THERE are two silicone sponges sitting dejectedly by my sink. I bought them in yet another effort to reduce our household’s plastic consumption: dishwashable, sterilisable sponges to replace the disposable ones — what a great idea.
Unfortunately, they are fairly useless at actually cleaning anything, being flimsy and entirely non-absorbent. Even after their pathetic attempt to scrub a surface, you need one of the disposable versions to finish the job and then soak up the suds. Back to the drawing board.
But the silicone sponges are still by my sink, because I can’t bring myself to send them to landfill, adding to the problem I bought them to solve. They sit there as evidence that I have fallen prey to a new kind of consumerism: environmental-guilt purchasing, a growing market in today’s green-aware economy.
I am reminded of our days, not long past, of cloth nappies. I am convinced that we did manage to save hundreds of plastic disposables from landfill, which is a good thing. Whether we increased our carbon footprint with extra hot washes and tumble-drying in the winter is another question; and there were certainly excessive purchases of nappies in search of the perfect fit and absorbency (and, sometimes, I will admit, because they came in pretty patterns). At least I could pass them all on to be used by other babies.
MAKING both green and ethical purchasing choices, it seems, is fraught with hazard and often seems to come down to either/or: should I select the Fairtrade tea bags that contain plastic, or the loose-leaf tea that is not fairly traded? Should I
put my money towards caring for people, or for the environment — and, if the environment, when I choose my shampoo, should I care more about palm oil, plastic packaging, carbon footprint, or animal testing? Will this purchase take money from farmers today, or flood their farms in ten years’ time? If you come across me standing stock-still in the tea and coffee aisle and squinting at the labels, those are probably the questions going through my mind.
A Netflix comedy, The Good Place, plays with this concept. In the story, the central characters have died and find themselves existing in a broken afterlife in which human morality is judged on a points-based system.
For the past 500 years, they discover, no human has succeeded in gaining enough points to enter the “Good Place”, because every choice and purchase has such far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Giving somebody flowers, for example, used to be a straightforward way of gaining points; now, to do so loses points, because the flowers were sprayed with toxic pesticides, harvested by underpaid workers, and flown for miles before they appeared in the shop.
When Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what they would eat or wear, could he have had any inkling of how worrying it would become to work out not what we will eat, but what we should eat? And how should we, in the 21st century, respond to his advice not to worry about tomorrow?
Re-reading Matthew 6, I wonder whether seeking God’s Kingdom first includes being concerned for God’s creation. First- and 21st-century worries seem to have in common individualism: people empty supermarket shelves to protect themselves from coronavirus, not thinking that depriving others of soap and hand sanitiser makes the virus more likely to spread. Society as a whole largely ignores warnings about climate change, while individual choices continue to drive the market to the planet’s destruction.
FOR Lent this year, faced with these dilemmas, I decided to avoid the trap of making purchases altogether. In the spirit of not worrying about what to wear, my Lenten discipline is to avoid buying any new clothes, books, or toys until Easter. This teaches me what I really need, shows me what I can do without or replace with things I already have, and highlights the circumstances in which I would usually too easily race to the shops.
The school’s request for three different costumes over the course of Lent, for example, has required more ingenuity (and resulted in rather higher blood pressure) than usual; but sticking to my promises saved me both the money and the carbon footprint that a trip to the supermarket for cheap, coloured T-shirts or mass-produced outfits would have cost.
Sadly I can’t just stop buying food for Lent; so, I have committed myself to better research on the impact of our food choices. Here, again, it is possible to become confused very quickly. Because so much research comes from the United States, it can mean that choices for UK shoppers are even less clear.
I have, however, discovered an app called Giki (Gikibadges.com), which investigates thousands of products in UK supermarkets and awards them up to 14 badges for things such as sustainability, animal welfare, low carbon footprint, and recyclable packaging.
This certainly reduces the headache of trying to guess all these things at once for every purchase, and saves me from becoming a woman who stands still in supermarket aisles, clutching a packet of coffee and muttering to herself.
IN ALL this, I am very grateful for a faith that rejects a Good Place-style points-system. Yes, our purchases and our choices do have an effect on the world and its people, and it is absolutely important to consider them carefully; but we are bound to get it wrong sometimes — through ignorance, or weakness, or (we can hope, not too often) our own deliberate fault.
The culmination of Lent will be our celebration of the God who knew this all along and came to our rescue; the God who is ultimately in charge, and with whose help we can make our best choices in faith, backed up by prayer, and reliant upon forgiveness.
When nothing new is coming into the house during Lent, it is a good time to declutter and send some things out. I think that I might begin with those silicone sponges. It’s time for a new start.
Amy Scott Robinson is an author and performance storyteller.