Melissa Hemsley: My Sustainable Life - ‘I always try to remember to take my shoes off and be barefoot’

The food writer and bestselling author tells Olivia Petter how sustainability influences her daily life

Wednesday 07 July 2021 10:19

The Independent’s My Sustainable Life is a Q&A series in which famous faces reveal their personal approach to the climate crisis

This week, for My Sustainable Life, we hear from British food writer and cookbook author Melissa Hemsley. Previous guests on My Sustainable Life include model Daisy Lowe and TV chef Gizzi Erskine.

A self-taught chef and sustainability champion, Melissa Hemsley is renowned for promoting healthy and planet-friendly recipes that celebrate natural ways of eating as inspired by her Filipino mother’s seasonal, feel-good approach to cooking when she was a child.

Her career began in 2010 when she started working as a private chef with her sister, Jasmine Hemsley. The duo soon launched their Hemsley + Hemsley empire, which comprised two bestselling cookbooks and a cafe located in London’s Selfridges.

Here she explains why she’s buying fewer books, how planting wildflower seeds in her garden has been an “utter tonic”, and why she’s done a major overhaul of who she follows on social media.

The most sustainable decision I made in the past year was… buy secondhand furniture and reupholster or repair items when needed. I also vowed to buy less but opt for long-lasting items if it had to be new, and to buy as much as possible from my local refill shop to cut down on packaging and avoid wasting food and plastic.

My least sustainable guilty habit is…

My mum reminded me that I used to live in the library as a kid. Books are one of the best things in the world, but I own far too many books and it would be much more sustainable to have fewer books and use my local library more. So that’s something I’m working on this year, to tame my book buying and to swap reads more with friends and to get back into my regularly enjoying my amazing local library.

If I ruled the world, I would make it more sustainable by…

...letting the sustainability experts and community heroes in society have lots of resources to implement community eco spaces and practices for everyone to access, like water taps, refillable water bottles for kids and many more community gardens for vegetable growing. Community fridges would be great too, as would more swap shops for clothes and furniture.

When I want to feel in touch with the natural world I…

Go on a walk with my Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Nelly, into Epping Forest and admire the watering holes. I always try to remember to take my trainers off and get barefoot in the grass for five minutes too.

I’ve always appreciated having outdoor space in my east London home, particularly in the last 18 months. It’s been an utter tonic and I recently scattered lots of wildflower seeds around, which have burst into bloom and brought lots of bees and other wildlife with them. It is a total joy and a calming experience to watch them whenever I can grab a minute.

If I could invent one thing that would make my life more sustainable it would be…

...time to make more sustainable changes. I challenge myself to research and implement a new small sustainable life upgrades every few weeks, and that’s why the more we celebrate sustainability experts, giving them much more airtime and newspaper time, the more we can hear their tips, take on their habits and learn from them. I have done a huge rejig of who I follow on social media and what newsletters and podcasts I read to make sure I keep seeing and learning from sustainability champions.

My sustainability hero is…

There are so many! Guy Singh-Watson and Geetie Singh-Watson, they are both campaigners and innovators. Guy is a farmer and the founder of Riverford Organics, and Geetie set up the UK’s first organic pub in London, The Duke of Cambridge, and now runs the award winning Bull Inn in Devon.

The one thing everyone should watch or read about the climate crisis is…

I’m assuming everyone reading this piece has read or watched lots about the climate crisis. Sometimes, certain pieces can leave us feeling a bit helpless or hopeless and so I’d love to recommend a book that feels like a community call to action: This One Wild or Precious life by Sarah Wilson.

I also recommend a fantastic podcast by Jen Gale - she’s funny and informative and covers sustainable upgrades in day to day life. It’s called Sustainable-ish, and she covers everything from composting to reusable nappies and to how to have a greener childrens’ birthday party.

My favourite vegan or vegetarian restaurant is…

I don’t have a favourite restaurant but one of my favourite plant-based chefs is the incredible Rachel Ama. Her recipes are great.

My one piece of advice to people trying to be more sustainable is…

Start today with one small new step. You can start making small positive eco upgrades anywhere anytime, from making changes to your weekly food shop, to getting some use out of your unsubscribe button, to switching up your makeup bag, or even your underwear.

Three sustainable brands everyone should know about

Fashion Revolution a global movement who are aiming to slow down fast fashion and champion the people who make our clothes. One of their founders gave an incredible talk at one of the live event series I founded called ‘The Sustainability Sessions’ pre-pandemic and I’m hoping to restart them again soon!

Conscious Beauty Union supports both beauty professionals and beauty lovers in developing a more sustainable practice and approach to beauty. They have free resources for anyone wanting to learn more about the best of beauty for people, animals and the Planet and for all toiletries, skincare and make up recommends, they’re my first port of call.

Riverford Organics as mentioned above. They produce and deliver organic fruit, veg and more around the country. I receive my reusable box every Friday and have been subscribed to them for 12 years and counting. I love their ethos, they’re also employee-owned and I have learnt lots from them and visited some of their farms multiple times over the years.

Their produce tastes amazing; almost all of it is delivered loose and if it’s wrapped up, say for delicate veg like salad it’s home compostable. Their seasonal veg has influenced my cooking and work for over a decade. So I owe them a lot and continue to be inspired by them.

Melissa Hemsley hosts WaterAid’s new podcast, Very Necessary, where well-known guests discuss the everyday object most essential to their lives. Guests include Vick Hope, Rachel Ama, Anna Jones, Cel Spellman, and AJ Odudu. Very Necessary can be listened to on all popular podcast platforms.

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