The British Shopping Habit

I’ve just finished reading Shopgirls: True Stories of Friendship, Hardship and Triumph From Behind the Counter, after picking it up a few months ago in a charity shop. It is a thoroughly well researched book and I find this kind of social history very interesting. What surprised me was  this little bit at the end of the book which I shall share with you now. It was nothing like the historical accounts that compiled the rest of the book and I thought it was pertinent.

      “Over the past two centuries shopping has become nothing less than our national past time and many will find it a hard habit to break. Collectively, we still spend more time shopping than we do on any other single activity outside work. – as much as eighteen hours a week according to one recent survey and a combined total of eight years of our lives, according to another.

Part of what drives us to do this, of course, is that we shop out of necessity for the food, clothes and other essentials that we cannot get any other way. After all, most of our nineteenth-century ancestors didn’t become consumers for fun; if they were among the working poor, they became consumers to live. But along the way, together with the better-off, they found new pleasures and developed new kinds of sociability in and around shopping. And it’s arguably these things that continue to draw so many of us to the shops today: we have strong emotional attachments to both the stores and, very often, the people who help us within them.

Shops suffuse our earliest memories. As babies and children, it’s quite likely that we spent a fair amount of time in and around shops for the simple reason that shopping is one of the few tasks that can be achieved with young children in tow. Beyond that, particular visits to specific shops are often markers of personal milestones: being taken to buy our first pair of shoes, school uniform, wristwatch or teenage party outfit; spending our first wage packet; choosing gifts for birthdays, engagements, weddings and retirements. Equally, being unable to afford to be part of these modern rituals of buying and giving can hurt and be a source of shame.

The fact that shopping allows us to give to others – and to give much more than formal gifts and presents – is hugely important. Everyday shopping is nothing less than an act of love. Buying things for others – food, clothes, toys, or treats – is an everyday way of showing we care, that we’ve thought about what others need or want. In effect, we ‘say it through shopping’. To view consumer culture this way – as an intensely social part of life, built on relationships – is to challenge the more wearily familiar line that it is shallow, self-centred and individualising. Perhaps the pursuit of small personal pleasures, alongside the promise of the ‘experience’, may yet keep our shopping rituals alive.”

I don’t know what your thoughts are? I have to say that I feel I disagree with the authors, I don’t think that much of the buying that goes on is for others. I think most people buy for themselves, much of the time. It’s admirable that they have tried to put a more positive spin on consumerism, but I think they’ve missed some other huge elements around sustainability and the environment, debt and finance, slave labour and so on. I also think it would be terribly sad if all a child’s key moments in their life revolved around the acquisition of stuff in some form. Sure, I remember being taken to buy school uniform but I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly fond thought. I’m far happier re-calling many a childhood experience – holidays, sporting activities and time spent with significant people than I am visits to shops!

I would say that in the UK we have largely turned every religious festival into an excuse to buy stuff and there is nothing left that we celebrate for celebrations sake. Wouldn’t we be far richer as a culture if we had shared traditions that we all participated in, where we could feel a connection with the past and our roots, than a ritual of buying every-changing stuff only to dispose of it a short-time later?

Fighting for a Simpler Christmas

Season’s Greetings to one and all! How has you Christmas been? I’ve come on here to air some of my frustrations about being a Minimalist at Christmas. I know you’ll understand.

We’ve been Minimalists for 4 years now and certainly our wider family and friends know about this by now. We are the butt of regular jokes about Minimalism which we try to take with good humour; since we also laugh at some of the lavish spending of our family and friends. However it really does start to grate with me now, 4 years on when we’ve specifically asked for people to respect our lifestyle and values at each seasonal celebration when we still get gifts we’d rather not be receiving. With the odd and rare exception, however thoughtful people think they are being, they are buying something that quite bluntly – we don’t want!

The fact is that we buy the chocolate we like to eat and don’t particularly enjoy the seasonal boxes of chocolates that people like to give. If we need biscuits, we go out and buy the ones that we love to eat. If we wanted seasonal fruits and nuts at Christmas, we would buy them. Inevitably also, all these things come wrapped in plastic which we try so hard to avoid with all our purchasing. We don’t want wasteful novelty gifts – no matter how much fun the giver thinks they will be – they will end up going to charity and I strongly suspect they have to bin them. We’d rather they weren’t created and resources weren’t needlessly wasted in the first place. Whatever hobby we have, we buy the tools that we have researched and would like to have, so it’s not helpful when people give us more. Do I sound ungrateful? Because I worry that’s how it comes across to family.

Sadly, they all seem to think we’re boring asking for gift cards  and ‘need’ something to open on Christmas Day (which we don’t and have tried with all our might to get this across). So every gift card seems to come attached to a box of chocolates, box of biscuits or other Christmas novelty – sigh. Actually the best gift we received this year was from a family friend, who via Unicef had donated a pair of warm, winter boots to a child abroad in need. Opening that card gave me a really warm feeling on Christmas Day which I didn’t get with any of my other gifts.

The trouble is that whether we don’t create a list and ask for nothing, or whether we create a very specific list – we still end up receiving gifts that we don’t want and then have to dispose of in a responsible manner. However for the largest part, our family did stick to either money or gift cards (although I worry  a little about the plastic waste those create, but surely a little plastic is better than whole items you don’t want or need?) A friend of ours (who is not a Minimalist) only ever asks for the essentials at Christmas, like socks and deodorants. That way he never has to worry about buying them for himself and gets to spend all his money on computing which is his first love. So perhaps I will start asking for bags of flour, oats, sugar and that kind of thing instead?! My family will probably then start to assume we are living in poverty but hey ho!

My husband and I have agreed that we need to try and find some alternative traditions to fill up Christmas Day with. We always enjoy a couple of good meals together, a short walk and usually a board game. Perhaps we just need to accept that that is special enough. Since most people do congregate under a loaded Christmas Tree and that is some sort of expectation around which the day centres. How do you deal with it, especially when celebrating with non-Minimalist family members? I promise I’m not Scrooge really, but still aligning my newer Minimalist values with older traditions. Any tried and trusted methods to get family to STOP buying you things you don’t want or need?

Bah humbug! 😉

False Advertising

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What’s with all the Christmas advertising this year regarding having your best Christmas ever?! It seems worse than usual to me, it’s the mainstay of several UK stores campaigns. Wilko’s tagline is “Bring home your best Christmas”. Asda’s tagline is “Christmas made better”. Swarovski are saying that you must ‘give brilliant’. Since when did stores get so arrogant? I’m all for retailers helping you to achieve ‘Christmas’, after all we all want to buy a little special food to celebrate the day. We may wish to buy a few gifts, or experiences. That’s what makes Christmas different from every other day of the year. But it’s this year I’ve really noticed them piling on the pressure for people to buy more and more. Maybe it’s just that I’ve got fresh eyes now I’m further down the road on my minimalist journey.

In fact the only retailer I’ve seen peddling a different message is Sainsbury’s, who are pioneering an advertising campaign centred on a harassed dad who’s trying to find his family ‘the greatest gifts’. It ends when he discovers the greatest gift he could give anyone is his time. It’s refreshingly different, even if I find the song that accompanies it rather irritating. At the end of the day, a huge part of Christmas is meeting up with people you love and sharing a meal. I think that is a truly great thing – sharing conversation, food, laughter, a few silly hats and a walk in the afternoon.

But, Christmas IS just another day – albeit a special day – but it doesn’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to keep ‘besting’ last year and no amount of stuff, including food is going to stop the odd family argument. After all, you’re probably going to be couped up with these people for a few days! So relax, enjoy it for what it is and take it as it comes. Happy Christmas Everyone!

Corporate Consumerist ‘Crap’ & The VW Emissions Scandal

In 2009, I traded in my very ailing old car under the scrappage scheme the UK Government was running at the time and bought a brand new VW Golf. They wanted as many old cars off the road as possible due to the emissions they create. It was a great deal because I effectively got £2000 for my 13 year old car (it was not good car, a Rover 100 which rusted through!) It was no longer running by the time my new car was delivered, it died about a week before my new car arrived. At that point, I was told that a diesel car would be far better for the environment, have great fuel efficiency and so that was what I chose.

Here we are just a few short years down the line and the reality is that the opposite is true. VW tried to cover up the true emissions of their vehicles in order to sell more in the American market. But all their vehicles were affected, all over the world. Mine was one of the affected. I’ve been waiting for the past 2 years for a ‘fix’ to the software in my car, not that this will change anything for me in reality! I dutifully booked my car in to have the update and upon collecting it, I was handed this VW branded box. I naively took it, thinking it might be important and then I realised I’d been the unwitting victim of what I am going to term ‘Corporate Consumerist Crap’!

My husband and I have since had a good laugh about this VW branded shoe box. Inside it contained a very nice VW keyring, a quality pen and a VW branded umbrella. Actually in the grand scheme of things, these are all things I can actually see myself using (and because I’ll have to). Then there was what looked like a small packet of cigarettes! No, it’s actually a VW branded packet of mints, wrapped in cellophane and then 2 different business cards for the service department. Ugh.

What irks me is that VW thinks this is enough of an apology. What irks me more is that I took the box, unthinkingly – believing it to be something of essential importance to my car!!! However since I have no plans to change this car until it dies, in hopefully around 15-20 years time, this is the situation I’m stuck with. Furthermore, I doubt there will be much of a re-sale market for these diesel machines since everyone knows the truth about them now! So I really am going to have to stick with this one until it’s no longer viable.

The moral of this tale is to ask what’s in it when someone hands you a box or a bag. I hope this story can prepare anyone else who might be affected by the emissions scandal. Perhaps you can be better prepared than I was and prepare a witty line for VW about compensation!

Have there been occasions when you’ve been handed ‘Corporate Consumerist Crap’? How did you deal with it?

Why You Don’t Need To Do Christmas Eve Boxes

I have probably been living in a hole, or maybe it’s just the fact that I don’t have kids. But I only heard about the trend for ‘Christmas Eve boxes’ this week. I thought maybe it was just a thing for celebrities, until I overheard a mum in the Post Office saying she had got the Christmas Eve presents sorted.

Now excuse me whilst I scoff, but I find this trend laughable. I think I would, even if I were not a Minimalist. Why on earth a child would need presents on Christmas Eve is beyond me; talk about taking away all the thunder from Santa Claus and Christmas Day! The excitement of Christmas Eve itself is enough – you can watch a Christmas movie on the TV for free, or watch a DVD that you already have or have borrowed. You do not need to BUY your child a new DVD each year! We have a tradition in our house – we watch The Snowman every year on Christmas Eve. It is usually on TV and my Grandma loved it so much (I do too). I also find it a lovely way to remember her each year. Or why not take some time to be reflective and go to a Christmas Eve service at a local church – there are many different styles of service.

Your child also does not need new PJs every year on Christmas Eve – the ones they have are probably just fine. They do not need a Christmas themed box which will either just get chucked or stuffed up in the loft. They are likely to get more items than they need on Christmas Day itself and why add to your own workload or increase your financial pressures, at this already stressful time of year? They most definitely will not be needing more sweets at this time of year and they certainly don’t need anymore toys or other useless stuff, like reindeer food. Santa Claus still appreciates a mince pie as much as ever and the reindeer love a carrot, I am reliably informed! 😉

I suggest taking some time out to spend with friends and family, perhaps quietly at home. Hanging out stockings is enough of a ritual at this time. If children are over-excited, perhaps giving them some colouring to do would be calming? There are lots of free printable available on the internet. If needed, you can look to other countries or cultures for inspiration. The Swedish for example always share a meal together as a family on Christmas Eve. The little girls dress up in traditional costume. You could allow your children to dress up, or just wear a Santa hat for the day. I’m sure there are lots of other lovely traditions out there, maybe you could incorporate something meaningful into your routine?

Free Parking

Today I’m going to share another way that I save money on a regular basis and that is by parking my car for free. Yes, sometime I can walk or cycle, but sometimes I need to drive. We are served very poorly by buses where I live and the nearest train station is miles away. (We in the UK can thank Beeching for those cut in the 1960s! Otherwise I would be living within walking distance of a train station and if all those lines still existed, I guarantee I wouldn’t need to own a car. Minor gripe of mine).

Anyhow, back on topic. People in my family ask if I’m ill if they see me paying for parking, that’s how much of a rarity it is! I usually save it for occasions when I am visiting a new place where I don’t know about the parking options, or in big cities where free parking is unlikely.

The advantage of parking for free is that it usually means you have to walk a fair bit further, so you get some free exercise. Although, there are often time-limited spaces closer into towns. You can try doing an internet search to find out where free parking may be located, but I often find that people who know don’t like to make this information public because then they will likely lose their free parking! Understandable really. But, if you talk to friends – they may let slip a little gem that you don’t know about. You can hopefully trade information on another spot with them, so it’s fair. If you have the time, it’s worth having a drive about the roads a little further out from a town centre, as that’s often where the free parking is located.

Around here, you’re lucky if you can park for less than 80p an hour in the out-lying towns and you can expect to pay at least £1.50 an hour in the busy town centres. So you can begin to see how those savings would add up, even for just 1 or 2 trips a week.

Other options to save money may include car sharing, park and ride schemes, cycling or a combination. I have thought about buying a bike rack so that I could drive say 7 miles to the closest large town and then cycle the last mile. Thus I would achieve free parking and get some exercise to boot. Unfortunately a bike rack to fit my car is outside my current budget, so that’s a wish for the future. My free parking strategy also assists me by greatly reducing my stress levels. Firstly I don’t need to worry about my finances because I’m spending too much on parking and I’m not rummaging around for change. Secondly, I avoid traffic jams in town centres and those horrible, multi-storey car parks! Also check out websites like Park On My Drive, JustPark which allow you to rent space on someone else’s driveway for a defined period. I have used them myself and saved a small fortune. You could also try contacting hotels or the like in an area you are planning to go to. In one town near me, I discovered a hotel next to a council car park offering to significantly undercut their day rate! One final idea is to purchase a season ticket for a car park, for a set period which can help you save.

If you are going to take a trip by train, you could consider driving to a more rural station with free parking, as the saving might worth the extra drive. My nearest town charges about £10 per day to park and you could do a fair few miles on £10 worth of fuel! Check out National Rail’s website for station information.

Which leads me on to say, if you live in a sought after location for parking (like near a hospital or train station) – then why not list your driveway? This is a major source of income for some people. Just make sure it’s OK with your local council, home insurer etc first! And be certain to declare your earnings to HMRC.

Do you have any tips to share about saving money on parking?

Plastic-free Pets

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I experienced an unexpected and irritating plastic-related scenario today. We are considering adopting another cat from a shelter and so we made enquiries. We were told by the shelter that under no circumstances could we take a cat home in anything other than a plastic carrier, since they deem anything but plastic to be ‘insecure’.

We purposely chose a natural and sustainable wicker carrier for our cats. In all my 34 years of owning cats, we have never used anything else and not once has a cat ever escaped. It does make me wonder what the world is coming to. We are offering a homeless, unloved cat a loving home and they want to refuse us unless we are prepared to spend out on a plastic cat carrier.

This is our cat carrier shown above and I have inspected it and failed to find anyway that it is insecure. There is about 1 inch give in the top and bottom which a cat could never fit through. Besides, I can easily remedy that with a few more leather buckled straps top and bottom. I suspect I have two options from here: to explain that I choose to live plastic-free and offer to leave my carrier with them whilst I borrow one of their plastic ones and return it later. Or, find someone willing to lend me a plastic one for a single journey so I can comply with their daft rules!

Have you ever come across any bonkers plastic-related rules? How did you overcome them?

Sew Your Own Apron

I’ve been practising my sewing skills again. I’m quite chuffed with how these have turned out. I just cut around an apron I already owned, so no pattern was involved. Then I just copied how it was put together. These are very quick and easy, taking around 1 hour to make from start to finish. I used cotton fabric and bought cotton tape from the fabric shop for the ties. I have to say I’m in love with the teapot print fabric, I may just have to find an excuse to use it some more!

You just need to cut around your original apron, leaving an extra 3cm for the seams. Measure and cut out your pocket, again leaving 3 cm all around for seams. I ironed my seams and turned them over twice, attaching the tapes into the seam for strength. Make sure to turn over the ends of your tapes twice and stitch them, to stop them from fraying. Make sure you sew your side seams first, then your top and bottom hems. What a lovely gift these would make. I bought a metre of each fabric and I have loads left for other projects, so I’d estimate these cost around £2 each to make. They are so satisfying to make, there was no traipsing the shops for gifts and no-one was harmed in the making. What could be better than homemade?

Are you planning to make any gifts this Christmas?

Start Conversations with Brands about Zero Waste

One of the best ways to start engaging other people in your lifestyle choices is by having conversations with them. It’s probably best to not make it the first thing you say, but over time these things can and do come up. I talk about my lifestyle here on my blog, but recently I started to think about how I could make a bigger impact. More than just sharing posts on Facebook. I’ve started to write letters and emails to target specific brands. Brands that I’m already using and I like, but that could do with making better choices about the packaging they use.

It doesn’t always go well, I get a lot of excuses and well we’ve tried this and we think plastic is the best option. But I hope that if I keep engaging with them, over time and possibly suggest alternatives that they might start to listen. I don’t expect them to change for just one person, but imagine our consumer power if we all started doing this. They would have to listen, for fear of losing business! So this post is to encourage you to get out there and start engaging in conversation with brands. Don’t just sit back and feel frustrated about the lack of Zero Waste opportunities where you live. Let’s start campaigning for change!

Here are my top tips for composing a good letter:

  • Keep it friendly
  • Say how much you like their product (I only write to brands I enjoy using/ eating)
  • Say what makes you unhappy and tell them why. I’ve used my Council changing to fortnightly bin collections as a starter. I tell them I’m concerned about how much packaging goes straight in the bin, especially now my bin collections have halved in frequency
  • Ask if they’ve considered alternatives or suggest some, if you know of any.
  • Use statistics to back up what you’re saying – we live in an evidence based society, so they’ll love to hear about some relevant research. It makes you sound more credible and authoritative
  • End by saying you’d appreciate knowing their thoughts
  • It’s also a great idea to write and congratulate brands that are doing things well, even a short post to their Facebook page will boost them. I recently wrote to a supermarket who switched from using glass bottles with plastic lids for their spices, to glass bottles with metal lids. I told them how much I appreciated the change and why. I encouraged them to make more of those kinds of changes.

What are your top tips for initiating change? Have you tried writing letters to brands? Get in touch.

Enough is Enough! Why I Refuse to Complete Anymore ‘Customer Satisfaction’ Surveys.

I’m done! I’ve reached breaking point with the sheer volume of customer satisfaction surveys I am asked to complete every single day. I resent companies who phone me chasing completion of a survey because their bonus relies on achieving 5 stars. I fail to see how they can glean any meaningful information from those that are completed when they frequently bully you into giving the top ratings.

Enough is enough! I had my car serviced and they’re desperate for me to complete a customer satisfaction survey. Not happening. I am always going to get my car serviced and MOT’d on an annual basis. The other day I had my eyes tested and now they want me to complete one too. I had my eyes tested for the sake of my health, for goodness sake! A statutory service that the NHS provides in this country and that I would have done at the prescribed interval, regardless. Every single time you visit a shop, they are there circling some on-line feedback survey for you to complete. Sometimes they go into a massive spiel lasting several minutes about why you need to complete it. Just let me pay for my items and leave!

Let’s be minimalist about this please, all your stores out there reading this. Let’s save everyone some time and spend our lives doing better things, than measuring our employees on every single transaction they complete. You don’t have to give me the 5 star, red carpet service all the time. I’d appreciate if you spent more time servicing my car to a satisfactory level and all I’m asking is that it’s good enough. I want you to check my eyes to the best of your ability. I’m not going to rate you on your personal hygiene, your dress, your comprehension of English or whether you said goodbye. Just make sure to tell me if anything is wrong with my eyes, or I need new glasses. I’m not looking for perfection and I’d definitely prefer it if your employees seemed genuine, rather than that they are reading from a prescribed script.

I for one, do not wish to be responsible for someone being reprimanded or losing their job over 1 customer experience! If your service is unsatisfactory – rest assured it’s likely I will let you know. If I love something you’re doing, I will probably write and tell you too. But it’s OK to just live day-to-day by doing a good enough job. Let’s save the wowing for special occasions like weddings, Birthdays and times when it’s really important that things go right. I’d rather all those lovely, hard working people out there weren’t stressed to the eyeballs every day about being ‘inspected’. Just let them do their jobs, please! And please, please, PLEASE don’t send me anymore of these ‘customer satisfaction’ surveys – P L E A S E!!! You’re actually making me less likely to shop with you and seek out those dear, independent’s out there who are more concerned with actually getting on with their job. And every bit of till receipt you don’t print with these pointless surveys on it, is another piece of tree remaining and you know what – that would make me the happiest of all!