Zero-waste warrior Fiona Clements knows we need to act now — and so she’s here to help

Fiona Clements (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu) is director of Ōtepoti/Dunedin’s Res.Awesome, a company that supports businesses, community groups, events and individuals to become zero waste. She also runs zero-waste clothing label Senorita AweSUMO and advocates for global not-for-profit movement Fashion Revolution via textile-waste-reduction community Stitch Kitchen.
Fiona’s journey to this work started at fashion school, where she learned about the industry’s huge environmental and human toll. Having a chronic illness and managing the effects of toxic poisoning taught her how sensitive our bodies are to the contaminants around us and made her want to share this knowledge, but it was a conversation with her dad — who’s long been in resource recovery through Habitat for Humanity — that was the catalyst for starting Res.Awesome, with a Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Practice from Otago Polytechnic in hand.

So Fiona, what’s your mission at Res.Awesome? We provide awesome resources to help our city on the journey to zero waste by 2040 — it used to be 2030, but they changed it, slack eh? To educate and support people through this shift, we offer consultation for resources recovery and waste minimisation, event waste management, skip diversion services, workshops, public speaking and online resources. We look at your big picture, then hone in on the phases of improvement for you. 

Why do you do what you do? I do it for Papatūānuku [Mother Earth] and for all the wildlife that lives in te taiao [our environment]. Dunedin is the wildlife capital of New Zealand, yet we can’t clean up our streets. I get so sick of picking up trash — it’s hard to walk past it, and it all washes out into te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa [the Pacific Ocean] to harm more and more wildlife.
I do it because I can see the behaviour shift that’s needed to help us adapt to the changes within our climate and society. We have to downshift, but no one in the conservative world can see that — they’re still living a ‘normal’ that’s untenable to me. We have to adapt now!
I also care deeply about all the women in the world who are exploited, just as I care about Papatūānuku going through the same thing. If we’re all interconnected, it matters — all the pesticides, dyes, plastics, all of it.
I find it really interesting digging through people’s rubbish bins doing waste audits too. For me, it’s an applied science — I’m looking into the way humans operate and the way we’re using stuff. We’re so disconnected from ourselves and Papatūānuku — stuff goes in the bin and we never see or think about it again, but it actually goes and sits in Papatūānuku and affects our entire environment. I’ve had to do that learning too, so I know it’s possible [to do the right thing] in ways that can be enjoyable and not a drain — and I want to share that with people. 

What’s a typical day like for you? Managing the invisible disability of a chronic illness, hereditary neuropathy with susceptibility to pressure palsies, and the fallout from the toxic poisoning gives me the super power to say “Fuck no” to anything that doesn’t align with my values and take each day in my stride. That means no alarms, waking and breathing, morning lemon juice, morning social media check, share, comment. Then I water the maara kai [garden] and put food on to cook for work snacks later, depending on how late I’m planning to stay at the studio. I’ll walk the dog on the beach for at least an hour and sometimes I’ll go for a dip. Work out, meditate, stretch, shower, get ready for work.
Why I feel like I have to excuse the fact that I do things differently is silly, but I learned when I got sick that the old ‘shit, shower and shave, being at work by nine’ is not for me. I’ve had to make my days work for my body and its health needs. I start work around 1pm and usually work through into the evening, which is when I work best. Then it’s home for dinner, to relax in front of the fire, destress, talk to my wife Lyeta, play backgammon, stretch, dance, move, lie in bed and do nothing, watch a movie or documentary, work on the house, garden. Sleep, rinse, repeat!

ABOVE “It’s about realising that attempting an imperfect zero-waste lifestyle is better than nothing — the more that’s reused, the better,” says Fiona. “I want to keep working with businesses that are keen to minimise their waste and save on landfill bills. We know we can quickly get to an 80% diversion rate if we implement a few changes and work on staff behaviour alongside that.”

You’re also currently renovating your home in Waitati, where you and Lyeta live with Zela, your dog — how’s that going on the sustainability front? I grew up in Waitati and bought a house here a year ago. My parents live about a kilometre away and Dad’s building our house, so we feel so privileged and grateful to have had their help to get us into our first home.
We got wood for building from a Mercy Hospital renovation, plus two metal baths — one for the bathroom and the other for outside — and some plywood from a local who was moving. For our temporary gas shower, we used a shower base from a friend’s reno, some walls my dad had and some roofing tin we got from another friend.
Our curtains are ’50s green brocade from Stitch Kitchen’s basement. I need to do some restructuring to make them fit one of the windows and avoid some stains, but if you have the skills, it’s possible. Our wardrobe is made from a metal piping system that I got from a shop that closed down years ago and has also been used many times in my studio. Our washing machine is second-hand, as is our laundry tub.  Our kitchen will be put together from found items as well, with only a few new things, like the extractor fan. We’ve used Natural Paint Co paint, our shelves are off cuts — and it won’t stop there!
It’s really all about thinking about where things come from when building or renovating a home — are you able to reuse things from somewhere else? Many people don’t realise is how much waste is created in the construction process, and there’s so much demolition happening, and that’s where we managed to get some of our materials from.
The biggest thing we can do is affect the supply chain — do your research and ask questions, don’t just accept things at face value. Questions like: where does this come from, what chemicals are used, how far is it transported, how is it packaged, what will you do with the packaging at the end? The more we question suppliers, the more likely they are to change their behaviours, too. There’s also an online resource called Green Star where you can find products that contain fewer chemicals.
I’m also slowly turning our house and garden into a food production space. We’ve only just moved in, so we have one garden bed so far, and compost, of course — that came first before we moved in, to take on some collections we’d made from some waste audits. I’ve let the place go wild for a year to see how it thrives on its own.

What does looking after the Earth mean to you? Reciprocity with Papatūānuku; indigenous wisdom holds this key, so we must lift up our indigenous whānau to take ownership of that and share it with us. No more landfills, no more single-use crap and takeaway throwaways. Communities thriving because they have access to everything they need within 20 minutes of home, permaculture and kai growing for everyone, understanding bees are our friends, addressing the climate issues. Living from love not fear and within our planetary means, knowing that there’s something bigger than us out there, letting our egos go.

How can people begin their own zero-waste journey? The easiest things to start with are the top five reusables: a keep cup, a water bottle, reusable takeaway containers, and washable produce bags and cloth tote bags; not the polyester bags from the supermarket — don’t get me started on that crap. Check out the UYO [Use Your Own] café guide as well.
The more locally you can get stuff, reuse stuff and give stuff away, the less waste there’ll be. There are heaps of cool free-cycle and share pages on Facebook and share-waste apps; a lot of the time your neighbours can use what you’re trying to get rid of. And get food waste out of our landfill by setting up a composting or green waste system at home or in your neighbourhood. 

ABOVE Res.Awesome is a proudly takatāpui Māori/LGBTI-owned business and Fiona says, “We’re pretty staunch about our values. I’m not interested in anyone being taken advantage of, and that includes our business. We know we’re experiencing the biggest challenge right now, shifting behaviour towards the downshift of energy production and consumption, but we have to do that together, even if we don’t all agree on everything, which we shouldn’t — that’d be a boring world! We operate with a Safer Spaces policy in place to ensure everyone is included and safe, and we’re open to improvement at all times too — we’re always learning.”

What lies ahead for Res.Awesome? I want to keep working with local businesses who are keen to minimise their waste and save on landfill bills. We know we can get to an 80% diversion rate very quickly if we implement a few changes and work on staff behaviour change alongside that. We’re working with Para Kore [Para Kore Marae Incorporated’s zero-waste education programme] to establish some sites in Ōtepoti and expand throughout Te Waipounamu [the South Island], so people should hit them or us up if they’re a Māori entity keen to join in. We’re also fundraising for our Rewash truck, a reusable serviceware wash service for events; making reusable bin liners made from council street flags donated to Stitch Kitchen and cleaned by Alsco; and working to provide more resources online so people can get into their own waste bins and understand the process.

As well as Tradespeople’s national directory of women and gender-diverse tradies, how can people connect with you? Head to our website, book a free half-hour consultation, send me an email or sign up for our newsletter. Come on the imperfect zero-waste journey with me!;

Photography of this feature was made possible with the generous support of the Rule Foundation, who work to advance the health, wellbeing and visibility of LGBTI
New Zealanders,

Interview Emma Kaniuk
Photography Lula Cucchiara

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