Everyone talks about sustainability. We all want our planet — and town — to continue existing, without depleting our natural resources.
There’s even an organization — Sustainable Westport — with the word in its name.
But not many of us know exactly what that is, or what it does.
Johanna Martell and Gately Ross do.
Johanna Martell and Gately Ross.
They’re co-directors of the organization. After its formation in 2006, when 1st Selectman Gordon Joseloff appointed a Green Task Force, the volunteer group proposed and helped enact policies to help reduce Westport’s carbon footprint.
In 2017, the Representative Town Meeting passed its recommendation for the town to become Net Zero by 2050.
To expands its reach, the Green Task Force separated from the town, and was rebranded as Sustainable Westport in 2020.
While remaining financially and operationally independent, the organization moved under the umbrella of Earthplace, a non-profit committed to building passion and respect for the natural world.
This year, Sustainable Westport separated from Earthplace to become a 501(c)3 itself, with its own board of directors and staff.
But the mission of Sustainable Westport has not changed. The goal is to inspire, support and connect residents, organizations, and the town of Westport to use best efforts to become a Net Zero community by 2050.
Martell joined Sustainable Westport after a career largely in commercial real estate. A local resident since 2013, she realized during COVID that she wanted work with more meaning. Her friend Nico Eisenberger suggested Sustainable Westport.
Martell had taken environmental law in college. And though she had never worked for a non-profit — “and for no money,” she says — the fit seemed perfect.
Ross — whose career was in veterinary medicine, but had a marine conservation background, and who moved to Westport in 2007 with the first of her 3 children — was also looking to get back in the work force, and knew she’d work well with Martell.
At that point, Sustainable Westport was best known for its Zero Food Waste Challenge. Ross’ involvement began with the first composting class, at Greens Farms Elementary School.
In 2019, Greens Farms Elementary School students avidly joined the compost effort.
But there is a whole new group of Westporters — parents with school-age children — who know little about Sustainable Westport. Ross and Martell were eager to tap into that network.
It’s been harder than they thought. Though the schools have been champions for sustainability since before the two got involved, efforts have been siloed.
In their first year as directors, Martell and Ross tried to go through PTAs. But they realized that’s only one approach.
“We needed both top-down and bottom-up,” Ross says.
They’ve begun meeting with personnel throughout the Westport Public Schools. They’ve expanded their reach to other stakeholders: Wakeman Town Farm, the Westport Farmers Market, RTM Environment Committee, town departments and more — including 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker and operations director Tom Kiely.
Westporters flock to the Farmers’ Market. They do their share to educate shoppers about sustainability.
The goal is to get “all the different groups talking with each other.”
“Planning and Zoning, Public Works — everyone needs to think about sustainability,” Martell notes.
“We know it’s hard to add more to people’s plates. But we can provide them with information and resources, to help in any way we can.”
“We want to engage more people — especially young families,” adds Ross. “They’ve got kids who are growing up. We want them to think about what their town and planet will look like in the future.
“We know people can be disinterested or, on the other hand, can feel overwhelmed. But the first step inspires the second, and the third. Then you can see, you’re making a difference.”
So are Sustainable Westport’s (unpaid) co-directors optimistic or pessimistic that their organization is making an impact?
“It depends on the day,” Ross admits. “Some things are frustrating. Naively, we thought the process would be easier and faster.”
“Things can be controversial,” says Martell. “This is a very engaged town. People have opinions about everything.”
Still, Westport — the first municipality east of the Mississippi River to enact a plastic bag ban, which followed up with a plastic straw ban — is seen as a sustainable leader, despite the difficulties of enforcement.
“Other towns look to us,” Ross says.
So Sustainable Westport keeps moving forward.
In January, they launched “Refill Not Landfill.”
The program encourages residents to use reusable mugs at coffee shops to reduce waste, combat climate change, and help support small businesses.
At checkout, participants scan a QR code to enter their name and email. Five refills (at any location) qualifies for a monthly raffle.
“We all carry water bottles. Why not coffee cups too?” Martell asks.
“Coffee cups are not recyclable. That’s a huge generator of trash that we’re addressing.”
Participation is “fantastic” by 15 local coffee shops, cafés, markets and restaurants.
But not enough residents have joined in.
Gately Ross and Johanna Martell keep plugging forward — one coffee cup, compost pile and paper bag at a time.
They’re in it for the long haul. And they’ve got their sights set on that Net Zero town target: 2050.
(To learn more about Sustainable Westport, click here.)
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Participants in Sustainable Westport’s “Refill Not Landfill” program