The WEN Effect by Donna Murphy, eco-entrepreneur

Originally posted on the Women’s Environmental Network website on the 11/6/18

In 2013 I started a small on-line enterprise Planet Peachy, offering eco alternatives to some throwaways and more recently, I’ve joined forces with my friend, former boss & WEN’s volunteer Health Adviser Helen Lynn, to set up the project Cool-Green,  offering natural skincare workshops and raising awareness through social media, on health and environmental issues. But the seeds for both projects were sown much earlier…

Once you’ve encountered WEN, it never quite leaves you – in a good way of course! I joined WEN in 2001, to work with the Health Team. I’d returned to full-time study and was working towards a degree in International Development and Ethnomusicology and later an MA in Women, Gender and Writing and needed to work part-time to support myself while studying. I had volunteered with NGOs, but most of my working life up to that point had been in IT in the private sector. Right from the start, working at WEN was quite a change; I’d never worked anywhere before with a wormery, nor had had menstrual leave written in to my contract, nor enjoyed a place of work where any biscuits brought in for meetings were always organic! Both environmentalism and feminism, were long-held passions and  sometimes in those meetings, munching on organic biscuits, discussing upcoming campaigns,  I had to pinch myself to realise that I was actually at work. One of the biggest changes for me, was joining a female-lead organisation and encountering the many inspiring women, among the staff, volunteers, members, steering group, and local groups, working both at grass roots level and also raising their heads above the parapet to campaign for societal and environmental change.

At that time, WEN’s work included projects and campaigns on waste minimisation, local food growing, reusable nappies, composting education and its Environmenstrual initiative. The health team, of which I was a member, campaigned on a range of issues linking health and the environment. An innovative campaign, devised by the health team, which inspired the cool-green work I now do with Helen Lynn, was Ending the Cosmetics Cover up, which presented research and raised awareness about potentially harmful impacts to health and the environment, from ingredients in some everyday cosmetics and toiletries. Characteristic of WEN’s approach, it not only presented the ‘bad’ news and campaigned for change, but also developed workshops and resources with ideas for people to easily identify ingredients they may want to avoid, provided suggestions of companies offering alternatives and if you wanted to get hands-on – workshops and recipe ideas to make your own. The campaign also looked at the beauty industry and how their messages were targeted to women. This combination of campaigning on the big issues alongside tangible practical ways to make a difference now, with a feminist perspective always at the centre, is what marks WEN out as a very special pioneering organisation.

I was at WEN for about four years, but in life as they say, all good things must come to an end and in 2005, I left to move to Kent to work for an arts education charity.  I loved this work, which involved devising projects with musicians and artists from all around the world and taking them in to schools. However, fast forward to 2010 and with the old adage coming in to play again, with cuts to funding, this too also came to an end. Facing redundancy, I had to work out what to do next.

Without much of a clue, myself and a friend, who was also ‘between jobs’ at the time, made a pact  to do early daily dog walks on the beach, to stave off lassitude and despondency, but mainly just to make sure we got out of bed! This may not sound like much of a hardship, but we definitely did not always feel motivated to get out there, but come rain, sunshine or snow, we were there and rarely missed a day.

One day, over coffee, after one of our morning walks, I mentioned to my friend this idea I’d had to make organic washable cleansing pads. I’ve no idea where the idea came from; could it have been the WEN effect working its magic? Of course, until I googled it, I foolishly thought it was an original idea, but there’s nothing new under the sun and there were other eco-entrepreneurs out there doing similar things.  I wasn’t deterred and still thought I could approach it in a way which was new. No-one as far as I was aware, was making the washable pads with certified organic cloth andthread or providing the option of certified organic washbags and pouches.  I also wanted to consider the social and environmental impacts of all aspects of any business I would start, including energy suppliers, stationery, packaging, web hosters etc…

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I bought an overlocker and got to work. My friend was involved at the start, helping to design logos and make samples, but sooner or later the need to make a living kicked in and she needed to look for more gainful employment. This was true for me too, so I took on freelance work, alongside getting Planet Peachy going.

Concerned about exploitation in the supply chain, I initially tried to make both the pads and the bags. A friend and ex-WEN colleague Gloria crocheted some samples, but as beautiful as the bags were and as speedy as she was, I realised that this wasn’t a viable option, so dipped my toe in to the world of international textile suppliers. I always knew that the bags must be organic and it helped that the  GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards), covernot only environmental criteria, but social criteria, such as living wages and collective bargaining. I then came across the SA-8000 register, the global standards for corporate social accountability and set about finding a company in the directory that supplied what I was looking for. I found a company in India and without the budget to visit, I just asked lots of questions, until eventually, I was as satisfied as I could be that I was dealing with a reputable supplier. I switched my electricity supply to a renewable energy supplier, found a carbon neutral web hoster and with my old IT skills coming in to their own, set up my own e-commerce website. Planet Peachy  was born. A few years on and with steadily growing interest, I am now able to dedicate much more time to it.

The cool-green project is a more recent venture and it’s one in which dog walking played and still plays a crucial role too! Since leaving WEN, Helen Lynn and I had stayed in touch, and she had continued to tirelessly campaign and work as a writer and researcher on chemical safety in everyday products. I had maintained an interest, despite no longer working in the field and we had both started making some of our own skincare products. Through a friend, an opportunity arose to deliver some workshops at Wildwood Trust in Kent, as part of their conservation training programme and the idea (over dog walks!) developed from there. It’s very much a work in progress, but one which we both have a passion for and get back to to when time allows, convening on Wimbledon Common for project meetings, alongside our furry friends.

So working at WEN all those years ago, has definitely shaped the type of work I do now and though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the experience of joining a female-lead organisation and encountering the many inspiring women linked with their project and campaigns, also had an impact on my confidence and self-belief. Similarly, it wasn’t always easy, when you were in the midst of WEN’s campaign work, to assess  the impact it was having. Feminism and environmentalism were both very much marginalised and it felt like we were working against the tide. With hindsight though, to take the cosmetics campaign as an example, today, there is a much greater awareness of the health, environmental and social issues, linked to the cosmetics and toiletries industry and I’m sure this is no small part due to WEN’s work.

However, one of the most invaluable lessons picked up from WEN and one of the benefits of trying to consider the impact of every aspect of the Planet Peachy operation, is that when taking a break from folding a mountain of produce bags or sewing cotton circles, I always insist on organic biscuits!

Donna Murphy is owner of Planet Peachy and co-owner of Cool-Green