My Top Ten Documentaries To Get You Thinking (and Questioning)

Recently a reader asked if I could write a blog post about my top environmental documentaries. How could I possibly refuse?! There are so many great documentaries out there, and watching them is a great way to understand the issues, learn more, and feel re-inspired to take action. Not to mention coerce friends and family into learning a little more (and maybe help them understand why we do what we do). Invite them over with the lure of (plastic-free) popcorn and hope that the message will give them something to think about ;)

Here it is: my top 10 eco documentaries. Actually, I’ve listed 12 (well, if you count the side recommendations, 14). I could give you a list of ten documentaries about plastic, but I wanted to cover some of the other topics I’m interested in, so there is a mix. I’ve listed them roughly in my order of preference.

So, drumroll please…

1. Bag It

Bag It! has to feature as number 1 on my list. It’s the documentary I saw in June 2012 after signing up for Plastic Free July that changed my whole perspective on the way I consume, how I view plastic, and in fact, the whole course of my life! I often describe it as “my lightbulb moment”, because, despite the cliche, it really was!

Bag It! is a documentary about the issues of plastic, but offers a raft of solutions, and steps that we as individuals can take to make change. It’s easy to follow, entertaining and funny, but with plenty to think about. It was released in 2011, but remains as relevant as ever. A must watch!

2. True Cost

True Cost is a documentary released in 2015 that looks behind the modern fashion industry. This is far more than a documentary about sweat shops. It explores the issues of materialism and overconsumption; the power of the big retailers and advertising; the health impacts suffered by workers and the environmental devastation that happens worldwide. It gives a face to some of the workers and workers, and provides stories of those trying to change the system. However much you think you know about fast fashion, I guarantee that you will learn something new.

3. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

This documentary is often touted by vegans as a “must-watch”, which tends to put non-vegans off. Please, do not be put off from watching this great documentary on the basis of what you eat for dinner! Cowspiracy is not a lecture, nor is it trying to make the world vegan. And there is no gory stuff. What it talks about is the impact that industrial agriculture has on the world – and how, when there was 1 billion people on the planet, this wasn’t an issue, now there’s 7 billion, it is becoming one. It also talks a lot about politics and power, which was what I found really interesting. Modern agriculture is big business, and has a lot of influence over governments, corporations…and even charities and environmental organisations. It is thought-provoking and well-made.

4. Tapped

Tapped is a documentary about bottled water. It’s my second-favourite plastic documentary after Bag It! It’s not just about the ridiculous waste that comes with drinking bottled water, and the environmental damage caused by producing so much single use plastic, but also the issues of power, greed and social justice (or lack of). What I found particularly alarming was the complete lack of regulation surrounding bottled water testing – yet it is cleverly marketed as “safer” than tap water. Bottled water isn’t just a plastic issue. It’s a people issue too – and there are some moving stories told by people whose lives have been negatively impacted by the industrialization of bottled water.

5. Just Eat It / Dive

There are two popular documentaries about food waste: the newest is Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, released in 2014. Made by the same people who made the Clean Bin Project in 2010 (which you will find below at number 6), Just Eat It follows their attempts to live only on food that would otherwise be thrown away. It questions why we throw so much food away, and what the environmental, social and other impacts are on the failures of our food system. Jen and Grant have a lighthearted and fun approach, but  beneath the humour there is something far less palatable.

Dive! is another documentary about food waste and dumpster diving. It’s older, and not as slick, but still just as informative. You can watch the Dive! trailer here.

6. The Clean Bin Project

Made by Jen and Grant from Just Eat It fame in 2010, the Clean Bin Project follows their attempt to live zero waste for a year, producing no landfill. They compete with each other to produce the smallest amount of waste, and the documentary is funny and entertaining whilst still exploring the bigger issues, particularly the issues with plastic and packaging. If you want to introduce others to the idea of plastic-free and zero waste lifestyles without overloading them with information or terrorizing them into inaction, then this movie (along with Bag It!) is a really great place to start.

7. Trashed

I prefer the documentaries I watch to end with at least a glimmer of home, and with Trashed, this is borderline. I left the screening feeling motivated to do more – but only just. It is hard-hitting. If you are someone who is easily overwhelmed, I don’t recommend this – and it definitely isn’t a movie to show friends who you are trying to encourage to make small changes! However, if you are somebody who really wants to understand the issues, and wants to see (very clearly!) the impact that our consumption is having on the planet, this documentary is a very graphic example of this.

8. Minimalism: a Documentary about the Important Things

Released this year, Minimalism: a Documentary about the Important Things is a project by the Minimalists Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus that explores how minimalism has changed the lives of others for the better. It focuses heavily on consumption (or over-consumption), and how moving away from that has improved the lives of the people interviewed. It touches on other aspects of sustainability, including fast fashion and waste. It’s a thoughtful movie, and whilst I didn’t learn anything new, I’d still recommend it. It felt like a taster, and if you are somebody new to these ideas you will get a lot out of it. It’s positive and upbeat, with lots of inspiring stories about people living both conventional and unconventional lives with less stuff.

9. The Lightbulb Conspiracy

This documentary isn’t the most entertaining, beautifully shot or carefully crafted, but it talks about an issue that we don’t often hear about: planned obsolescence. It’s the way companies force us to replace products quicker than we’d like, and it is sure to get you thinking! Planned obsolescence is the deliberate design of a product to ensure that it breaks, falls apart and needs replacing, to encourage us to consume. The Lightbulb Conspiracy tells the story of the Light Bulb Cartel, a true story of companies coming together in the 1920s to deliberately make their products fail, in order to sell more. It also shows how other companies, including Apple and Hewlett Packard, continue to use planned obsolescence today.

10. Tiny / Small is Beautiful

Tiny and Small is Beautiful are both documentaries about tiny houses, and the people who chose to build them. Tiny follows the story of a guy who decides to build his own tiny house, whereas Small is Beautiful follows four couples, all building their own tiny homes. Of the two, Tiny is my favourite, as it not only follows the guy making the film, but also interviews others who have made tiny houses their home. Whilst the filmmaker is building the tiny house primarily to make a documentary and begin a career in film-making, his experiences are still interesting. What really makes the documentary is the other stories – the people who have chosen to live in these homes, what led them to make these choices and how they feel their lives have changed as a result.

If you are interested in tiny houses, Small is Beautiful is also worth viewing. You can watch the Small is Beautiful trailer here.

11. No Impact Man

Colin Beavan, who made No Impact Man in 2009, in which he decides to live a no impact life, reducing his waste, transport use, energy consumption (at one point he gets rid of his fridge!) and food miles. He brings his (sometimes reluctant) family on the journey with him. He recieves a fair amount of criticism with both the movie and his decision to make these lifestyle choices in the first place: some question his motivation (he chose to live the life to write a book about his experiences), and others wonder about his choice to film and share some private family moments with his audience. Whilst he does not always come across as likeable, this documentary is all the better for Colin Beavan’s complete warts-an-all approach to telling his story. Incidentally, his passion and commitment to the cause has been proven over time: in 2016, he is still talking about these issues and is interviewed in Minimalism: a Documentary about the Important Things.

12. Rise of the Eco Warriors

I’ve included this documentary because, despite the name (cheesy as!) and the first 20 minutes or so – where a bunch of mostly white teenagers and young people who have crowdsourced and fundraised for their trip, arrive in Borneo with a plan to “save the world” in 100 days – Rise of the Eco Warriors does has something to offer. After the first 20 minutes, the reality of the situation hits the “eco warriors” and what unfolds is a story about people trying to work together, the enormous devastation that palm oil plantations cause and the complex issues at the heart of it all. If you’d like to know more about palm oil and deforestation, this is definitely worth watching.

Now I’d like to hear from you! What are your favourite eco or environmental documentaries? Are there any that you’d add to this list? Any that you recommend I watch? Were there any that were life-changing (or “lightbulb moments”) for you? Have you seen any of the movies I’ve listed, and what did you think of them? Which were your favourites, and which did you not enjoy at all?  Anything else that you’d like to add? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Can You Have A Dog and be Zero Waste?

My husband and I have been wondering about adopting a dog for a long while. The shelters are full of unwanted animals, and we felt that we now have the energy, time and space to give one a loving home. Having never had a dog before (the only pet I had as a kid was a hamster) I wasn’t sure what the reality would be.

How do you prepare for something you’ve never done before, and make such a commitment?

Then we came across greyhound fostering and adoption. Despite greyhound racing being banned in many countries across the world, it is very much happening in Australia (New South Wales announced recently that they will be banning it – it is being appealed, of course). Greyhounds are overbred to increase the selection pool, and bred solely to run fast. Those that aren’t fast enough, or won’t chase, are disposed of. In fact, 17,000 healthy dogs are killed ever year in Australia.

Greyhound rescue charities exist to try to take some of these dogs and rehome them. Some more conscientious trainers will arrange for charities to take unwanted dogs; other times it is the vets that pass these dogs on to spare them. These rescue organisations don’t have kennels of their own so the dogs go straight from the racing kennels to foster families.

Sometimes there is less than 24 hours notice that a dog will be needing a new home.

My husband and I decided that fostering a greyhound might be a good way to see if our home and our lifestyle is suitable for a dog. We have a small fenced-in yard that wouldn’t suit a lot of dogs, but greyhounds (surprisingly) don’t need much space. They need walking, of course, but 30 minutes a day is adequate. They are indoor dogs as they feel the cold.

They are different to other rescue dogs in that they are used to human contact and other dogs (although, only other greyhounds). They are gentle, calm and unfazed by most things, plus they are toilet-trained.

It happened really fast. We called to say we’d installed a gate so our yard was secure, but we still had a few things to source – like a bed, food bowls and food. The next thing was, they called to say they had a dog and we could expect him the next day. I’m sure you can never be totally prepared, but my, did I feel woefully underprepared!

Hans arrived at 6pm last Tuesday. He’s 3 and a half, so we think he’s been racing for 18 months. We don’t know much else about him. He’s calm, placid and settled in quickly.

Of course, I want to keep things as waste-free as I can. But is it possible?

Hans Greyhound Rescue Hans Side View Hans

Is it possible to have a dog and be zero waste?

Bedding, Bowls and Toys

Zero waste and plastic-free living is important to me. I’ve spent the last 4 years living like this, and I can’t just undo it or not think about it. Even the idea of buying things new really stresses me out, let alone wrapped in or made from plastic.

We’d hoped to source the food bowls second-hand and use a second-hand cot mattress for the bed, but there were none on Gumtree at the time and with less than a day to find something, we had to buy new. We found 100% stainless steel bowls (one water, one food) and a mattress covered with hessian, which I could replace with upcycled hessian coffee bags if need be (our local cafe sell their old ones).

We’re using old bedding on the mattress to extend its life – the bedding is washable, whereas the mattress isn’t. Fortunately none of these things came with extra packaging.

We found a toy made from 100% rubber, but all the soft toys were polyester. It is possible to buy natural ones on the internet, but after being given a soft toy by a colleague we’ve discovered that any soft toy will not be worth the investment – it will be gone in 5 minutes! Greyhounds don’t really play, so we’re not too worried.

Dealing with Dog Poo

I built a dog poo worm farm in the back yard using a white “builder’s bucket” donated to me by my local bulk food store (it previously had washing powder in it). Worms will eat dog poo provided there is no other food in there.

I won’t be adding the castings to my veggies but it will break down into nutrients and go back into the soil – better than the bin. It’s safe to do, and I have plenty of friends with dogs that do this. (Here are the instructions if you’re interested in how to make a DIY dog poo worm farm – I realise it’s a niche area!)

Digging In DIY Dog Poo Worm Farm

White “builder’s bucket” with the bottom cut out, dug into the ground with 2 inches showing on top.

Worms for DIY Dog Poo Worm Farm

Adding worms, and shredded paper to the dog poo worm farm.

DIY Dog Poo Worm Farm

The finished dog poo worm farm. If I could be bothered I could paint the lid – I could even stand a plant on top. It could be very discrete : )

I pick up the waste with newspaper. If we’re out and about I can put in dog poo bins – there are a couple close by – and we are lucky that the domestic waste in our suburb actually gets put through an industrial composter.

In fact, as Hans had worming tablets when he came, I can’t use the worm farm for two weeks, so I’ve been putting it here. No, I’m not keeping it for my waste jar!

Food and Treats

The lady that placed Hans with us brought dog food with her, so it was one less thing to worry about. At least, it should have been. But I’ve realised that as someone who doesn’t buy meat because I don’t want to support industrial agriculture, I’m going to struggle with this.

I’m also going to struggle with the packaging, and the “processed” nature of dog food.

Kangaroo meat is a possibility here as it isn’t farmed, it’s wild. But do I want to cook and handle it myself? I’m aware that dogs have thrived on vegetarian and vegan diets but it takes sound management and doesn’t work for all of them. Racing dogs are often fed cereal (cornflakes and Weetabix) with milk for breakfast, and pasta for dinner -greyhounds will eat most things. But should they?

They need a complete food, and to be healthy. A local bulk store is looking into stocking dog kibble – it will contain meat but there will be no packaging. Lots of options, but none are perfect.

I don’t have the answer, but I have enough kibble here to spend some time looking into this further.

The Stuff I Didn’t Think About

After three sleepless nights, we learned that leaving the light and radio on overnight is necessary to maintain calm. I am someone who never leaves unnecessary lights on! Whilst I know that it’s negligible in terms of waste, it still stresses me a little, and it’s another adjustment I have to make.

I also didn’t expect to be thrown into a whole new world. The last week has been eye-opening, stressful…and emotional. I’m not talking about my lifestyle now, I’m talking about the world of greyhounds, and greyhound rescuers. To have met so many people who are completely dedicated to saving these beautiful animals has been humbling.

They open up their homes and give up their weekends to try to find forever homes for these dogs.

They are all volunteers. They are doing everything in their power to save as many animals as they can.

Whatever my personal dilemmas are about waste, ethical living and sustainability, clearly none of this is Hans’, or any other greyhounds’ fault. They are part of a broken system that breeds dogs simply to make money and provide entertainment for a few, and then discards them when they no longer perform.

I’d never really given greyhound racing much thought before, but having seen and read what I have in the last ten days, I’m appalled. For all the dogs that are rescued, many more won’t be. In Australia, it’s estimated 50% of dogs are destroyed. I hope that the NSW greyhound racing ban remains, and that it is the start of the end for racing dogs in Australia.

Stuff shouldn’t be wasted. Resources shouldn’t be wasted. Lives shouldn’t be wasted, either.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever fostered or rescued a dog before? What was your experience? Do you have any tips to share? Are you trying to live plastic-free or zero waste with a pet, and what have your successes been? What about your dilemmas and struggles? Are you vegetarian or vegan with a pet, and how have you made your choices regarding the food you give them? Did you know about the reality of the greyhound racing industry before, or was it something that you never considered? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Zero-Waste, Minimalism… & Why I Won’t Talk about Money-Saving

I passionately believe that living a zero waste and minimalist lifestyle is something to strive for. It’s rewarding, fun and fulfilling. We live on a beautiful planet and must do what we can to protect it. These lifestyles provide challenges that encourage our creativity and build resilience; they teach us that as individuals, we can make a difference.

They reconnect us with the seasons, the local economy, with real food… and with each other. There are beautiful communities of people all over the world passionate about the idea of living with less. Simplifying and letting go of excess gives us time to spend doing the things that are truly important to us, and increases our happiness.

These are the reasons that I love this lifestyle; they are the reasons that I use to try to inspire others to join in. Money-saving is not among them. Here’s why.

When I stopped buying plastic in 2012 I never realised quite how life-changing it would be. For the first time, I began to question the choices I made unconsciously. I looked at my habits (such as the places I shopped, the stuff I bought and the reasons I bought it) and asked myself if they were in line with my values.

If I cared so much about the planet, why was I buying all this single-use packaging that created an enormous burden for the environment? If I believed in the local economy and the importance of supporting small independent businesses, why did I tend to shop at the supermarkets and department stores?

Somehow these behaviours had sneaked into my routine and become habits… and I was determined to un-learn them and create new ones that were aligned with the changes I want to see in the world.

The benefits that came were enormous. There’s a real satisfaction that comes with supporting businesses whose values align with your own. It feels good to care about something and know the choices you make (and the actions you take) are strengthening that cause, not weakening it.

I reconnected with my local community and met some amazing and inspiring people. I stopped buying junk and processed food; I stopped being such a sucker for marketing and buying the “special offers” or shiny new products with the tempting packaging.

I started buying real food that was nutritious and good for me. More whole foods, more fresh vegetables and lots of actual ingredients; less refined carbohydrates, less sugar and no synthetic preservatives. I cooked more from scratch and found I loved the creative process and journey of discovery: there are lots of things you can make at home quickly and simply.

My health and energy levels improved dramatically.

I also ditched the chemical-laden toiletries and cleaning products with unreadable ingredients, removing a lot of the clutter from my bathroom in the process. I sought out natural alternatives that came without all the packaging, or made my own (deodorant, toothpaste and cleaning products).

I reduced what I used down to a few products that have multiple uses.

Aside from cooking, and making personal care/cleaning products, I’ve learned a lot of other new skills. How to compost, grow veggies, how to sew (okay, I’m still on the very basics with that one). How to see beyond the greenwash and find answers rather than believing without question; how to get involved with local community groups, even how to use social media to share as I learn.

I’ve discovered a love of writing that motivates me every day to share my story and spread the message – you can live a happy, fun and fulfilling life in a way that doesn’t harm the planet.

As part of this journey, I learned to simplify. I figured out what was “enough” and let go of the excess. I found contentment with what I have, rather than chasing the next thing, or thinking “I’ll be happy when / if….”.

I no longer go to the shops when I’m feeling down to buy stuff I don’t need: I go for a walk outside, or chat to a friend, or cook up a storm in the kitchen (well, usually it looks like a storm has passed through when I’m done). That’s what makes me happy.

Rodion Kutsaev Treading My Own Path Zero Waste Minimalism Happiness

What it all comes down to is living a life in line with my values. I value nature and the environment; social justice and equality. I value being able to nurture my creativity, look after my health, and help others. Not only do I value these, but I find happiness and fulfilment in pursuing a life that is in harmony with them.

This is why I find this lifestyle so immensely rewarding.

I want to help others reconnect with their values too: figure out what they care about, and live a life that’s aligned to that. This is why I don’t talk about money-saving. I don’t think it fits. I don’t think it’s the reason that we pursue zero waste or minimalist lifestyles, and I don’t want to use it to try to encourage others.

Money-saving can be about making ends meet, stretching the budget, putting food on the table. It can be a necessity. But if we start to value money-saving beyond our needs, that’s valuing something different: it’s valuing wealth. Valuing wealth is at odds with the values behind zero waste and minimalism. It’s the pursuit of more [wealth] versus the pursuit of less (or enough). I could argue that money, wealth and profit-at-the-expense-of-the-environment are what got us into this mess in the first place…

Talking about money-saving makes me uncomfortable, because wealth is not a value I want to promote. I’ve made decisions in the past based solely on money, and I’m not proud. I know that they weren’t the right choices.

I’ve told myself that ethical is expensive, and allowed myself to put self-centred interest above standing up for and choosing what I believe in. (I’m happy and relieved to say that I don’t shop that way any more. I’m much more aligned with my values.)

Now, when I see wealth values acted out, it makes my heart sink. I’ve seen ugly commentaries regarding charity shops, with outrage at the fact that these shops are selling items for more than a couple of dollars. Where is the perspective? Charity shops don’t exist to provide bargains to thrifty shoppers. They raise funds for the poorest and most marginalised people in our society, relying on the kindness of donations and the manpower of volunteers to raise funds.

Money can bring out the worst in us, and I’d rather focus on things that bring out the best.

By living a zero waste minimalist lifestyle, I do spend less than I used to. It’s not the reason why I live this way: it is simply a by-product of changing my habits. I buy and consume far less. If it cost more, I’d still be living this way, because I’m not doing it for the money-saving benefits.

Telling people that living this way will save them money isn’t the whole story, and it does the movement a disservice. If they come in with the idea that they will save money without changing their habits, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Some parts of zero waste living do save money: stop buying bottled water, drink from the tap and save a fortune.

Others don’t: stainless steel is far more expensive than plastic. Overall, it may balance out… but only if you also change your lifestyle.

There are plenty of benefits to zero waste living and minimalism that are immensely rewarding, that make us better citizens and happier people. That’s where my focus lies.

I don’t want people to choose zero waste living or minimalism because they think they will save money. That’s not what it’s about. I want people to make these choices because they believe in their hearts that it is the right thing to do.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are the benefits that you get out of pursuing a life with less? Were there any that you didn’t expect? What values resonate most strongly with you, and how does the way you live align with that? Have you ever put something ahead of your values, and how did it make you feel? What factors do you consider when you make choices? Do you disagree, and think that talking about money-saving has a valuable part to play, or do you agree that it’s best to stay clear on any mention of wealth and talk about other benefits? Anything else that you’d like to add? I really want to hear your thoughts so please leave me a comment!

Why I Choose a Plant-Based Diet (but no, I’m not a vegan)

The food choices we make have an impact on the planet. There’s 7 billion of us, and we all need to eat, so we’re talking a huge impact. When I quit plastic in 2012, I stopped buying food products in plastic packaging, which meant processed and mass produced food. Initially I was motivated by waste, but then I began to think about how sustainable my food choices were in other ways.

I started shopping locally and buying whole foods and the environmental impact of my diet reduced as a result.

Recently I’ve started hearing more and more about choosing to go vegan to fight climate change, and “eating for the planet” and it got me thinking about my own diet and whether being vegan was the most sustainable choice for me. I’m 99% meat free and this year I committed to aiming for fish-free too. I avoid dairy.

I guess you’d describe my diet as plant-based, but I’m not a vegan. Here’s why:

Why I Choose a Plant-Based Diet

Plant Based Diet Not a Vegan Treading My Own Path

I love vegetables.

I mean I really truly absolutely love vegetables. They are friggin’ delicious. Give me all the vegetables any day! I love the fact they are so varied, so versatile – you can eat them boldly, or you can sneak them into anything.

I love making vegetable-based desserts (it’s far more possible – and delicious – than it sounds).

Did I always love vegetables? Not particularly. But when you step away from the supermarket and go to the Farmers’ Markets and grow your own you discover a whole other world of taste and satisfaction.

Creativity in the kitchen.

Experimenting in the kitchen is my creative outlet. I love mixing things together and trying new combinations, or new ways of doing things…and vegan cooking is a world of opportunity.

Vegan food in the 21st century is super creative, with raw desserts that rival conventional desserts, dairy style products made of nuts that are a million miles away from those processed-fake-cheese-vacuum-packed-blobs and clever ideas like making meringues from leftover chickpea brine that make my mind run overtime.

Fish and plastic in the ocean.

I stopped eating meat a long time ago, but my husband and I have always eaten fish. More and more though, when I see the reports of how much plastic is in the ocean, and in our fish, it makes it seem less appetizing.

If you’ve taken part in a beach or river clean up then you’ll know exactly what I mean! That plastic is being ingested by fish (a study showed 25% of fish contain plastic) and what that means for human health is still being researched.

Plastic aside, the other question is whether there really is sustainable seafood. There’s plenty of issues with fishing – like overfishing, using indiscriminate nets and bycatch.

I’m happier sticking with my vegetables.

Bottle Return Schemes are a pain.

Until recently, my husband still bought dairy milk for his coffee. We bought the milk in glass bottles and returned the containers. Simple – except without a car, returning the bottles was difficult, and we’d end up storing several months worth before we could return them.

Cue a cluttered kitchen and much grumbling. We did it because we cared.

Eventually he decided to switch to nut milk (we use cashew nut milk for coffee, or a blend of 50/50 almond milk:cashew milk if I make both at once). The clutter-free kitchen, the fact it is much harder to run out of cashews than milk and the general ease means he won’t be going back.

The Ethics of the Dairy Industry.

If I’m completely honest with myself, I always knew that the dairy industry wasn’t all happy cows and green grass. But I ate so much dairy (milk and cheese) and liked it so much that I never thought I’d be able to give it up – and so I didn’t think about the ethics. (There’s a term for that. It’s called cognitive dissonance.)

I didn’t want to think about it.

What changed my mind was Plastic Free July. It changed the way I shopped and the types of meals I cooked, and I started buying less dairy and experimenting with nut milks and other alternatives without really intending to.

Once I realised I really wasn’t consuming that much dairy any more, I finally opened my eyes to the dairy industry. Cows produce milk after having a calf, but the farmer doesn’t want the baby drinking the milk, he wants to sell it to us. So the calf is removed (sometimes only hours after birth) – and if it’s a male calf it will often be destroyed (and we’re talking millions per year worldwide). Mothers get no time to bond with their young.

To keep a cow producing milk she needs to give birth every year, as milk production declines over time. So 305 days after calving, she is taken off milk production to gestate another calf (she is given 60 days to rest prior), and the cycle begins again.

It’s industrial agriculture.

Cow Angelina Litvin

There’s plenty more I could say, but I’ll just say this: personally, supporting the dairy industry doesn’t make me feel good, and I don’t think (in its current form) it’s a sustainable industry in the 21st century. I try to consume as little dairy as possible, and we no longer buy dairy for home.

Out and about, it’s hard to avoid completely and we do what we can.

Why I’m not a Vegan

I’m motivated by sustainability principles.

I’m also motivated by ethics and health, but my guiding value is sustainability. Living in a city in a country with an abundance of fruit and vegetables, it’s very easy for me to choose to eat a plant-based diet.

Were I to live somewhere else where vegetables weren’t so prevalent, my diet would probably be different. I value local and seasonal over big business agriculture and industrial food systems, and that means I won’t rule out non-vegan alternatives. I’m always open to new ideas.

I still eat eggs.

It’s not possible to get B12 from a plant-based diet without eating fortified foods (mass-produced chemical laden cereal and bread? No thanks) and I’d rather get the nutrients I need from food than take supplements.

That said, I’m pretty fussy with my eggs. There is no way I’d eat a battery egg (despite being banned in the EU since 2012, they are still available to buy in Australia) and after the controversial press surrounding labelling of free-range eggs I stick to super local, organic, clearly labelled eggs – or get them from friends.

Eggs Autumn Mott

I still eat honey.

Bees are amazing, and honey is a superfood – full of nutrients and thought to be immunity-boosting. I love that it can be produced locally, whereas other minimally processed sugars like coconut sugar are imported. The other alternative? Big business sugar cane sugar with all the nutrients stripped out. No thanks.

I still buy non-vegan fabrics.

As I’ve mentioned before, my goal is to have a wardrobe comprised of almost entirely natural fibres. This means silk and wool (both no-nos for true vegans) will be a part of that. I’ve bought leather in the past but since I’ve learned more about how polluting the leather industry is and the toxic effects of chromium poisoning, I’m avoiding this until I learn more.

I’m a ‘freegan’ more than a vegan.

I’m definitely not into labels or trying to pigeon-hole myself into any kind of category, but I can’t bear waste, and this includes food waste. I’m not bothered so much with the waste of food-like substances like pre-packaged, processed junk food (well, I hate the waste of course, but I’m not gonna eat that stuff!), but if I had the choice between eating a grass-fed organic steak or watching it go in the bin and going hungry, I’d probably opt for the former. Fortunately that kind of dilemma doesn’t happen very often.

To sum up, I’d say that negotiating ethics and morals is a minefield, and there’s almost always compromise somewhere. I’m comfortable with the choices I’ve made. Eating locally produced food as much as possible, seasonal always and small-scale and independent as an ideal, a plant-based diet works for me. But no, I’m not a vegan.

Now it’s your turn to give me your thoughts on this! How would you describe your diet? Do you eat a plant-based diet? Would you call yourself a vegan? Whether yes or no, tell me your reasons! Why have you made the choices you made? Have you changed your diet due to environmental, ethical or sustainability reasons, or is food an area that you’re not willing to compromise with? Is it something you want to change in the future, but you haven’t begun yet? Does the place you live restrict the choices you make? This is such an interesting and juicy topic and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

My (Mis)Adventure with Sustainable Fashion

I’m certainly not a fashion victim. In fact, I wonder if the clothes I wear can even be called fashion, seeing as I’ve owned most of them for more than three years, and they were purchased second-hand back then. So when I say sustainable fashion, I guess what I really mean is sustainable clothes.

Over the years my clothing shopping habits have changed. Whilst today I try to buy as little as possible, I confess there was a time when I used to see clothes shopping as a fun way to spend time. Luckily, I didn’t see it as a fun way to spend money (which I’m sure has saved me a small fortune over the years!), so I tried to stick to things I really liked and that I thought would last, and would only shop a few times a year.

I’ve never been a fan of cheap throwaway fashion:  inexpensive items wear out quickly and lose their shape, and I want the clothes I own to get many outings. More than that, I’ve always been a believer that if something seems too cheap, it is; somewhere along the line, someone has suffered. I’d opt for the more expensive high street stores hoping that if the prices were higher, it meant there was no exploitation going on behind the scenes.

The switch from new to second-hand came slowly, and actually, thanks to eBay. I’ve never particularly enjoyed clothes shopping in charity shops, but here on the internet I could find the size and styles that I wanted in the brands that I already knew. Giving a second life to somebody else’s waste, and not contributing directly to these fashion giant’s coffers rests better with my conscience, and I committed to try to avoid buying anything new (underwear excluded).

In the last year or so, two things have made me wonder if this is enough. There’s always the question “can I do more?” Sometimes the answer is no, but often it is yes, and I wondered if there was more I could do with the clothing I chose to wear. In particular, I had two concerns.

How Can I Live a Plastic-Free Life With a Wardrobe Full of Plastic?!

I buy my clothes second hand, wear them to within an inch of their lives, cut them up and use them as rags for cleaning…but ultimately they need to be disposed of, and I am faced with two choices. Compost, or landfill. Plastic fibres will not break down in compost. (They’re actually not great as cleaning cloths, either.) Natural fibres make much better cleaning cloths, and can be composted at the end of their lives.

When I looked at the contents of my wardrobe, only a handful of items were made of natural fibres (silk, cotton and wool). The vast majority are polyester (with some acrylic and nylon). Polyester is plastic. This has sat a little uneasily with me ever since I began my plastic-free living journey, but what really clinched it was when I first read that plastic microfibres are washed into the ocean every time we launder our (synthetic fabric) clothes. I feel that now I’ve got my all the plastic-free fundamentals of my life (shopping, eating, washing and cleaning) under control, this is something I want (and need) to tackle.

As I minimalise my wardrobe, ethical and Fairly Traded garments made from sustainable and natural fibres are my new priority : )

As I minimalise my wardrobe, ethical and Fairly Traded garments made from sustainable and natural fibres are my new priority : )

Is “Hoping” that Clothing is Sustainably Made, Ethically Produced and Sweatshop-Free Enough?

The answer to this, quite clearly, is no. Avoiding clothing at rock-bottom prices is a no-brainer, but assuming (or hoping) that just because a clothing company charges more for its products that the farmers and workers have been treated fairly… It’s a big ask. And it’s a question I’ve not even been asking.

Fair Trade fashion is a growing industry, with clothing that looks less like old sacking and more like regular high street wear than some of the earlier attempts I remember. Whilst I’m a huge fan of second-hand clothing, I also think it’s important to support companies who stand for ideals we believe in. I guess there needs to be balance. (Second-hand Fair Trade clothing would be my ideal, but there’s a lot less of it around!)

My Misadventure with Sustainable Fashion

With this in mind, I have decided that my vision for my wardrobe is one where the majority of the items are made of natural fibres, that the majority are organic and / or Fair Trade, and that a significant amount is second-hand. Second hand items aside, this is the total opposite to my current wardrobe. Change will be a slow process, I’m sure, as I still have a commitment to myself to reduce (half) my wardrobe, and I intend to wear the current items out before replacing them. (Or maybe that’s my excuse as I find it really, really hard to declutter my wardrobe!)

In some rather exciting news for the minimalist-wannabe-but-closet-hoarder that I am, I actually managed to wear out a pair of black leggings (to the point where they were almost see-through) and decided their replacement would be my first organic natural fibre Fair Trade purchase. Then, because the postage was a flat fee I also bought two organic Fair Trade dresses for work – which I justified because I literally wear the same skirt to work every day, and thought I should probably invest in another outfit. (Did I need two? Possibly not. Oops.)

Feeling rather noble about my purchases, I was very pleased when they arrived in a brown paper bag, looking all environmentally friendly. At last! A sustainable solution! And then I looked inside.

Plastic!

People Tree Ethical Sustainable Organic Clothing2015

Organic cotton clothing, Fairly Traded, ethically produced…and packaged in plastic!

I haven’t bought new clothing online in so long, it didn’t even cross my mind that the items would come individually packaged in plastic. I purchased these in July, so ironically, in the one month of the year where I aim to make the biggest effort to consume no plastic, I end up accumulating more than in the entire rest of the year put together!

People Tree Paper Packaging

People Tree packaging – plastic-free heavy duty brown paper envelope, labels made of card attached to the clothing with ribbon (possibly plastic but at least reusable). If only the items themselves didn’t come in plastic bags!

So often when trying to make “green” and ethical decisions we have to compromise, and it can be frustrating! Clearly I’m committed to not buying anything in plastic, so shopping like this isn’t going to work for me. I’d also far rather find local shops and avoid online shopping altogether. Then again, living in one of the most isolated cities in the world makes this tricky. People Tree is a brand is championing the values that I think are so important – chemical-free crops, Fair Trade, capacity building, ethical supply chains – and I want to support them.

An Ethical Dilemma – What Next?

One thing I’ve learned on this journey is to ask questions. Maybe there’s an option for purchasing items without plastic packaging. Maybe there’s a good reason why they don’t offer this. Maybe they’ve just never thought about it before. My first step is to write a letter to express my concerns, and see if I can get any answers. (I might mention replacing the ribbon with natural twine, too.) Plus I’ll be recycling the plastic bags (our local supermarket collects soft plastic like this for recycling).

My second step is to look for in-store options (next time I need to replace something though…not before). For example, People Tree stock over 1000 stores, so there must be the option to buy in-person, and avoid all the unnecessary extra packing and shipping. They are also not the only Fair Trade and organic brand out there. An exciting journey of discovery awaits!

And of course, as I start to discover these brands, there will be the option of looking for them online (or even in stores) in the second-hand marketplace. It’s also easier to request plastic-free packaging when you’re buying from an individual, items are usually cheaper, and you’re giving a new lease of life to somebody else’s waste.

Sometimes making sustainable choices isn’t easy. Often we are faced with hurdles. Giving up or accepting defeat isn’t an option. If we care enough, if we want to live a life aligned with our values, then we need to keep trying. I may have tripped, but I intend to get back up, dust myself off, learn from what’s happened and keep going. After all, even when we stumble, we are still moving forward.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you tried to make a sustainable choice that’s backfired? What did you learn from it? How do you deal with compromise? Do you have some non-negotiables – rules you’ve  set yourself that you’ll never bend, or is everything open to compromise depending on the situation? What about sustainable fashion? Have you taken steps to make your wardrobe more ethical or environmentally-friendly? What did you find easy? What do you struggle with? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Who Made Your (My) Clothes?

This week it is the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. On 24th April 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing 1133 people and injuring 2500 more. The people killed and injured were making clothes to be sold in Western countries. Many of the companies resisted paying compensation, some even denied their garments were being made in the factory at all. Benetton (one of the companies that originally claimed not to have used firms located at the Rana Plaza complex) only agreed to donate money to the victims’ compensation fund last week, almost two years since the accident happened.

With all the major Western fashion retailers involved having contributed, the fund remains $8 million short of its target.

To ensure that these deaths and the tragedy that occurred would stand for something, Fashion Revolution Day was born. The idea is to make people question where their clothes come from – who made our clothes? Often we buy garments with no idea who was involved, what their working conditions are like, whether they are paid a living wage or where they even live. Fashion Revolution Day exists to try to reconnect us with this chain and the values and relationships that are embedded in it.

So..Who Made My Clothes?

A good proportion of my wardrobe is second-hand, and since 2013 I’ve pledged not to add anything more to my wardrobe in an attempt to minimize and streamline. My goal is less items, more staples, better quality, responsibly manufactured, and made of natural or sustainable fabrics. Sure, there’s been a few hiccups along the way, but I’m slowly wearing things out.

But do I know where my clothes were made?

No.

Well, I didn’t…but in the spirit of Fashion Revolution day, I took every single item out of my wardrobe and read the label. Every single item. In fact, I took a photo for prosperity. There were a few things with labels so faded that they could no longer be read, and socks and tights don’t seem to come with labels, but everything else has been inspected.

Here are the results.

China: 52 Items.

Who Made My Clothes? Fashion Reolution Day 2015 China

Hong Kong: 2 items. Phillipines: 2 items.

Who Made My Clothes? Fashion Revolution Day 2015 Hong Kong Phillipines

India: 6 items. Bangladesh: 2 items.

Fashion Revolution Day 2015 Who Made My Clothes India Bangladesh 600 px

Turkey: 8 items.

Who Made My Clothes Fashion Revolution Day 2015 Turkey

Portugal: 6 items. Italy: 2 items.

Who Made My Clothes Fashion Revolution Day Italy Portugal

Malta: 1 item. Morocco: 3 items.

Who Made My Clothes Fashion Revolution Day 2015 Malta Morocco

South Africa: 1 item. Sri Lanka: 1 item. Israel: 1 item. Australia: 1 item.

Fashio Revolution Day Who Made My Clothes Israel Sri Lanka South Africa Australia

Romania: 3 items. USA: 1 item.

Fashion Revolution Day 2015 Who Made My Clothes? USA Romania

Unknown origin: 2 items.

Who Made My Clothes

I was shocked. The items in my wardrobe come from 16 different countries, plus 2 have no labels at all. Who knew my wardrobe was so multicultural? I certainly didn’t.

Of course, knowing what country at item was made in doesn’t tell me the conditions of the factory, or the minimum wage of workers. I like to think that by choosing not buying the cheapest brands (even buying most of my clothes second-hand, I avoid the cheapest brands) means I’m avoiding the sweatshops, but actually…how do I know?

The idea behind Fashion Revolution Day is to start asking questions. To look at the labels to see who the brands are, and ask the question – “who made my clothes?”

I still don’t know who made my clothes. But I know where they came from, which is more than I knew last week. It’s a good place to start from. Now I just need to ask more questions…

Now I’d like to hear from you! Have you heard of Fashion Revolution Day? Are you taking part? Do you feel you have a good sense of where and how your clothes are made? Maybe you make them yourself? Or are you like me with no real sense of where they came from? Do you have any tips for finding ethical and sustainable brands? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

Minimalism, Mortgages and a Green Swing

Last year I touched on one of the major reasons behind my decision to take on full-time employment. I’m a huge advocate for working part-time hours and one of the best decisions I ever made was going part-time back in 2010 when I first started consciously journeying towards simple living.

However, situations change and last year Glen and I made the decision to buy an apartment. It was not a quick decision – in fact it took us several months to finally commit and sign the paperwork. It wasn’t any apartment we were after, but a specific one… more on that in a sec. The decision to buy somewhere meant that I needed to find employment in order for us to save the deposit.

Taking on a mortgage seemed at odds with our commitment to live simply. One of the biggest attractions is the freedom that comes with having few possessions and having few financial obligations. Neither of us want to feel like we have to go to work just to pay for the stuff we’ve bought or to pay off debt. We’ve pared down our expenses so that we can survive on the salary of one person. It means that if one of us was made redundant (as happened with me a couple of years ago) it doesn’t have a life-changing impact on our spending or standard of living; or if one of us hates our job so much we want to quit, we have that choice. It’s a pretty powerful feeling, knowing that if you wanted to, you could walk away from it all.

However, a mortgage will potentially change all that.

What about the alternatives to house-buying? One of the big lifestyle ideas that’s come out of the simple living movement is the idea of tiny houses – houses that can be less than 10m². Often built on trailers, they don’t require a mortgage and provide debt-free living for converts. We love the idea, but neither of us have any DIY experience – I’ve never even put up shelves! We don’t have any land to park a tiny home. With temperatures in Perth exceeding 40°C in summer, I’m not convinced it would be a comfortable solution. Plus despite our minimalist intentions, we are not ready to fit into a space that small.

Tumbleweed Tiny House

A Tumbleweed Tiny House from the USA. And people do actually live in them!

Another option would be to carry on renting. And actually, I’m a big fan of renting. I find it frustrating when people say “oh, renting is just throwing money away!” How so?! You get somewhere to live in exchange for your rent money – sounds like a pretty good deal to me! Plus when things go wrong, it is someone else’s problem (and expense) to fix them.

So why did we choose to go down the house-buying path? Well, a lot of it was to do with the place we decided to buy. It’s an apartment…but with some differences. It’s part of a project called the Green Swing which has been set up by two couples in Perth. Fed up with the current urban design in Perth, which features huge houses and tiny courtyards, double garages with large driveways, and buildings not adequately designed for the Perth summer heat, they set out to do things differently.

Their focus is on creating small-scale inner city living environments that are high quality and made with recycled materials where possible, promote building community, make proper use of solar passive design to dispense with the need for air conditioning, and have other green features. They started with their own homes, building four dwellings on a block that are centered around a community garden (you can see two of these houses in the featured picture at the top of this page).

They are now working on their second project The Siding, and it is this one that Glen and I are buying a unit from. We first heard about the Green Swing just as the first project was being completed back in 2012 and were really excited that someone was out there doing things differently. When the second project launched on a block four doors down from the original, we wondered if it was something we should buy into…literally!

We thought about it for ages. I’d met Eugenie (one of the Green Swing owners) at a Community Garden open day in 2013 and invited her to speak at the Less is More Festival, which she did. We went to look at Eugenie and her husbands’ place a couple of times and had many discussions about what they are doing, and why, and how. The more we got talking the more we felt that their vision is similar to ours, and the project is one we want to be part of.

So what were our doubts? I’ve already talked about the mortgage. We also held back because it wasn’t… ideal? There are solar panels on the roof, but I wanted a bigger solar PV system. There is a rainwater tank, but it’s small and shared amongst the three units in our building so will only provide token rainwater. There’s no grey water system. The community garden area is smaller than I’d like (I’d have less houses and more garden!). But then I caught myself. Why did I want everything bigger and better? That’s not a very minimalist approach! Plus, whilst I might have done things differently, it isn’t my project. This project isn’t about being the most sustainable community-oriented project ever. Sustainable and community-oriented, yes, but within what’s practical and what’s possible.

Eventually we cast our doubts aside and decided yes. Whilst we like living in our current flat, we are ready for a change. We want to be able to grow our own food. We love the community aspect of the new place – and the whole suburb has a real community feel. Glen is excited that we will no longer have to store our bikes in the bedroom. We love that it will have solar panels and rainwater and we won’t need to retrofit (something we wouldn’t be able to afford if we bought an older property). It has a 10-star energy rating. There’s lots of other great features like communal veggie beds and shared bike storage. And we’re really looking forward to having like-minded neighbours!

The Green Swing – The Siding

The project is still under construction, so we won’t move in until the end of the year. (Hence the new job – we’re saving hard for the deposit.) I’ll share some more info about the building and its green features once it’s completed and I can take photos. You can always have a look at the Green Swing website is you’re really interested (or nosy!)

What I will share is the site plan. Needless to say, I’m really excited about being to grow more of my own food! There will be lots of fruit trees. I’m even wondering if we can get some chickens on that patch of lawn!

Green Swing Site Plan

This is the site plan. Our unit is number 3, in block 2. It’s the ground floor flat. The orange blobs are the community veggie garden beds. It’s no coincidence that our unit opens directly onto it!

 What do you think? Do you like the new place? What about the balance between the desire to living simply and the need for money? What choices would you have made? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

Fairphone: my fairly traded, ethical Smartphone

As signs of life slowly ebbed out of my battered old mobile phone, I decided that (when the time came) I would replace it not with another second-hand phone, but with a Fairphone. Fairphone are a social enterprise that make mobile phones with a difference: mobile phone that champion social values. are environmentally responsible and support Fair Trade principles. They have done this by opening up the supply chain, sourcing conflict-free minerals and ensuring workers receive a fair wage, as well as designing a phone that can be repaired by its owner, and recycled responsibly at the end of its life.

I ordered my Fairphone back in May and it was delivered in July, but I had to wait until I went back to the UK in August to pick it up (Fairphone only currently ship to Europe). The timing couldn’t have been better though, as my iPhone finally packed up that same week. So, now I’ve had a month to play with it…what do I think?

The Fairphone: a Review

This isn’t a technical review, as I’m no techno-gadget whizz kid. I’ve had a Smartphone for the last four years so I have some idea what I’m doing with these things, but I’m not interested in the specs. I’m interested in: will it work? Is it easy to use? Does the camera take good pictures? Regular person stuff. This is a regular-person review…with an ethical slant!

Fairphone in its packaging

The Fairphone came in this cardboard box, and with minimal packaging.

The packaging for the phone was minimal. The cardboard case was not much bigger than the phone. Fairphone don’t send out chargers or headphones as they figure most people already own hundreds of them, so this reduces the package size. A small paper manual was included. I was expecting the package to be completely plastic-free, but there was still some stupid plastic included. There was a sticker with the writing “this is your Fairphone” covering the screen on the front, and a sticker on the battery at the back. I’m about to get my fingerprints all over the screen – is there really any need to “protect” it?!

The phone is bigger than my iPhone 3GS, and noticeably heavier…although it’s not exactly heavy (it weighs 165g). The rim around the screen should help protect the glass from damage (apparently – someone who knows about these things told me). The back has a removable metal plate (it’s not made of plastic!) and slots for two SIM cards, and also a slot for a memory card (no memory size-fixing and premium-charging here). It charges with a standard micro USB cable.

So far, so good. Next step: charge it up and switch it on.

Fairphone off and on

Fairphone off…and Fairphone on.

You’re probably thinking, yep, looks pretty straightforward. Look closely. Do you see the buttons for making a call and sending a text message?

No? I didn’t either. When you turn on the phone you have to install Google Apps yourself – the phone doesn’t come pre-installed with it. Even afterwards though, where is the button for making a call?! Scrolling left and right just seemed to offer blank screens.

Eventually (and I’m talking a good half an hour later) I figured out how to make a call. Text messaging took longer. I’ve obviously been spoiled by Apple, who do make their products very easy to use, but seriously? I was not expecting this level of complication. After all, phone calls are a pretty fundamental feature of a mobile phone!

Slowly slowly, I’m figuring out how it works. In the days of instant gratification though, this is hard, and a bit of a shock! I’m probably going to have to read the manual (something most mobiles no longer even come with). I feel myself resisting, and wishing I’d just waited for the new iPhone. Then I feel guilty, because I don’t want to give Apple my money, I want to give it to companies like this!

I was going to add that I’m disappointed with the camera, because the photos have all been terrible… but then I remembered that I took these pictures with my phone:

Yorkshire Dales 1

Photos taken with the Fairphone camera

Yorkshire Dales 2

Photos taken with the Fairphone camera

It’s probably less to do with the camera, and more to do with my lack of understanding the settings of the camera properly!

The final test was coming back to Australia. The Fairphone website says the phone is optimised for European 2G and 3G networks, but functional worldwide. However, a friend from here emailed them and was told it probably wouldn’t work in Australia. So would it work? Fortunately, yes! Using the same SIM as with my iPhone, I have better reception, better connectivity and better functionality than I did with my old phone. Which, ultimately, was the point of changing. Hurrah!

 Would I Recommend the Fairphone?

Despite my teething problems and my struggle to get to grips with the features, I do honestly believe it’s a great phone, and of course, I love what it stands for. If I could go back and decide again whether or not to buy one, of course I still would. We just need to take a little longer to get to know each other better!

I also have to remember that I bought this phone because I believe in what it stands for, not because it had the best specs of any phone on the market. It does everything I want it to do…and that is enough.

One of the great things about the Fairphone is that it is completely customizable. My boyfriend loves aspect of the phone; I wish maybe they’d gone a little further with the pre-installed features! It is good not having memory space taken up with all kinds of nonsense that I know I’ll never use, though. If you already use Android, you probably won’t find the transition as hard as me. If you’ve been spoiled by the iPhone, you might be in for a shock!

Is the Fairphone for You?

If you are familiar with smartphones already and you’re comfortable with all the different functions and features, plus you have used Android, I’d definitely recommend the Fairphone. If you haven’t had so much experience, be prepared to read the manual, spend time on Google and tear your hair out several times before you get the swing of things. If you’re new to smartphones altogether, this probably isn’t the best starter phone for you. You’d be better off with a simpler second-hand option until you get the hang of it all.

Right, I think I have a bit of reading to do…

Fairphone user guide

Tonight’s reading material…the Fairphone user guide.

5 Superfoods You Already Have in the Cupboard

Superfoods is a word that’s banded about a lot these days, and marketers have got on the bandwagon, telling us we need to be buying superfoods (complete with super-hefty price tag) for optimum health and well-being. If you’re into sustainable living, and don’t want to spend a fortune on your food budget, purchase overpackaged ingredients that increase your plastic consumption, or buy produce shipped from faraway countries, superfoods can seem like they’re an impossible ideal.

Thing is, if you know what “superfoods” actually means, and look through all the marketing hype, you’ll find it’s possible to source superfoods that are cheap, sustainable and readily available – in fact, you probably already have a few in your pantry. Not all superfoods are super-expensive air-freighted plastic-packaged portions of exotic berries, or fancy obscure powders.

The term “superfoods” means foods that are particularly nutrient-rich, and considered beneficial for our health. The sometimes outrageous health claims that accompany some of these ingredients are marketing hype, often designed to sell more or to justify the hefty price tag. Whilst these claims may or may not be true, superfoods are proven to be packed with minerals, nutrients and vitamins that our bodies need.

Disclaimer: this is for information purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Superfoods are not a substitute for professional medical care.

Five Superfoods You Probably Already Have in the Cupboard

1. Cinnamon

cinnamon pic

Cinnamon is a spice made from the bark of Cinnamomum trees, which can be found as rolls of dried bark or as a ground powder. There are two main varieties of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and Chinese (or Cassia) cinnamon.

In studies, cinnamon has been shown to control blood sugar levels, and aid people with type 2 diabetes to respond to insulin. It is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi, including Candida. Cinnamon also boosts brain activity – even the smell of cinnamon improves cognitive processing! There have also been links made to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, MS and HIV. (If you’re interested in the science, check out this link).

Cinnamon is very high in manganese, a mineral used by the body to form connective tissue, bones, blood clotting factors, and sex hormones. Manganese also plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism and calcium absorption. Cinnamon is also a very good source of calcium and an excellent source of fibre.

Serving suggestions: sprinkle some cinnamon on your porridge in the morning, add to muesli or hot chocolate, or use to spice up your baking.

2. Turmeric

turmeric pic

Turmeric is the bright yellow spice used in curries and Asian cooking. The powder is made by drying and grinding fresh turmeric, a root that looks similar to ginger on the outside, but with orange flesh inside.

Turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which is responsible for many of its health benefits. Curcumin is anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant (antioxidants absorb free radicals which cause cell and tissue damage), which may help reduce symptoms of inflammation-based diseases such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel symptoms and and heart disease. It supports healthy liver function and is thought to aid digestion. Studies have shown curcumin having the potential to fight degenerative brain diseases and depression; in lab experiments curcumin has been shown to inhibit tumour growth.

Turmeric is high in iron, and also contains calcium. Fresh turmeric is a source of vitamin C. Black pepper aids absorption of curcumin into the bloodstream.

Serving suggestions: Add to curries and soups, or add to egg dishes such as omelettes. If you’re feeling braver, add some to your smoothie. Some health cafes serve turmeric lattes as a coffee alternative – they’re usually made with nut milks.

3. Cacao

cacao pic

Cacao needs no introduction – yes, we’re talking chocolate! Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. This is different to cocoa, which is made using roasted cacao beans and treating the powder with an alkaline solution (called Dutch processing) to produce a more mellow flavour. The processing also makes the resulting cocoa lower in nutrients, particularly antioxidants. Confusingly, the two names are sometimes interchanged, but raw cacao will always say “raw” on the label.

When the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory tested the antioxidant activity of a number of foods, measured as an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score, raw cacao was found to contain the highest antioxidant activity of any food, with a score of 95,500 per 100g. Whilst only having around a quarter of the antioxidant properties of raw cacao, roasted cacao still contained the third highest level of antioxidants of the foods tested, and more than berries such as acai, goji and blueberries.

Not only that, raw cacao has the highest concentration of iron of any plant (double the iron in spinach), and is very high in magnesium. Cacao also contains potassium, manganese and zinc, and also the “bliss chemicals” theobromine, phenethylamine (a mood enhancer) and anandamide. These are what cause the happy feeling you get when you eat chocolate!

Serving suggestions: use raw cacao powder in smoothies, desserts and baking. If buying bars of chocolate, dark is best and the higher the cocoa content the better.

4. Honey

Honey jar pic

Honey has been used by humans for millennia. Cave paintings in Spain dating to 7000BC showing beekeeping practices, and Egyptian hieroglyphs from 2400BC showing bees kept in hives.

Honey has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and has been found to help burn wounds to heal more quickly. In lab tests, honey has shown antibacterial activity against bacteria including E. Coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. Honey also helps soothe coughs and sore throats.

Antibacterial quality varies between different types of honey. Manuka honey is a particularly potent anti-bacterial honey, due to the presence of methylglyoxal (MG) found in manuka flowers native to New Zealand (you can read more about manuka honey here). West Australian Jarrah honey also has high antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Generally, honey that is darker will have more antibacterial and antioxidant power. Raw unprocessed honey is considered better and more nutritious than regular honey, which has been heated and pasteurised.

Nutritionally, honey contains manganese, iron, zinc,selenium and calcium, plus B vitamins. Refined white sugar contains none of these!

Serving suggestion: anywhere in place of refined sugar! Drizzle on porridge, add to smoothies, include in salad dressings or use in baking as an alternative to sugar.

5. Oats

Oats pic

Oats are a grain that, unlike wheat, rye and barley, are naturally gluten-free. (NB Because oats are often processed in the same facilities as these other grains contamination may occur, so they are not usually considered gluten-free unless processed in a separate facility.) And yes…actually, oats are a superfood!

Oats contain more dietary fibre than any other grain. The insoluble fibre aids in digestive health, whilst the soluble fibre, beta-glucan, has cholesterol-lowering properties. Oats have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels due to the presence of tocotienols, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, relieve hypertension and to stabilise blood sugar levels.

Even when hulled, oats contain all three parts of the grain: the bran, endosperm and germ. This makes them wholegrains, meaning they retain their natural minerals and vitamins. Oats contain manganese, selenium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, molybdenum and iron, and also folate, B vitamins and vitamin K.

The other super thing about oats? They’re super cheap!

Serving suggestions: start the day with a bowl of porridge or make your own oat-based muesli, bake into cookies or cereal bars, or grind into flour. You can make oat milk by soaking oats, blending with water and straining.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to be healthy. Ordinary foods have super powers too!

To Anyone Who’s Ever Had To Compromise

I’ve been planning to write this since I wrote about buying an iPad. I received some criticism for it (which was to be expected, given the nature of this blog), and that got me thinking.

Did I make the wrong decision? Did I abandon my morals? Am I a bad person? Have I fallen off the wagon?

Trying to live in a sustainable, ethical way isn’t always easy. There always seems to be compromise. It isn’t so much about the right thing to do, but the least bad thing to do.

I remember when I first stopped thinking about doing more, wishing I could do more, and decided to do something about it. I started doing postgraduate studies in Environmental Decision-Making, and I secured an internship at a UK charity called Tree Aid. Whereas at my previous workplace I was sometimes referred to as a tree-hugger (getting an internship at a charity called Tree Aid in no way helped this!), now through study and work I was surrounded by people who cared as much about sustainability, ethical consumerism, social justice and the environment as I did. Maybe they even cared more.

As someone who was just beginning this journey, I was expecting the people I was now exposed to to be hardened “greenies” (although what I thought that meant, I’m not sure). Yes, everyone was passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated. What I found surprising though, was all of them did things that I didn’t consider to fit with this image I had created.

There were the vegans who didn’t use animal products for environmental reasons, yet drank soy (soy production contributes to rainforest destruction).

There were families that wanted to connect more with nature so lived in the country, but had multiple cars to make this possible, including a four-wheel drive for the many trips into town for supplies, school and social outings.

There were people who would not step foot inside a department or high street store, and only bought ethical clothing, yet would shop for groceries at the supermarket.

There were people who took regular flights to visit projects or attend courses or seminars, or to travel to remote places to reconnect with nature and feel re-inspired.

At first I felt a little indignant. How can these people call themselves environmentalists when they fly/shop at Tesco/drive a gas-guzzling car?! Then I realised…they weren’t calling themselves anything. I was the one labelling them. They were just trying to do the best they could with the resources they had available to them.

Another thing I’ve slowly come to realise, is that you can be passionate about many things, but often they are in conflict with one another.

  • Believing in Fair Trade, wanting farmers in poor countries to be paid a fair wage, and wanting to provide a market for these products…whilst also believing in supporting local producers and the local economy, and avoiding high food miles.
  • Wanting to support organic, sustainable farming practices with free-range, grass-fed animals, whilst recognising that a vegetarian/plant-based/vegan diet uses less energy and is considered more sustainable.
  • Flying uses huge amounts of fuel, has a huge carbon footprint and is a massive source of greenhouse gases…yet it enables people who do great work on sustainability to travel and reach wider audiences to spread their message. It also allows people to connect with nature and remote places, or see social injustice and poverty, and feel inspired to fight for them.
  • Electronic gadgets mean mining, manufacturing processes that use chemicals, questionable working conditions and end products with short shelf lives that contribute to landfill…yet they are the main means of communicating the in 21st Century; if people want to connect, to inspire, to teach and to learn, these gadgets are necessary.

When faced with conflicts like this, we have to choose. How we choose depends on our situation, our resources, our experiences at that moment. It doesn’t mean we’d make the same choice next time. It doesn’t even mean we made the right choice this time – after all, making mistakes is how we learn, and grow, and get better at what we do.

When I bought my iPad, I made a decision, and I was faced with a choice. I wanted to be able to connect with other people online, and be a part of the sustainability online community. I wanted to be able to work online outside of home, and the freedom this gives me. I wanted to be able to read books, magazines and articles electronically, to learn more and feel inspired. The decision was to invest in a tablet. My choice wasn’t about whether this was the most sustainable thing to want; it was whether I could achieve this in a more sustainable way. Looking at options, there was no ideal solution, just a “least bad” one. That’s how I made my choice.

You know what? Sometimes, that’s how it is. We have to compromise.

Having to compromise sometimes doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my principles (tweet this). It doesn’t mean I care less about living a sustainable lifestyle, Fair Trade, social justice, landfill waste or plastic pollution.

It means I’m not perfect. But I’m doing the best that I can.