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A Zero Waste Guide to Christmas Gifts

I am not a Christmas grinch. I love the idea of families and friends coming together at Christmas, taking time out to share experiences, eating good food and hopefully playing some board games ;)

But presents? Oh, I’m not a fan of Christmas presents at all.

I’m passionate about living a zero waste lifestyle. I aspire to own less, not more. And Christmas presents are, quite frankly, the opposite of that.

It’s not that I dislike presents. A well thought-out gift, that I truly need and love and will actually use, is great. The truth is though, that I already have everything that I need, in terms of stuff. If I did need something, why wait for it to be given to me as a gift, if I can go out and choose it myself? That way, I get to choose the exact one that I want, from the store I want to support. There is less room for error.

If I don’t know that I need it… well then, maybe I don’t need it at all.

christmas-gifts-treading-my-own-path

I particularly find Christmas present-buying so… transactional. Everyone buys everything for everyone else: it’s a big consumer-fest of stuff, most of which isn’t really wanted or needed. To tell someone exactly what you want, and then spend the exact same amount of money on a gift that they asked you to buy in return, seems pointless to me.

The idea that people tell one another what to buy isn’t meaningful, or a way of expressing love, in my mind. Now someone agreeing to spend two hours playing board games with me, even though I know they’d rather not… now that’s love ;)

Of course, I’ve been there. I’ve written lists of things I wanted, and looked at other people’s lists to choose things to buy. I’ve tried to think of things that might be useful to give to others, and I’ve received things myself that were intended to be useful. As we get older, and have more and more stuff, it gets harder, and it all just seems more and more unnecessary.

On the other hand, I understand traditions and customs. I also understand that some people like to show their love through giving gifts. People don’t want to upset their families. And trying to explain to a 6 year-old that they aren’t getting a Christmas gift from you as you’re making a stand against rampant consumption might not go down too well!

So, I’m not proposing that we cancel Christmas.

Instead, I want to help anyone aspiring to a zero waste or minimalist lifestyle to navigate the Christmas present minefield without accumulating a bunch of stuff they don’t want or don’t need, upsetting all the relatives and feeling that they’ve abandoned their values.

If you’re someone who loves Christmas, and gift-giving (or gift-receiving!), then it is not my place to try to persuade you otherwise. Enjoy the festivities! This is for anyone who feels a looming sense of dread as the holiday season approaches, and wants some hints and ideas to do things a little differently.

A Zero Waste (and Minimalist) Guide to Gift Giving (and Receiving)

Christmas Tree in Hands Collection 78 Jean Lakosnyk

Part 1: Gift Receiving

1. Try NOT to ask for “Stuff”

If you’re passionate about living life with less stuff or less waste, then think really carefully before you ask for “stuff” for Christmas. It can be tempting, especially if you’re just starting out on the journey and actually need things.

But ultimately, to live this lifestyle you need to step out of the “stuff” game, and the sooner you start, the better. It will take time for friends, relatives and family members to understand that you actually don’t want stuff any more, and asking for “zero waste” stuff confuses the message.

2. Asking for “nothing at all” can be confronting for others.

I would never have believed this if we hadn’t requested that our families not get us anything at all for Christmas one year. Nothing at all, no money, no gifts, no vouchers, nothing. We even left the country for a month over the holiday period.

It worked. We didn’t receive anything. But afterwards, we found out that my mother-in-law had really struggled with it. Not acknowledging her son in some way at Christmas felt really wrong for her, and she was troubled by it. She did it, but found it very hard. I’m not sure she’d have managed it a second year.

It did help break the cycle of “stuff” though, and helped us find a compromise the following year that everyone was happier with.

It might work for you, and it is definitely worth trying if you’re happy with that option. But remember that some people show their love by giving gifts, and you don’t want to be happy at someone else’s expense.

3. Set some rules that keep everyone happy.

If you know that your family and friends like to give gifts, and suspect they will find a no-gift policy confronting, try to choose some rules that will satisfy their need to give gifts whilst keeping the unnecessary stuff to a minimum.

Ideas include:

  • Make a rule that all gifts should be second-hand.
  • Specify that all gifts should be homemade.
  • Put limits on the types of new goods (eg books, tools, plants, or whatever you think would work).
  • Suggest DIY hampers (food, beauty products or something else) – but be clear about limiting excess packaging!
  • Ask for only edible goods or drinks (although remember at Christmas the shops are full of novelty, overpackaged, palm oil-filled gifts).
  • Suggest a Secret Santa where rather than all adults buying gifts for everyone, all names are put into a hat and everyone buys one gift only for the person they picked out of the hat.
  • Ask for experiences, tickets for shows, workshops or events; even vouchers for restaurants or cafes. Avoid vouchers for shops as these will lead to “stuff”.

4. You need to communicate!

Stepping out of the consumer-fest of Christmas can be difficult, and if you want to make it easier for yourself and everyone around you, it’s better to tell everyone how you’d like things to be, and as soon as you can! There is no point having rules if you haven’t communicated them!

Be clear on your expectations. Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. If you find it hard to tell people in person, send a letter or email.

Just don’t assume that people will realise that your new way of living means you don’t want “stuff” – they likely won’t.

5. Don’t expect the first year to be easy.

It doesn’t matter how clear you think you’ve been, or how many times you’ve explained it, there will likely be mis-steps along the way. You’re on a journey, but everyone else is doing the same thing they’ve always done, and they might not see a reason to change. Or they might think it’s just a phase you’re going through. Or that the rules don’t apply at Christmas.

Rest assured, every year it will get easier, as others understand that it isn’t a phase, and also adjust to the new way of thinking.

The first year that we went plastic-free, we received a number of Christmas presents packaged in plastic. We even received a novelty plastic item packaged in plastic. Everyone knew that we lived plastic-free, and yet somehow it didn’t occur to them that this also applied at Christmas. It took time for the new way of life to sink in.

Now, they wouldn’t dream of it!

6. Don’t hold onto anything out of guilt.

If you get stuff that you don’t need and didn’t ask for, there is no need to keep it out of guilt. Someone choosing to give a gift (out of social pressure, convention, or their own personal need to express their love and appreciation this way) does not mean that you need to choose to keep it.

The meaning is in the gift-giving, not the gift itself. They made that choice, not you.

Donate it, sell it, give it away. Don’t dwell on it. There will be someone out there who will really want what you have, and will use it. If you can connect your unwanted stuff with them, then that’s a far better use of the item than languishing in your cupboard, making you feel guilty every time you see it.

There’s no need to tell the gift-giver, if you don’t want to (although if you do, it will help with not receiving anything next time!). Chances are they won’t remember anyway.

Part 2: Gift Giving

christmas-zero-waste-gift-giving-treading-my-own-path

7. Don’t push your values on others.

Deciding to purchase a zero waste kit for your family because you really think they should go zero waste, or buying them a collection of books about decluttering because you think they have too much stuff isn’t actually that different from them buying you a bunch of junk that you didn’t ask for.

You might think it’s useful, but if they won’t use it (and will possibly be insulted in the process!) then it’s just as much a waste.

Similarly, donating money on their behalf to a charity might seem like a great way to avoid present-buying, but if they are expecting a well-wrapped gift from the high street, they won’t thank you for it.

In the same way that you don’t want them to push their expectations on you, don’t push yours onto them.

8. Listen to what they say.

You’d hope friends and family would listen to your requests, and you need to listen to theirs. If they’ve been specific about what they would like (no handmade gifts, no second hand stuff) then you need to honour that.

That doesn’t mean that you need to buy them a bunch of overpackaged stuff. You just need figure the best way to work around what they want without betraying your own values! ;)

9. If in doubt, ask.

If someone has been very specific with their list, but you’re not keen to buy anything on it, come up with your own ideas and ask them what they think.

How do they feel about tickets to the cinema or a show? A voucher for a restaurant? A one-night stay at a local B n B?

What about a day together at a National Park? A picnic or a seaside outing?

Could you offer some kind of services – mowing the lawn, babysitting, cooking dinners for a week?

Is hosting Christmas dinner an option instead of gifts?

10. Can you cancel gifts altogether?

It’s possible that you’re overthinking this, and that actually it’s possible to come to the mutual agreement of not buying anything. As much as people love to receive gifts, many people hate to go Christmas shopping. They might be relieved to know that they don’t have to brave the busy, crowded shops in a desperate attempt to find something you probably won’t like anyway.

Christmas is an expensive time of year, and they might actually appreciate having one less gift to buy.

Don’t rule it out.

How we personally deal with Christmas has evolved over time. It’s still not perfect, but we’ve slowly come to a mutual understanding amongst our family and friends. From the first year, when we asked for stuff; to the second year, when we boycotted the whole thing; to the third year, when we even bought some “stuff” for others, we seem to have reached a balance. We no longer buy presents for most of the adults (with mutual agreement), and for those that we do, it’s limited to experiences. For our niece and nephew, we focus on experiences too – things that we can do together. It works for us.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your experiences of Christmas? Is this your first year of living a plastic-free, zero waste or minimalist lifestyle? What are your concerns? Have you had any conversations with family yet and how did they go? Have you been living this way for several years? If so, have you found balance that works for you? How have your choices changed over time? Do you have any tips to add? Any stories or experiences to share? Questions to ask? Anything else you’d like to comment on? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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!

Plastic Free Zero Waste Natural Sun Cream

I’m a fan of sun hats. I’m a fan of long sleeves. I’m a fan of staying in the shade. When it comes to facing the sun, I’d much rather do any (all) of these than apply sunscreen.

I can’t bear the thought of all those chemicals in store-bought sunscreen being absorbed through my skin, and for the longest time, I’ve played Russian roulette with the sun. I didn’t apply sunscreen, and I tried to avoid getting burned. This means all of the above, and trying to dodge the sun between 10am and 4pm.

The truth is, that’s not always possible – when the weather is beautiful, I want to be outside!

Living in Australia with its fierce sun and hole in the ozone layer is very different to living in rainy England… and it means if I do get caught out and I’m not wearing sunscreen, I get burned.

Getting sunburned is not clever. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, and skin cancer accounts for 80% of newly diagnosed cancers every year. After being caught out and sunburned one too many times, I realised that I needed to embrace using sunscreen.

I still advocate the hat, the long sleeves and the shade, but in the times when that isn’t enough, sunscreen is better than sunburn. Chemicals aren’t good for us, but sunburn is definitely not either!

I wondered, is there a way to protect ourselves from the sun without all the chemicals… or the packaging?

Chemical Blockers versus Physical Blockers

There is a huge difference between the regular “conventional” sunscreens, which use physical and chemical blockers (and are a cocktail of synthetic chemicals), and the “natural” alternatives, which use only physical blockers.

The physical blockers used in sun cream are zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Zinc oxide blocks both UVA rays (these are the deep-penetrating rays that cause skin cancer) and UVB rays (these are the ones that cause redness and sunburn, and are the ones that SPFs are rated against). Titanium oxide is a good UVB sunblock but is not as effective as zinc oxide in blocking UVA rays.

Conventional sunscreens may also use zinc or titanium oxide as a physical blocker, but use chemical blockers too. Most chemical blockers only protect against UVB rays. These chemicals don’t sound natural or healthy, and in many cases, they’re not. Some chemicals in sunscreen are hormone disruptors, for example.

We’re not just exposing ourselves to these chemicals either – these sunscreens wash off and the chemicals enter our waterways and the ocean.

Treading My Own Path Zero Waste Plastic Free Sunscreen Alex Blajan

Hats are an awesome physical blocker for sun protection – but even the widest brimmed hat can’t cover everything!

Sunscreen and Nano Particles

Traditionally zinc oxide creams were very thick and created a white barrier on the skin, meaning they were hard to apply (and looked a bit silly).  By making the zinc particles smaller, newer creams have come onto the market which absorb more easily and don’t leave white residue. These creams contain smaller zinc nanoparticles (classed as particles smaller than 100nm or 0.1 micron) and microfine particles (usually ranging from 0.1 micron to 2.5microns (100nm – 2500nm).

The concern with these is that they can be absorbed through the skin, and the smaller the particles, the more easily they are absorbed.

Suncreams containing zinc oxide usually state that they are “nano” or “non-nano”. Studies show that zinc oxide particles between 4nm and 20nm have the potential to be absorbed into the skin, and will be absorbed through damaged skin.

Anything smaller than 4nm will definitely be absorbed, and anything bigger than 45nm will not be absorbed. (You can read this study here.)

Conventional sunscreens use nano particles sized between 5 – 20nm – small enough to be absorbed through the skin. Non nano zinc oxide particles are larger than this and fall outside the absorption range, although some nano particles may still be present.

Most eco and natural brands use non-nano particles in their sunscreen.

Can I Buy Zero Waste Sunscreen?

Because sunscreen is heavily regulated and each batch requires testing, most small producers shy away from making their own. This makes it hard to find locally produced sunscreens that avoid the excess packaging. There is an American brand called Avasol who make a natural, non nano sunscreen packaged only in cardboard, with an SPF of 30. This is the best zero waste alternative I’ve come across. I don’t use it myself but I have friends who do.

Avasol Plastic-Free Sunscreen

Avasol sunscreen is an American brand that comes packaged in a cardboard tube.

What About DIY Alternatives (and how do I know the SPF)?

Yes, it is possible to make your own, but there are two things you need to know.

  1. You will not be able to calculate the SPF. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor: it is a  measure of the effectiveness of sunscreen against UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the more protection against sunburn the sunscreen offers. The number (SPF 20, SPF 30 etc) means how many times longer a person can stay out in the sun without getting burned relative to how long they can stay out with no sunscreen assuming 2mg per cm² is applied. Sunscreen is tested in vivo by volunteers who apply sunscreen to their skin and see how long it takes to burn (ouch). In vitro tests use a spectrometer. It is not a case of adding up the SPFs of various ingredients. The only way to find out how long homemade sunscreen will protect you for is to test it yourself.
  2. You will need to use a physical barrier – either zinc oxide or titanium oxide – for it to work effectively. Many plant oils have low SPFs (coconut oil and olive oil have a natural SPF of up to 7, and other plant oils have SPF properties) and applying these to the skin may help you avoid burning if you have olive skin, don’t burn and only expose skin to sun outside of the 10am – 4pm (and you live outside of Australia). Combining ingredients does not increase the overall SPF, and there is no magical high SPF plant oil. Also, their effectiveness against UVA rays (the ones that cause DNA damage and cancer) are unknown.

Zero Waste Plastic Free Sunscreen: My Recipe

Zero Waste Plastic Free Sun Cream Sunscreen in Jar
My solution to the issues of chemicals, packaging and sourcing products locally was to make my own. I’ve been able to source all of these ingredients without packaging, but I realise that this may not be possible for everyone. If you can’t find ingredients sold without packaging in stores, find out if there are any local skincare producers or soap makers close to you who may be able to sell you some ingredients without packaging (that’s what I do).

You can also try switching up some of the ingredients if you have other options available to you. Whilst some ingredients can be subbed, zinc oxide is a non-negotiable – that’s what makes it sunscreen! If you need to buy ingredients in packaging, look for one that is recyclable, and remember – one container of zinc oxide will create many containers of zero waste sunscreen.

Important: this sunscreen has worked for me, and I am sharing my personal experiences. Do a small patch test when using for the first time. Avoid going in the sun at peak times and wear a hat and long sleeves. Sunscreen is a last resort, not an excuse to lay in the sun for 8 hours!

Zero Waste Plastic Free Sunscreen Ingredients Treading My Own Path Plastic Free July

Ingredients for zero waste plastic free natural DIY sunscreen.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup almond oil (or olive oil)
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup beeswax
2 tbsp (27g) shea butter
2 tbsp non-nano zinc oxide powder
1 tsp vitamin E oil

OPTIONAL: 20 drops of essential oil (check this list first as some essential oils are phototoxic and can assist burning!)

More info on the ingredients:

Almond oil – I used sweet almond oil as that is what I use as my standard moisturizer. It is a great oil for the skin. However, it’s also far more expensive than olive oil (and according to in vitro tests, has a lower SPF of 4.7 versus the olive oil SPF of 7.5) so next time, I’ll be using olive oil.

Coconut oil – this oil is solid at less than 25°C and helps the lotion hold its form. It is very moisturising and has a natural SPF of around 7 – two properties that make it a great oil to include in sunscreen.

Beeswax – beeswax helps make this into a lotion at room temperature. This means no need to store in the fridge – handy if you want to take your sunscreen with you! It also helps make the sunscreen waterproof. Even if we’re not going in the water,the sun makes us sweat and we don’t want the sunscreen to wash off.

Shea Butter – is highly moisturising and good for dry and aging skin. It is a solid at room temperature but melts on contact with the skin, making it a good base for lotions. Look for shea butter that has been naturally processed rather than refined with hexane (a solvent).

Zinc Oxide Powder – this is the active ingredient. Zinc oxide is a physical blocker that works by reflecting / scattering UV light. It is non-irritating and suitable for sensitive skin. Zinc oxide sunscreens leave a white tinge on the skin – the bigger the zinc particles, the whiter this will be. The zinc oxide powder I used was 0.3 – 0.85 microns.

Vitamin E – this vitamin is often found in skincare products and is believed to have antioxidant and skin-healing properties, although evidence is limited and studies are ongoing. It helps prolong the shelf life of the other oils in the lotion. I used it because I have it, but you could do without.

Method:

Overheating oils can damage their properties, so I tend to melt mine one by one, starting with the most heat-resistant and working down to the least.

  • Place a glass bowl over a pan of boiling water (a double burner) and add the beeswax. Stir until melted, and add the coconut oil. (If your coconut oil is solid, the beeswax may solidify again on contact, but continue to heat and it will melt.)
  • Turn the heat off, and add the almond oil (or olive oil), using a whisk to combine. Once this is mixed in, remove the bowl from the heat.
  • Add the shea butter to the bowl and stir to combine. Once it has melted, whisk the mixture. Continue to whisk until you notice the mix beginning to cool, lose transparency and change to a golden colour.
  • Once the bowl feels cool and the mixture looks golden and opaque, add the zinc oxide powder using a whisk to combine.
  • Add the vitamin E and essential oils, if you are using.
  • Pour into a clean and dry glass jar, and seal with a lid.
Melting beeswax in a double boiler

Melting the beeswax over a double boiler (a glass bowl on top of a saucepan with water in it – the water is heated and that is what warms the oils)

Melting oils in a double boiler

Melting the shea butter. (The beeswax, coconut oil and almond oil have already been added.) The oils look golden and transparent. Once they begin to cool, they lose the transparency and begin to look opaque.

Melted oils before adding zinc oxide powder

Once removed from the heat, the oils will cool and lose their transparency. Keep whisking to keep everything combined.

Zero Waste Plastic Free Sunscreen Mixing Zinc Powder into Oils

Once it’s cloudy and does not feel hot, add the zinc oxide powder. Stir in with a spoon and then whisk to combine. The powder will mix but will not dissolve so there will be some white specks.

Melted oils before after adding zinc oxide powder

Cream after adding the zinc oxide powder and whisking.

Zero waste plastic free sunscreen Whisking ingredients together

Now add the vitamin E and any essential oils, and whisk to distribute thoroughly. Pout into a clean glass jar and leave to cool completely.

Rubbing Non Nano Zinc Oxide Sunscreen into the Skin

When applying to the skin, it appears white. The more it’s rubbed in, the less white it appears. I like the white sheen that remains as it helps me see where I’ve applied the cream and which bits I’ve missed!

Zero Waste Plastic Free Sun Cream Sunscreen in Jar

Zero waste plastic free sunscreen: the finished product.

Zero Waste Plastic Free Sun Cream Sunscreen on a teaspoon Plastic Free July

You can see from the spoon that the consistency is fairly thick. Changing the oil and wax combinations will change the consistency.

If you think this seems a bit complex (and I’d love to simplify it at some stage) then there is an even simpler solution. Simply mix some zinc oxide powder into your regular moisturiser. Job done ; )

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you made sunscreen? Do you have a recipe you’d recommend, or any great ingredients you think should be included? Have you had any recipe fails, or do have any important “do-nots” to share? Are you unsure about making your own? Have you found any great zero waste or plastic free sunscreens available for purchase that you’d like to share? Have you tried Avasol and what did you think? Anything else that you’d like to add? 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!

A Christmas Gift-Giving Guide for Minimalists…and their loved ones

Christmas always seems like the hardest time of year to explain to people that you have enough stuff, and you really don’t need any more. Family, friends, colleagues…for most of the year they seem to accept (or put up with, at least) our plastic-refusing, stuff-avoiding, minimalist and zero waste ways, but somehow, when it gets to Christmas time, the message seems to get lost.

“But it’s Christmas! How about I buy you some eco-friendly stuff? Some reusable bags? A book about decluttering?” We don’t really want or need any of this stuff, but it can be hard to say no, or to explain how whilst you may have loved gifts as a five-year-old, times have changed and so have you.

Of course, we don’t help ourselves either. In turn, we try to push our own agendas onto our loved ones. We buy them cards from charities letting them know that rather than a present, we’ve donated money on their behalf to a village in Africa. We give them the eco-friendly gifts we like to use, like reusable bags, in the hope they will embrace our zero-waste ways. Or we give them nothing, thinking they will understand because they know that we don’t value presents ourselves.

Except often, they don’t.

We end up with a bunch of stuff we don’t need and don’t want, our loved ones end up with something they don’t want or appreciate (or worse, nothing when they did expect something) – and everybody feels misunderstood and unappreciated.

The truth is, gift-giving is complex, because giving gifts mean different things to different people. It took me a while to understand this. I was constantly puzzled why I would receive gifts despite asking for no gift at all, and that my close relatives would be offended because I hadn’t bought them a gift.

I thought that acting in the way I wanted to be treated would help them understand, but really it only brought resentment. Likewise, I couldn’t understand why my requests were falling on deaf ears, and I was left feeling guilty, with all this stuff I didn’t need and didn’t want, most of which ended up being donated.

It was a book I read that made me change the way I thought about gift-giving. It suggested we connect emotionally with others in different ways, and we feel appreciated in different ways… and one of those ways is through gifts.

Most people appreciate gifts, sure, but the idea that gifts could be someone’s main emotional “love language” – that it was the main way they felt appreciated and understood – was actually somewhat of a surprise to me. I assumed it was something we could all just “do without”. As someone whose major love language is “quality time”, I enjoy the festive season for the chance to spend extended periods of time with family and friends, eat good food and have long conversations.

For me, presents don’t need to be a part of that; I’d assumed it was the same for everyone else. I didn’t realise that for some people, presents are genuinely a big part of Christmas.

Once I’d understood this, I began to realise why I was receiving gifts I didn’t need or want. If receiving presents is the main way a person feels loved and appreciated, then it makes sense that they would want to give gifts in return. To them, it’s more than a bunch of stuff; it’s an emotional currency.

I thought everyone liked sitting around after Christmas dinner chatting and setting the world to rights, because quality time is my emotional currency, but I’ve learned that others (my husband’s family, for example) don’t get the same pleasure out of this at all! It’s easy to assume that what works for us works for others, but it doesn’t always.

With this in mind, I’ve relented on my hard-line “no gifts for anyone” policy. Remember, gift-giving doesn’t have to mean “stuff”. Being respectful of others’ needs doesn’t mean you need to buy a bunch of things.

Gifts can be experiences: meals out in restaurants, tickets to shows or concerts, a day out at a museum, time spent together as a group. They can be homemade (I prefer to stick to edible gifts with this; not everyone will appreciate a tie-died hankie), or homegrown (vegetables and fruit, cut flowers and seedlings all apply). They can be in the form of favours and sharing of skills (an evening of babysitting, an afternoon gardening, walking the dog).

I try to keep bought gifts to an absolute minimum, but if I decide that a physical gift is more appropriate, I opt for second-hand: charity shops and also vintage and antique shops, or online auction and classified ad sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve got it completely right…it’s been a process of learning and understanding over the last few years. After all, for many years I gave and received gifts willingly. This is still new territory for us and our families.

It has been somewhat of an adjustment for friends and family to learn to accept that when we say no gifts, we really mean it, and for me to understand that just because I don’t want anything, applying this rule to everyone else may result in offense being taken (learned the hard way).

Initially, I suspect that our families thought this way of living was a phase that wouldn’t last. We probably thought that we could bring them round to our way of thinking. Now we’re all learning to find a happy medium. Slowly they’ve become more sympathetic to our different values and needs. Whilst they may not agree, they have begun to accept. Likewise, so have we.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How have you dealt with conflicting ideals between loved ones at Christmas? Have you learned to compromise, or reached a mutual understanding? Is it a compromise you’re happy with, or do you still think there’s work to be done? Do you stubbornly refuse to back down – or do they?! Is gift-giving still a source of conflict during the festive season? Have you had good experiences, bad ones..or both? What lessons have you learned? I really want to hear your insights on this 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!

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.

As seen on Ethical Superstore and Plastic Free July…

If you don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have missed some exciting news… I’m spreading my message and expanding my writing beyond this site! I’m currently writing a series of blog posts for the Ethical Superstore. So far three have been published, and there’s a few more in the pipeline.

If you want to read them, here are the links:

Treading My Own Path, Rethinking Waste and the Two New Kids

Not Just About the Chocolate…Can Electronics Be Fair Trade too?

Plastic Free July: Will You Accept the Challenge?

Whilst the messages are something you’ll probably recognise if you visit the site regularly, the content is completely new – no rehashing of old material from me!

In addition, I’m also writing a couple of posts for Plastic Free July’s 2014 campaign. They’re not ready for publishing yet, so keep your eye out!

Whilst I’m on the topic of Plastic Free July, I thought I’d mention the other exciting thing about this year’s 2014 campaign: the Bring One Get One Tree initiative which features my other half as poster boy extraordinaire! It is a local campaign to try to encourage more cafes to participate in reducing their packaging consumption.

You may remember I wrote a few weeks ago about him taking part in a photoshoot. Whilst I write away furiously about whatever hair-brained scheme I’ve concocted for the week ahead (zero-waste week anyone?), Glen is behind-the-scenes putting up with it all – and quietly taking his own bags, his own reusable coffee cup, his reusable cutlery set, and refusing straws and other plastic.

Plastic Free July asked him to feature as their “suited businessman” for the campaign, so now is his chance to shine! Bring1Get1tree posters-shopsI’m not sure he’ll thank me for sharing, but I am in a sharing mood this afternoon it seems!

If you get a chance to read any of my Ethical Superstore blog posts I’d love to hear what you think! You can comment on their site or comment here. Also, if you have any thoughts for future blog posts I could write for them I’d love to hear your ideas!