veal calf

Ever wondered what becomes of male dairy cows? Cows that produce milk are, of course, female. So what happens to the males? We eat them, surely? Well actually no, not often.

Dairy cows are bred to be great at producing milk. But unfortunately, this is at the expense of their meat and most dairy cows are considered to produce inferior beef. And it’s worth a lot less than regular beef to the farmer.

So normally, to save the cost and bother of rearing them, male dairy cows are shot at birth.

Last year 260,000 male calves were disposed of as a waste product of the UK dairy industry.

A few more were spared being shot and were exported to the continent and used to create traditional white veal. Whether you consider these ones the lucky ones is a matter of your point of view.

White veal, as is fairly well known, is a pretty cruel way to produce meat. In order to keep the meat white, the animals are kept in crates and deprived of light and they’re fed only on a diet of milk. It’s a practice that was banned in the UK in 1990 but still continues in France, Italy and other European countries.

However, there is an alternative, which is growing in popularity.

British ‘rose ‘ veal.

It’s called rose veal because the meat is pink not white. It’s pink because the animals lead a more natural life: in daylight and eating grass, as well as their mother’s milk. It’s being promoted by the RSPCA as a much less cruel alternative to killing the animal before it has had a chance to live.

And because it is young, it still makes good meat. It’s like really tender beef.

Typically British veal calves have a lifespan of 6-8 months. This is no worse than lamb. Lamb is of course called lamb because it is a young sheep. The definition of lamb is a sheep less than 12-months old. After that it becomes mutton.

Killing an animal at birth seems incredibly cruel and wasteful. But without consumer demand for meat from male dairy cows, it is inevitably what will happen to them. Unless they are packed off to France for an even worse fate.

So if you eat milk, cheese and butter, then you should consider eating veal too. Possibly even if you’re a veggy that eats dairy. They are all products of the dairy industry. And if you consume milk, then you are in some small way responsible for the male calves.

If you buy some veal escalopes or veal mince instead of regular beef, you are also reducing the demand for regular beef, which as has been discussed a lot in the press recently, has a fairly large environmental impact.

Rose veal is becoming pretty widely available and the supermarkets seem to be increasingly stocking escallops, mince and other British veal. As with all meat, free-range or organic is the best choice as it means there are much higher welfare standards.

Fewer than one in 100 people eat veal in the UK. But what many of us have considered to be one of the most unethical culinary choices over recent years, could actually can be one of the most ethical. And we can be smug about being more caring than the French.

Excellent. Who’s for a veal burger?



I’ve just signed up to something called 10:10. It’s is a very simple but very clever idea.

10:10 is a campaign that aims to encourage people, businesses and organisations in the UK to sign up to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010. That’s it.

It’s about collectively pledging to all do our bit for the planet. It’s simple. It’s positive. It doesn’t have some of the militant negative baggage that many environmental campaigns suffer from. And, for most people, it’s really quite easy to achieve.

But, it also has the potential to be more effective than simply cutting some emissions next year. I’ll explain.

It’s timing is particularly significant because this December in Copenhagen a new global treaty on climate change is being negotiated. The treaty is the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement where a number of countries agreed to cut their greenhouse emissions. This time around, the idea is to get the whole world to do the same.

The treaty is hugely important as without a significant agreement binding both rich and developing countries to targets to reduce emissions in order to keep temperatures within 2 degrees, we stand very little chance of avoiding something very, very, very bad indeed. What happens above two degrees is terrifying.

Anyway, enough scary stuff. Back to 10:10 and it’s significance to Copenhagen.

If a significant number of British people, businesses and organisations sign up, it does two important things.

First, it gives negotiators a real mandate to go the extra mile. If there is obvious support to cut emissions amongst the public (voters) then politicians have much more of a remit to sign up to tough targets and persuade other rich countries to do the same.

Secondly, it sends an important message to developing countries. The current line coming from governments such as India and China is that they want rich countries to take the lead and start making significant cuts immediately. Currently there are targets for 2020 and 2050 but the scientist say global emissions (which are still growing) need to peak in the next few years and then reduce rapidly. If the UK is seen to be serious about cutting emissions in the short term, this may help to persuade developing countries to agree to some targets of their own.

Essentially, the campaign is about getting ordinary people, who don’t normally get involved in environmentalism, to show they care.

Showing they care is really important. By showing they care, they give the politicians the remit to get an effective deal done. Something that is currently looking very much in the balance.

If enough people sign up then the Government may even consider setting a legal target. Which would be a very strong negotiating tactic at Copenhagen. And wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say that in some small way you effected Government policy that in turn effected a treaty the whole world signed up to?

20,000 people and 1000 business have already signed up. These include a diverse range of well known faces from Kevin McLeod and Delia Smith to Colin Firth and Vivienne Westwood, businesses like Royal Mail, Tottenham Hotspurs and Adams Brewery along with the whole cabinet, shadow cabinet, all Liberal Democrat local councils and Ed Miliband, Environment Secutary. And the campaign launched less than a month ago. The momentum is building.

10:10 is not something for beardy weirdy hairshirt wearing environmentalists. It’s for everyone. Much like planet earth.

So I’d urge you to sign up. Even if you’ve never done anything like it before. Show them in charge that you care. This is the most important issue we will ever face. But if we act together we can easily do something about it. So let’s do it.

Sign up at: 1010uk.org

Go on. And then maybe tell you friends.


A few months ago I talked about meat. I decided I’d eat less, better meat. From animals that had led a decent and natural life and that had been farmed in a non-intensive and sustainable way.

I also made the decision that, because of its huge environmental impact, I’d restrict beef, the biggest meaty environmental offender, to a once-a-month treat.

Well, I reckon I’ve just about managed it. But there’s nothing like a bit of red meat every now and again. So I’m also pleased to say that I’ve found an excellent beef-alternative that I’ve started to buy more of.


So, a quick reminder why we should eat less meat, beef in particular.

If you live in the UK and eat meat regularly, the chances are that this makes up at least 10% of your carbon footprint. Once you add in methane (or cow fart), a greenhouse gas 25-times more potent than CO2, farming cattle accounts for nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than transport does.

Meat is really inefficient to produce. You feed the animal a lot more calories than you get out. Beef is the most inefficient by far, needing 10 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of beef.

Intensively farmed cows don’t often get the opportunity to eat grass as a cow should and instead are fed maize, corn and other grains. Three quarters of agricultural land in the EU is now used to grow animal feed. And the huge demand for it means that we now import feed from far-flung places such as Brazil where the pressure for land leads to deforestation and the destruction of the Amazon.

OK, so we know all this.

What about the venison?

Well, deer are wild. Even when they’re farmed, they resist domestication. This means they’re always free-range and are not intensively produced.

Although most of the venison you find in Supermarkets will be farmed, a lot of wild venison is also sold in the UK.

In Scotland and the south of England the deer population has been booming over recent years and deer have been becoming a bit of a pest. Because they cause a lot of damage to woodlands and trees, deer are often culled. This meat is usually sold, perhaps at your local butchers. So if you eat wild venison, not only has your meat had as natural a life as it possibly could, but you’re also helping to stop a small bit of deer-related deforestation and making sure that good meat doesn’t go to waste.

Even farmed deer mainly eat grass and not grain. They can be farmed on marginal land like sheep. Land that’s only good for growing grass, such as the Scottish highlands.

Cleverly, deer naturally reduce their appetite in winter, when grass is more scare and go into semi hibernation. Farmed deer are often given hay and reject root vegetables in winter. These can easily be produced locally and makes good use of second-rate veg that us humans might turn our noses up at.

Unlike cows, deer haven’t been selectively bred over centuries and so they don’t suffer from many of the diseases that traditional farm animals do. This means that they don’t need to be given antibiotics, hormones and other drugs that are commonly given to intensively farmed, non-organic cows, which also can end up in your beef.

The most humane way to kill a deer is to shoot it in its natural habitat, which is still legal for game. This means that, unlike a cow, it is spared a distressing final journey to the abattoir (which, unless the cow walks there, also creates carbon emissions). The deer is instantly killed and suffers no distress. Other deer are apparently unconcerned by one of their number suddenly dropping dead as this doesn’t happen in the wild.

And there are some very good health reasons to eat venison.

Venison is very low in fat and cholesterol and is much better for you than beef. It’s often recommended as part of a low-fat diet. It also contains more iron than any other red meat.

It’s cheaper than similar quality cuts of beef. A couple of good steaks will be around £6 and steak patties are only a couple of quid for two.

You can use it to make burgers, sausages, Bolognese, stews, casseroles or simply cook it as a steak. Pretty much anything you do with beef you can do with venison. You may need to add some fatty bacon or pork belly fat to it though as it is so lean.

Half a million years ago, when we were hunters, half our diet was venison (the word venison originally meant meat that was hunted). In medieval times, it was highly regarded meat and poaching venison from the king’s forest could cost you your hand.

Although it is now wildly farmed – there 300 deer parks producing 5 thousand deer every year in the UK – and therefore much wildly available, we still tend to treat it as exotic and something that you might only eat as an occasional indulgence. My mother delights in cooking a venison stew or “Rudolf Casserole” every Christmas Eve and includes a single whole cherry tomato – his nose. We consider it a festive (if slightly disturbing) treat.

But given that it’s better for you, cheaper and less damaging for the planet than similar meat, I think we should eat more. So next time you’re buying some beef for your tea, stop. Try buying venison instead.

Just don’t call it Rudolf.



We eat nearly three million tonnes of bread every year in the UK. But back in 1961, we ate twice as much.

What happened?

1961 was a bad year for bread. In a place called Chorleywood near Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association created a new way of baking.

Real bread should contain just three basic things: flour, water and yeast. Salt is also usually added to bring out the flavour and often some fat is added to stop it going stale too quickly. But that’s pretty much it.

It’s kneaded by hand and needs to be left to ‘prove’ or ferment, ideally more than once, for anything between 20 minutes and two hours. And it takes 40-50 minutes to bake. It’s a time consuming, labour intensive process.

In 1961, researchers in Chorleywood found a way of making bread fast. They found that if you used lower quality flours you could use machines to knead dough. They discovered that adding vegetable fat along with processing aids, oxidising agents, emulsifiers, additives and ‘improvers’ meant that fermentation times could be substantially reduced. And that you could bake at a higher temperature much more quickly.

In this way, they created a way to make a loaf of bread nearly two hours quicker and with much less effort. Result.

It has become know as the Chorleywood Bread Process (or CBP) and is now used to make 98% of the bread we buy in the UK.

So why has this made us fall out of love with the loaf?

The problem with mass-produced industrialised bread is that it is much less tasty, much harder to digest and much less good for you.

How many people do you know now who are gluten intolerant or allergic? Or avoid eating too much bread because it makes them feel bloated or ill? I know quite a lot. A surprising and growing number of them.

This almost certainly because of the way most bread is made now.

Bread that is fermented quickly is much harder to digest. This is because the gluten is much stronger. The varieties of wheat that most suit mechanical mixing also have stronger gluten. Which adds to the problem.

Flour used to make mass-produced bread, is mechanically milled. High-speed milling strips the flour of most of its natural nutrients which means you need to add fats and artificial additives later to compensate. More fat is also added to help the bread hold it’s shape, something that it doesn’t do naturally because of the fast fermentation. Mass produced bread has a much higher fat content than bread really should have.

Then there’s where it’s made.

80% of mass-produced bread is produced in just eleven industrial plant bakeries. Most of the rest is produced in Supermarket bakeries which are in reality just mini versions of these plants.

Because of the highly industrialised process, these plants are very energy inefficient, typically using nearly three times as much power per loaf as a small artisan bakery or home baking. Which from a carbon foot print point of view, isn’t good.

Because there’s only eleven of them, loafs have to be driven all over the country, wracking up food miles. Your mass produced loaf is probably quite well traveled. Bread baked at a local bakers or at home has far fewer food miles than one of the best known brands.

So what bread should you buy?

Well, ideally, you want to buy bread from a local artisan baker who has made it using their hands. Bread made with hands tastes better. The Real Bread Campaign, who are trying to raise awareness of the bread problem, has a real bread finder on their website.

You want bread made with stone ground flour. Stone ground flour is made using the slower, traditional method and means that most of the good stuff remains in it. It’s also likely to be easier to digest. So is spelt flour which was used by the Romans and hasn’t been modified or cross bred since.

Should it be organic? Well this is up for debate.

Only 15,000 hectares of organic wheat is grown in the UK,  only one percent of the wheat we grow. We’re 80% self sufficient in bread wheat but much of the organic wheat we use is imported.

Organic wheat takes only two thirds of energy to grow, mainly because you don’t need to use fertilizers. But it needs three times the land for the same yield.

However, fertilizers and pesticides are not good for bio diversity. The recent crash in the bee population is partly attributed to their use. And without bees many of our fruit and vegetables wouldn’t be pollinated.

Most non organic bread also contains residues of pesticides, not at harmful levels but they’re still probably not too good for you.

So if it’s made of organic wheat grown in the UK then definitely buy it. Help create the demand for it. Otherwise, it’s up to you.

Even better than buying bread, is making it yourself.

You can make a home made organic loaf for less than half the price of a mass produced non-organic loaf. And it’ll taste a hundred times better.

Obviously making it by hand is the best and altogether most satisfying way to do it.

However, using a breadmaker also isn’t bad. Breadmaker machines use more power to mix the dough but are more efficient at baking than a normal oven. And they’re dead easy to use. Most have a timer setting that allows you to chuck the ingredients together before you go to bed and you wake up to the smell of freshly baking bread. I can guarantee there’s no better alarm clock.

I love bread. To my mind there is no nobler food than a really good loaf. I am sad that we have debased one of our oldest, most reliable staples to the point where it’s a pale imitation of what it should be and many of us aren’t eating it anymore because it’s tasteless and almost indigestible.

So then. Make your own bread. Perhaps buy a breadmaker. Or support a proper baker by buying it from a real bakery if you’re lucky enough to have one near you. It might cost a bit more but so it should. And it’ll be worth it.

It’s the best thing since…

Oh, no, it’s much better than that.

A really simple soda bread recipe

This recipe is so easy. It takes less than 10 mins to make and less than 25 mins to bake. It’s also very difficult to get wrong. If I forget to put the bread maker on, I make this.


  • 500kg flour (plain, wholemeal or I particularly like spelt)
  • 4tsp baking powder
  • 2tsp salt
  • 300 ml water/milk/thin yogurt/fruit juice or a combination

Pre heat the oven to 200 degrees / gas mark 6. Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the liquid and make into a dough.

Briefly knead it in the bowl. Knock it about a bit. Divide the dough into two and shape into a round. Put some fresh flour on your hands and rub over the outside. Put the dough onto a heavy baking sheet and pat into a loaf shape. Cut across the top of the loaf – over half way down and stab all over. Make sure there’s space between the loaves and bake for 20-25 minutes.

The bread should be golden brown and sound hollow when you tap the base. Leave to cool on a wire rack but eat it while it’s still warm. With some butter. Yum.

You can also add herbs, olives or a spoonful of black treacle to make a sweeter bread that’s good with Irish Stew. Be creative!

If you want to know more about making bread, I can thoroughly recommend The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens.

Transition Town Handbook

I’m currently feeling inspired as a result of a pretty depressing realisation. I’m still making sense of it because it rocks your world a bit. But I feel that it’s something that needs to be shared. So I hope you’ll read on.

Let me explain…

I’ve just read a book called The Transition Handbook. At it’s heart is a theory that I didn’t really know much about.

Peak Oil.

Here’s a very rough summary of Peak Oil theory.

Oil is a finite resource. It’s not going to last forever and at some point we’re going to use it all up. For the last 150 years or so we’ve been discovering new reserves of oil and finding more and more inventive uses for the energy it provides us with. And, in the process, becoming very dependent on it.

However, the number of discoveries of new oil fields are getting fewer and fewer. Where in the past we were discovering more oil than we were using. Now we’re doing the opposite. We’re using more oil than we’re discovering.

But that’s alright because there’s still loads left right? Well no…

It’s not that simple. We can’t just keep going until we use the last drop. The theory’s called Peak Oil because it’s the peak of production that is important.

Once we go past the peak, demand for oil will start to outstrip the supply. Which means that the price of oil will begin to rise as it becomes more scarce. And this also means that everything that we consume that relies on oil will also become more expensive.

And that’s pretty much everything.

Our society is totally dependent on oil. We use it to heat our homes, to make plastics and fertilisers and, most fundamentally, we use it for transport.

Transport is key. It’s not just about our personal travel. It’s about everything that we transport. And that includes our food.

Very little of the food we now eat is grown close to us. And much of it is imported from far flung reaches of the world. It comes a long way. And without transport to bring food to us, we could stave.

During the truckers dispute in 2000, the UK came one day away from enforcing food rationing. The army was readied to deal with the civil unrest that this might cause. Fortunately the dispute was resolved and we never knew.

Because of the way Supermaket supply chains work to maximize efficiency, a single day without deliveries could wipe out stocks of chilled and perishable goods. Other products would begin to run out within three or four days. Within weeks the shelves would be bare.

As the old saying goes, “civilization is only three meals deep”.

As well as food, we need oil to transport building materials, clothes and everything else that we once sourced locally but now buy in. We’re also pretty reliant on oil to create electricity for heating, lighting and cooking.

A world without oil would be quite different.

So when will we reach Peak Oil?

Well no one really knows. But it’s likely to be quite close. It may even have already happened.

Oil companies are, understandably, not very willing to share information about their oil reserves. Their businesses (and share prices) are dependent on us living our lives on the assumption that there’s loads of it. They’re not going to tell us if they’re getting a bit short.

There are indications though, that they are preparing for their businesses to be smaller. Some are buying back their own shares and there is a fair bit of consolidation happening. Both are signs of a market preparing to contract.

A number of independent observers have tried to estimate when the peak will be based on what data we do know. Some suggest it has already happened in the last couple of years. Some suggest it will be very soon. Hardly any have estimated it will happen later than 2015. That’s means we’ve got six years tops before the price of oil begins to rise.

And all this is without thinking about the effects of climate change which is a whole other, perhaps better reason for us to kick our dependence on oil. The book also looks at this but since it’s a much better understood topic, I won’t go into it here.

But, I hear you cry, surely new technology will save us?

Well unfortunately, according to Rob Hopkins the book’s author, it’s unlikely. At least in the near future.

Renewables like wind, solar and wood are very important and will go some way to provide us with the electricity we need. If we use it more efficiently. However liquid fuels – petrol and diesel – are much more tricky.

Biofuels aren’t the answer. We’d need six times as much land as there is on earth to grow the grains to meet the current demand for fuel. And technologies like hydrogen are far from working.

So we’re going to have to find ways to cope with a lot less oil. Or only use it for things where we’re willing to pay a high price for it. So that certainly means less transport. And only transporting stuff over much shorter distances. Which obviously is a very big deal. We’ve created a society that is very fragile.

That’s the depressing bit.

I was a bit quiet for a couple of days after I read the first few chapters.

But then I read on…

There’s a reason that it’s a “handbook”. And this is where it becomes inspiring.

The book’s strap line is “From oil dependency to local resilience”. A resilient society is one that can cope with external shocks. Shocks like rapidly rising oil prices. The idea is that we use this knowledge and we do something about it. We start working to make our society resilient.

Rob argues in a very compelling way that we should start to do something about it now. We could transition to a much more localised economy within 20 years and escape the most catastrophic effects of peak oil and climate change. We could produce the essentials we need to live – food, energy and building materials – within our local community.

We could also, in the process, end up with a much more pleasant way of life. We could embrace the need to change and use it as a way to improve how we live.

A world with less traffic would be more peaceful, less polluted and slower paced. We could be healthier, with a better diet and more exercise, be less stressed and generally happier. And living in a localised society would give us a much greater sense of community and purpose.

A society reliant on the local community has lots of benefits. If things are produced nearby, we’re much more likely to make sure they’re done in a way that we are comfortable with. Animals are more likely to be farmed in a humane and healthy way and clothes are more likely to be produced by people who earn a decent wage and work acceptable hours. With a resurgence in local manufacturing, there’s likely to be higher levels of employment. And a local bank that invests in real things within it’s local economy is a lot less likely to get into trouble.

We’d have much more of a connection to people who grow our food. If it starts to become more scare, would you rather be reliant on? Your neighbour who’s growing it in the field next door or somebody who lives on the other side of the world and knows nothing about you?

Doing without oil, doesn’t mean going back in time. There is plenty from the past that we can learn from but we have a lot more knowledge and technology now that we can use to make sure our lives continue to be pleasant.

So is it possible to change our oil dependant ways quickly?

Well, Hopkins points out there’s a very good example in the recent past of a time when our society did change rapidly.

In 1936, two-thirds of the food Britain consumed was imported. With the threat of war looming, plans began to be made to make Britain more self-sufficient. But it wasn’t until 1940, after the outbreak of hostilities, that a long term policy was produced.

By 1944, food production had risen 91%. Britain was able to feed itself for 160 days rather than 120 days as it had in 1939. That’s a massive change in only four years. After petrol rationing was introduced, car usage dropped 95% between 1938 and 1944. And people coped.

Rapid change can be done. But ideally you want to do it over 20 years so that the change is more gradual, less dramatic and easier to manage. Which means we need to start now. And this is where Rob’s Transition Town initiatives come in.

Rob Hopkins is the founder of the Transition Movement. The initial experiment began in Kinsale near Cork in Ireland whilst he was lecturing in Permaculture. However, it was only when he returned to his home town of Totnes in Devon that the first true Transition Town began.

It’s a grass roots initative, started by Rob and local people but it has grown to touch most of the community and now has the support of the local council. The idea is that change needs to begin and be managed at a local level.

Totnes now has an energy descent plan: a roadmap to wean itself off oil over the next twenty years. It has it’s own local currency, accepted by most local shops and designed to encourage the community to invest in the local economy. And there’s many other projects designed to move the town gradually to a more sustainable future.

There are now hundreds of Transition initiatives all over the UK and other parts of the world. Lewes in Sussex soon followed Totnes’ lead. This week there was an article in the free London paper about Brixton launching it’s own local currency. Some are more advanced than others. There may well be an initiative near you.

According to a recent Waterstones poll of book’s that MPs are reading, The Transition Town Handbook came number five on the list. People seem to be beginning to notice.

Recently, I heard the head of the soil association talking about peak oil. He compared it to the credit crunch. Now it’s happened, most of us can’t understand how no one saw it coming. It seems so obvious now that it would all go wrong. It could easily be the same with peak oil. A food and energy crunch is next. We’ll look back and wonder why our government didn’t prepare us for what could be a catastrophic oversight.

The thing is, Governments only will do what they think people will vote for. And that’s why starting with grass roots initiatives seems to make sense. If the government see that it’s something that people are worried about then they’ll look at developing policies to do something about it. In places like Totnes, it appears that it’s already beginning to happen on a local level.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been quite take by the compelling argument that Hopkins sets out in the book. And, perhaps more importantly, his approach to dealing with the problem. If you’re not, I’d urge you to read it. I’m sure he puts it better than I have.

Whether peak oil comes to pass or not, I believe we should make sure that we have the fundamentals to our survival within easy reach. It seems bonkers that we don’t. We should grow enough food to feed us in our local communities and only import in stuff that we can’t grow ourselves and that isn’t essential to our survival.

Even if peak oil turns out to be a myth, climate change is another almost certainly better reason to leave oil in the ground.

The future seems increasingly uncertain, with the world’s globalised economy in the worst recession for eighty years and the first effects of climate change beginning to be seen.

So I reckon we should begin to prepare ourselves to cope in the way that we did in 1939.

Just in case.

But we should also seize this as an opportunity to change the way we live for the better. To go back to growing food in a more natural and less industrialised way. To make our communities more reliant on each other and in the process more friendly and cohesive.

It’s easy to get depressed and feel helpless about subjects like peak oil and climate change. It’s easy to pretend it’s not happening and live in denial. But it clearly is happening.

What I like about the transition approach it is about embracing the problem, it’s about doing something about it and sharing the anxiety about the future with others. It’s about turning a big fat big negative in to an even bigger positive. It’s a good way to deal with it.

Once you get passed the gloomy first few chapters the book is relentlessly upbeat. You could argue that it paints a bit of a utopian fantasy. But why not? You’ve got to have something to aim at and the picture it paints is a society that I’d rather be part of.

Like I said at the start, I’m still processing this information. It’s a lot to take in. And probably not something that should be rushed. But I suspect I’m going to do something with it. And if you’ve read this far, I hope that you might too.

Listen to Rob Hopkins explain peak oil and the Transition Movement in The Soil Assoication’s podcast.


Do you know what the biggest environmental impact of your clothes is?

It’s not growing the fabric. Although as I’ve previously mentioned, normal cotton is, environmentally speaking, pretty bad.

It’s not manufacturing it. It’s not even transporting it from where it’s made (even if it was a very long way away).

It’s washing and drying it.

In a recent Marks and Spencer’s study, they looked at an average pair of men’s cotton briefs. They reckoned that, on average, they had a two year life and were washed 52 times a year at 60 degrees. Half of the time, they were tumble dried.

Growing the cotton accounted for 2.6% of the pant’s carbon footprint. The manufacture of the product accounted for another 12.6%. Transporting and selling the pants was another 4%.

Which leaves nearly 81%.

This is down to guy who bought and wore them.

A bit, around 3%, was created transporting it back from the shops. The rest of the carbon footprint was created by washing and drying them. The biggest chunk being tumble drying.

The average UK household uses their washing machine 274 times a year. That’s three days in every four. Using a washing machine accounts for 10% of the energy the average person uses. And 12% of the water we use, is in our washing machine.

The majority of the energy a washing machine uses – over 90% – is used to heat the water. So washing clothes at lower temperatures makes a really big difference. Reducing the heat from 60 degrees to 30 saves about half of the energy. And a few quid too.

Having a decent, reasonably new washing machine helps too. An A+ rated model uses two thirds of the energy a standard machine uses. And a new machine generally only uses half the water that a 10-year-old machine would. Since over 90% of a washing machine’s carbon footprint comes from its use, rather than it’s manufacture and disposal, buying a new, more efficient model might actually be more environmentally friendly.

On the plus side, a modern washing machine is pretty efficient with water and so washing clothes by hand generally uses more water. So you can relax and not feel guilty about not using a mangle.

Make sure you do full loads though. Doing a 3.5kg wash rather than a 3kg wash is apparently about 14% more efficient. Don’t go washing those pants on their own.

Tumble drying is really bad. A tumble dryer can use over 2kw of power for an average cycle. That’s seven times as much as a 30 degree wash. Or the same as three and a half 60 degree washes.

Ironing is also pretty power hungry, using more than ten times as much as a 100 watt light bulb. Where possible, it should be avoided, which comes as a relief to me but will probably disappoint my mother.

And then there’s how often we wash stuff.

I reckon most of us wash clothes more regularly than is strictly necessary. I’m not suggesting that we should all go feral and go in to work a bit wiffy. But I reckon that generally I could probably get two wears out of a shirt rather than one before I wash it. Certainly during winter. And if I did that, I’ve nearly halved my shirt’s carbon footprint. Result.

So then.

Try and wash your clothes less.

Within reason obviously.

Wash them at 40 degrees or, even better, 30 if your machine will do it. If you’ve got a really old knackered machine, maybe think about getting a new one. Use a washing line or drying rack instead of tumbling unless you really need to. We don’t own one and live in a tiny flat, so frankly, I don’t think you really do.

And, if you can get away with it, don’t iron it.

Sorry mum.


coffee beans

So far, I’ve not written about coffee. Coffee is fairly symbolic of ethical consumerism. I suppose it seemed, well, a bit of an obvious place to start. But as a passionate coffee drinker, who consumes at least one, fairly strong cup of black coffee every morning, I realised I didn’t know that much about it. I thought it was about time I looked a little deeper than the Fair Trade label.

So what should I know about my morning cuppa?

Well, those coffee lovers amongst you will be glad to hear that, ecologically speaking at least, drinking coffee is a fairly good thing to do.

Here’s why.

Coffee is an evergreen crop. It will keep giving fruit for as long as fifty years. That means that it doesn’t have to be constantly dug up and replanted like many crops which is bad for the soil. Instead, coffee plants help stablise and build soil and prevent erosion.

Coffee prefers shade, so it can grow in the shade of a larger forest which means that, unlike many forms of agriculture, coffee farmers protect rainforest and don’t clear it. Shady coffee plantations also encourage a large range of biodiversity including birds. Birds love eating bugs and so this removes much of the need to use chemical pesticides. So growing organic coffee is relatively easy.

The majority of the world’s coffee – around 70% – is grown on small farms by independent farmers. Tea, in contrast, tends to be grown in large plantations owned by big multinationals. So by buying coffee you are usually helping to support small independent farmers who are farming in ecologically sound and sustainable ways. If they couldn’t make a living from growing coffee, they might consider farming something much more environmentally damaging or illegal crops like coca or marijuana.

Until the end of the 1980s, the coffee industry was regulated by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO). The ICO was made up of producer and consumer countries and aimed to keep supply matching demand and therefore prices at a realistic level. However, disagreements between the partners and the general trend of trade deregulation led to dismantling this quota system.

Suddenly, there were more and more people growing coffee. Countries such as Vietnam invested heavily in coffee and became a new major supplier.

Many of the new players, in order to compete, began growing “sun coffee” rather than cultivating it in the shade. Growing coffee in direct sunlight means that it produces coffee quicker but the plants only last 10-15 years and generally require more chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It also often means that land is cleared to grow it. Some campaign groups have suggested that this is helping destroy a large number of the world’s natural ecosystems.

The increase in supply wasn’t good for the farmers either. The large amounts of coffee on the market led to coffee prices crashing, hitting rock bottom in 2001. Despite having recovered a little over recent years, the plentiful supply means that the poor old farmers get paid a pittance for their beans.

And to make matters worse, the coffee-buying market is dominated by multinationals who by their very nature, chase bigger profits and make the most of this over supply. The big UK coffee manufactures Nestle, Kraft (Maxwell House and Kenco) and Sara Lee (Douwe Egberts) have all been accused of maintaining the status quo.

And this is, of course, where Fair Trade comes in.

The Fair Trade mark can be applied to products that have been sourced following ethical trading principals. These principals include paying a minimum price.

The mark was originally developed by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone with the idea to link co-operative stores in London with producers in the developing world and cut out the middle men. The scheme was set up with more in mind than just ensuring a fair price. It was about helping fund community projects.

Since then, companies such as Café Direct have built on this ethos and today, as well as paying their farms a higher price for their goods, the company have also invested £20,000 in project such as tree nurseries, school scholarships and local roads.

In the shops, fair trade coffee only costs fractionally more. But the farmers who grow it can receive up to three times the amount they would from non-Fair Trade coffee. It’s still not much, or perhaps what many would consider ‘fair’, but it’s a lot better than coffee without the mark. Personally, I’d even pay more if I thought it was going to the folk who grew it.

Then there’s the issue of instant coffee. In most of the world, instant coffee only makes up 20% of the coffee drunk. In the UK, 80% of the coffee we drink is instant.

To produce instant coffee, you take a great quality product, that has a long shelf life and put it through a series of energy-intensive industrial processes to make a far inferior product. If you’re making decaf, you’re also chemically removing the only worthwhile ingredient. What are we thinking?

So next time you’re out buying coffee, buy the real thing. Buy Fair Trade. Ideally, buy organic too. It’s quite hard to find coffee that is both, but Percol and Café Direct both do it. They also have the advantage that they relatively small companies and are not owned by multinationals and they invest in coffee growing communities. And if you can, buy shade-grown coffee. Most organic coffee is.

Tomorrow morning, as I’m sipping my coffee, I’m going to take a moment and ponder who might have grown it. I think you should too.