13 May 2020

TEM Stories: How a white witch turned me green

White witch turned green
TEM   |   Carbon Offsets   |   Climate Change   |   TEM Stories

As I looked in the bin under the sink, my heart stopped. There lay a precious zip lock bag, pitifully abandoned, forsaken, all alone. Who had committed this disgraceful act of waste? Surely not my children, who have quickly and enthusiastically embraced our careful plastic management. We’ve had no visitors since the lockdown, so there could be only one explanation: my sinful husband. How could this have happened? I was certain we were on the same page, walking the one road, hand in glove. But now this. Are we growing apart? Is this how the threads of marriage begin to unravel?

You see we have been consistently washing and reusing our zip lock bags for years. They are incredibly useful for containing wet and sticky mess when out and about with small children (though not so much out and about-ing happening right now). But they’re a single use plastic, and I feel better turning them into reusable ones.

‘It has a hole in it. Don’t freak out.’ The perpetrator speaks.

I swiftly transfer the forlorn bag into the soft plastic recycling and fling him a ‘here’s where it should go then’ look.

I inherited my plastic bag washing from my grandmother who was born in Bitola, Macedonia in 1923. She moved to Greece before migrating with her husband and two children to Melbourne in the 50s where she learned another language and embraced a new culture but steadfastly maintained the traditions from the old country. Living through war, food shortage and low income taught her to be frugal and inventive. She had a flourishing vegetable garden that would yield glorious baskets of tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers, lettuce, leek, silverbeet and herbs. Collecting the seeds from each crop, my grandmother would carefully dry them on newspaper in the sun and store them for planting the following season. Her old stockings were used to secure the growing seedlings to the stakes and shiny gift ribbons and old CDs tied around the leaves would dissuade hungry birds from spoiling the fruits of her labour. I would leave her home after each visit with (washed) plastic bags laden with produce, coffee jars stuffed with dried oregano and pickles, and strict instructions to return each receptacle to be refilled. Including the bags.

My grandmother also happened to be a white witch. She learned from her father a magical spell of sorts, to lift the curse of the ‘evil eye’. Popular across European cultures, the evil eye is a legend believed to be cast by a malevolent glare resulting in the recipient’s illness or misfortune. If ever I awoke with an unexplained malaise, my mother would take me to see my grandmother who would perform a ritual with salt, water and olive oil to exorcise the evil; her cool palm firm on my forehead as she whispered a prayer over me in an ancient language. She was successful 100% of the time. Friends and relatives would visit from across Melbourne, dropping silver coins at her feet after the ritual was completed, as tradition called. She was revered for this skill. I begged to learn it, but my grandmother claimed the spell could never be taught – only stolen. This fit neatly into my fairy tale – fuelled imagination, thus the magical and wise white witch was born. So, when she told me to wash my plastic bags, I heeded her advice.

Years spent in her back garden and kitchen would instil in me a respect for the earth and creativity. Old or broken items were never thrown away, they were repurposed. Anything that could catch rainwater was strategically placed beneath downpipes to water the flowers later. Crushed eggshells were scattered around the garden to deter pests. Old TVs transformed into outdoor tables to sit around in the shade of the pear tree while sipping a Nescafe with friends and boasting about the size of this year’s tomatoes. That garden became my enchanted forest and first school of sustainability.

Today, I serendipitously find myself blending my two childhood passions: the earth and creativity. My grandmother didn’t know what a carbon offset was, but she instinctively understood the balance of nature and how our actions have an impact. My role at TEM bridges the gap between those two concepts – helping businesses and their customers see the magic in offsetting and how it positively impacts people and the planet.

Of course, there is no magic at play here; quality carbon offsets are born through science and rigorous process, accounting, due diligence and risk management. This is essential, and it is the heart of what TEM does. But it’s unlikely to make people’s eyes light up and hearts burst open. As a marketer, I want to make you feel something because when you feel, you act. Individuals can make an impact, but big business can make impact at scale. Marketing is about the power of persuasion. If I tell you a story, you’re more likely to be interested in what I’m saying (and ultimately act on it) than if I were to recite a list of facts. That’s why ‘Once upon a time…’ is so magnetic for children. We never lose that excitement and anticipation for a good story.

The magic of offsetting exists in the stories of the people who are positively impacted by carbon offset projects. The Indian farming family who for the first time have access to electricity and clean drinking water because of the wind turbines on their property. The endangered animals whose rainforest habitat is protected from destruction. The young child spared from breathing toxic smoke because her family now has an efficient cookstove.

Brands that embrace quality storytelling when discussing carbon offsetting are educating people about the climate crisis while inspiring further action. FOMO is big, even in the corporate world, and especially when employees and stakeholders look at competing brands taking action and ask, ‘Why aren’t we doing something about this?’. People respect brands probably more than they respect the leaders of our country. It’s a weighty responsibility that presents tremendous opportunity. During the pandemic we’ve seen gin distilleries pivot into producing hand sanitiser, race car teams building ventilators – and we’ve been so impressed. Once COVID-19 is behind us, brands need to continue to take action on public health, with the greatest challenge of all – a healthy planet.

My grandmother was an accomplished storyteller, her thoughts and actions composed with masterful purpose. This created a wonderful environment for learning, crafting future behaviour through her own example. What if brands adopted the same approach to climate? Exploring the stories of the people, the cultures, the animals and landscapes of these extraordinary offset projects is what will bring them to life for the consumer. Because in our industry, it’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.

Elise Margaritis is TEM’s Creative Director; dedicated to engaging hearts before heads, obsessed with indoor plants, believes in magic.