Hairdressers are masters of small talk (it must be part of their training). And while the weather and work may be their key conversation starters, it pays to be attentive – you might learn something.

Walking into Crows Nest hairdresser Sho & Co, which opened last year, is like walking into your local cafe. It’s bright and airy – plus there’s a friendly sausage dog (Tofu) waiting by the door – and the whole place smells of cinnamon. There’s no lingering odour of ammonia here – Shonagh Stratford’s sustainable salon only uses products that are 100 per cent cruelty-free and vegan.

“I’m vegan myself, so I am passionate about using cruelty-free products and products that have little impact on the environment,” Stratford tells me.

Her salon stocks De Lorenzo hair products, which are Australian-made and certified vegan. But Stratford’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond hair dye and the recycled furniture that fills her salon.

Stratford works with Sustainable Salons, a social enterprise operating in Australia and New Zealand. It collects waste from salons, barbershops, pet groomers and cosmetics clinics to save valuable materials from ending up in landfill.

“I recycle everything, from chemicals, metals, tools and hair – yes, hair,” says Stratford.

Small talk had turned into a conversation – and I learned that hair clippings can help soak up oil spills. Earlier this year, when a tanker struck a reef off the coast of Mauritius, more than 10 tonnes of hair clippings – stuffed into stockings to create absorbent “hair booms” that would be dragged through the oil-slicked water – salvaged from Sydney salons were donated to help clean up the spill.

“Hair is naturally absorbent and can soak up more than its weight in oil – that’s why hair [on your head] can become greasy.”

Using hair – which is fumigated upon arrival at its destination – also means responders can avoid using more expensive synthetic products that add to waste.

Stratford also collects ponytails, which are used to make wigs for those suffering from conditions such as alopecia and cancer.

As part of the Sustainable Salons initiative, every second Friday her salon waste is collected and taken to various depots, where the materials are sorted and used to create new products. Plus, all the proceeds from selling the recycled materials are donated to Ozharvest and Kiwiharvest (Ozharvest’s New Zealand counterpart) to feed those in need.

There are currently more than 1000 Sustainable Salons members across Australia and New Zealand diverting waste from landfill and oceans.

Stratford also works with non-profit Short Back and Sidewalks, providing free haircuts to homeless, vulnerable and marginalised members of the community.

“I’ve been with this non-profit for three years now and I love it,” she says. “We assist those in need of haircuts free of charge. We even go to Uluru to cut, braid and spray children’s hair with glitter. They love it, but unfortunately this year we might not be able to go, given travel restrictions,” says Stratford.

Given the current economic climate, a lot of small businesses are doing it tough, but some of them are still able to stand up for the less fortunate. Other Sydney businesses involved in Sustainable Salons include Edwards and Co, Barney Martin, Stevie English and Mr Burrows.