International Women’s Day: An Interview With Natalie Fee
06 March 2019 - by Jenna Thompson
Natalie Fee is an award-winning environmentalist, author, speaker and founder of City to Sea. In 2018, she was listed as one of the UK’s ‘50 New Radicals’ by The Observer/Nesta. In the same year, the University of the West of England awarded her the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science in recognition of her campaign work.
Natalie won the Sheila McKechnie Award for Environmental Justice in 2017 for City to Sea's #SwitchtheStick campaign and is proud to have been named Bristol 24/7’s Woman of the Year for 2018. She can be found on Instagram as nataliefee_ and on Twitter as nataliefee.
We were lucky enough to speak to Natalie about her inspiring work – read the interview below.
What initially motivated you to start campaigning to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in our environment?
In 2014 I was living in Bristol – I didn’t swim, sail or surf. I'm not a marine biologist, scientist or explorer and I rarely visited the coastline. But around five years ago, I came across the trailer for a film called Albatross by an artist called Chris Jordan. And it changed my life. I decided to do whatever I could to stop the suffering being inflicted on marine wildlife as a result of plastic pollution.
So I didn't set out to be an environmental campaigner. I had no idea when I started campaigning on my own with a crowdfunding campaign for a music video in 2014 that I'd end up leading a team of 21 awesome staff, running award-winning campaigns and stopping hundreds of tonnes of plastic from being produced each year. And that for the most part, we'd be making it up as we went along and that would be enough to achieve great things.
Natalie Fee from City to Sea
How do you bring about environmental change through City to Sea initiatives?
We focus on campaigns that stop marine plastic pollution at source. Our initiatives empower individuals to make a difference in their communities (like through ourRefill campaign), encourage corporates and retailers to pioneer plastic-free alternatives (as with our cotton bud campaign and plastic-free periods) and pressure the government to adopt new legislation (through our plastic tax petition!).
Plastic has been a problem for some time. Why do you think it’s only hitting the headlines now?
Well, of course, we have Sir Dave to thank for Blue Planet II in 2017. But plastic was in the headlines for a good year before that. Plastic is so ubiquitous – you literally can’t miss it along the beaches, riverbanks and even in urban areas, so it’s easy for people to make the connection between their actions and the damage plastic does to the environment.
8-12 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year
What do you think puts women off switching to organic or reusable period products? What would you say to those women?
I think the switch to organic period products is an easier transition to an environmentally-friendly period than the switch to reusables.
Loads of women I speak to are still freaked out about the idea of coming into contact with their menstrual blood and unsure of what to do in public places. But usually, it only takes a close friend or family member to normalise it by sharing their experiences and encouraging them to try a cup, washable pants or pads.
I love having a zero-waste period at home and use organic disposables when I’m out and about, so it doesn’t have to be black and white (or green and red!) – you can mix and match depending on your flow and your lifestyle!
Your work focuses on stopping plastic pollution at source. Why do you think some companies are reluctant to make a change?
Money. Tampax recently released a menstrual cup, which is fantastic. However, they tell customers to buy a new one every year, which is total nonsense, as a cup can last over five years if you look after it. They’re doing this as cups (in fact, all reusables)are ‘bad’ for business in our capitalist system, which depends on people buying more stuff, more often! Reusables – menstrual products, water bottles, coffee cups – are a disruptor, which is why I love them.
Making the switch to organic reusables is easy
In 2015, you crowdfunded and created a music video about plastic pollution, which you say failed to make a measurable impact. Do you think art has a significant role to play in the plastic revolution? Have you encountered other works that inspired change?
Haha. I’m half-joking when I say it failed. It was an important stepping stone to get me and City to Sea where we are today, running multiple measurable campaigns. Art definitely has its place in changing the world for the better.
If it wasn’t for Chris Jordan’s Albatross film, which is more art than documentary, hundreds of organisations and groups, like City to Sea, wouldn’t even exist today.
Still from Chris Jordan's film 'Albatross'
Who’s currently leading the way when it comes to swapping out single-use plastic? How can others follow their example?
Sky is inspiring from a corporate perspective, having removed all single-use plastics from across its offices, providing reusables, and now removing plastic from its supply chain. But mostly it’s the indies, whose values come before profits, where we’re seeing the most impact. The wave of zero-waste shops popping up around the UK is a testament to that – they’re rocking it!
What are the top three changes we can make as individuals to reduce plastic pollution?
Go plastic-free in your bathroom. That’s the easiest place to start. Order a veg box from a local food coop or find one online that does plastic-free veg deliveries (double-whammy of less plastic and reducing carbon emissions from your food). Finally, sign up to City to Sea’s Plastic-Free Journal for monthly tips on how to do more!
There are now many shops around the UK that allow you refill your own bags and containers
Watch Natalie’s TEDx Talk below.
To date, what achievements are you most proud of?
MyTEDx talk has to be up there, but mostly it’s on a day-to-day level, when I’m in the office surrounded by a buzzing team of amazing individuals with great jobs, doing good in the world, that I feel most in awe of what we’ve achieved.
Finally, this International Women’s Day, what message do you have for other women and young girls from around the world?
Spread the plastic-free period message far and wide, reclaiming our periods as a powerful tool for transformation, connectedness and wisdom. We have the power to change the world, and while we do that, let’s remember to take time out (especially when we’re on our period) to rest and to get outside and enjoy the beauty of this wonderful world.
We’d like to thank Natalie for taking the time to talk to us and for all her amazing advice for reducing plastic pollution, in particular around our periods. You can find out more about Natalie’s work on her website and through City to Sea, where you can donate to support their fantastic proactive anti-plastic campaigns.