A few months ago, I posted what has become a very popular blog post on DIY alternatives to conventional plastic glitter. The fact that conventional glitters are made from plastic is a fact that has escaped a lot of people. I don’t think glitter has ever seemed anything other than innocuous, crafty, and fun. It is rather sad then, that a microplastic menace is lurking in schools, kindergartens, and home craft cupboards everywhere. Increasingly, the general public are getting the message that microplastics and plastic pollution is a huge problem. Now we just need alternatives and sustainable options to chose instead.
Since I started making alternatives to glitter for my kids to use, I have talked to lots of people about it. I have now had the thumbs up on my DIY glitters from the kids at our church sunday school (where we used them to construct a sign pointing the way to the kids corner), and from one of the teachers at school. My own kids love the homemade sustainable alternatives, and they really haven’t missed the sparkly kind very much.
I have now discovered fully biodegradable eco-glitter thanks to my dear husband, who noticed it and decided to surprise me. Three Mamas eco-glitter looks like conventional glitter but instead of a plastic base, it’s made from non-GMO Eucalyptus cellulose, from a renewable source, and it is biodegradable. Now we can have fun making our own, but still have a source of sparkly glitter for those special things that just need some extra pizzazz. This glitter comes in both fine and chunky sizes and it comes in a large variety of colours. Possibly the cutest part of this glitter is that you can get it in teeny tiny glass bottles with tiny corks. I am a sucker for tiny things and and these push all the right buttons with me. Miss 9 is pretty captivated with them as well, because they look like fairy wish jars.
Three Mamas eco-glitter is vegan, and safe for use in cosmetics. It takes about 6 months to break down in compost or marine water. Their website has a number of positive reviews. So all in all a great discovery.
Microplastic contamination of the oceans is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns. Microplastics are defined as small particles of plastic that are 100nm to 5mm in size . These microplastic particles are small enough to be ingested by many organisms and as a result there are concerns about bioaccumulation in our food chain.
The problem of microplastics is a huge one, and one that we are only now beginning to grapple with. The impacts and consequences are far-reaching and long lasting, and the true effects of marine organisms and even ourselves won’t be known for decades. I know that craft and cosmetic glitter can seem a bit insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but we all have to start somewhere, and ditching plastic glitter is as good a place as any to begin. Little steps conquer big mountains. Each person that starts questioning and thinking about issues such as plastic pollution is one part of the solution. Why not show your children that there is a better way? Help them to be part of the change.
What if the person who made your shoes was a young boy who wants desperately to go to school? How would you feel if that was your son? How would you feel if the person who made your tee-shirt was unable to afford to send their children to school? What if the manufacture of your clothing helped to destroy a habitat? These are questions that prey on my mind and are now shaping my purchasing decisions. Our collective clothing choices have power. Ethical clothing is not just good for the workers and the environment, it is good for your soul.
There are a lot of options to choose from when it comes to ethical clothing. I want to give you a taste of what is actually out there because a lot of people seem surprised that there are actually reasonable options to consider. It matters a lot to me who made my clothes. I want them to have fulfilled and happy lives and I want them to be safe and healthy and educated. In New Zealand we have labour laws designed to protect our workers as well as laws protecting our environment, which is why I think many of us take it for granted that other countries have similar laws. Because we don’t have clothing factories with horrific conditions here in New Zealand it is a largely invisible problem. Only a small proportion of clothing is actually made here. Most of our apparel and clothing is made overseas and is shipped here (which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because New Zealand is so geographically isolated). Most of our clothing comes from places like Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, Turkey, China and Indonesia – all of which have big problems with sweatshops, and poor environmental protection. Given recent world events, it is also pertinent to consider how a country treats its migrants.
Another closely related issue is that of “fast fashion”. Cheap clothing that is designed to be discarded seasonally as the fashions change. Fast fashion is not made to last and the fabrics and manufacturing are often poor quality. Fast fashion is hurting the factory workers and the environment, and most of it ends up in landfills. This happens because we have collectively bought into the lie that we need to look fashionable, and that buying more and more clothes will somehow make us happy and fulfilled.
Every January when we pack up for 3 weeks away from home in a caravan, I find I really don’t need most of my clothes. If I can manage for three weeks in the summer with just one tiny drawer of clothing, then I have far more clothes than I actually need. To be honest I feel pressured to regularly vary what I wear. I feel pressure not to re-wear the same clothes every few days. Now that I am aware of this I try to constantly consider what I have and why I need to buy something else. I do find it hard and I’m far from perfect, but I am making an effort. I am trying to buy new items of clothing only if I am replacing an item that is worn out. I have begun downsizing my wardrobe, but I do still find it hard to overcome the desire to have new things. I am lucky that I have zero desire to shop in big malls. In fact I can’t think of anything worse. I dislike the pressure to impulse buy, and I really struggle not to see things I would like but don’t need. It makes it much easier for me to stay away from malls and clothing shops. I prefer to source my new clothing online from places like Tumbleweed Tees that don’t have shops in malls. I guess I am trying to become a mindful shopper.
The good news is that there are options out there and not all of them are horrifically priced. It is now easier than it used to be to research the ethical credentials of clothing brands, and there are useful guides out there to help you make informed decisions. For example the Tearfund Ethical Clothing Guide is a great place to start. It is updated annually so is always current. Fair trade and organic clothing is something that I aspire to own and I am determined to consider the origin of my clothing choices every time I purchase. I buy to support causes. I buy to last. I also buy second hand. I repair rather than discard. Today I want to share some of the places you can find fair trade ethical clothing. I urge you to become part of the rising tide of people who consider where their clothing comes from, who made it and what its environmental impact is.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Kathmandu has good transparency, and now stocks fair trade items such as these mens and womens tee-shirts. I will be keeping my eyes open for these next time I am in a Kathmandu store.
The Paper Rain Projectis a local New Zealand company producing high quality creative and sustainable products. Their tee-shirts are 100% organic, fairly traded and locally printed using environmentally aware printing methods. More recently they have partnered with other brands and now stock a range of sustainable, socially responsible products. I love their tee-shirt designs and can’t wait to get one next time I need a tee-shirt. Well worth a look.
Humanity is another New Zealand brand that is committed to sourcing and manufacturing long-lasting sustainable products as part of a circular economy. I stumbled across their website recently and was pleased with the prices of its tee-shirts, which are not unreasonable. I share it here because I am impressed by what I see and the ethic behind the brand. I look forward to shopping here in the future.
Freedom Kidssells fun ethical, gender neutral clothing for kids in all colours and for everybody. They operate out of the Wairarapa and offer ethical kids clothing. Perhaps not as affordable as I would like it to be, this company still offers options that are hard to come by elsewhere.
Tumbleweed Tees are a small New Zealand business that designs and screen prints its own tee-shirts and other items. They donate $5 from every adult tee-shirt sold to a conservation group. Some of their designs are specifically linked with particular conservation groups/causes for example the Kea Conservation Trust. I love the designs so much that although my shag tee-shirt (seen in the picture at the top of this blog) is now very old and worn out, I still can’t bring myself to throw it away, the design is too beautiful. This is probably my favorite tee-shirt brand simply because they are New Zealand owned and completely unique. I love that I am supporting conservation with every purchase, and the designs are fabulous. I urge you to check them out for yourself.
My brand new Thunderpants knickers!
Compostable packaging with no plastic in sight.
Thunderpants are a small, ethical, family owned and operated company, based in the Wairarapa. They make a range of underwear and other items that are made in New Zealand from certified fair trade organic cotton. I have heard good things about them, and so I am thrilled to be able to trial some. It’s early days yet, but so far they are super comfortable and seem very well made. As a bonus they were posted out in a paper mail bag and their branded packaging is fully compostable.
Etiko, whose motto is wear no evil, sell a large range of mens and womens shoes, apparel and bags, all of which is certified Fairtrade, Organic, and B Corp. My husband tried out some of their shoes with mixed results, but my 16 year old daughter has an awesome tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “This tee-shirt freed a slave”, that she grew out of before she wore it out. They are well worth a look.
SaveMart is a large retailer of quality second hand clothing. Our family recently visited and discovered some amazing bargains. I paid $15 for a couple of cardigans in perfect condition. I got new jeans ($4) and a merino thermal top ($5) for Miss 8, and new jeans ($4) and $3 soccer shorts for Mr 6. Miss 16 got a brand new (high quality brand) raincoat for $15 and a MacPak puffer jacket for $30. Shopping second hand is an affordable and environmentally responsible choice as it prevents clothing items from ending up in the landfill and it is easy on your wallet. Often you can find real gems like my daughter’s puffer jacket, or a pair of kids pajamas for $1. Second hand clothing is awesome. Try packaging up your old clothes if they are in good condition and hand them on to someone else. This is a great option particularly when it comes to kids clothing, they grow out of it so fast!
‘My Mums lovingly hand knitted pom pom hats.
The mother of one of my oldest friends knitted this gorgeous top for my son.
Another option that is often overlooked are hand knitted clothes. There was clothing before polar fleece people! I know it is not so common these days to knit your own, many people don’t even know how to. However you don’t have to look far to find someone who can knit. An aunt, grandma, or one of the retired ladies at church or in a local craft group will often have incredible knitting skills. There are quite a few knitters that have helped to clothe my children. My Awesome Auntie can unravel an old jersey, roll the unraveled wool into balls, and then re-knit it into an amazing kids jersey. I am in awe of her skills, because she can knit at speed and watch TV at the same time! My Mum keeps my kids heads warm with a lovely succession of pompom hats and she makes jerseys for them too. The mother of one of my oldest school friends has also knitted lovely things for my kids. We treasure these clothes because of the effort and love that goes into them. Perhaps there are knitters who would knit for you and your family. Maybe you could supply the wool. If you are crafty like me try learning to knit and you might be surprised how much easier it is once you get started.
Personally, I want my everyday comfy clothes to be as ethically sourced as possible. But that doesn’t always have to mean finding a company or brand that is ethically certified. It can be as simple as visiting a few second hand shops or even organising a clothing swap between friends or family. Why not be part of the change?
How often do you think about shoes? Shoes are often overlooked when it comes to ethical clothing choices. Unfortunately they are not readily recycled at the end of their life and so they usually end up in the landfill. Many shoes that are available (and affordable) are made from non-biodegradable materials that will linger for many years (perhaps even thousands or tens of thousands of years), leaching toxic chemicals into the environment as they decompose. What’s more we’ve all heard the horror stories of the treatment of workers in shoe factories around the impoverished “developing world”. How can we ask those workers to care about the environment when they can’t even afford to care for themselves and their families?
It turns out that ethical footwear is pretty expensive and hard to find when you are in a hurry to replace a much loved shoe that’s fallen to bits. We humans have been making shoes a long time. People were making sage brush sandals ~10,000 years ago in Oregon! Leather has been used to make shoes for 5500 years. Things have certainly changed a fair bit in the shoe department. This is particularly true since the rise of plastics and synthetic materials.
Several years ago we began to wonder how ethical our shoes were. At the time our eldest was heavily influenced by her peers and wanted a pair of Nikes. We had seen articles in the news about the treatment of Nike workers. I was reluctant to purchase Nikes because I didn’t want to support a company that didn’t value human rights. Our daughter was horrified when we found a few age appropriate videos on YouTube for her. She wanted nothing to do with Nike. We opted for Mizunos which are a more ethical alternative, and she was happy with them instead of the ever popular Nikes. Given the time pressure, the price we could afford and what was locally available in a hurry we think it was a good compromise. Even better, it sparked a lot of discussion around the dinner table about what brands were ethical and what ones weren’t. That was the beginning of the shoe journey.
What is the environmental impact of the shoes you wear? How often do you stop to consider it? Many people I have talked to seem to think that the only environmental impact of their shoes comes at the end of their life, but in actual fact that is only part of the impact. In general, sports shoes for example comprise dozens of mostly synthetic materials. A single sports shoe can contain 65 discrete parts that require 360 processing steps for assembly. Using life cycle assessment methodology the carbon footprint for a typical pair of running shoes made from synthetic materials is estimated to be approximately 14kg CO2-equivalent. The bulk of carbon emissions for a shoe is found in processing materials, and the manufacturing process. Unlike many other consumables they are not energy intensive to use or maintain (which is the opposite of electronics for example).
If your shoes are made in New Zealand then the electricity used to power the manufacturing process is largely renewable. But if it comes from China then coal is the dominant source of electricity and is also likely used to produce steam for other processes in the factory as well. China is making strides in adopting greener energy alternatives but the majority of its electricity is still from unsustainable and polluting forms of power generation. This is an important consideration when trying to purchase ethical footwear, and it is one that is not easy to assess when you are in the shoe shop!
There are practical steps you can take, like buying quality shoes that have a longer lifespan, and only buying what you actually need. You can repair your shoes too, I wrote a blog about repairing jandals with a soldering iron. Ultimately however, they wear out and you are likely to be left with a bulky piece of synthetic foam, imitation leather and vinyl, or a plastic sole to bury somewhere for the next 10,000 years.
When considering leather, there is more than meets the eye. Obviously leather is not an option if you are particularly bothered by animal welfare. If you are comfortable using leather products, then you might want to consider where your leather is manufactured, under what laws, and if it is tanned using chromium or vegetable tanning processes.
NZ has a large leather industry (something I never knew anything about). Workers are covered by our labour laws and there are environmental controls in place. Overseas it is often a very different story. The leather industry in places such as China, Bangladesh and India for example, is hazardous to both the environment and the people who work in the factories. Leather is often produced in areas without strong environmental protection laws. The primary cause of environmental damages from the leather industry is from the dumping of waste products (both solid and liquid) that contain chromium and other hazardous compounds.
While I understand why some people choose to avoid leather (or any animal products) out of concern for animal welfare, I am very wary of a so called “animal friendly” shoes that are instead made from synthetic materials and plastic soles. It is all very well to refuse to use animal products, opting instead for a product that is impossible to recycle, will be consigned to landfill to leach toxins into the environment, and cause harm to the very animals you are trying to help. They can’t drink from contaminated waterways, and they can’t eat fragmented remains of plastic shoes as they float in the ocean. If you are concerned about animal welfare then you need to look more widely than whether or not the product came from an animal. Instead you also need to consider the impacts of the production of synthetic alternatives on the environment and wildlife as well.
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it will provide a starting point for you to make a step in the direction of more sustainable and ethical footwear choices.
We have been buying McKinleys for our kids for years. All three have had them and all of them have been unable to wear them out. In fact, our eldest (long ago) hit on the bright idea to try scuffing holes in them so we would buy her a new pair. She tried for a long time but gave up in the end because she was able to make them look worn, but not wear them out.
They come in two main styles for children (although they do a separate range of black school shoes and sandals). Style one is a pull on boot with an elastic gusset. The second is an old style T-bar sandal.
Available in a rainbow of colours, (red, blue, orange, bronze, green, pink…..etc).
Modest range of styles for adults.
Made in Dunedin NZ, under NZ labour laws protecting workers rights.
The leather for McKinley’s is sourced from Tasman Leather, a New Zealand owned tannery in Whanganui, using New Zealand hides, subject to NZ environmental and animal welfare protections.
Our kids shoes are usually $89-$99 but the last pair cost $65 because they were the last in a discontinued colour line.
Soles are PVC or nitrile rubber, which is the only area of concern for me.
Our only issue so far has been that the buckles on a couple of shoes have not lasted. Both were able to be cheaply mended by the local shoe repairer.
My husband decided to try these after becoming frustrated with cheap Warehouse shoes. He is very hard on shoes, and so any shoe is in for a battering if he is wearing them.
Amazingly comfortable casual shoes to wear.
They are 100% biodegradable and sustainable
The sole was much better quality than equivalent Warehouse casuals.
These shoes were terribly short lived. They had torn across back between sole and upper after only 3 months, of regular wear, which was very disappointing. The quality of the manufacturing seemed to let these shoes down.
My husband and I both have pairs of Allbirds. We initially thought these looked like a great ethical choice but subsequent research has shown that there are issues with these shoes in terms of their soles and part of the lining of the upper. We were excited by the idea of a wool shoe.
Super warm and comfy.
Ethical B-corp manufacturing.
Sustainable insole and part of upper.
They last better than you would expect a woollen shoe to last.
Fine for flat unchallenging surfaces.
They are definitely machine washable.
Very slippery on some wet surfaces.
Undisclosed nylon in upper.
Soles are standard EVA and non-biodegradable.
My husband’s Allbirds haven’t held their shape. They now resemble booties! Mine are still fine despite a lot of wear.
The upper lacks enough support. Because the upper is stretchy my feet slide forward walking downhill and it’s actually downright weird on unevenly sloped surfaces and my feet slide sideways over the edge of the sole on steep terrain.
Not suitable as a running shoe despite advertising.
My husband decided to try these after his last running shoes wore out. This brand is the only proper sports shoe with ethical credentials that we could find.
Huge commitment from company to living wages,
Ethical supply chain management
Real commitment to improving their environmental standards.
Biodegradable soles which make up the bulk of shoe.
Recycled content in upper.
Shoes are still petro-chemical based and the upper is not biodegradable or recyclable.
I am choosing to make my choices count. I support buying local NZ made where possible. I always check the label to see where the shoes are made. No matter how nice, if it is made in China for example I won’t buy it (unless it has exceptional accreditations to help me make an informed choice). I try to consider the end of life of the shoe too. I don’t want something that is going to end up in landfill. If it can be composted or recycled then that is a huge plus for me. I acknowledge how hard it can be to make these choices when you are urgently trying to replace your children’s shoes, but every choice you make has a flow on effect. Even avoiding cheap synthetic shoes from China is a good place to start.
I believe we can transform the world with our choices. Even making the effort to avoid a pair of shoes that is not ethically made in favour of a shoe with better ethical standards is a step in the right direction.
As we approach Christmas (yes it is rushing up), our family is considering as a whole how we can be more ethical this Christmas. I admit that I like a challenge, but this one is a doozy because there are so many things to consider. What is an ethical Christmas? Perhaps it really is the thought that counts. How much are you thinking about the person you are giving to, the people who made it and the environment?
Maybe we don’t have to listen to the corporates and big companies who want us to spend, spend, SPEND and never think, unless it is to consider if we should buy just one more thing. Consumer driven Christmas is all about getting more stuff. The original message of Christmas is simple. Love. When viewed in the light of love it’s not hard to see why stepping back from consumerism makes sense. How much do you love the environment and the people you share it with? How much do you love the people who made the things you choose to buy?
Over the last few years I have progressively opted out of the consumer driven Christmas rat race. I didn’t think about it in so many words, but with hindsight I realise that’s what I had done. It wasn’t hard either.
First, I put a no junk mail sign on the letterbox. This was driven out of desperation at the volume of junk mail we received in the lead up to Christmas 3 years ago. The kids would pore over the toy catalogues. Conversations were driven by what they wanted based on what they saw in the advertising flyers. I have never looked back. I don’t need a glossy flyer to show me what is fashionable this year. We have not watched TV in years so the ads on TV don’t get me either. I am able to consider purchases mindfully.
A year after the no junk mail sign, I discovered the joy of buying online and having your purchases turn up on your doorstep without having to set foot in a Mall! OK so I did visit our little local Mall for a handful of things, but the bulk of my buying was intentionally done in shops outside of a mall. And this is the important thing – if you are not being pressured by must have deals, sales, or being tempted to spend up on impulse buys you can make more ethical decisions. I really recommend these two simple steps to reducing stress around present buying.
In our family we start Christmas with an Advent calendar on the 1st of December. Not the cheap chocolate advent calendars from the supermarket either! I always avoid those like the plague. Typically someone succumbs and eats several days up at once, spoiling all the fun. We choose a Christian advent calendar with a nativity scene and little opening windows.
If you aren’t keen on that idea, I recently heard about an Advent Jar, where you put 24 ideas in a jar and draw out one a day. Simple ideas like baking ginger bread Christmas trees together, making Christmas cards or decorations for the tree, or watching a Christmas movie together. Depending on how you are pressed you could even get some nice Fairtrade chocolate and put “chocolate” on one or two of the notes if you are finding it hard to think of ideas. Think of things that will work for you and your family.
On the 6th of December we celebrate St Nicolas day. More common in European countries, I first encountered this when I was 10 years old while visiting my German cousins. I never forgot it and as soon as we became parents we started the tradition for our kids. Each child leaves a clean gumboot outside their bedroom door and in the morning they find a selection of nuts, fruit, a few chocolates, art and craft supplies and one small gift in their boots. We always lean toward art and craft supplies and encourage our children to use them to create cards and gifts for people. St Nicolas was a real person who is said to have paid to free children from slavery. You can’t get much more ethical than freeing people from slavery. While not for everybody, perhaps you might like to try this tradition too.
When it comes to presents, I have been turning my mind to ethical wrapping alternatives. I have started using hand embroidered tray cloths and doily’s that I found at a church fair for 10c each. I might also use new tea towels as well. This idea allows for more than one gift (for example a book AND a pretty tea towel). There is no torn paper wrapping to send to landfill! I have come across a couple of ethical brands selling organic cotton, fair trade tea towels. If that is too pricey then opt for something cheaper. Maybe have a hunt through the local Hospice shop, Salvation Army Family Store, or Red Cross and see what you can find. That way you are reusing an item and supporting a charity as well! We’ve been using brightly coloured wool as ribbon, and I have begun raiding my accumulated fabric ribbons from gifts and flowers past. I’ve always found them too pretty to throw out!
Ideas for a more ethical Christmas
Make your own Christmas crackers. A neat after school craft activity for the kids perhaps? A handmade cracker with a personalised gift is better than any throwaway plastic novelty.
Find a charity to support as a family this Christmas. Giving to others is actually good for us and it is a great way to do something for others at Christmas. One way to do this is to decide on a charity and do something together. This year our kids filled their own Operation Christmas Child boxes. My eldest paid for hers herself. The younger ones chose everything in their boxes and made suggestions, packing and repacking to get it all perfect. We often wonder how their Christmas children are. Operation Christmas Child is over for 2017, but you could start filling a shoe box ready for next year. There are lots of charities to support, e.g. Christmas Box or Shoebox Christmas or your local food bank.
Cookies in a jar. Find a recipe for a cake, brownie, or cookies where you can pack the ingredients in a glass jar. This is something I am going to try this year.
Grow your own festive foods like strawberries. I’ve been planting our Christmas lettuce and I have tomatoes, strawberries and a capsicum in pots. I don’t actually know if they will be ready by Christmas, but I am giving it a go.
Get a real tree for Christmas rather than an artificial one or consider a living tree that you can reuse from year to year. If you have a pine allergy you could use some other kind of potted tree (pohutukawa). In areas where wilding pines are a threat to our native ecosystems look into live trees sourced from wildings.
If you have a particular gift in mind for a loved one, search online for an ethical brand. For example if you want to get a bag for someone consider Freeset, Sari Bari, or Loyal.
Opt for craft gifts for children that are not plastic such as art supplies, eg beeswax crayons instead of plastic crayons.
Choose one or two heirloom quality gifts that will really last (that way they won’t migrate to the rubbish bin in 12 months when they break) instead of lots of cheap ones. The Kilmarnock Toyshop sells beautiful toys crafted by people with intellectual disabilities.
Books are a great biodegradable gift, if chosen wisely then it is a gift that will keep on giving. Some of my old books are now favourites with the kids and I hope they will also be able to hand on their favourites to their own children in the future.
Give experiences – they are 100% biodegradable! Take your ballet mad daughter to a ballet. Take a trip to the zoo or a wildlife reserve as a family, go camping or visit the beach for a picnic. The idea behind this is to buy a bit less for Christmas, and instead treat the family to an experience that would normally be out of reach. This way you are creating memories that will last a lifetime.
Give handmade stuff – not just hand made by you, but also local handmade gifts like unique pottery or art. I know that some of the nicest coffee mugs I own were handmade by local potters.
If you have a skill you could consider giving vouchers of your time to someone you think might benefit from it. For example if you are a joiner you could give 10 hours of your time for free. If you are a photographer you could offer your photography skills. Perhaps you could offer to teach someone a new skill like knitting, cooking or carpentry. This way you are sharing knowledge and also giving quality time to a person you care about.
Have a go at creative up-cycling ideas! Just try google for more ideas than you can shake a stick at.
Remember, “ethical” is not just a tag, it is also how long something will last and how much it will be valued and looked after.
In the end it has to be about what you can do yourself, what you can afford, and what is important to you and your family. What matters most is appreciating those around you, your family, friends, and community, and to do so each and every day of the year and not just simply on Christmas morning.
I wonder if the most ethical thing we can do at Christmas is to opt out of consumerism. As far as I can tell consumerism is where the unnecessary plastic, cheap labour, and environmental exploitation come into it. I don’t know how far we will get towards a truly ethical Christmas in our family but in the spirit of the first Christmas 2000 years ago, we will be doing the best we can.
Today I am writing about toothbrushes. Something we all take completely for granted as an essential item these days. Apparently 3.6 billion toothbrushes are produced each year (worldwide), almost all of them plastic. Most of those toothbrushes end up in landfill, but many are washing up on beaches. Each toothbrush lasts between 1 and 3 months and is then discarded. In the course of an average 75 year lifespan you can use and discard between 300-900 toothbrushes (depending on how frequently you replace them). In our household of five we go through at least 20 toothbrushes a year. These figures are astonishing. Recycling options are starting to become available but many people are unaware of this. I didn’t realise that toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes can be recycled until I noticed a collection point for them at kindergarten.
In researching this post I became curious about the history of the toothbrush that we take so much for granted these days. When did toothbrushes and tooth brushing become common?
Here is some fascinating information for you.
The Egyptians were making something called “tooth powder” as far back as 5000 years BC. It apparently consisted of ash from ox hooves, myrrh, eggshell fragments and pumice. It was likely applied with a finger as there is no record of a tool.
The earliest known actual “device” for cleaning teeth comes from ancient Babylonia between 3500 and 3000 BC, and was called a “chew stick”. A chew stick is basically just that, a chewed stick with a frayed end that was used to clean teeth. Different types of aromatic twig were used, presumably to freshen the breath. Sometimes one end was sharpened into a toothpick. Chew sticks are still used in parts of Africa today.
The Chinese used chew sticks as well, and it also seems that they developed the earliest actual “brush” around 619-907AD during the Tang Dynasty. They used boar bristles (!) attached to a bamboo stick or bone. Writings from 1223 describe monks using horse hairs in a bone handle to clean their teeth. Chinese toothbrushes were introduced to Europe by travellers and became popular in the 17th century.
One of the earliest accounts of an actual “toothbrush” is found in the autobiography of an Oxford antiquarian (person who studies, collects or sells antiques) called Anthony Wood. He writes that in 1690 he paid a J. Barrett for a toothbrush.
In 1780, William Addis of Clerkenwald, England decided to produce a more modern toothbrush (while he was imprisoned for starting a riot). He used a bone, drilled some holes, tied bristles (obtained from a guard) into tufts and glued them in the holes! On his release he began manufacturing his toothbrushes and became wealthy doing it. He left the business to his son when he died and the business continues to manufacture toothbrushes today (Wisdom Brushes).
Europeans loved the toothbrush and it became the height of fashion to own one during the 1800’s. During the 1900s, bone handles began to be replaced by celluloid handles.
During WW1 the War Department began enforcing hygiene orders to combat a number of problems caused by men living in close proximity. A soldier was expected to brush his teeth daily. By the end of the war daily brushing had become a habit.
In 1938, DuPont Corporation began manufacturing nylon bristle brushes.
The toothbrush we are familiar with became common somewhere between the end of WW2 and today. I couldn’t find out exactly when the majority of toothbrushes came to have plastic handles, but by the turn of the 21st century moulded plastic handles are the norm.
And that brings us to today’s problem of plastic toothbrushes and the impact they have on the environment.
In the supermarket today you can buy any number of brightly coloured plastic toothbrushes. Each brand claims to have its own unique attribute essential to dental hygiene, from angled bristles, gum massagers, tongue cleaners, ergonomic handles, electric toothbrushes, vibrating toothbrushes and goodness knows what else. But all of them are plastic.
I found a plastic toothbrush in the seaweed at the beach earlier this year. I saw one in the gutter recently. They don’t all end up at the dump. Once discarded it is out of sight out of mind. Yet it will take hundreds of years for them to degrade. They are here for the long haul whether we like it or not.
That toothbrush in the sand got me wondering. Surely there must have been something before plastic and if so perhaps there could be alternatives available now. I sat myself down and googled it. Guess what? There are alternatives out there. Bamboo toothbrushes! To find an alternative to the plastic status quo you’ll need to visit somewhere like Commonsense Organics, or shop online. I decided to trial some and see what I thought. I got bamboo toothbrushes for the family in several different brands. After a full 6 weeks of using them I can honestly say that they are reasonably priced and perfectly functional.
All the bamboo brushes that I have come across come with soft bristles. This is because (although some people like firmer bristles) soft bristles are recommended by dentists because they don’t damage gums. All the brands of bamboo brush I have come across make both adult and children’s sizes.
I’ve been using The Humble Brush and I really like it. It is the only brush that seems to also be socially responsible as well as environmentally friendly (at least as far as I can tell). Every purchase goes to fund projects for children in need through the Humble Smile Foundation. My brush was purchased from Commonsense Organics, but they are also available online.
My kids (aged 7 and 4) have been enthusiastically using Mama Bear brushes. They both love them and are very excited to have ditched another plastic product. The handles are round and this seemed to be easy to grasp and manipulate. To be honest I think it is easier for little hands to use these than the bulky plastic junior brushes we were buying. I am not sure why the handles of the plastic brushes have to be so chunky, but these bamboo brushes seem to be easier all round. We purchased these online from the Cruelty Free Shop.
My 14 year old daughter tried out the Environmental Toothbrush (also purchased online from the Cruelty Free Shop) and really likes it. She prefers the handle to the plastic brushes she was using. Usually very hard on her toothbrushes, this one has lasted the same length of time or perhaps slightly longer than her old plastic ones. I think she was taking more care of it because she liked it so much!
My husband has just started using a Go Bamboo toothbrush tonight after finally putting his old plastic one out for recycling (yes you can recycle plastic toothbrushes). He seemed pretty happy with it. Another friend of mine has been using this brand for a week or two since I gave it to her to help with a “rubbish free week” challenge. She is also very positive about it, particularly the soft bristles. These brushes were purchased at Commonsense Organics.
Because they still have nylon bristles you have to either pull out the bristles with pliers or break off the head and dispose of the bristles in the rubbish before composting the handle. I am perfectly happy to do either in order to reduce the amount of plastic I send to landfill each year. I have decided to up-cycle the bamboo (once it is de-bristled) by using them as plant labels when I grow seeds for our garden. You can write on the handles with ballpoint or vivid just fine.
So all in all I can’t imagine ever going back to plastic toothbrushes. The bamboo alternatives are brilliant. As far as I am concerned I will continue to reduce plastic by sourcing bamboo toothbrushes for my family.
So there you are. All you need to know about bamboo toothbrushes. I encourage you to give them a go.
What do I class as ethical and why? Put simply, being “ethical” is all about not sawing off the branch you are standing on. For me sustainable is ethical because it is important to protect and safe guard our future. If something is unsustainable then it cannot continue endlessly. Many of our planets resources are finite. Once they are gone they are gone. They can’t be utilised again. Likewise, reducing plastic consumption is ethical because the damage from plastic waste (in our oceans for example) is obvious. It is frightening to realise that the plastic bottle top in the gutter will outlast you, by a long way. The single use plastic we throw away each day will outlast all of us. It will still be here in our grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s lives. That plastic bottle top might not be visible in ten years but it will still be there, floating out at sea, in a landfill, or as microscopic bits in the soil.
To our knowledge this planet is the only place in the universe that has both the ability to sustain life, and life itself. That makes both us and our planet unique. I believe that “ethical” is a choice that looks to the future, of our human civilisation, our planet, and the life that inhabits it. These things are what we will pass on to our children. Our children are educated at school about climate change and environmental awareness. They are encouraged to be planetary and global citizens who care about the world and all those in it. The disjunct between what we teach our kids and practice ourselves is huge. The dis-junction is even greater when you compare what our kids are learning and what the government is doing. If we wait for someone else to take the initiative, then we will be waiting a long time. If we want to see a positive change then we need to take individual action.
Socially responsible options are ethical (such as fair trade). That should be obvious, but for many people it isn’t top of their minds when they shop. Choosing products where human beings and the environment have been protected from exploitation makes sense for everyone. Why would you choose exploitation over freedom? The same goes for animal friendly products. Exploited animals can’t exactly mount their own protest. They rely on us to make ethical choices wherever we possibly can in order to protect them.
How to make an ethical choice? Well it turns out that isn’t as simple as I thought. Having said that, the good news is there is lots of advice out there and a lot of it is common sense! On this blog journey I hope to unravel some of the complexities I’ve run into and make it easier to make truly ethical choices. I plan to share what I learn with you. In the meantime here are some things to bear in mind.
Do your own research. If you want to know if something is ethical, research it. If you can’t find anything out then ask them. Look into the main trusted eco-labels or certifications in New Zealand (and globally) eg Fairtrade.
Always look for concrete claims that actually mean something, for example “made from 100% recycled plastic” actually tells you something about what the company is doing and how it is sourcing materials. Even if the claim seems meaningful, look for a certification to back up their claims. A claim that says “100% recyclable” won’t tell you much about what the company is doing, whether it is ethically disposed of comes down to the consumer not the company.
Beware of irrelevant or vague claims that mean nothing. For example “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “good for the planet” “chemical free”. An example of irrelevant labeling is a pack of toilet paper that is labelled biodegradable! Words like “degradable” can also be suspect. After all most things are degradable even plastic, it just takes geological time periods to do it, and the by-products of degradation may be toxic. Be cautious of terms like “organic” unless it is certified as organic by an independent organisation e.g. GOTS.
Beware of “greenwash” or “ethical-wash”. Greenwash is the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service or technology in order to present an environmentally friendly and responsible image to the public. The same approach can be used to promote a false image of a product or company in terms of human rights and ethical working conditions. For example some companies claim their products are ethically sourced but provide no certification or proof of this. Alternatively, they provide a whole line up of certifications no one has ever heard of. Another trick is to market a product based upon its plant based ingredients while the fine print lists a long line of artificial ingredients with no sourcing data.
As a consumer you need to feel confident about your rights. You can and should make complaints about companies you think are being deceptive. Did you know that anyone can make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in NZ and those companies then have to substantiate their claims? The Commerce Commission, which administers the Fair Trading Act, can prosecute companies it believes have a false or misleading claim. The commission has investigated companies about their green marketing and has taken cases to the courts.
At the end of the day I thought this blog post about ethical choices would be empowering. I guess it has been, but mostly it has felt overwhelming. You can find a product that is plastic free and compostable. But that same product is more than likely made in a factory in Asia with no ethical certification to indicate a concrete commitment to social responsibility.
You can find a range of products that are certified for various things, but not all certifications are equal. It feels extremely daunting trying to wade through the various certification schemes to find the best ones. After all, I am just an ordinary average person trying to get a handle on all this for the first time myself. Most disturbing for me is how hard it is to get real information about human rights practices from some companies. They will attempt to brush aside my concerns with vague assurances that the working conditions meet their own personal moral standards. How on earth to judge when presented with this state of affairs? I am beginning to see that perhaps individuals asking questions directly, and being prepared to shift their purchasing to more ethical companies is the only way to make a lasting impact.
For me, I am committed to reducing plastic and choosing socially and environmentally responsible products wherever I can. And I am committed to making my spending choices known by personally contacting companies. I am committed to trying to make sure that the person sewing my clothes, printing my books and making my food has the same rights and opportunities that I do. If our positions were reversed, I would hope for someone to do the same for me.
Here I am doing my first SUST product review. Exciting times! I don’t know how many of you are aware that there are some companies out there making solid shampoo bars, bodywash alternatives and even deodorant. Ethique just happens to be the first I have been able to sample myself.
Have a look at Ethique’s website and see what you think. Ethique state that they are plastic free and their packaging is fully compostable. They are cruelty free (not tested on animals), sustainable, and locally made in Christchurch NZ. They are B corp. certified and a Climate Friendly Business.
I love that the packaging included no plastic at all. It was so refreshing not to have to put a whole lot of plastic out for recycling or to landfill. Not even the postal packaging was plastic. It also came complete with a neat little card stating that I had saved the equivalent of two plastic bottles!
The body sampler pack was particularly neat and nifty. One of these (or one of their other sampler packs) would make an excellent birthday or Christmas present.
Here is a rundown of the products I have sampled.
The Lime and Ginger bodywash bar is wonderful to use. It smells fresh and leaves me feeling clean. It is lasting really well and it’s not just me using it, the kids like it too. In contrast, the Lime and ginger body polish is lovely to use, however it is clearly not going to last anything like as long as they claim. After only two uses the sample block is shrinking away. The other bodywash samples are lasting much longer.
The Glow Lavender and Vanilla deodorant is INCREDIBLE. I have never used a product this effective. After a morning application I had no BO problems at all. I know because I kept incredulously sniffing my armpits every hour or so expecting to have to reapply. At bed time I could still clearly smell the deodorant much the same as when first applied. I couldn’t detect any BO at all. I‘ve been using it for weeks now with no problems. I certainly won’t bother with the products in regular supermarkets ever again!
The In Your Face cleanser is another winner! It is lasting well, it smells divine (think raspberry sherbet) and leaves my face feeling incredible.
My husband is trialing the suave shampoo and shaving block. So far he says it is very good, equivalent to mainstream shaving products he has used, but is bit expensive. It works nicely as a shampoo, and works well for shaving. It seems to double as bodywash perfectly adequately (which is a bonus when traveling). Recently overseas for work, he only needed to take one solid bar instead of three plastic bottles!
I was sceptical of the solid shampoo idea, but it really is effective. I like a good lather that leaves my hair squeaky clean. I also have a sensitive scalp that is prone to irritation. I am pretty attached to my favourite shampoo, so the Damage Control shampoo bar had a lot to live up too. I was very excited to try it. I rubbed it on my head as per the instructions, massaged it in a bit and hey presto! Bubbles and lather everywhere. The smell reminded me of oddfellow mints. The only thing I noticed is that the bar gets slippery very quickly so I have dropped it a couple of times leading to some very flat corners. I’m now careful to put it up high on the shower caddy away from splashes and shift it to the window sill where it can dry out between washes.
Coconut and lime butter block is the only thing I haven’t sampled personally. I can’t stand the smell of coconut on me. A strange personal foible I know, but I don’t like coconut to eat or to wear! I was dubious that everything would smell like coconut, but in fact the butter block is the only one I didn’t like. Everything else smells fantastic. I got my 14 year old daughter to try it out instead and she loves it!
I have atopic syndrome which leads to skin rashes for much of the year. At its worst I am totally miserable. I have a lot of trouble finding beauty products that don’t make it worse or set it off. So far the Ethique products I have trialed have been OK. After years of bland smelling hypo-allergenic products it is unbelievably nice to use such lovely smelling things. Every shower is bliss!
Using solid bars rather than liquid products seems to require a bit of a shift in how you do things. For example, the bars don’t like staying wet. The deodorant got a bit damp and moist when left in out in the steamy bathroom so I keep it in the bedroom instead. The shampoo needs to dry out between uses, so I put it on the bathroom window sill. All in all, the only things that need a big change are our buying habits and a few minor alterations to where you keep your products.
Why is this brand so exciting? For me it is because these products tick so many boxes for us on our ethical and sustainable journey.
Some of Ethique’s products are expensive, but with the exception of the body polish bar (as mentioned) they all seem to be lasting well. I am not yet certain if they will live up to the promise to outlast a liquid equivalent. I don’t have reliable usage data to compare to. However, so far the deodorant, and bodywash are performing very well and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they do outlast my usual products. At $9.50 for the lime and ginger bodywash, I think this is great value because it is considerably cheaper than the $14 I have been paying for my usual brand.
The shampoo, seems to be going well for me too. The shampoo bar cost $22 which is the same as a bottle of the only stuff I have been able to find that doesn’t irritate my scalp. I would happily use either. I think I still prefer my old brand for scent though!
Ethique have several charities to which they direct a portion of their profits (WSPA, International Animal Rescue, The Orangutan Project and HUHA). They also sponsor an orangutan and a slow loris). Disappointingly, they do not appear to be helping any of New Zealand’s iconic native species that teeter on the brink. I would love to see them sponsoring a few predator traps or adopting a yellow eyed penguin. For a New Zealand company I feel this is a glaring omission.
A testament to the success of Ethique’s products is that they are often out of stock on their website. It is well worth a look if you are interested in plastic free locally made beauty products.