Monday, January 19, 2009

Say it with flowers

On the wooded common a short walk from our place, the first shoots of snowbells are starting to come up, and the ground is dotted with patches of vivid rich green moss.
Come spring, a sheltered bank of the woodland will be covered in a vivid haze of bluebells.
Scenes like this represent British nature at its best: wild flowers growing where they have for generations, for all to admire (without picking them).
But walk for 15 minutes in the other direction and you come to a petrol station. On the concrete forecourt there is a line of buckets containing bunches of luminous pink, yellow and red flowers wrapped in cellophane, looking exotic and out of place.
The West has an insatiable desire for out-of-season cut flowers, and Britain leads the pack. A third of the flowers we import are flown in from Kenya, racking up C02 emissions. Local activists have also reported that large-scale flower growing has damaged the Kenyan environment and village communities.
Human rights groups reported that valuable river water has been diverted from local villages to feed the West’s desire for year-round blooms.
In 2006 and 2007, journalist John Vidal wrote in The Guardian about how flower companies were accused of diverting water from the Ngiro river and lakes. It was conservatively estimated that at least 20,000 cubic metres of water a day were taken for flower farming.
A survey by a Kenyan school found that the maximum depth of one lake was just 3.7 metres - more than three metres below what it was in 1982. Combined with climate change, this was having a serious impact on the lives of local farmers.
Another big flower producer is the Netherlands - but buying Dutch blooms isn't much better from an environmental point of view. A study at Cranfield University compared the energy used in hot-housing Dutch flowers and flying in Kenyan ones. It concluded that, including the altitude effect on CO2, Dutch CO2 emissions were about 5.8 times larger than Kenyan CO2 emissions.
If this hasn't already wilted your desire for a Valentine's Day bunch of roses next month, read more about the nasties of flower farming, like pesticides and slave wages, in The Ecologist(

But if you'd prefer a bit of feel-good relief, the good news is that there is an ethical, eco-friendly way to say it with flowers this Valentine's Day.

Ecohip has a stylish range of cards made from recycled paper that are infused with wildflower seeds - including one especially for Valentine's Day. When your loved one has finished displaying their card, all they have to do is put it in a sunny spot, spread a thin layer of soil on top and water it well. In 6-8 weeks a mini-bed of wildflowers will grow, serving as a lasting reminder of the blossoming love between you.
Brilliant: a Valentine with the kind of message you want to send. And it goes without saying that no flowers were picked or force-grown in the making of this card.
And aside from the eco benefits, sending a plantable card is so much more original and stylish than grabbing a bunch of gaudy flowers from the supermarket or petrol station forecourt... Check them out at

Bluebell picture:
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Monday, January 12, 2009

It's crunch time

You can't turn on the radio or open a newspaper these days without more news of redundancies. For anyone directly feeling the effects of the recession - and we're having to accept it is a recession rather than the rather more sound-bitey, touchy-feely phrase 'credit crunch' - it's a terrifying and potentially devastating prospect.

But without wishing to sound heartless, could the forced mass exodus of people from city centre jobs have a silver lining for the environment?
Of course, no-one forced out of their job or home is going to be rejoicing or, probably, giving a damn about global warming or carbon emissions. That's not their main priority right now. But if we take a more detached, big-picture view, the global recession could be an opportunity for a major rethink about the world of work and its impact on our lives - now and in the future.
Until recently, the message we've all been sold and have willingly bought into is that making money is what it's all about. As Gordon Gekko says in that Eighties classic Wall Street: "Greed is good."
Don't think about your carbon footprint as you drive your air-con pumping, fuel injected, gas guzzling 4x4 into the city centre every day. Don't think about those short-hop flights (after all, time is money) for work or weekends away. Don't even trouble yourself about the fast-disappearing green fields as you shut yourself behind the gates of your executive estate in commuterland.
We were all encouraged to just concentrate on the rewards: the status car, the exotic holidays and the 'dream' home. And if we got a bit stressed out in the process, or never saw our partner or kids, it was a small price to pay.
Except now, we're all living through the proof that greed isn't quite so good.
Either by circumstance or by choice, many of us actually have the opportunity to rethink our life priorities. Whether we like it or not, more of us will be spending more time at home, from those whose hours are cut to freelance home workers. But couldn't this be a chance to think about reintegrating into our communities, rather than dashing between home and office without exchanging words with our neighbours?
Plenty of people will have to cut their two-car-family habit - but might that not mean we'll all benefit from a reduction in carbon emissions and less traffic clogging up our streets?
Slashed incomes will probably rule out overseas holidays for many this year. But couldn't this be a chance to rediscover the wild countryside and culture on our doorsteps? OK, plenty of Britsh B&Bs have a way to go before they will rival hotels abroad, but there's a whole world of low-emission destinations out there, from wild Cornish beaches and Scottish islands to city gems like Canterbury and Edinburgh.
And counting the pennies could even mean that instead of buying air-freighted food from giant supermarkets (and then throwing away a third of it), more of us might support local shops. Heck, some are even planning to grow their own veg this year and councils report that applications for allotments are on the rise.
Suddenly, shopping and 'value' start to take on a different meaning. Buying eco-friendly products that genuinely work from small-scale companies (like the ones you see at makes more sense (and gives a clearer conscience) than scooping up 3 for 2 factory-fodder piled high at the supermarket.
Those with kids who find themselves too stretched to fork out for a Wii or the next must-have gadget could even end up showing their offspring how to get back to basics, too - climbing trees in the woods, making bows and arrows or playing tennis in the real world instead of being wired up to a virtual world while slumped on the sofa.
Maybe this is utopian dreaming. Or maybe it's an opportunity to genuinely rethink our priorities and rewrite the rules. Out with a world that puts its faith in a morally bankrupt economy and in with one that actually gives a damn about people and the world we live in.


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Monday, January 5, 2009

Can fashion have a conscience?

What's the mood on your local high street? Ours is looking a bit the worse for wear after the Christmas binge. For a start, Woolies, that stalwart of the British high street, now stands dark, empty and rather sad. Meanwhile, all the clothes shops scream ‘SALE’ and ‘UP TO 75% OFF!’ from their windows. It’s all a bit desperate.
So far, I’ve steered clear of the clothes sales. It’s not just credit crunch – I’m having a bit of a rethink on the fashion front.

A fashionable friend of mine once made a new year’s resolution not to buy new clothes for a year. She became an expert at spotting charity shop bargains, swapping dresses with her sister and digging deep into the back of her wardrobe for forgotten cast-offs. And I didn’t even notice: for the full 12 months she was as well turned out as ever.
I’m not planning on going completely cold turkey, like her. I will probably succumb to a new pair of boots this January (well, it is snowing as I type this) and treat myself to feel-good beach dress when summer finally comes around. But I’m going to try to stick to ethical and organically produced items - and steer clear of sweat-shop fodder.
I confess, I’ve done the Primark thing: come home with armfuls of fluffy sweaters without really questioning how they sell them so cheaply. Because, even though high street shops and supermarkets have now been forced to look more carefully at their suppliers’ working conditions, there’s no getting around the fact that these days, clothes are valued for being cheap and disposable.
Whether it’s a T-shirt or a pair of bootleg jeans, the high street gives you a fast fix – something to wear once or twice and then consign to the landfill. So much so that the Environment Select Committee tells us that in the last five years, the proportion of textile waste at council tips has risen from 7 per cent to 30 per cent.

But for a good few years now, ethical and organic clothes companies have slowly but surely been telling a different story. Finally, they are making an impact. And if you suspect I’m talking about shapeless hemp shirts rather than on-trend clothes, take a look at the likes of People Tree ( or Howies (right,
These clothes don’t just look good – they are good news for everyone. The suppliers get paid a fair wage for their product and don’t have to work with hazardous dyes, bleaches or production processes. And, even if the clothes cost a bit more than a supermarket bargain, there are good reasons why. Clothes made from quality, fairtrade-certified fabrics will keep their shape and last far longer than one season.
For more and more of us, fashion in 2009 is going to be about buying thoughtfully. About choosing two key investment pieces that will last several years, rather than eight slightly dodgy items that don’t make it into 2010.
That’s my resolution anyway. Even if Primark doesn’t notice I’ve gone (after all, they take up to £600,000 a day at their Marble Arch store alone), change has to start somewhere. And while I might feel the pinch in 2009, you can bet that someone working in a clothes factory in Bangladesh for 7p an hour will be feeling it far more.

For more information, the Guardian has an ethical fashion directory at

Pictures: People Tree and Howies (T-shirt)

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