26 July 2013

Happy Birthday

Last week our 'baby' turned one!

This post is only very loosely in keeping with the theme of the blog, and largely a gratuitous display of photos of my lovely children, especially our delightful one-year-old.

The loose link is: how to celebrate a one-year-old's birthday without stomping great planetary footprints...

A quick scan of the internet suggests 'celebrate' equals 'party' for most people. I only looked at one or two websites guiding the planning of first birthdays to realise we are way out of touch with mainstream culture here.  The average task-list to prepare for a first birthday includes: choosing a theme and colour scheme (that would be what the site selling special-print napkins, paper plates and disposable cups is aiming at, I guess); choosing a guest list; picking a venue; planning a menu; deciding on decorations; preparing games for the bigger kids; Birthday Cake (capital letters please); invitations; scheduling activities; selecting gifts; putting together party bags.

My task-list went something like: What does our boy enjoy? Who will want to celebrate him? How do they enjoy showing that they love him? What does he need (nothing!)? What would be a useful, playful, creative, open-ended addition to our toy collection that he might play with many times in many ways?

It seemed most important to ensure Eva was able to feel his birthday was appropriately marked, and for her to see in how we celebrated him the way we value each member of our family. It was also important to let her give him something that she was involved in choosing.

She chose him a bath duck.

She also decorated him a cardboard box.

She made him at least three birthday cards... there could be more yet - just because his birthday is over is no reason to stop making him cards...

And she helped me make and decorate two birthday cakes.

I think they were perfect. I know full well they would win no prizes in the highly competitive game of children's birthday cake one-up[wo]manship that is rife amongst families of small children and across the internet, but they perfectly express Eva's careful attention to making something wonderful for her brother.

We had cake at home, cake with friends who regularly come to dinner, cake at church, and cake with Tyson's family (that one made by Grandma, demonstrating both loving careful attention AND some cake-decorating prowess). 

We had play-dates with his my-side aunties. We had afternoon tea with Tyson's family. A lovely collection of modest, thoughtfully chosen, minimally packaged gifts made their way home with us.

And we spent our son's birthday doing things he enjoys:

Eating letter-pancakes made by his dad;

Mouse-rides with Eva (zoooooom!);

Playing with his sister;

Digging in the potplants and eating dirt;

Showering with mum without watching the clock;

Climbing up things...

...like the shelves under the kitchen bench... 


to swipe a cherry off the birthday cake;

Swinging at the playground

And of course, his favourite gift of all, which he has carted around the house until it is in shreds, was the piece of wrapping paper sent across the country by my parents. Gran had to pad it out with a book inside so it didn't get ruined in the mail, but he saw through that immediately and knew the paper was the main event.

Initial Time: Decorating cardboard box: three half-hour(ish) sessions, one for white undercoat, one for colour, one for stickers; an hour making and decorating cakes; half-hour making a batch of afternoon tea muffins

Initial Cost: About $20 - two cakes, one basket of home-made muffins, a rubber duck

Just to be clear, I am not opposed to spending money to celebrate. But I am trying not to spend money just to 'do it right'. If I had found something expensive that would have been a great addition to our household (useful, playful, creative, open-ended, multi-use) I would have quite possibly bought it. The cardboard box was not being cheap-skate - I genuinely think our one-year-old will get more playful, creative use out of that box than any shop-bought item I considered. And it was a craft-activity for his sister, and allowed her to be really engaged with giving something special to her brother.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: Same again come September...  how to celebrate a four-year-old's birthday...

Impact: I said it better at Christmas (two posts) but its about shaping the way we and our children view celebration. How do we love each other well? Does it need stuff? 

Hopefully our choices also put a few less disposable napkins/ plates/ cups/ cutlery into landfill, along with less plastic packaging and fewer broken plastic toys. Here's an old but good post from Little Eco Footprints on where our plastic toys end up.

Oh, and that bruise in all the photos? That's because he learnt to walk the week before his birthday and walking is a hazardous game...

15 July 2013

Clothing Swap - and a one-year commitment

We have done lots of things to reduce our global footprint since we began this 'one more thing per month' commitment back in May 2009. A skim over the blog archive shows we have made attempts to live more sustainably on many fronts, but I have been aware for some time there is a gaping omission in my commitments: clothing.

In June, one of the women at our church arranged an after-worship clothing swap. She was a bit overwhelmed by the volume of discarded clothing that arrived for redistribution. 

I took four bags of clothes, and came home with one bag for me and another one for a dress-up box for Eva (collected from the unwanted items being packed up at the end).

The clothing swap ran over two weeks, so we could take things home to try and return them the following week if they didn't suit. A visiting group of young people the second week helped quite a lot of the items find a new home - they could not believe their luck to be told all the clothes were free!

So, I have slightly reduced my wardrobe's load. The next step, and the one I have been actively avoiding for a while, is to commit to not refilling it with unethical garments. As this blog is called 'Small Steps' I have finally decided it is OK to commit to a small step only at this stage: for the 2013-14 financial year, I will not purchase any items of clothing for myself that are not ethically sourced and/or second-hand.

Its a small step only because I have not included clothing purchases for the children, and I have not committed to more than twelve months. 

A great deal of the clothes my children wear are hand-me-downs (to those who have passed clothes on to me for the kids - thank you! - you know who you are. Especially you who keep on handing on the next sizes after we grow past the welcome truckload of baby clothes) but just last week I bought Eva a whole pile of leggings - 'soft pants' - as she won't wear anything else at present and suddenly grew out the top and through the bottom of nearly all her existing such garments. They were $7 each and I knew as I purchased them that it could not be possible for everyone in the supply chain to have been paid and cared for appropriately for their work in making them. Eva will fit into them for a year if I am lucky. I am still struggling to commit to paying what I should be for clothes that will need replacing next year.

My first thought is that I may well simply buy nothing for myself this year. I have enough clothes. I tend to buy clothes on a whim, not go searching for a specific item. Figures from 2007 showed Australians spent $10.4 billion on clothes in that year and estimated that by 2013 we would be spending close to $12.8 billion. An average Australian woman purchases 56 clothing items per year (men buy less - around 29). Aside from proving that I am not an average Australian woman, as I find this figure outrageous and can't imagine what I would do with more than one new item of clothes per week, these statistics illustrate that we are consuming clothing at an unsustainable rate.

The most obvious issue of concern in the clothing industry is the poor conditions and low pay of clothing manufacturing workers. The horror of over 1000 clothing workers dying in Bangladesh in April because their building collapsed on them has brought the issue of third-world factory conditions to western media attention, if briefly. It is perhaps less well known that between 50 and 70% of Australian-made clothing is produced by piece-workers, often migrant women with few choices, who work to ridiculous deadlines, generally in cramped conditions, and end up earning on average $5-$8 per hour. In Australia. And many earn less - $3 an hour is well-documented - while having no superannuation, holidays or workers' compensation, and often being required to provide and maintain their own machines and tools.

Besides the immediate human impact, there are also significant environmental issues involved in the production of clothes. All that fabric comes from somewhere - cotton fields heavily sprayed with pesticides are a big supplier; non-renewable petrochemical-based materials such as nylon, vinyl, spandex, acrylic and polyester account for a significant portion of my wardrobe. All manner of chemicals are used to turn those raw materials into clothes that are coloured, shaped, pressed, washed, displayed and packaged for our purchase. Like most things we consume, clothes have often travelled a long way to reach us - and not by solar vehicles. Much clothing ends up in landfill - sadly, large amounts get there without ever being worn, but even well-worn garments are generally destined to get to the tip in the end, and if they are not natural fibres, they will have a long and stinky life there.

Buying second-hand is better than buying unethical clothes brand new, but I am also slightly uneasy about it. I have had patches in my life when I could only afford clothes if purchased from an op shop - including when I needed to outfit myself for my first professional job. It frustrated me enormously that the best items were often picked out by bargain hunters who could have afforded to buy new clothes but liked op shops.  I promised myself then that when I had a real income I would leave op shop goodies for those who had no other options. Another friend follows a policy of always paying double the shelf price when buying from an op shop. I don't entirely avoid second-hand stores, but it will be a challenge in the coming year to buy ethical, not just to avoid buying new at all.

Initial Time: Clothing swap: half an hour going through my clothes. I would have liked to take longer but it was not to be. Perhaps I was more ruthless because I was in a hurry. The clothing swap itself was a lovely friendly chat with friends while having a cuppa and wandering among rows of clothes - I don't consider it time 'spent'.
Twelve-month commitment: much thinking; no actual set-aside time. 

Initial Cost: Zero

Ongoing time or cost commitment: I am guessing individual garments will cost more, but cutting out impulse buying will mean the overall cost is about even. Similarly, time spent hunting for ethical brands will be an addition, but no longer meandering into any old clothing store that says 'sale' should be a time-saver.

Impact: Clothing swap: many of us reduced our wardrobes while adding a few items at no cost to us, to workers or to the environment; fifteen bags of clothing were gathered up at the end and passed on to charity shops. Not bad for a church gathering that has about 40 adults present on any given week.
Twelve-month commitment: I can't quantify it but I hope it will be two-fold: (1) ceasing to provide funds to clothing companies with unethical practices (2) actively financially supporting producers and retailers who are doing the right thing. I suspect it may also have the impact of changing my heart towards clothing. Just a couple of hours tonight researching this issue to write this blog have me already more concerned and willing to act differently than I have been in a long while.

I will try to let you know how this works out for me over the coming year.


Slightly old but useful SMH article on Australian fashion cycles, consumer trends and their environmental and social impacts. Scroll to the almost-bottom for the 'life-cycle of fast fashion'. 

Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) - formerly 'No Sweat' - the Australian accreditation scheme for ethical clothing

About Ethical Clothing Australia

Shop Ethical's info on Ethical Clothing Australia and on outworkers (homeworkers) in Australia

Shop Ethical's list of (as of today 120) clothing brands with ethical credentials - fair trade, organic, Australian made, alternative fibres, second hand etc, vegan (?!) and ECA-accredited. Listed in table-form showing which of these the brand gets a tick for, with links to the websites of each brand.

Fair Wear Australia - 'aims to end the exploitation of workers in the garment industry, in Australia and overseas'

Textile Clothing and Footwear Workers Union of Australia - includes information on various issues, and campaigns to participate in (eg. recent work to raise money for victims and families effected by the Bangladesh factory collapse)

Labour Behind the Label - 'supporting garment workers worldwide' - lots of campaigns to be involved in, with a resource section of research and information

Indigo Bazaar - funky-looking online fairtrade clothing shop. I haven't shopped there... yet

Check the comments section for more links or to add your own.