Choice is Voluntary

We all have busy lives – having to make decisions how best to juggle the various demands on us from jobs, family and friends.

Barack Obama’s day is busier than most, and typically involves an endless stream of decisions and choices.

All of us, Barack included, can become tired and jaded by the mental and emotional effort of having to make so many choices, affecting our judgement, mood, and happiness. Psychologists use the phrases ‘choice fatigue’ or decision fatigue to describe this effect, and studies have shown we all tend to make poorer, less logical decisions when overburdened by choices and options, or when we are mentally exhausted from having made too many.

It’s a condition that can have significant consequences when applied to doctors, High Court Judges or stock-market traders, but equally affects us all – shoppers and dieters included !

Barack Obama limits his decision fatigue by delegating the more mundane decisions to other people. In an interview he recently said “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make”.

We all like the freedom to make choices, but sometimes all these choices combine to make life draining. Endless possibility can easily seem a bit daunting, as any writer (or blogger) faced with a blank screen knows !

Sometimes we just want the relief of being told what to do . . . sound familiar ?

We can make life easier on ourselves by automating many of the routine decisions of daily life (from shopping lists to meal planning), taking decisions in batches, and just not ‘sweating the small stuff’ (spending energy worrying about things that don’t really matter). You never know, by only worrying about the big decisions you might enough emotional energy to do some more of all that good stuff you keep putting off.

If you’re someone who is full of good intentions, but never gets round to them because you’re bogged down in other stuff, or is always planning the next big thing, but somehow gets sidetracked and never gets started, then feel free to treat the rest of this post as a FIRM TO-DO LIST for the week, rather than a list of possible options.

1 - Visit the Give Blood website, type in your postcode and a few details and arrange an appointment to donate blood. It’ll take just a couple of minutes and you can do it now sat in your chair, and you will help save someone’s life.

2 - Visit the They Work for You website, type in your postcode to find your MP’s contact details and email address. Take ten minutes to participate in our democracy and send a short few line email to your MP to let them know you’re thoughts on whatever’s on your mind – from energy policy and climate commitments, the overseas aid budget, sustainable development and the green belt, the badger cull, the economy, or any pressing local issues.

3 - Next time your out shopping, make an effort to drop into a few charity shops and look through the clothes, rather than your usual stores. If you’re not already in the habit of buying used clothes from charity shops, try giving it a go, even if just once, and see how you get on – it benefits the charity, recycles unwanted items, avoids the production of so much ‘new stuff’, and saves  you money you can put to other use.

4 - Give something to a stranger today. It might be a few pounds online to a charity, a few dollars lent to a developing world entrepreneur, or a few cans of food to your local food bank.

5 - When you get chance make a list of DVDs, CDs, books, tools or anything else that you would be willing to lend to someone, and take it into work. Encourage your colleagues to add their ‘stuff’ to the list, and develop a mini-sharing co-operative. It’s might avoid having to buy quite so much stuff, and you’ll get to know all your colleagues a lot better in the process.

The video on the left is the serious stuff, the one on the right just a bit of fun.

I know, it’s another choice . . . sorry.


Photo by o5com via Flickr

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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

Meet Beth Doane

Beth Doane is a US fashion designer who after witnessing various human rights violations and environmental impacts caused by fashion manufacturing, began campaigning for change and responsibility within the industry.

Beth has since gone on to found the sustainable clothing brand Raintees, which plants a tree for every item sold, and campaigns on behalf of various causes and communities across the world.

Particularly engaged with issues affecting indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest, Beth has worked to raise awareness of Cheveron’s activities in Ecuador, which have resulted in the largest environmental legal damages claim in history, addressing the United Nations on this issue earlier this year.

In her TEDx talk below Beth describes her own personal journey:

 ”I’m on this crazy roller coaster . . . trying to figure out the best thing I can do to make this right, to create a sustainable future”

Her answer starts with being aware – that conscious awareness leads to conscious consumerism. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t know there is a problem.

Photo from Wikicommons

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Read the Label

Many of us have a bigger effect on the world through what we buy, than what we do.

Collectively, the choices we exercise in choosing what we purchase matters, and being informed of a particular product’s origin lets us make better decisions.

But it can easily be confusing !

In the UK there are almost 80 ethical labelling and food assurance schemes, what do they all actually mean ? In addition there are many frequently used phrases and terminologies, such as free range or farm fresh.

All the major eco-labelling schemes have different criteria, and as their various supporters and critics point out, it’s important to understand exactly what certification does, or does not, entail.

1 Fairtrade

Fairtrade is an international social movement and certification scheme, that aims to help producers in developing countries by improving social and environmental standards. Consumers pay a small price premium which goes towards projects such as improving healthcare, developing sustainable soil and water management practices, or local education schemes. Fairtrade certification also aims to ensure goods have been produced without exploitation, such as through slavery or sweatshop labour.

2 Forest Stewardship Council Timber

The Forest Stewardship Council is an international organisation which aims to promote the responsible and sustainable management of the world’s forests, and through it’s certification scheme it aims to provide assurance of the source of timber. It seeks to improve conservation and biodiversity, improve worker conditions and tenure, and ultimately reduce pressures on natural forests.

3 Rainforest Alliance

The New York based certification scheme Rainforest Alliance now operates internationally, and has the objective of conserving biodiversity and sustaining livelihoods by transforming land use practices. Though not generally considered as rigourous a Fairtrade certification, the Rainforest Alliance take account of a broad range of criteria in certification including carbon footprint, producer minimum price programmes and sustainable tourism.

4 Marine Stewardship Council

The Marine Stewardship Council set standards for sustainable fishing, and certify sustainably produced fish. Their aim is to improve the health of the world’s oceans by recognising and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, working with partners, and influencing consumers. Originally based in London, the MSC now operates in over 100 countries around the world.


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded in 2004, with the aim of promoting sustainable palm oil and developing credible global standards. There is difficulty in defining what is sustainable palm oil, especially given the industries recent and ongoing significant expansion, but the RSPO looks to establish principles of operation for plantation owners that include biodiversity and protection of endangered species (including orang utans), carbon footprint and resource use.

6 Freedom Food

In the UK the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Animals) operates the Freedom Food farm assurance and labeling scheme, which focuses on animal welfare. Certification considers standards such as physical conditions, transportation and slaughter practices.

7 The Carbon Trust

The Carbon Trust works with organisation to help manage and reduce their carbon footprint. Originally based in the UK, the Carbon Trust now also has offices in New York, Beijing and works extensively in several countries. It operates a carbon certification and labeling scheme, which commits producers to reduce the carbon footprint of their products every two years.

8 Red Tractor

The UK based Red Tractor assurance scheme is run and operated by farming and food producing organisations, and aims to ensure minimal standards of animal welfare, hygiene and the environment in farming and food production.

9 EU Ecolabels

The EU’s Ecolabel scheme aims to identify and certify products and services which have a ‘reduced’ associated environmental impact. To qualify, producers have to comply with a set of criteria which take the entire product life cycle into account.

10 Organic

The organic movement seeks to promote it’s core principles of avoiding synthetic chemical farming inputs (like fertilizers, antibiotics and pesticides), avoiding GM products, high animal welfare standards and adopting sustainable land use practices, though exact details vary from country to country. Organic certification in the UK is carried out through the Soil Association.

Photo from Vauvau, via Flickr

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Bottled Water = Manufactured Demand ?

Globally bottled water sales have boomed in recent years, and are now estimated to be at around 200 billion bottles annually (yes, 200 billion!) in a market worth nearly $66billion a year.

It seems rich world consumers are happy to pay a 1000 times or more for a plastic bottle of water, what it would cost them from their own tap – even thought there is usually little to no discernible difference between them.

This seems strange.

Especially considering the significant environmental impact of the bottled water industry – the manufacture of the plastic bottles, the transport of filled bottles by road, the waste resulting from discarded empty bottles, often destined for landfill or incineration, or worse to become oceanic plastic pollution.

Large multi-nationals invest huge sums in advertising and marketing their bottled waters, trying to differentiate themselves from each other, and promote the ‘health benefits’ of drinking bottled water, when compared against bottled sodas.

Can consumer demand really be manufactured in this way ? It seems so in part, but it must surely also say something about the image and convenience driven nature of our societies – that many of us would rather spend money unecesserily on an environmentally damaging product than simply carry an empty water bottle with us and refilling it !

More positively there seems to be an increasing realisation of the detrimental effects of bottled water, with increasing numbers of organisations now campaigning against it, and two cities recently banning the sale of water in plastic containers: Concord in the US, and Bundy in Australia.

As the philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer points out:

“If you can afford to buy bottled water, where there is a tap, you are choosing to spend money on an unnecessary luxury, while others die elsewhere in the world for want of access to clean water”

Carry an empty drinking water bottle with you and fill it for free at taps, and encourage your friends to do the same. You might also consider giving the money you save to a water charity.


Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flickr

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