Sunday, 28 April 2013

Part 5: 90% Stuff continued

I am trying to get my head around measuring how much stuff I ‘consume’ and how to reduce it to 90% of the average American’s consumption. How much stuff do we consume in the UK and how do we compare? I am struggling with the measurement of this, because counting money spent would be the simplest, but does that really equate to stuff?

For instance, if I were to stop at McDonald’s and buy a Happy Meal, it comes complete with a crap plastic toy that amuses kids for about 3 minutes. Sometimes these toys come with tiny batteries to make them flash, sing or beep. If you want to dispose of this toy safely, you are supposed to remove the batteries first. Has anyone else tried to do this? They were never designed for the batteries to be removed, and I have resorted to using a hacksaw on occasions. (This must contravene some EU regulations surely?)

What I’m trying to say is that some stuff, like the McD toy, comes for free and is completely useless. Yet significant amounts of energy and raw materials have been used to produce it, it has been transported long distances and is in no way re-usable or recyclable. Compare this to my favourite jumper which was rather expensive, because it is a fair-trade item that was hand-knitted in Nepal (yes, still not local), with 100% wool, and it will keep me warm for years, until it is worn out, when it will go to be recycled. More expensive still was my bike, but by using it I save fuel, get exercise, have fun and if I keep it maintained it could last for decades. When I give up cycling or get a new bike, it will be sold second-hand and could continue to be used and enjoyed.

How can we measure stuff based on the amount we spend alone, when there is so much more involved than that? I have decided to monitor our stuff for a month by keeping a photo record of everything I buy. This won’t include food stuff and toiletries which I am dealing with separately, or work purchases. Already this is an eye-opener, and it is making me consider much more, whether it is really necessary and if there are alternatives, such as buying more things second-hand instead. I will post the full compilation on the 1st May.

I like the idea of buying second hand clothes. The original owner is responsible for the resources used and pollution created, so in theory I can buy them with a free conscience. Some of my friends and my eldest daughter find fantastic outfits for next to nothing in the second hand shops and online, but I am not good at it. Firstly, having spent the last 20 years shopping with young kids in tow, I avoid any shops that require hunting through clothes for the correct size. After a minute of standing still, my children become bored and then start playing hide and seek in the clothes rails, or start whinging. This diverts my attention and raises my stress level, so I will undoubtedly leave empty-handed. Nowadays I get some free time without kids, but it seems too precious to spend shopping.

Secondly, I am not an average size which cuts down on choice. With a bunch of clothes from different outlets the sizes can vary and everything needs to be tried on, regardless of what the label says.

I am not bothered about fashion or having lots of different outfits. I would rather buy something new, that I like, is good quality and is a nice fit, and then wear it until its only good for rags. This way I really get my money’s worth. Young children’s clothes are often outgrown before they are worn out, so there is much more potential for ‘hand-me-downs’. I look for fair-trade and organic items, but apart from the expense, they are not easy to find in larger sizes or for kids.
Meanqueen has some money saving tips on her blog Life AfterMoney, one of which is that she always wears mens pants because they are designed to last far longer than womens. It is definitely true that mens clothes are designed to be much more hard-wearing. Good news for my shopping averse husband, who’s clothes seem to last him decades ;-)
Other than clothes for me, I get given a lot of second hand stuff, from cookbooks to tennis rackets, knitting needles, kids clothes, jigsaws and garden tools. Also some things we have had the opportunity to buy secondhand, for instance cars, our sofa, printers, computers, mobiles, and books. With the all the internet sites for selling unwanted goods, this is so much easier and very popular now. But where we excel is not buying things in the first place. Well, maybe ‘excel’ is too strong a word, but I think we are quite good at this.  

Rule one is if you don’t go shopping, then you don’t buy anything. If you do have to shop then make a list and try to stick to it. I will only buy furnishings and furniture if my partner is with me, because I like to buy something we agree on. Of course he hates shopping for furnishings, so that cuts out a lot of spending opportunities. Kids toys is an area where I used to take care, especially when they were younger, selecting toys that would last, can be shared and could be added to, like lego, board games and a climbing frame (after 16 years I gave it to my cousin for her children!).

Reducing the amount we spend on stuff by 90% seems incredibly hard. It isn’t just a matter of cutting back. To achieve anywhere near this reduction will involve some lifestyle changes. Changing the way you shop, determining what your true needs are, minimising what you need, re-using items, sourcing secondhand goods, buying things to last longer, maintaining what you already have, sharing where you can and making things yourself, are all going to be necessary to achieve such an ambitious, but necessary, target. Hmmm....

Checkout why this reduction is so necessary here.

Friday, 26 April 2013


I had a vivid dream that I thought I would share. It went like this.....

We arrived at a campsite, a lovely green grassy field sloping down to a beautiful golden sandy beach and the sea beyond. It was a typical British coastal scene complete with dunes and a cafe selling teas, but not anywhere real that I had visited. There was a stiff breeze at first, so there weren’t many people on the campsite or wandering along the beach, but everyone I saw smiled at us and nodded a polite greeting.

I felt that we should pick a pitch and set up camp first, but the sea sparkled in the light and the soft, golden sand looked warm and enticing, so we ambled down to the beach. We walked along the beach and then sat on the sand, and enjoyed the feel of the warm sand. The children ran to the sea and we relaxed, breathing in the beautiful scenery and enjoying the tranquillity, in the early evening sun.

When we finally turned back to the campsite the number of people around had swollen, and as we reached the edge of the camping field it was busy. At a glance I could see that all the best pitches had been taken. The ones that I had coveted, on the flat ground closest to the beach, with a wonderful view out to sea, were now full of close-knitted tents. So began the hunt for a suitable plot to pitch the tent on, though it was a choice of severely sloping land or a rather boggy patch. All the while the field filled up with more tents and more people, and we were driven further back up the steep hill away from the view and the beach.

Now I am not normally one to dwell on dreams but this one was rather vivid and seemed to convey so many possible meanings. It may be the story of my longing for some land. Finding a patch to reside on, in order to become more resilient and sustainable, is becoming harder and harder. The impossible task of trying to find an affordable plot locally is it's own nightmare. Or the dream could be conveying my concern about overpopulation, and the worry of how there can be enough space and resources for everyone. (That may be due to commenting on population increases before going to bed.) Or perhaps it is just that spring is in the air and there is always so much that needs to be done, but the temptation is to sit out in the warm sunshine and just be.

It is also a reminder about leaving things too late, just as in the story of the cricket and the ant. The ant spent his time wisely, working steadily all summer to collect food to store for the winter. The cricket however enjoyed the summer relaxing and left it too late to prepare for winter. Then as the last leaves are falling and there are barely any nuts or fruit left, the cricket realises he has left it too late and scurries around at the last minute trying to find the last scraps of the harvest. He wishes he had followed the advice of the ant rather than laughing at him. 

I have been working on my garden, preparing a new vegetable patch and growing seeds indoors. I am also planning to de-clutter and re-organise to give me more storage space in the kitchen. In fact my head is full of jobs and improvements and my desk is covered in to-do lists, which I am slowly ticking off. But the warm sun has been sorely missed.

Last summer was not great. The sunniest week in the Midlands, was the week that we weren’t there. We were on holiday in Ireland. The West coast of Ireland is beautiful and full of history and dramatic scenery, but we barely got more than an hour or two at a time when it wasn’t raining. The weather varied between a light drizzle, to a full downpour (as it had for the previous month in England!). My shorts barely made it out of my bag, let alone beachwear! And yes we were mad enough to be camping on a sloping green field with a view out towards the golden beach and sea beyond.......

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Part 4: 90% Stuff

I am getting my thoughts together on ‘stuff’. This is what I call consumer goods, that is all the products we buy, give to others, horde and feel that we need or must have. The Story of Stuff gives a quite clear introduction into the environmental effect of all this stuff, and I would recommend watching it and getting your kids to watch it. It is really tempting to classify all ‘stuff’ as useless junk, and whilst some of it is, it also includes things like books, tools, clothes, bikes and computers. In my mind these things are essentials, so how do you tackle reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ we buy by 90%? In fact how do you even start to measure it? 

There have been some rather good photographic accounts recently. The first is an amazing photographic project based in China and displays peoples belongings laid out in front of their home. Looking at what people own in other parts of the World really puts a perspective on our own belongings. The other project The Poverty Line is photographing how much food you can buy on the poverty line of each particular country. This is an excellent visual comparison and very clever, as it manages to compare countries in a way that shows the different cost of goods in those places. So for instance in China food is cheap, whereas it is very expensive in Japan, so you need a lot more money to survive in Japan than in China.  

Sharon Astyk in her book ‘Depletion and Abundance: Life onthe New Home Front’ talks about how she tried to reduce her families environmental impact by 90% of the average American. I rather liked how that looked, so I’m looking at the differences here in the UK and how we could achieve that kind of reduction. Sharon equated the ‘stuff’ by how much she spent, so reducing spending by 90% should be the same as a 90% reduction in stuff. As food, transport, electricity, heating fuel and water are dealt with separately, I am not going to include them in the calculation of spending on consumer goods.  

This is one area where you may think there is an advantage to being poor. I mean if you have little money to spend, then what you have goes on essentials and isn’t wasted on frivolities, right? I don’t think this necessarily holds true. Advertising tries to tell us we deserve a better life, and that this face cream will make us more beautiful and life so much happier, or using that aftershave will give you the David Beckham appeal, or wearing those branded trainers will make you into somebody special. There was the scandal that I will never forget, of Nestle selling expensive baby milk powder to women in countries where there was no clean water supply. Women were changing from healthy, free, breast milk to powdered milk made in unsterilized conditions, leading to an increase in infant deaths. Of course the powerful advertising made it seem healthier for your baby and what parent wouldn’t want the best for their child, whether you could afford it or not? In short we are all being exploited to some extent.

Erica who writes the North West Edible Life blog, has written a useful post called ‘Occupy Your Brain (Why you don’t really want whatyou want)’. She talks about value-based spending and how advertising influences what we spend our money on. She has a nifty and very simple table to help us think about what we really want when we buy things. The ‘What I really want from my purchases chart’ makes you consider why you want something and what problems or feelings you hope to address with it. The outcome is that what you really want may not be what you think you want. For instance the bookshelves I ‘wanted’ for my cookbooks, well actually what I really want is a tidy cupboard and some menu plans. If you feel any big purchases coming up, then try working through her chart first. It only takes a few minutes and you may be surprised by the results.

There is still a lot to say about stuff, so I will continue the theme of 90% stuff in another post.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Something for Nothing

I have had a good day of getting something for nothing yesterday. When I say for nothing I mean for no money, though some time and effort were involved.

It started with getting a few months of extra wear out of my daughter’s school trousers. She is growing so fast that I was debating whether to cut a little slit at the bottom of the trouser legs and call them cropped trousers, but in the end I let the hems down and gained an inch. They won’t last for much longer, but hopefully until its warm enough for summer dresses. Any way this is the photo she took today of the first butterfly we have had in the garden this year. Now that is worth celebrating :-) (Or it would be if the dog hadn't trodden on it soon after!)

Then a generous lady called Suella had offered the Transition Group some manure for the community allotment. I volunteered to collect it along with Steve, and we managed to fill 17 sacks, 14 for the community allotment and 3 for me. Some will go on the raspberries and the rest on the veg patch. The sun shone, the sheep baa-ed and the conversation was good... quite pleasant really.

By the time I got home I realised I was too late to start cooking the meal I had planned, but the only other meat in the fridge was a few slices of lamb, leftover from a roast. There was not enough to make a whole meal, but too much to give the dog. Cornish pasties saved the day. They are a brilliant way of making a small amount of meat go a long way because they are packed with veg and they are very filling. My boys gobbled them up and I even got a rare compliment on how delicious they were.
And now for the grand finale. Look at my gorgeous rhubarb!
I do not force my rhubarb. It feels a little bit cruel to deprive it of what little sunlight there is, and in return I am always rewarded with a rather superb crop, which just continues all summer. I don’t know why this rhubarb is early. It is a sheltered location and it did get a helping of manure earlier in the year, but my other rhubarb plants, just a couple of metres away, have barely poked their noses out. Anyway, here’s to home grown rhubarb crumble tonight to celebrate the first edible harvest of the year. May there be many more to come!

Friday, 12 April 2013


I am busy working on my next 90% post about ‘Stuff’, but having heard some good news, I couldn’t resist having a good rant about land issues in the UK first.

Land is pretty much at a premium in the UK. It’s not that it is in such short supply, I mean there are vast swathes of land surrounding the towns and cities, but historically the commoner has been herded off the land and into cities. Property with land in the countryside is now unaffordable to the vast majority. Despite the recognition that there is an acute lack of affordable housing in many rural areas, planning permission for new affordable housing is rarely given. Still nothing is being done to stop existing properties being bought as second homes, pricing the locals out with devastating effects for local communities. (Simon Fairlie’s book ‘Low ImpactDevelopment: Planning and People in a Sustainable Countryside’ is very good at explaining the history that has led us to the current situation. If you are interested in these issues you could also try subscribing to ‘The Land’ magazine.)

There is a fake view of the countryside that has permeated in the UK. This is the view that the countryside was always large open fields with barely a building in sight. This is not true, as can be seen from many old paintings. Farms from necessity were much smaller in scale and labour-intensive, before the advent of cheap oil. Labourers needed to live close to where they worked. People were part of the countryside, small villages were communities that served the farms around them.

There is never going to be even a small influx of people moving back to the countryside to work on the land, with the current Planning structure in place. This doesn’t help us become more resilient. As the price of oil increases, with increasing demand from a growing global population and higher standards of living, not to mention the decreasing availability of oil now that the peak in production has passed, the cost of growing food in an energy-intensive manner will also increase and become less viable.

The Ecological Land Cooperative have been working to help small scale farming and smallholders to get started. They put together a proposal for 3 affordable smallholdings complete with 3 low impact dwellings, communal barn and PV array, at Greenham Reach in Devon. The work and effort that has been put in, to make it a sustainable and ecologically sound proposal, as well as working to meet the planning requirements, is amazing. Unfortunately the local District Councillors still turned down the planning application, but the project has now been granted planning permission through appeal. Hurrah!

One of the District Council’s objections was that it would set a precedent for future applications. I sincerely hope that this is the case and that genuinely ecologically sound, sustainable, low impact projects like this one get given a chance. Well done ELC and may your good work continue J

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The joy of making

I met a lovely lady called Helen at the Transition Allotment. She has been helping with the skillshare events by sharing her sewing skills. Using some old hand-powered Singer sewing machines, you get to make a Morsbag, which is a shopping bag made from recycled fabric. I saw people doing this at one of the events, but I haven’t had a chance to have a go yet.

I have my Nanny’s (maternal grandmother) old sewing machine at home, though I haven’t made the time to use it yet. I have been a bit reluctant because I felt that I didn’t have the skill, but talking to Helen has brought back a flood of memories to the contrary.

My mum taught me to knit, and I remember making basic jumpers as a teenager (and wearing them!). My sister and I would sew our own dolls clothes from scraps of material. They weren’t perfectly made, but they were ingeniously designed by us kids. I started a dressmaking course in the evenings, when I was at college and bought a second hand sewing machine for £20. Between working nights and keeping up with college work, I soon gave up on the dressmaking course and the sewing machine never really worked properly. I had no money for a proper sewing machine so I hand-stitched items instead. The week my eldest daughter was born I was hand sewing some pyjamas for my husband. We were rather poor, so I made quite a few baby clothes by hand and my mum knitted all the baby jumpers. My favourite outfit was a yellow spotty playsuit that I made.

The material was bought cheaply from the market, and you really don’t need much to cover a baby. The patterns were free in magazines or I made them up myself, and then used them over again, but with different coloured materials. It is the small delicate details of babies clothes that are perfect for hand-stitching. When my second child came along I ran out of time and all I sew now are name labels and Brownie badges, but even that gives me some satisfaction. I really enjoyed making things and just the memories bring a warm glow. This is definitely something that I would like to start doing again and get my youngest daughter interested in.

I also designed and built a pirate-ship bed. My son loved it, and it had a den inside, under the bow and storage shelves for toys at the stern. It was special for the kids because it was unique and magical. Really I am rather amazed at how I just worked it out for myself without any help, then had the courage to build it. (I can’t find any photos, but it was before we had a digital camera.)

The adult response to the bed was rather negative – beds should look like beds, plain, boring and professionally made, preferably by a man. It’s sad because now, 13 years later, I am questioning whether I am competent to put up some shelves, which I have managed perfectly well in the past. Maybe I have been influenced by negative comments, or perhaps building flat-pack furniture saps all your practical skills.

There are a number of projects which I would like to try my hand at, but was feeling a bit apprehensive. All these memories have reminded me that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. It is always worth having a go.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Part 3: Food Storage

This post continues the investigation into how a target of 90% carbon emission reduction can be achieved in the UK and compares our situation with that of Sharon Astyk, author of ‘Depletion and Abundance’, ( ) based in the USA. After looking at food production, it seemed worth a short piece on food storage and also touching on our diets and the food choices we make. Are these likely to be barriers to the UK becoming more self-sufficient in food?

The average dwelling in England has a floor area of 80m2 (860 ft2) ( The average US dwelling is over 2.5 times larger at 214m2 (2,300 ft2). I like this diagram from BBC News at, which gives you an idea of the difference in space, between European countries, Australia and the USA.

Our 4 bed-roomed 1980’s detached house is fairly roomy at about 120 m2 (1,290ft2), but like many nowadays, it was built without any storage spaces. There is a loft, which is not tall enough to stand up straight in, but certainly no cellar (basement) or pantry. The single garage is our only storage area really, but it is already full of bikes, tools, camping gear, archived documents, business equipment, sledges and leftovers from DIY projects. (It was a very tight fit for a car anyway!)

We are a family of 6, 4 adults and 2 growing kids, although my oldest daughter is now at University for 30 weeks of the year, which means that everyone gets their own bedroom whilst she is away, but we still have to store her stuff while she is gone. We also run 2 businesses from home, so the traditional dining room is our office, and the kitchen table becomes a product preparation area.

I can’t store beans under the bed, because there is already spare bedding and clothes under there. The kitchen cupboards are full to bursting with at best 2 weeks worth of food for the family, a months supply of rice and 3 months supply of dog food. (Ok maybe I have got my priorities a little mixed up there :-) ) There is no utility area and every cupboard, drawer and shelf is full. There are many older properties in the UK which have cellars and traditional pantries though (A traditional pantry was built on an outside wall, with a small window or vent. It was common to have a low shelf, which was built of solid brick/ concrete and tiled so that it stayed cool for longer and was used to keep butter or cheese fresh before we had fridges.) Maybe building a lean-to against the house, that is pest-proof, would be a solution for us.

Does anyone store food in the UK? It seems to me that shopping for that evening and the next day is now quite common. Sharon Astyk talks about storing 2 years of supplies!

I suspect part of Sharon’s reserves are based on a ‘survivalist’ tactic. They appear to live in a more remote area, whereas my region isn’t normally prone to getting cut off by snow, or floods and doesn’t experience hurricanes. Groups going on Strike seem to present the most likely risk to supplies, and have done in my lifetime. Strikes can result in loss of power, so shops and food production facilities may be forced to close, or fuel (gasoline) restrictions preventing deliveries, or blockades such as at the French ports, restricting imports. Two years supply seems rather extreme to me, whereas one season’s worth seems more achievable and realistic. That way there is space to store any produce, from the previous season, and it gives some leeway if there is a poor harvest. It could also provide a safety net to help you survive a loss of income. It is certainly somewhere to start and aim for.

There is a significant upfront cost to storing a large quantity of food, unless it is your own produce. Sharon Astyk suggests spending an extra $10 on supplies every time you shop. Bulk purchases of some items can reduce the cost (which is why I have dog food and rice ;-) ) Encouraging local bulk buying schemes, could help reduce the price and may also encourage more people to have food stored locally increasing the resilience of the neighbourhood.

I can’t say I eat much out of a tin and not much that is pickled either. Virtually all our meat, fruit and veg is eaten fresh. When I have a glut of rhubarb or raspberries I would freeze them to preserve them for later, and when cooked there is very little difference compared to fresh produce. However my freezer is quite small, so there is a limit. In the book ‘Low Cost Living’ John Harrison describes how he saves lots of money bulk buying discounted fresh products from supermarkets at the end of the day and then just freezes them until required. Lots of the produce he grew was also harvested and frozen. The downside is that he described having 5 freezers! Many were old second hand ones he picked up, and I just cringe at what his electricity bill must be. Adding more electrical appliances is not an option if I want to reduce my emissions from electricity by 90%.
The alternative is to start including more preserved food into my family’s diet. This includes pickles, chutneys, jams, dried fruit, dried beans, smoked and preserved meats, tinned meats, tinned fruits and tinned vegetables (not just baked beans and tinned tomatoes!). The thought of tinned vegetables is the worst for me, because the process degrades the taste and texture, but I’m sure it won’t be so bad cooked with other things. Changing people’s taste and food habits is a tough one. Just experimenting with cooking with these ingredients more is somewhat daunting, but definitely worth a try. It might even lead to discovering new delicious dishes!

Eating more preserved foods, will also help us to eat more locally. The fresh food we eat in winter is clearly shipped in from warmer climates, and comes with a heavy carbon burden. If we can preserve our own produce or even locally grown produce and make it last longer, it will help to reduce the carbon burden of the food we eat. This isn’t to say that we should give up the bananas completely, but the more we can find locally grown, tasty alternatives the better prepared we will be for a future of expensive transport costs.

Food storage does need a bit of thought and planning, and the solution will mean that the bulk of produce may not be conveniently at hand in the kitchen. This is still more convenient than having to nip to the shops, and it builds personal resilience to food supply disruptions. It is a chance to rediscover more traditional foods and cooking / preserving techniques. Best of all it is about not letting any of your produce go to waste.