May 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
I resent buying summer clothes. With my faulty internal thermostat and British summers typically lasting somewhere between ten days and four weeks there really seems little point in investing in garments that will see virtually no wear, and particularly not after the wash-out summer of last year. So now spring has finally arrived, I am planning to make the most of the lighter clothes I already have by digging into my ‘Make Do’ tool kit. I am in two minds about calling it that as ‘Make Do and Mend’ is such a worn out phrase. But recently I have been mulling over some aspects of voluntarily ‘making do’, from environmental dilemmas and ethical drivers to how it is often perceived.
A ‘how’: dyeing dilemmas
My shelf of summer clothes contained two items I have not worn in the last few years but I struggled to ‘dispose of’: a stone-coloured cotton skirt and a white linen shift dress. Both are ridiculously comfortable but have suffered at the hands of my tea habit. So this spring I focussed on how to rescue them.
My first thought was to dye them but I was concerned about the water I would waste in the process. Also, no matter how much I dug around on the Dylon website, I could find nothing about the chemical make-up of the home dyes or their environmental implications. I could of course have tried my hand at natural dyes but most amateur efforts result in washed out greens or yellows, neither of which do my complexion any favours. So I dismissed dyeing.
Next I flirted with patching the affected area, of the dress at least. Mr M actually prompted the idea with a reference to lace and it occurred to me that broderie anglaise over linen might look quite attractive, in a rustic way. On closer inspection, the tea stain on the dress was at its most intense over the chest so a lace patch would only draw attention to my bosom – not the desire effect!
And then Mr M pointed out the blindingly obvious. Dyeing two items may not be environmentally virtuous but compared to ‘disposing’ of two serviceable garments and buying replacements that have undergone industrial dyeing, it would be the lesser of the two evils. So I bought some dye and salt and now have a deep green skirt and chocolate brown shift dress that give my summer wardrobe a very different feel. In fact, the strong colours make them both feel like completely new arrivals.
A ‘why’: ethics of donating to charity
Buying, and even not buying, new clothes involves many dilemmas, including countless ethical ones as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka has once again highlighted.* I shall explore how I (imperfectly) navigate some of the ethical dilemmas of buying and not buying in a future post, but this month I want to dwell on an ethical reason for ‘making do’ rather than taking clothes to a charity shop.
In recent years the second-hand (often optimistically called vintage) clothes market has exploded. Bags of old clothes are regularly piled up outside the local charity shop but from talking to the shop’s volunteers it is clear that many people treat charities as an extension of the refuse collection system. Some donated clothes, like jackets and party dresses are quality items but many ‘donations’ are not fit for use as they are torn, stained or threadbare. And even if garments are in tact, they are often of poor quality due to the prevalence of fast fashion.
Nevertheless, charities find ways to make the most out of donations. Some, like TRAID, mend and re-work clothes that have potential whilst selling sub-standard ones to be shredded and used as furniture stuffing. However, most donated clothes are sold in mixed bales to intermediaries for onward sale abroad. Whilst some charities, like Oxfam, manage the sorting and grading process themselves, many rely on commercial companies of various standards.
The majority of these clothes bales end up in Africa where local traders buy them in the hope of making a profit from selling the garments individually. However, as these traders cannot scrutinise the content of the bales, every purchase is a lottery and their ability to recover their investment depends on how well the clothes have been graded as well as the relative quality of the clothes we ‘dispose’ of in charity shops.**
As well as the impact of this practice on individual traders, there is also evidence that dumping our cast-offs on Africa has impeded the development of a local clothing industry, as African producers cannot compete with the cost of these cheap imports.
On this basis, I think hard about which clothes I give to charity. Any items that are torn, stained, worn out… go into my inverted Clothes Waste Pyramid and find another incarnation.
A ‘what’: the vocabulary of ‘Make Do’
Last week I got caught up in an online discussion with Tom of Holland, Eirlys (aka Scrapiana) and Amy Twigger Holroyd about the meaning of ‘mending’ and ‘repairing’, particularly which word implied improving an item. Our exchanges prompted me to think more about the meaning of ‘Make Do’, or rather how it is and could be perceived.
Perhaps it is due to the association with wartime shortages or our current culture of abundant choices, but ‘making do’ can sound like privation. It may feel virtuous but it could also imply we are being short changed as so much more is possible. However, what if we were to think of ourselves as a business and old clothes as assets or resources…? In this context, to ‘make do’ sounds more laudable, like efficient resource management. It could be said we are maximising outputs whilst minimising inputs, or even implementing a sensible waste management plan.
By dyeing an old skirt to make it do for another season I save on an unnecessary purchase so I can ‘afford’ a pair of winter shoes that I am likely to need if we have another wet autumn. As such ‘making do’ is no different to a manufacturer patching up less frequently used machines so it can replace an essential one that suffers real wear and tear. And is reworking a dress with some dye, a new hem length and left-over lace trim not similar to a florist making attractive posies from leftover stems to turn waste into income…?
I made one concession to summer shopping and bought a short sleeved cream T-shirt made from organic cotton (5 coupons). I also invested in a half slip made from rayon, which feels like a very wartime purchase (also 5 coupons). This hybrid fibre is made from wood pulp, which is technically a renewable resource but the production process has a pretty heft environmental footprint, hence the penalty coupon. I nevertheless allowed myself this ‘offending’ item as it will save me having to line lightweight skirts and dresses.
By ‘making do’ I saved 14 coupons, seven for each of the dress and skirt.
Total coupon spend to date: 20.5
* There have been many articles and blog posts about the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse and what action we as ‘consumers’ can take. This one by Franca (who happens to be participating in this Wartime Wardrobe Challenge) stood out for me as she is one of the few voices to stress an elephant in the room: the competing tension between sustainability through reduced consumption and sustainability for individual workers due to better conditions.
** If you are interested in the practices and consequences of Europe, America and increasingly China dumping second hand clothes in African countries, take a look at this thorough article by Dr Andrew Brooks.
May 10, 2013 § 1 Comment
There have been changes afoot in our tiny kitchen. I am not talking about the ‘renovation’ efforts that are finally underway. Rather my baking has been shaken up now I am no longer on good terms with a key ingredient.
I have always loved butter, preferring its creamy richness to the processed flavour of margarine. I never really bought the health arguments in favour of vegetable spread. Butter may be higher in saturated fats but I worked out many years ago that a little honest fat will do me no harm, as cholesterol tests over the years have testified. However, just like milk and cream, butter and I have fallen out of late. Now it will not kill me and I certainly do not make an issue about it when invited to dinner, but it just leaves me feeling a little ‘icky’ and triggers eczema on my temples and eyelids.
Life without butter is hardly the end of the world, it has just meant rethinking my baking habits and tastes. And like many disappointments, it has actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, prompting baking adventures with different types of grain and forays into childhood memories for inspiration.
Home-made blini have been a godsend. They are quick and easy to make and have become both a savoury and sweet staple. The buckwheat and whipped egg whites give the little pancakes a slightly nutty flavour and very fluffy texture, and a teaspoon of quality cherry or apricot jam turns the humble Baltic blini into a very satisfying dessert. Gram flour has also earned its place in my pantry as it makes hearty Scotch pancakes or waffles that work well with dried apricots stewed in vanilla or plum and cinnamon compote.
Trawling through mum’s old baking books, I was heartened to see how many of the desserts and cakes of my youth were fat-free. I was even more delighted to discover that as a child Mr M loved the unpretentious recipes I was planning to revisit and that he remembers his mother making them from the same cookery book. I shouldn’t really have been surprised as our youth pre-dated the explosion of celebrity chefs!
Mr M was particularly keen on a bara brith, waxing lyrical about the delights of a slice of the Welsh tea bread, particularly on cold grey days. I have to admit, I was daunted. Not only did the coarse mix of dried fruit, spices, flour, sugar and a single egg look unpromising to somebody used to sponge mixtures and batters, I was also wary of tarnishing Mr M’s fond childhood memories. I need not have worried. The smell from the oven was enough to transport him back to carefree days and the fruit had retained enough tea from the overnight soaking to produce a moist, hearty cake that kept well.
Swiss roll has been another rediscovery. For many years, I classified it as a slightly naff 1970s dessert. But replace flavourless vanilla essence with the seeds of half a vanilla pod and substitute sickly sweet Robertson jam with home-made greengage jam or sour cherry conserve and you get a dainty alternative to a Victoria sponge cake!
Biscuit wise, macaroons have replaced my staple jam drops. My macaroons are alas not the gaily coloured sandwich cushions that adorn many a French confectioner’s shop. As nuts would kill me, almonds are out but fortunately coconut flesh is not so I can still indulge in the chewy sweetness of a crunchy coconut macaroon. And just like jam drops, they are easy to make and store well in a sealed box.
When I first realised that my comfort treats of choice would be off the menu, my heart sunk. But just as with breakfast cereal, cheese and coffee, adapting to life without butter has been remarkably easy. And shaking up my baking habits has actually been good. It has taken my routines and my taste buds off auto-pilot. Moreover, as many of my alternative bakes are incredibly tasty, I have found myself reducing portion sizes without any problems… which can only be a good thing!
April 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The sun has finally put in an appearance, the bitterly easterly winds have scampered off and this gardener has sprung into action. After weeks of sowing seeds in modules and moving them from one windowsill to another for maximum light, I am moving a phalanx of seedlings outside for hardening off and am finally feeling alive again.
Gardening has always felt like a tonic but after a poor harvest last year, a wet autumn and cold grey winter I appreciate just how much a garden can contribute to my psychological wellbeing. And whilst digging organic matter into the allotment plot and planting large, slow crops provides proper exercise and a real sense of satisfaction, coaxing our little ramshackle garden back to life reminds me just how useful gardening is for a healthy mind and happy heart.
My design style: eclectic, stubborn and joy-inducing
Finding ways to squeeze an abundance of edible food and colourful flowers into a tiny space, improve the soil without three compost bins and source enough containers in a low-impact way stretches my imagination, keeping my eyes keen and brain cells alert. Harvesting a few tomatoes, a lettuce and half a dozen potatoes for a meal feels like a victory – over the elements as well as our ludicrous food supply system – and boosts my morale in the process. And picking a handful of flowers for a vase brings out the carefree child in me.
With such challenges and objectives it is no surprise that our tiny garden looks unkempt. There is no unifying style, rather a hodgepodge of scavenged containers and climbing frames and a miscellany of practical grow bags and shelf-like ladders. The planting scheme follows no formal rules but is instead inspired by the garden’s limitations (i.e. shade and lack of space), our taste buds and a deep longing for colour and fragrance to carry me through the darker days.
Desperate for the taste of fresh homegrown produce after one of the longest winters in years, I am experimenting with pea shoots after reading about them on Vertical Veg. They are a small addition to a meal but offer a concentrated flavour of spring and best of all, they grow quickly and abundantly in shallow pots. Thanks to waste polystyrene crates from the fishmongers and a few handfuls of soil, I have the promise of intense pea shoots for the wok or salad bowl in a few weeks.
Another fishmongers crates, some mixed leaves and sorrel seeds and an ad hoc mini greenhouse made from a scavenged window and a brick will deliver spicy salads and fragrant sorrel soup in about a month. And although the tomatoes, carrots and first earlies will take longer to reach the plate, half a dozen seedlings in the minute front garden will produce an early crop of broad beans.
Balancing the senses
The greyest and wettest 12 months I can remember have left me hankering after mood-boosting colour, which is why flowers deserve a place in our garden. They may take up important space and nutrients but for my mental state I need to include a succession of flowers to take me from early spring to late autumn. Crocuses along the front path grow when little else does but the tulips in the old sink are running about a month late. In a few weeks though they should burst into glorious reds, oranges and purples and look splendid before making way for rainbow chard seedlings.
And then there are the roses (a very belated wedding gift) in the back bed and some pots. These are the height of indulgence in a small garden but they will trigger memories of a happy childhood and provide flowers for the table. To counter the sense of indulgence I am growing garlic near the roses – for aphid control – and have underplanted some with thyme I propagated from cuttings last year, others with winter flowering violets.
My other luxury is the lavender in the back bed, to the right of the roses and in front of the space designated for tomatoes and kale. Technically lavender can be used in baking but mine is destined for the linen cupboard. Old school it may be but the fragrance of dried lavender when changing the bed is a powerful medicine during the endless grey of London winters!
Although I am experiencing an urgent desire to stock the pantry with homegrown produce and make up for the lost weeks, as spring slowly sets out it stall, I am celebrating more than ever our funny little garden’s potential as a proactive, hands-on apothecary-cum-therapist.
April 4, 2013 § 8 Comments
Sartorially February and March have been pretty low-key thanks to a bout of influenza and a sick cat. I did order a couple of items to restock basics. One was an emergency like-for-like replacement because after nearly a year of valiant service my pale bra gave up the ghost.
A sustainable bra: a chimera?
I resorted to ‘Marks & Sparks’ because, as Nic of Little House in Town hinted, normal curvy women struggle to find ethical, let alone eco-friendly bras. Extensive research last year led me to conclude that there are only two options for a vaguely “green” bra: organic cotton sports-style bras that look about as attractive as a hammock or daintier ones that would struggle to support a 1920s gaminesque bosom.
Frustrated and curious I have been spurred into action. If most women in the UK wear a C-cup or more, why are designers with an eye for sustainability not exploring alternatives? Is there something about a bra that does not lend itself to more ecologically sound solutions? To find out I signed up for a bra-making course. I wanted to understand how a supportive bra is made; how design and fibres combine to produce an engineering solution because, let’s be honest, that is what a bra is.
Carbon-free or carbon-light?
Armed with an understanding of the constituent parts of a bra, the source of the support and the material options available, I have been experimenting to make a bra with better environmental credentials. This process has confirmed what I already knew: there is no such thing as carbon-free(*) bra. As the all-important support comes from the wings and band under the cups, elastic is unavoidable.
Polymer-based products (like polyamide and elastane) are not bad per se. In some respects their energy and water credentials are better than those of cotton(**) but there are plenty of other reasons why I avoid unnecessary poly-content in my wardrobe (and household in general).
The first is linked to peak oil. There is significant evidence(§) that we are reaching or have passed peak oil production and the era of cheap oil is coming to an end. It does not really matter when exactly we hit the peak, the key point is that oil is a precious resource. I therefore prefer to limit my consumption of oil-derived products to essentials, and preferably durable ones. The second reason for avoiding synthetic fibres is linked to their end of life. Polyester, polyamide, elastane… are not like cotton or wool. Once worn out, you cannot toss them on the compost heap to be broken down by worms. They take millennia to decompose. Finally, there is the issue of perspiration. Synthetic fibres do not allow the skin to breathe the way natural ones do so poly-based garments generally need more frequent washing. And every laundry cycle adds to a garment’s carbon and water footprint.
A greener bra: feasible?
But back to the bra… Although elastic is unavoidable for the wings and band, and to a lesser extent the straps, there are ways to reduce the environmental impact of a bra, as my micro efforts have revealed.
My first home-made bras involved quite a bit of scavenging, or perhaps salvage sounds more attractive. As there is not that much material in a bra, I used off-cuts of fabric from other projects or cotton recovered from nightwear I have grown out of, cutting efficiently to eke out the scraps. If this approach works for an average sewer at home, imagine how it could be upscaled in an industry where fabric waste is common place and cutting skills are more developed than mine!
My salvage efforts did not stop at fabric. Although I bought some quality elastic, I recycled wires, strap sliders and eyes from worn-out bras. I even managed to recover the hook and eye fastening and some straps from a fiendishly uncomfortable bra I have hardly ever worn.
This magpie approach means my first ‘green’ bras may not win any prizes for their seductive power but they are surprisingly comfortable and thanks to decent elastic, incredibly supportive and, of course, lighter on ‘virgin materials’.
A kinder bra?
Stitching my own support has also been informative about the time, skill and effort that goes into a bra. For an amateur like me the process was enjoyable but how different the experience is for machinists churning out bras for many high street brands. I may derive satisfaction from making a bra from scratch but many clothing industry workers face long hours stitching the same couple of seams in uncomfortable working conditions for minimal pay. Ever cheaper prices, a shift from two seasons to six-weekly cycles and a lack of supply chain transparency are a breeding ground for jobs that offer little satisfaction and rarely a living wage.
So what is a girl to do if she is after an ethically produced bra (or top, skirt…)? There are alas no short cuts! Being stubborn, I dig for information on brands, production processes, certification bodies; I review data collected by campaigning organisations like Labour behind the Label(§§) and I doggedly email companies with specific questions about their sourcing policy… in the hope that retailers will realise that there is a demand for ethical garments.
Producing ‘greener’ and kinder bras undoubtedly involves challenges but technically and logistically these are no different to those for other clothing items. I suspect the real reason designers do not include bras in their sustainable offerings is linked to economics. Whilst it may be cost-effective to make four to six sizes of a dress or sweater, producing 20 to 30 bra sizes (to accommodate different back and cup sizes) is probably not financially viable until retailers can be confident that there is a demand for more sustainable bras. That day may come but in the meantime, I plan to improve my bra-making skills so I can source more of my support chez moi. And who knows, I may even succeed in making salvage alluring…
I also used up a skein of yarn that I had in stock to knit myself a hat. (I know, knitting a hat at the end of March is madness but it has been Baltic in these parts and, as my mum told me repeatedly, a lot of body heat is lost through the head!
Total coupon spend to date: 10.5
Qualifications and links
March 28, 2013 § 5 Comments
The ironies of my previous profession are not lost on me. As a committed waste avoider, I always felt a bit of a fraud having to negotiate energy from waste contracts, which rely on abundance of municipal waste. Similarly, though my job involved negotiating rights and obligations based on concession, license or property rights, I never doubted that the things that really matter have absolutely nothing to do with ownership, as two recent developments reminded me yet again.
The painful duty of a pet ‘owner’
Zoë, our affectionate moggy, has been very ill, sucking Mr M and me into a maelstrom of emotions. A preliminary examination suggested a problem in her large intestine and by the time the results of her blood tests came back, the vet thought it prudent to organise a scan and X-ray. Checking a pet into hospital for tests into a possible tumour in the colon is pretty nerve-racking at the best of times; doing so on the anniversary of mum losing her battle with bowel cancer felt like the universe was playing a sick joke on me.
Scans and X-rays turned into an endoscopy and biopsy and the days of waiting crawled by. Being a walking stereotype (i.e. childless couple dotty about our cats), we visited Zoë daily, watching her increasing disinterest in food but not in tickles or cuddles. The sadness at seeing our cat so ill and the hollow emptiness her absence left at home mingled with the agonising knowledge that at some point we might have to do the kindest thing and let her go.
As the days went by, the vets judged surgery to be the best course of action. It went well and Zoë seems to be through the risky recovery phase. We are delighted that our little companion is back home again and settling into her normal routine, which in true feline fashion revolves around food and sleeping.
Alas, we have also learnt that her cancer is aggressive. For now we are enjoying her subdued company for as long as she is comfortable and she is returning our kindness with trust and cuddles. However, we remain painfully aware that in the coming weeks or months we face the most painful duty that accompanies the privilege of being a pet ‘owner’…
Stewards of bees
It is, of course, very easy to feel responsible for the fate of a cute animal that enters the home and nestles itself into the household. But what about other animals, like the ones I may not keep?
Mr M, indulgent of many of my domestic and gardening antics, has drawn a line at a beehive in the garden, and rightly so. Having seen my ankles and wrists double in size with mosquito bites, he is taking no chances with my hyperactive immune system. Of course, I do not need to keep bees to feel a responsibility for them, which is why I, like many others, was bitterly disappointed on 15 March.
A European Union proposal for a ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides failed to muster the necessary majority. (My own government abstained despite significant public backing for the ban.) The 2-year moratorium was proposed in response to increasing scientific evidence that these systemic insecticides are contributing significantly to the decline in bee populations. With many plants and nearly three quarters of all food dependent on pollination by bees and other insects, the disappearance of bees would not just be a great loss of biodiversity, it would be a human tragedy too!
Although neonicotinoids are intended to control pests (e.g. aphids and leaf-eating beetles), they can be ingested by bees as plants often absorb the locally applied pesticide and transport it to other areas, including the flowers. Manufacturers dismiss the risk to bees and other pollinating insects on the basis that any doses ingested via pollen or nectar are sub-lethal. However, research has shown that even a tiny dose can adversely impact bees’ behaviour and that multiple sub-lethal doses accumulate in a bee’s system over time.
Many gardeners and allotment holders like myself, as well as smallholders and organic farmers, are extremely aware of our role as bee stewards. As such we not only avoid synthetic pesticides, we actively plant bee friendly flowers to feed them. However, despite us cultivating a patchwork of safe-havens, bees remain at risk from neonicotinoid poisoning as they are are not constrained by nominal boundaries, flying several miles in search of food.
The unsuccessful attempt to ban three neonicotinoid pesticides is very disappointing but fortunately it is not the end of the road. And if anything, it has fired up us bee stewards to keep the pressure on! The European Commission is appealing the decision so the ban could yet be passed. Moreover, we are not just relying on politicians to give bees a fighting chance. In the UK retailers (from large chains to small garden centres) are starting to respond to campaigners and take neonicotinotoid-containing products off the shelf. And focus is now shifting to gardening magazines with bee stewards writing to publishers about their advertising policies in respect of these pesticides.
A call to arms
The fate of a well-loved cat is extremely distressing to me, a “moggy guardian”, but even in the midst of my sadness, I am aware that the fate of anonymous bees is of much greater concern for humanity. So please join me and other stewards of bees. Grow some bee-friendly plants or the green manure phacelia; sign this petition; write to your local politician or minister of agriculture to urge your government to support the EU ban*; ask your garden centre why it is stocking any of these products; or email the publisher of your favourite gardening magazine to ask why it advertises neonicotinoids!
* This post is written from a European perspective but the issue is not limited to Europe. E.g. in the United States, beekeepers and campaigners are taking the Environmental Protection Agency to court for failing to protect pollinating bees from toxic pesticides. (New Scientist, 22 March 2013)
February 28, 2013 § 3 Comments
February has slipped away. Between a university deadline and a stubborn bout of influenza I seem to have been cloistered up at home for weeks. Last Friday, I ventured out for my first stroll into Greenwich town centre in over a month, and with a particular purpose.
I had read the sad news on Twitter. Bert & Betty, our excellent kitchen-cum-hardware store, would close down at the start of March and I wanted to thank the owner and employees for their sterling efforts.
This small double-fronted shop has been an absolute blessing. On the one hand, it answered most of my cooking and baking needs with its range of oven dishes, tins, mixing bowls and wooden spoons, saving me the frustrating trawl into the West End. On the other hand, it offered a remarkably wide range of lightbulbs, paint brushes and ironmongery, sparing me the paralysis inducing aisles of the local DIY superstores. Mostly, however, the owner and her staff were everything that high street shopkeepers should be: pleasant, helpful and quite happy to order in items they did not hold in stock.
A mixed relationship with indies
Unfortunately, the closure of gems like Bert & Betty is not unusual in these times. In the past 12 months I have seen numerous shops in Greenwich close their doors, including So Organic (a purveyor of refill cleaning products and toiletries), the clothes boutiques Babanya and Belle, Home Front and Stitches & Daughter (which offered a mix of home, garden and stationery goods) and Compendia (a seller of traditional board games). Many of these spaces are still standing empty or open for brief periods as pop-ups.
The empty shops in and around Greenwich Market are an unsettling sign of how an area changes as the economic landscape shifts. Furthermore, as some shopkeepers were familiar locals, these abandoned premises offer a very human face of a prolonged recession. But to me the forlorn interiors also have a slightly accusing air. They make me question my own role in the demise of the British high street.
I may have been a regular at Bert & Betty’s but at other independents I am an infrequent customer at best. I would pop into some of the former shops for journals, a couple of mugs, the occasional gift for a friend or a board game for Mr M’s godson. It was not as if I was taking my custom elsewhere, rather that I only shopped when a real need arose.
As for the clothes boutiques… As much as I enjoyed the quirky window displays, I rarely crossed the threshold and for various reasons. Although the style of clothes – think Helena Bonham-Carter – appealed to the more whimsical part of my nature, most garments would definitely not have flattered me. Ethical and environmental considerations made me return the more restrained items to the hangers. What is more, the items rarely seemed to offer value for money – in the real meaning of the phrase. Finally, my general desire to curb unnecessary resource consumption has turned me into a rather dull ‘sensible’ shopper: one who looks for attractive well-made staples rather than frippery or this season’s ‘must have’.
No matter how much I would like to pop down to a local shop for my smalls, dresses and shoes, the best of intentions drive me to buy clothes online. My reasons may be sound and now invariably involve independent online retailers, but that does not alter the fact that I spend my pounds outside my community.
My bookish dilemma
Books, one of my few real indulgences, raise two typical high street dilemmas: convenience and cost.
Apart from a few secondhand and remainder bookshops – of varying quality and specialisms – I am reliant on one of the last remaining bookstore chains. Admittedly the local Waterstones is better than most, with a well-stocked fiction section and decent gardening, cooking and politics departments. The staff is pleasant and does its best to order in the books on my wish list but is often stumped by my more obscure requests, leaving me with little option but to buy from Amazon.
Then there is price. Grocery shopping in independent shops is cheaper – mostly because I can buy the quantities I want. There is, however, no denying it: buying books on the high street costs more than hitting an online order button. Every time I hand over payment for books, I am aware that I am paying a price for the type of high street I want. And with large and small retailers tumbling like ninepins, I realise my defiant choices may ultimately be to no avail.
So is it worth it?
In the last few years much has been written about the future of British high streets. Policy makers and experts mull over the problems facing them as well as measures to revive them. Consultants advise shop owners about how to improve the “retail experience”. The sad vacant shops in Greenwich, however, also point a finger to us the consumers: high streets will only remain a vibrant part of our communities if we support them, especially in the hard times.
So Don Quixote like, I do what I can. I doggedly support the local grocery stores, organic shop, stationer’s and hairdresser… And whilst I may be consuming less, I have to accept the “real” price of goods if indies are to survive the cost-cutting onslaught of supermarkets and online retailers. (Not easy when inflation erodes wages and savings!)
I also actively talk to shop managers, quizzing them about the origins of their products and suggesting attractive basics they might want to stock to encourage regular footfall in constrained times. Similarly, I email preferred online suppliers details of possible local outlets. Presumptuous of me? Most definitely, but a vibrant high street that serves its community is worth the effort, and the occasional frown!