Off the beaten path travel is increasingly difficult to find as time marches on. Mass tourism is impacting everything from our favorite cities to the seas that surround them. All the while locals and the environment are often an afterthought. This series, Trailblazers, checks in with writers, photographers, filmmakers, activists and environmentalists who are passionate about off the beaten path travel.
Marina Qutab is the creator of the eco-lifestyle brand, Eco Goddess, and is a zero waste vegan influencer in the eco-conscious lifestyle industry. She is better known as Eco Goddess on social media, and champions the ‘green girl lifestyle.’ The co-founder of the first zero-waste shop in Southern California, she has been advocating for a more just and thriving planet for over eight years.
Her inspiration for becoming a zero waste vegan lifestylist arose after her life-changing experience at the young age of 10, visiting her father’s home country Pakistan. Here she was exposed to environmental degradation at an alarming rate and extreme poverty. Upon becoming ill and blowing her nose into a tissue one night where she witnessed black mucus from the air pollution, she knew it was her calling to work towards building a more conscious, just, and sustainable world.
She motivates thousands of conscious lifestyle seekers from around the world to make healthier, more compassionate lifestyle choices and is the author of Zero Waste Vegan Travel which was released in November of 2017. Her eBook was in Amazon’s Best Sellers Top 10 list in the first month of publishing in the categories Waste Management and EcoTourism.
Without A Path Socially-conscious travel seems to be increasingly popular. What are your impressions?
Marina Qutab When I hear the words “socially-conscious” and “travel” in the same sentence, my eyes, heart and mind light up. This way of traveling is not just a trendy, do-good activity. It is a way of navigating the world in a more fulfilling, authentic, and mindful way.
In our fast-paced society, travel is an essential part of our everyday lives. And with modern technology, traveling has never been more affordable and convenient. As a deep green environmentalist, who exercises the zero waste vegan lifestyle daily and can fit nearly a year’s worth of my trash in a single mason jar, I questioned how sustainable and doable my wanderlust was.
And yet, growing up in a multicultural home of Pakistani, European and Spanish descent, I learned from a young age the value of authentic, one-on-one cultural exchanges for peace and global understanding.
Frustrated by feeling ostracized within my own community of environmentalists, and the frequent response of, “No Marina, you can’t be a world traveler and environmentalist,” I embarked on a quest, as many of us do, to find some answers. Turns out there is a whole movement gaining traction where travelers identify as socially-conscious travelers, and their journeys are conducive to a progressive world. By evidence of my own documentation and travels, I am a living example of how through simple lifestyle choices, you can travel the world and maintain a vibrant, peaceful and thriving planet.
WAP Tell us about Zero Waste Vegan Travel.
MQ Zero Waste Vegan Travel, my eBook that I released on November 11th at 11:11 AM, is a practical, relatable travel guide based on my personal, walk-the-talk experience of living a zero waste vegan lifestyle. This book is not intended to make a reader’s life harder, but rather simpler, happier and healthier To touch upon both lifestyle components, zero waste and veganism, I have split the book into parts, beginning with my personal definitions of each term. Each part of this book is rich with information, including Zero Waste Vegan Lifestyle Hacks, Alternatives & Tips, Recipes, Your, Complete Travel Checklist, Money-Saving Strategies, and more.
This book presents the tried-and-true ways to a “green girl” lifestyle filled with more compassionate, health-focused choices that are in alignment with Mother Earth. I share with you what has worked and what has not while navigating my travels and experience as a ZWV lifestylist.
WAP What inspired you to get more involved in making videos about this topic?
MQ I have always been a visual learner. There is something special about communicating through a live experience and more intimate interaction with your audience, as opposed to just words on a page.
I studied film in university, but it wasn’t until my junior year when I took a narrative video journalism class and was required to pick up a camera to tell the story that I felt completely in my element. What I loved the most was that our class could all be given the same topic to build a story around, yet no two videos in the end were created the same.
WAP How do you wrestle with encouraging people — either directly or indirectly — to travel knowing in doing so your fans will leave behind a carbon footprint?
MQ I was the self-entitled environmentalist at one point in my life, judging others for their lack of sustainable lifestyle practices, annoyed by meat eaters and the non-vegans, intolerant of unconscious consumers who bought conventional products. But then something shifted in me. How was I going to affect change in such a harsh manner? The truth is, I couldn’t. When I shifted my approach to encouraging people in a more compassionate, relatable tone, the number of people I influenced dramatically increased.
I began agreeing with the feelings of others. I got on their level. I avoided speaking as a superior. I refrained from minimizing or correcting them. I reminded myself: everyone starts somewhere.
I began breaking down their obstacles, addressing their challenges and eliminating their misconceptions of the lifestyle. I let them talk. Baby steps, I reminded them. No big lifestyle change will be effectively made overnight. It takes patience. It takes making new habits and sticking to them. It takes motivation, whether that be a friend, a mentor, or a sticky note on your wall.
I began publicising through social media how happy and fulfilled this lifestyle made me feel. This “walk the talk” mechanism illustrated value. It made the lifestyle seem more attainable and desirable. And alas, the “well if she can do it, I can do it!” mindset is born. You see this over and over again.
WAP Food is ingrained into cultures around the world and in many places, it’s considered rude not to accept an offering of food. How do you handle that situation without offending your hosts?
MQ I love this question because I have a lot of experience learning it and living it. In the Fall of 2016, I completed my studies abroad in the Middle East. Excited to experience the people, places, food, and culture, I went into my new life abroad with an open mind. Because my dad is from this part of the world and my mom is Spanish and European, I learned how to handle cultural differences at a young age.
I stayed with a host family who hardly spoke English. Great, I thought. Now it is going to be even more difficult! To my surprise, it wasn’t. I handled my food preferences by first expressing my deep gratitude for the offering. Then I would politely say I had a food allergy or sensitivity to animal products. This is so much different than saying “Eww! That’s a dead animal!” or “I don’t eat animal products because it is against my moral compass!” The host will rarely be offended by a food allergy and can respect and honor your preference in a different light.
WAP Is your mission to encourage everyone to become vegan or do you think there’s a middle ground? Because it seems to be vegan is a luxury that wealthier nations and peoples can certainly embrace, but that’s a near impossibility — logistically, financially, and when considering health — for poorer families around the world with fewer options or substitutes for animal protein.
MQ My mission is to show people that there’s a way to find balance and a deeper sense of happiness and fulfillment in choosing a conscious-minded path. Geographic and demographic disparities certainly play a role in determining how much of the zero waste vegan by which you can live. The amount of waste you generate and the types of foods you consume are not nearly as important as understanding your purchasing power and the impact you have.
Every person can adopt changes that are possible and accessible in their lives. Even the smallest of changes towards a more sustainable and mindful existence will have a positive effect on our society and the world as a whole.
WAP What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced since getting involved in zero waste vegan travel?
MQ How surprisingly simple this lifestyle has become never ceases to amaze me. When I began my zero waste vegan journey, I did not make impulsive or drastic decisions nor do I suggest that route. I took my time to feel what it would be like to transition my life from conventional to conscious living. My initial thoughts while entering into this lifestyle were, “Ugh, this is going to be a lot of work and I am going to have to give up so many things I love.” Quite the opposite, actually! This beautifully transformative experience led to a euphoric sense of freedom, a greater sense of purpose, and an overall healthier and happier wellbeing.
WAP Do you have a favorite vegan travel destination? (Is there such a thing?)
MQ My favorite vegan travel destination thus far is where I am living now, naturally: Southern California. The amount of fresh, local and seasonal produce is to live for. Plus, there is an abundance of plant-based restaurants. My favorites include Café Gratitude, Peace Pies, and Kindred. Then there’s the plant-based fast-food restaurant for when you have the munchies, Plant Power.
WAP How can the travel industry decrease its waste and help those areas that have been negatively impacted by mass tourism?
MQ To decrease waste, the travel industry can begin by supporting carbon offsetting programs which compensate for emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere. A public announcement highlighting the perks of offsetting at the beginning of each flight would remind all passengers to do so after their flight.
Secondly, on planes, the crew can serve organic, healthy snacks and other items only in recyclable or compostable materials. As for utensils and straws, airlines can introduce reusable or compostable utensils. The amount of waste produced by the packaged snacks and products handed out throughout the plane ride is startling. According to the International Air Transport Association, airlines produce an average of 5.2 million tons of waste in a year and will produce over 10 million tons annually by 2030.
For the materials that are recyclable, flight attendants should be incentivized to carry out proper recycling procedures. According to one of my close friends who is a flight attendant, she says most flight attendants send recyclables to a landfill because there is no proper instruction on how to discard the materials. In addition, she says there are no incentives or benefits for making the eco-friendly choice. In their eyes, it is just an extra effort and work.
Airlines can also look into options for running the planes on biofuel or other renewable energy sources.
Moving on to hotels and/or places to stay while traveling, facilities can greenify their operations by looking at how they dispose of their gray water and if they compost; their waste overall and how much of it is recyclable; the bathroom fixtures and toiletries; if there are in-room recycling bins; how they can conserve energy such as using energy efficient lighting and Energy Star appliances; environmentally friendly energy source alternatives such as solar energy or hydroelectric power; a linen-and-towel-reuse program with incentives for guests; and quality of the restaurant food. Big facilities like hotels can also research how to qualify for an accredited certification program, such as Green Key, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification. The most holistically green hotels support the three pillars of sustainable tourism: social, environmental and economic.
Adventure-tour operators can arrange green modes of travel and adventuring, including cycling, hiking, biking and walking. Then there is public transit, such as trains and buses. Information regarding public transit should be readily available for travelers in the airport, hotels or in the surrounding areas. However, their impact on the environment depends on such factors as route, fuel type and passenger load.
In the big picture, travel companies can make a commitment to no new development that does not have a positive impact on ecosystems. Sure, they can prohibit the use of straws and plastic lids at resorts to protect marine life, but the biggest positive effect will come from travel companies encouraging ecotourism. This kind of tourism is a responsible way of traveling to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. Ecotourism is about uniting communities, conservation, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement, participate in and market ecotourism activities should adopt the following ecotourism principles: Build cultural and environmental awareness and respect; Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; Provide direct financial benefits for conservation; Minimize social, physical, behavioral, and psychological impacts; Create financial benefits for both local people and private industry; Construct, design and operate low-impact facilities; Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to travelers that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ environmental, social and political climates; Recognize the spiritual beliefs and rights of the Indigenous People in the community travelers visit, and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.
WAP Could you offer a tip for readers who want to travel more responsibly in general?
MQ As many of the readers of my new book can attest to, I am a firm believer in the two-step method. First, Evaluate and next, Make the Move.
Evaluate how you travel now. Ask yourself questions like:
Next, Make the Move. Begin your journey to zero waste veganism by downsizing, responsibly disposing of unnecessary things, and filling your diet with organic, seasonal, local and vibrant plant-based whole foods.
Here’s a simple switch that will make you feel like a zero waste vegan badass: Carry a Zero Waste Kit with you everywhere. This is essentially a bag with all of the tools you need to be zero waste. Some may need their kits more than others, so it is truly just learning when and where you will need it. The number one reason people fail at this lifestyle is because they do not appropriately plan and are unprepared. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” so start off strong and you will learn from there.
Here is what will go in your kit: A reusable set of utensils; A reusable napkin; A reusable glass/bamboo/metal straw; A reusable water bottle; A reusable mug; A food storage container (for leftovers or takeout); A cloth bag (for your muffin/croissant/sandwich); A reusable bag (for grocery shopping).
WAP What’re you most looking forward to in your work and travels?
MQ To connect with people. Above everything, I love connecting with others and empowering them to make intentional lifestyle choices. It’s a ripple effect.
Hearing their stories, learning their ways of living, bonding over our similarities and differences, enjoying new foods and cultures and so much more. This topic of zero waste vegan travel is a novel, rarely discussed topic, making it an excellent conversation starter and opportunity to learn and grow with each other.
I very much look forward to the day when we can all partake in exploration and travel in a new way– one that connects us as a people, deepens global understanding abroad and in our local communities, and maintains a vibrant, peaceful and thriving planet.
All photos courtesy of Marina Qutab