Meet the adventurer: Benjamin de Molliens on striving to make less of an impact on the planet

Zero carbon emissions, zero new equipment and zero waste: this is the challenge the French explorer set himself for his expeditions. He tells us more about this project, as well as how to have meaningful adventures near home. 

By Angela Locatelli
Published 23 Jan 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 24 Jan 2022, 11:37 GMT
As part of his Expedition Zero project, Benjamin cross-country skied across the Vercors Massif.

As part of his Expedition Zero project, Benjamin cross-country skied across the Vercors Massif.

Photograph by Benjamin de Molliens

Where does your passion for adventure come from?

My childhood. My parents were scouts when they were younger, they’ve always loved hiking. When I was a kid my father built a camper van, and we used to go on the road for a month every summer exploring Europe, from Scotland and Finland to Greece and Morocco. Some summers, we’d spend a few weeks hiking in the French Alps or the Pyrenees. I got used to going on adventures at a very young age, and I never lost this passion.

How did you become a full-time adventurer?

After studying business in Singapore, I worked for a few years across Asia — Shanghai, Jakarta, Islamabad — and Africa, then moved to San Francisco to work in Silicon Valley. I spent two years there, and I admit I was never employee of the month; I used to spend more time in the water — surfing, kitesurfing — than at the office. Around that time, a friend sent me two statistics on plastic pollution in the ocean: 19 tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every minute and there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. When I realised my playground [the sea] was so polluted, I decided to do something about it. I moved back to France in 2016, and the following year I joined the co-founders of Plastic Odyssey [a round-the-world boat expedition that, once launched, will aim to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean by creating a network of recycling initiatives]. That's how it all started, but I left the project in 2019: my goal was to have a more human-centric approach to the problem.

Where did the idea for your Expedition Zero project come from?

I wanted to convince my family to make more eco-friendly choices, so I started sending them articles on the climate crisis… and they kicked me out of our group chat. I was pointing my finger at them, and that annoyed them. I decided to listen to Gandhi: if you want to change the world, start with yourself. Expedition Zero began in the spring of 2020. I spent the first French lockdown in Brittany and set out to visit my girlfriend, who was staying in Normandy, over 370 miles away, on two wheels. I repaired a wonky bicycle I had in the garage using only second-hand parts and decided that for my upcoming adventures I could stick to a rule of zero new equipment. Along the way, I tried zero-waste grocery shopping, too, and that’s how the zero-waste rule was born. I reached my destination using only the power of my own legs, spending the night wild camping with a hammock and soon the zero carbon footprint became the third rule. I shared my journey with family and friends, and then they were willing to listen, because I was leading by example.

Benjamin's passion for adventure comes from his childhood: every summer, his family would go on month-long road trips around Europe, from Scotland and Finland to Greece.

Photograph by Benjamin de Molliens

Where has the project taken you so far?

I spent 30 days hiking across the French Alps, from Lake Geneva to Menton, wild camping along the way. But I took a train to get to Geneva — I'm not perfect in my ‘zeros’. But I want to show people they can improve from one expedition to the next. After that, I stand-up paddled for 149 miles along the Canal du Midi, from Toulouse to Sète; ran along the Stevenson trail, crossing the seven great mountains of southern France; kayaked for 186 miles along the Dordogne River; fast hiked across the Italian Dolomites; and cross-country skied across the Vercors Massif. My last adventure took me to Glasgow to attend the COP26 summit. I got to Lille by train, cycled to Boulogne-sur-Mer, crossed the English Channel on a 50-year-old sailboat, then cycled again for 528 miles to Glasgow. There, I facilitated The Climate Fresk, a three-hour team-building workshop to understand how human activities affect the climate, the causes and their consequences.

How do you prepare for your expeditions?

I prepare a little bit in advance, but it doesn’t take much time. I often ask friends to lend me things; for example, when I crossed the French Alps, a friend and I swapped sleeping bags, as his was warmer. Otherwise, I buy second-hand gear. There are also a few brands that support me, but I don't promote them as I don’t want to encourage people to buy new stuff — they simply like what I do, so they might donate prototypes or equipment that has been scratched a little, which they can’t sell.

Do you have any tips for travellers?

Take into consideration the wilderness close to home. I live in France, and I’m just amazed by the diversity our country has to offer in terms of landscapes. I'm not saying we should stop flying, but we should reduce how often we do it and change the mindset that makes us buy flights as if they were bus tickets. Reducing your impact isn’t easy because our society doesn’t push us in this direction, but if you start with small challenges, like refusing napkins or packaging, you’ll see the next step is not as hard to reach as you thought.

During lockdown, Benjamin launched the Clean your Kilometre challenge, encouraging his followers to pick up waste when out on their daily walks.

Photograph by Benjamin de Molliens

During lockdown, you launched the Clean your Kilometre challenge. What was the vision behind it?

When I paddleboarded along the Canal du Midi, in addition to my three zeros, I decided to pick up waste. No matter what you think about environmental protection, no one likes waste because it's tangible. I was going to launch a new expedition including trail running in southern France and picking up waste along the way — but we ended up in another lockdown. In France, we were allowed to leave the house for one hour a day, staying in a 1km perimeter. I decided to do some plogging [running and picking up waste at the same time]. I created a hashtag, nominated people — influencers, politicians, celebrities — and invited my community to take on the challenge. It went viral; the media started to talk about it, people in Germany, New Zealand, Belgium, even in Quebec, Australia and the US joined. The Clean your Kilometre challenge is an adventure, just on a different scale. To me, adventure is when you get out of your comfort zone, when you do something that’s unpredictable, new and challenging. Being brave enough to pick up someone else’s waste in the street can be just that.

If you could change one thing in the world of travel, what would it be?

Travelling is incredibly enriching, culturally speaking. We open our minds, we meet other cultures. But at the same time, what makes us happy when we travel is the environment, the nature. I’d want to see a more respectful way of travelling by boosting the slow-travel culture worldwide. Today, it’s still quite a privilege.

You can follow Benjamin’s Expedition Zero on his Instagram account

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