A “spear-in-the-heart moment” in the Guatemalan Highlands inspired Victoria Charles’ decision to leave her highly paid job in the corporate beauty industry for the world of sustainability and resource management.
That change came to her in the late ‘90s, in the highlands of Guatemala on a humanitarian water project mission with a former professor.
“The beauty of the place just took my breath away, Charles said. “I fell in love with it, started going back a couple of times a year but every time I visited I’d see these black tarps draping the beautiful mountains. They were there for the slashing and burning of the rainforest to make way for a cash crop.” It was a devastating revelation for her.
“That’s when I realized my everyday lifestyle was creating the devastation of the future on this planet. We realize some time in our life that we have to make a change,” she said.
Up to that point she’d been an international marketer for the beauty and skin care industry, traveling the world, “basically teaching people how to consume,” she laughed, then sighed. “After these trips to Guatemala, I realized I had to do something more purposeful, I had to go deeper.” With the birth of her daughter in 2004, she felt an even stronger need to learn how she could live a more sustainable lifestyle.
She wanted to find a way to turn her new focus into a career. “It was really my passion that drove me, being really curious about how I could take the skill sets that I already had and put them into a different profession,” one centered around her growing awareness and desire to contribute to the sustainability of the planet, not the destruction of it.
By 2010 she was completely out of the corporate marketing industry, “which was a real sacrifice, going from really high pay, to an intern at Global Green, but, as I tell my students, if it’s your passion that’s driving you, then it’s the right path you’re on!”
She took every seminar, webinar, and lecture she could find on sustainability and green industry. “I just devoured it.”
After her internship with Global Green, she got her LEED accreditation: Leadership Energy and Environmental Design.
“I felt most drawn to the path of waste awareness and waste reduction. I like to joke that I went from being in the beauty industry to being in the trash industry!”
She completed all the courses Sustainable Works, a Santa Monica based environmental education program, had to offer. Inspired by what she learned there, she volunteered to teach, which led her to teaching at Santa Monica College, where she’s been for the last seven years.
She teaches a curriculum of her own design, Recycling and Resource Management, that is the result of her years of study and research that is updated annually. The certificate program is under the umbrella of Sustainable Technologies, housed in the Earth Science Department at the college.
“I designed it so that all four classes can be taken in one semester. A lot of people go on to get really great jobs with that certificate. There’s no program like this anywhere in the United States, especially at this cost.” Classes are held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
“A lot of my students come to the class not really sure why they’re there. By the third class, they’ve made a 360 in lifestyle changes and the feedback I always get is, ‘Why is this not a mandatory class? Why is this not being taught in elementary schools?’
Partnering with Generation Earth, a subsidiary of L.A.-based Tree People, she’s currently creating a two-part program in the Las Virgenes school district called the Climate Action Leadership Program (CALP).
“Students work with me once a month learning how to develop their leadership skills through the lens of sustainability. They then have to choose a Climate Action Project to implement into their school district using the new sustainable leadership skills they’ve learned. It could be on organics recycling, water conservation…there’s a whole list of ideas on the Generation Earth website.
“What I’m trying to instill in the students is not a sense of fear about the future, but a sense of action. There are so many opportunities to create a circular economy, such as upcycling,” a word that puts a whole new spin on recycling.
“With upcycling, everything can be turned into something else, it’s a big part of the circular economy, being really creative and Innovative – key terms for Millennials.”
“Any creative person with an entrepreneurial mindset can really use the concept of upcycling to their advantage. One of my students takes old glass perfume bottles and and turns them into something useful, either vases or aquariums and then sells them on Etsy. You don’t have to be a ‘starving artist;’ you can be your own entrepreneur.”
It’s a good point. You really don’t have to have a PhD in sustainability or environmental Sometimes a good eye as an artist, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a desire to turn our linear economy—where we extract, manufacture, consume, and dispose—into a circular one, “cradle to cradle”, as she calls it, “where there isn’t a death to anything created; it can all be reused and turned into something else.” That’s whee her company name, Circle of Zero, came to be.
Last year, China created a ban called The Green Sword, refusing to take any more of our recycling which was coming to them contaminated with food waste and plastic bags mixed with recyclable cans and cardboard. Whole containers shipped to China would be rejected and returned to the U.S.
We take our recycling to the curb, thinking we are doing our part but all that recycling, mainly the plastic cans and cardboard, is getting sorted, stacked and baled at the Materials Recovery Facilities with no plan in place.
We can do our part to create less waste in the first place, but it’s a burden that manufacturers must also share.
Born and raised in California, Victoria is the founder and CEO of Circle of Zero, a “sustainability consultancy” which helps organizations reach their sustainability goals. She also teaches classes at Santa Monica college on Sustainable Technology, focusing on Resource Management and Circular Economy. Her current projects under development include teaching an upcoming course at UCLA on the “Social Element of Sustainability” as well as a climate action program for local schools.
For more information about Professor Charles: circleofzero.com.
The Topanga Library is located at 122 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. For more information: (310) 455-3480; colapublib.org
SMC Professor Victoria Charles will be “talking trash” and so much more on February 2, from 3-4:30, at the Topanga library. Learn more about your trash, where it goes, and how to become more sustainable in our personal lives at this event sponsored by the Messenger Mountain News.