If you’re looking for better things to do with your cash than simply deposit it with unscrupulous high street banks in order to prop up an inequitable – and ailing – financial system, then see these five ideas below.
From socially responsible investment and tree-planting programmes to building up your self-sufficiency skills in preparation for the advent of the post-oil society, there is a wealth of worthy causes out there deserving of your time and money.
1. Support local economies
John Bird, founder of The Big Issue magazine, believes that social justice issues can be resolved through the marketplace. The current imbalance in the marketplace stems from chainstore retailers and, in particular, supermarkets beating down communities’ best defences: small and independent shops that keep people connected to one another. To redress this imbalance, John and his daughter Diana created the Wedge card in December 2006.
More than just a plastic card, the Wedge card, ‘is going to help those shops that make the community tick by encouraging the public to buy in the local marketplace; because it’s in the family-owned cafés, butchers and bookshops that people get to know one another, and become part of their community,’ John says.
The Wedge card is a loyalty card for local shops, with more than 500 shops across the UK taking part in the scheme. Using a Wedge card gets you discounts and special offers in independent shops, while shopkeepers benefit from increased footfall and the community in general benefits from money being retained locally. To join up, see www.wedgecard.co.uk
The Wedge card is just one example of an initiative aimed at building resilience in local economies. Others include alternative currencies (see box, above) and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is a system where communities actively support the farmers growing their food, bringing sustainable food-production back to the heart of communities. Individuals take direct responsibility for how food is produced and how it gets to our tables, while farmers get a guaranteed market for their produce and a fair return. There are approximately 30 operating in the country at present. For more information, see www.makinglocalfoodwork.co.uk
2. Bank as if the Earth mattered
What do dirty coal plants, unsustainable logging and the arms trade have in common? They all count on the financial support of leading high-street banks. When deciding on a bank, interest rates are not the only thing to look at, as the impact that banks have on society and the environment through their business-lending is immense. Even if you pay your credit card balance off every month and are not paying interest on a credit card debt, every shop that you use your credit card in has to pay a fee to the company. This means that credit cards, current and savings accounts, financial investments and even mortgages are all ways that you, as a customer, can make your money work for the causes you believe in.
While only the Co-operative and Triodos Banks operate with an ethical mandate, other banks, such as HSBC, have adopted specific environmental and ethical policies. The Ethical Consumer Research Association assesses financial institution companies by ranking them in three simple categories – good scorers, middling and poor – based on a number of different policies and practices. See www.ethiscore.org
The Ecology Building Society, the Co-operative Bank and Norwich and Peterborough Building Society all offer some type of ‘green mortgage’. For this and more, see www.ethicalconsumer.org
- Socially Responsible Investment (SRI )
Funds combine financial return with maximising social good and have grown from £1.5bn to £9bn over the past ten years. Open to judgement on the degrees of their being ethical – many do not disclose which companies they invest in – there are now nearly 100 ‘green and ethical’ retail funds, catering for a wide range of moral stances. A number of these can be wrapped into Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs).
There is also a network of alternative financial institutions that operate alongside conventional banks. These include:
- Credit Unions
Owned and controlled by their members and run for their benefit. Offering a range of services including current accounts, ISAs and Child Trust Funds. Members of credit unions are connected by some sort of ‘common bond’. They are part of a growing movement that allows people to borrow money within a defined community. See www.abcul.coop
- Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs)
Independent organisations providing loans and support to individuals and businesses, CDFIs play an especially important role in disadvantaged communities. See www.cdfa.org.uk
3. Plant a tree and improve your health
Trees are the unsung, leafy heroes of our country. Considering all the benefits they bring, it’s time we saw them as an investment. As Martin Luther said: ‘In the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.'
In an increasingly toxic world, trees have miraculous powers to clean up after us. Their leaves filter polluted air, absorbing gases such as carbon monoxide; their canopies trap fine sooty particles known as PM10s, which can aggravate respiratory problems, and at street level their cooling and shading reduces the level of the ozone, a smog-forming gas produced when vehicle exhaust fumes are exposed to strong sunlight. Some trees can even clean up contaminated land by absorbing pollutants through a process known as ‘phytoextraction’.
Year on year, trees give us fruit and staples, whether apples, pears, timber or horticultural mulch. They also bring us joy. Studies have shown that spending time in green, leafy surroundings can make you a healthier, less stressed person, and can even lengthen your life.
Trees have remarkable ‘climate control’ capabilities. On hot days, as they lose moisture from their leaves, trees cool the air, and their shelter and shade provides a natural sunscreen. On rainy days they offer flash-flood protection – their leaves and twigs slow down the rate at which rainwater reaches the ground. They absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen (a large beech tree can provide enough oxygen for the daily requirements of ten people), anchor soils and prevent erosion, as well as provide a habitat for millions of species of plants and animals.
Yet according to the Woodland Trust (the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity) ancient woodland in Britain is being felled at a rate even faster than the Amazon rainforest. The total area currently under threat is equivalent to the size of the city of Birmingham.
Urban trees are also under threat. In the past five years, London councils alone have chopped down almost 40,000 trees, with replanting programmes either halted or slowed considerably. It’s no wonder that the phrase ‘chainsaw massacre’ has been applied to the process.
Five ways to invest in trees
- The Woodland Trust protects and manages more than 1,000 woods across the UK. It fights to save ancient woods under threat (visit www.woodwatch.org.uk to find out how to help) and creates new native woodland – it has planted more than eight million trees. Help support the Woodland Trust: become a member or dedicate one, three or 10 trees in the name of a friend or relative. www.woodland-trust.org.uk
- Trees for Cities is an independent charity working with local communities on tree-planting and landscaping projects in Brighton, Bristol, Leeds, London, Greater Manchester and Reading. Help it continue to bring much-needed green and natural beauty to cities and towns: become a member, make a donation, dedicate a tree or volunteer. www.treesforcities.org
- The National Trust manages 250,000 hectares of land, including forest, woods, nature reserves, farmland and moorland, as well as 707 miles of coastline in England,Wales and Northern Ireland. Membership gives you access to green spaces and helps fund conservation. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
- Plant a Tree. Anything you plant could be there for decades or centuries. Native trees or shrubs are the best: they are the backbone of our wildlife’s food chain, are adapted to our soils and climate, and have lower maintenance requirements. Make sure you pick a tree that suits the size of your garden. Buy from www.native-tree-shop.com or www.tree2mydoor.com
- And finally… There are now 220 green or natural burial grounds in the UK. The burial plots can be marked with a chosen tree, plant, shrub or wild flowers, instead of a headstone. The result? A protected green lung for the local area and a sanctuary for wildlife for generations to come. www.naturaldeath.org.uk
4. Invest in skills – yours and others’
Skilled as we may be at filling in forms, finding things on Google and navigating our way through the urban jungle, when it comes to the basics of self-sufficiency (at a household or community level) most of us don’t have a clue.
Faced with the converging crises of looming recession, accelerating climate change and peak oil, it’s clear that in the future we will need – and value – different skills.
In the words of Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement, we need a ‘great reskilling’. ‘We no longer have many of the basic skills our grandparents took for granted,’ he says. One of the key parts of the transition process, moving an entire community ‘from oil dependency to local resilience’, is to make training in a range of these skills widely available.
Investing in skills and becoming more self sufficient can make your money go further. In these thrifty times, however, a cheaper way to learn new things is to share and exchange knowledge, which can be as simple as ‘I’ll teach you mine if you teach me yours.' Once you’re skilled, you can swap services with other people, which creates an alternative currency exchange. Local Exchange Trading Schemes, (LETS) are a way to widen the swapping scope and include more people. There are more than 400 LETS in the UK (www.letslinkuk.net), with between 30 and 300 members in each.
Timebanks are another alternative to using money. Members simply exchange their time. The New Economics Foundation (NEF), an independent think-tank, considers timebanking a way to grow the ‘core economy’ – the abundant wealth of human assets such as experience, knowledge and skill, that are largely ‘neglected by the machinery of state and eroded by the market system’. For more information,see www.timebanking.org
How to get skilled
- For online listings of providers of green courses in the UK, visit www.allthingseco.co.uk
- If you're thinking of retraining then Eco-Centres and Courses (Green Books, £12.95) by Terena Plowright is the book to find courses on all aspects of sustainable living.
- The Soil Association runs two-year apprenticeship schemes that provide a broad knowledge of organic agriculture and the food business. For more information, see here. Also on offer are one day ‘masterclasses’ on everything from baking bread to hedgelaying.
- Garden Organic is the UK’s leading organic growing charity, and runs courses, talks and workshops. Membership entitles you to discounts, free expert advice, factsheets and its quarterly magazine. See www.gardenorganic.org.uk
- The Transition Town website explains the theory and practice of transition and has information on training and resources. Or buy The Transition Handbook (Green Books, £12.95) by Rob Hopkins. See www.transitiontowns.org
- The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) runs courses and produces factsheets and publications on energy, gardening, building and all things sustainable. It also offers a free information service. For more information, see www.cat.org.uk
- Permaculture Join a local group, watch videos, attend a talk, read books and magazines, attend a regional or national convergence. See www.permaculture.org.uk
- Good books on self-sufficiency include The New Complete Book of Self- Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers (Dorling Kindersley, £20) by John Seymour, and The Self-Sufficient-ish Bible (Hodder & Stoughton, £30) by Andy and Dave Hamilton. For more information, see www.selfsufficientish.com
5. Enough is enough
You are not a consumer. It's time to unplug ourselves from the world of always wanting more and to rewire yourself as an ‘Enoughist’. Ask yourself, ‘How much is enough?’ and then develop a sense of ‘enough'.
‘We have created a culture that has one overriding message – we do not have all we need to be satisfied,’ writes John Naish, author of Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99). ‘The answer, we are told, is to see, be and do even more. Always more. This drive for more is bearing strange fruit, however: instances of stress, depression and burnout are rising rapidly, even though we live among unprecedented abundance. Our planet doesn’t look so happy.’
‘Enoughism’ requires us to defuse the ‘status obsession fostered by constant consumption’, and to value different emblems of cool, such as time, space and autonomy, rather than trinkets.
Matilda Lee is the Ecologist’s Consumer Affairs Editor; Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Daily Life Editor
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