June 8, 2022
This conversation is the very first installment of the Female Founder Forward series, where I chat with fellow women entrepreneurs about the amazing things they’re building in the zero waste and sustainability space.
“We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the Earth as its other creatures do.” – Barbara Ward
This quote was the inspiration behind the name Walking Lightly, a zero waste shop and refillery in the metro Detroit area. Shoppers will find refill stations for liquids like lotion and soap, as well as plastic-free everyday staples like school supplies. The founder behind Walking Lightly, Tessa Benziger, is a social worker, yoga instructor, and mother of three. I met Tessa on a Saturday afternoon when I walked in looking for zero waste beauty products. Her refillery felt intimate, beautifully designed, and full of love.
Once I struck up a conversation, we bonded over our enthusiasm for the zero waste lifestyle and desire to help more people rely less on plastic. Because Walking Lightly is the first zero waste shop in my area, I was very curious about how Tessa founded this wonderful gem and built up a strong community. A few weeks later, we sat down on yet another Saturday afternoon to talk about her approach to zero waste as a parent, her founding story, and her growth as a small business owner. Yes, Walking Lightly and Zebo may technically be competitors, but a win for Earth is truly a win for us all.
Ready? Here we go –
Ming: What was your introduction to zero waste or sustainability?
Tessa: It’s kind of hard to pinpoint, because I’m not sure when I first heard the term “zero waste.” I think I’ve always been pretty cognizant [of waste]. The first thing that really stands out to me is when my oldest child, now 11, was born, and we were looking into diapering. That was the first big awakening of what I didn’t want to contribute to. We ended up going the cloth diaper routine and figuring all those things out. It was a slow build from there.
When I look back, I remember feeling proud, “We don’t have much trash, but look at all the recycling we have!” In more recent years when studies have come out about the actual rates of recycling, that was pretty crushing.
Now that I think about it, it’s probably a couple of years before the pandemic. I feel like I got a good handle on food waste – COVID really threw a wrench into that. For me to have built a solid base of [a zero waste lifestyle], it took a couple of years.
It’s certainly a process. I think the first action I took was switching from liquid soap and shampoo to solid bars. Sounds like the first domino to fall for you was diapers?
I think so, it’s the first big thing that I remember. My parents raised me to be frugal and we reused everything. I’m not sure if that was from an ecological standpoint – now they are both very aware [of waste] – but at the time it’s, “Why would we buy another baggie when we can rinse this one out and reuse it until it breaks.” My mom used cloth diapers too, to save money.
Choosing cloth diapers was the first time that I had broken down the impact of one child wearing diapers over this many years and how many disposable diapers we'd be putting in the landfill. Before diapers, some of the more seamless [actions we took] were taking our own bags to the grocery store, not using plastic water bottles, taking our own coffee cups where we could. It’s funny how it’s hard to pinpoint it.
There’s a lot of advice out there on “This is how you do zero waste” or “This is how you live sustainably.” Is there any zero waste or sustainability advice that you chose to ignore?
I don’t know if this is as much about the advice – when I explain zero waste, a lot of people react with, “Oh, so all of your trash will fit in a mason jar” – nope. I think [the mason jar stereotype] puts people off because it seems so…insurmountable. It’s like, “I’m never gonna be able to do that, so why bother with this.” That’s the biggest piece I try to work around. I’m not going to do it perfectly, my family doesn’t do it perfectly. We just try to do it better, and keep going from there.
Right, progress over perfection, as is often said. Do you have any sustainability hot takes?
[Chuckles] Probably none that would be surprising. One thing I really struggle with isn’t with myself, but with my kids. Every dentist visit they give out these little plastic trinkets. Every birthday party… those are the things that make me nuts. In our household, I have some control there, but [outside] has been hard. Now my kids know when they go to the dentist, if they refuse the little plastic treasure box, they can get 30 minutes of screen time. They’re thrilled.
A lot of the time when people give out those plastic trinkets [at the dentist’s office], they are genuinely trying to be kind. The hygienist is asking [the kids], the dentist is asking, the receptionist, everybody is like “Pleeaase take this plastic!” My kids are trying to be polite and respectful, and also constantly refusing things – it’s kind of hard but interesting to watch.
I do that too. People say, “Let me give you a bag for that” — “Oh no I don’t want a bag” — “But let me give you a bag.” It’s out of kindness. Sometimes it’s hard to walk that delicately. With my kids, exchanging items for screen time has been helpful for me as a parent.
I feel that. Learning how to politely but firmly say no was one of the most helpful things I did to cut down waste. Speaking of dentists, once I tried to turn down the plastic floss they usually give out, but they told me they either have to give it to me or throw it out, because for each cleaning they open a new box and use it on the patient, so they can’t take it back and reuse it. That gave me the idea of bringing my own charcoal floss. I’ve been BYOF since then.
Brilliant, thank you for that hot tip!
The things we pick up along the way! What do you find the most rewarding about this zero waste lifestyle?
When my family gets it. And when they share it in a way, like, “We do this instead!” That’s doable and gives pause to other people.
That’s true for myself too. When I’m refusing plastic, I find it helps to keep the “no” clear but also explain why. “I’m just trying to avoid the plastic.” When I bring my own produce bags, sometimes people behind me will go, “Ooh, what’s that?”
It raises curiosity.
Yeah, I think that’s the best way to do it. It’s not shaming, it’s not judgy, it’s, “Ooh, that’s possible? Okay.”
I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how often waiters would give a compliment when I whip out my own container at the end of a meal. They'll say, “That’s so cool, I’ve never seen anyone do that,” and they ask more questions. I realized that people appreciated and were curious about seeing an alternative to the “plastic norm.”
And someone showing how doable it is. [Your own] can even be a plastic takeout container. I keep mine in my car, and sometimes I forget to put it in my purse, so I’m like, “Hold on!”
On the flip side, what do you find the hardest about this lifestyle?
Navigating everyone’s plastic gifts to my kids. I know [the gifters] love them, and I love that they love them. But if the plastic stuff comes into my home, I now feel responsible. I can’t turn off “Where will this go?” – I don’t have that ability anymore [chuckles]. That part is hard.
On the flip side, my friends who know me well enough know that I’m not judging anyone about anything, but some acquaintances are constantly like, “I’m sorry” [for using disposable things]. I’m not judging! It’s okay, we’re still friends.
I get that too. When a group of us go to a restaurant, someone gets a plastic straw and will look at me and say “I’m soooorry.” It’s all good, I’m not the plastic police. I’m glad they’re aware of it though. What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about zero waste or sustainability?
I think people get bogged down in the individual vs. corporation argument. Yes, I understand that reducing plastic in my own home isn’t going to correct anything, but my hope is that it’s part of a bigger movement. If we’re all doing it, consumers do have the ability to change the way markets work, the way suppliers work, the way manufacturers work. It’s obvious that corporations need to change, but they’re not going to without political pressure, or the financial pressure when we vote with our dollars. To me that’s a big piece of this [zero waste lifestyle]. I want to help you reduce plastic in your home, but because I want that to then influence how our world works.
I agree! I see arguments pinning individual action against corporate / governmental action, as if we have to choose between one or the other, which isn’t true. Change needs to happen at all levels. We all know policy takes years to take effect, does that mean people like you and me are just going to wait for that to happen? For me, of course not. While we take political action and make sure our voices are heard, I’ll do what I can at home too.
And that creates ripple effects. Vote with your money, and also call your legislators.
Here’s a more personal question. When do you most feel like yourself? Are you with anyone, and what would you be doing?
Oh, in my backyard, just hanging out at home. Our backyard is my favorite place to be. I always joke with my kids that my favorite restaurant is when we’re eating out back on our little couch. That’s really where I want to be.
That’s really sweet. Walking Lightly is such an amazing zero waste shop. How did you get the idea?
Prior to having the business, I wasn’t on Instagram. If I had been, I probably would’ve seen more [zero waste] in the US happening. I first started seeing it in the UK – probably on Facebook – and thought “Oh my gosh, that’s so interesting. Everybody lives their life this way. It’s just commonplace. I think this is doable.” It planted a little seed.
One birthday, we went to the bookstore. Instead of the normal books I would gravitate to, I went to the business section. I got one on the logistical stuff, and one on how to create something meaningful – “business with heart” kind of thing. My husband was like, “Oh, so we’re doing this huh?”
How long ago was that?
It would’ve been September 2019. It was a slow build, because I was still working [full-time]. At the end of the day, after the kids went to bed, I would be like “tik tik tik” [on a laptop].
Does that mean you’ve quit your full-time work?
Yes – which feels really weird to say. I’m a social worker. I was doing clinical therapy in a school-based health system when the pandemic happened. My three kids had to go to virtual school, and I was trying to manage my job virtually. Then I was going to need to go in [to work], we didn’t know what our childcare would be like, so I already was going to have to step down. It was a time to see if this would work. It’s kind of wild.
It sounds like the very first action you took towards starting a business was to grab those books.
Yeah. And I found some really good resources. I took a couple in-person classes and virtual training. I found a small business coach through The Michigan Small Business Development Center, and we still meet pretty regularly. For me, it was, “This is my idea!” I really needed somebody to say, “Here are the steps. Get these financials together for me, I’ll meet you next week.” It was really helpful to have somebody give me structure around it.
What was that process like?
Painful! It was like learning a new language. Every step seemed like it took forever, but gradually it was like, “Yeah, this is really annoying, but we did it.” So the next time something feels like more work than it needs to be, I’ll go “We are going to get through it, it’s fine.”
The thing that was the hardest for me was finding insurance. When I first started, I was just doing local delivery. I could not get anyone to understand what I was talking about. So they said, “We can’t insure you because we don’t understand what this business is.” I don’t think that’s the case now because since that time, this industry has started to blossom. I think what was unique in the moment was that I couldn’t point to a model to describe what I was doing. It’s an example of something that was really frustrating and seemed more difficult than it needed to be, but eventually, it got done. Then the next thing felt that way; that got done too.
You actually started out delivering things to people’s homes, then once you figured out there was enough interest in this neighborhood, you decided to get a place?
I started with the delivery, then I would pop up here and there. My next step was renting a space inside another store and having a little refillery there. She was just up the street. She was actually the one that said, “Listen, people are coming here just to refill. You have a market. Go do this.” It was really lovely to be able to find a place down the street. This neighborhood is home.
I explained [my business] to people as, “It’s like the milkman, but soap.” I would use a deposit jar system. That was the easiest because people understood it. I started with hand soap, laundry, dish soap, all-purpose cleaner, shampoo, and conditioner. It grew from there.
It was a little hard when people said, “Could you get this?” I didn’t have any more room [in my car]. So when we moved in here, I was like, “I have all this space to fill! What do you guys want?” As long as I could find somebody who would take their containers back, I said sure.
Amazing. How long did you do door-to-door delivery?
We still do that! Once a week, we do local delivery. Spring of 2020 is when I [started delivery]. In the fall is when I moved into the other store. I signed a lease here in April of last year . When I think about [the timeline], it was really fast.
Part of it was, my kids were going back to school, so either I was going back to social work, or I was going to see if this would work. I needed to move it along enough to know.
And you went for it! Do you have a favorite product from the store?
I get the most excited about the basics. I really love hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, Epsom salt, and vinegar. Actually, the vinegar is probably my favorite, because I use it for everything. If I never have to buy another plastic gallon jug, I’ll be a happy woman.
What’s the best thing about being a founder, or running a small business?
The community connections – it’s so lovely. It’s such a sweet, supportive community. Especially when you feel overwhelmed with the state of the world, it really is easy to go down a rabbit hole with the state of our planet. Being able to constantly have lovely conversations with other people who are doing great things – not just sustainability, but also really cool things in the world for other humans – feels really hopeful. I feel bolstered. It’s a little selfish, but it’s genuinely lovely to have a community.
It’s wonderful to have a constant dose of positivity and hope. Conversely, what’s the hardest thing about being a founder or running a small business?
My to-do list just keeps growing! Which is wonderful, but oh my gosh, this one thing I’ve been trying to get to takes forever. I have an employee and we divvy stuff up, but I’m also mom-ing. I don’t have a sit-down for these many hours at a time to get stuff done. I’m still trying to do stuff after the kids go to bed. I've got big plans, but it’s hard to [make progress] towards them because the list keeps getting longer.
We’ve touched on how you balance it with being a mom, like working after the kids go to sleep. What are some other ways that you juggle work and family duties?
Sometimes the kids are here [chuckles]. There’s mom guilt always, but that’s true with every job I had. But honestly, they are proud of this. Sometimes it’s actually kind of embarrassing how proud they are, because they’ll boast and I have to say, “Okay, take it down a notch.”
Today, I missed the soccer games. Part of me is like, “Aww, I’m missing the matches.” But I take them to all of their practices. Also, they know what I’m doing and why. I would like this planet to be livable for them and their generation, and generations after that. That helps. They are my little cheerleaders.
Was there ever a time when you thought about giving up? How did you break through?
I don’t really feel that way, probably to a fault. I’m like, “Hold tight.” To me, this isn’t a traditional business – I care very much about the store as a business, but mostly, I care about it as a community resource. Can we do the things that I feel are important and of value? I really settled into: this will work in a way that’s sustainable for me, for other staff, for our lives as individuals, for our community space, or it won’t work. This helps make me feel [grounded].
That’s lovely. It feels more like a calling than work.
It is work, but it’s also a calling. Oh man, I don’t know if I can ever not be my own boss again.
Flexibility has not always been my strong suit, but the whole world got an extra dose of, “You’re gonna be flexible whether you like it or not.” When people ask, “What do you do,” I don’t really know how to answer that question. I guess I have a business, but really I’m a social worker. I’m getting better at [explaining] this is what we’re doing now. I hope it’ll grow in the ways that I imagine because consumers are demanding better, but maybe [zero waste] will become so commonplace in the world that it’ll be in all the big stores, and I won’t exist. And I’m kind of okay with that.
Whichever way it happens, we just want to transition into a more circular economy and get rid of single-use waste.
I feel a split between excited and cautious. When [zero waste] is catching on for bigger businesses, it can be more accessible, but I worry too about how much greenwashing is coming into play, how much of this is genuine, how much is just using buzzwords to get money.
Right, there’s a lot of companies riding on the waves of sustainability. Like H&M and Zara marketing their “sustainability line,” but it’s not at all.
I know! I had gotten a targeted email or ad about “Target is going zero waste,” I was like, really?? I looked and I was like, these are all plastic bottles.
That reminds me, a couple of weeks ago, I was in Target and walked by a big sign that said “zero.” I looked at the products and thought, they are literally all plastic bottles. It says “recycled material”, which I suppose is good for extending the life cycle of already produced plastic, but is this really…zero waste?
Right, because we are having a larger conversation that [recycling] is still very limited. There are only so many times plastic will be recycled.
It’s just delaying when the plastic enters a landfill. Zero waste may not be the right term for this, but I appreciate what they’re trying to do. If you could travel back in time to before you started this business, what would you tell yourself?
I think I would help myself settle into this [mindset] sooner. Don’t compare yourself to whatever else is happening. I get a lot of very well-intentioned advice on, “You should do this.” At the end of the day, there’s only so much I can do. When people have ideas, I like hearing them, but to filter – okay, what can I do, what actually resonates in a way that makes sense. Breathe, it’s gonna be okay.
It’s so scary at first. My husband called it my “field of dreams business plan.” I was like, “It’s fine! People are gonna come!”
Part of it is also redefining success. My oldest is a little bit risk-averse, I’ve always had it in my head that if I fail, it’ll be a good conversation and a good lesson for her. We can fail, get up, do something new, and we’ll be okay. That was helpful. I want her to see that I’m maybe afraid of failing, but I’m gonna do something anyway. If I fall on my face, it’s okay. It’s worth taking a risk on something you believe in.
Absolutely. What’s one thing you want to share with people who want to open their own shops, or aspiring founders?
So many lessons I learned were really personal, because I think every community has different needs, feels, and niches. It was helpful that I had different iterations. I needed to spread awareness about what this was, while I still had really low overhead and was working [full-time]. I could just let everything build on itself. Because I started smaller, the mistakes I made in the beginning weren’t financially devastating. Learning on a small scale helped me learn on the fly, because that’s how I’m learning all of this [chuckles].
It’s slow entrepreneurship. There’s so much media attention on scaling fast, failing fast, everything emphasizes fast. But I think there’s merit to starting small and starting slow, giving yourself the time to adapt and learn.
Moving slow is kind of counterculture, which is what [zero waste] is anyway. We don’t have to do everything right now. Things can grow organically, and we can learn that way. Even personally, when we’re moving fast, we make more waste. If I’m not making food at home, I’m having to grab stuff on the go and it’s got a wrapper. We can move slower.
I resonate so strongly with that. Funny that this follows, but what would you like to plug?
Nah [chuckles]. If you wanna come, that’s really cool. It’s a weird spot, because I don’t want to sell stuff if you don’t want it. Sometimes people come in and say, “It’s like Target! I want to buy everything!” I’m like, “That’s not what I’m doing! I’m sorry!” Don’t buy things you don’t need. If you can refill stuff, cool, come visit.
That ties back to the question on the zero waste advice we ignored. I feel there’s a lot of zero waste guides to tell you, go buy those produce bags, go buy this, go buy that. But I realized I didn’t need most of it, I could already find things in my house and just repurpose them. I didn’t go on a giant shopping spree and say, “I need a zero waste version of everything!” Really, it’s just about finding what you already have and using that, switching off of single-use waste, and you’re set. In that sense, I ignored a lot of zero waste advice.
And if you don’t have it, you can look at FreeCycle groups. An amazing resource.
And Buy Nothing. I love that group.
I know! It’s so helpful too for specific stuff that you’re like, “I don’t want to donate this because if I did, they wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d throw it away.” I think those have been more popular since the pandemic. I’ve used them before, but I feel like they’ve taken off. Between all of us, everything we need already exists.
There’s enough to go around. That wraps up everything, thank you so much!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.