Forget About the Price Tag

Anyone thinking that being ‘green and ethical’ is expensive, and only for those who are better off, is kind of missing the point.

It’s really about making better choices, not filling our lives with rubbish, and hopefully being happier as a result. Moving to a ‘greener and more ethical’ lifstyle should cost us all a lot less !



Even if you don’t feel like wearing a jumper at home to keep warm you can save energy. Turn down your hot water thermostat by a degree or two and bleed your radiators so they work efficiently. Reflective panels, or even silver foil behind them will also help radiate heat back into the room. Only run the washing machine and dishwasher when full and get to grips with the economy cycles and settings. For most washes try turning the temperature down to 30 degrees. If you have cheaper electricity at night (Economy 7) consider running your washing machine and dishwasher then to take advantage. If you have central heating room thermostats make sure they are in the right place, and not set too high. Clean the coils at the back of the fridge to keep them efficient and keeping your freezer full also helps. Close doors and windows properly and hunt out draughts and seal or block them. Use curtains and blinds to keep in heat when cold, or shut out sunlight when hot. Consider turning off the heating in some rooms if they’re barely used for periods.

Get free or subsidised loft or cavity wall insulation. If you own your home and have a south facing roof, consider signing-up for free solar panels – the installer takes the government grant (feed in tariff), but you save the electricity. It goes without saying, but turn lights off when not in use, and use efficient lights and bulbs. Consider using a multi-socket on groups of electrical appliances so you can turn them all off/on easily and avoid leaving things on standby – plugging TV recorders and similar items that need to be left on into a different socket. Consider getting a wireless energy monitor to encourage you to save more electricity, or sign-up to trial a smart meter from your energy company, free of charge.



Many of us could do with eating a little less food full stop, but it’s also true that most of us waste a great deal of what we do buy. Minimise waste by using things before they go off, making use of leftovers in soups/stews/casseroles etc, storing things better (not always in the fridge), and controlling portion size to reduce waste off the plate. You might also be able to minimise wastage, save money and make life easier by buying and cooking in bulk and freezing meals – having something ready to go in the freezer will also reduce the temptation to eat out or get a takeaway when you’re tired or rushed. Some people take part in communal cooking clubs -cooking in bulk then swapping dishes with each other.

Knowing the cost of things when shopping for food helps, as does shopping from a list, and the classic ‘not shopping when hungry’ to limit impulse purchases. Keep a range of healthy (and cheaper) snacks at home, in the car, and at work, to avoid so much splurging on snack foods. Making your own lunches in advance also helps. Avoid routinely buying expensive high street coffee by investing in a flask and making your own. Never buy bottled water – take an empty water bottle with you to fill from the tap. While you’re at it give-up buying paper towels, and simply use washable tea towels again.

Meat is generally an expensive item, and it also has a significantly greater environmental impact than non-meat foods, so consider expanding your range of non-meat cooking and eating a little less. Perhaps consider trying meat-free Mondays.

Try to buy locally produced food that’s in season – it’s often cheaper and keeps your money in the local community. Even better, if you have the space and time, grow your own food. If you grow enough you can always barter your excess with your friends.

Try turning the oven off a few minutes before the end of cooking, the heat will remain, and you’ll save a few minutes of electricity. Afterwards opening the oven door will allow the warm inside to vent and help heat the kitchen, and reduce the length of time the oven fan has to run to cool the oven after turning the oven off. When not in use be sure to turn appliances such as the cooker, dishwasher, washing machine and microwave off, rather than leaving on standby. Use hot cooking water from cooking to scald weeds, but avoid letting too much steam escape into the house – as it presents both a damp and mold hazard, humid air also takes more energy to heat than dry air.



Turn mindless shopping into mindful shopping – don’t buy things impulsively, or recreationally. Keep track of what you’re spending, and how much you’ve got left in your budget – credit cards can make us loose touch with the value of money. Consider how many hours you’ve had to work to pay for what you’re spending. Ignore the pressure to overshop – buy one get one free is only good value if you really need two! Allow yourself time for a reflective pause before committing to buying – ask yourself: do I really need this, do I need it now, what if I wait before buying it, where will I put it, can I share someone elses ? If you’re a problem shopper consider self, or group help.

Know the origin of what you’re buying as much as possible. Try to make ethical choices wherever you can, often ethical items are no more expensive than non-ethical items – such as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, which is now Fairtrade. Ethical Consumer magazine and many other sources give ethical summaries of various products. Check out smaller ethical providers and retailers, who often have no high street presence, but can be found easily online. Wherever possible buying things that will last, or can be repaired or upgraded, will be both cheaper in the long run, and have a lower environmental footprint.

For some items like books, newspapers and magazines, consider whether you really need to buy at all. All newspapers have online editions, most of them free, as do many magazines. Books can be borrowed free from public libraries, many of which now have their catalogues available for online searching. Borrow from a friend, and pass on books of your own that you’ve finished with. There may be a local book swap club or store, or you could investigate online book swapping.

Buy things second hand where you can – charity shops can be variable, but bargain hunters know which ones are best. Car boot sales, jumble sales, or yard sales are other possibilities. Scan local sources, or use Ebay, Amazon or other online retailers who sell second hand items, like computer game, DVD and electronics retailer CEX. You may even be able to get what you want free from Freecycle. Alternatively consider renting rather than buying – easier than ever in the digital age. Try to sell-on or give away your own items when you no longer need, rather than sending them to landfill.

Consider getting more involved in challenging overconsumption, sign-up with Buy Nothing Day, Commercial Alert , the Christian Reclaim Christmas Group Ready-Steady-Slow, or even the very silly Rev Billy.



Minimise the amount of travelling you need to do by grouping tasks and errands together. Make sure your tyres are at the correct pressure, both for safety and economy, and consider your driving habits – if you do enough mileage you might consider getting some eco-driving lessons. Obviously walk, cycle or use public transport where you can, and it might be practical in some circumstances to car share, either for regular communiting, or simply in giving your friends or neighbours a lift from time to time or offering to pick-up some shopping for them if you’re going into town – we often bemoan both the number of cars on the road, and the lack of social contact in society, but sometimes struggle to do much about it.

It’s often more fuel and cost efficient to get shopping delivered, than making a special trip to the store. All major UK supermarkets now do home delivery, with the cost depending upon distance, demand and time of day. Sometimes delivery can be arranged for free.

If you’re able, consider discussing working from home with your employer – to save you both travel time and fuel costs. It might be that you’re able to do without your car at all, saving road tax, maintenance and servicing and depreciation, as well as fuel. It’s always possible to hire a car for holidays and other specific trips, and in some places car share clubs may be available.

Photo by Chris Parker UK

From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers

The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead by Sue Gerhart

We’ve substituted money and things for relationships, argues Sue Gerhart, and we must train the next generation of children to be different. We have become too self-centred, self-absorbed, self-interested and self-regarding, with consumer capitalism having fixated us on things at the expense of people. As a result we have weaker family bonds, weaker friendships and weaker social ties, all because we have become entranced by both our ‘stuff’ and ourselves.

Gerhart, a practising psychotherapist, also examines what makes some people behave unselfishly in certain circumstances, while others seem only concerned for themselves. She contrasts the example of ‘rescuers’, who acted to shelter and protect Jewish families during the Holocaust, compared to ‘bystanders’, who did nothing. The principal difference, she argues, is down to early childhood, and in particular the extent of emotional development and learned empathy. Amongst her other observations Gerhart is critical of the concept of ‘problem families’, commenting that it is the other families and individuals in the ‘problem community’ that have failed to be interested and provide support.

If we wish to construct a more caring, collaborative and less divided society, Garhart argues, we need to support the caring qualities that are learned in early life and can best do this by giving responsive care and attention to all our children’s wants and needs. Negative and critical parenting, along with neglect, disinterest, lack of time or attention, and family breakdown all may significantly reduce the degree of empathy in adult life, and this, Gerhart argues, will shape the future of our society. [Amazon UK US]


Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More by John Naish

For millions of years if we liked something, we chased after more of it – more food, more status and more stuff. In the West we now have more of everything than we can ever use, enjoy or afford. Yet we still want more – even though we’re destroying the planet in the process and it’s leaving us sick, tired, overweight, angry, unhappy and in debt.

Enough covers a lot of ground, spanning aspiration and celebrity culture, how our ownership of things defines our status, the brain chemistry of shopping and ‘buyer’s remorse’, our quest to constantly ‘know’ more information, through to how our desires can overpower our appetite, so it can’t tell us we’re full. Much of the analysis is from an evolutionary and biological perspective, explaining how our impulses for more fulfil sensible functions in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but have failed to adapt to life in our modern culture.

The book presents a compelling argument that our desires for more of everything have driven us almost to the point of planetary ecosystem collapse. Will our wiring for more force us into decline and demise, or can we learn to control our impulses ? Fortunately the book doesn’t just present an analysis of modern consumerism, it also tries to offer practical advice for ‘curing’ ourselves of the affliction, by identifying the elusive ‘enough point’ – the point at which having even more makes us no happier.

The author, John Naish, is also the man behind the Landfill Prize, an award given for the most pointless, gimmick-laden piece of junk produced that year, with previous nominess including laser guided scissors and automatic cucumber peelers. [Amazon UK US]


The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy by Michael Foley

Happiness is elusive, observes Michael Foley, and many aspects of modern life are making it even harder to find. Ironically the book also ponders the futility of trying to obtain happiness and meaning through the purchase of books, which often remain unread on people’s shelves !

In a deep analysis of many aspects of modern life Foley identifies several cultural preoccupations which  form barriers to our happiness. We have a damaging ‘culture of potential’ he argues, obsessively focussing on the future and not concentrating sufficiently on the present. This leads us to over-value youth and under-value experience, to obsessively travel to new destinations and seek out new experiences, to constantly desire the next thing, job or partner, which results in an belief that we’re constantly missing something.

Another of the barriers he identifies is the ‘culture of entitlement’, leading us to feel we always deserve the best, that we should be allowed act as we wish, or that we are in some way special. The expectation, status-obsession and inflated ego that this inevitably gives rise to, often struggles to come to terms with the harsh reality of life, leading to anger, injustice, resentment and depression.

Instead, Foley argues, we should work to change the way we think about the world, being more focussed on the present, more willing to find pleasure in simple everyday experience, more accepting of whatever the world throws at us and less driven to define ourselves in terms of symbols of  success. [Amazon UK US]


The irony of promoting books opposed to consumerism is not lost on me :)  Borrow them from a library if you can. If not, then pass on to a friend when you’ve finished with them . . . don’t just leave them sitting on your shelf.

Photo by Coolinsights

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Last time you went to the supermarket how did you carry your shopping home ?

Your own fabric bags, durable PVC bags-for-life from the checkout, or did you take the free disposable plastic bags ? Perhaps you’re so image-confident that you used an oldschool wheeled shopping trolley, like grandmother used to – perhaps not !

This one really should be straightforward shouldn’t it?

We’re all aware of the issues: disposable plastic bags take energy to manufacture and transport, they cause litter, and many end-up as oceanic debris or lasting for hundreds of years in landfills. Reusing our own bags costs us nothing and causes us hardly any inconvenience. We’re even reminded and encouraged by the supermarkets, nudging us to do the right thing, by offering us loyalty points for reusing our bags.

So how are we doing ?

Not that well it turns out – around 10 billion lightweight disposable bags are handed free to UK shoppers every year. That’s about 200 each!

Obviously the ‘problem of carrier bags’ is a bit more wicked than we thought.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that we find changing our habits quite a struggle. We’re able to go shopping 24/7, and as a result it’s just not that big a deal any more. We drop-in to the supermarket for ‘top-up-shops’ more frequently than we ever used to – no planning, no lists.

Having our own bags with us when we go requires preparedness, and the reality is that all too often we’ve left them at home because we were too tired/busy to put them straight back in the car after the last time. We’re frequently rushing – either to get home, get to work, or get somewhere else, and have usually got a lot more on our minds than remembering to take our bags. We seem to have collective amnesia.

Having forgotten the bags we then may experience something psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

We know we should reuse our bags, but have forgotten to, so to stop feeling bad and guilty we create mental excuses to justify ourselves – our time is too valuable to worry about something as trivial as carrier bags, besides we do plenty of other things for the environment, and it’s really an issue for the supermarkets or the government to sort out, and anyway what difference will a couple of carrier bags really make – we also promise ourselves we’ll reuse these bags next time.

Not using plastic bags might not save the world alone, but it’s possibly more important than you think, not just because of the energy footprint and plastic pollution, it’s also important for another reason. The problem of plastic bags is representative of a lot of other mass behaviour issues, from transport to food, where similar factors apply – relationships between convenience, cost, personal choice, responsibility, what everyone else is doing and how well we understand and accept the facts all play a part in determining our collective behaviour. Can good motives and gentle policy nudges make us all ‘do the right thing’, or is something else required ?

Breaking bad habits, like constantly forgetting to reuse bags, is hard – but we can make things easier for ourselves if rather than focussing only on the things we want to stop doing, we try to focus more on the things we want to start doing. It’s hard to say NO to something, until we’ve already said YES to something we want more.

If we cultivate a habit of returning our empty bags to the car after we unpack them, we’d have more chance of breaking our bad habit of taking new bags at the checkout.

So problem solved ?

Well, yes and no . . . how damaging are plastic bags anyway ?

Clearly manufacturing and transporting 10 billion bags a year in the UK alone, then giving them away free so they can be used once and then almost immediately thrown away  - causing local litter, filling landfills, and some ending up in the worlds oceans, isn’t going to win any environmental awards. The question is what are the alternatives ?

In February the UK Environment Agency published a report on the Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. It suggests that a typical cotton ‘bag-for-life’ must be reused 171 times before it has a lower carbon footprint than a typical HDPE disposable bag, assuming the disposable bag is used once and then disposed of as a bin-liner for kitchen waste going to landfill. Crucially the report also states that cotton bags-for-life are, on average, actually only reused 51 times before being thrown away – making disposable HDPE bags much more environmentally friendly, at least in terms of carbon footprint !

Needless to say this has proved very controversial. In fact the report was quickly removed from the Environment Agency website, but with a bit of snooping around you can find copies elsewhere on the web if you’re interested – try here.

So things are more complex than they first appeared, and there are strong opinions on both sides – the same can be said of many other environmental issues. Sometimes we need to try to see things more simply.

It’s easy to get distracted by complexity and uncertainty, but unless we make a living from research or devising policy, the question that really matters is  - what should my own personal response be?

In the case of plastic bags, I’d suggest we simply keep reusing whatever bags we already have whenever we go shopping, keep doing so for as long as possible, and when we do eventually have to get new bags, choose them carefully based largely on durability.

In my own case I’ll also try to make sure I return my used bags to the car !

I’ll let Kermit have the last word.


Photo by Iragerich

Cleaning Out My Closet

“Where’s my snare ? I have no snare in my headphones.”

It’s an interesting metaphor when you think about it – the rapper Eminem was singing about dealing with neglected emotional baggage from his past in his song Cleaning Out My Closet, and most of us can relate to that. There’s a connection between our own feelings and the shut-away and neglected clutter we surround ourselves with.

Stuff isn’t just stuff. Stuff is emotional.

Our stuff defines us. It reflects our interests, tastes, means and especially aspirations. Why we choose to buy what we do is the basis of the entire advertising, marketing and sales industries, but that’s not the subject of this article.

This article is about why we choose to hang on to our old stuff, long after we stop needing it, and why we sometimes simply hoard it away somewhere out of sight and forget about it.

It’s also about when I cleaned out my own wardrobe a couple of months ago.

I’m actually a pretty organised person most of the time, but for some reason my wardrobe has a habit of being a bit of a dumping ground for stuff I don’t have a proper place for – not just clothes, but assorted books, magazines, papers, unopened things in boxes, letters, old shoes . . . you get the idea.

I do clear it out from time to time, but I felt the need to really empty it out. I went through everything in there (and anything left lurking on my ‘floordrobe’) and ended-up getting rid of nine carrier bags of clothes, as well as a large amount of other forgotten and misplaced junk. Most of it went off to charity shops, some for recycling and one bag was destined for landfill. The photo above is the ‘after’ – I didn’t dare show the ‘before’ !

It’s not just me.

According to a recent QVC survey, the average British woman has 22 unworn outfits hanging in her wardrobe. If true, this means that across the country there are over £1.6billion of unworn clothes hanging in women’s wardrobes! If we assume men are equally as bad, then that’s a clothes rail hung with never worn clothes stretching from London to New York nine times over. That’s a lot of ‘stuff’ just hanging around unused; what would Gok Wan say! And you don’t have to be an environmental scientist to realise there’s a huge environmental footprint associated with the growing, dying, making, transporting, packaging and retailing all those clothes.

The trend in society is to live in households with fewer and fewer people, but with more and more storage for our stuff, and if we can’t cram it all in there are companies happy to rent us storage space for all our extra stuff we can’t fit into our attic! We need to reduce our constant buying of things just because we enjoy the buying part. I’m firmly of the opinion that a sustainable future must see us all buying and consuming less. If we had a better grasp of what we already own, better managed and organised our belongings, took better care of our clothes and other things, repaired things occasionally and bought new things in a more mindful and considered way, we might find our lives a little less filled with clutter and perhaps even be a little less stressed as a result. Additionally we’d save ourselves a lot of money – which we might be inclined to put to some other beneficial use, or use to buy better quality and more sustainably produced clothes. Less is more, and all that jazz.

Psychologists say the extent to which we tend to surround ourselves with clutter and junk is connected to our underlying beliefs about life, especially how we feel about the future and the past. Everyone takes some comfort in familiarity and routine, and change can be stressful, and supposedly the more optimistic we feel about the future the easier it is to embrace change positively. If you think all your best days are behind you, it seems logical to try to hang on to them. As we get older it gets harder, our worlds often shrink, he world seems more scary and being optimistic about the future is harder.

There is an mental condition known as Diogenes Syndrome, named after an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. It describes extreme compulsive hoarding behaviour. It’s more common than you might think, in my last six years working in an Environmental Health Department I’ve encountered it a number of times. It reflects a person’s inability to cope emotionally, and their retreat from a wider world they simply can’t cope with into a smaller existence they have more control over – often just a corner of a single room. This tendency to retreat into our own little space with all it’s comforts of routine seems to affect us all to some degree. I think it’s something we’d be well advised to actively fight against, becoming less fearful and more embracing of change, and less willing to define ourselves both by our past, and by our stuff.

I’ll be continuing with my own decluttering journey throughout the year – simplifying and minimalising wherever I can. If you’re minded to do the same it would be great to hear how you get on. There are several people who make their living as professional declutterers helping other people dejunk their lives – you’ve probably seen them on TV. If you’re after advice on decluttering your life try these websites.

There are limits though – a man called Dave Bruno has created something called the 100 Thing Challenge, to combat the Western consumerist lifestyle and promote a life of simplicity, characterised by joyfulness and thoughtfulness. I can’t see me getting even close to 100 items any time soon, but the stories on his blog are quite inspirational.

If you want to go even further you could follow the example of the artist Michael Landy. In 2001 he catalogued and then destroyed everything he owned, saying it was “an examination of society’s romance with consumerism, and the amount of raw material and energy that goes into making things”.

It might be easier for now, just to tackle your cutlery draw.

So did clearing out my closet change my life ?

Honestly . . . yes, a little bit.


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