Christine Liu: Snapshots of Simplicity Blogger & Sustainable Packaging Intrapreneur

 In Entrepreneurial Women, Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Programs, Sustainable Products & Services, Thinking About, Walking the Talk

Through her studies at the University of California San Luis Obispo where she focused on packaging engineering, Christine Liu realized that huge amounts of resources are wasted in the manufacturing and packaging of products. In 2015, she attended the H&M Sustainable Packaging Challenge which inspired her to think about how companies and people could be more sustainable with packaging. Soon after, she began to live a ‘zero’ waste lifestyle, and started the blog Snapshots of Simplicity, which has a following of over 12,000. Christine also works for Cisco Systems as a Sustainable Packaging Program Manager where she manages a program called Make it Green, which drives  sustainability initiatives and waste reduction for Cisco products and packaging.

Where are you from,  Christine?

I grew up on the East Coast in Massachusetts. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan.  I think coming from an Asian background, I already have an inherent value of wasting as little as possible, and being frugal. What’s funny is that even before I had started my sustainability journey, my mom used produce bags from the grocery stores as trash bags. The average American household buys much larger black garbage bags, but my mom doesn’t waste a lot so she uses a small plastic basket paired with those produce bags as her ‘trash can.’

Do they recycle a lot in Taiwan?

Taiwan has a pretty good recycling program. Residents have to go out when they hear the trash truck coming around — everyone is active and involved. The truck plays a Mozart tune, so that everybody knows to bring out their trash. They have different schedules for the trash, recycling and food scraps. The food scraps are processed for livestock feed.

So, you think it comes from your upbringing?

Before I even started college, I told myself, above all, I really wanted to create a purposeful life, but college was a great place to define my vision.  Being in the business college at my school, I originally thought that the only way to be responsible with business was to donate to charitable causes with profits — I honestly didn’t know what ‘doing good’ looked like. However, during my freshman year in college, I ran into a few friends who wanted to start a Net Impact chapter.  Net Impact is a nonprofit based in Northern California that seeks to empower MBA students, undergraduates, and professionals across the United States and even in other countries on how to ‘do good’ through business. I thought, oh, this is pretty interesting, I can help with this. I ended up becoming the leader of that chapter.

Net Impact is such a great organization. Did it steer you toward your career direction?

Yes, it did. I dabbled in so many different things and realized I had to choose something.  I really wanted to start off with supply chain and the fashion industry. That was one of the stories that was brought up within the media, especially about sweatshops. Then I switched my major from Business Administration to Industrial and Packaging Technology because it was offered in my business school, which was more supply chain heavy. Yet what I didn’t realize was that I would be diving deep into packaging engineering in my major (the name of my major isn’t all that clear, nor commonly found on other college campuses). Two years or so into the major, I began to have a deep passion for packaging, it’s so fascinating and a lot of people don’t know about it. When I see my friends use something and throw the packaging  away like it’s nothing, I’m able to look at it like a work of art. But I was getting a degree to study something that people essentially look at as trash. Seeing that disconnect really got me started thinking.

Where did it lead you?

I went to all the job fairs during my senior year but many companies don’t actively recruit for for sustainability careers. Then I thought hey! Why not check out the Net Impact job board?

I logged in and that’s when The DO School popped up with the H&M Sustainable Packaging Challenge. I thought, oh this is so cool. I love sustainability, I love business for good, I love packaging, and H&M is also a large fashion company with huge potential — I was connecting all my passions together! But when I clicked on the application, it was due that day. I thought – oh my gosh, really? But I still decided to apply, and it took me the whole day.

So, what’s The DO School?

The DO School is  an entrepreneurship program based in Germany – and now also in New York City –  that incubates different social and environmental ventures throughout the world and empowers individuals ages 21 to 31 to bring those ventures back to their home countries to drive impactful and actionable change. Halfway through The DO School application, I was asked: What project would you like to incubate at The DO School? I was so excited and intrigued by the H&M Challenge that I didn’t realize until halfway through the application that I was actually applying for a social entrepreneurship program as well. I decided to wing it since I was already a few hours into the application, that I took an initial senior project idea and put it in. I’ve always wanted to  invent a more sustainable Ziploc bag. I’m in packaging and I’ve studied plastics –  why not design a more sustainable ziplock bag, because I find myself using them all the time? With that I submitted the application with fingers crossed and within a couple of weeks, I got an email from The DO School saying they wanted to interview me. That’s pretty much how that happened!

So, how does The DO School program work?

The DO School accepts 20 fellows from all over the world that have either started a venture already or have an interest to start one. You spend about half of the program going through the sponsor’s challenge, in this case, it was H&M Sustainable Packaging Challenge. They gave us a problem statement and we got to ideate different solutions and create prototypes to make H&M packaging more sustainable. The other half of the program was focused on our own ventures which we incubated with several coaches. We spent plenty of time pitching our H&M solutions and personal ventures at various invents, to potential events. This was also a year-long program, so we spent three months at The DO School campus in Germany and then nine months back in our home countries, getting continuous coaching from The DO School to work on implementing our ventures.

So, what ultimately was your project at The DO School?

When you apply for The DO School, you are asked to present a problem statement and potential solution you’d like to develop. That problem statement always remained the same for me – that the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population and produces about 40% of the world’s waste. I’ve wanted to better understand some of the cultural and systemic issues that really lead to this huge waste problem. Though I had applied with the idea of inventing a more sustainable Ziploc bag, after ideating and incubating at The DO School, my project turned into the idea of a packaging free grocery store that enables consumers to see that they can reduce their waste by buying food and sustainable consumer goods without packaging. However, I decided to take a step back from the grocery store and look deeper into the concept of zero waste living. If I wanted to get other consumers to reduce their waste, why not  try reducing the amount of waste in my own life? I decided to blog and see if I could generate some awareness and share my story with others.

That makes sense – change comes first from within – what  a great idea!

I was passionate to spread awareness about the issue of waste, because I thought it was great to be able to act upon the issue as well. I also decided to join a zero waste bloggers’ network to see if I could expand my audience – I couldn’t believe it existed. Slowly but surely, I figured out other methods to reach through social media — Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. I learned to leverage my strengths, which were consistent photography and brand, as well as a solid message.

I do think one of the biggest things that really brought me to where I am today is the network that I established. What’s amazing about blogging is that you’re in a very safe space where you can meet other people. I was able to network with so many different bloggers around the world and have gotten the chance to meet them in person, share a meal or even live with them to better understand their view of zero waste living from a different cultural perspective.

Since I also work for Cisco, I decided to check Cisco’s blog for external readers. One of my DO School coaches encouraged me to share my blog through Cisco’s site and inspire people in the workplace. I asked if I could write a piece about three ways to waste less at work and they said yes. I contributed to the Cisco blog and got plenty of positive feedback. From that blog article, an organization called Women in Sustainability and Clean Tech reached out to me and asked me to join them on a zero-waste panel in San Francisco. You never know where something you do will lead to next!

So, do you enjoy blogging?

I love blogging. I work a full-time job and I blog part-time. It’s a lot of juggling, but blogging and photography are my creative outlet. It allows me to organize my thoughts in a digestible manner for my readers so they can be inspired.

Do you see your blog inspiring change?

Yes!  When someone comments on a video or post that they’ve been so inspired that they have actively changed, it always brings me hope that my blog is making an impact.

How many people watch your videos?

I can’t say the actual total number of people that watch them. Every single video is totally different. One comment that I really appreciated by one subscriber was (this is paraphrased): “Christine I don’t know if you’re going to see this message but I wanted to let you know that when you started this YouTube channel, it was at the same time that I started my own zero waste journey. There’s a lot of meaning behind what you’re doing.”  She thanked me for the inspiration, the videos and the content that I shared.

So, can you talk about zero waste? My roommate and I are down to about 1 small bag of waste per week – everything else is composted and recycled, but we’re not down to zero. Isn’t it somewhat up to the companies that are selling products?

From a product packaging perspective, first, it’s important to understand the strength and rigidity of a product in order to package it. Otherwise, it’s easy to put excess material on a product to keep it safe when you’re shooting in the dark.  Are you putting excess packaging around a product? Is it necessary to put bubble wrap and more paper? Do you really need an extra box?

Second is to look at the materials. Is the material something that the consumer can reuse or recycle, or is it very difficult to be recycled? Where is it being sourced, how is it being manufactured, where will the material go end-of-life, and does it have any effect on the environment? For example, I know the plastic packaging industry is having a lot of trouble with lightweight plastics. That’s why we have the Pacific Garbage Patch — all these little items are slowly floating away into our oceans.

Do you have any advice for a woman just starting out in her career and who has an entrepreneurial spirit?

Yes!  Be true to yourself, above all things. If you don’t feel comfortable with what you’re doing, it’s okay to take a Plan B route. People are sometimes afraid to change because they don’t want to disappoint other people. I’ve told myself to always be true to myself and my convictions. I think about what is wrong with society and how I can step in to make it a little better with the platform I have. It is fulfilling to know that I’m acting out of an honest, realistic mindset. It’s really pushed me towards what I’m doing right now.

I consider myself more of an intraprenuer than an entrepreneur: I’m a self-starter with my blog, local meetup groups, and more. Intrapreneurship is a very powerful concept, and can empower someone to drive change wherever they are. As an individual in a company like Cisco, driving sustainability in my day role is one platform I can leverage to drive change, but it can even be as practical as going out for team lunches. I always have my reusable to-go box, utensils, and napkin. My coworkers always comment, “That’s such a good idea, Christine.” Lead by example – and just be yourself!

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