Every gesture we make, even apparently isolated and insignificant ones, are part of a process that starts and goes far. Sustainability and more aware lifestyles focused on our environmental impact are hot trends. Everyone talks about it, but not always accurately.
Camilla Mendini, known online as Carotilla, has been treating and spreading these topics for years, so that Vogue included her in the list of Italian activists to follow along with Greta Thunberg. She was also appointed “Top green Influencer” by the Osservatorio Alkemy – Il Sole 24 Ore, and she keeps promoting successful initiatives engaging an even wider audience, counting now 78k followers on Instagram and 62k on YouTube.
Born in Verona, she’s lived in the US for years, and after launching her sustainable fashion brand Amorilla and the platform carotilla.com with her zero waste beauty products, now she’s out with her first book, (Im)perfetto sostenibile (Fabbri editori, 216 pages, 16 euros), considered to be a guide for everyone who wants to reach sustainability. In the book Camilla deals with many aspects of daily life, from beauty to cleaning, from parenting to cooking, offering a balanced and pleasant narrative, not dogmatic but at the same time clear when it has to linger on the environmental and ethical impact of our actions.
We called her to chat about her book and discuss with her sustainability’s massive presence in communication, with the benefits and harm for consumers that this entails.
We met the last time in February 2020 and a lot has happened since then. During the pandemic, you and your family left New York City and moved to Florida, you launched carotilla.com and your vegan beauty products and now your first book. How has this year been for you, personally and professionally?
“It’s been a whirlwind of things. On the one hand it passed very quickly, it seems yesterday just looking back, on the other it’s been long and tortuous, as for all, psychologically and professionally, because reorganizing everything was a big challenge. Moving to Florida was a sudden choice, we made the decision in a few days. It probably encouraged us too, giving us new life blood to deal with the lockdown, and it definitely helped us mentally and psychologically. I can’t complain about working from home, I had many projects that I was able to launch anyway, the process was just slower, like with carotilla.com, the platform where I wanted to deepen all the topics I’ve treated over the years and to introduce my new zero waste products. It needed time, but I made it. The book is a project arrived at during the lockdown in Florida. I had a request from Fabbri Editore and it was a chance to take stock on the path I started in 2016, talking about sustainability on YouTube, Instagram and carotilla.com. The problem with social media is the content usability. I was often asked the same questions and I understood all the difficulties of reaching a sustainable lifestyle, but every time I had to link from different sources and it was getting hard. Now the book collects everything, it’s very practical and I hope it’s clear. The first part is theory, I explain the problem and the possible solutions, then comes the practical and creative part, the one I really like. It’s like saying: ok, we understand the problem, now what can we do? We act with challenges and creative DIY”.
The book solved the problem of online usability, but your storytelling has been very successful for a long time, this last year you almost doubled your Instagram audience. Are people more interested than before in the topics you talk about?
“During the pandemic people stuck at home definitely flocked online creating content but mostly enjoying them, to pass some time. At the very beginning I had problems because of the mood in general, in Italy and here, since people were very angry and preoccupied, so those were months of adjustment with great numbers of views but also a lot of anger. People were criticizing and attacking everything, I didn’t know what to say anymore! Past that period, interest remained high and I realized it could be the moment to go deeper into all the topics we normally didn’t have time for. I don’t love getting info online, but it’s what I do, so I wanted information to be more usable. I really like Instagram, where through a fifteen or thirty second reel you can intrigue users, maybe pushing them to go deeper on other platforms like carotilla.com. The pandemic played a huge role, but now you hear about sustainability everywhere. During the first lockdown even Giorgio Armani published this letter announcing he wanted to go back to the two collections per year. There’s been a big discussion about it in the fashion industry, and so about the fast fashion crisis. It’s a trendy topic and it’s a positive thing, people now care more. The downside is that it made this topic hard to treat, because everyone wants to say something and every brand jumps in, doing greenwashing and creating even more confusion. It’s the same with feminism and inclusivity”.
Speaking of your audience’s reaction, you mention the challenges. It seems like you activated a virtuous circle, with successful initiatives like #rifiutairifiuti, #5minshower, and #1dress7days. We talk a lot about engaging followers but you literally push them to do stuff. Did you have any pleasant or funny feedback?
“They do dirty stuff, since I make them collect trash from the ground! [laughing] I had told myself: instead of just talking, let’s act, let’s actually do something. It’s what you find in the book, small actions that may sound trivial, like collecting trash from the ground, but how many of us actually do it? People think it’s gross and that someone else would do it anyway. But it only takes good will, a glove, a bag, and you can make the difference. If I do it and I make another ten people do it, and they convince another ten, then we make a big difference. #rifiutairifiuti and #5minshower are the most appreciated challenges, people are very enthusiastic about them. Maybe showering in less than five minutes isn’t always easy, a lot of women with long hair tell me it’s impossible for them, but they’re doable challenges. People know I am not asking them to spend millions, to change their diet completely or to throw everything away and buy new things. That’s not sustainability to me, it involves small acts which make us think we can do something for real. The best feedback is seeing that a lot of people are actually doing it. Last summer, in June #rifiutairifiuti started almost automatically, thanks to the fact that many brands of swimming suits had these events where people collected trash from the beach, so I discussed this with my audience and about greenwashing. You can link these topics to a lot of daily aspects and maybe that helps to get people involved. If someone wants to reach sustainability, I think you do it by starting to act”.
The sustainable lifestyle could look radical from the outside, but the title of your book has a sort of declaration of intent: everyone can make these gestures and it doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect. How did you decide on this approach? Did you have a specific type of reader in mind?
“Without the experience that I accumulated over the years interacting with my followers, maybe I wouldn’t even have thought about this kind of storytelling, because we usually rely on our own experience. I believe a lot in what I do but at the same time I know how imperfect I am, for example living in the US in a pretty isolated town with little public transportation and grocery stores where it’s very hard to buy fresh and unpackaged. So I know from experience that you have to make a lot of compromises. I realized that imperfection was the right key for a person who’s never heard about sustainability or thinks it’s too hard, far, expensive, or maybe is scared by the news, between climate change and scenarios with oceans full of plastic instead of fishes. This storytelling is necessary to raise consciousness but it can’t be the only way to talk about sustainability, because it isn’t true that it only requires absurd changes. You can start with a single person and convince them it doesn’t take much. I came up with the title (Im)perfetto sostenibile at the end of the writing process, because I wanted to express in few words the fact that it’s a personal path which can start from every daily aspect, a path that will be imperfect, full of mistakes and compromises. Through this title I want to approach people without frightening them, also because I am having fun being sustainable and I want everybody else to see sustainability in a positive way. Judging is pointless. We’re all imperfect, but we’re already doing a lot”.
When it comes to approaching people and letting them embrace this lifestyle, do you notice a difference based on age? In the book you rightly underline that Gen Z is much more careful about sustainable fashion and related issues than older generations. According to your experience, also as mother of two children, do you see these topics catching on with young people and kids more than with adults? When we age, are we less willing to question ourselves and change habits?
“The approach is basically the opposite. Children, no matter the generation they belong to, are curious, pure, simple, and naturally attracted by nature. Gen Z is born and raised knowing about sustainability, climate change, and what’s coming, always exposed to a terrifying narrative like: you’ll have to fix a problem caused by others and you’re going to be in serious trouble! It’s called eco-anxiety, many kids suffer from it knowing that they don’t have enough time to solve a huge problem, and that maybe they won’t. My parents and grandparents’ generation doesn’t even understand why this is a problem. They passed through other difficulties and worries and to them a sustainable lifestyle means poverty, it reminds them of the Postwar period, when buying local, having few clothes made by a tailor and having to reuse them meant to be poor; you would do it to survive. It’s a different mentality, they don’t like this narrative because you’re asking them to take responsibility for what they did, without malice, and the consequences. They’re also hard to convince and to engage because they don’t spend a lot of time on social media. Maybe with this book I’ll get to some boomers! Surely they’ve had a different way of living compared to the issues we’re now trying to communicate”.
In your book you also say something important. Changing our habits isn’t enough, because without political action it’s hard to move forward – and it’s usually boomers making crucial decisions. In your opinion, how is the public and political discussion doing about these topics? When you talk about fast fashion you talk about the production chain, workers rights, and the concrete impact that this industry has on women, men, and children all over the world. Do you think that talking about people and not just about the environment might help consumers become more aware?
“Many fight for the environment, while few think about the ethical aspects, which is the one I personally care more about. Maybe I have a negative view, but I think it involves the theme of being privileged. In the so called First World we don’t have to work to survive or to buy a handful of rice. In the Third World textile industries, and others, working conditions are terrible, but we keep saying that working like that is better than nothing, otherwise the companies would leave. That’s not really true, since there are a lot humanitarian and lawyers organizations fighting to improve Third World workers’ rights, but we as consumers need to be more sensitive. Greenwashing works because it talks a lot about the fabric and never about working conditions, since consumers don’t see those. It’s hard to communicate that kind of sensibility when you don’t see it, while touching a breathable chemical-free fabric that is good for your skin is nice, because it’s our skin. Other people’s skin is harder to communicate, I have problems too and I still haven’t found a way to make my audience more empathetic towards this issue. You mentioned politicians. Imperfection does not mean ignoring and avoiding the problem, I don’t want to spread this message. Imperfection means: I understand what I can do and I do it, without anxiety and negative thoughts. On the other hand we have to understand our responsibility and privilege. I collaborated with the UN and EU for 2030 Is Now, the year by which we’re supposed to achieve seventeen goals, including sustainability, end of poverty, and education for all. These are humongous goals, are we able to achieve them and to engage people and specially politics to actually do something? It was a tough collaboration for me, not easy to communicate to the audience because they sounded like big beautiful ideas we all agree on, but then one asks: ok, so now what?”
Maybe when it’s about those high level decisions, regular people feel powerless.
“Of course, but just by not buying a t-shirt from H&M you’re making the difference. We need these small actions, but I also realize how hard it is to engage people around humanitarian issues and the slavery that still exists. It’s definitely easier to shower in less than five minutes or to collect trash from the ground”.
Even though politics doesn’t do much, companies, on the other hand, use the sustainability trend in many ways. Since you already mentioned it, can you please explain to us what is greenwashing, how do we recognize it and how do we defend ourselves from the agenda hiding behind it?
“That’s a tough one! [laughing]. I’ll try. Greenwashing is sneaky, it’s hard to notice it when you’re new to sustainability, because the deeper you study an argument the more you understand how complex it is. It’s literally a green brushstroke on the industry, a bait-and-switch meant to catch careful consumers through a promise for a single product within a whole collection. With that single product they make you think that the whole company is engaged in sustainability, that your purchase through them becomes sustainable, when it’s not, because sustainability is complex and has to involve the whole production and distribution chain. An example of greenwashing is the organic or recycled fabric. Great, but if the production stays in Bangladesh where women are exploited and they can’t go to school because they’re working to make three dollars a month, using an organic cotton doen’t change anything. The problem is deeper, but this way you say nothing about it, and through the cotton, the company looks like it cares. It’s the same with pinkwashing, bluewashing, or rainbow washing: they all play on consumers’ feelings. For a company it’s easier to say they’re sustainable instead of actually becoming sustainable. Especially for big chains with medium-low prices, becoming sustainable would require time and a lot of money, and also a price increase. So their greenwashing is pretty recognizable because to be sustainable they should become something else, out of their nature. H&M will never sell you a t-shirt for forty bucks that now goes for eight dollars, so they’ll never be a hundred percent sustainable. That’s why they raise awareness on fabrics instead of production quality and working safety and rights, because consumers don’t really care about it”.
That’s also why in the book you helped with a glossary, because recyclable doesn’t mean recycled.
“Yes, we need to know where greenwashing hits, that way it’s easier to recognize it. Otherwise people walk right into it because they’re reasonably happy to purchase thinking they’re doing something good, while they’re just doing those companies a favor”.
In (Im)perfetto sostenibile you give a piece of advice that sounds trivial but it’s a sort of manifesto: buy less, buy better. How can we do that, since we live in a world – including the digital one – where we’re pushed to buy more and more, and even better, do it unconsciously?
“Buy less, buy better is a motto that you enbrace when you realize how much you’re spending. Fashion is the area where my audience is used to spending more without thinking too much. You often hear that sustainability is expensive, but then you take a walk and go to a fast fashion store, taking advantage of the discounts, and every week you’re back home with two or three new pieces of clothing or beauty products. How much are you really paying for all those cheap things? The idea of changing your mental outlook can be annoying, also because shopping produces endorphins, that’s why you feel good when you buy something new, you feel rewarded treating yourself with purchases. But if we really want to talk about spending money, you spend less when you do it wisely, buying things you won’t keep in the closet or that you’ll just throw away, like when we open all different face creams without being able to finish them by the expiration date. We have to understand that every gesture produces trash and waste, and to become aware of all the things we do automatically. Again, it’s also generational. Our parents would buy products that were cheaper and cheaper because they could. Here in the US the more you buy the more your status rises, because it means that you can afford stuff. Nobody thinks about the productive process of our purchases, nor on their environmental and ethical impact. We all play a part in this system that produces trash and pollution, that’s why we have to choose the best, buying wisely and less. Aware shopping is cheaper, but people don’t really like to hear it. Many prefer to spend a lot, but even shopaholics can do it sustainably, buying second hand or donating their clothes. That’s why I like to say that this path is imperfect and personal. There isn’t just one way to do it, there are many”.
It’s no coincidence that you included choices that everybody can make, from clothes to house cleaning, from cooking to children’s activities. Let’s pretend you’re talking to a hyper skeptical person when it comes to sustainability. Where can I start, maybe guided by your book, to improve my footprint on the environment and society, doing little but every day?
“I can’t convince you like that, I’d ask you a couple of questions to understand your lifestyle and the topics you care more about. This is what I want to communicate. With my actions, my Instagram and my book I can be an example, but then everybody has to do something independently. If you can go to work using public transportation or biking, then start with that. Or maybe you can from the farmer’s market near home. Each person has their own needs and possibilities in terms of time, money, goals, and this changes whether you are alone or in a larger or smaller family. Last January I quit eating fish and it was very hard, even though I hadn’t had meat for about ten years. Now I am vegetarian but not vegan, and it took me six years! With fashion it was easier, I just quit going to Zara and H&M, straight away. So I can’t tell you where you should start from. I don’t want to convince you, I’d rather prefer people to find their own key, the minimum effort to take the first step. Start from there and then you’ll find out that small actions will bring you to bigger ones, because embracing this new mentality is like a switch: when you become aware of your footprint in every situation, then you just can’t turn it off. But you have to turn it on in your easier room. For me it was fashion, maybe you can become vegan tomorrow effortlessly”.
Ok, since you went to this topic, and you included it in your book too, let’s talk about food.
“Should I regret it? [laughing]”
Suggesting people to change their food habits is always risky. If it’s about collecting bottles at the beach we all agree, the problem comes when someone tell us that we should eat less red meat.
“I came gradually to this. I didn’t have meat but I used to eat fish and I’ve always been clear about it, and about my limits and difficulties. At the same time, I showed that I was studying the subject and I guess that helped on my social media; in fact, I never had extreme feedback from people accusing me of being inconsistent for not being vegan. They respected my choice, but I felt pushed to go deeper anyway, and that’s what I did. The recipes in the book are what I eat on a regular basis, which is fruit, vegetables, and some grains, a very simple diet. I included them not just to promote a healthy lifestyle, but also to show that you can cook without wasting food; it takes nothing. They’re basically grandma recipes that my mom used to make too, like using bread crumbs when you’re out of cheese. So when I thought about some recipes for the book I told myself: hey, that’s what I already do! Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re already making sustainable, anti-waste, and vegan meals. Food had to be in the book, because when I talk about fashion, kids, home care, eating is the elephant in the room. I am not an expert and I didn’t want to judge anybody, since I came to this after years and I am still not perfect at it. I’ve a lot to learn and to do, I just wanted to make my contribution to let people know that it’s important and doable. With no rush and taking our time. I also really wanted to include composting in the book, even if they told me that it’s hard to compost in Milan. What matters is circularity, it works, it’s natural. I see it a lot of it in Florida. Here when palms and leaves fall from the trees, everything’s left on the ground, so that it can generate fungi and bacteria, because death generates life. You see it in nature, you can apply it to your daily life. Therefore, I didn’t mean to propose just a diet, but an idea of a circular household economy”.
Last summer you came back to Italy after a long time in the US due to the pandemic. How did you find it in terms of attention to sustainability and what are the differences compared to Florida and the States?
“In this sense, for me moving from New York City to Florida was hard. In Florida there’s more nature, which is very respected, but there are very few options when it comes to vegetarian, vegan, and buying fresh, unpackaged produce, so it was pretty discouraging. In Italy the first thing I noticed was the massive presence of the terms sustainable and green in advertising, often referred to products quite far from being sustainable. In Venice, on a ferry I saw a sign that encouraged people to buy the pass to be more sustainable, probably meaning that it would save some paper. They use the term disproportionately and inappropriately, which can be funny, but it also made me think that the whole discussion is definitely drifting. A message makes sense when it’s spread clearly by competent people, but if we start saying that everything can be sustainable we’re doing the opposite. So I found a country that uses this word a lot and out of context, but Italy is still far ahead of the US. In the States there’s more technological innovation, but they’re very behind when it comes to sustainability. In New York City they banned plastic only two years ago and in Florida we still have plastic bags at the grocery store. They’re not great at recycling either. Here nobody understands me when I talk about sustainability. Italy is more receptive and people there are more competent. Maybe the country is a little behind compared to the rest of Europe, but there’s still a huge gap with the States, and especially with Florida and New York City. To sum up, from Italy I expect less talking and more actions.
Which do you miss more? Italy or New York?
“Both of them, a lot! They’re places in my heart, for different reasons, so there’s no priority. I really miss New York, even though it was bad when I left in May 2020, I don’t know how it is now but I hope it can recover soon. I miss the city I lived in before the pandemic and I miss Italy too, so we can say it’s a tie”.
To conclude, do you think your Italian audience will be able to meet you soon? Any new projects?
“I don’t know at the moment. There are many things I hope I can accomplish, but nothing is official so, no big surprises for now. I’ll continue with carotilla.com and with the sustainable beauty products, since it’s a market where it’s hard to find alternatives”.