11 ideas for environmental New Year’s resolutions that matter

What are your New Year’s resolutions? Lots of my friends and family have asked me about what they could do in 2020 to reduce their environmental impact. 2019 has put climate change and plastic pollution firmly on their radar and they want to do something about it.

Personally, I’ve found that a good resolution can be a great place to start.

But how do you ensure your time and energy is spent making a change that actually matters and is not just a feel-good distraction?

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For me, a good environmental resolution should tackle a big issue (even if only a small part of it to begin with), rather than making a big deal about something pretty small. If you would like to know where your footprint is biggest, then I’d recommend this 5-minute calculator from WWF.

I also think that a good resolution should seek to alter a habit rather than just be a short-term change. That said, it needn’t happen all at once; resolutions can also be a great stepping stone, or a trial period, for a bigger lifestyle change.

So here are a few ideas for resolutions that I think strike the right balance between ambition and impact, collected from the conversations I’ve had with people over the last few weeks. I’d love to know what you think of them and any great ones that I have missed…

 

Eat less meat & dairy

The environmental impact of meat and the health benefits of a plant-based diet have both hit the headlines this year – see this BBC documentary or Game Changers on Netflix if you want to know more. And Jamie’s new veg book has some amazing recipes for replacing traditional meat faves.

veg-cottage-pie-bb959c1b-2dab-43c3-9ffd-78d81008dd33_s1200x630_c2269x1325_l0x476Jamie Oliver’s vegetarian cottage pie is one of my favourites

The good news is that it’s an area ripe for a resolution…

1. Go vegetarian at lunchtimes. I did this in 2019 and it was a revelation, so long as you venture beyond the Pret avocado baguette. 

2. Be more strict about when you do (and don’t) eat meat. There’s a spectrum here – you could give up meat for a few days a week, all weeknights, or go completely vegetarian. Or you could start by limiting your intake of the worst offenders, lamb and beef. For 2020, we’ve decided to only eat meat when we really want to, when it can’t be substituted and when we know exactly where it has come from.

3. Replace dairy. Dairy is often overlooked but it is carbon intensive too. You could try switching to one of the many milk alternatives (with varying footprints) that are now available – my preference is Oat Milk.

 

Waste less

Whether it is fashion, food or coffee cups, we live in a throwaway world. That is something we as individuals can change.

NINTCHDBPICT000542990028This is Pretty Little Thing’s warehouse in Sheffield

4. Opt out of fast fashion. I’m not trendy enough for this but my wife Sarah is. So this year, her resolution is to buy no new clothes at all – she’ll make use of what she’s already got and go second-hand for anything else. It’s a pretty A-list resolution but amazing if she can stick to it!

5. See food waste as a sin. Channel your grandparents and start seeing throwing away food for what it is: a sinful waste. If you want to double-down, then why not start by using food that was destined for the bin anyway by signing up to Oddbox (if you live in London) or using OLIO or Too Good To Go for leftovers or surplus food.

6. Make takeaway cups expensive. If you want something a little easier, then I really like this “latte levy” campaign by the Marine Conservation Society to encourage people to actually use their reusable cups. It’s a simple pledge: each time you use a takeaway coffee cup you donate £3 to the oceans.

 

Go renewable

7. Go 100% renewable. If you haven’t done it already, here is an easy win for January. There are now scores of renewable-only energy companies that cost the same as (and often less than) traditional fossil fuel tariffs. You can read my blog all about Bulb Energy here and search all providers here.

 

Reduce the amount you fly

I can hear you groaning – not this one again. I covered why reducing flights is important (and how off-setting is a second rate solution) in a previous blog, so won’t repeat that here. 

Just to add that a much-quoted government survey from 2014 found that 70% of all flights in Great Britain were taken by just 15% of adults. If you are one of the 15% then your flying footprint will be in a different league to the other areas above. So…

irishrailThe good news is that there are lots of train in Europe – here’s on from Ireland!

8. Save long-haul for long trips. If you do want to go on an adventure to a far-flung land, then why not pledge to savour it? Going on one long-haul trip for 2-3 weeks, rather than two or more separate trips, will greatly reduce your footprint (and probably give you a better break, too).

9. Embrace the train for city breaks. It’s only in the last decade or two that it has become so normal to hop on a plane for a weekend break. Why not use this site to explore the UK and Europe by train – it’s amazing where you can get to in not much time at all…

10. Make 2020 a no fly zone. I can hear your gasps, but why not? This really would be a statement and you may discover adventures closer to home that you never even knew existed. Join others making a 2020 “Flight Free” pledge here.

 

Advocate for climate action

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11. Be noisy about climate change. One thing that we can all do in 2020 is devote some of our time to raising climate change even further up the national agenda. You could resolve to write to your local MP about issues in your local area, or join Extinction Rebellion (you can choose whether or not you are willing to be arrested for the cause!), or give some time or money to great campaigning organisation like Global Action Plan or Possible.

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I for one, pledge to post on this blog every month in 2020 – with plenty more ideas for how we can all make a meaningful different in tackling the climate crisis.

The unfortunate truth about “eco” nappies (and what you can do about it)

The biodegradable nappy myth

With my wife and I expecting our first baby in the coming weeks, two things made me think it was important to look into reusable nappies.

1. By the time they are potty trained, a baby will have used 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies.

2. A “biodegradable” nappy – one that’s not made from plastic – that ends up in landfill is worse for climate change than a disposable nappy.

The first point is unsurprising and even more startling at a national level. An estimated 3 billion nappies are thrown away each year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste.

The second point is counter-intuitive and probably requires more explanation. A biodegradable nappy will only biodegrade as intended if it ends up in either a large, well-managed personal compost heap or a council food / garden waste commercial composter. Less than 50% of UK households have such a collection and many simply do not have the space for their own compost heap. So for the majority of babies in the UK their biodegradable nappies will end up in landfill or being burnt. 

And here’s the crux: in a covered and compressed landfill site, biodegradable nappies (and their contents) will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane – which is around 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A normal disposable nappy made out of plastic will actually produce fewer harmful emissions.

As for reusable nappies – made to wash and use again – it’s true that it does take more energy to put them through the washing machine than to throw disposables in the bin. However, there are a number of ways to minimise this. The days of boil-washing are gone, as modern reusables can be washed at 60 or even 40 degrees. If drying space is an issue for you, then there are many brands which dry fast without a tumble-dryer. And to top it all off, you can sign-up for 100% renewable electricity for your home, meaning that the energy you are using will be coming from green sources in any case.

The reusable nappy revolution

So, that set me off on a journey to discover if there was a realistic alternative to disposables. What I found was actually pretty encouraging. 

This blog is not meant to be preachy or naive and I’m acutely aware that it is written before the realities of having a newborn baby have hit. It is simply intended to help those who, like I did, feel uncomfortable about throwing away 1000s of nappies and want to explore what alternatives are out there…

Oh, and one other word of warning. If you are the eco-warrior in the household then please be sensitive to your partner in any nappy discussions, particularly if they are going to be the one at home with the baby and thus doing the majority of the changing. Whatever solution you come up with, it needs to work for you both.

Now, be honest, when you think of a reusable nappy does your mind conjure up something that looks a bit like this…?

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It certainly did for me. But the good news is that a modern reusable nappy actually looks like this…

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Indeed, they are now so snazzy that there is now a “cloth bumming” trend (yes, that is really what it’s called…) taking Instagram by storm!

So, now that you can see how reusable nappies will make your baby the envy of the creche, how do you go about finding the right ones?

There’s no right answer, but here’s what worked well for us…

Firstly, we used this excellent questionnaire on The Nappy Lady website. It asks you a wide range of questions and then gives you two recommendations. For us, ensuring that they would be simple to use and dry quickly in our small flat (with very limited outdoor space) were the two biggest priorities. 

Secondly, some of your friends and family with babies will already be using reusable nappies. Ask them which have worked best for them.  This gave us a shortlist of half a dozen reusable nappies and – using the The Nappy Lady’s reviews – we picked those that might be best for us. 

“Might” is an important word here. There are wise warnings about reusables not working for all newborns, so you will want to make sure that the brand you have chosen is a good fit. What you don’t want to do is buy loads in advance and then not be able to use them (though I hear there is a thriving second-hand market in reusable nappies too…). This is easy to get around: many brands have trial packs, or you can buy a few and use them alongside disposable nappies in the first few weeks until you are confident they are a good match for your baby.

Why not throw in some cheeky wipes?

A quick note on baby wipes. While not such a big issue from a climate change perspective, the UK has woken up to the damage that wet wipes are doing to our sewers and our seas. There’s even a suggestion that the UK Government could ban them.

Lucky enough, this is an easy one to do something about.

One option is flushable wipes, with businesses scrambling to make their offerings better for the world. 

A more sustainable option still are Cheeky Wipes, the worst kept secret in baby class circles where I have been spending a lot of time recently. Parents across the UK swear by them, as being better for your baby and cheaper in the long run.

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I hope this has given you a good head start in your quest to throw away fewer nappies. I’ll report back on how we are getting on in a few months…

“Messy and disappointing”: a journey into positive investment

Friends of the Earth have been running an innovation challenge focused on how to make it simpler for people to align their savings with their values and put their money to work tackling climate change. As part of the challenge, I was interviewed by Mary Stevens, the Programme Manager, about my experience of positive investment. I wanted to invest to be part of the solution, not the problem. But despite a relatively high level of awareness of the issues and opportunities the journey was far from simple…

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Tell me a bit about your personal situation. What were your aims?

I was looking to put away £5000 as a medium-term investment. I was happy to take a bit more of a financial risk, and was also looking for a bigger return than if I just put it in an ISA. But above all I was looking to put it in a fund that would build the world we want. I know a lot of ethical funds just do negative screening — no arms or tobacco for example — and I wanted something different. I wanted my money to be actively doing good.

Where did you start your research?

I started where a lot of people do, on moneysavingexpert.com. This was great for general investment advice but I only found two paragraphs on sustainable or ethical investment and nothing that could help me. I also talked to family and friends about my options — but again, no one was able to offer specific advice on positive investment.

So where did you go to try to find out about ethical funds?

One of the first things I found was the Ethical Consumer index. But the detail of the index is only available to subscribers. And I couldn’t tell exactly what they’d based the ratings on, and whether their priorities were aligned with mine.

I also looked at the opportunities for investment and savings accounts with the providers I was already familiar with: Triodos, Charity Bank, Nationwide, Ecology Building Society. The options were OK — but there was very little in the higher risk, positive investment space. Nothing felt exciting or pioneering. The fees also felt high and I was concerned about the way Triodos uses RBS as its clearing bank. It felt like their hands were tied. [ed. Triodos is explicit about this issue on its website, explaining how limited the options are for them].

I did ask Nationwide whether they could provide any financial advice, as I have a current account with them, but the next available appointment was in six weeks, and even then the advisor did not have ‘specialist’ expertise.

What did you do once you’d ruled out investments with mainstream savings providers?

I started to investigate individual funds. For example, I knew about Generation Investment Management, because of the Al Gore connection [ed. GIM LLP was founded by Al Gore in 2004, who is still the chair of the advisory board]. But I couldn’t figure out how to actually put any of my money into it. I also looked at WHEB Asset Management as I’d come across them in a professional context previously. I had the same issue here — and wherever I looked. I also came across Impax Asset Management, via a tip-off from a relative (they hadn’t appeared in web searches). I liked their Environmental Leaders Fund, but again, I couldn’t figure out how to get into it.

At this stage I started to try to figure out whether I could work backwards. Could I find the platforms that could help me place an investment? I went back to Moneysavingexpert.com. There were about five different platforms they recommended — Cavendish online, Aviva, AK Bell, a couple of others. They were all charging different amounts and the website really came into its own here. In the end I did work out how to place the investment with Impax via one of these.

I also looked at the newer app-based platforms (Nutmeg, Wealthify, Evestor) but all of these are just passive funds (i.e. index funds, that track the overall performance of e.g. the FTSE 250) and they don’t have any model to do the due diligence on the underlying funds.

What surprised you the most on this journey?

Just how difficult it was. And how complicated it was to put money in a fund, even if you found one you wanted. I can’t believe there isn’t a good specialist website that has a good ranking system and simple guidance for how to do it. Ethical Consumer didn’t feel expert enough, it didn’t seem appropriate to apply the same methodology to investments as to a toaster or a pair of jeans.

There are some rankings, and some specialist platforms out there such as Ethex, or the Good Egg mark. Did you come across any of these?

No. I did come across 3dinvesting, but I found the website tricky to use.

What would have helped you?

I didn’t want a financial advisor conversation. That would just have been another load of fees. But it would have been great if there was an organisation with some credibility putting something out there — some signposting. A detailed moneysavingexpert.com section on sustainable investment, for example. Doing for positive investment what it does for insurance, or savings or pensions.

What advice would you give someone wanting to do the same?

It’s hard to know. Obviously I can’t give financial advice. Starting at the end point didn’t really help; even if it did provide a solution in the end I don’t know if it was the best one. Some peer networking might have helped; blogs or friends who’d done the same thing. But overall the whole process felt messy and disappointing.

Was there anything else you learned from this experience?

It’s important to know the difference between the sustainable funds the big providers offer, and real positive investment. In most cases “sustainable” just means a few exclusions of guns, alcohol, tobacco — often not even fossil fuels! I’m also concerned about the growing dominance of passive funds, especially in the newer app-based services; it removes any leverage that individual investors may have. [ed. a point this FT article also makes].

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Michael Hilton, author of this blog!

Can this small start-up convince Britain to go green?

Bulb Energy was named UK Business Of The Year at the 2017 Start-up Awards. Its offering is simple; one tariff — 100% renewable electricity and 10% renewable gas — at a lower price than fossil fuel alternatives.

It has doubled in size since August and now has over 300,000 members, who rate it the top electricity supplier on Trust Pilot. Its 85 employees (up from 20 in May 2017) now occupy the top floor of Second Home in Spitalfields.

I’m a big fan of Bulb and have persuaded lots of my friends to sign up. I was keen to understand what it is like to run a fast-growing, purpose-driven start-up, so I met Hayden Wood, co-founder and CEO, to ask…

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Can OLIO become the Facebook for food waste?

The concept of the OLIO app is beautifully simple — it allows you to exchange food and other items that would otherwise have gone to waste with others in your local area who want them.

It now has over 325,000 active users, 15,000 volunteers and is available globally. Since its launch across the UK in January 2016, strangers have met over 100,000 times on their doorsteps to exchange food that would have gone to waste.

I interview Sasha Celestial-One, the co-founder and COO, to find out all about it.

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Would anyone in their right mind get the bus from Belfast to London?

It’s 2.50am in the morning on the 4th January and I’m at Manchester bus station. My journey began in Belfast 13 hours earlier and it has got another 3 hours to run. The novelty of listening to a Stuart MacBride thriller while actually being able to see the dark Scottish rain wore off long ago. It’s cold, wet and all I want to do is crawl into bed.

What on earth led me here? And am I mad?

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