REFLECTIONS OF A SHOPKEEPER - Perfectly Imperfect Choices

Posted by Louise Humpington on

This picture may seem innocuous. A bus ticket from this morning when I dropped the kids off at nursery. But it triggered in me this whole process of thoughts about the kind of choices that I made that morning. The kind of choices I make every day, often without thinking about their impact. 
One of the questions that we get asked in the shop a lot is 'what is the most eco friendly or sustainable choice?' The problem with this question and the reason most people find the journey to zero waste so difficult is because it is exactly that, difficult. Difficult and complex. 
So here's my brain dump. Ready? 
We don't get the bus often. Usually I drive. With three kids and all the rushing about we do, it's definitely the more convenient and time efficient option. It's also one of our least environmentally friendly choices. We have a seven seater diesel that we bought second hand years ago. We do need a seven seater to cater for the three adults and three kids in our household. We can't afford to buy a seven seater electric vehicle and so we're driving this one until it's no longer viable. Even though we aren't in a position to do it anyway, I have thought a lot about the sustainability of electric vehicles. In some ways they are a fabulous eco option. However, they are also a human rights nightmare. I was chatting recently to a friend who is one of the UKs leading environmental consultants (check out The Green Element by the way if you're a business wanting to green up about exactly this. 
The batteries used to power electric vehicles (and mobile phones) use cobalt. Cobalt is mined almost exclusively in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). It is both a financial lifeline for many and riddled with human rights abuses, intolerable working conditions, slavery and child labour. The UK government is pushing the legislative framework in a way that forces consumers into buying electric vehicles, and yet is doing nothing to ensure that the supply chains are robust and ethically sound. It's yet another example of a rich and privileged country buying their way out of one problem, whilst foisting the negative impact onto a developing country with a vulnerable population. So should we not buy them? I don't think that is the answer either. Certainly second hand is always best if youcan, and from a sustainability and a human rights front that would be the answer. But there is no question that from a carbon emissions perspective the electric vehicle wins. Want to know more? Here is an excellent blog post from last year: 
Then there is the cost of the ticket. To be honest I was pretty shocked. I have several trips to do today between Burntisland and Kirkcaldy so the day rider was the best option. But £6.50 seemed really expensive. I don't think we'd be able to afford to do that every day. Between fuel and servicing and insurance and mot and the odd repair, I reckon we probably spend around £800 - £1000 a year on our vehicle (which services six of us). If we were to buy a monthly pass for the three adults in our household covering the area we regularly travel it would cost us nearly £2,700 a year. So, doing the eco friendly thing in this situation is considerably more expensive. And that doesn't even begin to address the issues it raises for people on low incomes and the impact it has on social mobility. 
But what about the other choices I made today? My clothing and accessories for example. Actually I did pretty well here. Brand new jeans with a £300 price tag (for goodness sakes) that I bought from Loraine Walker Couture Second Chance Couture Collection for £15 on Saturday (do check her closing down sale out for some amazing bargains - you'll find her on Kinghorn High Street). Second hand Jack Wills gilet from eBay (£15). Hand me down nursing top from a friend. Turtle Dove hand warmers (a Christmas gift) are made from recycled cashmere. So there is a big tick for recycled and but a debate to be had over whether in the long run schemes like this perpetuate the unsustainable cashmere market, or whether they solve a problem that exists by giving a second life to an expensive fabric that might otherwise be wasted. I think the answer is both. The eco credentials of the company who make these are excellent and they are providing a partial solution to the problem. But more certainly needs to be done to clean up the fashion industry especially with materials like cashmere and angora which are in high demand and have been riddled with animal and human rights abuses for years. The bag was new but it's made from Hemp fabric and sourced from a fair trade company. My wedding and engagement rings were made from recycled and traceable materials. So wins on both of those from. My Boots. Bad. Definitely not eco friendly materials and I suspect that the supply chain is also...suspect. But I have medical issues with my feet which severely limit the options that I have. I'm sure that there are a huge number of people who will identify with having either a physical or mental capacity issue that makes it more challenging to access the most sustainable choices. That's ok. You can't take that on yourself and we all need to be mindful of the impact that, particularly hidden disabilities, have on people's ability to access the range of choices that might be available to another person. 
I did well to bring my own coffee cup. Yay. But then forgot my eco bag so I nicked another one from my shop as I was passing. Yet another bloody bag to add to our collection and my husband will be (rightly) shaking his head in horror. See the thing about these sustainable switches is that they are only eco friendly if we don't keep taking more and more of them. Reducing our consumption entirely is truly the most sustainable choice. 
And then as I'm standing at the bus stop in Kirkcaldy I see this enormous box of artificial grass being displayed next to some beautiful real plants. Now this sort of greenwashing drives me potty. Visually implying that the two are of equal value when in fact one is essentially a large sheet of plastic. It reminded me of a petition that I saw recently which is asking Parliament to require planning permission for the installation of artificial grass. (it's here if you want to sign: On the other hand many people who choose this option do so because they have mobility issues that prevent them from being able to tend a real grass garden. And so is my aversion to this option steering me into the realms of ableism? Quite likely. And now my brain hurts. I feel discombobulated and fatigued. I feel proud of some of my choices and intensely bothered about others. I feel like you probably also do. But do you know what is more important than whether I have got every choice 'right' (whatever that means)? It's that I care. That I give enough of a toss to actually want to think these these through and make changes to try to make a difference. And that is where you need to give yourself both a break and the credit you deserve. You care. And you want to do better. 
The bottom line is, that there are very few sustainable lifestyle choices that address all the different problems that exist, and so doing your best in one area might mean compromising on an issue in another. And do you know what? That's OK. What being on this journey is all about is educating yourself. Not so that you beat yourself up when you don't get it perfect. But so that you are armed with the tools to make the best choices you can when you have the capacity to do so. And that's a significant point. You might know what the most sustainable option is, but for millions of reasons it might not be the best choice for you at that point in time. When we know better we do better. But be generous with yourself if you have other considerations to take into account.

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