New Year Update

Hello, and happy New Year!

Sunny Perth (although it rained quite a bit when I was there).

For the first time in a decade of having this blog, I didn’t update it at all last year. Not a single post. Why? Well, because I’ve been busy. And because blogging has to come bottom of my never-ending to-do list (after self-care and fitness, because without that, I’d be useless). And also because there is a lot of great content out there on sustainable consumption and ethical fashion from people who, quite frankly, are more up to date with it than me.

So what have I been doing?

Teaching

In April I’ll be two years into my job at Coventry University as Assistant Professor and Course Director in Design Management. Other than quite a heavy teaching load, 2019 was busy because we went through course re-validation (so more paperwork than normal), introduced a second annual start date so students could enrol in September or January (so more students than normal) and launched a sister programme at a college in Singapore (so more early morning Skype calls than normal). Of course, for the latter two points, the exceptions are now the new normal, and my role is going to be increasingly leadership/admin focused. This has been really valuable experience and I’ve been able to make pedagogic changes to the structure of the programme. I have a lovely, diverse group of postgraduate students who I learn from as much as they do from me.

Research

I’ve got two main areas of research on the go, building on previous work. Both themes are inspired by my increasing interest in more-than-human philosophies of thought, such as posthumanism and the new materialisms. In essence, these approaches attempt to shift our understandings of the world beyond humanism and (post)structuralism in order to account for the non-human agency of the other things that make up our worlds, i.e. technology, matter (things) and nature. New materialisms argues that the world is made up of ‘assemblages’ and that these are forever shifting. For example, I am currently engaged in the practice of writing – specifically typing on my laptop, on my sofa, in my house, still wearing my pyjamas. The experience of writing would be different if I were writing freehand in a notebook, or if I took my laptop to a café. The outcome – what I write – would also probably be different. Can we even say that I’m writing, or am I just typing?

Place matters, matter matters, technology matters. Animals matter (I am a vegetarian after all). Post- and other more-than-human approaches therefore move beyond the binaries of human/non-human, nature/culture and acknowledge the messy ‘intra-actions’ of our worlds. Back to my work then:

1) I’m interested in exploring the role of technology, particularly infant surveillance technology, in ‘assemblages’ of parenting and childcare. In doing so I recognise that technology is increasingly being used by parents to help safeguard or monitor their children. Does this alleviate or heighten anxiety? What if the tech goes wrong? What are the ethics of this technology? How are children relating to this technology? I’ve been developing a research proposal for this work with the aim of applying for grants. This builds on themes of my PhD where I looked at how parents negotiate ‘risk’ in regards to second-hand children’s things.

2) I’ve continued my work on doctoral student support (see paper here). I started developing a project on mindfulness and doctoral students, attending a couple of great conferences along the way, but then shifted my focus based on a gap I found in the literature. I am now looking at doctoral experiences of writing as a ‘more-than-human’ practice with the aim of better understanding the lived experience of postgraduate writing, and how institutions might alter their policies and/or training, based on a post-human approach to the writing practice. I’m doing this project with the University of Southampton’s Doctoral College and planning to conduct interviews in the Spring.

Travel and talks

2019 was a great year for work holidays and a terrible year for my carbon footprint.

The Berlin Wall

In February I supervised an undergraduate fieldtrip to Berlin. It was five-days with Product Design students – not my students, but other staff had commitments meaning they couldn’t go. I hadn’t been to Berlin before so enjoyed having a look around and visiting the museums.

In April I went to the U.S., first to Washington DC and then New York. I went to DC for the AAG (Association of American Geographers) Annual Conference. I’d only been to the AAG once before, in 2014 at the end of my PhD, where I had a fabulous #GeogSoton holiday with my peers in Florida. This time I went on my own, but enjoyed meeting up with a couple of friends there and my awesome PhD supervisor, Kate Boyer. I gave a paper in the Feminist Digital Geographies session introducing my ideas on posthuman parenting. It went well and spurred me on to develop my thoughts. From there, and after doing the touristy things in DC, I returned to New York and spent five days staying in an AirBnB in Brooklyn. As it was my second visit to NY I wanted to experience more of the local side of NY/Brooklyn, so I spent quite a bit of time in coffee shops and a yoga studio (I chose the wrong holiday if I was looking for a retreat) as well as a few more galleries.

In November I went to Singapore and Perth. I had to visit Singapore to support the recently launched masters programme so I used the opportunity to pop on a plane for the extra five hours to Perth to see my friends who live there and have some research meetings. I gave an invited seminar at the University of Western Australia based on my previous ‘design for ageing’ supermarket retail project and had some very interesting meetings with scholars at Curtin University with whom I am hoping to collaborate. Back in Singapore, there was little time for anything other than work, although I did manage to squeeze in a couple of post-work drinks in Clarke Quay.

Geography Dept. at UWA – University of Western Australia

Publications: I had a paper out in the Journal of Consumer Culture special issue on thrift last year. The whole issue is here, I can send out PDFs of my article on request.

2020 plans: As well as the new areas of research I am pursuing, I’m co-convening a session at the Royal Geographic Societies Annual Conference in September exploring experiences of academic identity within and beyond Geography.

I also upped-my-yoga-ante in 2019 by starting hot (Bikram) yoga. It’s addictive, and it works.

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The Ethical Gift Box: Easy, friendly, gift-giving ideas

August 2017 – Jeremy Stone sets off to Asia with his wife Tina and three kids in tow, home schooled on the road as they backpack their way across the continent. Their mission – to teach their children about countries and culture as well as sow the seeds for a new business idea. Exactly a year later they land back in the UK all set to launch a new business; The Ethical Gift Box.

The Ethical Gift Box sells beautifully curated gift boxes containing products with a positive social and environmental impact. Pre-made boxes are creatively designed with individual recipients in mind; For Him, For Her, and for different interests (Cooking, Travel, Lifestyle, Relaxation, Well-being). Customers also have the option of designing their own box of goodies. Most boxes are in the £25-35 range and include a selection of thoughtfully-made things together with a presentation card detailing the story behind the makers. Customers can personalise the box with a message of their choice and their favourite colour in raffia ribbon. 12 globally inspired box bands, ranging from Balinese to Moroccan, finish the look.

Values are core to the enterprise: fair trade values, environmental values and family values too. A life long traveller, Jeremy has always been passionate about fair trade. He is inspired by Andre Gunder Frank’s Dependency Theory and influenced in particular from a long period travelling across the Indonesian Archipelago back in the late 1980’s from East Timor to Sumatra.

Jeremy told me, ‘Indonesia is typical of countries in Asia where you receive so much warmth, kindness and generosity from local people who live from day to day without any long term security. It’s impossible for you not to want to give something back! What’s more, seeing how local crafts people are terribly exploited by middlemen and international traders seeking to maximise profits only motivates us more to instil fair trade principles into our business and ensure that crafts people get paid fairly for their creativity. The delight in selling is not in the selling itself but in being able to go back to a supplier and place a bigger order knowing the knock on benefits that it has to the local community.’

Jeremy has also experience installing environmental values into a major multinational; having worked as Global Environmental Manager for Cadbury Schweppes. He has a wealth of knowledge therefore not only in environmental management but also in global communities and social enterprise.

The integrity of The Ethical Gift Box comes through clearly in the way in which products are presented and described. How often do you see a photograph of the maker next to an online purchase? That’s exactly what you get if you buy this upcycled cushion, handmade by Lamai in Thailand. Whilst many of the products come from connections Jeremy and his family made in Asia there are British made products too, such as candles and miniature bottles of Raspberry infused gin.

Pre-made gift boxes include ‘For Her Vegan Wash Box’, ‘Wine Lovers Box’ and ‘Kids Baking Box’. You can buy products individually too with products filtered by ethics, for example fair trade, recycled, vegan. I love the wooden twig spoon; it’s little things like this that bring me daily joy! Whilst the product range isn’t huge, bath time, stationery, homeware and jewellery are all covered.

I’ve just had four family member’s birthdays in the space of two weeks, six if you count the dogs (and they certainly get presents too!). I always find it a challenge to balance gift giving with my own values; what if what they want is from a store you’d normally avoid for ethical reasons? There’s also the time required to source good quality, interesting and ethical/sustainable gifts – tricky when everyone’s birthday comes at once! The Ethical Gift Box makes this process a lot easier and spreads the love further. After all, it’s not just your loved one who gets a great gift box, but you are contributing to the livelihoods of the talented makers and their communities too.

Visit www.ethicalgiftbox.com

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Study on PhD student wellbeing: positive psychology interventions

I look back on my PhD as one of the best periods of my life. It was very demanding but I enjoyed the sense of ownership and progression, and I had a great ‘family’ of other PhD-ers around me. I watched some of my peers really struggle though, with all kinds of things including having family to care for, difficult supervisors and a general lack of motivation. I too found it an overwhelming emotional burden at times. However, I had already acquired certain skills and resilience to manage this. I’ve always been fairly good at self-motivation and I tried to look after myself with regular yoga, meditation and exercise.

At the beginning of 2016 I was employed on a three-month research project on doctoral student wellbeing and access to support. Our findings have recently been published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Immediately after the research post ended I was pleased to be employed with student services at the University of Southampton to work on the implementation of recommendations arising from the project. This included the launch of a ‘5-Ways to Wellbeing’ campaign, new PhD support website, mindfulness classes and a draft of recommendations for supervisors. An earlier draft of our journal paper included an in-depth look at recommendations for supporting student wellbeing. It draws on the positive psychology literature to discuss resilience-building activities. Because it was cut from the paper I thought I publish some of this missing section myself here! But first, some context –

Student mental health is a pressing concern and whilst much of the emphasis has been on undergraduate students, a few studies have turned their attention to postgraduate students. We might expect that, being fully-fledged adults, PhD students are better equipped to deal with academic demands. However, when you consider that a full-time PhD usually lasts at least three years, requires a huge sustained mental effort, involves working alone or at least isolated in your thoughts, and leads to a very precarious job situation at the end, you can see why people struggle. On top of that, you’re at the age where you might have children to look after, want a mortgage and see your friends in well-paid ‘normal’ jobs. Many people now do PhD’s part-time whilst working, eurgh! Many leave their home country/city to do their PhD. And everyone, at some point, feels totally and utterly stupid.

The mental health of Flemish doctoral students was highlighted in a recent academic study (Levecque et al 2017). The data found 51 per cent of students had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health over the course of their research degree, and 40 per cent, three or more symptoms. Work-life balance was the strongest indicator of psychological distress according to Levecque et al’s study, closely followed by job demands (i.e. workload). This same study found that doctoral students were significantly more likely to be affected by poor mental health than the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students in total. Our own study, which you can read about in the paper, found a prevalence of anxiety, stress and depression. 20% of our students said they’d been to their doctor about feelings of mental distress since starting their PhD and more than 10% had attended counselling. We concluded that the university needed a more proactive stance on mental health. Drawing on Positive Psychology was a fruitful approach to develop ideas for building resilience; thoughts outlined below:

Positive psychology reinforces the notion that psychological capital can build on an individuals’ strengths in order to provide the resources needed to form positive outcomes in ones’ relationships, wellbeing, academic and professional success. A focus on wellbeing, and thus psychological capital, has been increasing in the workplace over the last decade. Positive Psychological capital (PsyCap) is defined as:

“an individual’s positive psychological state of development characterized by: (1) having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks; (2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; (3) persevering toward the goals, and when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and (4) when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success” (Luthans, Youssef, et al., 2007, p. 3).

The discipline of positive psychology has three main concerns, understanding positive emotions, understanding positive individual traits and understanding positive institutions. This triad encompasses the holistic, joined up approach we believe is necessary for doctoral student support. As an example, positive emotions have been found to momentarily improve individual performance and broaden thought-action repertoires responsible for building enduring personal resources. With performance seemingly key to researcher wellbeing, it seems reasonable to assume that promoting positive emotions can improve doctoral experiences and thus success.

Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are treatment methods or intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviours, or cognitions. PPIs can, according to Donaldson et al (2015), be categorised into five key areas; mindfulness and meditation based, coaching interventions, strength-based interventions, affect-based interventions and gratitude interventions. They can be delivered on an individual basis, in groups or online. I will now focus on the first three here, starting with mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is a popular intervention and its status as a recognised wellbeing technique has increased hugely in recent years. It includes various methods such as yoga meditation, mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy and stress-management programmes. Structured mindfulness training delivered as an incremental course has been found to have positive effects on stress management, resilience and subjective wellbeing in a range of groups, including students. Doctoral researchers in our focus groups asked for more opportunities to take part in mindfulness training. The challenge comes in offering this to a wide range of students with limited institutional resources, and in encouraging students to stay for the 8-week course. Such initiatives need to be embedded in cultural change whereby students (and staff) understand the benefits of taking proactive steps to support their mental health.

Another PPI highlighted by Donaldson et al (2015) is coaching interventions. Most of these were rooted in what they call a solution-based cognitive model; identifying areas of ones’ life that could be improved through dedicated steps. In a higher education setting we are more likely to refer to coaching as mentoring, again something raised in the focus groups as a preferred method of dedicated doctoral support. As a PPI, coaching has been found to increase cognitive resilience and hope, increase goal attainment and related feelings of wellbeing and enhance self-motivation and engagement.

The final PPI I wish to focus on is Strength-based intervention. This is about focusing on stengths rather than weaknesses. Proyer et al (2015) shun the term weakness completely, in favour of ‘lesser strengths’. The study found that focusing interventions on character strengths improved happiness and ameliorated feelings of depression. They used a list of 24 character strengths, suggesting that every individual possesses three to seven strengths that characterise them best. Focusing on activities that use these strengths promote excitement, increasing life-satisfaction, self-awareness and long-term wellbeing. This seems particularly interesting to consider in the case of doctoral researchers, who are often plagued with self-doubt and peer comparison. Strength-based interventions could be incorporated organically into postgraduate teacher training, benefiting both the doctoral student and their students.

Personally, I can’t imagine my life without yoga. I also practice general mindfulness and Autogenic Training. I learnt long ago to focus on what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t, and I know that stress is bad for my health and indeed my productivity so I try not to let things get to me!

Donaldson, S.I., Dollwet, M. and Rao, M.A. (2015) Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10:3, 185-195

Levecque, K., Ansel, F., Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle, L. 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46: 868-879

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., and Avolio, B. J. (2007). Psychological capital: Developing the human competitive edge. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Proyer, R.T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. and Ruch, W. (2015) Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456

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Plastic Free Friday!

Earlier this year Friends of the Earth launched Plastic Free Friday. Buoyed by public awareness of the dangers of excessive plastic consumption, Plastic Free Friday asks us to ditch the single use plastic for at least one day a week. Sounds simple, right?

Plastic pollution has been a key public concern in recent months/years, with the award-winning series Blue Planet commended for raising public awareness across the globe. The 5p consumer levy for plastic bags, started in England in 2015, was a turning point in consumer awareness; making most of us at least more conscious about our plastic footprint. The number of plastic bags handed out by supermarkets in England in 2014 stood at 7.64 billion – 200 million more than in 2013. Since the levy, the use of single-use bags has decreased by 90%. Now a report by the UN states that more than 50 nations have pledged to cut their plastic pollution. The report also outlines 35 potential plastic substitutes, presenting solutions to the problem of single use plastic.

As well as being a global concern, plastic pollution is something we are all responsible for. Friends of the Earth’s campaign is a great starting point for cutting down on single use plastic. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started:

1. Take your own shopping bags to avoid the single-use plastic ones.

2. Morning tea drinker? Check that your tea bags are plastic-free or switch to loose leaf. Several tea bags use polypropylene to seal the bags.

3. Pack your own lunch box to avoid buying a sandwich on the high street, and remember to take your re-usable mug for caffeine on the go. ECOlunchbox have a great range of plastic-free lunch box solutions.

4. Buying dinner? Buy fresh, loose veggies from the market or supermarket. See if there is a wholefoods store near you that sells loose food cupboard essentials to carry away in brown bags or your own reusable containers (rice, spices etc).

5. For post-work cocktails, tell the bartender to ditch the straw. Or at home (or even to take one with you) Poppy Bee make reusable stainless steel straws to replace their plastic cousins. Poppy Bee UK sent me their straws to try out (see said Friday night G&T above) and I am definitely a convert. They are the only LFGB certified reusable straws on the market (i.e. strictly tested for safe human use) and come with a cleaning brush, as well as being dishwasher safe. Buy them on Amazon.

Join the conversation at #PlasticFreeFriday

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In ode to the whiteboard; and why Sundeala is the eco-friendly option

What a genius! She’s not even 2 😉

I can’t be the only grown adult who still finds an odd satisfaction from writing on a whiteboard? There’s an innate feeling of power that comes with scribing words two inches tall on a wall for all to see. Perhaps it’s because we first see this practice at school that we look up to the pen-holder as an authority figure; a position that people then try to replicate in boardrooms everywhere. When I first started teaching, the whiteboard was the place I played out my new teacher identity. I may have not felt much older or wiser than the undergrads I was ‘teaching’ but I had control of the whiteboard pen, so I was in charge. The only thing I dislike about the whiteboard is there’s no spellchecker. And whenever I’m forced to write without a keyboard (I say forced, it can be fun), I realise I’ve forgotten how to spell. The combination of the above factors makes the humble whiteboard quite an intimidating thing don’t you think? I’m sure there are two types of people in the world; those who jump at the chance to wield a whiteboard pen and those who pass it over to someone else.

With this in mind, and because I couldn’t think of anything interesting to draw, when Sundeala sent me a shiny new whiteboard I decided to hand it over to my eight year old niece. My niece proceeded to not only draw, but also adopt her own teacher identity by schooling me in maths. So once again the whiteboard reminded me of life pre-smartphone when I had to add three digit numbers in my head. I was quite interested that my niece didn’t mind when her younger sister started wielding a pen, and rather than write on the clean, white board, scribbled all over her older sister’s work. I wondered if this was because my niece knew any marks she made on the board were temporary. They would get rubbed out anyway, so where was the harm? That’s the joy of a whiteboard – total freedom to do as you please.


Sundeala, whose slogan is ‘Display your conscience’, make environmentally sustainable boards from 100% recycled waste. The only company in the UK that currently manufacture in this way, they sell a wide range of notice boards, whiteboards, and writing walls for home and professional use. Unlike a lot of brands that sell themselves on their eco-credentials, Sundeala has been around for well over 100 years. They have a factory in Cam, Gloucestershire and use water from the Cam River in their eco-friendly production process. I’m pleased to say the whiteboard I have from them works like a dream; it’s smooth to write on and wipes clean with ease.

I can see how Sundeala’s boards are a great option for organisations looking to be green. Maybe a person brandishing a whiteboard pen will be the next person to come up with a ‘green’ invention to change the world.

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