After graduating from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2019, Cathy Shepardson sought to put into action the principles she’d learned about sustainable living. That fall, she opened Conscious Space, a Fort Myers shop that embodies her zero-waste philosophy. The boutique—filled with hand-blended bitters and facial serums, coconut bowls, bamboo home goods and herbal blends bottled in reusable glass containers—specializes in artisanal and holistic products made with natural ingredients and recycled materials. Her goal: to educate the community and make it easier for others to carry a lighter ecological footprint. We talked with Shepardson about her approach and building a conscientious community.
The Beginning: “After I graduated, I booked a flight to Maui, Hawaii, to work with my friend on an organic tropical permaculture farm, from money I’d saved up from selling coconut bowls and hand-dyed reusable bags that I made. I was there for a month and a half and loved it, but it felt a little like being in retirement already. I wanted to do more for the earth. I had this vision of a creative space, a lounge full of natural materials and things made from the earth. I also wanted to build a community of people who share a passion for the earth and natural products.
Zero-waste stores have many barriers to entry. Sourcing is an issue. Where can I get this product sustainably? Meaning, who will ship it without all the plastic or without using a lot of fuel? It’s a new idea. Two-thirds of our products are made locally. The makers will drop off boxes of new items on their way home. The goods are handmade so the least waste possible is used. With our Golden Milk Cacao Latte mix, for example, we’ll encourage people to bring the glass back to refill their next order in the same container.”
Living Zero-Waste: “It’s a mentality and a commitment to a greater role. Zero-waste requires thought and consideration for everything. The hardest part is finding items that are sustainable, use minimal packaging and function as well as mainstream options. For the products we source that are not made locally, I will research the company to learn their chain of production. Rustic Strength, one of our brands, makes laundry detergent without parabens, perfumes, phthalates or other chemicals, and their Close the Loop Program lets you send back bags to be cleaned and reused.
In the beginning, you make one or two changes. Don’t strive for perfection. Look in your bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Pick one thing in each room that can be replaced with a sustainable alternative, like swapping your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo option. Most people use about 300 toothbrushes in their lifetime. Multiply that by the number of people living in the United States alone, that’s 1 billion toothbrushes a year going into the landfill—50 million pounds of waste.
I tell people to try to find the product with the least amount of plastic packaging or energy spent on shipping. The most sustainable products are often made by hand and sourced locally.”
Operating Through a Pandemic: “My fear was that people wouldn’t be able to financially afford the lifestyle anymore. Thankfully, I have a diverse audience. My customers are people who prioritize the planet over profit. It was my goal to offer products and respect the economic climate. I did in-store appointments and offered private pick-up times. I had to get creative. It helps that working with local makers, two-thirds of the products in the store are consigned.”
What’s Next: “Now, we just opened a workshop space to educate and empower more people with the tools and skills to start living sustainably. Right now, I’m planning a class, Herbalism and Sustainable Business 101. We want to help people live a lower waste lifestyle by growing more of their own food and medicine. I’ve spoken at a number of schools, and I find that a large portion of my customers are the students who have heard me speak. We can see how what we’re doing is impacting their buying habits, starting now when they’re young. My hope is that as a society we’ll commit to these zero-waste practices.”
Photography by Brian Tietz