Proud to be prudent: Meet the new army of frugalistas

Allotments, clothes swaps, make do and mend: Britain is learning to cut costs again – and saving has never been so fashionable. By Ian Johnston

Sunday 15 June 2008 00:00

You know something's a trend when the high-street juggernaut Topshop gets involved. But rather than encourage more spending, the retailer is next week holding a clothes swap to encourage frugality among fashion fans.

Those who take part will be joining a growing band of "frugalistas", for whom spending money on something new is terribly last season. If you haven't made it yourself, it simply has to be second-hand; the delicatessen is out and home-grown produce is in; and turning old clothes into carrier bags is the latest craze.

In the new mood of austerity – born largely amid the credit crunch and the rising cost of food and fuel – some surprisingly well-heeled and glamorous allies have been recruited to the ranks of green activists. Along with self-sufficiency farmers and people who have been forced to make do and mend for straightforward financial reasons, they are now busy trying to cut their carbon footprint.

Elizabeth Hurley has described feeding a piglet on her farm as "absolutely divine". The actress Julie Walters has also taken to farming, declaring her love for "the smell of the earth and the animals", adding that she and her husband "talk about the farm non-stop".

And the rich are joining the famous in getting back to nature: a survey by American Express of its wealthiest customers – Centurion card holders – found 11 per cent had installed fruit and vegetable plots in their gardens. The firm is predicting this will rise to 40 per cent.

Meanwhile, the model Daisy Lowe has been photographed on an allotment to launch a week of green events held by Topshop and fashion magazine Rubbish.

From 23 June, the fashion retailer will run workshops and ask people to bring in three items of unwanted clothing to swap for someone else's at its flagship Oxford Circus store in London, where designer Solange Azagury-Partridge will also show people how to turn junk into "scavenger chic" jewellery. This comes ahead of another clothes swap event – fronted by Hollywood actress Lindsay Lohan – to be held in London's Covent Garden next month by credit card company Visa.

The "Topshop Wants Your Rubbish" campaign, which is also being held in stores in Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin, would be expected to involve clothes but it goes further: there will be gardening workshops and information on cycle routes.

The latest in the backlash against plastic bags is another "designer" label. But Morsbags are far removed from Louis Vuitton. The brainchild of Claire Morsman, a teacher who lives on a canal boat in London, the Morsbag is a gift to the world. Its website gives instructions on how to turn old clothes into shopping bags, with people invited to form sewing "pods" for the purpose.

The bags, equipped with a label advertising the website, are then given away to friends and strangers alike in "guerrilla" bagging events. To date, more than 21,000 have been made – in between the odd glass of wine – which organisers say should save nearly 11 million plastic bags from being thrown away. Pods have been set up across the UK and have spread to the rest of Europe, the US, India, Japan and Brazil.

Jenny Dyson, editor-in-chief of Rubbish, which will produce a free newspaper on green issues such as "What to wear on your bike" during the week at Topshop, said the new mood of frugality in fashion had been born out a feeling of helplessness in the face of global economic problems and, particularly, climate change.

"I think recycling helps to make us feel a bit more in control; it enables us to feel like we are doing our bit," she said. "If we recycle our coat hangers and that helps prevent the Earth from using up its resources, of course we are going to do it and feel good about it. OK, it's a tiny thing, but it is doing something.

"There is this massive pressure on people to be green. Obviously the retailers are responding to that, and this is our way of being green in a fun way, a way that's not dictatorial and bossy, which the green bandwagon can sometimes be."

At the start of this month Judy Berger, founder of clothes swapping site whatsmineis, made a pledge to stop buying new clothes for a year and is documenting her experiences with a friend on a blog called the Frugal Fashionistas. The site now has more than 15,000 members trading clothes.

Frugal bastions such as Freecycle and have also seen a sudden surge in interest. In January last year Freecycle, a website helping people to give things away, had about half a million members; now there are nearly 1.3 million. Martin Lewis's moneysavingexpert. com is sending emails with advice to 2.2 million people, more than double the figure last year.

Ten years ago Richard Cannon was a well-paid railway manager, but he quit in favour of the self-sufficiency lifestyle in Kent. The forum on his website,, has become a hotbed of discussions on downshifting and frugality.

Mr Cannon said it was "absolutely great" that celebrities such as Elizabeth Hurley, the rich and those in the fashion world were seeing the benefits of reconnecting with the land.

"We have something in common, if you like. If they came round, we could have a really good chat about the vegetable garden. It's something that's so good to see," he said.

If the young women who gather at Topshop to trade clothes and learn how to sew their own canvas bags go on to apply for allotments, then the trend really will have taken off. For the rest of us, the new frugality is easy to achieve.


Growing your own vegetables can save you £1,000 a year, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, as well as providing a supply of organic, tasty and healthy food.

People in the village of Martin in Hampshire went further and joined forces to raise chickens and pigs along with vegetables. Their produce is sold at the local hall, making £27,000 last year.

Using leftovers to make new meals – such as shepherd's pie from roast lamb – was once standard practice, and makes good environmental as well as financial sense. 'The New English Table', a cookery book by Rose Prince, gives plenty of recipes for leftover food.

Avoid fast food by taking drinks and snacks from home whenever you go out, and reusing plastic water bottles by filling them up from the tap. Putting excess water from a recently boiled kettle into a flask will keep it warm for later cups of tea and coffee.

It was common in the 1940s and 1950s to reuse silver foil by washing it; now is a good time to revive the idea. Wise mums already pack their children's school sandwiches in plastic bags from loaves.


Rediscover the sewing machine to mend and alter old clothes – old jeans can become a denim skirt; dresses can be cut down into tops. Turn over frayed shirt collars; patch elbows and darn socks. Join the Morsbag movement; turn them into carrier bags and display your love of all things home made.

Arrange parties with friends to swap clothes you no longer wear for other people's unwanted fashion. Seek out vintage styles in charity shops, rather than on the high street. Scour eBay and auctions for designer pieces at lower prices.

Take advantage of the "model days" offered by hairdressers and beauty training colleges to get a cut-price or free haircut. Before a big night out, visit the cosmetics counter of your nearest department store to get a free makeover.

Shun expensive skin scrubs and exfoliators and instead mix sea salt and bicarbonate of soda with ordinary shower gel or olive oil for the face. Those old-fashioned ideas such as avocado face masks and cucumber slices for puffy eyes actually work.


Try to avoid using the tumble dryer: it's expensive and wears out clothes more quickly than line drying. Dry shirts on their hangers to avoid using the iron, and get the creases out of clothes by hanging them in the bathroom while showering.

Heating uses more power than anything else in the house; putting reflective sheets behind radiators will send heat into the room rather than the wall. Avoid putting radiators under windows.

You can often switch off the oven a few minutes before the end of cooking time, as it will retain the required temperature for long enough to finish the dish; and the simplest energy-saving trick is to put a lid on saucepans, which speeds up cooking and retains more heat.

Fitting insulation can dramatically cut bills. Check price comparison sites to ensure you are getting the best deal, and keep an eye on direct debit payments. The Wattson gadget from Firebox shows how much electricity you're using in the house, either in watts or pounds – which is enough to get anyone switching off appliances.


The average power drill is switched on for about 12 minutes in its lifetime, while lawnmowers are used once or twice a fortnight. By lending and borrowing large tools you can share the cost with others.

Vinegar, lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda are effective, environmentally friendly and cheaper than chemical cleaners. Soapy water and old newspaper is the best way to achieve clean, streak-free windows. Stop buying disposable wipes; use old socks and other rags for cleaning.

Collect small pieces of soap in a dish and combine them to make a new, free bar. Cut the tops off milk and soft drinks bottles to use as scoops, funnels or pots for plants.

Buy furniture at auctions and choose things that can be repaired. Repaint, restuff and reupholster to extend their life, rather than buying new. Check on your local freecycle website.

Buy a computer that suits your needs: sending emails and searching the internet does not require vast amounts of computing power. Search the web for free downloads and try open-source operating systems such as Ubuntu Linux. Recycle printer paper.


Rather than splash out on costly gym membership, use a local park and public swimming pool for exercise. Even getting off the bus a stop early does the job. Many large companies are part of the "Ride to Work" government scheme to subsidise the cost of buying a bicycle.

After the initial outlay, electric cars cost substantially less to run than combustion engine ones, at about 1p a mile compared with about 14p a mile for the average petrol-fuelled car; plus, for those in the capital, there's no congestion charge or parking fees in central London.

For cars that can use it, liquefied petroleum gas or LPG is usually about half the price of unleaded fuel. Keeping the tyres pumped up and taking out unnecessary stuff from the car will make it run more efficiently.

Consider taking the train to mainland Europe instead of flying. Unless the trip is urgent, using a sleeper train is part of the fun and could be cheaper than a hotel room. Train stations are always in city centres, allowing you to avoid the expensive taxi fare in from the airport.


Remember the local library? Well, if it's still there, chances are you can find the latest bestsellers and classics available for free borrowing. There are also magazines and newspapers in the library, and all libraries now have computers for free web surfing. Join an online DVD rental service.

Search out television studios and find out how to become an audience member during the filming of comedies, quiz and game shows. This is usually free. The advent of iPlayer saves recording on videotapes or blank DVDs.

BookMooch is a book-sharing website where about 2,500 books are swapped between 80,000 members worldwide. About 10 per cent of them are in the UK.

Abandon the money-guzzling giants of the Barclays Premier League and embrace the lower-league game for cheaper match tickets.


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