Before reading this post, try a quick exercise. Picture your wardrobe or chest of drawers and choose the item of clothing you believe is the most ‘sustainable’. If you’re anything like me you will have chosen an organic cotton tee-shirt (based on the mode and method of production) or a pair of jeans (as you wear these at least 3-4 times a week), or perhaps a beloved item that you’ve owned for years and years and is still going strong. This is a bit of a trick exercise, since the fact is you could have chosen any item that you already own. Is it preferable if it was manufactured in an ethical and sustainable way? Undoubtedly, but the very fact that you already own it means that it has begun its own path to sustainability. This item now has a life. A life that it is your job to prolong, giving it the ability to sustain itself for the future.
Modern society has not only lost the notion of previous generations to ‘Make do and Mend’ but since the introduction of so-called ‘disposable’ living, our expectations have been drastically diminished with regards to how long items should last. In her outstanding book A Life Less Throwaway – The Lost Art of Buying for Life, Tara Button speaks of planned obsolescence, essentially the concept of designing items with a short and finite lifespan, unable to be fixed, rendering the product useless and in need of replacing. This pattern has ‘helped’ countless manufacturers the world over to achieve consistent financial growth through fast product turnover. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, the idea of buying a new toaster or kettle every 3 years or so is simply ludicrous. There is no reason (other than for companies to persuade you to buy a new product) why items could not and should not be designed to be fixed.
So who is at fault? The answer to this is all of us. It is the fault of the manufacturers that products are rarely being built to last, but it is also our fault as consumers. We need to be incredulous, up in arms and demanding more. Ask yourself one simple question and be honest…when you last purchased a product, say for the kitchen (be it a toaster, frying pan or smoothie blender) did you make a conscious decision to buy the best you could so that the product would last, or was your primary concern how much the product cost? Possibly it was a bit of both, but we are all guilty, me included, of putting cost too high up on the list when it comes to purchases. When I needed to buy a new kettle last year, my decision making process went along the following lines:
- Does it match my toaster and look good in my kitchen?
- Is it a brand that I know of and by extension believe to be good (based primarily on effective advertising)?
- How does it compare in price to other kettles that fit with the above criteria?
- Is it discounted from its original price (because I love a bargain)?
Oddly, I wasn’t overly fussed about its ability, speed and effectiveness in boiling water. Most worryingly, it never entered my mind to look at reviews to discover the average longevity of the product, or indeed investigate the construction to see if it was potentially fixable.
Top dollar doesn’t always equal top quality. It is worth remembering that the best products on the market are not necessarily the most expensive, however, we would do well to remind ourselves that it can often be far more cost effective to spend 25-50% more on a product that will last 20 or 30 years (or more) as opposed to buying and replacing cheap products every 3-7 years. There are many ways to discover the best bang for your buck. Which? has long been a go-to reference for savvy consumers. Whilst not exhaustive, it offers a good range of options to compare and contrast, helping guide you on your path to becoming an educated consumer. Tara Button’s website BuyMeOnce is a one stop shop “to change the way we shop and live by championing the longest-lasting and most sustainable products on Earth”. When my husband and I got married, we like many others had a gift list should any of our friends and family wish to buy us a present they knew we really wanted. Much to our delight his colleagues at the time chose to buy us a very large Le Creuset casserole dish. I remember Rich mentioning that one of them had apologised for giving us such a boring gift! On the contrary, this ‘boring’ gift though much used, still looks brand new after 8 years and I fully expect it to be the last and only casserole dish we will ever own. Built to last, it is the ultimate in sustainability.
Sustainability is not about recycling, but repurposing, reworking, renewing and reusing. Recycling is a complicated subject, one that requires and deserves a blog all of its own. Suffice it to say that it takes a phenomenal amount of time, energy, money and resources to provide and produce effective recycled products. Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t recycle, but if a product can be used by someone else in its original form, close to its original form or in an adapted form, so much the better.
A champion of creating the new, beautiful and innovative from another person’s trash is designer Laura Zabo. Often the most creative and stunning items are born from that which is functional, mundane and ugly. Enter tyres and inner tubes. This designer has well and truly reinvented the wheel. In fact, she’s kept it spinning by upcycling car and bicycle tyres and inner tubes into jewellery, footwear, bags, belts, guitar straps and dog accessories. Originally inspired by her travels around Tanzania where she “caught sight of some handmade brightly-painted sandals at a Maasai market” made entirely from repurposed car tyres, Zabo “immediately fell in love with the idea that functional products could be created out of trash”.
With “3 billion tyres dumped globally every year”, Zabo recognised that there was a wealth of raw material, if only she could get her creative hands on it and work some magic.
Beginning her journey by designing and crafting tyre belts from her home in London, she has grown her eco-conscious, sustainable and ethical business to include all manner of breathtaking products. Constantly looking to build upon her range she is working on a new footwear range for this autumn. Visit her website to find out more! Simply put, Zabo has turned a problem into a solution and created something exceptional in the process.
So what can we do to live a more sustainable life? The first and most important factor is to ask ourselves if we need to make a new purchase. So-called ‘retail therapy’ creates a feeling of euphoria. The excitement of buying something new provides a very real but short term high, after which you may well experience buyer’s remorse. Ask yourself if anything you currently own can fulfil the same function as that which you’re about to buy, or can it be adapted to do so? Above all, do you need to buy brand new or could you buy second hand? Purchasing upcycled or repurposed items prolongs their life, therefore you become a link in the chain of sustainability.
Giving away unwanted items that you already own is nothing to be ashamed of. It is far more wasteful to give houseroom to things you’ll never use rather than offer or sell them to someone who may be able to imbue them a new lease of life. Investigate whether you have any local shelters that may be grateful for clothing, furniture and household items, donate to your local charity shop or upload bits and pieces to a local Facebook or ‘boot sale’ site. If you have a good recycling centre they may well have a shop that would be only to happy to receive items that they can restore and sell on at a small profit. If all else fails, seek out a clothes bank or find out the appropriate and eco-friendly way to dispose of your unwanted items. Remember when throwing things away, there’s no such thing as ‘away’!
Above all, if you must make a new purchase, ensure you’re buying the best for the job. Is it produced ethically? Does it come with a lifetime guarantee? Does it have the potential to be fixed down the line? Has it gained good independent reviews and recommendations?
One person’s trash really is another’s treasure…we just need to recognise the value in the first place.