Joan Bakewell: What a waste! Why can't we all be more thrifty...

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The Independent Online

"Haberdashery" is one of my favourite words. You don't hear it much any more. Young people have to have it explained. There used to be shops entirely devoted to haberdashery, and every self-respecting department store had a haberdashery section. Now even the wonderful John Lewis has banished its haberdashery to the top floor. And just at a time when we should be needing and using it more and more.

Haberdashers have a fine tradition: their Worshipful Company is still one of the great twelve city livery companies granted its Royal Charter in 1448, and nowadays, among other things, administers the bequest made by Robert Aske in 1689 to fund Haberdashers' Aske's Schools. There was a time when they were operated alongside the Mercers' Company, themselves merchants trading in wools and silks. Again, the trading has ceased. But haberdashers could be suppliers of all sorts of odds and ends... swords, mousetraps, crucifixes. By Victorian times, they were an established part of home-making.

But then who has a crying need for pins and needles, for rick-rack and bias binding, for scissors and sewing boxes, hooks and eyes and buttons, ribbons and braid, darning wool and repair patches? Dwindling numbers of us, it seems, but I certainly do. I was brought up not to waste things, and haberdashery furnishes all the bits and pieces that made make-do-and-mend such a success. We now need make-do-and-mend back again.

With the western world engulfed by rubbish and increasing mountains of waste; with resources to keep us fed, clothed and housed under increasing pressure; with the young people addicted to weekend shopping for things they don't need; with advertising urging us to buy and throw away, we need a totally different mindset about how we deal with all the stuff around us. One group of people is eminently qualified to know how to do this. Those who grew up during the last war were schooled never to throw anything away. Our time has come again.

Earlier this week, my colleague Philip Hensher expressed dismay at the shocking waste of food in this country. One third of all food bought here is thrown away, half of it edible. A new campaign launched by the Waste Reduction Agency is hoping to reduce such reckless disregard for value.

Welcome to my own cookbook: tried and tested ways with bubble and squeak, stuffed marrow, shepherd's pie and what's unflatteringly known in my family as Mum's dustbin soup: recipe: open fridge door and empty all leftovers into pan of seasoned stock (saved from chicken carcasses, of course.). It's different every time, and often delicious and unrepeatable.

If the nation is already launched on a food campaign, I suggest we can go further. The habit of mending clothes has long fallen out of fashion. Why bother when T-shirts are so cheap and the modishness of fashion moves so fast. But as we learn every day, those cheap clothes come at the expense of young lives spent in sweatshops in the subcontinent. If we approve of those high-flown aims to abolish global poverty, we need to revise entirely how we ourselves use and dispose of the world's goods.

Sewing machines? Every home should have one. I remember when dressmaking was all the rage. It was a way of being sure you would never turn up in the same dress as anyone else. And you could put the mark of your own style on whatever you wore. I have long thought that dressmaking would make a natural follow-on to television's craze for cookery programmes. Why not have Stella McCartney presenting a television series about how she designs, cuts and styles her clothes. In no time at all those Singer sewing machines would be whirling and haberdashery would be back on the ground floor.

Being thrifty is a state of mind that infects everything you do: switching off lights, reusing rather than discarding (have tea bags ended the fine habit of spreading tea-leaves round the roses?); boiling only the amounts of water you really need; draining bottles and jars of the very last shred of cream, jam, oil they once contained.

In war time we had an object called a soap-saver, a small wire cage big enough to hold those slippery shreds of soap too small to use on their own, with a handle to shake them into the bathwater. Such savings seem petty on their own, and scarcely worth the effort. But saving is incremental and if everyone saves a little, the total is great indeed. Landfill sites and bin collections will slowly cease to be so contentious. We know it works, because it worked throughout the war. But perhaps it calls for an immediate and vivid crisis to get people really going.

What we need is a good example – in modern jargon "best practice". If we are to take the trouble to turn off electrical switches in our homes, what about those towering city offices that burn with lights throughout the night, even though the workers have long gone home? What about shops windows in every city centre blazing away at times when only a few lingering souls are about to see them?

If the waste crisis is as big as is currently being claimed, then we are only at the beginning of what can be done. Slowly but surely we will need to bring back those habits that were second nature when there was a war on. Otherwise we're just tinkering round the edges.