Sarah Robertson O’Keeffe has been in the design industry for 20 years, currently a Design Manager for architecture and design firm, Gensler. While Sarah clearly holds a passion for the execution of impeccable design, she has recently dedicated her time and energy to a newfound cause beyond her profession. For the past year, she has been waging her own personal war on plastics as well as advocating for more sustainable practices everywhere. In honor of Earth Day 2020 on April 22nd, we sat down with Sarah to learn more about her journey as an environmental crusader, her biggest challenges and the impacts her decisions have made to better her community.
Tangram Interiors: How did this all start?
Sarah Robertson O’Keeffe: You could say I like a challenge. Back in June 2019 when I heard about a one-month plastic free challenge on Instagram, I decided that I was going to participate. For one month, I avoided plastic everywhere possible, but if I somehow encountered plastic that I couldn’t avoid, I kept it. I didn’t buy anything or order anything if it involved plastic, which meant no online shopping as well. At the end of the month, it really hit home to see how much plastic I had still accumulated even while actively trying to avoid it. I realized there was no way I could just drop this movement after a month, so I made it a lifestyle change. I’ve been “plastic-free” ever since.
Tangram: What has been your biggest challenge?
O’Keeffe: Food. I eat out probably 75% of the time, which essentially offsets waste and puts plastic in someone else’s trashcan. However, when I do cook at home, which I’ve been doing much more in quarantine, I try to only shop at farmers markets for produce and supplies. However, when allowed, I bring my own reusable bags purchase milk in a cardboard carton, etc.
Tangram: What have been some of your other solutions to becoming more environmentally conscious?
O’Keeffe: I don’t online shop. There have been a lot of studies evaluating the carbon footprint of shopping online versus in-store. Online shopping is technically more sustainable, but only if you’re purchasing a lot of items and they’re all packaged together. We don’t have control over how companies choose to package their products, so I try to avoid it all together.
I don’t shop at second-hand stores because it’s so hard to find sizes and I’m honestly a germaphobe. However, when I do shop, I pay attention to what the clothing is made from—there are a ton of online resources* that evaluate the sustainability of various fabrics. I also try to support retailers that are environmentally-minded and view each piece as a long-term investment. The days of going to Forever 21 for a dress I’ll wear once are gone.
Another great way to avoid plastic is to use refillable products. There are stores that offer refill stations for household items like shampoo, conditioner, and soap. If you’re Los Angeles-based, check out Sustain LA.
Tangram: Any tips for beginners?
O’Keeffe: Yes! I’d recommend starting with a month-long challenge like I did because you can do anything for a month. 30 days is a reasonable amount of time to delay a purchase or not shop online. That being said, I bet after completing the month-long challenge, you won’t even want to buy what you initially wanted to anymore because you’ve had the time to realize you don’t need it or you’ll figure out an alternative means of purchasing it from somewhere else more responsibly.
There are also some zero waste “influencers” I’ve found to be really helpful and inspiring on Instagram. It sounds silly to be referencing Instagram, but a lot of these people have done the research already and have amazing tips. @ZeroWasteWarbler, @SustainLA and @NoToxLife.LA are my go-to resources.
End of interview.
If you have a hard time imagining that one person can make a difference, Sarah has a story that may change your mind.
Gensler is located in the DTLA City National Bank Plaza and located at the bottom of the building, in the back of another restaurant is Mr. Moustache. While this establishment may sound like an undercover operation, Mr. Moustache is a popular restaurant known for its sandwiches, salads, and spicy chicken chowder— which happens to be Sarah’s favorite soup.
As a self-proclaimed creature of habit, Sarah orders this soup for lunch 2-3 times a week. Yet, during her one-month plastic free challenge, she faced quite the predicament: the soup was served in a cardboard to-go container with a plastic lid. Knowing she couldn’t give up the soup and it was against health code to supply her own bowl, she decided to save her lid and bring it back with her every time she went to the little shop for lunch. This arrangement carried on for months. Then one day in December, before handing over the soup, Mr. Moustache himself said to her, “Let me get you a lid.” Sarah’s initial confusion turned to pleasant surprise when he turned around with a soup bowl accompanied by a cardboard lid in hand. Sarah’s quiet persistence inspired Mr. Moustache to change all of his plastic soup containers to ones that were more environmentally sustainable.
One person can make a big difference. Even if you believe your choices aren’t significant enough to impact and influence others, Sarah has proven that they most certainly can. So, start small, take it one step at a time, and you’ll be doing your part to save Mother Earth before you know it!
Happy Earth Day Everyone!