September 18th, 2014

Politika: Art and the Affairs of the City

Peter Kennard, myself and a bunch of other troublemakers are delighted to feature in this group show in the heart of Manchester’s former industrial hub of Ancoats.

Organised by the rabble rousers at Upper Space it features workshops, talks and events which not only engage local communities but do that thing that anything creative ought to do – make the world an ultimately nicer place.

It’s on from 19 September – 01 October. Head down. Eyes up.

Politika_page_banner_1000_x_500

 

September 16th, 2014

Berlin duo launch a supermarket with no packaging

Gemüse_Anne Schönharting

It works like this. You bring your own containers and have those weighed. Berlin-based supermarket Original Unverpackt labels your containers. You shop. When you get to the till, the weight of your containers is subtracted and you pay for the net weight of your groceries. The label is designed to survive a few washings so you can come back and skip the weighing process for a while.

Founders Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski say there’s a rising demand for products and services that deal with sustainability and that people demand alternatives to the “lavish” handling of our resources.

“Here, the customer only takes what they need,” says Wolf and Glimbovski ahead of the launch of their Berlin-Kreuzberg shop. “We’d like to offer an alternative way of shopping – one where we offer everything you need but you won’t find hundreds of different types of body lotion or olive oil.”

Original Unverpackt isn’t a new idea. Austin, Texas, has In.Gredients and Catherine Conway founded London-based Unpackaged – first in Islington in 2007 before it moved to Hackney in 2012. It closed the following year after the original business model changed to include a restaurant and a bar. All three are independent shops exploring the psychology of food and consumption.

“If you are trying to counter the modern way of ready-to-assemble food, then you have an uphill climb,” says Conway. Food in this extreme, where a ready-made curry in a plastic box gets zapped into something you stick in your face, has been divested of any of its pleasurable aspects and is treated as fuel. “It’s nothing to do with the products you have on offer, it’s more to do with the psychology of marketing and being sold the idea of time saving ways of eating.”

In 2011, the UK produced nearly 11m tonnes of packaging waste. Yet companies still sell packaged, pre-peeled bananas.

Food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart, says supermarkets have cottoned onto the ‘ethical consumer’. “The food and packaging industry has undergone a strategic rebranding campaign [and now] argues that you can reduce food waste by how it’s packaged. So you get pots of cubed-up mango instead of an actual mango. We then buy supermarket branded reusable shopping bags which we hang in our hallways which turn our homes into billboards for these places. It’s a distraction from the real issue which is turning nature into cash to satisfy unnecessary consumer desires.”

Image converted using ifftoany

There is an argument that opening unpackaged stores in neighbourhoods with a high proportion of upwardly mobile hipsters out-prices the poorer, local communities. Original Unverpackt says it “would like to offer this new way of shopping to a broad range of customers” including those on small budgets, but admit that their Berlin-Kreuzberg shop sits next to a vegan burger restaurant and ‘alternative’ environments can’t help but be tainted by middle-class privilege.

“The original idea for Unpackaged was to make organic food cheaper for people on low incomes if we removed the packaging,” says Conway. “I didn’t have the buying power to drop my prices. Yet when I price checked something like organic oats, I found that a supermarket would charge more than I did.” What Conway was trying to do, she says, “was to see if we could set up a social franchise model that catered to a local community, local tastes and local incomes”.

Brighton-based social enterprise hiSbe offers an unpackaged section within a more conventional supermarket. Emphasis is on locally-sourced products and its business model includes pricing transparency – so you know how much of your pound goes towards the supplier, staff wages and so on. They want to make ethical and sustainable shopping the norm.

Ultimately the issue isn’t how sustainable or ethical your purchase is, but whether you should be buying it at all. “We continue to exploit resources and extend our agricultural development into the world’s last remaining forests displacing both indigenous populations and natural habitats so we can have strawberries in December,” says Stuart. “Is it possible to make the kind of societal changes to make us live in symbiosis with all the world’s creatures? Yes, but at the moment there are no significant global trends that point in that direction.”

Selling unpackaged groceries is a progressive concept borne out of the bulk buying trends of the 1980s, but it is only part of a solution towards less industrialised consumption. It’s one of the myriad of options pushed out to people as alternative ways of buying. We’re getting better with managing waste – nearly 70% of the UK’s waste is recovered or recycled compared to 27% in 1998. But it is a drop in the ocean when you consider the vast quantities disposed of by China, Russia and the United States.

An unfortunate side effect with every sustainable or ethical business is that regardless of the altruism behind each recycled, upcycled, unpackaged or renewable product is that sustainability ultimately means the sustainability of profit, not planet.

August 27th, 2014

Posters of Protest

A piece I presented for Tariq Ali’s new show on TeleSUR English about posters of protest and some inspiring activists campaigning against the School of the Americas.

 

July 25th, 2014

Disobedient Objects

 This is happening. 26 July 2014 – 01 February 2015. See if you can spot our naughty little paws in the exhibition (clue: billboards).

It’s a “Look mum, we’re in the V&A” moment.

We’re also making an interactive film on the London Recruits as the Disobedient Film Company which is out this autumn.

Follow us on @disobedientf.

Bucket Pamphlet Bomb

July 23rd, 2014

Cycling is a green activity but finding sustainable, ethical cycling gear is hard

Kranium-bike-helmet-011Cycling’s big. It’s worth at least £26.1bn as a worldwide industry. There are two to four billion cyclists in the world and more people are taking it up everyday. So why is it so difficult to find sustainable and ethical cycling gear?

“Cyclists don’t know the impact of the stuff they’re buying but maybe there’s a mindset that thinks ‘oh well I’m doing my bit, I’m riding a bike, that’s enough’,” says Veleco founder Jamie Lloyd. Veleco was set up to produce ethical and environmentally friendly cycling gear. Its founder now outsources the skills and networks he established making Fairtrade sports equipment to larger manufacturers with bigger buying power.

The conventional cycling helmet is a good example of ersatz sustainability. The majority of helmets are made of expanded polystyrene [EPS]. But once you’ve been in an accident and the helmet has done its job, its protective qualities go away. The EPS squishes and you have to purchase a new one. As a plastic made from petrochemicals that is very slow to biodegrade, EPS’s extremely low weight makes it difficult to recycle – although you can reuse it if you break it up for packaging or turn it into a very hippy planter.

Cycling gear maker Abus recently launched the Ecolution helmet – made from recycled cardboard based on a honeycomb design. It says it is 15% lighter than EPS helmets and can absorb greater impact. However, when Abus started working with its inventor Royal College of Art graduate Anirudha Surabhi, they also retained the rights to that technology for their brand meaning others cannot benefit from the knowledge needed to spread that idea wider.

To date, a sustainable cycling helmet remains niche. Designer James Dart is working on a biodegradable one made of flax resin. Bicycle lights are packaged in compostable boxes, but still rely on less sustainable elements in their construct and manufacture. As for the rest of the bike? All that steel, carbon fibre, titanium, rubber, plastic and aluminium has to come from somewhere.

Helmet manufacturer Giro is among the companies hoping to redress this. “I’d say that within around 18 months we can see a new product aimed at the enthusiast and the commuter that would tick all the boxes for sustainability and ethics,” says its PR guy Mark Reidy. “Technology and manufacturing methods usually trickle down. So high-end processes make their way down to more consumer price points. But this time, we’re confident it will trickle up.”

Speaking of trickling, being stuck on a bike when the heavens open is not a good thing and almost everyone has some form of rain protection. However, the chemicals used for waterproofing are not so good.

“The issue with waterproofing is PFCs – perfluorinated compounds like Scotchgard and GoreTex,” says cycle wear designer Clare Farrell. “Eight-chain PFCs have been found to kill lab rats and cause cancer. There are traces in the environment and in human blood. Because they’re such stable chemicals they perform really well, but they don’t break down. They bioaccumulate. I don’t trust that technology or the similar six and four-chain alternatives many companies are now moving towards.”

Clare makes cycling jackets treated with a bluesign registered finish. “It’s an alternative chemistry and an industry system that monitors and limits the sorts of chemicals used across the textile supply chain. Adidas just signed up to a bluesign partnership so hopefully that will get people talking about it.”

Can you have a fully ethical bike? There are companies that make them out of bamboo and cyclists use old parts from one bike on a new one. There’s a healthy trade in second-hand bicycle parts. However, be it the bike or parts for the bike, people still tend to buy new.

Saddle maker Brooks – best known for their highly stealable leather saddles – have come out with the Cambium. It’s made of rubber and 100% organic cotton. But that’s an added bonus. Its real selling point is its brand pedigree and the claim that it’s instantly comfortable the minute you sit on it. In cycling, performance is likely to always top planet.

Former professional cyclist Francesca Barsamian says “durability and functionality is much more important to me than sustainability. All my accessories get heavy use and I have to know they’ll last. But because of that, I don’t buy things that often.”

The up-and-coming crop of professional cyclists are riding with sustainability in mind, according to Louis Delahaije, performance manager at Team Belkin. “You used to be able to dump anything along a route. Now there are zones for disposal along the Tour de France. The environment is becoming the top thing in a cyclist’s mind and it’s impossible not to take the planet into account when you’re riding.”

“If you talk about the inherent traceability of all products, you can really go very far back – especially with a bicycle,” continues Jamie Lloyd. “For instance, virgin aluminium is one of the most environmentally damaging products you can source because of the amount of energy it takes to mine it and to process. An aluminium bike has a much larger carbon footprint than people anticipate.”

Riding a bicycle emits around 21g of CO2 per km. An average car spits out 271g. So as a cyclist, you are doing a good thing. But until you’ve started going into the origins of the products you buy and companies start rolling out ethics, sustainability and traceability across their production chains, you’re not a sustainable cyclist.

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This article was first published in the Guardian, 23 July 2014.

June 12th, 2014

How Adidas supported worker rights in China factory strike

Striking workers protest near the Yue Yuen shoe factory complex in Dongguan

strike at Taiwanese shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen in Dongguan, China, which supplies athletic shoes to the likes of Nike and Adidas, brought the 43,000 employee outfit to a standstill for 10 days in April. Two months on and the factory still does not appear to have returned to full capacity.

It started when an employee checked their wage slip and noticed the company had been underpaying its social security contributions. Tens of thousands of people downed tools and walked out in one of the largest industrial disputes in living memory. But this was strike with a difference.

An account from inside the factory reported on by Reuters claimed that contrary to traditional views of strikes (with management as the bad guys) it was the supervisors who first challenged senior plant leaders over the payment irregularities that precipitated the dispute.

China sees its fair share of strikes, Hong Kong-based workers rights group China Labour Bulletin records at least 319 strikes and labour protests in China since the beginning of 2014, and the Yue Yuen strike isn’t the first to see unusual suspects standing up for workers’ rights.

But at Yue Yuen it was also brands – yes, brands – that got involved on the side of the workers, campaigning for the release of workers’ representatives arrested by Chinese authorities during the protest.

Some brands such as Timberland, proudly featured on Yue Yuen’s website, were quick to disassociate themselves from the disputes at the Dongguan facility. “Timberland products are manufactured in some Yue Yuen locations,” said a Timberland PR. “But not in the locations that were involved in the strikes.”

Others, however, were more proactive. Nike, one of Yue Yen’s larger customers which works with 744 of its factories around the world, said it chose not to move production from Yue Yuen. The company was in “close contact with Yue Yuen management”, but stressed that negotiations were between Yue Yuen, its workers and the government.

Adidas took it a step further. In a statement to the Guardian it said: “Throughout the strike, the Adidas Group was closely monitoring the situation and in touch with our partner Pou Chen Group [the parent company of Yue Yuen]. Pou Chen Group was in direct discussion with the local government and the trade union federation to seek ways to address the concerns expressed by the workers.”

Despite rumours to the contrary, the company said that while some orders were shifted to other suppliers at no point did it consider pulling out of the factory at Dongguan.

On its advocacy on behalf of those involved in the strike, Adidas said: “With respect to the arrest of two workers’ representatives, Mr Zhang and Mr Lin, we were engaged with several labour rights groups in Southern China, to try to determine where they were being detained and offered our support to secure their release. We also wrote to the Dongguan mayoral office, calling for his immediate release.”

Yue Yuen saw its shares drop nearly 5% during the dispute and it claims to have lost around $27m in revenue. Strikers demanded an increase to insurance and housing funds for the 45,000 workers at the plant. Eventually, Yue Yuen said it would increase welfare payments by $31m (paywall).

How brands react to industrial disputes will play an important role in future markets. Consumers demanding more transparency – by wanting to know where and how their clothes are made – will shape brand reaction. And as the labour force changes in China, and becomes more connected via social media, more action on worker rights can be expected.

It’s premature to suggest that industrial action has now led to large-scale revolution. However, what Adidas has proven is that some brands – once the nasty, glittery face of consumerism – are willing to lobby governments and campaign on behalf of workers and their representatives, if they think their quarterly profit and loss results will be affected. Brands want factories to stay open because they need to have their orders filled. So yes, workers do have the power.

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This article was first published in The Guardian, 12 June 2014.

June 4th, 2014

White Lyan cocktail bar brings a refreshing twist to waste and recycling

WhiteLyan2

A London cocktail bar is remixing a few old-fashioned ideas of what goes into a drink, and what goes into the rubbish. White Lyan, in the East End’s Hoxton neighbourhood, prides itself on being a pioneering low-to-no waste cocktail joint.

It uses no ice, no fresh fruit, and has reduced the number of bottles it sends for recycling to just 24 bottles a week – the average bar recycles up to three 300-litre bins’ worth.

Founders Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths first set themselves the challenge of disposing of the ice machine and fresh ingredients. Ice and fresh fruit, they argue, can’t be relied on to deliver a consistent flavour.

“It dawned on me just how little waste we were going to have,” says Griffiths. “The smallest amount of citric acid powder is needed to replicate an actual fruit on the palate. The environmental effect of the bar has become an increasing focus by the nature of just how little waste we produce.”

The bar is dark, black on tasteful black, lit by the frosted light of a wall of fridges stocked with pre-made cocktails and drinks. There’s a basement dance floor. Beyonce once commandeered the whole place for a post-gig party.

It might be an eco-bar, but there was never any question of compromising ethics for style or vice versa, says Chetiyawardana.

“My view of sustainability is not sacrifice. Luxury and comfort is something that we build towards,” he says. “We’re into starting new conversations around environmentalism. If what we do here prompts other bars to use what they have better, that’s important to us. That’s why we’re so open about what we do.

“We’ve reduced bar waste so that the only thing we actually throw away are bottle caps and some of the plastic packaging around things like our napkins. Everything else gets recycled or reused.”

Everything is made in-house. By day, the bar is a drinks factory. Spirits are ordered in bulk, citrus acid powders and vinegars replace fresh fruit, things like bone (chicken bones dissolved in phosphoric acid) and ambergris (ethically sourced whale bile) are made into tinctures and fed into traditional drinks and bottled cocktails.

Bottles are washed out and reused. The bar only serves one beer, which is spritzed up with hops for people who prefer a pale ale. The duo have made a carbonation rig from a home-brewing kit. They make a set amount of drinks for the evening, and filter their water with charcoal.

“The average bar throws out two or three 300-litre glass bins a week,” Griffiths points out. “Unless we use something like Campari or Aperol, which we’re not at the point of making ourselves yet, we recycle between 18 and 24 bottles in a normal recycling bin. That’s per week.

“We buy in bulk so most of what we do has a slow-burning financial return, which we pass on to the customer. I’ll take a price challenge against any other high-end cocktail bar in London and see how we square up.”

For energy, they’re still on the national grid. “Because of where we are, we can’t really control too much of that supply,” says Griffiths. “But, like finding an alternative means of refrigeration, that’s all part of our evolving concept of how to do things. We will address it, but we want to do it right, and that could take time.”

Some years ago, the pair devised the “recycled cocktail”, which used all the parts of a drink that were normally thrown away – the pips of a lemon, the oils on the lemon skin. But the inspiration for White Lyan came more out of frustration with the drinks industry.

“The industry wasn’t questioning how things were being done and everyone went with what was known and accepted,” Chetiyawardana says.

Chetiyawardana and Griffiths are also opening a new bar, Dandelyan, where they will use fresh ingredients. However, they insist that they’ll use as many by-products as possible – such as lemon husks and pickling liquors from the kitchen – to see if they can work towards a closed loop.

“If you look at the cocktail part, you see hedonism and fun,” Chetiyawardana says. “Then you look at the philosophy and ethics that drives us to be so DIY and thorough about what we use and how we use it. All seeds of change need to be sown – what’s needed is a nugget of an idea and people willing to take that risk to try it. We’d like to persuade a classically led bar to not accept the status quo, to think deeply about what they do, and make changes to push them ahead.”

Griffiths adds: “Every aspect of this venue utilises ingredients, products and methods that already exist. That’s the key to sustainability. We’re by no means creating or depleting another industry. We’re drawing on what already exists in the world and just applying it in a different way. It’s a case of finding everything under your nose, but just a new way of using it all.”

 

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This article was first published in the Guardian, 04 June 2014.

May 9th, 2014

activism made easy

here’s a template for future campaigns.

©Leah Borromeo

©Leah Borromeo

not nigerian, not abducted

© Leah Borromeo

May 9th, 2014

New adhesive system makes a circuit board that is 90% recyclable

© Leah Borromeo

© Leah Borromeo

Three British companies have developed a 90% recyclable and reusable circuit board, whose components can be easily separated by soaking in hot water. Funded by the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board with a view to help industry conform to European electronic waste regulation, theNational Physical Laboratory (NPL)In2Tec and Gwent Electronic Materialshave devised an adhesive that helps manufacturers take apart electronic circuit boards and reuse their components to make new components. They call it ReUse – Reusable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics.

“What happens to end of life electronics is one of the fastest growing waste streams,” says Chris Hunt, head of the Electronics Interconnection Team at NPL. “Existing electronic circuit assemblies are based on reinforced epoxy glass systems and solder. A circuit board itself is a significant part of a final product but it’s made with a thermoset of glass that isn’t easily recyclable.

We looked at how you might make a circuit assembly that could disassemble easily when you no longer had a use for that appliance.

The result was a new adhesive and ink system, which allows the team to put components onto a thermoplastic substrate with a conductive adhesive and make a circuit. A substrate is a solid onto which another solid is applied and that solid adheres to the first. A thermoplastic is something quite pliable at high temperatures but cools down to a rigid solid. The thermoplastic substrate produced by the team can be recycled.

The novelty of what NPL and its partners have developed is demonstrated when a circuit is exposed to water that is just about boiling. In the presence of hot water the ink and the adhesive soften so significantly that all the components on the circuit are easily scraped off with a business card and can be reused for new circuits. It seems laborious and Hunt agrees that they’ve a while to go before their innovation becomes scaleable for use by the likes of Apple or larger electronics manufacturers.

“This is definitely not a solution for all types of electronic technologies,” Hunt continues, agreeing that some types of tech such as high-end servers and performance electronics operate at temperatures too high for ReUse.

However, their business partner In2Tec has already gained a few clients in the automotive industry off the back of this technology..”

Hunt says “there would have to be a step-change in a manufacturer’s mindset to embrace this technology and until there is legislative pressure to change, they will stick with what they know. What you get with ReUse is the ability to take apart and recover your components and reuse them. But until there is a pressure to change, manufacturers will stick with what they know.”

NPL and its partners say they haven’t used any restricted elements or compounds and around 90% of what they have constructed can be reused. “It’s very difficult to throw away much,” says Hunt. “And when you look at how they currently make things, that’s huge.”

 

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This article was first published in The Guardian, 07 May 2014.

April 17th, 2014

flax your muscles

It calls its product the “friendliest fibre on the planet”. But Crailar, a US company which has found a way to soften bast fibres like hemp and flax, has its beady eyes on cotton. Not as a direct competitor – they’re not that big yet – but if their recent moves and shakes are anything to go by, they’re certainly up for taking on the cotton/polyester hegemony that spreads throughout the global textile industry.

Intent on dispelling the impression that bast fibres have a scratchy, uncomfortable and unreconstructed hippy feel to them, Crailar has looked to paper production and worked those processes into its product.

“We started as a company called Hemp Town making clothing for clients like Universal Studios and Starbucks,” explains Jay Nalbach, Crailar’s chief marketing official. “You had to wash them hundreds of times to make them comfortable to wear and throwing conditioners at them didn’t help either. The reason flax, hemp and linen are stiff is down to the pectins that naturally occur in the plant – like paper.”

Canadian universities in the 1990s were conducting research into paper production – particularly at the bleaching stage. Paper gets its colour from the lignins and pectins that naturally occur in its fibres.

“Thanks to green chemistry and enzyme science, we worked out that naturally occurring enzymes can be used to rinse the raw fibre and remove all the pectins,” says Nalbach. “What you come out with is a soft, fine fibre of flax or hemp that can be blended with cotton but is far more sustainable than 100% cotton or polyester.”

Cotton is a 125m bale-a-year habit. It is the most widely used fibre across the world. Alternatives such as bast fibres (coming in at 5m bales a year) have a long way to go if they want to overthrow the global cotton hegemony.

Although Crailar sees itself as more of a complement to the cotton industry – if recent tie-ins with the likes of IKEA are anything to go by – Nalbach admits that any new fibre needs to incorporate scale and make it as easy as possible to make the switch.

“The whole industry is a two-trick pony. It’s either cotton or polyester,” says Nalbach. “If we can help big brands like Levi’s and Target towards sustainable business practices by providing a complement, supplement or replacement to their cotton or polyester consumption, it’s a big deal … Conversion is also easy. We don’t want to create a system where people need to buy new machines or make a huge capital investment in order to work with our fibre. So in our case a spinner might have to adjust the settings on their machine, but they don’t have to go buy a whole new machine.”

If you think of cotton, you think of smothering your face in crisp white sheets. We don’t tend to think that what’s being harvested is a flower and that land is intensely – often industrially – farmed to meet set global demands. The cotton plant has been genetically modified in a lab to offer a universal staple length (the length at which the fibres pull apart) and it might not be a variety indigenous to where it is being grown.

Deforestation to meet our cotton supply demands is of deep concern to Nalbach and Crailar. “We have plenty of land where we can grow plenty of fibre,” he says. “Bast fibres don’t need anything except sunshine and rain. You can grow it in different parts of the world and in rotation with other crops. What’s great about them is that they’re prolific in growth and don’t require many pesticides or herbicides.”

Although Crailar’s production chain isn’t organic, it is a conversation they are willing to have. Similarly with adopting a closed-loop production process. Nalbach says it’s something they are going towards but they haven’t reached yet.

“We work very closely with our brand partners – they’re in it as much as we are. A lot of the folks we are talking to are getting their manufacturing facilities Blue Sign certified and they’re looking into using fewer toxins or fewer dyes or less energy or creating systems that are wasteless or wastefree.”

This sharing of knowledge and the willingness to have holes picked into supply chains is new to the fashion and textile industry. But it isn’t new tosustainability. Nalbach says that openness has a lot to do with innovation and new businesses are smarter – they find their own niche, ringfence that and then plough forward with the business model.

“We’re collaborating,” he says. “Whether we’re competing or not competing, we help each other out and show how we can do more with less. We like sharing how we can be more efficient and be more prudent with our resources.”

Crailar technology – heavily patented, of course – appears to have simplified the fibre that comes out of plants such as flax and hemp to make them useable across the whole supply chain. They’re even sold in bales, like cotton. It’s as if someone has taken a hippy boyfriend and scrubbed him up to meet their parents. He’s still a hippy, just a showered one.

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This article was first published in The Guardian, 17 April 2014.