Eco Entrepreneur Q&A: Talia Borda

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Talia Borda, founder of That Red House, has had a more turbulent journey towards leading a sustainable lifestyle than most.

In 2002, Talia’s then-fiancé Luke was diagnosed with Lymphoma, which returned again in 2006 when she was 35 weeks pregnant with the couple’s first child.

It was this second diagnosis that led Talia to begin researching the health effects of chemicals in everyday products, including beauty and household products, and even food. What she discovered prompted her to reduce her family’s exposure to certain synthetic chemicals and preservatives such as parabens, phthalates and BPA.

The couple even built a “low tox” home in the South Australia’s Adelaide Hills, using ethically sourced materials, low-VOC paints and natural furnishings.

Finding chemically-free laundry products though proved difficult, until Talia discovered soapberries – a natural, organic, waste-free alternative to traditional soaps and detergents.

Today, I found out more from Talia about why dodging traditional laundry products is crucial for good personal health (and the health of the planet) and whether soapberries actually work!

Tell us why you started That Red House.

It often takes a tragedy to become the catalyst for complete change.

After Luke was diagnosed with Cancer, I decided that we needed to know exactly what we were putting into our bodies. I wanted to know about everyday chemical exposure, and what changes we could make as a family to ensure our health and wellbeing going forward.

We switched to eating organic food and I began to look further into the chemicals in everything from cleaning products to cosmetics. I was shocked to discover the extent of the risk we are actively exposing ourselves to every day.

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I knew that we had to try everything we could to reduce this exposure, and I wanted to ensure that I could tell my kids [Luke and Talia now have four children], in 30 years that I gave them the best possible environment in which to grow up in. I felt it was my obligation as their mum, to be informed and aware.

After a few years of living our new low tox lifestyle I decided I wanted to take our sustainable pursuits one step further, and we began the process of building an eco house and sustainable organic productive garden in the Adelaide Hills. It was a massive task, but it was an amazing decision and one we are thankful for every day.

We built our new home using chemical free paint, all natural carpet and ethically sourced materials. We attempted to make the building as passive as we could, and the design of the garden was given priority. We have 40-odd garden beds, 100 fruit and nut trees, a dozen chooks, and over 1500sqm of organic bliss for our kids to run around in.

After deciding to commit to this new organic lifestyle, I was still struggling to find an organic option for the laundry. We had a greywater system in place to send all the excess water into the veggie garden, but I really needed a 100% chemical free, biodegradable and preferably organic detergent… that actually worked! So again… after much research, I discovered soapberries. I then used them for a few years before I decided to take the plunge myself and start the business.

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What are organic soapberries exactly?

Soapberries are the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which is native to Nepal. They contain a substance called saponin, in the pericarp (flesh) of the fruit, which acts as a natural soap.

They have been used for thousands of years throughout the Himalayas for a multitude of purposes, but most popularly as a soap. They are picked, dried in the sun, deseeded and packed. No chemicals are used at any stage of the process, and they are 100% certified organic.

Soapberries are very easy to use. Simply add five shells to the little cotton bag provided in the bag and pop them in the wash. That bag will do around five loads of washing, and when they are finished they can be added to the compost to break down naturally.

Other than as a laundry detergent, what are some of the other ways people can use soapberries around their homes?

Soapberries are amazingly versatile little things. Aside from their obvious use as a replacement for traditional, chemical laundry detergent, they can be boiled up, and the remaining liquid used in nearly every cleaning application around the home.

Once the berries hit the water, and particularly when they are boiled, the saponin is extracted and it then becomes a potent, antibacterial and anti-fungal cleaner. That liquid can then be used for anything from kitchen cleaner to shaving cream.

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Why is it important that people try to limit their exposure to the chemicals found in many conventional laundry products?

I think we inherently trust large companies to have our best interests at heart. But the truth is, they don’t.

In fact, there is no obligation for companies to disclose the ingredients that they use in any of their products. Testing of ingredients is not mandatory and ultimately we have no idea what we are exposing ourselves to.

We need to take back control of what we are putting both in and on our bodies, and what we are exposing ourselves to and using around our homes.

I truly believe that total transparency should be obligatory across the board so we as consumers are informed and know what the risks are when choosing our products. We often think we are doing the right thing by our families and ourselves by choosing a certain product, but greenwashing is a real problem and generally we are unknowingly exposing ourselves to chemicals we simply had no idea were even present.

Endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic fillers and artificial fragrance are just a few of the nasties found among the most popular detergents.

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Tell us more about your efforts to lead a zero waste lifestyle. Any tips you could give our readers?

I was a bit ahead of the trend when I embarked on this journey. I remember talking to builders about greywater, natural paints and chemical-free fibres… only to be met with a look that said ‘Okay, crazy hippy’.

Ten years on It is so much easier now, and really everyone can achieve their waste free goals without too much ongoing effort. It really just comes down to planning.

Audit every part of your lifestyle, and recognise the pitfalls. Where are you able to make easy changes? Do you really need a plastic bin liner? Can you choose a plastic free alternative to your shampoo, hand wash and even food packaging?

Make and grow your own where you can, and be conscious of your habits. It is really quite easy when you get into the swing of it. Find shops that support your endeavours, research brands and seek total transparency.

The difference we can make as individuals and families cannot be underestimated.

Thanks for your time, Talia!