all because their parents were sweeping down and mistaking floating pieces of plastic for fish, and coming back and feeding it to their chicks. It was heart-breaking to watch. I was completely devastated watching that tiny clip and the scale of the grief that I felt was so immense that I knew I had to do something about it. I think we can become numb to a lot of these things that are going wrong in the world. But this was a breakthrough for me, and I really made a commitment there and then to do what I could to stop that from happening. And so that’s when I decided to build City to Sea up in my spare time. I actually didn’t start out with the intention of starting an organisation, I just started out with a random idea of doing a music video and thinking that that would completely just changed the world put Coca Cola out of business, and everyone would watch it and that would be job done. But inevitably, it didn’t work out that way! But I did raise some money and I did get some momentum going and from there, I decided to see if I could do more and set City to Sea up in my spare time whilst I was still working in TV.
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HB: You’ve definitely had an interesting career! From experience, I think doing a few years in something like recruitment is a really good way to understand business for anyone, because there are so many different aspects to it. I’ve definitely learnt a lot whilst doing it!
So, how’s the journey been from it going from a side-project to becoming a fully-fledged business? How has the journey been as a Founder?
NF: It’s been really interesting. I really see it as a blessing and as an adventure, because I didn’t start out saying like ‘okay, in five year’s time we’re going to be X number of staff, turning over X much money, and stopping as much plastic from getting into our oceans’. It was really organic, yet fast-paced, and I think there were a few key ingredients in place. When I started City to Sea, I decided not to be a charity, but to be a non-profit/ community interest company to be a bit more agile. I didn’t really like the idea of having to be accountable to a board of 12 trustees, because if we wanted to produce some more risky, playful content or something. Because of that, when we started campaigning I think we had quite a different and fresh voice, compared to other ocean conservation charities. And because of my experience with working in TV, I was quite happy to get on camera and be the spokesperson and get people excited and engaged about our campaigns.
Those factors were important. It was right at the beginning of that tidal wave of awareness and change around plastic. This was still two years before David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2, so we were slightly ahead of the curve, not by any intention or planning thought!
— natalie fée (@nataliefee) January 19, 2021
HB: I think it’s so important, especially for early-stage startups, to have someone like you that can really just get the message out there.
What advice would you have for other aspiring founders that are potentially looking to make the leap? Especially ones that are maybe looking to the tech leap into either clean tech or not for profit?
NF: I’d say that should probably be the only leap that people are making at this stage in our evolution. Literally, the planet depends on it – the survival of not just the human race, but other magical creatures on this earth do.
The first thing to ask is ‘does it exist already’. If there is a really awesome company doing what you want to do already, then I would say try and work for them and help them with their cause. Because we don’t need more duplication in the world unless your offering is quite different. Or unless they say, No… In which case, go for it! That’s what I experienced as well. I tried to get jobs working for some of these other organisations, before setting up City to Sea and that was a no for me. That’s why I decided to do it myself.
I would also say to really check that it is of service to planet and people. We’re at an extraordinary point in our evolution as humans, and we’ve never faced the kind of the peril that we face at the moment in terms of the collapse of the ecosystem. Now really is the time to put our energy into that. Ask yourself ‘is this idea going to support the people or the planet?’ and just make sure that those two factors are covered. We could argue if you want to go and become an artist or do a creative pursuit, then obviously we still need all of that to happen as well. I’m not just saying the only work you should do is to be of service but I think the days of the conventional profit at all costs thing is done.
The third thing that I’d add to that is that you should really be doing something that really excites you and that you’re super passionate about. You’ve got to have that enthusiasm and love for the cause or have that real solid reason for why you’re doing what you’re going to do. Because, inevitably, it’s not going to be plain sailing the hallway. It’s the cause that keeps you going.
HB: Completely agree with you there, Natalie. Especially after what the last 12 months have given us, I think having a passion for what you do has never been more important. How’s the last 12 months changed things up for you and how have you adapted? I bet your public speaking must have been changed up quite a bit!
NF: Yeah, well, it’s definitely been a challenging year for the team. It’s easy to see in terms of our campaigns, and in terms of the onslaught of single-use plastic through PPA, masks, gloves and sanitiser. The team have been amazing and responsive. And we’ve come up with new campaigns and awareness, raising content and spreading facts, not fear around still using reusables, staying safe and not switching back to all the plastics that we’ve been using before. That’s been a key focus for the team last year.
As for me, in terms of my talks, it was a very big shift. I was used to doing four to five, fairly sizable, talks to different sized corporates each month. I was doing a lot of travelling around Europe and in the UK and obviously, that’s switched online. I’ve definitely not missed the pace and I’ve not missed the travelling! It’s been fantastic to have a slower pace of life. But doing online talks is just weird. I still enjoy it and people still get a lot from it, but it’s very different talking to a camera in the kitchen rather than talking to a roomful of people. There’s a vibe that goes on when you’re speaking to people directly. I’m quite playful, and although I’m talking about serious subjects, I don’t take myself too seriously – but now you have no laughs coming back off the screen! You just have to keep going. I actually think it’s more tiring, weirdly, doing it to a screen because you’re not getting that two-way feedback it’s just going out, with nothing coming in.
From an environmental perspective, I think the way that people have shifted to home working and travelling a lot less is one of the things that’s going to stick moving forward as we eventually come out of the pandemic.
HB: I saw some incredible images in summer from the space station that showed the stark difference from before and after the lockdown. I very much see a more remote/work from home friendly working policy being the norm after we’re out of this pandemic.
The work you’ve done at City to Sea has been hugely impactful and very important. What would you say some of the biggest achievements you’ve accomplished over the 5 or so years?
NF: I’d say the biggest achievement is building an awesome team. We’ve been up to around 25 staff and we’re now around 18. It’s been great creating something which has meant that all of those people now have meaningful work in the world. Not that they didn’t have meaningful work before, but actually, quite a lot of people have come to work at City to Sea as their first job in a non-profit and a lot of them were working in a more conventional corporate business before. So, that’s been a real joy to reflect on that.
In terms of impact, it’s astonished me really of just how much difference we have been able to make. I’d say our first big win was back in 2016 when we launched a campaign called switch to stick, which where we got all nine major UK retailers to stop making cotton buds out of plastic and make them out of paper. You might have noticed the switch over the last couple of years they’ve transition from plastic to paper. At the end of 2020, that finally became a ban, four years later – which means that all the smaller shops and chemists would have had to switch as well. But that was extraordinary and it really gave me a taste of how we can change the world and how we can make a difference, especially when it comes to our shops.
And then our refill campaign, which is all about getting people switched on to refill their bottles, instead of buying plastic bottled water has been a huge success. We launched an app for that in 2016 and that’s just gone from strength to strength. We’ve had over 350,000 downloads of the app and we’ve expanded the refill app now so that you can find more than just water refill points. You can find zero waste shops and where you can refill things like wine and olive oil. It can really help people save money because you can save a lot of money by not buying bottled water and buying in bulk and using refill shops. You can also get a discount on your lunch and your coffee when you’re out and about. So, I’m very proud of that. The fact that we’ve got over 400 communities around the UK running refill as volunteers in their local community, which is fantastic. That’s expanded now into seven countries and lots more on the way.
And then the third one that I’m particularly proud of, out of what we do is our work around plastic-free periods. A lot of people don’t know that conventional period products like pads and tampons have got plastic in them and we, as a nation and around the world, flush them down the toilet not realising that they’re never going to biodegrade. We did a lot of work in 2017 launching plastic-free periods and that’s really it’s been a real game-changer. And now we’re seeing lots more plastic-free period products on the marketplace. We also developed a school’s programme called rethink periods which rolled out to 600 schools last year, which has just been phenomenal. It’s been educating students around the environmental impact of their periods and also what the alternatives are in terms of reusable menstrual products. So yeah, we’ve been doing some great stuff.
HB: That’s awesome. The work you’ve done is amazing. I particularly really love the refill programme. I went to Thailand in August 2019 and they’ve got really big plastic problems, especially in the likes of Bangkok. But then we went to Ko Tao, a small diving island in the Gulf of Thailand and they are great with plastic. You can’t get carrier bags and they’ve got refill water stations all over the island. It was really nice to see stuff like this and I hadn’t really seen anything like it in the UK until recently.
NF: Yeah, they’re real game-changers. You see some fantastic grassroots community-led initiatives like what you were talking about in Ko Tao. There are countries around the world where the governments have really got on board and banned lots of single-use plastics. We’ve been a bit slower here in the UK, but we have got the environment bill coming into effect soon. This is going to mean there’s more legislation around single-use plastics there’s going to be more responsibility put back on the producers, meaning better labelling and better clean up. Lots of these things are in motion, but certainly, in terms of single-use plastics in supermarkets, there’s still a long way to go here in the UK. There’s also a long way to go in terms of us actually implementing and using more refill systems.
HB: What sort of advice can you give to people that want to live more sustainably?
NF: Just across the board, if you’re looking at living more sustainably, it means reducing your carbon footprint and living more lightly on the earth. You can kind of look at our overall carbon footprint has been divided into three sections; your energy, your travel and what you eat. You can start by just reducing the amount that you’re travelling and flying a lot less (which obviously, we’re all doing at the moment, because we can’t travel right now). But actually committing to only travel long haul once every five years and to only travel short-haul once a year – and when you do fly to make sure you offset it through a really good quality offsetting scheme. Enjoy more staycations or travel by train when you’re going into Europe.
In terms of our energy, making sure you’ve switched to a really good green electricity supplier makes such a big difference. It does cost a bit more money if you want to go with the likes of say Ecotricity or Good Energy who are the best of the best in the UK. If people want to switch to Ecotricity, they will raise 60 pounds for City to Sea by doing that.
And then in terms of our diet, eating a predominantly plant-based diet. Again, I’m not saying you should all be vegan, because I don’t think that it suits all body types and all ages and at times of our lives. But if you are eating meat, just doing it less often and making sure that it’s organic, locally sourced and choosing organic food makes a huge difference in protecting the soil and biodiversity. I talk about all of these things in the book I wrote, called How to save the world for free, which came out at the end of 2019. That covers all aspects of what we can do on an individual level. It’s a really practical guide to changing your life to be more sustainable, but hopefully in a fun and non-preachy way. In the first section of the book, I talk about everything that’s going wrong in the world and then, after that, I hopefully take you by the hand and give you lots of things that you can do differently. As someone put it quite nicely: ‘Everything you can do to live a greener life, from how you bank to how you bonk’. I don’t think that I couldn’t have summed it up better myself!
HB: In terms of just eating stuff, so I live right by the pump house and they’ve just put in a local milk vending machine in their car park. It’s all refillable, reusable stuff which is really cool.
NF: It’s great to really support those kinds of local refill initiatives when you can. If you’re in a privileged position of being able to pay that little bit more, say, for your glass refill, then try to do that over buying plastic from the supermarket. We can mobilise our privilege in that way. Systems like this may be pioneering at the moment, but the more we use them and adopt them, the more fashionable they become, the more will pop up. Then the price will come down for it and make it more affordable for all – so I would say if you can use those systems, then do.
You can also get plant milk deliveries from Milk & More and that comes in glass bottles now. So, you can find glass plant milk alternatives which are great. For the Bristol audience, there is Matter Wholefoods in Easton and they do a great range of plant milk in glass bottles. There’s also a company called Good Sixty, where you can bulk buy your loose products and they’ll deliver them to your door and you get it at trade price. It’s a really good one to sign up to if you want to eat more organic and buy in bulk.
HB: I’ll definitely have to check those out! More specifically, in terms of plastic use, do you have any advice on how people can reduce that?
NF: I generally say to start in your bathroom, because it’s an easy place to start. It’s not overwhelming like going into a supermarket and everything’s triple wrapped in plastic. In your bathroom, you can swap out shampoo for a shampoo bar (which doesn’t come with any packaging, or perhaps just in a cardboard box). You can swap out shower gels for nice soaps. You can swap out disposable razors, which aren’t recyclable, for a nice quality metal safety razor. The bathroom can be a great place to start – especially if people have periods, then swapping to reusable menstrual products. There’s so much. Even just checking that your toilet paper is recycled. Don’t flush wet wipes. Don’t flush anything down the loo except pee, paper and poop – The three P’s!
When you’ve done your bathroom, you look around and you’ll realise that it looks prettier. You’ve got glass refill bottles instead of loads of garish, nasty looking plastic bottles everywhere. You’ve got fewer yet better-quality products. From there, it starts to spread and you feel like you’ve accomplished something and then you can move on and tackle other items.
HB: Very useful. And for people reading this now who are wanting to start making a change now, what are a few things that they can do to start with.
NF: I’m just going to be really self-promotional, but I guess self-promoting is about promoting good things for the planet! I’d say buy my book because that’s got hundreds of ways in which you can do and you decide for yourself what actions you want to take. It will hopefully open you up and inspire and educate you at the same time.
Also, anything you can do to support City to Sea. Just sharing content sometimes can be so effective. Just like my own example of just seeing the clip about the albatross chicks, for me sparked everything that’s happened since and that was just one person sharing that video. Just sharing our videos, signing petitions is a really powerful way that you can support our work in the world. But obviously, it doesn’t have to be City to Sea! If you’re really into forests, then you can support a great reforesting/rewilding scheme. If you’re really into diving, then you can support a different ocean conservation organisation. Supporting the organisations that are constantly doing this type of work is a great way to amplify your impact.
I’m always open to speaking with people about it if people want to get in touch. I can also come and do a speaker slot at lunchtime for organisations that want to give their teams something to do at home to stay motivated and to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
And finally, follow your heart. If you’re feeling drawn to help the planet at the moment, then go for it!
HB: Natalie, thanks so much for this. You’ve given me, and our readers, something to really think out. It’s been great learning more about what you’ve accomplished at City to Sea and I wish you all the best in the future!
You can find out how to purchase Natalie’s best selling book ‘How to save the world for free’ here.
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