Enviro-mentalist at work.

A year ago I set my team of direct reports the goal of examining the environmental and ethical impact of our workplace. OK, it was a bit of a nebulous title, but the idea was to get them working as a team and to think of something for an hour every other week that was not directly related to their current roles and that may spark a bit of interest. Any environmental or cost savings would be an added bonus. This was a group of people that had different experiences, different roles in the site and, different levels of knowledge and interest in the environment, sounds like the perfect team!

I have to admit, that at times it has been an uphill struggle and, my idea of letting them find their own way has led to fewer results than would have been ideal in the space of a year, but, all in all I would say there have been a number of successes, and I am keen to continue the work for a second year, but with some modifications.

We work for a service provider, with sites around the country, but with only a small number of employees. We don’t make anything, so there are few benefits to be gained in terms of reduction in waste materials, and the small number of employees at each site means that the energy consumption from IT equipment is minimal. (This is particularly so when one of the machines at site uses a massive amount of electricity every time it is turned on.)

Our main issue has been the apathy of people who don’t necessarily feel that they can make a difference at work, and the management of the Company for whom this does not seem to be a priority. Our main mistake has been that we did not start out creating the right kind of PR so did not counter the apathy and get others’ buy in at an early stage.

Over the coming weeks I will let you know how we have progressed, what has worked, and what has not and, hopefully, if any of you have any suggestions then you will let me know. I will be detailing our site surveys by external agencies, our attempts at recycling, our progress on energy usage and the payback we are hoping to get from our efforts.

If you have had any experience attempting to improve the environmental credentials of your workplace please leave a comment to let us all know how well it has been received and whether you feel that you are making a difference.

It’s not easy being green, but it can be interesting.

I have written before about how frustrating and confusing it can be trying to reduce food miles.  It is not that things are not labelled well, I find Waitrose always have the country of origin stated in an obvious position.  It relates more to the question of what is in season, and is it better to buy British food which may have been grown in a heated greenhouse (which is not always obvious) or to buy imports from Spain where the weather is better for growing things such as peppers?

So, in order to combat this dilemma, we try to buy what is in season.  There are some places I can go to get help – I have Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, and Monty Don’s Fork to Fork (and there are some things I try to grow myself so I have an idea what is in season for part of the year).  Other things are just obvious – if it is not June or July then the chances are the strawberries are not free range, ripened naturally in a British field, but are imported or grown under glass.

This year we have discovered two new (to us) vegetables.  The first was Savoy Cabbage.  I know this is not knew to most people, but James has had a deep mistrust of anything resembling cooked cabbage for as long as I have known him, and I had a childhood where cabbage tended to be spring cabbage and by the time it was boiled to death then it resembled seaweed.  Not that I minded, I did not have well developed taste buds at that time.  Anyway, following advice from James’s mum we bought our first cabbage and have become firm advocates of the joy of bubble & squeak.  Ours usually involves bacon or sausage if there are any left over (although it is just as nice as a vegetarian meal) with the green part of a leek and some boiled potatoes mashed in.  Lovely!

The second is a more recent discovery and is about to go out of season I think.  This is celeriac.  As you would expect it does taste like celery, but is of a very different texture and much milder.  We have used it in risottos, ribollita and casserole so far, as well as mashing it with potatoes.  It tends to lift the risotto and the mashed potato, making them lighter.

Our next aim is to venture into the world of beetroot  – any recipe suggestions welcomed.

Ethical Shopping on the High Street?

An article in the Times last week detailed a survey of the buying habits of ‘the country’s “green” consumers’. In this survey Primark had been voted Britain’s least ethical clothing retailer. This is obviously a backlash against the recent Panorama investigation which exposed the use of child labour. As many of you know this resulted in many people losing their income as Primark took its business elsewhere (although we do not know how ‘ethical’ the new supplier is). Many have argued that a more responsible action would have been to work with the supplier to correct the problem.

At the top of the table is Marks & Spencer who have apparently had lots of good publicity about their ethical policies (publicity and policies which have passed me by). These include a clothes recycling initiative with Oxfam where a £5 M&S voucher is given to those who donate clothing to the charity with at least one M&S garment.

According to the same survey the most important concern of these shoppers with regard to clothing was the fair treatment of workers in developing countries. I was surprised by this as it appears to be several times more important than sourcing products in the UK or investing in the communities in which the store is located. We are apparently ethical, but we also want things to be cheap. Besides, who cares about local jobs and communities these days, or the carbon footprint of the things we buy (maybe it should be printed on the label like nutritional information on food). Maybe, in such difficult times we should champion the Buy British campaign again.

Still, surely all this ethical shopping and concern for the low paid of the developing countries must be good news. Indeed it should be, but the financial results released last week would appear to paint a different picture of Britain’s consumer habits.

In an interesting coincidence the results for M&S and Primark came out on the same day. Sales at M&S in these depressed times are not good, Twiggy may be for the chop! However, business at ‘unethical’ Primark is positively booming. M&S has reported a 34% fall in profits, whereas Primark had a whacking rise in profits of 17%. Where does this leave us? Sadly, with the stark realisation that we ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ consumers are in the minority. Were we ever likely to shop at Primark? I tend to find that those who do are usually more interested in getting as much as they can for as cheap as they can and usually don’t read the label. At a time when it thought that people may be buying less, I am afraid they are buying the same amount, only cheaper.

As I stated earlier, M&S’s ethical stance had passed me by (apart from being able to buy a limited range of fair trade clothing). So, where do you go for ethical clothing, and, just as importantly, who do you avoid. This information is not easy to come by. I have tried searching the internet, but I do not want to buy organic soap and other so-called ethical gifts. The reports that I could find are several years old and things may have changed. Even campaign groups such as Labour Behind the Label do not have easy to find information on their website.

There are companies out there, some of them only small at the moment (e.g. Bamboo Clothing) and usually not with outlets on the high street. You do have to search for them, but surely, it is worth the effort?