The New Year’s Smart List: Protecting the Planet


An interview with Alison-Terry Evans, Dirty Girls of Lesvos

In the spirit of self-improvement at the start of a new year, Campfire Innovation has been catching up with some of our favourite Smart Aid teams…

Whether it’s about being better to one another, or to our planet, learning new skills or just being better informed, we all want this year to be better than the last. This is felt deeply within the world of humanitarian aid, so we wanted to know what the experts think we should be focusing on if we want to be smarter in ’17.

We first spoke with Alison Terry-Evans to discuss why we should be protecting the planet in 2017. Alison founded Dirty Girls in 2015, as a response to the mountains of wet and dirty, but good quality clothing that she saw discarded by refugees arriving by sea on the island of Lesvos. Since then, her team has saved about 500 tonnes of material from landfill, and saved mammoth costs for the UNHCR and the like through recycling and laundering the rejected materials.

Campfire Innovation spoke to Alison about why the humanitarian aid community needs to recognise its ties to sustainability, and move the protection of the planet higher up its agenda when dealing with humanitarian crises.

CI: 2016 was a significant year for the refugee crisis and for environmental policy. At which point do these two causes meet?

AT: They are intrinsically entwined. Millions of people are living transitory lives with newly acquired material belongings, which are mostly shed along their journeys. The materials can be rejected by because they’re difficult to carry, or because there’s no time to collect them before their owners are moved on to their next destination. Donated clothes are added to the load along the way, but as there is little to no provision for washing clothes, materials are often replaced as soon as they get dirty. This all makes sense for those travelling long distances for long, uncertain periods of time. However, what has really puzzled and infuriated me is seeing how clothing distribution centres have taken the dubious principles of a disposable society to heart. I’ve spent a lot of time retrieving items from dumpsters and other trash sites in the past 16 months, and I’ve come across many new donated items that have been thrown away… …New socks. Beautifully crocheted articles meant to bring love and warmth. Countless useful items that someone couldn’t be bothered dealing with? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer for such cavalier attitudes. These materials are treated as though they are worthless. Dirty Girls has saved what must be a miniscule percentage of rejected materials, and we have saved nearly 500 tonnes of material from becoming trash.”

CI: Do you feel that sustainability is treated as a priority in humanitarian aid at large?

AT: Absolutely not. The UNHCR website states that it is “committed to protecting the environment and of the environmental challenges associated with hosting a large population in a small area”, but I have seen these principles ignored by a number of major organisations during my experiences in Greece. When Idomeni was vacated, the destruction of property was monumental. One could only think of all those well meaning people whose donations were bulldozed and piled on trucks as trash. Even as recently as this month, huge tents from Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos were sent straight to the municipal dump. We work with little support from some of these NGOs: we rescue, recycle and redistribute blankets and sleeping bags that they throw away. There is an attitude among certain organisations that they have plenty of blankets in their warehouses, so why bother to wash them? In reality, blankets don’t grow like mushrooms, but are bought with the money given by donors and appropriated from tax payers.”

CI: What does sustainability do for the individuals you work for?

AT: Stopping the trashing of clothes, literally by the tonnes each day at the height of arrivals, meant that not only did the environment benefit, but so did the people arriving on boats. Until then they were given only clothes that had been donated. Being able to choose from clothes recycled from people similar to themselves, refugees were able to replace their own wet and dirty clothes with ones that were more culturally appropriate, with appreciated styles and with a greater likelihood of size availability. We’ve often been told by volunteers in camps that without the truckloads of blankets brought by Dirty Girls, people would have been without because the INGOs would stick to the allocated numbers when distributing blankets so people would miss out.”

CI: What does sustainability do for the refugee crisis at large?

AT: It would lessen the huge carbon footprint that is being left and ignored. It would honour the value of donations from people who give in the good faith that their donations are valued. And I say say “would” because there is no “does” as yet.

CI: How can we take sustainable practice to the next level in 2017?

AT: The next level is Level 1. There are no sustainable practices in evidence right now. Once again, I’m speaking of my experience in Greece alone.

CI: What goals do you think smart humanitarian aid should focus on in 2017?

AT: To appropriate, but also to adhere to, the mission stated by UNHCR on their website:

"Since the 1990s, we have become increasingly committed to protecting the environment and of the environmental challenges associated with hosting a large population in a small area.Over the course of the last two decades, we have set in place programmes and initiatives aimed at improving sustainable environmental management, aiming to reduce environmental degradation and enhance the resources available to the displaced, as well as host communities."

Alison was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Leading Global Thinkers of 2016, as she continues to fight for sustainable practices in humanitarian aid. Find out more about her work with Dirty Girls on their social media channels: