"A fast and full recovery in prospect as shopping hordes pour back into stores". So read the headline of the Weekend Financial Times of the 25th of May 2021, as I settled to catch up with news delivered on paper that weekend. For a publication that is known for its measured tones, the words "fast", "hordes", and "pour" caught my attention. On one side, my friend Hanna Nova Beatrice is working on her remarkable magazine The New Era, both promoting and reflecting the new values that many of us aspire to after the pandemic. On the other side, the FT forecasts a world of fast hordes pouring into different places starting with stores.
The world will hold its breath, at least some parts of it will, as we try to work out if there were any lessons learnt from the last year and a half. Whether thinking about the common good catches on, or the notion of sacrificing things on the individual level being truly worthwhile if it helps others, or whether we draw comfort from the strength of acting together even in the face of invisible challenges like a fast spreading virus, is all to be seen. But whilst we do this, and without beating the drum about the clouds that lie just beyond the horizon, here are a few common sense things that I hope will rapidly change our cultural landscape. There is urgency to all this, as the hordes, if you will remember, are fast.
I want to develop four themes that should be easy to grasp, and above all make us increasingly indignant if we see anyone trying to row us back to the bad old days. They are, in no particular order, our approach to packaging, to repair, to certifications, and to materials. Even if we did not face a climate and environmental emergency and a society that is increasingly divided and dysfunctional, these issues should unite people of all points of view around a consensus that sees alternatives as downright wrong. We can only get there if we are willing to call them out.
When it comes to packaging, even after years of discussion surrounding how all kinds of different packaging materials are disposed of, I see meagre progress. It was easy to ditch plastic bags in the supermarket, but recently I bought lamps from two reputable firms and I felt truly tempted to lay out all the packaging materials and photograph them. Plastic bags of different types, foam based products, paper glued to thin layers of plastic. Essentially a recycling nightmare if I ever saw one. We should prize simplicity above all things, whilst of course preventing damage to what I hope are carefully made products. Every removal company on the planet should have ample stock of blankets, the variety of materials used in packaging should be reduced to one or two, that are easily recycled in ALL the places where the product is sold, not just some recycling nirvana that has fifty bins for fifty different categories of materials.
Another area where we need to show increasing intolerance, are products that are designed without any consideration of future repair. If the answer is "it is cheaper to throw away than to repair" then the rejection of such makers and designers should be ever more forceful. But it takes two to tango, and the culture of repair needs support on the part of the consuming public, as a repair may never be equivalent to new and the patchwork effect that might result should be worn with pride because a repair is ALWAYS better than a replacement, without a shadow of a doubt, and no one in the chain of producers and consumers is left worse off. In fact, the entire world thanks you for accepting the repair. Unless we cross this bridge, we will not be able to wag our finger at products that have been thoughtlessly designed.
Over the last few years, certifications have appeared to provide a balm to soothe our conscience. A number of organisations, both industry led as well as others who are independent, promise to "certify" that materials or products conform to certain standards. It is time to call this approach for what it is: perhaps well intentioned, but out of date and, frankly speaking, ineffective. Although the certifying bodies set well-intentioned guidelines, the inspection process is toothless and anyone that understands the scale of industry, from forestry to agriculture and then the manufacturing that follows, knows that inspection covers a minute group of products and that the paperwork and costs of certification are affordable to very large companies who, ironically, often are the ones that are most distant from their supply chains. Smaller producers, who often are right next to the coal face, are deemed "uncertified" whilst businesses that are questionable bask in their "certification". Time to end this farce. The only certification possible comes from being close to every aspect of production, and to a civil society that guards zealously against abuses. It is the culture that surrounds mining or harvesting where it is happening, as well as the transformation of these materials, that guards against unethical or unsustainable practice. These good intentions are often supported by the law of the land but nothing replaces civic society when it comes to ensuring that standards are not just adhered to, but embodied and therefore apply to the vast majority if not totality of the output of industry. So buy from places where you have faith in the strength of civic society.
And finally, the culture that surrounds what we eat has made huge strides compared to the ‘70s and ‘80s, and most people will accept that heavily processed foods are inferior to those in their most natural condition. Having taken this important step forward, we need to expand this line of thought to cover the materials of the objects that surround us. If I can stick to a subject that I know well, solid wood is one step away from the tree that provides it. The number and variety of wood-derived products is considerable and the differences between them also considerable but, fundamentally, all processing requires energy and additional input of materials that may be of questionable benefit, even if the makers of these materials proclaim either higher efficiency or optimisation of the original material. Beware of such snake oil, as processing and transformation always has a price, and while some transformations may indeed provide benefits, they should always be used judiciously and with care. The ignorance that surrounds the materials of the things we use is irresponsible, the same way that it was irresponsible to eat whatever showed up on the supermarket shelves.
So four dragons to slay, and whether you believe in the importance of reducing our consumption, or whether you believe that technological progress can help tackle many of our problems, or a combination of both, there has to be consensus surrounding the unethical nature of waste in a world where resources are scarce and need to be shared. If anything links these four themes, it is the aversion to waste shared by many cultures around the world; and at a time like this, the more we find that we can share, the better.
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