Wednesday 10 June 2020

Lockdown Day 79 -Small Steps-Part 3

In yesterday's blog I looked at local food options, food miles and ethical food options, and today I want to look at how purchases of consumer goods and services can be done more sustainably.

You may have heard about the "circular economy". This is where products are re-used, recycled, re-manufactured, repaired making minimal use of inputs. I looked at recycling in my first "Small Steps" blog two days ago. But the concept goes much further than just recycling. You may have heard of Repair Cafes - where consumer goods, rather than being thrown away when they are broken, (as it has been hitherto easier and cheaper to just buy a new item than get it repaired through the manufacturer) are repaired while-you-wait by people with those skills in the community. How this will continue in the new normal of coronavirus remains to be seen but the concept needs to somehow as the amount of electronic waste, for instance, thrown away each year is huge - in 2013 a UN Report found that the UK generated 1.5Mt of electronic waste  and much of this could be either repaired or recycled. When I used to work in IT, I used a firm that would collect from us - for free if over 40 items/boxes - all our redundant electronic items, cables etc and then crushed and melted it down to extract all the different metals from it, including gold from the circuit boards and other rare earth metals.

At the charity shop I work for any donated clothes that are too damaged to sell are sent to a clothing recycling firm and the charity gets money for this, and we also send to another company things like sharp knives (that we can't sell for safety reasons) and broken jewellery and receive money for this. So you have local people donating things they no longer want, which we either sell to (in general) local people or, if we can, recycle if not saleable, where the money earned goes into supporting a local hospice which (aside from the support of end of life care) keeps local people in jobs who then spend money in the local communities and so on.

Unfortunately, the options there are to support truly local businesses have been in decline for decades. Look at any high street - with a few notable exceptional localities - you'll see mostly big chain stores, chain restaurants, chain pubs, chain takeaways where the profit is sent into one big - often shareholder owned or remote ownership - pot and many of these have become quite adept at avoiding the taxes they are supposed to pay on that profit. Whilst of course these also employ local people and indeed can provide valuable work and training for many local people, ultimately much of the profit from the business leaves the local area, maybe even overseas. If they require contractual services - for instance building work or maintenance, these are also often subcontracted out to big companies or firms that have no connection to the local area - I once saw a firm of shopfitters from Leeds working on a shop in Bournemouth (whilst this is of course providing the shopfitters with work, aside from maybe a bite to eat or perhaps a stay in a guest house, most of the money for the job leaves the local area where the work is taking place)

Compare this to a small business shop owner who will most likely live fairly locally, who will (in general) contract services from firms in the local area, will spend more of their money made through profit in the local area and perhaps work more closely with other local businesses in the promotion of the local area and in other community activities.

The rising cost of rents and business rates are often partly to blame for the demise of local shops, the trend over decades now to large out of town retail parks has diminished town centres, small shops like greengrocers and butchers can't compete on economies of scale that large supermarkets can, even though, for instance the product a local butcher may supply will often have come from a farmer he/she will know well in the local area, and you are getting a much more personal service than when you get from a row of pre-packaged meat in a chiller cabinet at the supermarket with much more traceability. The product itself may well be much more ethically produced than in a major retail service sector where the pressure is on - for reasons of cost cutting in order to appear the cheapest - to cut corners and produce more intensively.

In terms of the actual products themselves, there are a number of criteria by which a product should be evaluated for ethical standards. Where was the product made/produced? What proportion of the cost of the produce does the actual producer get? - a principle of fair trade. How was the product made or produced, using what materials and how sustainable is this? Can the product be recycled? How are the workers treated by the manufacturer? How local is the production? (there can for some products be a balance between this local criteria and the other factors - for instance you may wish to buy a product produced by a cooperative working in Africa, traded using fair trade principles rather than a more locally produced factory version). How durable is the product - the Buy Me Once website specifically looks at products that are built to last.

On the last point - products being built to last - how many of you have older items - for instance kitchenware cutlery, maybe white goods or other consumer items that were built or made twenty to thirty years ago (or even older) that are still going strong? Have you noticed that a lot of products nowadays have what seems to be a built in obsolescence or the manufacturers or retailers want you to ditch what is a perfectly good and working piece of equipment in order to upgrade to the next model or get some features that may or may not be useful but just sound good? How many of those now redundant items get sold on or recycled?

We have quite a bit of Sheffield cutlery at home perfectly useable, my mum uses a pre-Second World War jam pan, our original microwave only recently gave up the ghost after, I think, twenty-six years of service. The wok is now thirty years old. I have a printer and a printer/scanner that are over ten years old at least, both bought second hand from charity shops. Our piano is late Victorian and about a solid an instrument as you are ever likely to get! Plenty of opportunity to buy durable old items at charity shops and outdoor fairs and second hand markets.

We bought a Liebherr fridge/freezer as it does seem the case that German made brands (especially kitchenware) are designed with durability and efficiency in mind - though we noticed on our last trip to Germany that there is much less production in Germany than previously with some manufacturers succumbing to using imports from the Far East unfortunately.

So, there's plenty of ways in which you can be more sustainable and ethical both in terms of the products you buy and the community that you buy them in.

Tomorrow I look at household resilience

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