What do you think about when you hear the word sustainability? What do you think about the global issues surrounding trash? What is your perception of recycling? And, what about zero waste? Or the green movement? Do these challenges, concepts, or ideas compel you to act in a certain way? Or, does the scope of our current trash epidemic, and the seemingly drop-in-the-bucket solutions on offer leave you paralyzed into inaction? For most of us, it’s a case of the latter.
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner is here to help us rethink, reimagine, and redesign our future—starting with how we consume coffee. Founder of Design By Freedom Labs, her optimism and determination to change the way we are looking at, talking about, and taking action regarding the one of the biggest environmental crises of our time is infectious. To be clear, Freedom doesn’t dabble in green-washing or platitudes—her approach to tackling trash is pragmatic, well-researched, and very grassroots. And, as it tuns out, us coffee drinkers and coffee industry professionals get to be a part of the solution to—as she would say—make trash history.
I had the privilege of seeing Freedom speak at Re;Co Symposium this past April in Seattle. Brimming with energy, Freedom lit up the room with her passionate talk—provoking coffee industry leaders to realize the power they have to effectuate change when it comes to waste. Today, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share this Q & A with Freedom which digs into the ethos behind Design By Freedom, challenges some of language we are using, and highlights how the coffee industry is critical in moving us toward zero waste. I hope you are inspired by Freedom’s work and her message as much as I am.
**NOTE, I will be hosting a live Instagram Q & A with Freedom on Tuesday, October 2nd at 4 p.m. EST (1 p.m. PST). If you have any questions you’d like me to ask Freedom, please send me a DM on instagram or an email at email@example.com!
tLBCC: Why do you think the coffee industry can be a leader in the zero-waste movement?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Coffee has the power to drive the next flight of human evolution. It’s very easy to forget this in a world that is constantly forcing us to think about going to Mars, or going “hi-tech," or driving us to believe artificial intelligence is the only reality.
The coffee industry has un-parallel influence over the communities they serve. Coffee is the first thing the American public thinks about and wants in the morning. Coffee affects people’s moods and their behaviors. A conversation with a friendly barista can shape someone’s day. In a world that is consistently looking to bypass the human connection with everything artificial and mechanical, we in the coffee industry offer rituals sans competition.
If coffee shops led the narrative on redesign, zero waste and the health of planet earth, there is an opportunity to unleash a movement unlike any other. There is a possibility to touch people’s lives in deep, impressionable ways.
There’s one planet only and we in the coffee industry can influence people’s everyday actions (that are taking a toll on the planet) for the collective good of Earth. That's why the coffee industry can be a leader in the zero-waste movement.
tLBCC: The Freedom Sleeve is the first invention to come out of Design By Freedom Labs. What compelled you to start with a sleeve? And what makes the Freedom sleeve different than other reusable sleeves?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Let me take you back to March 1930, India, to meet Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi, aka Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi mobilized the Indian public, then under the British Colonial Domination, around one simple idea—salt. Yes, salt. No frontal assaults, no guns, no bombshells—his answer to centuries of injustice was salt. The little granular white powder that is a fundamental need of the human body and everything we consume—salt. Gandhi's political allies were bewildered. "Is this man crazy?" they thought. Of all the injustices he could fight for, of all the tyrannies he could mobilize people against he chose salt as the focal point of a national awakening. "Is this a joke?" they asked. But, he succeeded.
You know Da Vinci said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Gandhi lived that life. He boiled down India's struggle for independence to one simple idea: the freedom of the Indian public to make their own salt.
On March 12, 1930, Gandhi and a few followers walked along the Western Coast of India to go to Dandi. Along the way, they stopped in villages across the country, requested people to join them, and gave speeches about colonial injustices.
What started with Gandhi and a few followers became a procession, a campaign—a national movement. Hundreds of thousands of people joined him on the march to make their own salt. This movement reached Dandi on April 5, 1930. On the coast of the Arabian sea with a fistful of salt in his hand, Gandhi famously said: "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire."
The salt march created a frenzy across India. People started participating in the call for independence by making their own salt. Over 100,000 people were arrested in the next few days after the march, including Gandhi. All of this created an awakening.
The Dandi March, also called the Salt Satyagraha, became the founding stone for galvanizing the everyday people—the Indian masses—and inviting them to participate in the Indian movement for independence.
I go to great lengths in sharing this story to draw an analogy. The "seemingly small" things, the stuff that goes under the carpet as "inconsequential”—that's the key to invite the everyday person to the climate action movement and ensure that they succeed at zero waste.
The current dialogue on zero waste in the United States is inaccessible, expensive, complex and unattainable for the American public. Zero waste is not a movement in the United States. Do you know under 2% Americans actually use and re-use their personal coffee mugs to get coffee? The other 98% are not even a part of the conversation. As a culture, we don't subscribe to the concept of use and re-use. Further, calls to action promoting use and re-use don't work because these calls are not designed keeping the American public's behaviors and attitudes in mind. We have not built ecosystems that support use and re-use.
It is keeping this reality in mind that we invented the Freedom Sleeve. It's relevance has to be understood in this context. The Freedom Sleeve is a non-polarizing opportunity to invite the everyday people to take action on waste. When I tell someone that 40 Million cardboard coffee sleeves are discarded every single day in our country, the response is usually a shock. The everyday person gets it. They understand that it's absurd to through out so much waste. We want to reach the American public. I am talking about people-at-large (the 98%). I am referring to all 315 million Americans.
The Freedom Sleeve is #morethanasleeve. Of course it will protect your hands from hot, warm and even cold drinks. But it's a symbol that says that you, as an individual, are willing to commit to something bigger. You are willing to take your first steps towards building re-use behaviors. By snapping the Freedom Sleeve on your wrist, on your bag, on your pet's leash, your key chain, or on your laptop's wire tie—you have it when you need it the most. It's a portable, accessible, and functional solution for the American public to succeed at.
Simplicity is the key to moving towards big impact. We need to create a mobilizing point for all Americans. As the largest producers of per-person trash in the world, this fundamental first step is imperative.
tLBCC: Why did you want to speak to the Re;co Symposium audience?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Re:Co Symposium audience prides itself as the trendsetters, movement builders, and revolutionaries of the coffee world. They are change-makers. This is an opportunity for them to lead the change from the frontline. Here is a roadmap to walk the walk and be leaders in the truest sense of the word. Here is a link to Design By Freedom's Re;Co talk.
tLBCC: In your Re;co Symposium talk you compared the zero-waste movement with the vegan movement? Why did you draw that parallel?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Let's get to the heart of your question. When did vegan become a "movement"? What is this vegan movement about? I have been a vegetarian all my life and never witnessed a more powerful push for a plant based diet. The vegan movement is real. There's a lot to learn here and more power to them (you can tell, I am a fan!).
So, what did the vegan movement do? Vegan creators offered high quality, delectable, and plant-based food alternatives to the most entrenched meat-eaters in a form and fashion the latter group most appreciates. The most brilliant chefs and food geniuses out there gave plant-based diets the texture, the smells and the look of a traditional carnivorous meal. They cultivated fake meats in labs and really innovated around this stuff. Most importantly, they offered an alternative that people didn't think they had before. A healthier, tastier, and kinder alternative which was offered in a non-threatening manner. That's the key—don't overwhelm people with this stuff. The ability to offer a simple yet profound start is the key.
That's exactly what we want to do with zero waste. A zero waste lifestyle in its current form is ridiculously hard to follow. I live it and I can tell you sometimes even I hate it. The forces are rigged against you. The need of the hour is to offer thoughtful, functional, affordable, behaviorally-designed alternatives that people can practice (without the fear of failing) in their personal lives.
tLBCC: Why do you want to challenge our use of the word ‘sustainability’?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: EVERY SINGLE THING. :-)
No seriously, let me ask you and our friends who are reading this—what are you trying to sustain? We are living the most serious trash crisis ever on this planet. It is propelling emissions and climate change. Do you want to sustain this silent, redundant, and green-washed status-quo? Sustainability is a glorious way to maintain the status quo. What we need is a revolution. We need voices that are genuinely interested in the rejuvenation, regeneration, and reimagining the health of our planet. When you sustain, you are passive, and, in my opinion, anybody trying to sustain is an active part of the problem.
The status quo ain't working for the health of the planet. It is definitely good for personal interests of some people and organizations but not for the planet.
You know the irony of it all... think about something you love. You don't want to "sustain" even that thing. You want to actively increase it. You want it to grow and thrive. So, why fool ourselves with this BS on sustainability?
tLBCC: What does Freedom mean to you?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Freedom to me is the quest for flight. It is also a life of service. A life of commitment. A life of extreme passion and a very mad type of love for this existence. Freedom is a life dedicated to being a problem solver, an explorer and being the change I want to see in the world. I am Freedom.
tLBCC: Your passion for zero waste extends far beyond the product you are selling—it has become an integral part of your lifestyle. Can you share a little bit about the way you choose to live?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Two answers to your question. I am not selling any products to anybody. We are sharing an active roadmap for transformation that worked for us.
I was the first test of my experiments. I used, re-used and re-re-re-used one dumb cardboard sleeve for six straight months. I was curious to learn why this sleeve is intended for one-time-use only. What started as a simple cardboard sleeve curiosity experiment became a personal roadmap (with lots of other experiments and iterations; most of them on myself and Clifford) for a transformation to a zero waste lifestyle.
In the last 24 months, Clifford and I have eliminated our personal trash creation by over 90%. We changed everything about our choices. It has been educational. All this fluff you read about zero waste—let me tell you, it is freaking crazy hard to reduce your waste if you live in America. Please don't mistake my example for one of a glamorous lifestyle. Oftentimes it is extremely frustrating.
In its present form, zero-waste is inaccessible for the everyday American and if the dialogue continues in its present elitist format, it will never be truly grassroots.
So, we need to continue to be subjects of our own experiments in this quest to redesign systems, make trash history, and make zero waste work for everybody.
tLBCC: Outside of reusables for coffee, do you have a few suggestions or simple habits we can implement in our day-to-day lives to reduce the amount of waste we create?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Yes, and, it's simple and it's very powerful.
Each time you dine-in or sit-in or cafe-in, ask for "for-here" silverware, mugs, plates, and stirrers. Please do not accept disposables in any and all "for-here" settings.
Request the person offering you a disposable to replace it with a durable. If they can't, don't patronize that business. I know this sounds harsh but we have to create more accountability for waste elimination at every level of the supply chain. Service providers, customers, manufacturers... we are all responsible and have to do our part in solving the problem.
For more, you can refer to this very simple toolkit for reducing personal waste.
tLBCC: One of my personal frustrations with the green movement is that it seems to have become a marketing tool to get people to want more things—which leads to us buying more stuff that we often don’t really need and ultimately causes us to create more waste. Sometimes I think the problem and solution lie in resolving our collective (and personal) compulsion to buy or consume. What are your thoughts on this? And why are you so passionate about re-designing and re-imagining products?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: You are absolutely right. I hate to say this but I hate this "green" stuff. I don't want to be associated with it. It's a lie. It's a pretense. It's a joke.
That's why we need to redesign, reimagine and reinvent faster, smarter and simpler than ever before. Imagine if people had REAL zero waste tools and alternatives to replace disposables with durables, you would limit the need to buy stuff. You would create a breeding ground for circular economies. You could truly limit emissions.
Imagine if all this "stuff" you are referring to did not come with packaging and had its end life thought through... that's what I am talking about. This is not about shoving things down people's throats in the pretense of "greenification". This is about making trash history.
tLBCC: Part of your Design By Freedom project involves The Campaign Trail. Can you share a little bit about this? What has your experience been on The Campaign Trail so far?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Hmmm... the fun part, Ashley. Thank you for the question. :-)
So, it's been two full years that we now live in a full time mobile home—meet Baby Hornet. We decided to travel across America—from the big cities to the remotest towns, from the national parks to the community gardens, from board rooms to community activation, climbing mountains to swimming in rivers and lakes—and invite people to be a part of the action on zero waste. That's the campaign trail!
Thus far, it's been 41 states (including Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.—weird that I have to point these out separately) and we are just getting started. Woohoo!!!
tLBCC: Are you finding most people are receptive to the idea of zero waste? When you are talking to cafe owners about reducing their environmental impact, where is there reluctance? Or what is the biggest hurdle they are faced with?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: I am learning that there are those that walk the walk and there are others that talk the talk. People like to romanticize the idea of change. But, when it comes to taking some real action, the coffee industry can be an arch conservative.
There is a part of the crowd that does not want to acknowledge the limitedness of the current systems and that our inaction leads to strengthening these inefficiencies. Take the whole conversation on the recycling system for example. Some people would rather be starry eyed, waiting for unicorns to show up than actually do something about anything. When it comes to the state of our planet, ignorance is NOT bliss.
Plus, side note, recycling will not save us. The only way to solve the waste problem is to make trash history. Redesign, Reimagining, Reengineering... that's the answer. We have a roadmap too. We are not saying do it all at once.
So going back to your question—complacency is the biggest hurdle.
tLBCC: What is the Zero Waste Cafe Collective?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: A coalition of coffee shops around the United States that are willing to acknowledge that we have a trash epidemic on our hands and that are willing to be a part of the solution. The mission of the Zero Waste Cafe Collective is to improve the health of planet Earth by reducing waste.
tLBCC: The UK Government recently proposed a Latte Levy which is a tax designed to mitigate the issue of single-use coffee cup waste. Do you think we need governments to enforce or tell us how to take care of the environment?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Let's act before we are pushed to the edge!
tLBCC: What is your favorite way to brew coffee in the morning?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: Clifford leads the morning rendezvous with coffee. :) He has a French Press method that I totally love. Outside of that, I am a latte drinker. Oh—so classy! Haha!
tLBCC: What can we expect from Design By Freedom in the future?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: I say this with absolute humility and with the conviction of the rising sun—we will make trash history. You can expect some revolutionary zero waste design and zero waste technology from the Design By Freedom Labs. 100 inventions by 2025 to transition the American public to a zero waste future.
tLBCC: Are there any other ideas that you’d like to leave us with?
Anukampa Freedom Gupta-Fonner: I'd like to talk with every individual that took the pain to read this interview. Seriously, we would like to personally invite every person that read this piece to be a part of the conversation and action on zero waste. We need your participation and your support to make trash history. This is a pressing matter and it is only together that we rise. Please DM on Instagram @designbyfreedom or reach out on my personal email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please join us.
Watch Freedom’s Re;Co Symposium talk | HERE
**NOTE, I will be hosting a live Instagram Q & A with Freedom on Tuesday, October 2nd at 4 p.m. EST (1 p.m. PST). If you have any questions you’d like me to ask Freedom, please send me a DM on instagram or an email at email@example.com. Thank you!