Ethical Consumerism: What Can We Do?

We live in a world where consumerism is rampant. With low budget retailers and constant competition from the high street, what can we do to be more conscious about what we buy, what we use, and where from, especially in the run up to the biggest consumer period of the year, Christmas?

It would seem that the age-old saying of knowledge is power is apt yet again in this case. I know that the world runs at an insane pace, with jobs, education, friends, family, pets, and whatever life throws at you all taking up an insane amount of time – who has time to research where their things come from, source and who has enough money to buy ethically, and why is it important?

Like you and me, the manufactures have to make a profit in order to run successfully. You take a look on EBay, Amazon, ASOS or any big retailers, you’ll see they’re off run with cheap Chinese knock offs, which probably weren’t manufactured in the most ethical way – but it isn’t just clothes, or consumer items, or even just food – it’s everything on the market. You may have heard the awful case of the Apple factories in China having to put suicide nets outside their windows, or several companies who have had messages of desperation hidden in their goods. All these goods have to be made by someone, either manufactured of processed, and cheap goods come at a price.

It’s understandable that companies have a make a profit, but this is passed down the chain one way or another. If a company charges virtually nothing for their goods, how can they pay their employees? These issues aren’t always far away either – like the voices calling for a ‘living wage’ both in the UK and worldwide, providing employees a wage they can actually live off. Giving those who work on our food, clothes, and other consumer goods is so necessary – we all need to survive.

On top of all that, there’s the carbon footprint of all goods. Everything we manufacture has an affect on the environment, even the manufacture of paper contributes a huge amount to the carbon dioxide in the environment – do we really need everything to be so disposable?

There have recently been great waves of companies claiming corporate social responsibility by offering products that are organic, fair trade, ethically produced, or somehow socially responsible, but few people actually know what they mean – so how can you educate yourself and what can we do in reality? The little steps to making the world a better place start with you.

Piles of books on a wooden floor

  •  Stay up to date – If a company you buy from has been in the news to do with their structures and policies, maybe you should probably think about stopping buying from them. If there’s a company you’re particularly interested in, think about setting up a Google Alert to stay on top of what’s going on.
Hobby Lobby boycott USA

Photo credit: Joe Brusky on flickr

  • Make the most of technology – If animal welfare is up your alley, PETA have a great search engine on their site where you can check whether a retailer is cruelty free in an instant. They also have an app for the tech savvy. Animal guilt free shopping in an instant! If only there was a similar app for conditions for humans. Oh wait, at least as far as clothing is concerned, the aVOID app helps you steer clear of products made using child labour. And there are a ton of other apps that help you become a so-called conscious consumer. Check out a rundown here.
Photo credit: Mister G.C. on Flickr

Photo credit: Mister G.C. on Flickr

  • Source your food – Look around to see where you can buy your goods from! If looking at food, see what you can source locally, from farms nearby or local markets. You’re not only supporting the local economy, it’s most likely it will genuinely taste better as well. It’s not always more expensive as the rumours have it, and if you can’t afford to buy all your food this way, set aside a small amount of money towards buying at least a certain amount of your weekly shop from sustainable sources.
beetrot turnip and radish farmers market

Photo credit: Gemma Billings on Flickr

  • Think before you shop – It’s not just your food. There are lots of initiatives which allow you to buy your clothes which are manufactured in fair conditions – in all areas. There are larger companies such as People Tree, Bibico and American Apparel – so you’re not forced to go obscure. Of course there are lots of smaller places where you’re able to go too – if you want that one off piece – search for handmade things on the net, or even sites like marketplace sites like Etsy. You’ll almost definitely be able to find anything and everything you’d ever want, and you’ll often be supporting local economies.
Second hand clothes and girl in a corn field

Photo credit: Leanne Surfleet

  •  Sell and Swap – Thanks to EBay, and many apps, such as Gone, Vinted and Craigslist which allow for you to sell your belongings, instead of throwing things away, sell them and make a few dollars. It contributes to lowering emissions and waste a huge amount. There are also car boot sales and often places where you can rent market stalls if in-person interaction is more your thing! If you’re lazy like me, there’s also alternatives – arrange a swap of belongings between friends, go to an organized clothes swap, have an open house day where people can take things – it doesn’t have to be difficult!
Jumble Sale with bunting and racks of clothes

Photo credit: Oxfam International on Flickr

  • Use only what is needed – Next time you’re in the supermarket – look at how much unnecessary packaging there is – plastic and paper galore (except at Berlin’s Original Unverpackt, of course). Not all products have it, but some companies are currently introducing lesser packaging options, bear this in mind when shopping. Think whether you need an extra plastic bag – or take your own reusable bags. It’s also in the workplace and at home – do you need to print that extra page or use all that clingfilm?
Plastics recycling waste packaging

Photo credit: mbeo on Flickr

  • Think – Do you really need it? Just because it’s cheap, if you don’t need it, it’s not a good deal. Try and be mindful about your purchases – do you really need what you are about to buy? Asking just this one simple question can help you cut down on waste and save money too. If you’re thinking about buying something like clothes or shoes, maybe take a step back and wait a few days to see if you’re still obsessing about whatever it was you wanted to buy. Often you’ll find out it was just a passing phase, and you will have forgotten all about it two days later.
the thinker, rodin, sculpture, art, culture

Photo credit: Gaby Av in Flickr

In short – find out as much as you can and stay aware. Things are constantly changing and there has been a push for companies to have better policies for their employees, consumer waste, treatment of animals, but the issues that affect what we consume is never-ending – we can no longer pass the buck and we must be more aware of how, what and when – take up the challenge to be more responsible for your consumerism and you’ll find the little things are easier than you think.

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Escaping the city: weekend trips to Rügen

baltic sea camera sunset over the ocean

In another attempt to practice the art of “slow travel”, and not get in an aeroplane in search of exotic adventures, I went for sun, sand and slightly sustainable instead. Yes, this summer, after more than five years in Berlin, I finally got around to visiting Germany’s famous Baltic Coast, the Ostsee, as some people (German ones) call it, otherwise known as Brighton for Berliners. In fact, I actually ended up going to the same island, twice, doing pretty much the same trip in about 10 days and travelling back to Berlin for about three days in between. Why? Well 1) because I am a ridiculous person and not good at organization and 2) because a trip to the Baltic Coast is the perfect weekend trip from Berlin. It is SO NEAR. (How did it take me five years to get there? Well, see point 1))

More importantly, I only saw a tiny bit of the island of Rügen and the weather was pissy 50% of the time, but it was still pretty much all-round aceness. So everyone should go.

Rügen Part 1

The first trip took place right in the middle of this summer’s two heatwaves, when it was rainy, windy, and cold, with a few little splashes of sun in between. The weather was so schizophrenic, even on the one whole sunny day we had there, at one point the sky went dark and there was a massive insane hailstorm. But there is of course one obvious advantage to clouds, at least broken ones: sunsets. This is the one that greeted us on our first evening (after it had stopped drizzling).

sunset at rügen in august after rain

apocalyptic clouds at ostsee rügen

last rays of august sun on rügen The next two days were mixed too, meaning we saw the beaches greyish and ominously dark…

grey ominous clouds over rügen

And also some Simpsons style sky…

strange clouds at rügen

But it wasn’t enough to stop people walking down to the water and jumping (most of them naked, we are in former East Germany after all) into those (really big and crashy) Baltic Sea waves.

swimming in the freezing baltic sea in august

The first night we just parked in a road near the beach and actually slept in the car that we came in (Please don’t do this, apparently this is not legal. But it only cost us 30 euro when we got caught, so, actually cheaper than a campsite...)

The second night we stayed in the aforementioned expensive campsite which was only about 10 minutes from a beach, in a place called Thiessow in the most south-easterly point of the island. This sign lists the different types of beach you can find on this part of the island: nudist, dog, and “textile”. A difficult choice. Take your pick.

textilstrand ostsee rügen sign

Here are some of Rügen’s vigorously fenced-off and really quite lovely dunes.

sand dunes on rügen

This trip also took us to the most northerly point of the island, the lighthouse at Cape Arkona. The weather was the grossest. I’m posting one picture and that’s it. Here.

kap arkona in the wind and rain

Right? We got back in the car and left quite soon after this assault of wind and rain and grossness. FYI, this is kind of what Germany (almost always) looks like from the motorway.

wind turbines in germany

Rügen Part 2

The second trip was to the neighbouring corner of the island (the most south-westerly point), to a place called Zicker. Only three days later, but the weather was slightly different.

rügen cornfield

rügen zicker strassenschild

One day I took a walk down to the very very southern-most point of the southern-most part of the island, to a place called Palmer Ort.palmer ort pfad schild

After about two kilometres of pretty much deserted road, heading towards the sea and about 100 metres from the beach, you run into something really cool (if you’re into this kind of thing) and completely unexpected.

verlassene sommerhäuser rügen

abandoned houses rügen

Abandoned houses! A whole group of them! Inspired by the beauty that is Abandoned Berlin, I tried to capture them in all their crumbling, faded glory (and failed). They were incredibly cool though, pretty much open still, and with lots of retro fittings (see 70s print curtains at the windows).

verlassenes haus rügen

abandoned houses rügen

The beach when I finally got to it was pretty nice too. Yes, amazingly, this is Germany.

Palmer Ort Rügen in the sun

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Walking down to the very tip of the island and seeing the waves lapping on each side was pretty special too. Access to the island is usually over a bridge, not via ferry – so it’s easy to forget you’re on a piece of land surrounded by water, Rügen just doesn’t feel like an island most of the time, and it’s massive too. Here you were reminded of the amazing geography of the place.

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Getting to Rügen from Berlin

I’d recommend getting the train from Berlin to Rügen – it doesn’t take much longer than driving, even with the regional trains, as getting out of central Berlin can take forever in a car.

There are direct (!) regional trains to Stralsund from Berlin Hauptbahnhof that take about three hours. From there you can change to another train depending on where you want to go on the island.

When I go again I’ll head for Sellin with its huge and crazy pier:

sellin pier rügen germany

Photo by xuxxy on Flickr

And to see the ancient ruins down by the beach in Heiligendamm:

heiligendamm abandoned houses rügen

Photo credit:
PercyGermany on Flickr

Original Unverpackt, Berlin: Shopping with no-added plastic

Original Unverpackt_ Jendrik Schro¦êder_ Foto3

Photo credit: Jendrik Schröder for OU

According to the German Environment Agency, there are up to 140 million tons of waste at the bottom of oceans, floating in the water, or washed up on beaches.

This shocking statistic is one of the first things you’re confronted with when you visit the website of Original Unverpackt, Berlin’s first packaging-free supermarket, that this month celebrated its first year anniversary. Original Unverpackt means something like “Originally Unpackaged” in German, and the concept is simple: they offer the same products as a normal supermarket, but they buy them in bulk, and the customers bring along their own jars, bottles, boxes and bags to put their items in (or they pay a small deposit and borrow some containers from the store). Fruits and vegetables are all free of plastic packaging, and dry stuff like rice and cereals are in big vats where you can take as much as you want to fill your container.

Original Unverpackt_katharinaMassmann_Foto7

Photo credit: Katharina Massmann for OU

It’s all really simple actually – the only thing you have to remember to do on your first visit is to weigh the empty containers before you start, so that the weight of the container can be removed from the total weight at the till, allowing the cashier to work out how much of each product you’ve actually bought. (I forgot to do this a couple of times on my first trip, but the workers there were really nice, and very patiently helped me empty, weigh and then refill my beloved mason jars).

Original Unverpackt_ Jendrik Schro¦êder_ Foto4

Photo credit: Jendrick Schröder for OU

And at the end of it you end up with a whole load of groceries, minus the added plastic, and for a similar price.

This is what a quick trip to a normal supermarket in Germany usually ends up looking like (particularly because I usually try and buy organic things, which until recently at least, were for some reason always packaged in more plastic than the non-organic ones, example: bananas in a “bio” plastic bag). And yes, I went to Netto rather than an organic supermarket, where lots of things are sold in reusable glass bottles, so it ended up looking pretty horrible and package-y…

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And this is what my shopping looked like after a trip to Original Unverpackt.

shopping from original unverpackt berlin

I was surprised that they even had things like tofu (pictured in the jar in the middle), that was locally produced, and lots of different sweets, nuts, cereals, spices and herbs.

Original Unverpackt_ Jendrik Schro¦êder_ Foto5

Photo credit: Jendrik Schröder

The only thing I couldn’t find that I usually buy every week was soya/rice/almond milk. I’m assuming this is hard to source directly in bulk from a supplier, and maybe it’s something that they’ll start stocking in the future. They had normal milk though, and they even sell beautifully-designed (and very expensive!) glass bottles for you to take your liquid stuff home in.

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And I was surprised that they had vodka on sale…

held vodka original unverpackt berlin

…and even red wine!

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I went there on a Saturday evening (just before they closed for the weekend – German supermarkets aren’t open on a Sunday), when supermarkets are usually really busy, and Original Unverpackt was no exception. This shop was busy. It was almost difficult to move around. And it wasn’t just the kind of people you might expect to be shopping in a place like that (women in long hippy skirts and men with manbuns maybe?), but a completely average mix of people.

inside original unverpackt berlin

I was annoyed for a second at first when I realised that they didn’t have some of the things I wanted, particularly when it came to fruits and vegetables, but then I realised that that is actually exactly how a supermarket with fresh produce should work. If their shelves had been full half an hour before closing time, they would have had to throw away a whole bunch of stuff, just so that I could have the luxury of buying that one pomegranate, or whatever it was (I can’t even remember, that’s how important it was).

Original Unverpackt_katharinaMassmann_Foto4

Photo credit: Katharina Massmann for OU

Okay, so I have to admit I haven’t been shopping there regularly since – it’s just too far for me to travel for a few things – and I tend to get most of my food from the sort-of-dumpster-diving organisation known as Foodsharing (an article about that will follow some unspecified time in the future). Doing your main supermarket shop here requires dedication, like any lifestyle change does. You need to plan ahead and have your containers ready, and be ready to transport your really heavy shopping home (there’s extra weight of course, because glass jars are way heavier than flimsy plastic trays and cardboard cartons). You basically need to be ready to not be as lazy as I am.

Despite all that, going there is definitely an eye-opening experience, and a really good reminder of how much waste we as consumers create in our day to day lives. And although I’m currently too lazy to go all the way to this shop to buy my groceries, there are other things I try to do when I do end up in a supermarket, as an attempt to minimize the amount of plastic I end up taking home. Like trying to avoid putting my vegetables in a plastic bag when I buy them – either choosing a paper one, or just putting them loose on the conveyer belt (even though this means the cashier and the other customers look at me really strangely while my tomatoes and all other round things roll all over the place), and choosing things in paper packaging rather than over plastic (like really simple bags of oats, rather than buying the fancy pre-mixed müsli in a plastic bag). Actually, even just writing this article has inspired me to go back. After all, is there a better sight in the world than a mason jar full of goodness?

Photo credit: Daniel Lee on Flickr

Photo credit: Daniel Lee on Flickr

For an interview with the owners and a look around the shop in more detail, check out the video below

Our thoughts go out to you

Our hearts are bleeding for our fellow travelers that are fleeing through Europe. It could have been you or me. It is hard to grasp the kind of reality out there, it is such a different journey. We are all just trying to find a safe enough place to live. I try to imagen that this is happening to me. And in the bigger sense – it is! We’re all part of this world.

Right now I am thinking of how I can prepare for a more long term solution in helping and making a better place for all of us. These thoughts are of course to be continued …

… A way of learning more about the situation and to maybe help in a small way is to read more at the websites of UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross or any other big aid organization. Let’s try to make this world a place where everyone is welcome.

 

How traveling changes your understanding of the world

The people writing this blog all love to travel. We travel whenever we can and in all ways possible. Sometimes it means physically moving from a place to another, but it can also mean something as simple as listening to another persons story. To me traveling has the same meaning as learning and understanding the world and the people in it. By being brave enough to open new doors and stepping into other peoples lives as a humble visitor we can all discover the workings of the world right where we are.

Being a visitor at the Pantheon in Rome was a very humbling experience. Thinking of all the people that have been there through thousands of years.

This is me being a visitor at the Pantheon in Rome. Thinking of all the people that have been there through thousands of years.

This is why I think traveling in all its ways is so important for us to understand the world and the people in it:

  1. It opens your eyes to what’s different. It puts you in a natural state of curiosity instead of fear for the unknown.
  2. Makes you listen to the stories of others. This is of course crucial for understanding any other person than ourself. Somehow traveling makes it easier to listen.
  3. Puts you in the way of culture clashes. We even expect them to happen while traveling. Culture clashes can also be constructed at home. Once you realized the beauty of clashing for new ideas you will be looking for opportunities to clash with any interesting people you see. It could be your neighbor, a relative, someone from work or just going to an art gallery.
  4. To be the visitor is humbling. This is good for any learning situation. You will never be truly welcomed into a new culture if you come stomping in.
  5. You always learn something new. Even if it’s a short journey to the supermarket there is always something new to learn. Keep an open mind always.

 

A walk through Sweden

Allright, so our brilliant friend Marisa wrote a post a while ago about exploring and vacationing closer to home. It really inspired me to tell you all about the wondrous hiking route I found last year that takes you all the way through Sweden and Norway, coast to coast. The first couple of signs on this thousand year old pilgrims route incredibly enough starts right outside my door in Sundsvall. It made me curious and I had to ask to my better half Thomas ‘why not try it out’?

stolav

The St Olav Pilgrimage is 564 kilometers walking route through Sweden and Norway. It starts in Selånger in Sundsvall (where my family lives) and ends in beautiful Trondheim and this magnificent church, The Nidaros Cathedral, which was build in memory of King Olav Haraldson in the 11th century. Supposedly all kinds of miracles happened during the kings’ journey though the countryside which is why people originally started walking in his footsteps. I would say this route is still pretty unknown which makes it even more exciting and adventurous in my eyes.

Adventurers

The adventurers.

So why would you ever get it in your head to try and walk 564 km on an unknown thousand year old trail? Maybe you can’t afford to fly abroad? Or maybe any other means of transport is simply too fast for you? Perhaps both were the reason in my case but mostly because the both of us had forgotten the lovely sound of gravel under our feet. It is an equally historic and scenic route to walk, and surely you can hear the whispers through time – but doesn’t it sound awfully a lot like cars swooshing by in 120 km/h on the E14 road to Östersund?

One of the first discoveries on our journey was that most villages in northern Sweden are exactly 20 km apart. That is just about one day of walking. And just enough blisters for me to happily stop for the evening in one of the bed and breakfasts along the way and huddle up in a sleeping bag after a nice meal at the nearby grill.

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The St Olavs’ route through Sweden.

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Thomas taking a break to call home.

Fortunately we didn’t meet any bears on the tracks leading through the forest. And if we would’ve met one it would have been loads more scared of us. Most people are afraid to meet wild animals, but you are actually very lucky if you get to see one. In Sweden you can but almost never do see moose, badger, beaver, bear, wolf, lynx, fox or any of those kind of magnificent creatures. Most of the predators already are, or are about to go, extinct. Thomas would like to add: “Unfortunately we didn’t meet any beers on the tracks leading through the forest.”

There are not many poisonous animals in Sweden. Just remember to bring some mosquito repellant.

Thomas making a bear spear.

Thomas making a bear spear.. Just in case. Sigh …

The first couple of days were the most challenging ones for my feet. It was weird. I could only walk an hour at a time and we would have to rest for a long while. Two days in we discovered that my new boots I had been walking in for some time before the hike didn’t have any insoles! They are sold separetly. Which leads us right into the next subject. Oasis. A supermarket can appear as just that after a long day hiking through the Swedish forest. It really highlights the perks of civilization. Going to the grocery store can be quite a boring chore in everyday life but when you’re on the edge of civilization (or in between, 20 km to be precise) it becomes a highlight of the day, a depot of survival goods! Nuts and dried fruit in all its glory but a nice pair of soft new soles for the shoes is like balm for sore feet.

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Upgrading our shoes.

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We stayed in a cabin at Camp Viking in Gällö one night.

The route follows the main road, the railway and the rivers across Sweden. But mainly you follow in Olav Haraldsons’ footsteps. These days his trail is cleverly marked by signage and red mailboxes with stamps in them so you can mark your pilgrimage passport along the road. You can find the passport at the tourist information at the start of the Pilgrims’ route in Sundsvall. Well you could if you’d go there. We didn’t, so we made our own passport!

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Tove showing our home made pilgrims’ passport.

In the end of this post I have added our light weight packing list and some awesome movie tips about surviving in nature.

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Super happy to finally arrive at Kungsstugan (the Kings Cottage) after a long day of walking.

snack at the boarder

Entering the next county in Sweden.

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Some ninja moves while crossing the river Gimån.

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What a feeling to take of the hiking boots and rest after walking 20 kilometers.

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We make a good team.

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View from the trail in Jämtland.

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Amazingly yummy wild strawberries.

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Taking a break by a lake.

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Watching the sunset in Pilgrimstad (yes, the name of the small village really is ‘pilgrims town’)

By now we have made our way through half of Sweden, walking a perfect few days at a time. Most pilgrims walk the whole route in one go but we are in no hurry. They say it takes about 30 days in total and we have been out in about 11 days so far. We made it all the way between our two home towns Sundsvall and Östersund this year which feels awesome. And the aim is of course to walk all the way to Trondheim, but in the end of the day the Norwegian town is not the main goal for us. The old cliché really is true, the journey is what counts – all the way!

Here is our light weight packing list:

– Small size backpacks
– Light sleeping bags or bed linnen
– One change of clothes (wash when possible)
– Powdered foods: soup, mashed potatoes, coffee
– Light shoes to change to in the evening
– Torches
– Small size water bottles
– Tooth paste, tooth brushes, toilet paper and a bar of olive soap
– Mugs, sporks and of course a Swiss army knife

Great movies to watch for inspiration:

Wild (2014)
Into the Wild (2007)
The Way (2010)

“Sustainability is the path to a much more attractive, to a cooler, more technology advanced, more healthy and democratic future”

Swedish summer cabin with flowers

A classic Swedish summer cabin

“Climate change hasn’t been proved. The media just panics, and we all believe it and get scared.”

This is what I heard somebody say this morning. I was speechless at hearing so much ignorance.

A few weeks ago I heard a fantastic podcast explaining climate change. It explains what we can do against it and how bad it actually is.

But this podcast is in Swedish and because I’m not living in Sweden (but in Switzerland instead), nobody would understand it here.

In Sweden there is a radio show called “Sommar”, which means – as probably everybody understands – “summer”. Every day during summer a person talks for one hour about a topic he or she chooses and plays music. I would even call it a Swedish tradition to listen to the summer hosts during the holiday. I’m not Swedish and I didn’t grow up with this program but everybody talks about it all the time when you’re on holiday there. The programme started back in 1959 and every Swede can tell you their own story about it. I decided to listen to all of the talks this summer. (Unfortunately there were too many in the end, but I listened to a lot of them!)

Tove recommended a talk by Johan Rockström to me, who is a professor in environmental sciences at Stockholm University. He explains the consequences that are going to happen if we don’t take environmental questions seriously. This podcast was so great, scary, but also hopeful. Tove already told me once that she thinks that everybody should listen to it. And that’s exactly what I thought this morning when I heard that person denying climate change. I wished he could listen to the podcast so that he could understand how important and serious the topic is.

When I was looking through my pod feed later, I saw that Johan Rockström did the talk in English too – this is so great! Everybody can listen to it now. And you really should! (And hopefully you can also get a glimpse of the Swedish summer feeling. Even if it’s only at the beginning when the show’s music is playing).

You can listen to the podcast here