Happy Shopping

174 - PackagesIn the September of 1880, County Mayo, Ireland, something different happened.

The harvest had been poor and the tenant farmers were struggling to be able to pay their rents and still feed their families. They asked for a 25% reduction, but the landlord refused, offering only 10%. When the tenants refused to pay the job of evicting them fell to the landlord’s agent, the unpopular English Magistrate Captain Charles Boycott.

But rather than fight back, the farmers collectively decided to shun Captain Boycott. His farm labourers stopped harvesting the crops on his farm. His servants left his house and stables, leaving no one to wash his laundry, cook or shoe his horses. Local stores and businesses refused to sell to him, and the postman even refused to deliver his mail.

It didn’t take long for Captain Boycott to admit defeat and three months later he had to be escorted out of Ireland by the 19th Hussars for his own safety. The army also had to provide the driver for the carriage because no one else would do it, and by Christmas the British press were already using the word ‘boycott’ to mean organised ostracism.

Have you ever Boycotted anything ?

It’s a depressing truth that most of us will probably affect the world more, for good or ill, by how we choose to spend our money, than by anything else we do. Freely choosing not to financially support a particular individual, group or company because you disagree with some aspect of their behaviour seems to me entirely reasonable, as is publicising your cause and attempting to convince others to join you. Of course others may feel your boycott is unfair or uninformed, and perhaps organise some form of counter boycott or protest – such is life in a free society.

But in general I’m not a big fan of organised Boycotts.

It’s not that I’m opposed to boycotts in principle – it’s just that they all too often seem to provoke unnecessary venom and hatred between the protagonists. They can often also seem very indiscriminate to me – is it really right to boycott everything grown in Israel because of how their government treats Palestinians, or refuse to buy anything French because of nuclear testing in the Pacific two decades ago ? In addition many boycotts strike me as simply one-sided, unfair or overly simplistic – after all what about the poor treatment of other minorities or nationalities by other countries, or everyone else’s nuclear testing ?

I also find that very often the most vocal critics of particular companies or organisations are perfectly happy to buy and use products from other companies with equally questionable records. After all it is difficult, if every purchase we made was 100% consistent with our ethical views life would become very hard. There are many policies of the Chinese, US and for that matter the UK government I don’t agree with – but my phones made in China, I rely on Google to organise my life, and I also advocate buying local wherever reasonably possible. Being an ethical consumer is complicated ?

Though I’m suspicious of organised boycotts (though there are several I DO support), I do think we all need to engage with the consequences of how we spend our money, both by educating ourselves, and by having the character to make principled decisions as a result.

The magazine Ethical Consumer have recently been running a boycott Amazon campaign, in protest at the very small amount of tax paid by Amazon in the UK compared to its profits – according to their website Amazon currently pay tax at a rate of 0.1%.

My views on this are typically conflicted.

Not paying a fair rate of tax is essentially the rich keeping wealth for themselves instead of distributing it with wider society. I know this is simplistic, that certainly not all public spending is directed at the poor and what is ‘fair’ is ultimately subjective, but many would broadly agree with this sentiment.

On the other hand I know that’s not Amazon’s fault. Governments are responsible for designing the tax system, and they simply haven’t found a good way to regulate an increasingly global and digital economy. Companies in fact have a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders – why would they voluntarily pay a national government more tax than they were required to ?

Lately the UK government, along with many others, have been talking tough on the topic of tax avoidance – but little seems to have actually changed, and in the meantime individual choice, though important, is no substitute for proper regulation.

So what to do . . . ?

Regular visitors to Nextstarfish might have noticed that the site now looks a little different . The Amazon links for books and DVDs have now disappeared. While I’m not exactly boycotting Amazon, I don’t feel comfortable engaging with them to sell through my site anymore. I’ve also removed my Amazon store links and am in the process of closing them down. On a personal level I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime and Amazon MP3 memberships, though if I’m honest I didn’t really use them all that much anyway, and probably should have done it a while ago just to save myself some money. I probably will still order from Amazon from time to time, but will also try harder to find things elsewhere first.

Most importantly I’ve sent the Government an email urging quicker action on fair tax reform.

So am I boycotting Amazon ?

No, not exactly – but I think I can make some better choices, more in line with my beliefs.

I’m not advocating anyone else blindly do the same, we all have to decide these things for ourselves – but if we want to ‘do more good’ with our lives I do think it’s important we keep ourselves informed about the companies and organisations we give our money to and the consequences that result.

We should also try to find time to wrestle with the personal ethical challenges that emerge.

Happy shopping.

 

(Agree, disagree, want to ask a question or share a story ? Please post a comment – all polite, open debate is welcome)

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Photo by Mark Falardeau (creative commons), via Flickr

Fix What’s Broken

170 - BagThink for a moment about all the ‘stuff’ you’ve ever brought.

From when you were a kid, to the age you are now – the clothes, the books, the home items, the magazines, the shoes, the electrical goods, the furniture, the carpets, the crockery, the mobile phones, the computer games, the cushions, the kettles, the deckchairs, the cars . . . everything.

Where are they now ?

Assuming you’re home isn’t some vast Indiana Jones like warehouse full of everything you’ve ever owned (how disconcerting would that be?), it’s safe to assume the vast majority of the things you’ve bought you eventually threw away.

Why ?

All those raw materials, all that energy used in manufacture and transport, all the water used to grow the wood or cotton etc, all the chemicals, all the packaging? None of it really thrown ‘away’ of course, there’s no such place, but landfilled in some home in the ground – several hundred tons of your own personal waste.

Why ?

Sometimes we just get bored or tired of things, sometimes things go out of style, sometimes we’ve just no further use for something, but it’s more than likely that a large percentage of the stuff you’ve thrown away, you got rid of because it was broken.

Just a couple of generations ago many of these broken things would have been repaired, once, twice or even over and over again – whether tables, clothes, shoes or tools. This attitude of scarcity, of material things being limited and valuable, is now largely history. In our throwaway society stuff is cheap – it usually costs less to buy a new one than it would to fix the old one, and certainly it’s a lot less hassle. Who has time to fix stuff these days ?

But taking the time and effort to repair things is making something of a comeback – from Amsterdam’s Repair Cafes (which are now popping-up further afield), to increasing numbers of writers and bloggers discussing it – check out My Make Do and Mend Year or The Case for Working with your Hands.

Some of this is down to austerity of course – we’re all having to get by on less money than before, and so feel more inclined to patch up our coat, or re-screw the table leg, than use the excuse to buy something new. But some of the popularity stems from an increasing awareness of the connection between our own wasteful, consumerist lifestyles, and the environmental and social damage being done elsewhere in the world to support them. We increasingly understand it’s hypocritical to bemoan global warming while buying endless replacement gadgets and stuff made in Chinese coal powered factories, or to feel appalled about poor working conditions or workplace disasters elsewhere in the world, while buying endless £3 T-shirts on the High Street.

Just to be clear – I’m as much a hypocrite as anyone else – consumption is so deeply woven into our society it’s not an easy thing to avoid.

This isn’t just a personal problem – we’ve built our whole economies on a model of never ending consumption. We need to maintain ‘consumer confidence’ or GDP takes a bit of a hit. The phrase ‘planned obsolescence‘, you might be interested to learn, was first used in 1932, in a plan to help end the depression by ensuring all manufacturers produced goods that were designed to quickly break – in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumer demand! They realised even then, that if we all simply stop buying new stuff we’re going to have to face some rather difficult consequences.

On the other hand the phrase ‘waste not want not‘ dates back to at least the 1700s, and suggests that if we were to waste less in the present, then we’d have more left for ourselves in the future.

Solving this dilemma – by ensuring resources are used not just effectively, but also efficiently, but without collapsing the economy, is one of the key challenges of sustainability. To achieve it we’ll need to develop a much more circular economy, making it easier to use and reuse materials – while at the same time decoupling economic growth from consumption.

In the meantime, as policy makers and economists wrestle with how to do this, I’ll keep fixing my 10 year old bag . . . buy less, mend more.

 

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What Do You Want for Christmas ?

158 - presentsSpam !

You might not realise it but every single day Next Starfish receives over 100 items of spam – either post comments, emails, fake tweets etc.

Despite my best attempts to automate and improve my spam filtering, processing all this junk communication takes some time to sort through, and no doubt as I go crazy with the delete button, I manage to accidentally overlook and delete one or two proper comments or emails – apologies if I’ve inadvertently nuked one of yours lately !

But this isn’t a post about my battles with the evil forces of spamalot.

It’s a post about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

As you’re all such smart and perceptive people I’m sure you see where I’m going with this somewhat clunky analogy . . . that if we fill our lives with too much junk, we struggle to find the time or energy to enjoy the genuinely good stuff.

This is might be something to ponder as we approach Christmas. A time of peace and good will to all men – perhaps. A time of commercialism, excess and over-consumption – definitely.

It’s also a time of tremendous stress and anxiety for a lot of people. How do you feel if you can’t afford to buy your children any presents this year, especially surrounded by so much advertising ? What do you do if your children’s friends buy them Christmas presents and you can’t afford to buy them gifts back ? What if the neighbours, your colleagues, the boss or your distant relatives insist on buying you a present . . . it’s stressful not being able to reciprocate.

A colleague at work described a scenario he’d encountered where a middle class mother brought gifts for her child to give to their friends, only to discover their friends’ families couldn’t afford to buy gifts in return. Rather than have her child think their friends didn’t like them enough to return gifts, and to avoid causing embarrassment by explaining their friends families were too poor, she secretly bought gifts for her child and pretended they were from their friends.

Clearly this is madness !

Has anyone asked you “What do you want for Christmas ?”, this year ? Did you struggle to come up with a good answer ? Perhaps you have enough ‘stuff’ already ?

The personal finance adviser Martin Lewis argues that “we should all stop buying each other presents”. Not entirely – but only to buy them for close family.

I think I’m broadly on his side, and I think Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper would also agree.

Less really can be more.

If you’re thinking about making a change in your typical Christmas routine, or perhaps your life more generally I recommend you spend half an hour listening to the two TED talks below, and perhaps another half an hour thinking about what they might mean to you personally.

Photo by metaphoricalplatypus via Flickr

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The NEXT Industrial Revolution

A guest post by Alastair Sloan, a social entrepreneur and journalist, and writer of the ‘serious and fun’ blog: Alastair Sloan.

At the beginning of this year, Ellen MacArthur set out a vision for a “circular economy” to the world leaders and CEOs assembled at Davos. Her foundation had teamed up with McKinsey to deliver a report challenged our current economic model of “take-make-dispose,” and proposed an alternative manufacturing mindset – “what happens to this when my customer finishes using it?” Her video, well worth a watch before you read further, shows how a “circular economy” takes inspiration from the energy cycles we see in nature.

Reducing waste is a topic I’m particularly passionate about. It’s why I founded The Living Furniture Project, which takes unwanted furniture from around London and upcycles it, employing homeless people to do the work. Last year in the UK, households threw out 670,000 tonnes of furniture. Research by Wrap showed that 45% was re-usable. This social enterprise is a good example of how re-use can not only reduce landfill reliance, but also create jobs by cycling materials back around the economy. It finds inspiration in other re-use schemes, like theLondon Re-use Network and re-use centres in Flanders, Belgium.

The Living Furniture Project will only scratch the surface. The UK landfills more than any other European country, and in 2018 we will completely run out of space for waste. We are so accustomed to dealing with these mountains of rubbish, that we easily forget that we are the only species that has to create landfill. Mother nature is far smarter than us, and as a consequence 100% efficient – every ounce of biomatter lives, dies, decomposes, is eaten and lives again. It’s a continuous cycle that sustainability visionaries William McDonough and Michael Braungart call “waste = food” (watch their film of the same name to understand this more).

The argument for moving to this “circular economy” is compelling – not just because of the obvious impact in areas like climate change, but because it makes commercial sense. Linear consumption (the status quo) is by its nature risky; it puts your business at the mercy of fluctuating commodity prices. And as resources dwindle, competition becomes even fiercer, and weaker companies will flounder.

Now imagine a product that is designed from re-usable materials, and in such a way that it can be easily disassembled. In that business model you can sell a product (for example, a running shoe), collect back all or part of the shoe (perhaps the sole, as Nike are currently exploring), restore it at a fraction of the price and sell it back to the same customer – you’ve made the same sale twice.

The McKinsey report estimated that this kind of innovation could create savings in Europe alone of $630bn. Taking mobile phones as an example, handsets which were easier to disassemble and re-use would be 50% cheaper than current models.

But if you must produce waste, don’t worry. Industrial by-product can be a commercial opportunity too, so long as you adopt circular design principles. A good example is Swiss textile factory Rohner, which before 1991 was creating huge amounts of harmful chemical waste. The chemicals used in the inks and wools meant that waste disposal was an expensive burden to the business. But working with McDonough and Braungart, they radically changed their manufacturing process to only use materials which hadn’t been chemically treated in any way. Once the change was made, the only waste the factory produced was 100% biodegradable. This meant the by-product of the manufacturing process could now be sold to local farmers as a fabric to protect their crops in winter (see picture below). Sales of this fabric represented a third of the $8m revenues generated by the factory over the following three years.

Harvard Business Review has looked at the relationship companies are seeing between waste reduction and profitability, and noted two effects. Companies are consistently more profitable when they reduce waste, and additionally are attracting a much higher calibre of managerial talent, who are particularly interested to address these kind of sustainability challenges. This high-quality talent has a huge knock-on effect across the business, with innovative thinking being applied in other areas and creating yet more profitability.

The argument for “the circular economy” continues if you look at the increasing sophistication of our information technology systems. A shift to globalised production has required digital solutions to managing complex supply chains that can stretch from Taipei to California, and back again.

These systems can be put to use immediately, in preparing the groundwork for a shift to cradle to cradle production. Companies can easily scrutinize every screw, plastic and thread in a product – and work out exactly where it’s from, what it’s made of and where it’s going to. This heightened visibility means that for a company to move to a circular model of production, they should have all the information at their fingertips to create a strong implementation plan.

There has also been a shift in consumer thinking, that strongly favours the case for change. In 2012, popular sentiment tipped in favour of sustainability, with over half of consumers now saying that sustainable production is “very important” or “important” to them (Euromonitor).

Indeed, the “green economy” in the UK grew 4.7% last year (in stark contrast to other sectors suffering in the downturn), and now constitutes 8% of our national GDP.

This kind of consumer support is critical, as the required changes to consumer mindsets are radical. One of the major changes is around expectations of ownership, with more focus on “leasing and returning” and less on permanent ownership of goods.

For example, your washing machine could be “issued” on a 5 year lease and then returned to the manufacturer for “refreshing” and re-sale. McKinsey forecast that high-end washing machines would become accessible for nearly all households if they were leased instead of sold—customers would save roughly a third per wash cycle, and the manufacturer would earn roughly a third more in profits.

This might set alarm bells ringing for many -  what happens if the company wants their product back when you would rather keep it?

But the reality is we already live, to some extent, with these kind of arrangements. The percentage of American cars leased rather than owned has grown from 7% in 1990 to 20% in 2010. At one point, in 1999, nearly one in four American cars were not owned by their driver.

In 2009, Amazon Kindle users discovered that ebooks they thought they owned, were in fact only leased. In a spat with a publisher, Amazon had decided to recall copies of Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” which disappeared overnight from Kindles all around the world.

It sparked consumer outrage, but Amazon pointed out the small print and showed that they were within their rights as ebooks were, in fact, leased not owned. Outrage aside, when we consider that this leasing arrangement had quietly existed for two years beforehand, before being questioned in an isolated incident, leasing rather than owning property doesn’t seem like such an outlandish idea. And even since the scandal, ebook sales have been soaring, now outstripping paperbacks by 14%.

The circular economy has been tested and intitally seen positive results. Over the past ten years, McDonough and Braungart have implemented their “cradle to cradle” concept with high-profile manufacturers including Nike, Ford and Nestle (see the video below).

However, working with the Chinese government to build a series of much-vaunted “eco-towns,” they failed to get convincing results. But this had more to do with the challenging Chinese business environment, especially for foreigners, rather than subverting the guiding principles of circular economics (for an excellent analysis by Christina Larson, see here).

It would constitute a total dismantling of the modern economic system. It’s been called “the next industrial revolution.” But the circular economy makes sound commercial sense. Companies have systems available now to start quietly exploring their options. Consumers are clearly asking for it. And building on the trials that “cradle to cradle” pioneers have now made, the possibility of a new era of industrial design, inspired by ecology, looks increasingly likely.

 

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Photo by USACEPublicAffairs, via Flickr

Love Your Stuff

178 - StuffA lot of people will tell you modern society is too materialistic. That we’re all focused on our ‘stuff’ rather than what’s really important – including each other.

I’d like to suggest something different.

We’re not materialistic enough!

It’s not that we love and cherish our ‘stuff’ too much, it’s the opposite – we don’t value ‘stuff’ enough.

We use things once then throw them away. We replace things rather than repairing them. We don’t look after the things we own. We buy things we never use. We enjoy the thrill of shopping for and buying things more than the things themselves . . . all in all, perhaps we should give our ‘stuff’ a bit more care and attention?

I’m not the first person to say this.

George Monbiot wrote the same thing a decade ago, pointing out that most of us no longer bother to sharpen knives, or know how to fully work our various gadgets, let alone know where the various materials in our belongings has come from. The blog Stuff Does Matter has a similar message.

If we really valued our possessions, understood what had gone into producing them,  were more selective in buying them, took better care of them, tried to repair them when necessary – then as a society we’d certainly consume a lot less.

I also suspect as individuals we’d also decide we need less stuff and clutter in our lives.

The Science Fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling wrote that we can group our belongings into four categories:

1 – Beautiful things

2 – Emotionally important things

3 – Functional tools, devices and appliances

4 – Everything else

He suggests that we should have beautiful things, emotionally important things and useful things in our lives – it’s the everything else category he asks us to question and do away with. The writer Dave Bruno goes further, asking us to consider whittling our possessions down to, an admittedly arbitrary, 100 things or less !

A philosophy of simplicity and frugality is important if we’re to combat our mindless consumerism, but we also need a philosophy of good design, careful choosing, proper maintenance, repair and sharing.

If you need a bag to travel to work with every day then it makes sense to buy a bag that you love, is well designed, long lasting and ultimately worth repairing when it breaks. The same applies pretty much to all your other every day items – using well designed items will not only be more enjoyable and satisfying, but they should also last longer, and prompt us to take better care of them. Its an issue of quality over quantity. If you’re after suggestions to reinvent your personal possessions more thoughtfully there are a huge number of sites, groups and articles devoted to these  ideas – Everyday Carry, What’s in Your Bag, Good Design, The Verge, What’s in My Bag.

There’s obviously a balance to be struck – not mindlessly filling our lives and homes with more and more stuff and being more selective about the things we buy, but without obsessing fetishistically about them either.

If we get this balance right we can perhaps change our lives – progressively doing away with the unnecessary ’stuff’ cluttering up our lives, while finding the stuff that we do own and value being more useful, meaningful and enjoyable.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]

 

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Photo image used under Creative Commons Licence from denharsh, via Flickr