I’ve been crafting again. This is the salvageable fabric from two otherwise dead pairs of jeans. The embroidery is inspired by Japanese boro and sashiko. Some of it draws directly from that tradition, but for this project I’ve been messing about with sealife and tentacles because I was making it for my son and thought he would like it (he did).
Category Archives: Green Living
Some years ago I started making fabric bags for Christmas in the hopes of cutting down on waste. Given the land and water requirements for growing cotton, this only works if people re-use the bags – if they are thrown away, it is far more wasteful than using paper. You do need to re-use cotton a lot for it to offset what it took to grow the material in the first place. However, cotton isn’t putting out microplastics and wrapping paper often has too much plastic in it to be recyclable. The huge amount of paper used for festive wrapping and then sent to landfill definitely isn’t sustainable.
I think cotton bags can serve an extra function in that they can become a sustainability reminder built into the festivities. They don’t invite you to buy throwaway, single use presents or anything in a lot of packaging. fabric bags also remove the temptation for extra plastic decoration in the form of bows and whatnot.
The photo above was taken on Christmas day. Those are all bags I made in previous years, that came back to me this year. Several of them with stories about having been sent on to other people and then sent back again. They’re being used. We did not end up with a bin bag full of rubbish this year, which has happened in previous years.
It’s not entirely straightforward – most things aren’t – but this year felt like a substantial move towards having less waste and keeping usable things in circulation. The bags also make wrapping easy, sparing people the investment of time and energy in wrapping.
The season of gift giving is a good time to think about how, and why we give gifts and the implications of what we give. For far too many people, Christmas gifting involves going into debt. The whole process involves a great deal of waste – the overpackaging, the gift wrapping, the single use plastics involved, and the unwanted or soon broken things that head rapidly to the bin.
There’s a lot of pressure to buy and to spend. Especially within families. If you are time poor, then gifting stuff can be seen as a substitute for spending time doing things with a significant person in your life.
Gifting is an opportunity to display wealth and spending power. That can feel powerful, or disempowering, defending on whether you can afford it. The process may be unhappily competitive if you feel you have to out-spend someone else.
Small, cramped living spaces make the whole process more complicated. I have nowhere suitable for storing gifts, which is part of why what shopping I do is last minute. I also have challengings integrating anything coming my way and have encouraged my family to not buy me stuff, because I have nowhere to put it.
I prefer gifting in entirely different ways. I’d rather give at the point when something is needed, because then it’s valuable to the other person. It’s good to give things because they turned up, and were perfect, and to do it when it makes sense rather than trying to do it all in one go. I’d rather focus on the people who are more in need of having stuff head their way.
Waste and overconsumption are destroying life on the planet. Permission to spend less at Christmas is of itself a gift worth giving, to each other, and to the Earth.
Dear readers, I find myself rather unexpectedly writing a book! A few weeks ago, Trevor Greenfield, of Moon Books (where I already have a handful of titles) dropped me a line. He’d seen something on my blog and was rather taken with it, and asked if I could expand on it for the new Earth Books line.
Earth Books are small books. “The purpose of the series is to stimulate and help develop ongoing discussion on what is, of course, pretty much the most important topic anyone could focus upon today – the future of the planet.” – you can read more about the series over here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/blogs/moon-books/earth-spirit-%E2%80%93-a-new-series-from-moon-books/
I’m writing about the things that make for a meaningful and authentic life, and how that relates to sustainability. My own experience is that seeking authenticity will align you with living in more sustainable ways. It’s all about slowing down, and not being persuaded to buy things in response to emotional needs. We can’t shop our way to happiness. Once our basic needs are met, material wealth does very little for a person.
I’m hoping to have the book handed in by the end of February at the latest. It will of course take a while from there – with the editing and production process. In the meantime, anyone signed up at the Bards and Dreamers level on my Patreon will get work in progress from this book – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB
Like most writers, I don’t earn vast sums from writing – success in this industry can look like earning £10k a year, which frankly doesn’t look like success by any other measure! Patreon certainly helps – if you like my blog and want to support me, that’s always really welcome and I put up extra content there. I also have ko-fi for people who want to make one off donations. https://ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T – and check out the store for books that are free/pay what you want.
I don’t recycle blog material for books, but I do share books on Patreon.
I’m excited about this current project as it’s an opportunity to share a lot of ideas I’ve been developing and exploring in recent years. I hope it will help people step away from the consumerism and find more enriching ways to live. And yes, there’s an irony in trying to sell a book about not buying so much stuff, but one of my core principles is about investing in owning things we can truly value, and moving away from throwaway culture that values nothing.
Living lightly, cheaply, sustainably and comfortably is easier to achieve in the UK if you aren’t poor. When you don’t have much money, there are a great many things you won’t do because they cost too much – which can reduce your carbon footprint compared to other people’s. But there are also a lot of things you can’t do to be more sustainable.
If you rent, you can’t insulate your home, or get solar panels. You can’t upgrade the windows to be more energy efficient, you may be stuck with inefficient heating systems and white goods with poor energy ratings. Making your home more efficient is not only a way to be more sustainable, it can save you money. A well insulated home doesn’t cost as much to heat.
Clothes made from natural fibers are usually better quality and longer lasting than synthetics. However, your budget might not stretch to them. If you live in an impoverished area, your nearest charity shops are unlikely to offer you sustainably sourced bamboo fabric skirts or hemp trousers. Being able to buy good quality second hand clothes depends a lot on where you live and the perceived demographics of the area. You can end up buying a lot of cheap, throwaway things that don’t last – which is expensive for you and for the planet in the longer term.
The loose food store, the farmer’s market, the veg box and so forth might well be entirely out of your price range.
Growing your own food isn’t an option if you live in a flat and do not have a garden. Allotments aren’t available to everyone and can be tricky without a car. Growing your own food is not a free activity, there are setup costs, and costs in terms of time and energy required. If you’re new to gardening, there can also be the cost of failing to grow food.
Living cheaply in a green way is easier if you can make the upfront investments – the solar panels, the electric bike, the vegetable garden, the high quality clothes. It’s also easier to be a minimalist if you can afford to buy exactly what you need and aren’t having to make do with what you can cobble together. It’s easier to live lightly if you have time to think about your options and aren’t running round grabbing whatever will get you through the next few days. Thinking time is a luxury that seldom goes with poverty.
Being poor is hard work. It doesn’t reliably leave you with the mental, emotional or time resources to lovingly repair things, cook nutritious meals from scratch or tend to a veg garden. Sustainable living must not simply be a hobby for those who can afford nice things, and that can’t happen without some radical social changes.
I notice it most when I’m travelling – perhaps because most days I don’t get into a moving vehicle. Cars are loud, and all the other cars around you are loud too. Buses are really noisy. Trains are noisy, train stations are noisy. Extended journeys often leave me exhausted from the barrage of sound and vibration. I notice it a lot if I’m in a location with a lot of background noise. I find urban spaces difficult, overwhelming and exhausting.
If there’s a lot of background noise, many people have problems communicating. That can be about hearing, about being able to differentiate between sounds, or about getting distracted by the noise and not being able to concentrate. It’s difficult to be a human with other humans in noisy environments – at least if you are used to communicating verbally. It can be distressing and demoralising for people who are especially challenged by background noise, but it isn’t much good for anyone.
We are encouraged to think of noisy urban environments as being lively and exciting. There’s a lot of ‘louder is better’ thinking out there. Whether that’s louder music, louder fireworks, louder film tracks or louder environments, we get a lot of encouragement to feel good about it and to find it exciting. To deal with noisy spaces I assume you have to be good at tuning things out, ignoring your surroundings and not being bothered about communicating. These are not things I can do.
Even if you can successfully ignore the noise, it may still be harming you. There are apparently a fair few studies out there suggesting that over-exposure to noise – both loud noise and invasive background noise – impacts on our health. It is likely to increase stress, anxiety and depression. Other effects include sleep disruption and increased blood pressure. Tuning out the problem does not protect you from it, by the looks of things.
Mostly we only factor in the health and safety implications of sound insofar as really noisy stuff can damage hearing. There’s far more to it than that. We create horrendously noisy spaces for humans to exist in – much of it down to how we handle transport. Quieter transport solutions would do a lot to reduce noise pollution. Gentler ways of living would support us in having happier, healthier lives.
For the last ten years or so I’ve mostly bought jumpers from sale rails, often at the end of winter. I figure that buying from the ends of lines doesn’t increase demand in the same way and may keep wearable clothing out of landfill.
It’s not ideal, though. I’ve owned a lot of black jumpers, because I like my jumpers plain, and often black is the only plain option. I still have a hard time finding things that fit me – I’m tall. I often actively dislike the kinds of jumpers designed for women, and if I’m wearing a jumper designed for a bloke it’s never going to be a good fit. Sometimes I like jumpers that fit. With the kind of clothes buying budget I have, even my sale rail jumpers tend to be low quality. They wear out, look shabby really quickly, and are never that warm.
This year I’ve started knitting my own. I can buy a better quality of yarn for the budget I have. I’ve not entirely managed to move away from synthetics, but a more substantial yarn is going to last longer and not end up in landfill for many more years, so overall it’s the better move. If I knit a jumper I can have the shape and colour I want. I don’t have to spend time traipsing around in the desperate hope of finding something I can afford that I can also bear to wear. This frees up time and emotional energy for other things.
I usually find clothes shopping depressing. It’s rare for me to find clothes I truly like that also fit. I’m tall, and broad, and have had to do a lot of ignoring my own feelings and preferences and putting up with whatever would do – this is not great for self-esteem. Second hand clothes shopping is often an exercise in futility for anything other than big, shapeless skirts. It’s the same with sale rails, and often with new stuff, too.
If I make my own clothes, I get things I like, in better and more robust fabrics that will last longer. If I have clothes that suit my tastes, my body shape and the way I live, then I can get by with less. It takes more ‘sort of works’ clothing to get you through – I know this from experience. I also like making things. Crafting is a valuable mental health activity that eases stress and allows me time for emotional processing and imaginative thinking, so making an item of clothing gets a lot of things done. Better dressed in terms of clothing quality, happier with my clothes and not stressed by the process of getting them means having more energy for other things. That in turn increases my chances of being able to be more environmentally mindful in other ways.
Clothing has a huge environmental impact. Throwaway fast fashion puts out a lot of carbon and adds a lot to landfill. Plastic fabrics put plastic particles into the environment. Cotton takes a lot of water to produce. Wool can be good, or can have land and animal welfare issues associated with it. Hemp and bamboo fabrics seem to be pretty good, but they’re also much more expensive.
Cheap clothing is made in awful conditions and there’s a huge social justice angle to changing how we buy and use clothing.
In terms of personal impact on the environment, we can make a lot of difference with our clothes choices. Never throw away clothes that could be given away and worn by someone else. Don’t buy clothes with the intention of wearing them once or twice. Try to buy the most durable clothes you can. Buy second hand if you are able to – not everyone has time, energy or a conventional enough body-shape for this. Keeping fabric in use isn’t hard.
I’ve got into upcycling. The skirt I’m wearing in the photo is made from school shirts. The shirts in question were unusable as shirts – worn at the collars, marked, stained and otherwise damaged. I threw away the ruined fabric and made a skirt from the salvaged material. My knickerbockers were made from a pair of trousers that died.
The shirt I am wearing was salvaged from landfill by an innovative lad who is exploring more responsible approaches to fashion. A lot of stuff is thrown away before it even gets to the shops, but this can be salvaged and used, and in this case, has a steampunk weasel printed on it. (Weasel designed by Tom Brown). When I can point at a store for this, I will.
I have a lot of fun keeping cloth out of landfill. It creates interesting challenges and I end up with unique items of clothing. I have a horror of looking like the sort of person who has bought all their clothes from a supermarket, but I don’t have a huge clothing budget for fancy gear. This approach saves me money, which means when I buy new I have more scope to make more sustainable choices.
How much would you be personally willing to change your life in order to help avoid climate chaos?
I feel strongly that we really need government action. We need the fossil fuel industry brought to heel and the voices of its lobbyists rejected by those in power. We need rules that hold those with most influence to account – rules about built in obsolescence, single use plastics, and what goes to landfill, for example. We need the right to repair. Those kinds of things have to be organised by governments. We need governments to tackle pollution and infrastructure. Banning massive cruise ships and private jets would be a good idea.
Every one of the 100 companies that most pollute the planet does so because people buy its products. So long as they feel like they can get away with it, they will.
Making it the job of ordinary individuals to fix things is a cop-out from politicians, and totally unfair. But at the same time, if we aren’t prepared to change things in our own lives, how can we expect change to happen?
For us regular folk, there are four areas of life to particularly consider. These are only going to be an issue if you aren’t living at the margins.
Transport – including luxury journeys, holidays, flights. If you’re stuck with a commute, can you liftshare sometimes, or work from home one day a week? How much travel do you feel entitled to?
Food – how much food do you waste? How overpackaged is your food? How far has your food travelled? What are the carbon and water costs of your food? Are you eating unsustainable animal products? If you don’t really know where your meat came from, then the odds of it being a massive driver of climate change are really high.
Heating – is your home insulated? (not a question for renters, obviously). How are you sourcing your energy? How much energy do you use on luxury things?
Clothes – fast fashion is a terrible industry with massive impact on the planet. Too many people throw clothes away after wearing items once or twice. Overwashing has a huge environmental impact. Clothes production requires a lot of resources. We urgently need to use less and throw less away and really all this takes is care and effort and those who can afford to buy disposable clothing not doing so. This is the easiest area for change to occur, and the one where there are no real excuses.
Changing your life requires effort. Often, in my experience that effort brings its own benefits and you can end up improving your quality of life by making better choices.
During my week in the gallery, I was getting up at half past seven, doing half an hour or so of computer work, walking to the gallery at 9, being there until 5 and then walking home. I found it utterly exhausting. It didn’t help that I worked nine days without a day off, which shouldn’t be normal for people with regular day jobs.
I’m used to being able to do bits and pieces of domestic work around my other work. Where other people might get a tea break or a water cooler moment, I might do the laundry or get the washing up. It means that when I end work for the day normally, I’ve done whatever I’m doing on the domestic front as well as the economic front. Coming home in the evening with all of that yet to do is emotionally wearing as well as physically tiring.
I’m a big fan of walking and cycling to work. I acknowledge that it is hard to do this, especially in bad weather or when you are already tired. Many of the things that are more sustainable – cooking from scratch, buying locally sourced everythings… take time and energy that I wouldn’t have if I worked this way every day. I already knew that many aspects of conventional work aren’t easily combined with sustainable life choices, or with healthy choices for personal wellbeing. There’s a lot of difference between knowing something as a theory, and living it for a while.
I’m a big believer in making what personal changes you can, but I acknowledge that not everyone gets much control over how and when and where they work. Not everyone can go self employed, or can wrangle to work from home. Personal shifts alone won’t deal with things that are ingrained in our culture.
I also note that I wasn’t fantastically useful for much of that time. I’ve done a lot of public facing, events, retail, front of house kind of work – which can be sporadic – quiet while you’re waiting for people to show up, and intense when they do. But in terms of quality of work done for time spent… I wasn’t great. Compared to what I get done in a few hours working quietly at home, I wasn’t very productive. In some ways that’s the nature of this kind of work. But, how many people are turning up to put in the hours every day, and not paid based on what they do? How much time, life and energy are squandered while people show up for the required hours?
One of the great things about being self employed is that most of the time, it’s about getting the job done, and not about how long it takes. Unless your job is primarily about being available to help other people in some way, then time spent is meaningless for most work. How many workplaces will let you go home when you’ve done what needed doing? How many employers will reward speed and efficiency by simply expecting you to do more?
There’s only so much you can do as an individual to change any of this. I feel strongly that we need to be talking a lot more about why we work, and how we work, what we reward, and what we expect from each other.