The first thing you notice when you walk through the door of the Sustainable Salon in Surry Hills is the smell. “The salon doesn’t smell like a typical salon,” says co-owner Diego Padilla Vargas. “It smells fresh.”

Sustainable Salon is a rarity in Sydney: a community-minded, ethical and non-toxic salon, started by Diego Padilla Vargas and Zoran Petric in 2015. As the name suggests, sustainability has been a guiding principle at the salon since the very beginning.

“We created a safer and cleaner environment with low toxicity. We don’t use any conventional products or colours – all our products are sustainably made. The packaging they come in is recycled, they don’t have any toxic glue or ink,” says Vargas. “The fit-out of the salon was made with mostly recycled materials and all our lighting is LED.”

The absence of harsh chemicals – the salon uses Davines products – and an abundance of indoor plants “to clear the air” creates a much more natural atmosphere than typically found in a hairdressing salon, which benefits everyone. “We don’t breathe in any harmful fumes.”

Vargas, who has lived in Sydney since 2010, grew up on his family’s farm in Mexico. “My grandfather was very aware of not using pesticides and fertilisers,” he says. “It was in his consciousness, and he passed it onto me.”

Once Vargas established a career as a hairdresser, he became increasingly disillusioned with the lack of sustainable practices in his profession. “Working in this industry, I always felt guilty about all the waste,” he says. “I realised there had to be a way to minimise the wastage and wanted to do something about it.”

He started reusing foil and investigating other avenues to lessen his salon’s impact on the planet. Sustainable Salon’s energy comes from 100 per cent renewable sources, eco-shower heads are installed at the washbasins, and coconut shells take the place of plastic tint and colour bowls.

Vargas and Petric found other ways to foster sustainability through their business, such as offering 10 per cent discounts for customers who cycled to the salon or brought in empty shampoo and conditioner bottles to refill.

Vargas’s Surry Hills salon works with Sustainable Salons Australia, a nationwide social enterprise that collects waste from hair salons as well as barber shops, beauty and pet-grooming salons, and dermal and cosmetics clinics. “We recycle most of our waste – paper, plastic, metal, even the old tools are collected – so it doesn’t go into landfill,” says Vargas.

Hair recovered from salons can be used to make wigs for people with cancer and alopecia. Another more surprising use for hair clippings is to clean ocean oil spills. “Hair booms” – stockings stuffed with hair to create long sausages – can be tethered together and dragged through the water to soak up oil.

Sustainable Salon’s accepting and eco-friendly ethos has attracted an eclectic clientele comprising everyone from activists to white-collar workers. “Surry Hills is a diverse, multicultural place. There are a lot of creative people around here,” says Vargas. “There are a lot of nice cafes and restaurants.”

Among his favourites are Sustainable Salon’s neighbour, popular brunch spot Orto Trading Co, vegetarian eatery Yulli’s, and Bad Hombres, a Mexican restaurant with an all-vegan menu.

Five years after opening Sustainable Salon, Surry Hills feels very much like home to Vargas. “It’s got a great vibe – it feels like a community,” he says. “It’s big and busy, but it has a village feel.”

Covid-19 (coronavirus) means we’re living in unprecedented and uncertain times. Public gatherings are banned, many businesses are temporarily closed, some travel is restricted, and minimal social contact is recommended. For the most up-to-date health information, visit the Department of Health.

This article is produced in partnership with City of Sydney. Follow and use the hashtag #sydneylocal on Instagram for more local secrets.