When Tom Ford calls, you answer—especially if he’s bringing environmental fashion with him. That’s what happened to Danni Washington when the TV host (think Bill Nye with better lipstick…) was asked to be a judge on Mr. Ford’s Plastic Innovation Prize, an initiative led with Lonely Whale that mobilizes the worlds of style and Hollywood to help stop single-use plastic for good.
“I love the ocean so much, but I also have a degree in marine biology,” says Danni. “That means every time I get into the ocean, I can’t help but think about how plastic is harming it. And we have the opportunity to stop that, right now!”
To do so, Danni and her fellow judges (like Stella McCartney, NBD) evaluated hundreds of emerging brands, discovering seaweed-based plastic and spider silk alternatives in the process. She also hopped on the phone with Wild Elements to discuss how to swim in the ocean, what Ariel can do for the planet, and the one animal you don’t want in your fish tank. (Besides a giraffe. That would get complicated.)
There are so many startups right now claiming to be “good” for the ocean. What does it take to win a Plastic Innovation prize?
Well, as someone who has a degree in marine biology, who has been working in marine conservation my entire career, I’m at my limit with green-washing and blue-washing! I’m specifically looking for a plastic solution that has scalability, and I want to know how marine safe it is.
All 3 of the winners are turning seaweed into compostable plastic. Do you think that’s a viable solution for the future?
I think it has huge potential, and it is a huge step forward. Seaweed has always been this “golden child” of source materials because it’s one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet. You don’t have to go into the deep sea to harvest it; it’s literally right there on the coast. It’s plentiful; it can be sourced and harvested ethically… and using it to solve our plastic problem is beautiful, because it’s something from the ocean that we can use to help marine recovery.
Seaweed is also great for our bodies, right?
It’s literally a superfood that’s packed with Omega 3. It’s a nutritional goldmine… also, it’s able to absorb carbon dioxide out of the water and air, and it can provide habitat for a lot of different marine animals. Kelp and seaweed, it’s a real win for us all around.
You studied marine biology, and now you report on science for CBS and Nova. How did you begin your career?
When I was a kid, I grew up not seeing myself in science textbooks. So as a Black woman, it was very important for me to enter that science communication space from day one, and open doors for people who hadn’t seen themselves yet… So I got a job right out of undergrad working in education and textbook videos… But beyond that, there was no predictable pathway to get here. It was just pure grit and hustle. Because everybody told me that I definitely couldn't do it!
And you’re doing it!
People said the most ridiculous things. “Black people don’t swim; how are you going to be a marine biologist?” Even my advisors in college were super doubtful. It was really just challenge after challenge, but I couldn’t stop. I know that we need more science communicators in every discipline. We need to show that it’s very cool, and fun, to be science-minded, because that's going to help us in our day-to-day decision making in a massive way.
As a scientist with a YouTube channel, do you think social media helps or hurts our quest to protect the planet?
It’s a double-edged sword, because you can say anything online without pointing to a source. Critical thinking skills are the missing piece of the puzzle—you can’t just take whatever’s fed to you. You need to know the science behind an idea! Do a little research. Don’t be afraid to be curious!
Summer is coming, which means beach days are ahead. What are some easy ways that we can help the ocean or the coastline when we visit?
First of all, bring only reusable things to the beach. Don’t bring single-use plastic at all if you can help it. If you can take public transportation, that’s also great, plus it saves you money on parking fees. Obviously, pick up everything before you leave. I live in Florida, and you’d be shocked at the amount of trash people leave behind. So at the very least, clean up all your stuff. But also, if you see some trash on the ground, pick it up and toss it! You don’t have to do a full-fledged cleanup, but if something’s right there, absolutely grab it. Nobody else is going to pick it up, so it’s your opportunity to be part of the change.
What is your favorite animal fact?
But I love so many animals!
I know. It’s super tough.
Okay. I’m gonna tell you something about Mantis Shrimp. They’re underdogs—nobody ever thinks about them. But they’re one of the most interesting animals on the planet, because they are gorgeous but they pack a punch. They have this backhoe claw that cracks open shells, and it’s like a flash of lightning underwater because it’s so fast. They also have UV vision underneath the water. They are truly incredible.
As a marine biologist, can you watch movies or TV shows about the ocean and just enjoy it? Or are you like, “That whale would never be there.”
Will you be able to watch the upcoming Little Mermaid as a viewer, or will you be like, “Sebastian, that type of crab doesn’t live in that reef.”
Ohhhh, no, I can’t wait! It’s obviously my favorite Disney animated film, and the fact that Halle Bailey is playing Ariel is a game-changer… She's just a beautiful soul, and she realizes the impact of saying “yes” to a role like Ariel… And I'm just excited to see the tidal wave of excited little boys and girls who are ready to become mer-people and want to get in the ocean, and learn how to swim. That's a huge deal for me, because I think one of the least talked-about factors when it comes to ocean conservation is a lack of connection.
Please say more!
In my opinion, that is the number one barrier to entry when it comes to ocean conservation. You have to be able to immerse yourself in a space to fall in love with it. But if people feel too scared to go in the water, it’s almost impossible to connect with the ocean in a meaningful way. It’s totally respectable and understandable to be afraid of the ocean—it’s a wild place! But my dream is that The Little Mermaid will inspire this next generation of kids to learn how to swim and connect to the ocean on a real, personal level. That’s going to be a big step forward for all of us.