"We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that.”
When I set out to create a space with a vision of simple, sustainable luxury to use for my natural facial treatments, here in rural Somerset, I had no idea of how complex this might be.
Here’s a little insight into how my eyes were well & truly opened. I hope by sharing this, that in some small way, it will make a positive difference.
Short & Sweet – A Summary
If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read the whole account, but care about the environment & the future of your children, of birds, animals, trees, flowers, rivers, oceans, mountains, herbs, insects & the survival of our planet… then next time you buy something, consider this:
- Do I really need this?
- Can I find it 2nd hand?
- If I need something new, is there a clear ethical policy from the person, business or charity I am sourcing from, which fits my world view? Even if it doesn’t tick every single box, does it tick at least one or more?
- How can I influence change?
Read on to discover the questions I found myself asking as my project progressed.
The Lowdown - Wake Up!
“I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
I already thought of myself as someone who cared about sustainability, who has a love of nature ingrained, who goes the extra mile to make ethical choices. In my small business, OV naturals, I give natural & organic facial treatments & make natural skincare products. I use recycled paper, card, tape & mailing boxes. I source sustainable essential & plant oils, many organic, from small independent suppliers where possible. Synthetics are avoided in my facials and always have been. I have an ethical bank. As a family we use a green electricity tariff. I’m greening up the space around our home (a new build, on a brownfield site), to encourage the birds, wildlife & insects to inhabit this development. Trees, herbs, shrubs, grasses, flowers & wildflowers have been planted. As a family we support the local wildlife trust. These are only small steps in a complicated world & I'm sure there are many of you reading this who do a whole lot more.
It was only when I began to think about how to create a truly sustainable space in which to give my treatments, that I realised how far behind I was in my thinking. As the building work progressed, I watched the rubbish pile up in the skip – cellophane, plastic bags, polystyrene & cement. One day I stopped & stared at this ugly sight on the driveway & thought, what am I creating here? What will happen to all this waste? As I began to order what I needed to create a beautiful, tranquil environment, I started to consider what impact this, too, would have on the air that we breathe, the spaces we inhabit. All of those miles to transport goods to me from far afield & to return them when they were unsuitable, or damaged, or didn’t fit the description, or were of poor quality. All of that plastic packaging. It was time to up my game. To make truly conscious choices on a wider scale.
This is an account of how I created a green space, the difficulties I experienced, the heart-warming discoveries & my new outlook as a result.
Where to Begin?
My aim – to only buy products with sustainable and/or ethical credentials. How hard could it be?
Let’s start with the words themselves.
The Cambridge Dictionary definitions are as follows:
the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.
the study of what is morally right and wrong, or a set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong.
My motivation was simple: to create as little damage to the environment (& therefore to the natural world) as I possibly could, while still pursuing my dream, progressing my small business & continuing to have a positive impact on my local community through what I did for a living. To avoid goods where human beings were exploited in the creation & to actively seek out suppliers with strong ethical standards.
I also made a conscious decision to make the space completely vegan, so no animal products or derivatives (apart from a small amount of beeswax in two skincare products, with substitutes available for vegan clients).
I realised quickly that the only way to fulfil my aim was to ask questions, both of myself & of others – small businesses, large corporations, makers & sellers. Questions generated questions. I’ve never stopped asking & now, I never will. Here are some questions I asked & which will, I hope, inspire you to do the same.
What I Asked
Do I need to buy something brand new?
- Do I already own something that can be re-used?
- Can I upcycle?
- Make it myself?
- Can I find it 2nd Hand?
Not buying anything new was actually the most ethical choice I could make (as no further strain would be placed on the environment). But if I didn’t have what was needed, before making a purchase, I reminded myself:
“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
What will happen to it at the end of its useful life?
- Is it durable? Will it last or need replacing?
- Will it biodegrade naturally & go back into the earth, causing no harm?
- Can it be easily recycled or upcycled?
- Will someone else find it useful?
- Do I really need to use disposables? - What are the alternatives?
What is it made from/with?
- Where are materials sourced from? The UK or EU? Or further afield?
- Are natural materials renewable, biodegradable, recyclable, responsibly sourced?
- Are harmful substances used in the creation?
- Does it contain polyester? Viscose or nylon? Synthetics or plastics?
- Does it have a sustainable or organic certification?
- Does its creation place a strain on natural resources?
- Is it made from recycled materials that might otherwise end up in landfill?
- Are animals harmed in the making?
- Are people being exploited in the sourcing?
Who am I buying from?
- Who is profiting from it? A family? A sole trader? A shareholder? Does that person need my support?
- Will they talk to me honestly & openly?
- Is the supplier local or is it made locally?
- Will it benefit charity or communities in need?
- Is there a business-wide ethical stance?
- Are they going over & above their obligations?
As time went on I realised that there were a whole host of issues to consider & that it would be difficult to find people & products that ticked all the boxes (although in some cases, I did succeed). If a product was sourced from a small independent in the UK, made with strong ethics & sustainable materials, that was the best-case scenario. If I could find what I needed locally, so much the better.
As time went by, if I couldn’t find (or couldn’t afford) the best-case scenario, then I compromised. If it ticked one or more of my criteria, at least that was better than not trying at all.
Successes & Failures - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
The most rewarding times were when I found something I already had that could be re-used, upcycled or re-purposed or when I found something which directly supported charity. For example, my therapy couch was still good as new after over a decade, so could be re-used. I upcycled an old desk, sanding it down & painting with eco-friendly paint, adding a new metal handle. Instead of discarding a disintegrating seat, I covered it with pure linen & it looks good as new. Instead of buying more decorative objects, little vintage bottles & a vase from my childhood now glitter in the candlelight. An old pot has been re-purposed & works perfectly as an umbrella stand. A perfect little side table was found in a local charity shop.
There was also plenty that I needed to buy to create my dream space. This was a journey with ups & downs, both emotionally & in practical terms. I made joyful discoveries, but it really shouldn’t have been this difficult to source sustainable, ethical goods. Some of my former go-to shops were so far behind on this score that I was genuinely shocked & surprised. It’s 2020 people! Time for a change & not at some indefinite point in the future, but right now.
I’ve spent far too much time online. With my limited knowledge & budget, it has felt, at times, an impossible task. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been caught out buying something that isn’t what it seems. On occasion, from tirednesss or out of frustration, I’ve caved in & taken the easy option.
Because I’m in a rural area, I mostly ordered online. I’m aware of the downsides of this – the cost to the environment of the transport for deliveries & returns, the packaging waste… not to mention the tired eyes from all that screen-time!
Another downside of online shopping is that inability to hold a product in your hands, to feel its quality & durability, to suss out what it’s really made from. Details about material content was hard to find & yet, this is key to making conscious choices. Read on to find out more.
Natural, recycled, biodegradable, renewable, local, fair trade… when searching for sustainable & ethically sourced materials, these were the words buzzing around my head. The issues are complex & often, materials are not what they seem.
An example: we make assumptions that natural = renewable. Not necessarily. I contacted many suppliers to ask about sustainable sourcing policies for products made from natural materials. I started to look for certification marks for wood, paper, cork, rubber, cotton. I found that although many small independents are unable to afford certifications, often they do source responsibly. My questions evolved as my search progressed. I would contact the seller to check:
“Is this product made from sustainably-sourced material?”
This may sound simplistic but I wanted to know how much the seller knew about their goods, how close they were to the provenance, or if they had awareness of these issues, or even cared.
I also asked:
“Where is this product made?” or "Where is the product from?"
If the product was made in the UK or the EU, at least I could make the assumption that businesses were following certain codes of conduct in treatment of workers. If made further afield, I would dig down into the details to see what the company’s ethos was in this regard.
An example: the use of slate. Although slate is a natural resource here in the UK, I discovered that a lot of cheap slate is sourced in the Far East. Who dug that slate out of the ground? How many miles did it travel? It’s easy to assume that an ethical choice is buying from a small business in the UK, but as my search progressed I realised that this is too simplistic. If a UK maker uses slate from China, is this a good choice? I’ll leave you to decide. What I did discover, which was a real insight, was this: that we have become so sanitised as a society that a small independent business in the UK has to source their slate from Portugal (instead of locally), because it is smoother, so as not to offend their customers with little imperfections in the material!
Trying to avoid new plastics continued to be a challenge throughout. It lurks everywhere, not only in products but also in fixings & coatings which are only revealed on delivery of the goods. It hides in marketing language, too.
Here’s an example: at the beginning of my journey (before I became an obsessive label-inspector!) I bought towels labelled “Sustainably Sourced Cotton.” I assumed that meant 100%. Later, I realised they were a poly-cotton mix. Polyester, from my research, is a real “baddie” as it requires huge amounts of energy & harmful chemicals to create. When discarded it can sit around for tens to hundreds of years, gradually decomposing & releasing harmful gasses into the environment.
So, another tip when looking for sustainable choices, is to check the small print. Look at the tiny labels attached to your products, not just the one that sits on the front, calling you to buy it. I came across misrepresentation often – for example, polyester pedalled as linen, “rattan effect” plastic furniture, and silver-coated plastic labelled “chrome”. These type of sellers rely on us making choices quickly, without question, so will say whatever they can to make something sound appealing & secure a sale.
Talking of materials, I was also seeking sustainable workwear – something durable & simple made to stand the test of time. Industry-standard polyester is not sustainable & ethical choices are virtually non-existent in the spa & beauty industries. I hope one day soon this will change. I now source from independent, ethical clothing shops instead, which can be more expensive in pounds unless you can tap into sales & offers, but is the only way forward for my peace of mind. My search for suitable workwear would be another long essay, but suffice to say it took me 6 months to find something suitable. I also found ethical footwear, jewellery & hair accessories. Eventually!
What They Said
My task overall could have been made easier if online shops were designed with clever signposting towards their ethical/sustainable goods, or with a clear statement of their sourcing policies. In many cases, the only way to discover the truth behind a product was to make direct contact & ask those questions. A typical answer from the larger retailers:
“Dear Lucy Thank you for your email. I’m sorry for the delayed response, I don’t currently have this information to hand but I have emailed one of our teams that will be able to advise this…”
Occasionally the response would be more positive:
“Hello Lucy Thank you for contacting us with regard to your query on how to find our sustainably made products. I have had a look into this for you and currently we do not have a link to follow or a specific category for our sustainably made products. I have therefore raised this with our retail team so that we can look into having this put in place in both our physical and online stores.”
When I never heard back, I would move on. Sometimes it was a simple “I don’t know” with no further offer to help. Others would come back to me with an honest statement that no, the material was not sustainably sourced. Sometimes I would be directed to the manufacturer. It seemed that in many larger businesses, customer care teams had little knowledge of the issues I was interested in. I have certainly changed my go-to retailers as a result.
With ethical independent makers & small businesses, it was a different story. They made the whole purchasing process so much more rewarding & crucially they made it easy. Instead of a disjointed process, the whole thing would flow, from the customer care to the biodegradable, recycled packaging & tape. It is this holistic approach that is lacking in the retail sector as a whole. It was counter-intuitive to me, to sell a product which preserves our natural world for the future, but to pack it in reams of plastic.
Some of my purchases would also help charity or people in poverty, which was an added feel-good factor. Examples included planting a tree for every purchase (even sending you the geographical coordinates of said tree) & building toilets for those in poverty. Others would invest in communities, empower their artisan workers & help to keep craft traditions alive. On that note, beware the term “handmade by artisans” - I found that it is over-used & often means very little, unless it is backed up by a transparent, ethical policy. It may be handmade by artisans, but have they been fairly treated? Fairly rewarded?
I enjoyed contacting makers & small businesses so much more that the larger stores. Communications were friendly & open. Here are some responses to my questions:
“Hi there, Yes! Our xxx are made with a FSC certified material, which ensures that the paper comes from responsibly managed forests. Hope it helps! Have a lovely day…”
“Good Morning Lucy, X support fair trade and local community initiatives. We work with independent businesses, social projects and co-operatives with a focus on building strong business relationships with all of our partners so that we can work together towards mutual success. We believe that the only way to secure a lasting relationship is to build it on foundations of trust, transparency and respect …
Trading fairly provides artisans with an opportunity to build a future. It helps businesses develop and creates sustainable employment... We never negotiate for the cheapest price, we focus on agreeing the right price for the quality of the work and the cost of manufacturing. We ensure that our suppliers are paid a decent and fair wage for their work; that working conditions are safe and of a good standard; and that children are not exploited.”
“All our products are produced in GOTS certified fabric. Only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibres can become GOTS certified. All chemical inputs such as dyestuffs and auxiliaries used must meet certain environmental and toxicological criteria… It defines high level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well.”
Yes, the good stuff does exist! Durable, quality products, made to last, from sustainably-sourced materials. Ethical, with the makers being rewarded fairly. Sold by people who care. Here are some examples of what I found:
-Non-toxic paint, made in the South-West, providing a beautiful, ambient nuance to walls, ceilings & woodwork. A costly choice in pounds, but necessary. I didn’t want people inhaling toxic fumes during treatments, neither did I want to. When relaxing, we breathe more deeply & I often encourage a focus on the breath. So as well as buying direct, I scoured a well-known auction site for tins of discounted or half-used paint in the shades I needed.
- Door mats, blankets & rugs made from recycled plastic bottles* in Yorkshire by a small business who walk the walk, right down to their biodegradable packaging & excellent customer service.
- Recyclable, hand-forged curtain poles made in the South-West, supplied by a small business owner a few miles from me who I was able to meet face-to-face – so much more fulfilling than just clicking “Pay Now”
- A mirror, made in Britain, purchased from a South-West business
- A responsibly-sourced, FSC/PEFC wooden basin unit, handmade by a family firm in Nottinghamshire
- A FSC certified wooden sideboard handmade & painted in Yorkshire
- A metal floor lamp handmade by an independent small business in London
- Hand-woven natural willow key fobs from a local, independent, small business
- A hand-woven natural willow basket made in the South West
- A 100% recycled paper basket by an individual maker using non-toxic dyes
- A slate sign by small, independent South West business. Slate from Portugal (as cited previously).
- Sustainable bamboo flannels, from a South-West business
- A sustainable rattan chair from an independent UK business
- Plastic-free wall decals made entirely from FSC certified paper, from a tiny independent business in Finland
- A FSC/Vrish certified shelf made by a socially & environmentally conscious small business based in London, who also give to charity
- Candle holders, shelves, a stool, coat hooks, a lantern, from a socially & environmentally responsible, fair trade independent business based in the South West with impeccable credentials & customer service
- Recycled glass tumblers made in Spain, bought a mile up the road from a small business
- Vases by a Somerset maker, from a local shop focusing on local, handmade goods
- Handmade ceramic & metal bird feeders, from a local gallery
- A birch wood tray made ethically in small communities in Sweden, from a small business in Scotland
- Organic cotton & sustainable bamboo workwear from independent UK businesses
- Ethically-sourced crystal jewellery from an independent UK small business
- Pencils made from FSC/PEFC certified wood, which at the end of their life can be planted into the ground, as each contains a seed
- Certified organic cotton sewing threads from a small independent South West business, sourced from the EU
*I’m aware that recycled plastic, when washed, will shed micro-plastics into the water supply that will end up in oceans. On balance, I felt that it was better to recycle plastic bottles than for them to end up in landfill. I’ve since found a bag being marketed as a solution for this, which apparently collects these micro-plastics so they don’t go into the water supply when washing. A great idea. The micro-plastics do still go into landfill. The bag itself is made from synthetic nylon. Nothing is straightforward! I'm still thinking about that one.
Time for Change?
By the time my project was complete, I estimated that around half of my purchases were from ethical independents. Around a quarter of products sourced were made in the UK, with about 20% overall from businesses here in the South West. Approximately 60% were recyclable & 50% naturally biodegradable. I just wish it had been 100% on every score.
While we can all make conscious choices individually, there is a bigger picture. A handful of large corporations create the majority of environmental damage. It would probably be more impactful for me to put my energy into campaigning, to pressure industry & politicians. But this is a start. I hope it will inspire you. To echo the title of Greta Thunberg’s first book, “No one is too small to make a difference.”
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A Sea of Words
“ethical” “renewable” “recycled” “recyclable” “sustainable” “fair trade” “anti-slavery” “certified” “accredited” “natural” “organic” “conscious consumerism” “cruelty free” “vegan” “vegetarian” “plant-based” “independent” “community” “transparency” “fair wage” “safe working conditions” “no child labour” “artisan” “pre worn” “pre loved” “carbon offset” “charity” “upcycled” “green-washing” “eco-friendly” “reusable” “small batch” “local” “slow” “handmade” “hand crafted” “voluntary simplicity” “carbon footprint” “biodegradable” “self-sufficiency” “designed in the UK” “made in the UK” “family-run” “open- door policy” “social purpose” “provenance” “zero waste” “equality” “fair working conditions” “environmentally friendly” “positive purchasing” “circular economy”
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The Making of Apple Tree Studio