It’s complicated


Which one is most ethical?

A couple of things over the past week have got me thinking about ‘doing the right thing’. First, I received a message from an acquaintance asking me about ethical knitting yarn. Since I’ve written extensively in the past about yarn ethics, I’m often asked for advice. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to give a straight answer. My preferences are based on my own morals as well as a knowledge of the sorts of fibres that actually ‘work’ for making different items. However,  we all have different perceptions of what is ‘ethical’ so my choices won’t be the same as everyone else’s. Anyway, I was able to provide lots of facts, suggestions and opinions, and the enquirer went away to do some thinking and research. Unfortunately finding reliable facts is a minefield in its own right, so it’s only possible to make a partially informed decision in the end at best.

The second thing was a news story, namely that the new Bank of England £5 notes are made using tallow, an animal product in the production of the polymer coating. This has led to a great deal of outrage being reported in the media and quite a bit on social media too. However, another acquaintance of mine who is a strict vegan has suggested that there are more important things in the world to get upset about. He mentioned the presence of animal products in a whole range of everyday and pretty-much-unavoidable materials.


it’s enough to drive you to drink!

Because I’m nether vegetarian nor vegan, I’ve never really considered whether there are animal by-products in the objects around me, but the debate piqued my interest and I found several articles mentioning the presence, or potential presence, of tallow in polyethylene. Animal fats may also be present in cosmetics, soaps, detergents, candles and crayons, but I knew about all these so it’s animal fat in the production of plastics that is most interesting to me, because I wasn’t previously aware of it. This means that there are all sorts of everyday objects that purist vegans and vegetarians may want to avoid – pvc seat covers, plastic shopping bags, raincoats, shoes, condoms (it’s in some latex too)… you get the point.


However, the amounts are tiny (measured in parts per million rather than percentages) and so, maybe it’s ok to ignore? And it’s not always used in plastic production. Again, it surely depends on your own moral compass and where you draw the line. Again, however, we return to the fact that the issue is complex and that finding information about a particular object or material is likely to be extremely difficult – components of your plastic shoes may have been made using animal products, but how on earth would you find out?

I suppose that where I’m going with this  ramble is that we live in an extremely complex world, where making completely informed decisions is just not possible. However, the simpler a product, in theory, the easier it is to make that informed decision, right? Well, up to a point, but I invite you to read Leonard E. Read ‘s 1958 essay I, Pencil and then tell me it’s easy…

Wellington quandry

Sometimes I wonder how I ever manage to actually buy ANYTHING these days. I have been known to fret about the implications of my choices for weeks… which is why I ended up tramping about the garden in several extra pairs of socks and Mr Snail-of-happiness’ wellies.

Our garden today (taken from indoors!)

Wellington boots are not optional in our garden in the winter

You see, my wellington boots started to leak. It was right at the time of our garden being partially under water and I came in one day with a soggy foot. Waterproof footwear was essential… either that or go barefoot and get hypothermia. So, I decided to buy new boots. I asked around, I posted on Facebook… I thought finding something suitable was going to be straightforward. I was wrong.

My old boots were very cheap, fairly uncomfortable for walking in, but ok for the garden and lasted no time at all (well, a couple of years). So, I thought that I would try to be a bit more ethical with my welly-buying and get some that are made in the UK. It turns out, though, that British-made wellies are as rare as hen’s teeth… the only ones I could find were trendy ones designed to wear at festivals… not really the thing for working in the garden. I could find French wellies that seemed to tick all the boxes, but were way out of my price range. A friend suggested one make of boots, but someone else told me that there were issues with worker exploitation with this brand. I searched the internet (unsuccessfully) for ‘ethical wellies’. I dithered. I continued to paddle about in Mr S-o-h’s boots. I put off work in the garden because I didn’t have any boots. I dithered some more.

Then finally I realised that I just needed to bite the bullet. I had to compromise. I needed boots to be able to get on with doing a whole bunch of stuff that is positive for me and for the planet. There isn’t always a perfect solution. So, I bought some that came highly recommended by someone who spends a great deal of her life wearing the things and whom I trust. I bought good-quality so I should be wearing the things for years to come and not having to replace them often and send the old ones to land-fill. They are comfortable, they do the job I need them to do… their ethics are not ideal, but sometimes you really do just have to get on and make the best of a bad set of choices… especially if it leads to positive action as a consequence.

Greenwash and Eco-bling

No bling - we did our sums first

No bling – we did our sums first

A few years ago (wearing my ‘professional ecologist’ hat) I attended a meeting with other professionals about a development being undertaken by a housing association. One of the aims was to achieve a green accreditation – The Code for Sustainable Homes. There was much discussion about eco-building materials, insulation and all sorts of other ‘hidden’ features before we got on to discussing the more visible features. And it was at this point I first encountered the term ‘eco-bling’. You can easily understand what it means: those showy things that look good but serve little purpose. Water butts that simply divert water but whose contents are never used; wind turbines that generate so little electricity it will take hundreds of years for them to pay for themselves let alone offset the embodied energy; inappropriately sited solar panels.

The Guardian has suggested that eco-bling is “more about showing off environmental credentials to neighbours than saving carbon”. Well what do you expect from ‘bling’? But this really is a cynical view – it may be that some people only pay for eco-features for show, but I think most individuals who install renewables probably do so because they think that either these measures will save them money and/or they are doing something to reduce carbon emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. I’m sure that many people (individuals or companies) have done the maths and are making choices for sound reasons – the same may not be true for developers wanting to convince you to buy their houses, or governments wanting you to vote for them.

Indeed, there is a lot of ‘greenwash‘ out there… and it mainly seems to be used for marketing. We can all be more sustainable by simply buying less stuff – goods that never get made have no environmental impact. But when we do need to make a purchase, I think it’s important to look behind the claims. In some ways I have more respect for a product that is honest and makes no claims about green credentials than one that spouts how eco-friendly it is when closer inspection reveals something quite different. And I accept that it can be difficult to find goods that are completely environmentally sound and/or ethical (and remember that depends on your own ethics too), but I really object to being duped.

What I want is honesty – I want to buy from a company who are up-front about their products, working conditions, raw materials, energy sources etc. At least that way I can make informed decisions and it might save me hours of internet research too!

Green bath puff 3… I can’t believe there’s another sequel

A woolly washball (Jacob wool, awaiting decoration) and a woolly bath puff

A woolly washball (Jacob wool, awaiting decoration) and a woolly bath puff

When I started this business with the bath puffs, I had no idea that it would come to occupy so much of my time and my blog… but that’s life isn’t it: you take a small step and it leads you down a very long path! ‘The road goes ever on and on’ as JRR Tolkien wrote.

Early on in my quest for the green bath puff I dismissed  sheep’s wool as a fibre because of its propensity to felt. However, over the months I have learned more about wool, its properties and the way it is processed. I’ve also come round to the idea that felt might be a desirable material to wash with for some people (yes – I know some people can’t stand it on their skin, but they do seem to be in the minority). Anyway, in terms of the ethics of knitting/crochet yarns, unless you want to avoid animal products, there is a great deal to recommend wool, especially for those of us who live in the UK where few plant fibres for yarn are produced, but where we have lots of sheep.

When you buy wool yarns or garments, the label often says that they are machine-washable: this means that they shouldn’t felt when agitated in a washing machine at a warm temperature. Sometimes the label says ‘Superwash’ but this just means they have been through a patented process; there are other techniques to facilitate machine-washability. On investigation, I have found that the process required to stop wool felting and, thus, make it machine-washable,  is to either remove the scales on the wool by stripping them off with acid, or coating the wool with a polymer. Neither of these approaches sound particularly environmentally friendly to me, but the acid can’t be too strong otherwise it would completely dissolve the wool and I’m not sure about the use of a polymer. The Natural Fibre Company have an interesting little piece about Superwash wool that suggests that the fibres from some sheep breeds (and other species) are difficult to felt anyway, so can be washed without the need for pre-treatment. I feel that these might be worth investigating in the future.  Again, however, I return to the idea of upcycled yarn because I have some I can experiment with…

Inspired by the woolly wash balls (I’ve just made one from Jacob sheep wool that’s lovely) I decided to make a wool bath puff. Using some wool that used to be a cardigan* and that I know was sold as being machine-washable, I produced yet another prototype, which I tried out this morning. It was nice to use and produced some lather (although I was using Green People Aloe shower gel, which is very concentrated)… it’s hanging up in the bathroom now to see how long it takes to dry – it can’t be as long as 100% cotton! I suspect that it will felt after a while, but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

And, finally, for the time being on bath puffs, I notice the large number of searches arriving here on my site from people who want a pattern for a knitted bath puff (as I did originally). I am guessing that, unlike me, many people are not prepared to put aside their prejudice against knitting and learn to crochet. So, over the next week or two, I’m going to design a knitting pattern… watch this space!


* You might also recognise it in the snails at the top of the page.

Flower power

There is a scene in the US sitcom Friends where Monica gives the following advice to Phoebe’s boyfriend

do not get her flowers. Okay? Because y’know, she cries when they die, and there’s the whole funeral…

The line gets a big laugh and it’s supposed to show just how cookie Phoebe is but, you know, I’m really on her side in this case. Whilst it may seem strange to most people, the truth is I really dislike cut flowers… the idea of having something gradually decomposing on my mantlepiece isn’t something that appeals to me.

A breadseed poppy flower in my garden

I have told many people over the years about my feelings towards cut flowers and most of them think I’m bonkers… although a few have acknowledged that I do have a point. I prefer to see my flowers growing… perhaps in a pot, but preferably outside in the garden or in a natural place where the bees, butterflies and hoverflies can enjoy them too.

I was brought up not to have flowers in the house because my mother has such severe hayfever. Even the flowers at my sister’s wedding had to be artificial. So, I didn’t grow up expecting to see flowers indoors… just green growing plants. Perhaps this is why I have always been thoughtful about their presence and never really accepted them as a natural feature.

Of course as I got older I began to think about the origin of cut flowers and question their environmental credentials. The point of a cut flower is beauty… for most people they should be perfect – no blemishes or signs of deterioration when they are received. Like any other plant part, once picked decomposition is going to set in quite quickly, so treatment with fungicides and rapid refrigeration are in order… particularly since many flowers travel thousands of miles before they reach the supermarket or florists where they are sold. As John McQuaid says in an article in the magazine of the Smithsonian institute

Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death

But even prior to their picking and transportation, the flowers need to be perfect – so have to be grown in conditions that prevent attacks by insects and pathogens.

Flowers in the garden – where I like them

A large proportion of cut flowers are grown in Colombia or Kenya – countries with a climate that allows year-round flower production without artificial heat. In terms of carbon  emissions this seems like a good option – the other common source of cut flowers is Holland, where the plants must be grown in heated polytunnels to ensure they are available throughout the year. However, even in tropical countries, cultivation is often in polytunnels in order to control pests and water applications. And, of course, pesticide use is common… having a significant impact on the health of the workers (often women and children) in the facilities (you can’t call them gardens or even farms) where these flowers are produced. Most (but not all) cut flowers are produced by large companies whose primary motivation is profit, not the welfare of either their workers or their customers. War on Want have highlighted the issues associated with the industry and, whilst the situation seems to be improving, in part as a result of customers looking for fairly traded of environmentally responsible bouquets, there are still problems. For example the ‘Fair Trade’ mark tells you nothing about the levels of pesticides, although it does give more assurance that workers are not being ‘exploited’. In my opinion, however, ‘exploitation’ should be considered to include exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as long working hours, limited breaks, child labour and so on.

Even as a purchaser or receiver of cut flowers you may be exposed to unpleasant substances. John McQuaid writing in 2011 noted that

the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues

Which makes me wonder what the message really is when you give someone a bunch of flowers – here darling, have some dangerous chemicals and watch these plants slowly dying!

There’s plenty advice on buying flowers, be it from The Ecologist Magazine or the UK Government. You may want to think about worker’s rights, carbon emissions, water resources, pesticide and fertilizer use, supporting developing countries or your local economy, but for me it’s easy – I don’t like cut flowers so I never buy them!

Oh, and I don’t like cut Christmas trees either!

The ethics of knitting yarns

Right at the beginning of this blog I said that it was intended to be an account of my own small steps towards a sustainability… perhaps I should have said a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of my musings have been about my own food production… vegetables, eggs, fruit… slugs as chicken food, but I’m also interested in the other aspects of my life – clothing, entertainment, my home and earning a living. My approach with the latter is to practice ‘poly-employment’ – not putting all my eggs in one basket, but having several income sources. At present I have two main ways that I earn a living – scientific editing and teaching adults (I teach ecology, conservation, biological survey and permaculture) – but I want another string to my bow.

With this in mind I am in the process of setting up a small business to make and sell teaching aids for the subjects that I run courses on. Over the years I have developed lots of tools to use to help me when I’m teaching – games, props, aides-memoirs, simulations and so on. I take an accelerated learning approach, and a variety of was of delivering learning is very important (different people learn in different ways and my aim is to cater for all). The knitted snails (in all their glory at the top of my blog page) are examples of a teaching tool – I use them for a story-telling exercise to demonstrate that small steps can take you a long way in either a positive or a negative direction. I have used them a few times, once with a group of trainee and experienced permaculture teachers who gave me very good feedback and, indeed, requested their own snails.

So I set to knitting snails… I know how to do it and you would think that there would be few ethical dilemmas associated with snail-knitting. You would be wrong! The dilemma comes with the materials used. There are two main components – yarn and stuffing. I’ll start with the latter.

The most common soft toy filling is polyester wadding – it’s lightweight and washable. I had a little of this hanging around the house and so it was the obvious choice for the first snails that I knitted. But when it was used up I was reluctant to buy more… it’s a petroleum-based product and, as such, not exactly sustainable. So what else to use? I considered wool or silk, but I expect that some of my customers will be vegan and, therefore, not want to buy any animal products. Which meant I was looking for a plant fibre. At this point I realised that the toys we made as children were stuffed with kapok and, whilst not washable like polyester, it is widely available and has a proven track record. My snails only need to be surface washable, so kapok it is… I even managed to find someone selling organic kapok.

But my problems were not over… there is a much wider choice of yarn than stuffing and each fibre has different qualities. I need a slightly stretchy yarn for the snails. The originals were made from oddments that I had lying around – the dark purple is pure wool and the lilac is a wool-silk mix. These are great to knit with, but not suitable for vegan customers. I am trying to use up lots of yarn oddments that I have here at home and I suppose that this is a sound approach because I’m turning a waste product into a useful resource, but in the long-term it’s not sustainable because I do not have an unlimited amount of left-over yarn and, anyway, much of it is sheep’s wool. I wanted to make a start on the knitting, so the first non-animal yarn available to me was acrylic – this is readily available and it is cheap. But, like polyester, this is a product of the petrochemical industry. So, although I did make some snails from acrylic yarn, this is not my ideal raw material.

So, I hit the internet…

I started off by searching for recycled yarn. The most readily available seems to be recycled silk. There are several problems with this for me. First, it’s not vegan; second, it’s not stretchy; third, its gauge varies, which is not ideal for the snails; and finally it’s quite expensive. There’s some recycled cotton yarn available, but it’s generally combined with acrylic.

Cotton, itself seems like a good choice except for its lack of stretch. However, conventionally produced cotton relies on high applications of pesticides and is water-hungry. Indeed, one source I found states that “2.5% of all farmland worldwide is used to grow cotton, yet 10% of all chemical pesticides and 22% of insecticides are sprayed on cotton” – astonishing figures. New organic cotton is available and there are yarn manufacturers that help support small producers. I decided that I would give some of this a try even though I don’t think it is really the ideal yarn for my projects… and, of course, there are ‘yarn miles’ associated with it.

OK, so I searched for eco-yarns and environmentally friendly yarns and came up with a whole list. There are some great manufacturers who support small producers across the world, but many of these make use of fibres from animals – sheep and alpacas, in particular. I am happy to use such yarn and I intend to explore the qualities of the different ‘wools’, but I still need to find something that will satisfy my vegan customers. I know that twine or linen can be made out of flax, hemp and nettle fibres, but they have little stretch in them and after some consideration I have had to dismiss them. However, I also know that other plants are being used to make yarn – bamboo seems to be appearing frequently in eco-clothing ranges at the moment. As I searched the internet, I started to come across yarn from some unexpected sources – maize, for example, and soya. And most bizarre of all, milk – yes milk!

So, my quest began to discover how such yarns are produced. One great source was a blog post on milk fibre, that suggests that its production relies on some unpleasant chemicals and that you need a huge amount of milk to make a small amount of yarn.

Typing ‘how is bamboo yarn made?’ into Google returned about 6 million results, so I thought I’d start with the first one… I wasn’t filled with confidence when it started ‘Bamboo yarn is derived from the bamboo tree…’ As a botanist, I can assure you that bamboo is a grass – a great big grass, but nevertheless a grass not a tree. I persisted… but all I discovered is that the process involves grinding up the plant and treating with water and ‘chemicals’. A less than enlightening article. However, a bit more searching and I discovered that all fabrics made out of reconstituted plant fibres are actually forms of rayon… now, I’ve heard of that! Rayon fibres are made from cellulose that can come from all sorts of plants, but the description that I found of its production suggests that it involves the use of caustic soda and carbon disulphide, and “results in a great deal of environmental pollution”. Sigh. So, is bamboo yarn, for example, eco-friendly? The general conclusion seems to be that it’s not entirely, but that there are some positives – bamboo grows well without the use of pesticides, grows rapidly and regrows when it has been cut (like your lawn, if you have one). And modern manufacturing processes seek to minimise the loss of chemicals to the environment, so pollution should be less than it used to be… perhaps eventually it will be produced in a completely environmentally friendly way, but not yet.

So, are there any truly environmentally friendly yarns? My inclination, for my own use, is to rely on British wool: sheep need to be shorn for welfare reasons and their wool can be processed and dyed using relatively natural products. In future I will knit my socks out of wool from Blue-faced Leicester sheep if possible. But for my vegan customers, I don’t have an ideal answer. This morning a package of different yarns arrived: bamboo, soya and cotton for me to try out… none of them have the give I really want in a yarn, but all of them are soft and may be wonderful to knit with. So, needles at the ready to produce so  eco(ish) snails.

… oh, and I’m knitting worms too!

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