In Conversation: Ninna Larsen of Reground

Ninna Larsen standing next to a Reground colleague.

It's goes unsaid that 2020 was a crazy rollercoaster ride that felt like it was never going to end. While there were definitely a lot of challenges to navigate, I personally relished the opportunity to step back, slow down, reflect and then make some changes, both professionally and in my personal life.

Here at Sow, we poured time and effort into getting our online store up and running. We're now successfully retailing a curated offering of products that I truly believe in and - in most cases - use daily. Additionally, on the back of work and consideration that happened last year, we were so proud to recently launch our coffee offering, with the help of talented friends.

2020 also gave me the chance to refocus my vision for this section of Sow - the one dedicated to celebrating the humble humans and coffee legends who are a constant inspiration. One of my goals when I first started Sow Coffee Project was to shine a spotlight on the amazing people in our coffee community and with the new year comes an invigorating energy to bring this goal back into focus.

Coffee grounds spilling from a Reground recycling bin bearing the motto 'Recycle, Reuse, Regrow'.

This In Conversation is really a reflection of the general conversations we experienced last year. Our normal ways of connecting were interrupted. Like many others, I relied on video calls to maintain relationships with family and friends, and as someone who already appreciated catching up over a coffee or meal, I'll never take meeting a friend at a cafe or restaurant for granted again! So, this In Conversation isn't like the previous two: there's no video footage. Instead, I'm pleased to present an introduction to Reground and their amazing founder and driving force Ninna Larsen through the written word.

Ninna Larsen standing at the back of the Reground van.

I was first introduced to Reground and their redirection approach through Padre Coffee's Brunswick East store. It was also here where I first met Ninna. My colleague - and now good friend - Gito was dating Ninna at the time and it feels like yesterday I was sitting at their dinner table red wine in hand, eating my first home-cooked meal in Melbourne. Spaghetti Carbonara will always conjure special memories of that night. Gito and Ninna are now married, with a beautiful son Albert, and over time our connection and friendship have blossomed. I'm super excited and proud to share this conversation between Ninna and I!

Charlie Wade: How do you see yourself?

Ninna Larsen: "That's a big question! As a human being of planet earth! The way I see myself and the way I want to represent myself wherever I am, is to be a human being like everyone else, that has an understanding of and a sensitivity to what happens in the world and the people that are around me. The systems that are around me and the context that I'm in and that I benefit off, trying to represent that in a way that enhances and progresses that instead of me.

I don't talk about myself a lot or see myself as a key figure in anything, cause that's really not my purpose here. So how I see myself is more as a force of motivation for shedding light on certain issues or participating in conversations that can create depth to a topic, or to a human being, a friend of mine or whoever/wherever I am and try and lift that up instead of needing to make things fit for me.

I feel like who I am is almost less important cause I can be anything, I try not to define myself too much because it can be quite fluid - that's how I've always lived. My role is changing all of the time, so I see myself as part of a bigger movement. Whether it's a family, a citizen, an inhabitant of planet earth - I have different roles and so how do you align all of these roles without losing your identity entirely - that is for me understanding that I have to set myself free from the expectation of being something. Cause once again I can be anything!

I don't want to be associated as someone that's super innovative or constantly pioneering cause that's not me, and that doesn't resonate with me. I work with having a fluid understanding of who I am. Today I am one thing and tomorrow I can be something different."

Ninna Larsen pours compost into a raised garden bed.

After hearing Ninna describe herself, I was intrigued by what word or phrase Ninna felt encompassed Reground. Ninna had really deconstructed herself and talked in such big terms, I was captivated by our conversation already. Organically, we navigate to the next question.

CW: What one word would you say encompasses what Reground is?

NL: "I think 'democratic'. It's something that's more about the community and representing many people and hearing the needs of the community including the people who aren't in my position. How can you be empathetic to that, how can you let everyone have a voice and I believe that's where the foundation is for me.

It's never about me, Ninna, it's not about my ego. People love to boost their egos and to talk about how they are super special, when, what makes you special is that you can see the special in what is around you and that's why Reground is successful, cause that's the way I look at things. And now I've said "I" and it sounds like I've done something unique, but I really have not.

Everyone fails when it's all about furthering their own agenda, when in fact by building a movement by furthering many people's agenda, and the planet's agenda - you know, whatever it is that you represent, that you understand how you can enable change by seeing what is required. You know it comes back to the idea of fluidity and change, because people's needs change. Once we've solved one problem, we will have to address the next problem. It's an ongoing thing.

Yeah, I think 'democratic' is a good word, I feel like that word is about hearing everyone out - which is a big part of what I do."

Ninna Larsen couches on the ground, holding a quantity of Reground compost in open palms.

CW: What's been the most rewarding win to date for Reground?

NL: "It's getting my team to where it's at today. To build a really strong team where everyone feels that they are working towards their own personal purpose and where we're working together towards Reground's purpose. We are all six different individuals that have different dreams and different interests but I've managed to create a system that has taken me a long time to learn. Even though I studied Business Management at University, I didn't study practically how to manage people - so I've had to learn that and it's been really really challenging.

I'd like to say it has been the least enjoyable aspect for me at Reground but that's also why it's such a great win for me and for Reground. To get to a point where everyone is great and the culture is great and at a point where I feel like everyone understands they are valued for who they are and I truly believe that creates better work.

I think that has been the greatest win, to have some really amazing, very different people to who I am and some that I also headbutt with a lot but, you know, when you can harness people's strengths without needing to suppress their weaknesses, when you can have a conversation around their weaknesses instead you can really elevate a team. I believe that's our greatest win."

Five members of the Reground crew stand in a line, wearing matching shirts and jackets.

CW: Such a big part of sustainability is tied to educating. With so much education that needs to happen when awareness campaigning for more sustainable products or services, as a whole how do you take such a massive task and break it down to something achievable?

NL:In our team, we research and study tools used in psychology, behavioural science, behavioural design and habit research and loop in the reality of waste. We often deal with behaviour and infrastructure that is hard to change and with habits that are ingrained. The context is hard to change and that's just how it is, we can't really change the premise of the work we're doing. I think the way we do it and the way every one of us should do it, is to start with things that are achievable and feel that it makes a difference today - because all of that change added up over a year, let's say, that's massive change and the small positive wins will foster more progressive adjustments.

So we use tools from psychology, behavioural science, behavioural design to really help out with this and really speed up the movement. Because it's actually not that hard to change. How can we focus on changing behaviour quickly and that has given me a lot of hope, it's not hard but it is invisible to a lot of people. The solutions are quite simple, often practical - if you know what to do.

So, I think a lot of habit theory is what we use at the moment and that is how we're going to get there, is by actually changing small things cause that will hopefully escalate. As an example - food waste is a huge issue at scale. The third-best way to revert climate change is to reduce the amount of food waste that is created. But how do you do that? At the moment we are creating an app for waste minimisation with local businesses. People are super biased and overconfident with opinions that food waste doesn't apply to them, when science backed by research indicates every one of us has avoidable food waste that shouldn't go in the bin.

The best way to change that is by making that problem visible to people, for people to connect - food waste - themselves - and to see it because the solutions will be right there. We had this issue at home and every Thursday I opened the fridge and assessed what was going off in there, taking all of that produce out and cooking with it, a lot of the waste we were throwing out, we just eradicated. When that becomes a habit, and you assess things daily to avoid wastage - it's a process in a way.

First: it's making it visible. Second: it's making a habit to do it."

A child uses the garden hose to clean the kitchen caddy for food scraps. Their mum tends to the compost bin nearby.

For some of us, this is just a usual part of our daily lives: check the fridge and pantry and prioritise the food that needs to be eaten first. It's such a simple part of our day-to-day, and the lazy and less confronting solution is to throw that produce away. I've owned a worm farm for the last year now, and it's been a good plan B - if anything goes bad and can't be eaten, it gets channelled through the worm farm or gets composted. The only things that end up in the rubbish are food items that aren't able to be put into the worm farm. I'm not blind to the fact that I produce waste, and I acknowledge that, but this small step in waste redirection means a lot for my social and environmental conscience and impact. Can one person change the world? I believe so!

CW: If you could change one thing about your industry, what would it be?

NL: The system. I would change the overarching system. I would change the way we look at resources and waste materials and then I would change the way we collect waste - cause currently, it's a loss of resources. I would make it hyperlocal which is what we're working hard on, really engaging with the community on how we can actually use their waste as a resource and bring awareness to the issues.

We know when people see the waste they produce they create less waste, that's happening for example in South East Asia. Where the waste ends up on the streets, it's a lot more visible - so people produce less waste cause they see it - it's very visible!

In Australia, there's so much. I'm reading a book at the moment, called "Upstream". It's a good term. I'm all about going to the top of the problem and turning the tap off, let's not create the waste in the first place, but the way that the system works right now is all about downstream efforts. When it's created how do we recycle? We need to talk more about avoidance, we need to talk more about minimisation. After that we need to talk about the resources we have, how can we innovate with that? Because you absolutely can innovate with waste resources.

I would change the system, which is a huge task, but it's been done before and it will also be done again. The current system doesn't work for people. Even though they don't know it, it doesn't work for people. We're representing every single one of us in Australia cause it doesn't work for us."

Ninna Larsen tends to a vegetable patch.

So, at this point, after reading all about Ninna's mission, you're probably thinking "how can I help?". A lot of what Ninna said resonated with me deeply. Simply being able to build habits, like opening the fridge and assessing what most needs to be eaten, ignites your awareness. This simple practice can be applied to so many areas that ultimately make the greater mission achievable.

Awareness, mindset and acknowledging our environmental responsibilities as waste producers and citizens of planet Earth are all key to turning things around.

In reading this conversation, I hope you've been able to learn a little more about Reground, find some inspirational insight into the powerhouse that is Ninna Larsen and discover a drive to start making any changes you can to better the world.

To learn more about how you can help, please visit Reground, or check out the new app Upstream through Instagram - launching soon!

All pictures courtesy of Reground. ✌🏼

A coffee shop window sports the Reground logo: a young plant growing in a cup.

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