Your Planet: How you can save it
Who says that sustainable living has to be all about austerity and self-denial? On the contrary, says The Independent's green columnist, Julia Stephenson. Giving your lifestyle a radical eco-makeover can be thrilling, life-enhancing, good for your wallet, and surprisingly glamorous
Tuesday 20 September 2005
Back in the 1980s, Kermit the frog used to lament: "It's not easy being green." Until recently, he was right. Anything that reeked of environmentalism was seen as uncomfortable, eccentric, unfashionable, more about giving things up than enhancing one's life. Now, however, it is a wonderful time to be green.
In the past few years, we have witnessed a sea change. Green is now mainstream, aspirational, fashionable and increasingly glamorous. Manufacturers have woken up to the power of the green pound, and there is an ever-increasing range of eco-friendly goods and services.
This is largely good news. But many of these products - organic vegetables air-freighted from distant lands, "natural" beauty creams, eco holidays in gorgeous far-flung places - continue to buy into our rampaging consumer mindset that has created so many environmental problems in the first place.
We have been conditioned to think that progress is necessarily about doing things - spending money, going to places and acquiring things. But being green is as much about not doing as about doing.
It doesn't mean wearing a hair shirt, or giving up all the material things we love best. On the contrary: being truly green saves money and enhances your quality of life in countless ways. Even if you can't afford organic vegetables and don't know the first thing about solar panels, you can get way ahead of the pack - and save money - simply by making often tiny adjustments to your daily life.
Small actions such as putting on an extra sweater instead of turning up the heating, switching off lights, lagging the hot water tank to conserve heat, switching your electrical appliances off at the mains, reducing meat consumption, drying your clothes outside rather than using the tumble-drier (a quick solar solution!), and avoiding buying unnecessary, expensive and over-packaged goods will help the planet, your health and your finances.
Since I became more environmentally aware, the quality of my life has improved enormously. I've finally realised that having the latest handbag, buying into the latest must-have trend or visiting the latest fancy spa won't fundamentally make me any happier. And, indeed, in recent years I have lost much of my interest in acquiring unnecessary material possessions: not because I've become a nun, or out of guilt, or because I've run out of money, but because I've realised that the effort of acquiring and maintaining possessions is no guarantee of happiness and, on the contrary, is often a huge drain of energy that I would rather expend instead on seeing friends or family, reading in the bath, swimming, or pursuing a host of other more life-enhancing (to me) activities.
I live in west London, on the King's Road: a retail paradise for the capital's most ardent shopaholics. Every weekend I see the same couples, laden with bags of clothes, gadgets and this week's most talked-about pair of jeans. A hundred years ago they would have been in church or fulfilling some quite possibly tedious filial duty, or going about the then hugely laborious business of keeping themselves warm, clean, dry and fed. While we may feel it's a good thing that the chores, religious dogma and family obligations have disappeared, the resulting void has in many cases simply been filled by an obsession with materialism.
I recently read a fascinating book, The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict , in which William Leith writes about his obsessive binge-eating. This was, he concludes, less about food than about trying to fill a deep hunger and dissatisfaction with his life. Similar forms of greed - whether for food, drink, possessions, sex or the gorgeous mahogany decking you spotted on a TV makeover show (OK it may come from the rainforest but having it would make me so happy) - are at the root of environmental destruction.
If we want our environment to improve, we must address this spiritual void, because our outer environment is merely a reflection of what is going on inside ourselves. As the Buddhist philosopher Dr Daisaku Ikeda writes: " A barren, destructive mind produces a barren, devastated natural environment. The desertification of our planet is created by the desertification of the human spirit." Conversely, living with awareness of the planet's ecological needs can be spiritually rejuvenating. We are, of course, all at different levels of environmental awareness. But becoming greener in our thinking is beneficial - to us and to others - at every level.
I must confess that, despite the glamorous nickname by which some people know me ("The Green Goddess"), I am still on a low rung of the eco ladder. None the less, I am improving. Three years ago I redecorated my flat. It didn't occur to me then to use environmentally friendly paints or sustainable wood on the floors. (What was I thinking?) Now, however, I am extending my loft with an altogether greener awareness. (Of course, the most eco-friendly thing is not to do any building work at all but I am, as I say, on a low rung of the eco ladder and I'd love an extra room.)
This time round, I have employed an eco auditor (Donnachadh McCarthy, a fellow contributor to this supplement) and a green architect, Alex Michaelis. Being thoroughly au fait with the ways of rainwater harvesting, solar panels, eco-friendly paints and low-flush loos, these two are guiding me through the eco labyrinth and helping me to create a zero emission, sustainable flat while we're about it.
It is a fascinating process. Going green is a new science. My green team and I are pooling our knowledge and aim to turn my standard flat into a miniature power station, providing all my energy needs from the sun and the wind.
This is trailblazing stuff, but the more people do it the simpler and cheaper it will become. It can typically cost £1,000 to install solar panels (although there are also government grants to help), but within a short time I will own a flat that will manufacture much of its electricity for free. If I decide to sell this will surely make it more saleable - a "wind-wind situation" all round.
We have just applied for planning permission for a wind turbine on my roof. I live in a conservation area so we expected to be turned down flat but we were pleasantly surprised to meet tacit approval when we raised the project with local planners. Of course this is not an official "yes" but I am feeling cautiously optimistic.
This is all relatively high-powered green stuff. Most people just want convenient and inexpensive ideas of what they can do right now, and that approach is important, too. So, while waiting for my wind turbine, I have incorporated a raft of simple green measures which, though minor, save me money and time and increase my quality of life.
I have to admit that until fairly recently my attempts at being green were more for my benefit than the planet's. I've bought organic food and beauty products and shopped at farmers' markets for years. The latter give many middle-class urbanites like myself a pleasing outdoor Fortnum & Mason fix and cater to our Marie Antoinette rural fantasies. But they also put us in touch with seasonal produce and the farmers producing it - and over time perhaps we have helped the farmers' market movement establish itself.
I supplement this with a weekly organic vegetable box delivery from farmaround ( www.farmaround.co.uk). There are many farm box delivery companies. Their produce is seasonal and British, the packaging is minimal and the boxes are often delivered in low-emission vehicles. I get extra supplies from my local health shop, which delivers a large range of biodynamic produce, fruit and vegetables, make-up, meat and cleaning supplies.
This means trips to the supermarket are a thing of the past. Consequently I avoid the curse of excess packaging and save time and money by avoiding impulse buys. Owing to my chalet-girl training (when a food budget of £3.50 had to stretch to four meals per person per day), I am adept with leftovers, but any kitchen waste and cardboard goes into the worm compost bin ( www.wigglywigglers.co.uk) outside. The trouble is that it takes up too much space so I've sneakily dumped it on the elegant banker next door's roof. Fortunately he never uses his roof but the compost bin is quite heavy and I have dreadful visions of it falling through and drowning him and his Turnbull & Asser shirts with wriggling worms.
Many people are put off by the thought of a wormery, but it doesn't smell, it creates lovely soil and the worms are very robust. I once went travelling for seven months and they were still alive when I returned. The UK's waste mountain gives me nightmares and I go to great efforts to avoid packaging, carrying a string bag (available from www.naturalcollection.com) in my handbag so that I never need plastic ones. My local council recycles plastic, glass bottles and newspapers, but recycling uses up a huge amount of energy and is a bit of a cop-out. It has to be collected, sorted, and then melted down to make exactly the same product again.
Ideally we would re-use and refill bottles to save all this energy, or best of all, avoid buying so many in the first place. I don't buy bottles of filtered water, which is no purer than what comes out of our taps, and at least what comes out of our taps hasn't been imported thousands of miles and isn't contaminated with carcinogenic plastic residues. Instead I have a reverse-osmosis under-the-sink filter from www.pureh20.co.uk that removes impurities and avoids the hassle and expense of lugging heavy bottles of water into my flat.
I must confess, however, to a shocking and shameful Perrier habit. I know it comes in glass bottles freighted all the way from France, but I am addicted. Donnachadh, my eco coach, is tracking down a carbonated water-making siphon for me. I fear it won't have the same "hit" - but I'll give it a go.
On the subject of fizz (well, this is about living a "good life"), the grapes in Champagne are heavily sprayed and its soil is the most toxic in France. In fact, all non-organic vineyards are heavily sprayed. Fortunately, though, there is an increasing range of inexpensive organic wines available. Fleury, a delicious, inexpensive biodynamic champagne from Waitrose, is worth checking out. It is best, too, to avoid plastic corks - their proliferation is causing a crisis for Europe's cork dehesas, which are sustainably managed habitats rich in wildlife.
But all this is small beer compared to the thorny issue of transport. Plane and car travel are hugely environmentally damaging. I'm trying to cut down on air travel by using the train within Europe whenever possible. The website www.seat61.com is very helpful and tells you how to get anywhere in the world from Brittany to Kathmandu on a train, boat or ferry.
I recently replaced my car with a bike. Not only has this reduced my carbon emissions but I am lighter and brighter now the hideous responsibilities of car ownership - the admin, the bureaucracy, the tickets and fines - are in the past. Running a car was such a strain I would have sold it even if it wasn't the green thing to do.
Attempts to cycle have not been successful. My first journey left me a nervous wreck, and I was secretly relieved when the gears broke. The bike is currently languishing outside my flat, waiting to get fixed (I'm in no great rush), which means I'm reliant on walking, public transport or cabs. But this is still more eco-friendly than running a car.
I've also begun to avoid meat. Eating meat is also hugely destructive. The pressure to produce soya and grain (most of which is genetically modified) for the meat industry is intense and is responsible for destroying large areas of the Amazonian rainforest. The greenest choice is to be vegan, but you can also have a postive effect simply by becoming a "meat reducer" - that is, by eating less and avoiding intensively farmed meat.
The 138 million "meat reducers" in Europe are responsible for substantial environmental and animal welfare benefits. I avoid meat in restaurants and supermarkets but occasionally eat biodynamically farmed meat from the local farmers' market. This is worth seeking out as the animal welfare standards are even higher than organic.
Cotton is the world's most toxic crop and uses up a huge amount of pesticides and bleaches. It's hard to find organic clothes but soft organic sheets, towels, and sleepwear are available from www.naturalcollection.com. Don't throw away your greying underwear and cotton clothes that have been spoiled in the wash, try extending their life by dyeing them instead. I now own a drawerful of dazzling emerald green underwear that would be the envy of Elle McPherson.
Most household cleaners are very toxic, so I stick to Ecover products. I once visited their impressively eco-friendly factory in Belgium - it smelt deliciously of essential oils and I was immediately converted. Whenever possible, however, I make my own. A good window-cleaner can be made by filling old spray bottles with a solution of half vinegar and half washing-up liquid; stains can be removed with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda; and I make disinfectant with vodka, tea tree and lavender oil. If I have to visit a friend in hospital (and this is a handy tip if you have a bit of a Howard Hughes thing going on) I take a small spray bottle of the latter to protect them against hospital bugs.
In general, it is worth cutting down on beauty products. Most creams and make-up products are still tested on animals, are petroleum based, contain known carcinogens, and are over-packaged and expensive. I now do facial exercises instead ( www.evafraser.com), which are far more rejuvenating than any cream, and, of course, are free.
But it remains hard to avoid being seduced back on to the consumerist merry-go-round. Soi-disant eco-friendly products, with their mixture of "natural" claims and guilt-trip inducing sentimentality, are particularly hard to resist. Argan oil, extracted from a rare Moroccan tree, was recently outed as the new wonder health and beauty ingredient - leading to the creation of several ranges of expensive, over packaged cosmetics, all tested on animals. Best to just buy a bottle of the stuff and rub it directly onto your skin. It soaks straight in and smells absolutely delicious.
None of us is perfect. I will gloss quickly over my Bang & Olufsen sound system that can't be turned off at the mains and the huge Maytag fridge (with gas-guzzling cappuccino-making attachments). But as I said, we are all at different levels of the eco ladder, and if I'd known then what I know now I wouldn't have installed them in the first place.
Ripping them out wouldn't be environmentally friendly, and green living unfortunately involves a degree of compromise. The real question to answer is: are you going to think about such questions, or are you going to continue to live in a state of denial?
It is easy for ordinary people to feel powerless in the face of environmental destruction. But our own environments - our home, school, hospital, street, garden - are the few places over which we as individuals do have some control. What we buy (or don't buy); what we wear, eat, drink; how we travel, clean our house and treat the soil in our garden - all these choices have a huge impact not just on our health but on the planet's, too.
So: in the spirit that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness I will continue to do my imperfect bit and encourage my friends and those who read my columns to do the same. The Good Life here we come!
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