Q&A with Steph Gabriel, Marine Conservationist and Founder of Sustainable Swimwear Label OceanZen

Q&A with Steph Gabriel, Marine Conservationist and Founder of Sustainable Swimwear Label OceanZen

With science under threat, particularly in the U.S. where a growing number of people are rejecting scientific findings on climate change issues, it’s time we turn the spotlight on those on the front lines, to help you understand the work that scientists do and why they play an instrumental role in helping to build a sustainable future.

In 2013 while completing her Environmental Science degree at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Steph Gabriel launched sustainable swimwear label OceanZen. Noticing a gap in the market for functional and stylish swimwear designs suitable to active, environmentally conscious women, Steph decided to launch her business, equipped with a soaring passion for sustainability and protecting the oceans– a mission fuelled by her travel experiences.

“My journey to where I am now is all because of one decision that changed the course of direction for my life,” explains Steph. “When I was 19, I packed my bags and left everything that I knew on a one way ticket out of Australia. I had no idea when I would be back, but I certainly didn’t expect to be gone three years.

“Along my travels I landed on a beautiful Caribbean island and scored a job working with wild stingrays on a tourism boat and this is the chapter that changed my course. I was in the water seven hours a day, everyday, for an entire year and started to see the human impacts we were having on the ocean and from this moment on, I wanted to learn how I could protect the ocean, which essentially lead me to returning home to then studying a degree in Environmental Science and creating a sustainable swimwear brand.”

(The following interview with Steph Gabriel was completed via email for the purposes of ease.)

Steph Gabriel, marine conservationist and co-founder of OceanZen.
Steph Gabriel, environmental scientist and co-founder of OceanZen.

EWP: What does your typical day look like?

Steph Gabriel: A typical day for me starts at 5:30am. I love to start the day by either going for a long beach walk as the sun rises or going to exercise at group training. This really kick starts the day to be a good one. Mental health is so important to me, I went through a rough stage two years ago where I was not coping at all and I later realised that exercise would have helped me cope a little better if I had picked myself up to do so.

I then pretty much get stuck into emails, website management and organising our OceanZen whale swim retreats to Tonga (a lot of pre-planning goes into managing these trips).

EWP: Given the work you do as an ocean conservationist and environmental scientist and all that you have seen, experienced and learned, what facts and environmental issues still shock you?

SG: Plastic pollution! I am completely blown away with the data clearly showing how much plastic is in our ocean and how microplastics are in our food chain and that nothing on a large government/corporation scale is really being done about it!

Three years ago OceanZen headed to Cape York, in North Australia with non-profit Clean Coast Collective to help clean up the beach for 10 days. What we saw was game-changing. In just give full days, we removed 7.1 tonnes of marine debris, much of it we still had to leave behind. We found thousands of thongs (flip flops for you non-Australians), razors, toothbrushes, plastic bottles and plastic bottle lids, huge fishing nets and lots of large broken plastic items.

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Seeing this face-to-face, well we were all pretty shaken by the truth of plastic pollution. In our everyday life we can try our best to avoid it, but the issue is far greater than just avoiding it now. We need to figure out a way to remove what we have out there, and it doesn’t help when large corporations are still producing these items.

Sadly this is now no longer an environmental issue, but a human health issue as well. Fish are mistaking microplastics as their food source, and humans eat fish within our food chain and thus, we are now essentially eating our own trash. Long term who knows what health problems this will cause.

EWP: Ocean pollution is a huge problem. What can the average person do to address this problem and improve the health of our oceans?

SG: Whilst plastic pollution is a massive problem, it’s pretty amazing that over the last five years in particular, so much awareness is being raised about plastic usage and ocean pollution from boutique companies and consumers. The big companies are really not doing anything, the government are not really doing anything. The awareness is coming from the people. Ten years ago this was rarely spoken about, and if it was, there was stigma around it. Now it’s becoming ‘cool’ to care about the environment and that’s amazing. We need to keep moving forward with this, driving awareness and pushing our government and larger organisations to make change.

Shooting for OceanZen.

Here are some things a person can do to help our oceans:

Shop sustainably and ethically – Avoid single-use plastic coffee cups, straws and PLASTIC BAGS, those are the absolute devil!

Read more: 20 Items That Should Be On Your Zero Waste List

Avoid balloons – Many people don’t actually know how bad they are for the environment. Do you really need to pop a super-sized balloon for your baby gender reveal?

BYO meat containers – Take a container to the butcher and get your meat there instead of the supermarket where it’s already pre-packaged. Usually the butchers are really accommodating and they will weigh your container first, then deduct the weight so they know how much to charge you for the meat.

On the topic of meat, there is also some really amazing light being shed on the agriculture industry and how it is a leading cause of climate change.

EWP: How do you handle climate change denial?

SG: I once met the CEO of an oil company in Brisbane, and had this same conversation with him and also talking about the Australian Bite Equinor project. He had a lot to say and I listened, though he didn’t really listen to me in return. But from his conversation with me, his facts supporting Equinor and how it would benefit the economy, I do get that we need a strong financial economy as a country, so I think when talking to these big honchos about climate change, we need solutions that will make their eyes light up. We need to speak their language and if money is their language then so be it. We need to show them that they can save money and make money with other sustainable options, that the people want change and will support it and buy into it. Change is coming, but not fast enough.

EWP: You’re also a social entrepreneur. What are some things you know about running a business that you wish you had known before starting?

SG: I wish I knew that I would never really pay myself a wage and that I would cry a lot haha!! Honestly, when I launched OceanZen I launched out of a pure passion for ocean conservation. I don’t come from a background in fashion or business, it was purely a raging passion to protect the ocean. Being a scuba diver and surfer as well as an environmental scientist meant I was always in the ocean, so I combined all of the things I loved and decided to launch a sustainable company. I never really had a plan or had a goal to profit from it, I just went for it.

It’s been a long road of hard lessons and I wish I knew the importance of cash flow and budgeting in particular before learning the hard way. I never kept receipts originally, mainly because I didn’t really understand the importance of all that, so when every new collection would come around I’d be sold out of all my stock but still not have $30,000 for the next production run! So when I really knuckled into my accounting and budgeting, I realised I was spending more money than I even realised just on business stuff. 

Eco and Sustainable Swimwear
Behind the scenes at OceanZen.

EWP: Any advice for people looking to start their own social enterprises?

SG: For anyone wanting to start their own business or social enterprise, my most valuable piece of advice would be to make sure you truly love what you are about to launch. Having your own business comes with highs and rock bottom lows and you will be tested many times. My passion is my purpose, and that’s what gets me through those really challenging moments. My ‘Why am I really doing this?’ brings me back to the moment and keeps be on my feet.

I have actually just launched an e-book for anyone who wants a helping hand on how to start their own fashion label, hopefully help some others follow their dreams and make their start up process a bit smoother. http://bit.ly/how-to-start-a-fashion-label.

You can follow Steph Gabriel and OceanZen on Instagram here. To browse their gorgeous collection of eco-friendly swimwear visit oceanzenbikini.com.

Responses have been edited for clarity.

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