Life is Sweet

As my weekly shop was passing through the checkout this morning, the woman on the till commented on the amount of organic and fair trade products. “I buy all the fair trade items too” she added. I was taken aback. I don’t think I’ve realised how mainstream fair trade has become. Let’s not forget how far we have come. Even ten years ago, fair trade was considered to be for hippies and we(us hippies?!?) couldn’t conceive of a time when fair trade products would appear in supermarkets, let alone be a positive marketing asset. I never thought I would see the day.

Moreover, there was a whole page about fair trade in Malawi in the business section of the Observer last weekend. Fair trade is no longer only for idealistic unrealistic marginals; it is now seen as a viable business alternative. And I read the article with particular interest because I am going to Malawi in July!!!! Having never been to Africa before, I am sooo excited!

Malawi has the lowest number of doctors per person in the world and the Aids epidemic has ravaged the population. But this fertile land can be farmed to produce fair trade ground nuts, tea, cotton and sugar, so that money can be ploughed back into community projects - schools, bridges, water supplies, hospital buildings etc.

I love the motto of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi is “The future belongs to the organised” (although in that case, there‘s no hope for me!). Isn’t it a far cry from the rumours of corruption and disorganised distribution of aid that we feared when wanting to help Africa by giving to charities in the past? In fact, fair trade can now complement the aid charities in an evident partnership to alleviate poverty and bring new hope.

According to the article, “Fair trade is, in a sense, the purest form of aid and the British public knows it. Government surveys show that people believe it is more effective than giving to charity.” And so all the supermarkets are jumping aboard. Take Sainsburys for example. From March this year all bags of Sainsburys sugar will be fair trade. Amazing. It can only be a good thing (although the cynical voices in my head say the motivation is purely self-promotion - the advertising does seem to be aimed at saying “Look at how well we’re doing!”). Anyway, as I said, it can only be a good thing. Life is sweet (especially if you buy fair trade sugar!).

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One of the top 50…

…individuals who can save our planet according to the Guardian is Leonardo DiCaprio, no less. Ignoring the fact that he has the face and fame of a hero, the 33 year old actor has become an “impassioned environmentalist”. Having loved “The Beach”, I was interested to read that it was during the making of that film that he became aware of the issues raised by the environmental protesters, who objected strongly to the relandscaping of an unspoilt beautiful Thai beach for the purposes of the film.

In 2000, he said “We must set an example now and move environmentalism from being the philosophy of a passionate minority…to a way of life that automatically integrates ecology into governmental policy and normal living standards.”

It’s taken us mere mortals a bit longer, but we’re catching up.

And now we can look forward to the release of his new documentary next month. “The 11th Hour” has been seen as a sequel to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and is a powerful challenge to all of us to protect the environment better.

Ethical hero? Maybe. Can he save the planet? Not single-handedly, that’s for sure. Can we …? We can try.

Thank who?

When I was walking past an Oxfam shop with my Dad a couple of weeks ago, I glimpsed a sign on the door saying that for any M&S item of clothing brought into the shop in a bag of unwanted clothes, you would get a £5 M&S voucher. “That seems too good to be true” I remarked (and as it turned out, it was! See later *.)

And then a week ago, I happened to be watching morning TV and saw Sarah Farquhar, Head of Retail Operations for Oxfam discussing the scheme with some trendy airhead suffering from a hangover or sleep deprivation who could not grasp the idea at all.

So on Friday, I stuffed some old clothes into a large M&S bag (just to make doubly sure!) and folded a faded pair of M&S pyjamas carefully on the top, keeping aside other M&S items for further visits. I battled through the snow to my local Oxfam shop and was rewarded with my £5 M&S voucher. Well, £5 off if I spend over £35 on clothing, home and beauty products in store, that is *.

What a disappointment. I can’t remember the last time I spent £35 in any shop other than the supermarket. Call me naïve and gullible - plenty do - but I picked up the leaflet in Oxfam and you do have to look on the back to discover the finer details of the offer.

So, far from the warm fuzzy feeling of doing something good and £5 in my pocket, I am left exploding with questions:

  • Is this not just a ploy to get me to spend more in M&S?
  • Doesn’t such a scheme encourage us in our over-consumerism?
  • Couldn’t M&S just have quietly given the money involved in this project to Oxfam?
  • How much of this is to raise the profile of M&S and its Plan A?
  • Is there really such a battle raging out there for our unwanted clothes that we need this incentive to choose Oxfam above all others?

According to the Oxfam staff, the scheme has caused a noticeable increase in donations - and once through the door, people then buy…well, I did.

As I left, I was presented with a Thank you card, which set me thinking… who needs to thank who? Everyone seems to win - M&S gets increased profile and profit; Oxfam gets increased resources; I get an excuse to spend more money on things I don’t really need; humans in need across the world get help.

So why am I left feeling vaguely cheated?

Light up my life!

Last weekend was my annual trip to Centerparcs with seven other women - more to the point, without husbands and kids!!!! Our ninth visit saw us another year older with increased aches and pains, dependency on reading glasses and frequent nightly trips to the loo! However, our fight for the best lit place on the sofa was not entirely due to our failing eyes, but to Centerparcs’ worthy green policy of switching entirely to eco light bulbs.

So I could in part identify with Euan Ferguson’s amusing back page column in the Observer magazine last weekend. Although to this man, ethical living meant “helping your friends when they were in trouble….and getting out of the bath to have a wee,” he was sympathetic to those who took green issues more seriously (I would put myself in this category). That is, “until the stupid, ghastly, stupid news about the light bulbs.”

Megaman low energy light bulbSoon, supermarkets will only stock low energy light bulbs and we will all be forced to make an ethical choice (no choice, obviously). The rationale is clear, but so is the downside - these bulbs are just not as instant or as bright. And Euan Ferguson’s point is that when forced to “use ugly happy-sapping light bulbs”, there will be a backlash. People will be less inclined to play their part in environmental responsibility.

We do all hate being told what to do. If we tell a child what to do, how often do they do the opposite? Even though in our house, we have a pretty healthy diet, I resist the whole healthy school dinners thing. Suggestion is one thing. Coercion is another.

I do actually believe in using eco light bulbs, despite the obvious disadvantages. And they will improve over time - or we will get used to them! But I am with Euan Ferguson in that forcing the hand of the consumer strengthens the reactionary response. All the more reason for positive role models of ethical living to stand up, be counted -

and let their light shine!

Who are your ethical heroes?

I’m just beginning to emerge from the tunnel that is the Christmas period: not that it was a dark experience - just noisy, full-on and overwhelmingly exhausting.

Having functioned on autopilot for the last few weeks, I am awakening to a new year full of new challenges, resolutions and experiences.

However, I still don’t feel in the best mental state to get my head round voting in The Observer Ethical Awards 2008. Having just been on the website, my mind has gone blank - with more than a passing interest in ethical living in recent years, you’d think I could come up with something…

….Divine, Ecover, Ethicalsuperstore, Traidcraft and others spring to mind, but so do my local council, my local Asda, my friend with a passion for recycling…..

To my mind, the success of ethical living depends as much on everyone taking small steps towards changing their lifestyle as on larger-than-life individuals with wacky ideas. And on top of that, does it matter if a retailer becomes more ethical for purely business reasons or because they really believe in the cause? And how can you differentiate between the two?

Still, in the three years since the Observer Ethical Awards were launched, the awareness of issues concerning fair trade, the environment and organic farming have become so much more widespread and such products so much more readily available - I guess it’s good to take time out to identify and thank the key individuals and organisations who made this a reality.

Back to the website, I think….

Where there is no hope….

Our kids believe everything they read on the internet. If something is written down, then it must be true.

I guess we all are a bit like that. We can be swayed by the latest research, the article in today’s newspaper, the current bestseller…especially if it feeds into the niggling doubts at the back of our mind that we choose to ignore most of the time.

So when James Lovelock, the author of Gaia, the book that us young idealists all embraced in the eighties, tells us in this month’s Rolling Stone magazine that the human race is doomed and that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, then we can’t but wonder if he is speaking the truth.

Reveng of GaiaIn his latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock claims that the Earth is heading towards the “tipping point” when it comes to global warming. In the article, he takes it one step further. He is convinced that by 2100 the world’s population will be as few as 500m, down from 6.6 billion today - due to mass migrations and pandemics caused by global warming. Droughts and extreme weather will be the norm and populations will have to live off man-made comestibles such as Quorn because there will be no land to grow food.

So far, nothing new. We have heard the climate change argument in the media every day in recent years. Many of us believe we are doing our bit. We think twice before booking a foreign holiday. We buy all the energy saving gadgets available. We take the bus to work. We share a bath. We think we are making a difference.

But according to Lovelock, we are not even scratching the surface. It’s just too late and we might as well stop trying now. He claims that ethical shopping is a scam and “Green is the colour of mould and corruption,” Strong words ( and in my experience, mould is grey spots on damp white Tshirts or fluffy white patches on forgotten cheese at the back of the fridge.)

What if he’s wrong? This could be precisely the WORST moment to stop trying. As Rachel Johnson says in her article about this on TimesOnline. says, “If Lovelock is right, well then it is all over, hard cheese, but if he’s wrong then he is telling people that nothing can be done, just at the point when there’s still one last chance to prevent the doomsday scenario that he lays before us with something bordering on relish.”

And ultimately, whether he is right or wrong, if hope is removed from human life, then what are we left with? No aspirations, no motivation, no purpose…no reason for living. There is within each one of us a belief in something better. The desire to make the world a better place is part of being human. We were made to care for the world and all that is in it. Admittedly, we have not made a particularly good job of it, to say the least. But whilst we have hope, then the essence of humanity remains intact.

We can be responsible about what we flush down our drains. We can improve the quality of the air we breathe. We can reuse, recycle and reduce the quantity of rubbish reaching the landfill sites. We can improve the quality of life for farmers around the world by buying organic. We can be less wasteful with the energy that we use. We can keep the hope alive.

Call me naïve, but in my world, green is the colour of the grass and the leaves, nature at its healthiest, new life. That’s the world view I want my kids to grow up with.

The Chocolate Challenge

No, it is not a competition to see who can eat the most chocolate biscuits during an episode of Eastenders. Nor who can name the most different types of chocolate bar on our supermarket shelves. Neither is it a pledge to go without chocolate for a whole day.

Hmmm lots of Divine Fairtrade ChocolateThis week, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, called for a boycott of all chocolate that is not certified as Fairtrade. This is “the chocolate challenge”. Recognising that we are a nation of chocoholics, - we eat more chocolate than any other nation in Europe - he urged us to always choose only fairtrade chocolate and to ask for it in stores where it is not available, adding “If you keep that promise, you could be playing your part in ending a 21st-century iniquity.

The Archbishop was speaking in Hull, the constituency of MP William Wilberforce, who put an end to the slave trade 200 years ago. What better place to point out that slavery is far from a thing of the past. According to the Stop the Traffik campaign for an end to modern slavery, more than 12,000 trafficked children are working on Ivory Coast plantations to produce 43 per cent of the world’s cocoa beans. So whilst child labour is prohibited in Britain, there is a clear link between cocoa bean production and the ongoing slave trade.

Ironically, as Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent for the Times points out on 31st October, most of the leading chocolate manufacturers in Britain were Quakers, many of whom campaigned for the abolition of slavery. An additional irony: Dr John Sentamu’s archiepiscopal seat is in the same city as the confectioner Nestlé Rowntree.

Cadbury does own the chocolate manufacturer Green & Black’s, founded in 1991 and awarded Britain’s first Fairtrade mark in 1994. Nestlé also has a stake in an independent supplier of Fairtrade chocolate.

Not enough.

According to Robert Beckford in “The Great African Scandal aired on Channel Four about a month ago, only 3% of the cocoa beans produced under fair trade conditions by the Kuapa Kokoo co-operative in Ghana are sold at the fair trade premium price. Consequently, 97% of their produce is grown under fair trade regulations - that is no child labour, fair wages for all workers - without obtaining a fair price.

So the fair trade produce is out there, but the big manufacturers refuse resolutely to pay a fair trade price. They know their have won our hearts via our stomachs. “The chocolate challenge” could be the only way to make a difference.

But can we actually do it? Do any of us have the willpower? Availability, variety, familiarity all conspire to tempt us back to our favourite brands. A fair trade choice is out there - Divine, Green and Blacks, Traidcraft, the Co-op to name a few - delicious alternatives admittedly, but still the decision involves forethought, resolve and the confidence to speak out. Not just as an occasional treat that tastes good and makes our conscience feel better for a while. This is a boycott of all non Fairtrade chocolate. Doesn’t it boil down in the end to whether any of us really care enough? Do you?

Amazing Grace

Before I forget, the organic re-education is still going strong. Less negative comments now by far.

Noticed in Asda today that Billingtons are now producing Fair Trade raw cane sugar from Malawi. A good start.

William WilbrforceIt reminded me of the scene in “Amazing Grace” where Wilberforce’s wife-to-be is explaining that she converted her friends to fair trade sugar by telling them that there was literally slaves’ blood in each spoonful of regular sugar. Now there’s a ploy. Maybe such a graphic shock was what was needed at that time to jolt the people out of their blissful ignorance.

Maybe that is still needed now. Sugar plantations still exploit their workers today. Fair trade sugar is still not the norm.

Wilberforce staged a boat trip to finish at one of the great slave ships of the day. Today we see images from around the world in our own homes and have became de-sensitised to the plight of those suffering from the choices that we have made. What can end the exploitation of workers around the world today? What will make us care?

My son was so impressed by William Wilberforce and his relentless pursuit of one cause. “Why aren’t there people like that around any more?” he wanted to know.

Is it that there are no big causes like that left to fight?

Is it that more people are engaged in campaigning making it less centred around one figure?

Could we put Bob Geldof in that category? Or Anita Roddick? Or Jonathan Porritt?

Is it that Government and the multinationals have become too big to fight?

The respect shown to Wilberforce at the end of the film by friend and foe alike was deeply moving. He used his gifts for the greater good. If my son and other viewers have gained a glimpse of that truth for themselves, then amazing grace still has a chance today.

Inspired to recycle?

My son was off school sick last Thursday. When boredom levels reached a peak, he decided to have a go at his GCSE Art coursework - a project on Rubbish. Whilst his artistic skills far exceed mine, he is always willing for me to help him come up with ideas…and on this subject, I would consider myself an expert! We have a house full of it for a start. Then there’s the recycling that we are totally committed to. Only a few days earlier, I had taken half a tonne of paper and card to the recycling depot.

He wasn’t impressed. For every idea, there was an objection - too hard, too boring, too…..

I picked up the local free paper. “What about this for an idea?” There before me was a gem. Gateshead Council is pledging to grow a fruit tree for every tonne of aluminium drinks cans and foil recycled over the next two years. A tree in Malawi, no less, where we intend to visit in July. My mind was teeming with ideas.

No. It’s meant to be still life.” A bucket of water thrown over my creative fire! I walked away; he went to watch TV. End of mother-son moment.

A great idea, though, isn’t it? The pledge by the Council, not my collage. Recycling aluminium is 20 times more efficient than making it from the raw material, according to the article.

That backs up my husband’s claim that aluminium is as close to recycling heaven as you can get. We were arguing about if the energy expended to recycle reduces the actual benefit of recycling. He was dubious about glass - reusing is definitely the best option but how could we ever return the correct jars and wine bottles to the appropriate manufacturer to be refilled? Think of the food miles that would clock up. As for tyres and plastic cups….

Redressing the balance

As promised, the voice of reason will prevail here as opposed to the wacky suggestions in my previous posting - which by the way was far more entertaining than this will be, so I suggest you definitely read that one first!

In 50 WAYS TO BE MORE FRUGAL, there is an obvious link in some of the tips between saving energy and saving money. Not exactly rocket science, I know, but here goes anyway:-

TIP 17: Cut your speed from 70mph to 60mph for a petrol saving of about 15%.

TIP 25: Change a 100W light bulb to a 60W one which costs 40% less to operate. (Although surely changing to a low energy 12w light bulb would be even better?)
TIP 44: Turn TVs and computers off. Equipment on standby may be using one third of the power of being on, but nobody is benefiting except the power companies.

TIP 50: Buy British grown foods in season. It’s economical and helps the country.

Not the most innovative and imaginative of the tips, I’ll grant you that. But saving energy does indeed save money - just look at the success of the Electrisave (now called the Owl) to see that people are interested in how to do both.

Our plumber is trying to sell us a new boiler on the grounds that it will pay for itself in fuel savings. In my lifetime? I don’t think so. I am interested in a more energy efficient boiler for environmental reasons though. Seemingly, that is not such an attractive selling point to most people as saving money is. Perhaps the environmental lobby need to appeal to the selfishness of the nation by couching their energy saving ideas in flamboyant money saving claims.

It could take lessons from our frugality experts. In comparison to the more weird and wacky suggestions in the list, these four seem remarkably sane and ‘doable‘. Energy saving suddenly appears a whole lot more attractive.