Retail Exhibition from Design for Ageing Project

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From June 2014 to November 2015 I was a Research Fellow on the ESRC-funded ‘Silver Shoppers’ project based at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. The project explored the grocery shopping practices of older consumers (65+) in the UK and China (you can read about my trip to China here). Next week, some of the key findings and design ideas are to be displayed in an exhibition as part of London Design Festival. The event runs from 22nd to 24th September at 22 Calvert Avenue London, and is free to enter.

As part of the project I conducted ethnographic research in three regions of the UK with 30 participants. Participants were asked to keep a diary for 6-weeks and complete weekly shopping inspection cards. In addition, myself and the team visited each participant 2-3 times for filmed observation (mobile ethnography) and interviews. Findings were presented to Sainsbury’s and are currently being written up for journal publications. The designs on display include innovative trolley concepts, smart shelves and interactive shopping assistants.

The project and exhibition is lead by Dr Yuanyuan Yin, Lecturer in Design Management. Check the webpage for more info.

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Can minimalism make you happy?

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Oliver James, in his book, ‘Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane’ argues that mass consumption is leading to mass depression across the Global North. This is the exact opposite of course, of what brands want us to believe as they try to sell us our dreams in the shape of a flashy new car or designer perfume.

With many western households now at a point of ‘material saturation’ (Arnold, Graesch et al. 2012) a growing movement of minimalists or voluntary simplifiers are seeking to destabilise the capitalist economy in pursuit of the good life. Extreme minimalists strive to get-by with minimal belongings, living in small, simple homes or even as nomads. Rather than derive status from what they own, they gain status from what they can live without; like Dave Bruno who set himself the challenge to limit his possessions to 100 things and then wrote a book about it, ‘The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul’. In this manner minimalism becomes a cleansing ritual, a way to take control of both the self, and, the external political economy. Similarly, 35 year-old Fumio Sasaki describes the familiar tale of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ and the impact this had on his happiness. Freeing himself of most of his things freed himself of the idea that life’s milestones should be marked with yet more things – the car, the house, the designer pram. He now lives ‘each day with a happier spirit’.

At the less extreme end of the scale there is evidence to suggest we are already becoming less materialistic, being instead more focused on experiences. This suggests that we are constructing and expressing identities and building relationships by doing rather than having. These consumers are called ‘experientialists’ and share many of the same values and beliefs as minimalists. That said, there has been much criticism about the instagram generation and how we curate our lives on social media simply as an extension of the social status traditionally attached to other stuff.

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So minimalism: could you do it?
And would you want to?

Material objects are critical to wellbeing, even if we just consider the basic needs of warmth and shelter. The question is, what are the tipping points between happiness and depression in relation to material possessions? Psychological studies on materialism to date consistently state that those who pursue materialistic values report lower emotional wellbeing (Von Boven and Gilovich 2003). According to James Wallman (2013, p.7): “Instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, [we] are feeling stifled by them.” Yet, this sentiment is in contrast to a growing body of social and cultural studies literature that cites material culture as a fundamental feature of everyday life, source of comfort and a way that we ‘manage’ our lives.

The contrast between extreme minimalism and the everyday clutter that fills many of our homes is stark, but the notion of counting (a minimalists’ obsession) and getting on in the 21st Century without the conveniences contemporary life dictates could be considered stressful in itself. More manageable for most of us is a bit of de-cluttering, made popular by Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizational consultant. Having fewer things means less to clean, less to sort, and potentially more cash to spend on other things (or alternatively, less debt). Here are a few tips to get started:

• Make the most of moving. Moving house can be stressful but rather than pack up everything and ship it to the new place, take the time to go through things and work out what you really need. You can hire a company specialising in house clearances to clear out a room and alleviate some of the stress.

• Put your things into boxes/clothes in a suitcase and every time you need something go get it out. With anything still sitting in the box after 3-6 months ask yourself, do you need it in your house? Or can you borrow/hire things for special occasions instead?

• Talking of hiring, familiarise yourself with different ways to loan goods rather than owning them. Girl Meets Dress can fulfil your shopping desires, tools can be hired for that occasional DIY, and parties can be catered for by tableware hire rather than holding onto twenty wine glasses.

• Give away one item each day. That’s what Colleen Madsen did in 2010 with her 365 day resolution to donate, sell or bin one item from her home every day for twelve months.

• Set yourself a challenge. There are a few to help minimise your wardrobe in particular, like Labour Behind the Label’s six item challenge. The idea is to pick six items form your wardrobe and wear only those for six weeks. Sounds extreme? I agree it’s not easy but it’s a good way to get creative with your look and learn to enjoy the ease of not having to rummage through your wardrobe each day. You can have unlimited access to underwear, shoes and accessories, as well as a separate gym kit.

For more inspiration I thoroughly recommend the documentary ‘Minimalism’, available on Netflix.

References/Further Reading

Arnold, J. E., A. Graesch, E. Ragazzini, and E. Ochs. (2012) Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families
Open Their Doors. Cotsen Institute Press: Los Angeles.
James, O. (2007) Affluenza. London: Vermilion
Wallman, J. (2013) Stuffocation: Living more with less. London: Penguin Random House.
Van Boven, L. and Gilovich, T. (2003) To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 85(6)

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5 ways to help your workplace go green

Clementine writes for Bulb – the renewable provider making energy simpler, cheaper and greener. Bulb came to my attention because they are a B-Corp (watch out for a blog on that later) – a company that operates by strict ethical standards accredited under the B-Corp certification. They’re on a mission to make green energy a mass movement – you can find out more here. Clementine has provided this guest post on 5 ways to help your workplace go green. With September marking a return to work mentality for many, why not make some ‘new year’ resolutions? Over to Clem –

At Bulb, we’re always on the lookout for ways to go green at work. We won’t bore you with what you already know but here are our top tips for being a climate change hero at work:

Get everyone a KeepCup

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Coffee: however you like it, there’s a good chance your day starts with a cup of the good stuff. There’s also a good chance you get it from a coffee shop in a disposable cup. Most paper cups are coated with a plastic resin, such as polyethylene. This helps to make the cup more sturdy and convenient to hold. But, it also makes composting or recycling the cup pretty much impossible. Most end up in landfill.

At Bulb, we found a way to kerb our paper cup addiction: we got every member of the team a Keepcup. They’re the best reusable cups out there and we promise they don’t compromise the quality of your coffee. They even have fancy glass ones for true coffee snobs. And for the bean counters among you (see what we did there?), you could even save some cash. Bring yours to your coffee shop – they might just give you a discount.

Go green with digital tools

We all know we can reduce our paper consumption by printing less, but the greenest paper is no paper at all. At Bulb, digital tools help us to be as paperless as possible. We use Google to go green. We don’t do filing cabinets; we use Google Drive to store our files. We don’t print files when we’re working on something together; we use Google Docs to share and collaborate.
But it’s not just Google who make it easy for companies to go green. There are tons of great apps which help avoid a trip to the printer. Here are a couple of our favourites:

Trello – this is great for working with people who aren’t in the building with you. It saves them from journeying in all the time. And you can invite people to join on a large scale with open Trello boards.
Typeform – this is brilliant for surveying your team or getting information ahead of an event

Green up your office space

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When we said we wanted to help your workplace go green, we meant it. Literally. In our building, there are over 3000 plants. It’s a veritable forest in here.

Plants have multiple superpowers. They purify the air around them by getting rid of toxins from fuels, furnishings and clothes. They also improve your concentration, memory and productivity. Just looking at them makes hospital patients heal faster. You are basically a better version of you with plants around. Unsurprising really, when you think where we came from.

We recommend Patch – they know all about what plants will thrive in your work space. Even if it’s a tiny box with little light.

Set up a ‘cycle to work’ scheme

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The Department for Transport did something quite cool in 1999. They made it possible for you to get a bike completely tax-free and pay for it over time. If you purchase a bike through the ‘cycle to work’ scheme, you can save up to 42% on its high street price. And, it’s free to join for both you and your employer.

This wasn’t just a present they fancied giving us – it is better for you and the planet if more of us get around by bike. At Bulb, we went for the Evans cycle scheme because they have an en-cyclo-pedic (sorry!) choice and do lots of discounts. The scheme is open to any employer, big or small, in the private or public sector. You can get set up in a day – send your boss here to sign up.

Switch to renewable energy!

Switching to renewable energy is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. In fact, it has a big impact. Every year, the average Bulb member saves 1.9 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. That’s like taking 1.3 cars off the road! Imagine what impact you could have if your workplace switched. After all, the business sector is the largest consumer of power in the country. It purchases over half of all the UK’s electricity.

Take inspiration from giant multinational Unilever who went green across the UK this year. In their Marmite factory, thousands of tonnes of Marmite waste is even converted into methane. This generates 50% of the onsite gas usage – you’ve gotta love it now!

There’s plenty of good suppliers out there who can supply green energy to your business. But just so you know, Bulb is about 20% cheaper than the Big Six so could help your company save money too! You can get a quote here.

As ever, we’d love to know your thoughts on our tips. Reach us at hello@bulb.co.uk or drop in on the Bulb Community.

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The shifting nature of charity shops

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I’ve written a lot about how much I like charity shops, both here and as an Oxfam Fashion Blogger. I even did a PhD on second-hand consumption although not precisely about charity shops. In particular, I’ve written about how charity shopping provides the ultimate guilt free shopping experience; reusing goods is environmentally sustainable, inexpensive, and every purchase delivers a donation to a good cause. It’s seems a win-win (for a more in-depth look at some of the contentious aspects of charity retailing, see Andrew Brooks’ work), but it’s easy to forget that charity shops are a very British affair. Whilst the US do garage sales and Europe have flea markets, no other country has the same kind of high street charity shops we do. Every year charity shops raise over £270m for a range of causes in the UK, so how did they start? And how has their purpose changed?

Charity retailing is the most conspicuously placed form of second-hand consumption with much fuss made over how they’ve increasingly encroached on the UK high street (they are exempt from the business rates that hold back many small retailers). Charity retailing can be traced back to the late nineteenth-century, when William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army organised for donated goods to be collected from well-off Victorian homes to then be sold at ‘salvage stores’ across London (Horne and Maddrell 2002). The primary purpose of this was to provide household goods and clothing to the poorest families, it was in itself a form of charity, but the idea has since been appropriated as a fundraising activity and way for charities to increase their public presence. The first of these sort of shops was opened by Oxfam in 1947.

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Charity shops as they exist today boomed in the 1980s and there are now estimated to be over 11,000 shops in the UK linked to a whole host of local and national charities. Stores have become more professionalised and more closely aligned to first cycle sites of exchange, borrowing many standard retail practices such as size ordering of clothes, mannequin displays, online sales and selling new goods such as Fairtrade food, cards and batch items donated by major high street brands. A significant way in which charity shops are run differently to other retail outlets however is their strong reliance on volunteers. It has previously been estimated that charity shop volunteers alone contribute approximately £150 million worth of labour annually, calculated at the UK national minimum wage (Goodall 2000).

Although the primary purpose of charity shops is to raise funds for the charity concerned, there is still a suggestion that these types of shops have a duty to provide for the less well-off in society. The shift to more professionalised services however, has led others to muse over the prices of charity shop goods. I remember seeing a worn Primark dress in a London charity shop for £9. It seemed steep, but the volunteers expected it to sell to an overseas shopper, unaware of the Atmosphere label. Is this ethical? Where should the shop’s priorities lie? Do you think they should do whatever they can to fundraise for the charity or do they also have a moral obligation to serve the local community? The charity sector have little reason to change their model because it works. Despite the easy availability to inexpensive new goods, and the growth in online second-hand economies, the British love affair with charity shops shows little sign of waning.

Goodall, R. (2000). “Organising Cultures: Voluntarism and Professionalism in the UK Charity Shops.” Voluntary Action 3(1): 43-57.
Horne, S. and A. Maddrell, A. (2002). Charity Shops; Retailing, Consumption and Society. London, Routledge

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Where did fast fashion come from?

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Last Monday 24th April was Fashion Revolution Day, the day that marks the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Bangladesh, 2013. Over 1,100 workers died that day, made all the more tragic by the fact that many had protested outside the building just that morning on the basis of the factory being unsafe. They’d noticed cracks in the walls, they knew something wasn’t right, but they were forced to go to work anyway.

The factory was producing fast fashion for consumers in the West. Brands linked to the factory included Primark, Walmart, Bonmarche and Matalan, as well as some US, German and French companies. Globalisation has enabled complex supply chains so it’s conceivable that these companies didn’t know they had direct links with suppliers so blatantly flaunting safety precautions. All they needed was cheap clothes to sell to the West on mass.

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So, where did fast fashion come from?

For most of history fashion has been slow, very slow. When you had to make your own clothes, or a new dress cost a few months’ wages, there wasn’t going to be anything fast about it. Then the machines started to make light work of spinning, weaving and even sewing, and by the 1920’s the U.S. faced a problem – overproduction.

In the sixty years since the civil war ended in 1865, the U.S. population had increased threefold, whilst output had increased twelve times. By 1927 the textile mills could produce enough cloth for the population’s needs (and by need, I mean actual need, not consumer desire mistaken for need) by operating for just six months of the year. Rather than think, “How wonderful! We can holiday (sorry, vacation) for half the year!” They saw it as a problem of surplus. Their solution, led by the likes of Herbert Hoover, was not to produce less and enjoy the shorter working hours afforded by the Industrial Revolution, but to make the public consume more. By creating a consumer desire for more stuff, they were able to shift more of the new consumables they were producing in the factories and boost the economy: which was needed, because in 1929 the US entered the Great Depression. John Maynard Keynes’ ‘age of leisure’ never came to fruition, as a consumer culture was posited as the route to increased productivity, competition and profits. It was a move that proved popular for consumers, who were promised improved happiness, health and social approval if they only bought more stuff, made all the more accessible with increased access to credit.

Clothing retailers quickly caught on and by the late 1980s were able to offer fast fashion to the masses. As wage costs soared in high wage economies Western retailers relocated assembly offshore, first to places like China and India, and then Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal. By capitalising on the low-cost skills in emerging manufacturing economies, Western retailers were able to plough their labour power into marketing and essentially driving a new consumer culture. This led some economists to believe that it was the suppliers who were set to gain because the increased demands on productivity would make them more efficient and competent and therefore, hold more power than the retailer.

Sadly, the opposite happened because overseas manufacturing facilities developed at a similar rate and the growth in concentration of Western retailers allowed for greater buying and bargaining power on their part. As factories became ever more dispensable to retailers, power dynamics tipped heavily to the brands who were able to place large orders as a way to push piece costs down. Producers had become subordinate to those who design, market and retail fast fashion in the West. The media and retail industries became increasingly entwined, bombarding us with messages to buy, buy, buy, so we’re all working as hard as ever to keep up. We now use shopping as a way to reward ourselves for all those hours at work.

There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with shopping per se. Manufacturing and retail is a huge part of the global economy and provides jobs. Yet fashion is an industry of binaries: producer/consumer, global south/north, rich/poor, shiny/broken. Ethical fashion advocates want to break down these binaries and ensure that the fashion economy works for the benefit of all and promotes craftsmanship and ethical business practices.

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Fashion Revolution encourages consumers to challenge brands on their corporate ethics. This year the campaign has shifted from a one-day event to a seven day ‘Fashion Revolution Week’. This means there’s plenty of time to get involved and ask brands ‘Who made my clothes?’ The more consumers use their voice, the more retailers have to listen. The easiest way to get involved is to take to social media and show your label.

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How your cashmere jumper may be causing desertification

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It’s nearly Christmas so if you haven’t got your Christmas jumper out yet you’re sure to have spotted others wearing theirs. Whether you’re wearing, giving or receiving knitwear this winter though, it’s worth giving a thought to where that jumper came from. It’s all too easy to think that stuff just ‘appears’ in our favourite shops, but the supply chains behind these commodities can be long and complex. Cashmere is particularly pushed by retailers at Christmas as a luxury, yet increasingly affordable, product. But how many people know where cashmere comes from? I’d like to tell you the story of cashmere, and the journey might not be as plush as you imagine.

Cashmere fibre comes from a specific breed of goat. Traditionally it has been very difficult to get hold of cashmere, as three to six goats are needed to make just one medium sized sweater. Only twelve regions in the world have the right temperature and terrain to accommodate cashmere goats, the best spots being in Mongolia, China, India and Iran. To survive freezing temperatures, the goats develop a thick protective layer of hair, over a downy coat of super fine hair (the cashmere). Unsurprisingly, cashmere has long been an exclusive, luxury item. Until now that is, when you can pick up a cashmere sweater at the supermarket for £30-£40, but how?

Much of our cashmere used to be spun in Scotland, but by 2004 restrictions on cashmere imports had been lifted and spotting demand, China rushed in and flooded the market with cheap cashmere sweaters. There are now more than 2000 cashmere companies in China who source their cashmere from one of two means. PETA warn that many Asian cashmere goats live in atrocious conditions on factory farms. Others, whilst left to wonder free, are having disastrous effects on the environment due to their large numbers. There are simply too many living in the same place but farmers have found themselves in a vicious cycle. Stripping the land of pasture leaves nothing for the goats to eat and undernourished goats produce less fleece, forcing farmers to put more and more animals on dwindling land . It’s a problem found in other areas of livestock rearing and agriculture, but few solutions have been raised.

The Alashan Plateau, which extends from the Tibetan Plateau northward into Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, was home to 2.4 million Gobi goats in the 90s and now accommodates 26 million. As well as their grazing potential (eating 10% of their body weight a day), the goat’s hard hooves pummel away at the rest of the land. What should be grassland areas are turning to dust and desert at the rate of 400 square miles a year, disrupting the ecosystem and causing severe dust pollution. According to a study, 80% of this desertification can be attributed to overgrazing livestock. Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages because the land cannot sustain their livelihoods.

So what can consumers and retailers do? “Our industry’s challenge is to change this unsustainable system and put new, sustainable practices in place,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering. “Companies need to recognise that their business depends on natural capital and also impacts many livelihoods at the base of their supply chain.”

In the world of fashion, cheap often is far from cheerful. For ethical alternatives try the Oxfam Online Shop for second-hand cashmere (even cheaper than the supermarkets!) or check out Brora and Izzy Lane, both of which source sustainable cashmere.

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