Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Shopping lists

I'm terrible - I never write a shopping list. I just bumble around the shops, making it up as I go along. The consequence of this is that (a) I waste food, buying stuff I never get round to using, and (b) I forget to buy things that I need, and have to go back to shops. Over the last few years, I've got around the second problem by just popping to supermarkets to pick up whatever I need at the last minute. However, that option is now no longer there, and I've noticed in the last few weeks that I've found myself without things I've needed on a couple of occasions, and ended up either eating an odd combination of food, or scouring local shops in the hope that they stock what I need.

I'm trying to change my food habits at the moment, focusing on:
1) Eating more seasonally.
2) Eating less meat, and also eating some of the less "desirable" cuts of meat that we often shun.
3) Wasting less, both in terms of food waste, and packaging waste.
4) Sourcing from local shops

All these things mean that I need to plan more about what I'm going to eat, and do a proper weekly shop to enable me to get to the shops that will help me achieve the above. Whilst I have some local shops very close to me, they don't fit with some of the other criteria, and whilst I will undoubtedly still end up using them, I would like to get as close as I can with a majority of the food.

I'm hoping the eating more seasonally will be helped by my UK sourced veg box, which is arriving on Thursday. I've been online and checked the expected contents of the box, so I have an idea what to expect, and planned the rest of my food around it.

I've also checked my fridge and cupboard, so I have an idea what I have in that needs eating, therefore reducing waste. I have a mass of mushrooms and some sour cream (left over from the weekend). I'm therefore planning to get some liver from the butchers and make a stroganoff style dish. Liver is an overlooked ingredient, which will also help with my iron levels as I struggle already with anaemia and don't want it to get worse with reducing my meat intake.

I'm due to get beetroot with my veg box, and that instantly in my head gets combined with some feta on a salad, with the rest of the feta going well with some squash (from the veg box) and some lentils (from my cupboard) for another meal. Added to some soup ingredients (for my lunches at work) and a bit of stewing steak (as I'm expecting to cook for a gluten/dairy free friend at some point in the week) and I'm just about there.

I've realised it's probably a good idea to have a proper idea of what I have in the fridge and the cupboard, and also a running shopping list that I can add to during the week, so I've started these on Evernote (which is a list making program that syncs between my phone and computer - yes, I realise this is very geeky), and planned in a bit of time at the weekend to properly sort out my food cupboard and see what's in there.

So that's the plan. We shall see how well it works in practice...

Weekly update #2

Yes, the weekly update is back. A bit quiet this week, but still there.

- Money moving - I've been meaning to move my bank account to a more ethical bank for years (I've always been with Natwest), but still haven't done it. Occupy Bristol encouraged people to do it at the end of last year, and their campaign has now spread into Move Your Money month, which will take place in March. And so that's when I'm going to move my money. I need to do some more research to decide where I'm moving to, but at least I have a time frame now...

- Useful tool - This tool lets you look at your journey and work out whether it's better to go by train, car or coach. It surprised me that the coach was better than the train, as is a car with 5 passengers. I'm going to do a bit more research into the figures they use though.

- The car saga continues - Turns out my car isn't dead. So car sharing is off the agenda immediately, but I'm going to look into it again once I've moved house (since I'll be sorting things like insurance changes there anyway). What the whole thing has made me do is loosen my emotional attachment to my car - a few months ago I would have been very precious about anyone else driving it, and now it seems like a fairly easy step. I've also ridden my bike a lot more over the last couple of weeks when I didn't have access to my car, even doing a couple of journeys by bike that I would have previously driven. So I'm definitely going to try and consider cycling journeys like those rather than driving in the future...

- Milk follows chicken - A few years ago, my friend Em took me to an organic dairy to learn how to milk cows (it's a long story). The whole experience really stuck with me - the cows were so happy and well looked after that it made a real impression on me, and one that contradicts a lot of evidence I've seen about a lot of large scale dairy farming. Added to that, research has now shown it's better for you. I've recently discovered that a local corner shop sells organic milk, so I now have no excuse for not buying it. So only buying organic milk follows the free-range chicken commitment.

- Supermarketless life - I'm still managing ok (apart from the issue with feeding 30 people at the weekend). I've hit my first couple of problematic areas though, and one really surprised me - wine. Turns out most of the wine I buy comes from the supermarket - in fact, my favourite red wine is a Tesco Finest wine. There's so few decent off licenses around that I've been buying fairly average wine from my corner shop. I think this might call for some further investigating...

- Boxes of vegetables - I've ordered my first veg box, and it's arriving on Thursday. Exciting times!

Monday, 23 January 2012

The vegetable conundrum

I’ve been meaning to start getting a weekly organic veg box for quite a long time. The fact that I don’t currently get one is a great illustration of why I’m doing this project – lots of good intentions, but little action.

For the vegetables I eat, there are a number of things that are important to me – sourcing from a local independent shop, eating produce that is grown locally, eating organic produce where possible, and also trying to eat as seasonally as I can. The last one is especially important. We have lost touch with the growing seasons in this country, as we can go to the supermarket and buy strawberries in January and pumpkins in July. This means that even if these products are grown in the UK, they are often grown in energy intensive greenhouses, or imported from abroad.

Now, there are some good fruit and vegetable shops about 15 minutes walk from where I live (ticking the local supplier), but the produce is often (a) not organic, (b) not locally sourced and (c) not seasonal.

Another option is a nearby organic “supermarket”, but some of the produce is organic produce imported from abroad, and quite frankly, it can get a bit pricey.

An organic veg box seems like a good solution. Because your box contains whatever is harvested that week, it is usually cheaper than organic food from a shop. But a quick browse of the local schemes revealed that there were still a mountain of different options and a number of decisions to make. A quick search revealed five local schemes, each offering between 1 and 14 different boxes. That’s a lot of choice.

So how to narrow it down. Well, one box had come with a bad report from a friend as to the quality of the produce. So that one was out. Another didn’t have a size and variety option that appealed, and so that one was out.

So down to three options. One of them is Riverford, a large and well established veg box scheme that runs across the whole of the UK. They have four farms across the UK, and about 78% of their produce comes from the UK with the rest imported. Whilst the reputation and selection was excellent, I was a little dissuaded by the distance that the food travels from the farm and the amount of imported food, and so have ruled it out for not.

So two options left.

One is The Community Farm, located between Bristol and Bath, which is a community owned farm (as suggested by the name). Bonus points for supporting an enterprise that I would like to encourage. Specifically of interest is the small Gert British box, which is filled with 100% British produce.

The other option is to join the Simms Hill Community Supported Agriculture scheme. Again, bonus points for being a CSA, which I'd like to support. It works out slightly more expensive, but the food is grown really locally (a few miles from my house). Rather than deliver, they have local drop off points from where you collect your box. However, you have to become a member to get a vegetable box, and as it's such a fledgling scheme, I'd not want to do that without being fully committed.

I’ve never had a proper veg box before (excluding a few sporadic forays into the Riverford boxes a few years ago), and so in all honest, I’m not sure how it’ll work out. So I’d really like to be able to try it for a few months without any great commitment. For this, The Community Farm box seems more ideal. And then, if I find that it works for me, I’ll contemplate switching to Simms Hill, especially if I can persuade my future housemates to join in with me.

So the source is chosen, now I just need to place the order...

Weekly update #1

I've decided to start doing weekly updates on my progress. I'm going to keep writing longer blog posts on specific things that I come across and research, but this seems like a good way of updating on the little things.

- Interesting discover - I found this seasonal food chart - It makes me realise how pretty much everything I eat is out of season. Something to aspire to...

- This week I have been mostly reading - Hungry City by Carolyn Steel - a book about how food and cities have developed, and the integral relationship between the two, including a lot of fascinating history. I'm only halfway through, but highly recommended so far.

- Behaviour change - Following reading the start of Not On The Label by Felicity Lawrence, and watching the first half of Food, Inc, I'm properly committing to no longer eating chicken that isn't free range (and preferably organic). I pretty much do this anyway, but I want to make this a concrete decision.

- Topical question of the week - Is it rude to ask the origins of meat in a restaurant? If I'm going to commit to only buying, for example, free range chicken at home (see above), surely I should apply the same standards to food I eat out. In which case, is it ok to enquire when I'm at a restaurant?

- Supermarketless life update - So far so good. It's definitely involving more planning and creativity already though - I never used to think much in advance about what I was eating, opting to let the supermarket provide me with whatever I happened to fancy. Now I find I have to think more in advance about what I'm going to eat that week and make sure I have anything I can't get after work at the weekend.

- Disclaimer to the above - there has been a slight concession to the supermarket boycott. I'm going away this weekend with 30 friends, and it's self catering. We're already tight on car space, and are staying quite a way from the nearest town (which isn't massive) - an online supermarket shop is the only way we could get enough food in given the time and money constraints. Not ideal, but I feel it's a valid exception and will definitely not be a regular occurrence!

- Positive purchase - I bought an album this week, as a digital download straight from the independent record label. And best of all, it actually cost less than it would have done from on Amazon mp3 (which is where I would have previously got it from).

- Wasn't on the agenda - My car may have died. I'm currently awaiting a second opinion, but it's definitely bringing the question of car sharing further up the agenda. I put a plea out on facebook and the freeconomy website for people interested in car shares, and have a bunch of possible people to follow it up with.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A farewell to supermarkets...

My name is Steph, and it’s been 5 days since I last set foot in a Supermarket. And hopefully it’ll be many more days until I set foot in one again. Giving up Supermarkets was high on my agenda, right from the start of this project, but the actual giving up was a bit unplanned. To the point that I haven’t had a chance to do any planning, get down to the local shops and buy a weeks worth of food. So this week has seen me eating a rather bizarre selection of food, but I’m managing without too many issues so far, and hopefully with a bit more planning this will get easier.

When I was growing up, pretty much all the food we ate came from supermarkets. For a long time, our local supermarket (and I say “local” with a pinch of salt, as it was a 20 minute drive), was Sainsburys, and my Mum would do a weekly shop there. Then a Tesco opened closer (a mere 15 minute drive away) and in a more convenient location, and so the weekly shop shifted.

To set the scene, my parents live in a small village. There is a village shop, but it can provide little more than a pint of milk and some stamps. The nearest town is a 10 minute drive away (with the Tesco being situated on the far side of this town). I don’t remember there being much of a local food shop network before Tesco moved in, but there definitely isn’t one now. I believe the last remaining fruit and vegetable shop has closed, and I’m not sure if there’s a surviving butcher. So where my parents live, there isn’t much option beyond a Supermarket (although I should point out my parents do grow some of their own vegetables).

And I’d class myself as one of the Supermarket generation. That’s the way I was brought up to shop – all my food and other household (and beyond) needs, conveniently located under one large flat metal roof. Why waste time visiting so many small independent shops when you can make one stop and get everything at once.

I have a confession – at times I have quite enjoyed the “Supermarket experience”. I love to cook, and being bombarded with options and colours and flavours makes that side of me tick. Not sure what to have for dinner? A quick browse round the supermarket throws up options of thai curries, roast chickens, stir frys, fajitas and lasagne. The choice is overwhelming.

And overwhelming is the word. We’ve got so used to having what we want, when we want it. How often have you left the Supermarket, feeling dismayed that they had run out of a particular item, like it was a fundamental human right that you should be able to buy ripe bananas whenever you wish.

Over the last year or so, my supermarket shopping self has become a lot more cynical. The way it is laid out to make you part with as much money as possible, with the milk and bread (the most common items you might just “pop in” for) located at the back of the store. The way the aisles are moved around to make it harder to find what you’re looking for. The big signs promoting bargains on items you didn’t know you wanted. Almost every time I go into a supermarket, I leave with at least one item I didn’t mean to buy, and frequently I pop in for a few things and come out with several bags of things, many of which I didn’t really need.

To me, the Supermarket appeals to our time saving convenience loving nature, but also feeds our consumerism focused lifestyle. Its aim is not to provide us with the best possible produce available, it’s to make us buy more stuff and turn a profit for the shareholders.

For months, I’ve been resenting my trips to supermarkets, but lacking the kick I needed to actually say “no more!”. Well, I’ve done it now, and (hopefully) there’s no going back.

So why have I given up supermarkets? Here are some of my thoughts at the moment...

  1. The Monopoly. 1 in every 7 pounds spent in the UK is spent in Tesco. When you add to this that three quarters of food bought is from one of the major 4 supermarkets (from The Rough Guide to Ethical Living), you get an idea of what a monopoly they have. 
  2. The Local Damage. I think we’ve all seen local business after local business go out of business over the past decade, to the point that many people have no option other than shopping at the supermarkets. The convenience and potential cost savings are sufficient to sway a lot of people to move their shopping under one single brightly lit roof, rather than buying items from more specialised shops. This means that a lot of businesses such as butchers, bakers and greengrocers are being forced to close their business as they cannot compete with the supermarkets. I appreciate that I’m very lucky to live somewhere that still retains a good selection of local shops, and therefore I feel it’s even more important that I support them and buy from them, in an attempt to help them continue. 
  3. The Farmers. The purchasing power that the supermarkets yield allow them to dictate the price and terms of produce, sometimes to the point of making it no longer economically viable for farmers to continue. A lot of the risk is placed in the lap of the grower and supermarkets may change their mind at the last minute leaving farmers with a surplus that they are forced to sell for low prices in dump markets. Added to this, the supermarkets strict aesthetic standards leads to a massive amount of food waste, with farmers unable to sell misshapen or imperfect produce. 
  4. The Experience. When I go into my cornershop, I get a smile and an enquiry as to my wellbeing. A trip to the Italian shop down the road involves being served by a series of slightly grumpy but familiar old Italian men. I always get served by the same man in the butchers. In Tesco, I could get served by any of several hundred employees, who are serving people at the fastest rate possible, in order to maintain the lowest number of employees and therefore make the greatest profit. In short, the experience of shopping at shops other than supermarkets is so much nicer. I love the slower pace of the shopping experience, and I like knowing the people I buy food from, which is something I’m hoping will continue over the coming year. 
  5. The Quality. I remember the first time I ate carrots grown in my Mum’s garden. They tasted unlike any carrots I’d ever tasted from the supermarket. And this goes for so many things – meat, fruit, bread. And yes, there can be some sacrifices – bread goes staler quicker for example, but there’s something slightly terrifying about being able to buy a loaf of bread that’s still soft and fresh 10 days after you open it. And I’m not saying that all food bought outside of a supermarket is of better quality – this is far from true. But it can certainly be better, and full of less preservatives and chemicals. 

So no more popping into Tesco or browsing in Sainsburys, but I have a feeling that the reality of this is going to be a lot harder than it sounds...

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sustainable food...

I found this "sustainable food mantra" on the Tom's Feast website, and it summarises so much of what I've been thinking about food (and says it so much better than I could)...

"Buy Local – Not just from a local grocery but check where the ingredients themselves have been grown. This cuts down on food miles, storage, processing and packaging.

Provenance – If your shop can provide you with the origins of their produce they will be able to provide you with information as to how it was farmed and how far it has travelled.

Seasonal – The energy that was used to grow the food ie. grown in poly tunnels as a pose to hydroponically or transported from another country

Organic and GM free – Natural farming methods have a positive impact on the soil, through organic farming methods soil can be kept fertile without the use of fertilizers that strip the soil of its goodness.

Thrift – Use every last morsel of food that you buy, keep leftovers, ask for a doggy bag, be imaginative with ingredients…. leftover soup, stocks and trimmings.

Say no to packaging – Buy products that have no unnecessary packaging. This uses resources unnecessarily.

Boycott supermarkets – Supermarkets produce a huge amount of waste at all levels of production, where possible buy direct from farmers markets and grocery stores."

More specific details to come, but this is the basic list of ideals I'll be working towards...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The analysis...

It’s mid January and my two weeks of monitoring my consumption are over, and I’ve spent a bit of time analysing the results.

In two weeks, I’ve spent about £180. That doesn’t include any of the one off annual costs I make, or things like rent and bills. That’s just what has come out of my wallet over the period of a fortnight. It’s about what I expected to be honest – there have been some big costs (a couple of pieces of clothing, which I don’t buy very often), but a lot of it is basic stuff like food and socialising.

So how does it break down?

Well, about £50 of it was food (not including eating out), and this is actually slightly less than I expected. I’ve been cooked for a few times over the last couple of weeks, and started it off with a few things already in the fridge. A good chunk of it was on “socialising” – going to the pub, buying a bottle of wine when going round to someone’s house, purchasing gig tickets. This comes in third under food (and clothes, thanks to buying a new pair of jeans) as the largest expenditure.

What surprised me most was the food and drink in cafes section. £16 in two weeks. Now, about a quarter of that was buying lunch a few times at work after I didn’t have anything to take from home. However, that is still higher than I expected. Although, ironically, I would say that writing this book is partly to blame, as most of the times that I’ve been in a cafe over the last couple of weeks has been in order to write. I’ve found from past experience of writing and working from home for a job that I just don’t work well at home, and I’m much more productive if I’m out of the house. And bizarrely, I find busy, noisy cafes to be the best place to go. So this has a certain impact on my finances, as I tend to buy at least one, and usually two drinks during the time that I’m there. However I’m not feeling too guilty about this as I tend to favour my favourite cafe – a local cooperatively run vegan cafe – where I’m more than happy to spend my money and support.

Another interesting way to look at the my fortnights expenditure is in terms of local or independent businesses versus chains/multinationals. The breakdown is £100 to chains, £80 to local businesses. This is slightly skewed by the £40 of clothes all having come from chain stores, but all my eating out and cafe expenditure was to local businesses.

What is interesting is that whilst I made as many trips to local food shops as I did to supermarkets over the last two weeks, I spent more than twice as much at supermarkets as I did at the local shops, reflecting the fact that I tend to favour supermarkets for major shops, and use my local shops to pick up the odd item I need here and there.

It also inspired me to sit down and do an annual budget, looking at all those costs that I make once a month or year, and work them all out on a weekly basis. And that really is surprising.

Top of the list is bills. And that’s mostly due to rent, which is a fairly significant cost. So for the time being, I’m going to exclude that from the category and give it a whole category for itself.

What surprised me was that travel is top. This includes my annual car costs, petrol, train and coach, and bike maintenance. It is a little difficult to tell, as because I use my car a lot for work, I get money back from expenses. So taking this into account, travel slips into second place behind entertainment (but above food!), so I’m still pretty surprised by how much of my budget is taken up by it. And what surprised me most is the size of my annual car costs. Excluding petrol, my insurance, tax, mot, servicing and breakdown cover comes in just under £22 a week. Suddenly car sharing seems a lot more appealing. Equally surprising is that other costs come in at £15 – so that’s bike maintenance (very small cost), coach and train tickets. This is a mix of train tickets heading round the country to see friends, train tickets when I go home to see my family, and coach tickets to go to London. I tend to favour the coach when going to London due to the price, but otherwise stick with the train due to the comfort and time improvements over long distances. And while I might only go away once or twice a month, the cost of this really adds up...

What also shocked me also is that entertainment is above food. I put eating out under food rather than entertainment, but decided cafes came under entertainment (as I usually only drink there, rather than eat food). The combined cost of gigs, pub trips, cups of coffee, film processing, cinema trips and other things all added up to more than I thought.

In fact, lets break it down by percentage (after taking out work related travel for which I get expenses)...

Food – 13.2%

Bills – 4.8%

Rent – 28.7%

Toiletries and household items – 2.8%

Clothes & shoes – 3.8%

Transport – 13.7%

Holidays – 4.4%

Entertainment – 15.7%

Other – 12.2% (of which significant costs are Gym - 2.44%, Present – 1.74%, Furniture/electrical goods – 2.54%)

So now, I know where I'm currently at, I'd better get started on making some changes...

The categories...

I've spent a couple of weeks monitoring my spending, and several hours pouring over my online bank statements to find out where I spend my money and have come up with the following list of categories (feel free to point out any I've missed...).

  • Food 
    • Cooking 
    • Eating out 
  • Bills 
    • Gas/electricity 
    • Rent 
    • Water 
    • Council tax 
    • Water 
    • TV license 
    • Broadband 
    • Mobile Phone 
    • Contents Insurance 
  • Toiletries 
  • Household items 
    • Cleaning 
    • Loo roll 
  • Clothes & shoes 
  • Transport 
    • Coach 
    • Train 
    • Bus 
    • Bike repairs 
    • Car insurance 
    • Car Tax 
    • MOT/Servicing 
    • Breakdown cover 
    • Petrol 
  • Holidays 
    • Annual holiday
    • Weekend breaks 
    • Festivals 
  • Entertainment 
    • Gigs 
    • CDs 
    • Books 
    • Film/processing 
    • Cafes 
    • Pubs/bars 
    • Drinks at home
    • Events 
  • Other 
    • Presents 
    • Gym 
    • Consumer electronics 
    • Dentist 
    • Prescriptions 
    • Haircuts 
    • Furniture/art

Monday, 9 January 2012

Rethinking things...

Yesterday I posted on my blog the previous entry about Spotify and music. I had about half an hour of thinking I was making some progress, before my friend Dave very kindly (and gently) pointed out that my earnestness regarding supporting musicians might not match up with my previous point about the wonders of libraries and second hand bookshops.

The moment that he pointed this out, my heart dropped and my stomach tightened. So far it had all been going fairly swimmingly. Mostly because I haven’t yet made any changes or stated much of an opinion. In fact, this is the first time I’d written about something I was planning on doing.

And yet alongside the sinking feeling was a feeling of excitement. For this was exactly why I’d started a blog and encouraged people to read it. Because I don’t want to make unbalanced decisions and miss things. I have opinionated friends who aren’t afraid to question things, and that’s one of my greatest resources.

As a result, I’ve spent much of today thinking about this point, and felt much more inspired about the whole project. This is what it’s about – the wrestling with decisions – the thinking I’m right when actually I’m wrong.

So here are a few follow up thoughts. Buying music and books has some overlap, but also many differences. To me, there are three main aspects of both decisions:

o Environmental impact

o Where the music/book is bought from

o Contribution to the artist/author

In many ways it came down to something I said at the start of the project – each time you make a decision, your values come into play. For books, I’d probably place a higher value on the environmental impact than the contribution to the artist because that’s my particular passion in this instance – I simply don’t see the need for millions of identical books to sit on dusty bookshelves across the country.

For music, as I only listen to music digitally (i.e. downloads versus Spotify), the next highest value is the artist revenue. I’d like as much to go to the artist as possible, and avoid sourcing it from somewhere where an online merchant takes a huge chunk of the price. If I’m buying a physical CD (possibly as a present), then I’m going to try to use an independent record store

Book wise, I believe an author receives approximately 80p from the sale of a paperback book (note – this isn’t a scientifically researched figure – just one I read in an article today). For books, I’d aim to buy new books from an independent bookshop (if such a thing exists in Bristol). I do definitely think there’s a place for new books - an author I might want to support, a book I really want to read, a book not available second hand – but I also see the environmental value in second hand books and libraries. So the question is, how can I do this best?

Libraries appear to be in the clear in this respect, thanks to the Public Lending Rate – this gives an author just over 6 pence per lending. This might seem a lot less than the 80p they receive from a book sale, but you have to consider how many times that book might be lent during its lifetime, and how many more people might read it that wouldn’t have shelled out for the book.

Which brings me onto second hand books. I’d definitely aim to source them from a second hand bookshop or charity shop, but avoid other second hand routes like Amazon Marketplace. Another thing that has become more common is an author setting up an online “tip jar” (via something like paypal) for readers who want to contribute. I like this idea, and I’ll try to look up authors of second hand books I buy in order to see if they have this – if so, I’d gladly pass on a quid to make up for not having bought it new. I would also very much welcome this becoming more widespread or easy to do, as I would like to be able to support authors whilst still doing what I think is an environmentally positive thing.

Added to that, if I buy a book second hand and like it, I may buy a copy for someone or buy another book by the same author, which in turn will benefit the author.

So it’s not a perfect answer by any means, but I don’t see that there’s currently a way to completely marry my environmental views and still create revenue for the authors.


Oh and I thought I’d finish with a quote by Neil Gaiman on second hand books

“In the big scheme of things I'd rather have the books in motion. I'd rather the books were owned and loved than sitting on a shelf in a bookshop”.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The source of all music...

A few days ago I posted a question on my facebook page about whether Spotify was a good thing for musicians or not. This was following (a) my frustration with the spotify adverts leading me to contemplate paying for a £5 a month subscription and (b) finding this link about how much artists earn from different sources.

A whole realm of responses came back, with vastly differing opinions, and it's spilled over into a number of face to face discussions since. And I'm still confused.

The quandary is this. I like music, but I find it difficult to discover new music. Recommendations sometimes come from friends, but I am yet to find a radio station that suits my taste and doesn't annoy me with their DJs or adverts. So I need some other source of listening to new music.

A friend summarised the options as (a) illegally downloading the music (b) using a streaming tool such as Spotify or (c) buying a lot of music I've not really heard in the hope I might like it.

Sadly option (c) isn't financially viable at the moment. Which leaves (a) and (b). Initial research suggests that artists get very little money from Spotify streams. Assuming the average figure from the Information is Beautiful link above, an artist gets £0.00019 from a track play. If I listen to one album (containing 12 tracks) a day, in a 30 day month, 6.8p will be paid to artists. Which seems like a pitifully small amount of money from a subscription that I'm paying £5 for. Even if I listened to 10 albums a day (unlikely...), that's still less than £1 a month that reaches the artist.

One of the main criticisms I hear about the illegal downloading of music is that it rips off artists and damages the music industry. Looking at these figures, I'm not sure that Spotify is any better for the artist in terms of revenue.

I guess the advantage of tools like Spotify is that it's a good way for artists to get their music heard and increase their exposure, and that's why artists have their music on there. Out of the bands I've discovered over the last year, I wouldn't have listened to a lot of them without a tool like Spotify. Whilst most bands have a myspace or samples on their website, it's undeniable that it's a lot easier when all the music is in one place.

And once I've discovered a new band, I'm far more likely to go and see them live (presuming they tour near where I live), which is a very good way to financially support a band, so I guess that's an indirect revenue that they receive. And for me, seeing a live performance is how music supposed to be heard.

The summary of my findings is that I'm not convinced by either side of the argument. I've decided for the time being that I'm not going to pay for a Spotify subscription. I'll grit my teeth and put up with the adverts. Instead, I'll put that £5 towards buying a legal download of some music, where a reasonable amount of that money will actually reach the artist*. In fact, I might use the fact that Spotify stops you listening to a song more than 5 times as a guide to which music I should be buying...

*That being said, the Information is Beautiful graph also shows that there is a massive difference between revenue received by the artist depending on where you buy the music from. So where possible, I'll source it directly from the artist to ensure they get the largest cut of my money possible.

The reading list...

So I've started doing some reading in preparation for the next 12 months, and my bookshelves are bulging. This is what my reading list contains so far...

  • The Story of Stuff - Film and book
  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold - Film
  • No Logo - Book
  • The Savvy Shopper - Book
  • Not on the Label - Book
  • The Good Shopping Guide - Book
  • Ethical consumer - Online subscription
  • Food, Inc - Film
  • The No-Nonsense Guide to Fairtrade/Globalisation - Book
  • Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping - Book
  • The Moneyless Man - Book
  • The Rough Guide to Ethical Living - Book
  • Sacred Economics - Book
  • Enough - Breaking Free from the World of Excess - Book
  • Hungry City - Book
  • Time to Eat the Dog - The Real Guide to Sustainable Living - Book
  • Waste - Uncovering the Global Food Scandal - Book
  • The Corporation - Book/Film
  • Cradle to Cradle - Book
Any suggestions for other things I should read?

All quiet on the blogging front...

It's been a bit of a quiet couple of days on the blogging front. I've been busy making HobNobs and hanging luggage tags from trees, but now both of those projects are done, I'm hoping to have more time to do some writing.

I've been keeping a record of everything I spend too, and will do some analysis of it next weekend - until then I'm just doing a lot of reading and discussing things with friends - from whether Spotify is a good thing, to the ethics of importing wine, to where I should buy my milk from.

More to come over the coming days...

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The rediscovery of the library...

I love books. I have two bookshelves bursting with them, and I’d struggle to get rid of any (my friends often use my collection as a library). Each book is laced with memories and often an intention of lending it to someone I know. But I rarely buy them new, partly because my budget couldn’t keep up with my speed of reading if I bought them all new, but also because there are so many books already in circulation that it seems like a waste to buy a new one.

Most of my books come from charity shops or second hand bookshops. I much prefer shopping for books there, finding the smaller choice means that I pick books I may not have otherwise read. Admittedly, it can be frustrating if you’re looking for a particular book, but some of my best discoveries of new authors and favourite books have been the result of an impulse £2 purchase.

When I started this project, I quickly realised that I was going to have to do quite a lot of research. And while some research can be done online (my preferred method, as I don’t have to move from behind my laptop), I soon found that I needed to read some books. Quite a lot of books in fact.

It struck me at this point that purchasing a lot of books in order to research a book on consumerism might be a touch ironic, and so I set about pursuing other options.

The first was to visit my local second hand book shop. I emerged, clutching two promising looking books on food. Not bad, and the money was going to support a worthy charity. But upon revisiting the same shop a month later, the stock was looking pretty unchanged, and I realised that whilst I might occasionally stumble upon an interesting book on the shelves of second hand and charity shops, I wouldn’t find all the books I wanted upon their dusty shelves. And the wish list was getting longer by the day.

Option two then beckoned – the friendship library. I have a great bunch of friends who are interested in similar things. A quick query on facebook led to a couple of friends offering to lend me some of the books on my list. That’s a few ticked off, but what about the rest?

This bothered me for some time. And then over lunch one day, a friend pointed out the glaringly obvious solution – how about the library?

Crikey. I can’t remember the last time I borrowed a book from the library, but I’m fairly sure that it was in some effort to impress the cute Irish guy who worked in the local library at University. Later that day, a quick internet search revealed an online catalogue. A few searches showed that every single book I wanted was in their catalogue, and even if it wasn’t available at the central library, it could be reserved and transferred for the measly cost of 60p. And best of all, I can collect them from the local library that’s about 2 minutes walk from work. All I have to do is wait for the email telling me they’ve arrived, and then pop down and collect it. Not only can I reserve and renew books online, I can even join from the comfort of my sofa. Problem solved.

So now I’ve got a stack of exciting books ready for my perusal, I just need to find the time to read them...

(Admittedly, it probably isn’t going to stop me buying second hand books, but I probably will use it if there’s a specific fiction book that I want to read, instead of popping onto Amazon and clicking the “buy it now” button. )

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Consumerist tendencies...

Today I witnessed my inner consumerist tendencies in full force. In the spirit of working out my current position, I let this tendency roll rather than halt it at the first sign and observed it.

I needed a new pair of jeans. And by needed, I mean *really* needed. One of my two pairs died a death at the weekend (in an unrepairable manner) and the other have about a fortnight left in them before succumbing to the same fate. So a new pair of jeans were definitely on the "need" rather than "want" list. Plus one deconsumerism point for distinguishing between need and want.

Due to me not really liking clothes shopping, the chosen time for this was after work, to try to minimise the amount of people present during my shopping trip. I thought it was going to be a quick one shop trip. However, the first shop didn't have my size. In the time it took me to discover this, I tried on 6 pieces of clothing (none of them jeans - minus one deconsumerism point) and bought one top. It's really lovely and was a complete bargain at 60% off (or that's what I told myself). Minus one deconsumerism point.

Onto the second shop, where I tried on 2 pairs of jeans and 4 non jean items. Minus one deconsumerism point. I did however buy just the pair of jeans. Plus one deconsumerism point. I then went into the jewellery section and spend about 5 minutes looking for something that I liked that was reduced. I didn't buy anything, but still, minus one deconsumerism point.

And then I walked further into town on my way home. I promise you that if at least two other shops had been open, I would have gone in. And why? To find that elusive thing known as a bargain. Minus many deconsumerism points.

All the shops at this time of year have sales on. Racks upon racks of clothes that they're trying to sell to make room for the next season's stocks, usually at least 50% and often more off the original price. Things we wouldn't have bought at the original price, or couldn't justify spending that amount of money on suddenly find their way into our bags, and you can easily spend far more money on several items that you didn't really want than one item you did. But because they were a bargain, it seems ok.

And the question of why shops have so many items left over is brought into question. Fashion changes at such a high speed, and many of the items simply don't sell. Added to that, many more items are stocked than are needed, because a potential sale might be missed if the correct size is not in stock at that particular moment. Here we witness the result of our demand for immediate retail satisfaction. As a result of this, over a week after the sales started, most shops are still overloaded with sale items, which will presumably be disposed of if not sold shortly, which is hardly a sustainable solution.

In hindsight, I would have bought the top I bought at full price, because it's really really nice. And I guess that's possibly a question to ask myself when buying clothes in future. And whilst I don't "need" it in the sense of not having any clothes to wear, I will wear it a lot, it won't go out of fashion, and I don't have anything like it already. But it did come from a high street store that scores just 8.5 out of 20 on the ethical consumer "ethiscore" scale...

So it was an interesting experience, and one that raises a lot of questions about how I should approach clothes shopping in the future. I'm not sure banning any kind of unplanned purchase is the answer - many of my favourite and most worn items were unplanned purchases, but it's clear that the bargain hunting consumer needs to be held in check somehow...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Depressing statistic of the day...

Apparently 1 out of every 3 meals eaten in Britain is a ready meal.

(I'm currently reading Hungry City by Carolyn Steel)

Ethical Consumer

One of my favourite Christmas presents was from my sister, who bought me a subscription to Ethical Consumer. My old housemate used to get the magazines, but the subscription now includes access to the online resource too, which is likely to be much more useful for me.

I've not had much of a chance to use it yet, but flicking through I found this, which I found very interesting.

"Ethical consumerism is just as much about supporting the 'good' companies and products as it is withdrawing our support from the 'bad' ones."

Their four types of Ethical Consumerism are listed as:

"Positive Buying
This means favouring particular ethical products, such as energy saving lightbulbs.

Negative PurchasingThis means avoiding products that you disapprove of, such as battery eggs or gas-guzzling cars.

Company-Based Purchasing
This means targeting a business as a whole and avoiding all the products made by one company. For example, the Nestle boycott has targeted all its brands and subsidiaries in a bid to get the company to change the way it markets its baby milk formula across the world.

Fully-Screened Approach
This means looking both at companies and at products and evaluating which product is the most ethical overall."
I definitely agree with the idea that our buying decisions have the power of both positive and negative purchasing, and it's interesting to see this spelled out. I think for me, the decisions of where I choose to not buy from are going to be as interesting as where I choose to buy from. 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

And thus it begins...

Crikey. 2012 is finally here. I've been thinking about this project for months and now I'm starting it. Suddenly it all seems a lot more overwhelming. My desk is piled high with books to read and my brain feels a bit overwhelmed. Oh well.

Where to start with a project like this. Well, I’m a scientist at my core, which means I’m going to take a scientific approach to this. I can't know where I need to go until I know my current position. So I’ve decided to spend the first couple of weeks focusing on my current situation, looking at what I spend money on and from where.

So I’m going to try and keep my behaviour as normal as possible during this time to give an accurate representation, and I’m also going to go through my bank statements from the last year and find those big one off payments that I’ve made and include them on a weekly basis in my findings.

I've also come up with some guidelines for myself:

  1. It’s not all going to happen at once. This is a year long challenge, and the aim is to make long term sustainable changes to my life. And these don’t all need to happen in the first week. One thing at a time... Some things like phone contracts and insurance are time dependent and will be approached as and when they come up. So I might seem to jump around a bit, but that's likely to just be as need arises.
  2. Sometimes it might be out of my control. I will aim to do everything I can to stick to things, but I’m not going to make things awkward or difficult for the people around me. For example, I’m not going to refuse to eat food that people have bought from a supermarket, or refuse to enter a chain coffee shop if people are set on it. I’m going to aim to talk to people about what I’m doing, but I can’t expect everyone else around me to follow the same decisions I’m making. Sometimes it might be making the best decision I can under the circumstances.
  3. I’m not going to change or throw out what I already have. I’ve got clothes and belongings, and it makes no sense to rid myself of this. But I will try and dispose of things properly and re-use and recycle where possible, not to mention lending things out as and when I can.
  4. Challenge me about the decisions I make. I’d like you to convince me that I’m wrong some of the time. 
  5. I have to be honest. It's ok to slip up or make a bad decision, but I have to own up to it.