A slogan often used by environmentalists is 'Reduce, Re-use, Recycle'. Although I'm not in favour of over-consumption, in a world where so many have so little, as a retailer I'm not so keen on the 'reduce' side of this; if people buy less, how do we survive in business?
We can all easily support re-using and recycling, however, and indeed benefit. In the last issue of Gifts Focus, I wrote about re-use and specifically the damage that plastic bags are doing to wildlife and our planet generally, suggesting re-usable jute bags as an excellent alternative.
Now for recycling. In poor countries like India and Bangladesh, almost everything gets recycled. In Britain, our landfill sites are filling up and it's standard practice for councils to arrange door-to-door collections of paper, glass, tins and often plastics and other materials - something that would've seemed unthinkable 20 years ago. Some of you may consciously avoid over-packaged products when you buy your food. What else can we do as retailers?
Recycling actually presents great opportunities, as so many recycled products are now available. We can act responsibly towards our planet and at the same time benefit our businesses by selling them. Customers are always pleased to find new, original ideas. Many of them care about the environment and want to support retailers who show that they care too.
There are many small wholesalers selling a wealth of products, often with great designs. Some make them from traditional recycled products such as paper and glass. For instance, Green Glass in Cornwall carefully dissects old wine bottles in half to convert one half into a wine glass and the other into a tumbler. Others use more unusual materials, such as Cutouts in Huddersfield, which makes clocks, coasters, frames and other products out of recycled computer boards. Such is the quality of their design and finish that both Green Glass and Cutouts sell to many top-class high street outlets.
Other materials recycled are even more unusual. Shared Earth has products made from door-locks, crayon stubs, old saris, and, soon to appear, jewellery made in Cambodia from old shells and bullets. It also has a large range of products made in India from bicycle chains, which it sells increasingly to bicycle shops.
Owning one myself, I like to support small businesses whenever I can. One such company is Motif, a fair trade business near Dhaka in Bangladesh. It employs women who are vulnerable as a result of divorce or sexual abuse, the stigma of disease such as leprosy and so on. It makes as much as it can from recycled materials. Its products include baskets made from crisp packets, and more recently, accessories made with denim factory off-cuts, and glass earrings fashioned from broken bus windscreens.
Nasma is one of the seamstresses working on the new recycled denim range. She was sacked from a garment factory when found to be pregnant and could only get work on a building site. Motif found her there breaking bricks, carrying her month-old son while she worked, and took her on. Within three months she'd earned enough for her husband to buy a rickshaw and her son became the first member on either side of the family to attend school. This is an example of fair trade improving not just one life but a whole family's, perhaps for generations to come.
I don't want to sound smug, because I make plenty of mistakes. But it's immensely satisfying to feel I'm doing something to help both the planet, and the people who make the products, as I make my buying decisions.
Jeremy Piercy is the Founder and MD of Shared Earth, a fair trade business that began in 1986. T: +44 (0)1904 632 896 or visit www.sharedearth.co.uk