Sunday, 29 August 2010

And back to deodorant again

One of the very first posts I wrote was about changing my deodorant from the standard plastic encased roll-on to a plastic-free one (read skincare and the new deodorant). After struggling with Lush’s solid deodorants I eventually settled for a deodorant stone that I found in a green supermarket while visiting some friends in Totnes.

The deodorant stone works a treat. The methodology behind it sounds completely implausible, but the fact is it works. Made of mineral salts, they look like a piece of crystal pulled straight from a rock in a dark, damp cave. Wetting the stone and rubbing it directly on the skin causes it to leave behind an invisible layer of salts that apparently prevents odour-causing bacteria from setting up home.

"What the hell is that?" asked my cousin H when I left it out on her bathroom shelf during a visit earlier this year.

"Umm, my deodorant..." I replied sheepishly. I love H to bits, but I don't think she's really all that into alternative concepts, so I generally don't share these particular sensibilities of mine with her.

"Well, I haven't noticed you smelling yet, so I suppose it must do something," was her closing comment.

And then Disaster Strikes
All was good for a year. And then a couple of months ago I had to lay my beloved deodorant stone to rest and go in a search of a new one (in other words, I dropped it on the floor and it shattered into about a million pieces). That was when things started to go wrong. First I thought I’d buy one direct from the company that made/sourced my original stone. No can do, they’re out of stock. As is every stockist I could find that stocks this particular brand.

Alright, so I’ll see if I can find one locally, I decided. Errm, no. None of my local health stores stock them in their completely packaging-free state. Do I drive to Totnes to buy one from the store I got the first one from? Seems a bit wrong, and somewhat hypocritical, to exude evil exhaust fumes for that purpose alone.

Ok, so there must be other companies that supply them, I thought. Internet here I come. And yes, after much deliberation, I settled on ‘Tawas Crystal’, pictured in a lovely little bamboo basket. Great, I thought, no plastic. Sorted.

Or not. When the crystal arrived a couple of days later it was in a jiffy bag. But not only in a jiffy bag. In a plastic box, wrapped in bubble wrap, in a jiffy bag. ‘Darn’ would be the polite way of phrasing my reaction. There was probably more plastic involved in this one package than if I had gone out and bought a typical roll-on deodorant from the shop down the road. I’ll use it for now obviously, but, I wondered, what am I going to do next time?

Hark the Herald Angels
Thank you Mrs Green over on My Zero Waste. You are my saviour.

“Not all crystal deodorants are the same,” she pointed out, and sent me off to read the details about them on Natural Spa Supplies. And this lovely company, Natural Spa Supplies, also sells the good kind. But what about their packaging I wonder? Although the fact that Mrs Green had already recommended them to me indicated that the packaging would be sustainable, having learnt my lesson from previous experiences, this time I thought I’d better check.

“I use padded envelopes which are filled with recycled paper," they tell me. "And corrugated cardboard and string to protect the contents. I do tend to use a strip of cellotape to make sure the envelope doesn’t fly open, but that is all.” A strip of cellotape? I can live with that.

Yippee! I think. There are other people out there who are trying to change the world. And so I have just placed my first order. As well as the alum deodorant, I’ve ordered some other things to try too – Rhassoul clay for washing, soapnuts for the washing machine, savon noir soap for Bron to shave with, and a clay water purifier to replace my plastic Brita filter. I suddenly feel very poor, but I feel confident it’ll be worth it! Besides, it's always fun to try something different.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

But what does 'Plastic' mean?

I have been thinking about what the word plastic has come to mean within our society. In the research I’ve been doing for the book I’m trying to write about plastic, I keep coming across one particular quote.

‘I want to say one word to you; just one word,’ says Mr. McGuire to Benjamin Braddock in the iconic 1967 movie, The Graduate.
‘Yes, sir,’ replies Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin.
‘Are you listening?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Plastics,’ says Mr McGuire.
‘Exactly how do you mean?’
‘There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?’

In the 1960’s plastic was just coming into its own. It was the way forward, the chosen material of the space age. Despite being mid-Cold War, the 50’s and 60’s are generally regarded as being optimistic and forward-looking decades, and – with the launch of post-war economy-boosting plans to get everyone buying, buying, buying – decades of material affluence. ‘The optimism of life in those decades was accompanied by a ‘throw-away’ approach to material goods, a short-term relationship between people and their possessions,’ writes Penny Sparke in The Genius of Design. And this is very much epitomised by the now famous article in Life magazine, ‘Throwaway Living: disposable items cut down household chores’. Plastic was the future, the ‘stuff of dreams’ (Penny Sparke).

So when did this change? I’ve started asking people what they think of when they hear the word ‘plastic’ – people who aren’t aware of my particular dislike of plastic, and people who I know aren’t particularly eco-warrior-esque, as I figured they wouldn’t have too many pre-existing ideas about the environmental connotations of plastic. Here are some of the responses I’ve had so far:

‘Barbie. Fragile, brittle.’
‘Lego, cheap, oil, chemicals, bags.’
‘Cheap and nasty!’
‘False. Cheap and nasty, cosmetic surgery etc…’

Hmmm, not too flattering, I must say. Cheap is true – after all, the cheapness of the material is one of the reasons why it’s become so ubiquitous. And nasty – perhaps nasty because plastic doesn’t age well, it flakes, it becomes brittle. And maybe nasty because it’s cheap. Even though many people seek to buy the cheaper things, being cheap is still an insult. As plastic products flooded the post-war market, quantity took over from quality as plastic was substituted for other longer-lasting and more expensive materials such as steel and ceramics. ‘Cheaper, lower quality plastic products had entered the civilian marketplace,’ writes Penny Sparke. ‘Doubts began to emerge about the materials’ relationship with good design; consumers began to be anxious that they were being sold ‘vulgar’ or tasteless goods, and disenchantment set in.’

But – and this is one of the most interesting things for me – this idea of plastic as cheap and nasty, and representative of bad taste, has led the word to take on a whole different meaning. ‘In the sixties, you could always insult a guy by calling him ‘plastic,’’ Elizabeth Royte tells her readers in Garbage Land. ‘The word became a kind of shorthand for a suburban life of conspicuous consumption and upward striving.’ Plastic people, plastic culture – it’s become synonymous with fleeting, throwaway ideas, with being shallow and worthless. Everybody understands this, and this concept has fully insinuated itself within society and language.

And yet the use of plastic has risen and risen, and is now the most produced material in the world, millions of tonnes of it every single year. If everybody hates it and looks down their noses at it, how did this happen? Five minutes after I asked a lady at work what she thought of plastic – to which her response was, ‘I don’t like it’ – she’s tucking into her plastic-sealed lunch. Is it because plastic as a material was just so innovative we couldn’t help but be tempted by it and what it could offer us? The more I think about it, the more I realise that humans are short-term thinkers. We look for easy solutions, the quick fix, the lazy option. Plastic has provided this for us in ways that were probably never even imagined a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. How could we say no once it was there?

Let’s face it, plastic revolutionised the way I live. It made things affordable to people who could never have afforded such things if they weren’t made of plastic, and who am I to say they shouldn’t be allowed to have them if they want them? Who am I to tell someone they can’t strive for a better lifestyle? And as long as people were buying plastic – despite the increasingly negative thoughts being attached to it – companies continued to make it.

And so here we are.

Penny Sparke’s book, The Genius of Design, was produced to coincide with a recent BBC2 series of the same name. It was a five part series looking at all sorts of different aspects of design, including a whole episode dedicated to plastic (‘Better Living through Chemistry’), which was incredibly fascinating. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t seem to be available to watch online at the moment, but the whole series can be bought on DVD – ironic, given as DVD’s are a typical example of how plastic has shaped modern living.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Joys of Retail

I was sitting in on an interview at work for a new staff member the other day, when the manager all of a sudden threw the questioning over to me. Put on the spot, I found myself grasping to explain the complexities of being a Waterstone’s bookseller. Many people might ask how being a bookseller could possibly be complex, but bookselling is as political and money-driven as virtually every other profession out there. In this particular instance, the knot I was trying to unwind was the balance between being an individual whilst also toeing the company line.

Within every store we are strongly encouraged to promote the books we personally love, tailor the store to our own particular brand of customers, and strike up friendly conversations with customers left, right and centre in order to make them feel welcomed. However, in contrast to these freedoms, every member of staff is also expected to say a set of very specific lines to customers at the till point.

‘Do you have a Waterstone’s card? Would you like one of ours books of the week for only £4.49?’ And - my particular favourite - ‘Do you need a bag?’

Do you need a bag?
‘Do you need a bag?’ not, ‘Do you want a bag’ or ‘Would you like a bag?’ It’s an interesting choice of wording – the use of need rather than want is designed to make the customer think about their requirements rather than their wants. But does it work? Now that’s a loaded question. I get lots and lots of different responses to the bag question, but they can generally be grouped into the following categories:

Customers who want a bag even though they know they shouldn’t take one and feel like they should at least feel some fleeting guilt about taking one. ‘Normally I wouldn’t, but I’ve left mine in the car today.’

Mr and Mrs Average
Customers who genuinely consider the question and provide a direct answer – either yes or no. It’s probably about 50/50 either way, though this is often dependant on external factors – whether it’s raining, say, or the amount that they’re purchasing.

Those who jump in and tell you they don’t need a bag before you’ve even had a chance to ask the question (sounds like me).

Customers who have no concept of the environment at all, responding with something along the lines of, ‘Of course I need a bag! Do you think I’m going to carry these around under my arm?!’ This is irritating because they talk to me as if I’m stupid. I’m not stupid – at the simplest end of the spectrum, I am simply doing my job as I have been trained to do by my company, never mind the environmental aspects.

Customers who are carrying their own canvas bags, but seem to be doing so only as a fashion accessory. They take a plastic bag from each store they visit and then put each one inside the bigger canvas one – heaven forbid that their various purchases should all have to roll around together, touching each other. For me, these are some of the most irritating customers, because they’re pretending they’re eco-friendly by carrying their own bags, which often shout some anti-plastic message, yet they’re still using as much plastic as they would if they hadn’t brought their own bags.

Downright Annoying
‘Yes, if you don’t mind’ is one of the most annoying answers I get. I want to shout at them, ‘Yes, I do mind! You’re helping to destroy the world!’ But, meek as I am, I can’t help but do my job, smile politely and, simply, do as I’m told. ‘The customer is always right’ is the old saying after all. But what would happen if, one day, I rebelled? The company’s emphasis on customer service is so strong, that even contemplating the risk of alienating a customer over such an issue is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.

The Waterstone’s Way
Carrier bags do seem to be a rather contentious subject at the moment, as I’m sure is the case among most high street retailers today. I attended a regional forum today, where the representatives from around ten stores gather together to share ideas and bring forward concerns or problems for later discussion at a higher level within the company.

‘Don’t talk to me about bags!’ our regional manager said toward the start of the meeting. Not because she didn’t want to discuss it, but because it’s already very much on the company’s agenda and griping about them at a regional level wasn’t going to achieve anything.

Whenever I want to talk about plastic bags, the discussion usually includes the word ‘ban’, and so my first assumption when other staff in the meeting brought up the subject was that this was what was on their minds as well. But, disappointingly for me, from the few comments that were made, I don’t think this was actually the case. Until about two years ago, the store used what could be described as classy bags. Good quality, strong, glossy, black bags. Today’s bags are much flimsier and they are white, but – and all credit to the company here – they are made from recycled plastic. I think this is fantastic. I believe that buying goods made of recycled plastic (actually, of recycled anything) is important because it helps to support the recycling industry. However, it seems that not everyone agrees with me.

‘They don’t look as nice,’ is a frequent comment. Or, ‘Can you double bag it because my boyfriend’ll be able to see what I’ve bought him,’ is another. Grumble, grumble is my general, internal, response. I can see their points, but nobody seems to respect the sound environmental decision that the company’s made to produce their bags from recycled plastic. Although I’d ultimately like to see them phasing out plastic bags altogether, I do think that until they do, their current policy is about as strong as it can be.

Carrier bags are on the agenda for the company’s upcoming Corporate Social Responsibility meeting. In what context, I don’t know, though obviously I’m eager to know whether or not the possibility of removing them altogether is under consideration – or charging for them, as WHSmiths currently does. I think probably not. Charging for bags can be viewed as being negative – it puts the customer in a bit of a bind, and those who don’t understand why the charge is in place (and my experiences tells me there will be plenty that fall into this category) are likely to view the company in a negative way as a result, which means that they’re less likely to come back and spend their money there in the future. And so Waterstone’s has gone for the carrot rather than the stick method. Instead of charging, they reward customers with extra loyalty card points for not taking a bag. Another idea that makes sound business sense. But does it work? Not every customer has (or wants) a loyalty card and of those that do, despite advertising the ‘eco-points’ scheme, most don’t realise it exists. I always try to make a point of telling customers who don’t take bags that I’m giving them extra points because of it, and nine times out of ten their response is surprise or mild bewilderment.

Plastic bags: valid issue or a distraction?
At today’s meeting, our regional manager did tell us that ‘bag costs are down by about half of what they were two years ago.’ She didn’t expand on the comment, but I assume this is a result of a combination of the change in bag production from glossy to recycled as well as the company-wide introduction of the ‘Do you need a bag?’ question. I wonder what the reduction in bags in terms of number are? Probably not as much as half, but I’m sure bag usage has gone down as it becomes a bigger and more widely acknowledged issue within our society. This, however, leaves me with two thoughts.

Firstly, when shopping in other stores on the high street I continue to be surprised by the number of companies who don’t appear to have a bag reduction policy in place – which, although I feel they could take the issue further, makes me feel proud to work for a company that is thinking about it.

And secondly I am reminded of an article written last year by The Guardian’s environmental commentator, Leo Hickman, on the subject of plastic bags. Is the ever increasing focus on them as an environmental concern detracting us from more serious environmental issues? Despite this being a subject that is close to my heart, I fear he is right. It’s easy to get wrapped up in one issue and forget about everything else. It’s also easy to forget that there’s a lot more to the issue of plastic itself than plastic bags – plastic bags are, after all, a long long way from being the only plastic pollution created by modern everyday living and I think there are lots of people out there who, while they may reject a plastic bag from their local Waterstone’s store, probably wouldn’t think twice about the fact that they’re buying a plastic booklight encased in plastic packaging, or that the cool cover of their new hardback copy of ‘C’ by Tom McCarthy is also plastic.

Oh dear, I’m never happy, am I?

Extra reading: Waterstone's carrier bag policy

Sunday, 1 August 2010

All the King's horses

Another great, informative little talk from Captain Charles Moore:

"All the King's horses and all the King's men," he says, "will never gather up all the plastic and put the ocean back together again."

Solution 101: reduce the pollution at it's source - i.e. us.