Make room in your life for more thoughtful reflection and action. It’s easy to get caught up in being busy and existing in a bubble of work and ‘normal’ life, but taking just a little time to engage in something bigger than that can mean massive change.
As a part of my series about social media stars who are using their platform to make a significant social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Walmsley of Small footprints, big adventures. Emma is a sustainable travel and lifestyle blogger, who adventures regularly with partner Anthony and their young children whom they ‘worldschool’ while travelling. They combine ethical and responsible travel experiences with an eco-conscious lifestyle to provide rich learning, deep connections and minimal impact on the planet.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thanks for having me! I have two children, currently aged eight and four. When my eldest Dante was born I began researching education pathways and discovered ‘worldschooling’. As I’m eternally interested in travel and cultures and very open to alternative ways of learning, it was a lightbulb moment, and I knew we would at least try it when our kids were ready. Travel is one of the best teachers of life, and being exposed to other cultures and environments at a young age seemed like the best opportunity we could give them.
But travel can also be detrimental to the cultures and environments we hoped to visit, so I researched more to ensure we could worldschool in a sustainable manner. It is great that there are many ethical tourism options now, and a growing league of responsible accommodators too. We decided to try it and support sustainable and local businesses, and to raise awareness of what we were doing and make a side income as we travelled, I created our blog.
In addition to sharing our sustainable family travel experiences I also write about environmental and conscious living topics, focusing on how to have less impact and more awareness in everyday life. They are all interconnected of course, and I really like to share what our family is doing in the hope that it inspires others.
I have always written and loved to share my journey, so blogging was an easy decision and exciting pathway to pursue. Blogging and freelance writing is fulfilling and intense work, and my favourite thing is when I’ve inspired someone to try a more sustainable alternative or live a little differently, rather than just go with the conventional flow. I also love connecting with people on similar paths, and have made many friends through social media who also write about sustainable travel, or are reducing their waste or considering travelling with their children. It’s wonderful to have a huge network and see that there are many of us doing our best to live lightly and consciously.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
A few of my ideas reached a lot of people in my local community via social media last year. The first was to collect trash dressed up in fancy clothes! I often pick up rubbish on my walks and was reflecting one morning that it’s not a very photogenic topic. I also recalled how bloggers usually get more views from their social media posts if they’re dressed in beautiful clothes, whether they’re relevant or appropriate to the destination or not. Thus I wondered whether I could make trash collecting prettier and bring some more attention to the huge issue of waste, and it turns out I could! Some local people were inspired and together we formed the “gLITTERati” group. Our first public clean-up was after a large food festival and it gained a lot of attention around our town and on social media.
Several months later I was very disheartened about many people’s reactions to changes to our local waste system. My town is shifting to having three bins for council collection: one for landfill waste, one for recycling and one for organic waste. Currently we only have the landfill and recycling bins, and residents here put food and garden waste into their landfill bins if they don’t compost at home.
The huge reaction was mostly because the landfill bin will only be collected every two weeks once the organic waste bin is introduced, as people are worried that their bins will overflow or be very smelly by the time it is collected. As we compost at home and separate our soft plastic rubbish for recycling too, I made a short unedited video showing how little landfill waste our household generates. I also wrote about why I supported the change in the post, covering how it will benefit the environment yet be a minor personal change.
That video became the biggest Facebook post I have ever created, with thousands of views and comments for weeks afterwards. Some people still didn’t agree but many realized that it wasn’t so hard to reduce their household rubbish, and that the new bin system would be easy and helpful. And following that, our local council contacted me to do some media promotion in support of the changing waste system.
They sent a photographer to our home to take some pictures of me using our compost bin for their upcoming community bulletin. The photographer was showing me how to pose as my four year old daughter Allegra walked into the kitchen. She watched what was happening, then went up to the photographer with her hands on her hips and injustice all over her face, looked him straight in the eyes and declared “you don’t tell MY mum what to do!” He nearly died laughing, it was just so gorgeous. #thatsmygirl
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, we made so many mistakes leaving for our first big trip. We had travelled a lot within Australia, but our first overseas trip as a family was in 2017. I had only been overseas as a teenager before then and Anthony had travelled in his early twenties, so it had been awhile for both of us. We arrived in Melbourne for our international flight tired and flustered, as we had only just finished packing up our house to rent out. It was awful leaving things to the last minute and having no time to pack properly, but that wasn’t even the worst mistake we made.
In Melbourne we finally found the international departure gate and sailed through customs relieved that we had some time to eat before our big flight. Then we started looking for the baggage drop off — and realized that we had completely missed it! And of course, you can’t exit back through customs again! We had tried to pack lightly but still booked one checked bag in case we were over the carry-on weight limit, which we were. And of course our international carrier was very strict about those things! After much worrying we were fortunate to speak to a member of staff who believed our story, and he managed to get our bag taken back to the baggage drop for us. One crisis resolved!
We still had more mishaps, including not being able to find our hastily-booked first apartment in Kuala Lumpur, our tenants not actually moving in (resulting in our house being vacant for two months) and my laptop dying in the first two weeks. But we got through everything and had a pretty amazing four month trip through South East Asia with two young kids.
We certainly learned many lessons from that experience. The biggest one was that it took a lot longer to pack up our life at home than we anticipated, and it set in motion several quite stressful events that could’ve been avoided. We actually have our house up for sale at present, and are leaving for our next overseas adventure with nothing to worry about this time!
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the core focus of our interview. Can you describe to our readers how you are using your platform to make a significant social impact?
Since starting our blog and associated social media accounts, I have always discussed a wide range of issues with our audience. We cover topics such as fast fashion, climate change, plastic pollution, species’ extinction, intentional parenting, palm oil, slow and ethical tourism, reducing waste and meat consumption, conscious consumerism, low-impact food, supporting locals, and even whether using toilet paper is better than toilet hoses. Dante eloquently named the hoses “butt canons” while we were in Asia, and it sparked a great discussion on Facebook about the merits of each system!
I also share things my family does to reduce our impact at home, like refilling from a bulk food supplier, our composting system, carpooling, and creating meaningful yet minimalist celebrations. And I share the difficulties we face and post even when I don’t get things right, as I think that’s important to see. We are far from perfect, yet the incremental gains in just continuing still add up.
Finally, I share personal anecdotes from our somewhat unusual life, as we home educate, travel together and create a life that does not follow a standard pathway. I think those posts help some readers to see that there are alternative ways to live, and that families can be healthy and happy in many different ways.
My main message, which links all of these topics together, is that only we are responsible for our own lives and the impact we have, and we can all step up and make a difference, and live differently if we want to. For me and Anthony, taking responsibility for steering our life in the direction we wanted to take it has been the biggest thing we have done, and yes it has taken some work but it’s also the most rewarding thing we have ever done. And being responsible for understanding the impact we have from everyday decisions is great to live up to and model to our kids, even if means we have to really think about each purchase and travel differently than most. Being blind to what we are buying into at the store or leaving behind from mass-tourism adventures is not innocent bliss once you’re aware of it, and it’s not acceptable for me to settle for doing things the ‘easy’ way now.
So I try to show my readers that we can take more responsibility and still have a good life, by showing what our family does and sharing information about why it’s important. Most of us have not been raised with awareness of what’s going on behind industries like fast fashion, cheap food laden with palm oil, or travel companies who exploit local communities. It’s not about making everyone feel bad about the past, but to increase our knowledge now so we can all move forwards with better understanding and the motivation to act on it.
That’s where I see most of the impact I can make lies: in raising awareness for everyday people like me. Each change we make is a positive step forwards, and I really believe that the more steps we take, the more we see how we can make a difference in a larger way. Once we have understood and acted on something important to us, our confidence grows and our scope widens, I think.
That has been my path anyway, to the point that I also started a 350.org climate action group in my community this year. A few years ago I wouldn’t have felt like I have the knowledge or experience to be an activist in such a public way, but as I have continued to learn and act on each issue that I’ve become aware of, I feel like I can make a bigger difference now.
I actually posted about my journey on social media earlier this year too; showing how I’ve progressively given up habits that didn’t serve me, gotten healthier, became a mother, educated myself, and raised my confidence enough to be outspoken about environmental and social issues. It resonated with a lot of people, as instead of feeling overwhelmed with wanting to achieve many changes at once, they could see that it’s possible to make big changes over time.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?
Many people comment that they didn’t realise what was happening with a certain issue, but now they are going to do something about it in their life. That inspires me to keep sharing, and I love it when readers join in on a cause they are struck by and let us know about it.
Also, some people have been very inspired by our decision to travel with our kids. After I wrote a post about how why and how we started designing our life like this, one man responded that he’d somehow turned into what he never wanted to be: a workaholic who hardly ever sees his family. He was really excited by the post and now believed that there were endless possibilities to live a better life together.
I am so pleased I can help people who are unhappy with their current state to strive for a more fulfilling life, just by sharing what we are doing. Leading a life full of meaning and connection is what most people really want, and yet we’re not usually taught how to do that. I love empowering people by showing what my family is doing, and believe it can only be a good thing to have more people caring enough to make changes in their lives.
Was there a tipping point the made you decide to focus on this particular area? Can you share a story about that?
I was gradually becoming more aware of healthier living and my environmental impact in my late twenties, and especially when I became a mother, I became concerned about the state of the world that my kids would inherit. Taking the time to learn about these things and having some very precious reasons to step up and act were probably the catalysts.
When Dante was very little and Anthony was working crazy hours, we also knew that we didn’t want that to be our family life forever: me at home with the kids, him working so hard and being away from us a lot. We always wanted more than that, and spending the majority of our time with our kids is an important part of our worldschooling life. They won’t get another childhood, and we’ll never regain the years with them. It’s taken us several years to get our life into a place where we could pack up and travel long-term together, and it’s still not the easiest path to take. But we think it’s absolutely worth all of the effort we put in, and I am pleased we can do it and make a positive contribution along the way.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
What specific strategies have you been using to promote and advance this cause? Can you recommend any good tips for people who want to follow your lead and use their social platform for a social good?
I think the most important thing is to be real and not get caught up in followers and likes. Being real on social media doesn’t mean you’ll be the most popular, but it gives others permission to be real too. I talk about pretty unsexy topics and bring awareness to some difficult subjects that it’s easier not to think about. But that’s just the point: if no-one’s talking about them, then it’s not normal to do more research and act on them.
I never ask people to do better on a topic that our family hasn’t already worked on. Readers can see through bullshit and know when someone is pretending to be better than they are. I share our mistakes and the things we haven’t been able to implement yet, as we are not carbon neutral or 100% sustainable or fully zero waste. I actually don’t really ask people to ‘do better’ anyway, as no one wants to be told what to do. I ask for more thinking I guess, by highlighting an issue or engaging in a conversation.
The main things I do are sharing photos of our home life and travels, and profiling organisations or movements that are ethical and/or sustainable. I like to reflect on international events if they are relevant, and talk about our reasoning behind things like choosing to travel slowly or buying clothes second-hand. And I like to ask questions and start a discussion online, as I don’t know everything and it’s great to bring people together to get more perspective on an issue.
I sometimes create short videos to support a cause like the waste management one, and I recently voiced my support for students striking for the climate. Allegra and I had also made a few videos together to show some more sustainable options for the home, which were fun to do. My videos are not super-professional or fancy, but they’re still always received well.
I don’t link in to current events just to piggy-back on their coverage, but I will voice my stance if I have something to say that I believe in. Supporting the student strikes didn’t receive nearly as much coverage as my support for the changing bin system, but as I didn’t do it for the likes, that didn’t matter. I wanted to reach the kids considering striking so they could see that another adult was supporting them, and hope that it did help some of them to gain confidence.
At the start of this year I decided to also post a Tip of the Week every week for 2019. These focus on one thing that our family does, which anyone can implement in their life to have a little less impact on the Earth. They cover a diverse range of topics and have been positively received, which I think is because they are focused on one particular thing with a simple graphic and message, and they can be implemented immediately and (usually) quite easily.
My main message on social media is that it’s not more difficult to live and travel more sustainably. There are a lot of things to think about, but they don’t all have to be implemented at once. There are plenty of options to support local people, eco-friendly tours and ethical businesses while travelling, and there are plenty of better choices at home to have less impact in everyday life. I think I am getting that message across one post at a time!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I had researched a lot before committing to this travel and writing lifestyle, so the amount of work I have to put into it and the time is has taken to build up an audience was expected. The actual travel with our kids has been wonderful, although more work than we anticipated to get going each time we’ve tried to leave! Not sure if I didn’t research that enough or we just overestimated our capabilities!
What has also surprised me is that it’s quite a lonely road. Stepping up to live differently and be an activist has meant that I have changed, and some people are not comfortable with that. And it’s lonely being a writer too, alone with my laptop each day. I connect with peers online, and ensure I have time with my family every day and with friends every week, but essentially it’s still a lonely job.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m not sure that I have enormous influence yet! But thank you, and I hope to bring this message to a much wider audience as time goes on.
If I could wave a magic wand and make huge global changes, I would start with somehow ensuring that every adult on the planet was paid fairly and lived in safety, and every child had iron-clad rights protecting them as they grew up surrounded by love. I think that would solve almost all of our issues and remove a lot of the greed, ignorance and violence that seems abundant at present.
A movement that is more possible (yet still improbable) would inspire governments to move away from obsessing about economic growth, and into caring about their people’s wellbeing and climate stability as their primary objectives. This year’s World Happiness Report showed that global happiness is declining despite economic growth continuing, and I recall from my psychology studies that once our basic needs are met, more money did not ensure more happiness. Community support, access to health care, personal safety and freedom are all vitally important to wellbeing.
I believe that climate change is the biggest issue we have ever faced, which needs to be treated as urgent by all countries around the world. Acting on it now will bring the biggest gains to the most people, and it will also save governments a lot of money by reducing or avoiding catastrophic events. It would also be more achievable if more people were not struggling just to survive already; if they had room in their lives to learn about it and take action.
Perhaps this movement could be called “Grow Up, Governments” (inspired by Greta Thunberg) as it challenges them to show how much they value their people by forgetting economic targets, and instead showing gains on the happiness index, removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and progress towards zero emissions. Do you think it would catch on?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Many come to mind, but what really drives me is the knowledge that life really is fleeting. Anthony and I know how precious it is having both lost many people in our lives. Several have been younger than we are now, including my dad who died at 38. That undoubtedly has had a great impact on me, and motivates me daily to have a connected and happy life with my kids, to really do all of the things I want to do, and try to have the most positive impact I can along the way.
A specific quote that I used to have in my home was by the Dalai Lama about never giving up. I love it because it urges me to keep on going even though it’s a lonely road and many people won’t like what I’m saying. It also reminds me to always have compassion for where others are at, and compassion for myself as I make mistakes along the way. And it gave me more strength to go against the norm of sending our kids to school and living a traditional family life.
I had been ‘developing my heart’ as he puts it for the previous several years before becoming a mother, and thus knew I wanted my kid’s educations to be non-competitive and not focused on academics to the exclusion of many other qualities. I think the Dalai Lama is right in saying we spend too much time in the West on the mind, and after first trialling education outside of the school system, Anthony and I now feel confident in raising our kids to know themselves deeply, to be globally-minded, creative and resilient, to learn practical skills and engage in real-world social situations, and to not have to compete with their peers.
“No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
Is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart
Not just to your friends
But to everyone
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world
Work for peace
And I say again
Never give up
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are so many people I would love to chat with! I am greatly inspired by strong women who have stepped up to share their messages with the world, like Loung Ung, Malala Yousafzai, Patrisse Cullors, Rosie Batty, Emma Gonzalez, Waris Dirie, and many others who speak out about injustice and put themselves in the spotlight to raise awareness.
I am also inspired by environmentalists and climate action advocates like former Australian Senator Bob Brown, Jane Goodall, Bill McKibbon, David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. And Leonardo DiCaprio of course, he is one of the biggest examples of using his platform for social impact, isn’t he? I’d love to chat with him and ask about how he deals with having such a high profile, and how he balances his activism with being artistic.
I think I will move into creative writing in addition to what I’m doing now, because stories can be huge catalysts for change in addition to reporting and documentaries. If you’re setting up a brunch with Leo for me, please let him know I want to discuss a climate change narrative idea!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
Thanks again for having me, and for sharing all of these social impact stories.