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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The Health Hazards Lurking in Sanitary Products

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I need to talk about tampons. Not the prettiest subject but that’s probably why we don’t talk about them very much. And why I haven’t thought about them very much.

Sanitary products have been around since the 1930s and women everywhere are forever grateful, but the materials they are made of have barely changed in that time. Conventional products are made of Rayon – the man-made fibre created from cellulose wood pulp (cue the slaying of many trees), non-organic cotton (bad for farmers, waterways and wildlife) and synthetic materials like polypropylene (non-biodegradable). That’s not to mention the widespread use of plastic tampon applicators that take 25 years to biodegrade, littering our seas in the meantime.

So I think it’s safe to say sanitary products are bad for the environment, but that’s not all. Conventional products are also treated with a whole host of nasties. These can include chlorine to increase absorbency and make the products white and chemical fragrance. Rayon and viscose fibres can shed in use, leaving behind dioxins that cling to the vaginal wall. Not something I want in my intimate parts. The World Health Organisation claims that dioxins are highly toxic, interfering with the immune system and hormonal balance. The crazy thing is there is no in-depth scientific research on the impact of using these sanitary products (or is it that surprising really?) but for those of us who like to avoid toxic chemicals wherever possible there are alternatives.

TOTM make organic tampons and sanitary towels, 100% free from pesticides, chemical fertilisers, perfume and bleach. They only use cardboard applicators and their products are 95% biodegradable. Healthier for the planet and the women using them, they offer a subscription service so you can have supplies sent straight to your door (or you can submit one-off orders). A box of 10 regular applicator tampons cost £2.80 – more expensive than cardboard applicator Tampax but about the same as their fanciest pearl compak.

I’m converted.

Go to www.totm.com

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The Growing Market for Green Roofs

If all roofs were green, cities could disappear from a bird’s eye view. Green or living roofs (by which I mean a roof laid to grass or wild flowers) are so more than just a talking point. They have a real purpose; greening city landscapes, providing biodiversity, improving air and water quality and reducing sound transfer. They could also be a way to limit the damage of future floodwaters because green roofs can retain 70-80% of summer rainfall in contrast to traditional drainage systems that are unable to cope with the increasing rain water levels. Green roofs store the rainwater in plants and substrate; releasing the water back into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. I predict we’ll be seeing more green roofs in the future and not just on commercial buildings and garden sheds, but on residential housing too. I’m therefore happy to present Sky Garden – the UK’s leading independent green roof specialist. In the rest of this post they talk about the exciting project’s they’ve worked on (including the roof of a salad factory and Gloucester services) and the different systems they can offer.

All the vegetation in Sky Garden systems are locally grown and use recycled materials where possible. From the organic material and recycled brick in substrate, to the high density recycled polypropylene in our modular trays.

Green Roof Projects

Kanes Foods
Green roof kanes

One of our most exciting projects in recent times is the 6,000m² wildflower green roof on the construction of a new salad factory local to Sky Garden in rural Worcestershire. The building was designed to minimise the impact to the local environment and blend into the surrounding Cotswold Hills. The wildflower meadow on the curved roof contains specifically pre-grown wildflower blanket with species local to the Cotswolds.

British Horse Society
British Horse Society Courtesy of Kier Group copy

The iconic 2200m² sedum blanket system on the roof of the BHS offices just South of Birmingham was for employees to offer guidance on everything you need to know about riding, horse ownership and working in the industry. The ‘doughnut’ shaped building with an ancient oak tree taking centre stage offered many complexities however has since become one of the iconic sedum roofs in Britain.

Gloucester Services
Gloucester-Shoot-04 copy

The service station on the northbound side of the M5 between J11 and J12 was constructed to be different from typical service stations. The 4,000m² state of the art bio-diverse living roof is designed to disguise the new service station as part of rolling Robinswood Hills. The wildflower seed mix was chosen to match the abundant grasses and wildflowers in the area such as the Self Heal, Yellow Rattle and Birdsfoot Trefoil. The roof helps to support and preserve the pollinating insects as well as the heritage of our native British wild flora habitats.

Green Roof Systems

Sky Garden offers a variety of green roof systems to cater for every need. All the vegetation is grown by our experts at our local Gloucestershire nursery. We currently offer four standard green roof systems.

• Sedum Systems – The traditional green roof system can be either a sedum blanket or sedum plug plant green roof system. Sky Garden’s sedum blanket is a pre-grown mat of mature sedum plants compared to the sedum plug plant system being individual sedum plugs planted across the roof.

• Wildflower Systems – Sky Garden’s wildflower system includes a wildflower blanket that is sown with a seed mix of 38 species of wildflowers and grasses to create a vibrant array of colour on your roof.

• Bio-diverse Systems – Sky Garden’s bio-diverse system, also known as a ‘brown roof’ system, mimics the surrounding environment that has been lost due to development in order to reduce the ecological impact as much as possible. Often left to self-seed, the substrate is contoured to allow for a variety of native species to establish.

• Modular Systems – The modular system is made up of pre-formed cells that easily ‘click’ together to create a complete green roof quickly and without fuss. Each recyclable polypropylene tray has build in water retention and includes a filtration layer, growing substrate and sedum plants.

All green roof systems follow a similar template. A protection fleece layer adds an extra layer of defence to the waterproofing layer. Drainage and water retention layers designed specifically for living roofs. This includes a filter fleece layer to prevent blockages to the drainage of excess water. A substrate layer created from recycled brick with organic material allows for nutrient and moisture retentive growing medium. On top of this would be your vegetation layer, whether it’s a pre-grown blanket, seeded or plug planted.

For more info see www.sky-garden.co.uk

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Live Lagom: New Year’s Resolutions for Sustainable Living

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For many, Christmas is the epitome of excess. Sitting at my parents surrounded by the last remnants of wrapping paper, overflowing bins and untouched Christmas cake overshadowed by even more delectable boxes of chocolates, I could vouch for that. In contrast, January marks a month of frugality and dieting as we struggle to cling onto the last few pounds in our bank accounts whilst shedding the extra pounds round our middles. Somewhere in-between this though, we can find ‘Lagom är bäst’ – my motto for 2016 and the title of a new project lead by Ikea and Hubbub.

Lagom är bäst’ is Swedish for ‘the right amount is best’, or ‘just enough’. It’s the focus of a large new project I’m participating in – a collaboration between Ikea, the charity Hubbub, and the University of Southampton, to help everyday households live more sustainably. I’m so excited that I can finally talk about it as I was first approached to take part back in the autumn. I’ve since attended a workshop at Ikea and had a home visit by Ikea and Hubbub workers. I have a feeling I might be the smallest household in the project with my studio flat, but across the UK around 150 households are taking part over the next few months.

What does the project involve?

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If everyone lived as we do in the UK currently we’d need the resources of three planets to support us. We all have a responsibility to cut down on our environmental impact and a huge amount of time and resources are being put into research and policy to help us do this. Yes, business and industry are major perpetrators but this doesn’t take the onus off individuals – together we can make a difference.

Live LAGOM is part experiment, part awareness-building project. The participants (who were selected via an application process through the IKEA Family network or based on current involvement with similar projects) were each given up to £500 to spend on IKEA products, specifically selected to encourage and enable sustainable living at home. Available items included LED light fittings, storage for recycling, water saving taps and heat-saving curtain liners. We had to complete an initial questionnaire about our habits and awareness and will be asked to report our progress throughout the project running until summer 2016.

I was invited to a morning workshop at my local Southampton store with six other participants where we learnt about the project and got to see some of the products IKEA have developed to help sustainable living. I was really impressed with IKEA’s dedication and the knowledge of staff as they gave us a tour of the store, learning as much about their sustainable operations as they products they sold.

All three of the project leaders are directly involved in the sustainability agenda. Even Ikea, whom I’ve long had concerns about for flogging cheap stuff to consumers who have no qualms about chucking it out when they move house or fancy a change of décor, are pioneering both sustainable living and more sustainable production. For example, Ikea are a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative, becoming the first major retailer to use 100% cotton from more sustainable sources in 2015. In addition, the IKEA Group produced renewable energy equivalent to 53% of the total energy consumption in its operations, and is on track for 100% by 2020.

HUBBUB is a new charity with a fresh approach to environmental stewardship. I’m totally on board with their ethos of focusing on the positives of making environmentally friendly choices – having fun and saving money – rather than doom and gloom lecturing. This year they ran upcycling workshops for clothing with many more activities in store for 2016. Finally, the University of Surrey have made sustainable living and sustainable development a focus of their research and engagement efforts with the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group and brand new international Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. I’ll be very interested to see what they do with the data from the Live LAGAOM project.

My New Year’s Resolutions

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So that’s an introduction to the project. I had my IKEA shopping trip in December. It felt odd chucking things in a trolley for free; I couldn’t bring myself to spend my whole £500! It went a long way, even by spending nearly half of it on a massive rug to keep my feet warm. I will collect my shopping this week and will prepare future blog updates around my progress on the resolutions listed below. In general, I think I do alright with my sustainability efforts – I don’t have a tumble drier, I’m careful with water, I recycle, and I love buying second-hand goods. That said, there’s plenty of room for improvement so my resolutions for 2016 are:

1. Zero food waste. I don’t waste much food but I do waste some – the slimy lettuce, stale bread, over abundance of cooked rice, etc. Living alone it’s fairly easy to keep track of but I have a habit of buying a weeks’ worth of veg forgetting that I’m away for a long weekend so my aim for 2016 is to be scrupulously careful with food. I have some great new containers from IKEA to help. They’re glass (so no worries about leaching plastic) but with a secure plastic lid. I love them! One thing that really upsets me is the fact that living in a flat I have nowhere to put my compost waste. There’s not much I can do about this but I do plan to ask the freeholder if they’d consider a composting area outside. I also want to forage for my own food more and have lined up a course I want to take to learn more about it.

2. Stop wasting heat. I have drafty windows with little if no insulation. Being in a top floor flat only one of my four windows has curtains (two are skylights) and even those are incredibly thin. I got new curtains, blackout liners and blinds from IKEA so expect a post on my efforts at fitting those!

3. Achieve 100% recycling. I have good recycling – Southampton City Council take plastic, tins, paper and glass and I’m mostly good with it but occasionally you just can’t be bothered to wash a jar, right? I’m sure I’m not alone with this? I could do more basically – very little needs to go in my bin.

4. Save water. Again, I do think about water consumption but there is more I can do. I’ve started to be innovative already, like filling up my hot water bottle with water used to steam vegetables (beware of spillage) but I can save even more by taking fewer baths and shorter showers, and using the washing up bowl acquired at IKEA rather than filling up the sink.

Some of my IKEA products will help me live more sustainably without changing my habits. I already turn lights off when I’m not in a room, but my new LED light bulbs will save me up to 80% of energy I’m currently using. Similarly, an electric timer attached to the plug will end the need to keep phones charging all night.

Watch this space for future blog updates!

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Solving the Packaging Problem for Unique Gifts

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Could 2015 be a second-hand Christmas? There’s certainly been a flurry of activity around second-hand shopping this year. TRAID ran their #Secondhandfirst Week in November inspiring people to buy, swap and wear second-hand clothing. I joined in on Twitter and Instagram, posting pictures of my favourite second-hand pieces including a vintage Chelsea Girl tea dress, Florida thrift shop frock and bargain charity shop Christmas top. As well as lots of Instagram activity, events were held across London and the UK, and we were all encouraged to pledge to source more of our wardrobe second-hand.

There’s also the second-hand Christmas campaign by Truly Gifting’s founder and MD Tiia Sammallahti. I had a chat with Tiia last week to find out more about her new venture into sustainable gifting. ‘Truly Gifting’ are, quite literally, selling the second-hand ethos. What started as an MBA business plan has quickly been put into action by Tiia and her passionate team as they produce packaging and labelling to make second-hand gifting a viable gift giving option. I’ve written about the etiquette of giving second-hand/used/vintage gifts before. For my PhD research I interviewed mothers about their habits for buying second-hand childrens’ clothes, toys and equipment and it came up that some would give second-hand items as gifts to other people’s children but only if they looked nearly-new (or new) and/or they knew the parents well. There was an etiquette of gifting second-hand.

trulygifting selectionboxes
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For many adults gifting second-hand items is a no-go. This is different of course to regifting presents, which three-quarters of people find acceptable. Yet there is a rise in environmentally conscious consumers and voluntary simplifiers who don’t want to buy into the commercialisation of Christmas. For them, a carefully selected second-hand book, necklace or retro wall clock is a thoughtful gift and a way of asserting their beliefs. As a long-standing study on gifting suggests, ‘We give, receive and reject gifts strategically, thereby symbolically predicating identity’ Sherry et al. (1983:159).

The team at Truly Gifting recognised the need to make second-hand gifts more socially acceptable if we are to move towards a more sustainable future. They have created a range of packaging items that make it easier for us to gift second-hand pieces that would normally be devoid of labels and bubble wrap. A range of boxes, made themselves from recycled and responsibly sourced paper, offer a neat way for us second-hand shoppers to gift something unique. They are also great if you make your own gifts and need a way to present your handmade creations. Furthermore, the boxes come with little message cards describing the Truly Gifting ethos – ‘we extend the lifespan of products and reduce the burden on the planet’.

Take a look at trulygifting.co.uk

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