Category Archives: Consumerism

Keep calm and carry on consuming

In my last blog post, I confessed to shopping in primark-pyjamaPrimark and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. I am deeply troubled that even someone as environmentally enlightened – insert smug smiley here – and passionate about global issues as myself, would knowingly succumb to the lure of £3 tops (five of them, to be precise) and novelty pyjamas.

I am guilty of being impatient and judgemental with people who don’t make the effort to shop ethically, but now I have come full circle and can no longer point my chubby finger. I have now become them. I am buying things I know I shouldn’t and getting very angry about it. Yet this anger I feel is not changing my behaviour, because I don’t feel I have a choice. Or rather, the choice is: buy trash or buy nothing. And often I opt for the latter.

It’s disgusting that so many inadequate product options are even available to us today. How are harsh chemical cleaning agents or (non-biodegradable) disposable nappies or wetwipes even legal? How is plastic packaging on fruit and veg still allowed? If something has not been fairly traded, how can it even have a place on the shop shelf? Buying ethically should not be a quirky pastime or a passing fad, it should be the norm – the minimum acceptable standard.

I know that terrible things go on to give us the things we want at the prices we need. I know you know, too. It’s grubby, it’s despicable. So why do we do it even though we know?

  • We know that when shop in Primark, Sports Direct, or in fact any high street retail chain, we are subscribing to underpaid or child labour, exploitation and inhumane working conditions.
  • We know that supermarkets deceive us, promote unhealthy eating with their pricing, and food waste buy encouraging us to buy more than we need. That they tie farmers into impossible contracts then push for lower prices, meaning they are selling at no profit or being forced out of business as the supermarkets resort to importing produce that can be grown in the UK.
  • We know that when we buy coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, bananas, non-European wine, if it does not bear the Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance logo, or make a similar claim, that farmers have been underpaid and workers likely exploited.
  • We know that most biscuits, breads, crackers, ice cream and make up now contain palm oil as a cheap fat alternative, and the production of it demands deforestation and many animals – such as orangutans – losing their habitats.orangutan-with-baby
  • We know that when we buy conveniently packaged fruit or vegetables, the containers, nets, bags, packets will probably end up floating somewhere in the sea, possibly choking a bird, suffocating a turtle, or eaten by a fish which we will then serve for Friday supper.
  • We know that when we buy non-organic fruit and veg out of season (strawberries or asparagus in December), special measures have been put in place to make sure they grow. They may have been genetically modified, will have been sprayed multiple times with pesticides that kill bees and cause cancer; they will have been grown on an enormous monoculture, destroying crop diversity and wildlife habitats; and then shipped thousands of miles across the world to reach you.monoculture.jpg
  • We know when we buy supermarket value meat, it is the shrink-wrapped end product of industrial farming methods, where animals have lived the majority of their short lives indoors, on concrete floors, pumped full of toxic antibiotic-hormone cocktails, stepping over dead carcasses, wading through each other’s faeces, probably thrown across the warehouse floor by an underpaid employee and then slaughtered while experiencing terror.
  • We know that seas have been over-fished and when we buy the latest ocean catch, it has either been trawled – leaving thousands of perfectly edible (but non-compliant with retail regulations) discarded dead fish – or come from a fish farm, swimming in circles its entire life, to be pumped full of… See above. TheThe bulldozer on a garbage dumpre’s an unavoidable theme here.
  • We know that when we forget our bags for life and go for a 5p one, that bag will outlive us. Even if it claims to be biodegradable, it will never truly breakdown unless it’s made from vegetable starches and fully compostable, and probably litter landfill forever.
  • We know that plastic toys are made from oil; that drilling, fracking and mining for oil destroys communities, natural habitats and is finite; that they are usually mass-produced in China in huge factories with poor working conditions and a shameful carbon footprint.
  • We know shopping on the Internet deprives local businesses and our bargain hunting means people and resources have to be exploited. We know Amazon avoids paying tax and treats its workers unfairly on zero hours contracts, grafting like robots and dismissing them if they can’t keep up.
  • We know that foreign holidays are bad. The flights create alarming levels of CO2 emissions, tourist hubs have eradicated most signs of real life and pushed out the locals, many of whom are being exploited for cheap labour in hotels or selling market tat (alongside their souls) and we should be supporting our local industries, staycationing in a damp caravan along a windy British coast.
  • We know when we buy highly perfumed non-organic cosmetics containing parabens, phthalates and SLS, they will absorb into our bloodstream, pollute the sea and infiltrate our water supplies. We know about microbeads. We know our plastic toothbrushes will go straight to landfill, along with sanitary towels and nappies. And tampons will end up in the sea with whatever else you flush down your toilet.

We know all of this, but we don’t want to talk about it. These are widely reported issues that have faced us for years. They are not secrets; the information is everywhere. We see it on Panorama, then carry on with our every day lives, apparently oblivious to the impact of our actions on the rest of the world.

The truth is, it’s inconvenient to care. It requires change and change requires effort. To make all of these changes you would have to spend every waking moment trying to search for reliable, affordable and ethical alternatives. And who has that kind of time in 2016? Getting selfies on Instagram and photos of your dinner on Facebook is commitment enough, right?

But seriously, we lead busy lives; we work, we workout, we take care of children and perhaps relatives, we read emails, and we need to sleep. I have been that person that doesn’t do any of the things I’ve listed above. It cost me a fortune in time and money. Now that I have two children and no full-time job, many are just luxuries I can’t afford.

Sometimes, though, it’s because I’m just plain lazy. I am tired; I can’t be bothered and it shouldn’t have to be down to me to pick up the pieces of an economic structure I did not create. Sadly, though, it’s this kind of apathy and sense of entitlement that has led us to this point. When I found myself justifying why I still use Amazon on a Facebook thread, I knew I wasn’t trying hard enough.

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Why I’m shopping in Primark even though I hate myself for it

 

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People rescue a garment worker who was trapped under the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building (Reuters)

For many years I have boycotted the likes of Primark for their well-reported poor ethics, unacceptable working standards and cheap labour. I also detest the fast fashion trend that has emerged over the last decade; the throwaway lifestyle that is integral to popular culture and keeping “on trend”. Because there is a darker side to this level of wastefulness beyond the dirty workhouses and slavery.

Chemicals used in the clothing industry
What many people don’t consider is that most of the fabrics used in cheap clothing are made from plastic-derived fibres – that is, oil. Synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane (Spandex or Lycra), are energy intensive to produce and leave a legacy of non-biodegradable rags once you’ve finished with them.

There are also the chemicals used in clothing manufacture: highly toxic dyes, flame retardants, anti-crease solutions (Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen), endocrine disrupting anti-bacterial treatments (Triclosan), and Fluoropolymers as water repellents (Teflon).

All of these have an impact on our environment as well as our health; leaching into water supplies, polluting rivers and soil, potentially causing cancer, altering our hormones and reducing fertility.

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“Picture from Bangladesh shows purple river – depending on the colours used in dyeing operations in garment factories. Or rather, depending on the colours in fashion.” Photo: http://sahanasingh.com/

For all of the above reasons I have avoided buying new clothes for many years when possible. Most of our clobber is purchased in charity shops, on eBay or collected from Freecycle (though apparently washing doesn’t reduce the side effects of chemicals used in the clothes manufacturing process).

When I had children, this extended to buying organic bed sheets, mattresses, duvets, blankets and toys as I was so worried about what would contact their skin, absorb into their bloodstream or enter their new little lungs.

Pricing out the ordinary
Buying locally-sourced organic food, toiletries, clothes and furnishings is an expensive business, and unsustainable in itself, for us as a low-income family. These lifestyle choices have become a badge of the middle classes, yummy mummies or hipsters with a disposable income. They have left us financially uncomfortable eco-warriors with little more than a guilty conscience.

Not only is organic clothing out of the price range of “normal” people (£22 per baby sleepsuit is aspirational, to say the least), the adult ranges are usually ugly or transform you into an extra from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Just because I live my life by green principles and an ethical code, does not mean I want to present myself in rainbow pyjamas and hemp sandals, like some passive-aggressive New Age vegan fresh from a yoga retreat. And even when I was that guy, I didn’t choose to dress like that every day.

When I work out, I need reliable and durable active wear with comfortable, supportive footwear. If I’m popping to town, skinny jeans do the job and if I’m attending a business meeting then I need to dress appropriately to be taken seriously.

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All of this stuff can be found secondhand – I mean, “preloved” – but hunting it down is a very time-intensive process. I have spent many hours trawling through charity shops looking for a specific item or searching, bidding and waiting for postage from eBay.

My wardrobe is full of stuff I have accumulated since I was 14 years old. Yes, I still have tops and jeans that my best friend passed down to me in high school, vintage blouses and skirts I found in my mother’s wardrobe, shoes from my first retail job in 2000 and many charity shop gems since. But a couple of times a year I’ll have a good splurge in the sales to keep things current, and as lighter items of clothing wear out they need replacing.

Sometimes you just need what you need, when you need it. This is where Primark and the supermarket clothing brands have cornered the market.

Giving in to convenience
Sometimes you just need what you need, when you need it. And this is where Primark and the supermarket clothing brands have cornered the market. They churn them out pretty and cheap. They are actually employing decent designers and the styles are up-to-date, making it difficult to turn a blind eye to an oversized soft knit jumper or sequin Christmas party dress as winter approaches (and you had only popped in for bananas and milk).

Seasonal staples such as the black cardigan, blue jeans, top and vests have a shelf life and I have reached the point again where I need some basics. I need long-sleeved tops and the man needs t-shirts. Best bet for cute styles and basement prices: Primark.

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While I’m there I shall probably buy some vests, pants, socks and gloves for the children – because they’re cheap. And the fact is, whether I pay a premium for them in M&S, Debenhams, Selfridges, Boots or Mothercare, unless they are Fair Trade and organic, they have likely gone through the same manufacturing process and been sewn in similar factories. Check out this ethical consumer guide to see how your favourite high street brands rank.

I hate myself for giving in to the bullish capitalist consumer machine. I hate the industry more for allowing these standards to continue beyond awareness of all the consequences. I hate our government for prioritising business and economic growth over health and environmental welfare. That’s a lot of hate. Time for a cup of tea.

Giving up on principle
I’ve always preached about consumer pressure; supply meets demand; buyer power; collective responsibility. However the prices of everything are rising at such speed that it is difficult for a mum to feed a family from Iceland or Tesco, let alone Infinity or Whole Foods.

In our family, food comes first and that means something else has to give. If you want quality produce with high animal welfare standards, no GMOs, sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, margarine or palm oil, it comes at a price.

And that means, as I inspect clothing and food labels, I literally have to choose what I care about more: cancer-causing foods and toiletries, animals dying in the rainforest, polluted water supplies, child labour, the list goes on. In many instances, it’s a matter of life or death.

That is a big cross to bear as an individual, especially when it sometimes feels I am the only person trying so hard. Meanwhile the world falls apart around me and I come full circle, wondering what’s the fucking point?

We’re all doomed, and now we have a climate change denier as US president, it’s hard to find hope for the future. So, although I’ve almost talked myself out of it, I’ll probably be shopping with the rest of them this Saturday and assuaging my guilt with a vegan kebab for lunch (I am not even vegan).

But don’t let me bring you down… Things are changing slowly, and the more documentaries, blogs and TED Talks there are about these issues, the more it should inspire people to petition, protest and lobby government and industry alike to demand they look at the bigger picture.

Do you feel under pressure to make the “right choice” as a consumer? Do you care what you wear or are you just happy to find a bargain?

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It’s my party and I’ll spend if I want to…

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Planning any party is a stress-filled treat, but baby’s first birthday takes it to a new level. For a start, you are marking the first year of your precious offspring’s life on earth. Secondly, you feel you deserve a trophy just for surviving this first year. Third, you want to show off (just a little bit).

There’s a lot to think about:

1) How much to spend. Most of us are counting the pennies these days so setting a budget crossed my mind, but I didn’t think it would really be an issue, as we were just planning to have a few close friends and family round for a couple of hours.

Wrong. By the time I’d purchased a few decorations, cake sprinkles and “thank you” notes to suit the theme, I was already well over the £100 mark and horrified. We hadn’t even got to the food yet…

2) Who to invite. I know a mum who has distributed over 50 invitations to every baby at every baby group she attends, and hired a hall with an entertainer. I know another mum who had a quiet day at home with her husband and baby to reflect on the year.

I was pitching for somewhere in between as I want to share the occasion, but don’t want to spend a fortune. We have gone for grandparents, uncle, best friends, a couple of colleagues who have been there for us, and eventually decided to include our NCT group.

3) Party theme. It started as a small gathering and has gradually evolved into a duck-themed extravaganza! We chose ducks because our boy loves them and after “milk” it was his first baby sign. Also, as his birthday falls close to Easter and it’s [supposed to be] spring, it seemed like the right thing to do. So with a firm mind not to overspend, buy any stupid plastic and avoid anything that we can’t reuse, I clicked over to eBay.

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And the can of worms was open; my inner party-planning goddess unleashed… Well, we will need duck invitations, duck “thank you” cards, duck tablecloth, duck balloons, a duck balloon weight, duck cake decorations, duck biscuit cutters, duck-shaped ice, duck candles, duck toys and, of course, bunting.

I convinced myself that only the theme colours will do and therefore ordinary paper plates would not suffice. My attempt to control spending meant I ditched the duck plates, duck cups and duck napkins, but instead went for the still-quite-pricey plain blue and yellow ones.

I tried hard to maintain my green principles but failed miserably – even caving in to a pack of 25 latex balloons for which I then had to purchase a disposable helium canister. On the bright side, the bottle can be recycled.

4) Entertainment. There’s no way I’m spending money on a children’s entertainer this time, but I do like the idea. The babies are too young for party games and we don’t have many older children coming, so it’s a pile of toys on the living room floor and funky music on the stereo. We have created an appropriate playlist of clean, well-known songs that should keep spirits lifted and appease most musical tastes.

I couldn’t help buying a bubble machine. Bubbles are brilliant, everyone loves them (including rubber ducks) and it’s a cheap way of bringing smiles to a lot of faces. I will be making my bubble mixture using eco-friendly washing-up liquid using a recipe I found here and will probably have the gadget positioned by the front door to delight guests as they arrive.

5) Food. Who do I cater for? The babies, the adults or both? It has to be both. So now to strike the balance with healthy, safe and tasty food. I’m sticking with finger food to avoid disposable cutlery and messier foods, cooking posh nibbles from scratch to avoid any added sugar or too much salt, and catering to a variety of dietary requirements (vegetarian, vegan and nut allergies).

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I want cake but I don’t want sugar so I’m baking honey and lemon cupcakes with lemon-lavender cream cheese frosting and another lot of spiced banana with pineapple frosting, using apple juice as a sugar substitute. I took my inspiration from this blog.

I’ve ordered a silicone ice cube tray (duck shapes, no less) but I thought I might try to use it to create some sugar-free pineapple jelly as well. Accompanying “ice-cream” will be frozen banana blitzed in my Vitamix. I may add some coconut cream and lime juice to give it a piña colada feel. To keep costs down we will only be offering beer or juice and have encouraged guests to bring their own if they want to drink. However, it would be wrong not to serve Duck’s Fizz.

A lesson learned

I got carried away. The urge took over – I wanted to do things “properly” and lost my mind. The guilt started to set in as soon as I checked out through PayPal and realised what I’d done. This is money that should be saved for his education, or more immediately to pay the bills.

But then I justified it again by filling my head with clichés about remembering the day for the rest of our lives and that it will only happen once. Blah blah blah. Basically, I was stupid, I should’ve thought it out more carefully, I should have set a budget and not everything has to match the theme.

Out in town and I saw ducks everywhere because Easter is approaching. Bad news. What did I do? Buy more bloody ducks! I figured now I’ve started, why stop? Again, I lost my mind. But what I have promised is that next year we will tone it down and keep it small until the next milestones (5, 10, 13, 16, 18 and 21).

Better start saving.

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Disposable healthcare

For almost six months now, I have been attending my local GP practice to have a wound dressed by the nurses. It was an abscess I messed around with which exploded under the skin and had to be lanced to get all the gooey puss out.

Still reading? Well, there was a gaping hole left behind as the doctor scraped out the infected flesh, so he packed the wound with a sterile dressing leaving a little wick outside the incision to allow fluid to drain away and the cavity to heal from the inside without closing over.

Due to the nature of the procedure I was expected to return on a daily basis (even weekends) for the first two weeks. Each time, a new sterile pack was opened containing a plastic sheet, plastic self-stick bag, plastic apron and latex gloves; a fresh pair of plastic-handled scissors in a plastic sterile pack; plastic tongues in a plastic sterile pack; metal probe in a cardboard sleeve, in a plastic wrapper, in a plastic pack; 45cm length Aquacel packing (even though only 7cm was used) in a plastic pack; saline solution in a plastic bottle; a packet of gauze (even though only 1 square was used) in a plastic pack; and the dressing itself made of some type of plastic, wrapped in paper, with a plastic coating.

I was astonished. I know there is a lot of waste in the NHS, I know that minimising the threat of infection is a priority, and I know that the environment is not a concern to most. But surely there is a better way – more responsible way – of doing things.

I expressed my horror to one of the nurses on duty, who agreed that they waste an awful lot, offered me the scissors to keep and explained that the EU no longer allow us to sterilise equipment so everything has to be disposable. Wow. Everything?

Within a fortnight I had 10 pairs of scissors, several probes, packets of gauze and numerous bags.

If this is how many scissors are thrown away just because of me, I began to consider how many patients the nurses see in a day, how many pairs of scissors they throw away each week, how many GP practices there are in my town alone, how many hospitals, how many in my county and the whole country, then the whole of Europe… Oh my.

Then I started to think about all the countries around the world where healthcare is a privilege, not a right, and what they would think if they could see the amount of medical equipment we throw away, while they haven’t even got access to such things. Surely, it would make more sense to at least safely package up the used items, sterilise them offshore and distribute them among needy nations.

I dunno. I don’t have the answers, but I do know this is wrong. This is health and safety legislation “gone mad”. It’s as sickening as the amount of food thrown away by supermarkets that apparently can’t be given away to the hungry. But that’s another post…

Now, what do I do with all these scissors?

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