Forgive me, Greta, for I have sinned. It has been five days since my last Waitrose order. I meant to be good and green. To go from Whole Foods to farmers’ market with my canvas bag and eco-conscience. But it was cold and dark and the boys from the supermarket come right to the door. So I filled the bin with plastic wrappers and turtle-trappers and laid waste to my good intentions.
I try, I really do. I wash every yoghurt pot, rinse every tin. I carry a KeepCup, a water flask, a folded tote. I trudge to the Edgware Road with empty bottles for shampoo, conditioner and laundry soap and fill them up, one splurting pump at a time. I take off my make-up with washable pads. I reuse envelopes, salvage rags, turn the bed sheets sides-to-middle. I save every cabbage leaf, every fennel frond, every parsley stalk for vegetable stock. I am doing my bit. I am going half-mad in the process.
It was scrubbing muddy spuds, hands raw under cold water, that drove me back to the online shop. This was not the future I imagined when I graduated university ten years ago: red fingers, planetary anxiety and one-hundred-and-one-ways with winter roots. It’s all very well this buy-local, eat-seasonal, cook-from-scratch and leave-no-turnip-top-behind business, but it takes its toll in time and energy. As for reusable, refillable, zero-waste shopping… it really is a faff-and-a-half. And I’m a freelancer, in a double-income-no-kids household. What’s the commuting single mum with a massive mortgage supposed to do? I can, grudgingly, choose to pay double to buy my fruit and vegetables loose, but if I were on a budget, feeding a family, counting every pantry penny, I’d buy my satsumas cheaper by far by the bag. Supermarket checkout banners boast of green initiatives, while passing on the cost — and the packaging — to customers.
Eco-friendly is not woman-friendly. Because you can be sure it is women who are bearing the burden of the new eco diktats. No microwaves, no ready-meals, no takeaways. No pre-peeled and ready-chopped convenience. No stir-fry veg, no tip-and-go. No shortcuts, no time-savers, no Charlie Bigham’s bung-’em-in and pour the wine. No hearty, meaty, one-pot meals to feed the boys.
Online, the eco queens, the angelic influencers, call up the image of their grandmothers, going from butcher to baker to candlestick maker, buying bread and oranges and carrying them home in an old string bag. Yes, but, I want to howl, your sainted grandmama did nothing else. She would have throttled a hedgehog with her string bag for a chance at a career and an Ocado order. The idea that we should return to the earth, to some prelapsarian never-never-was-land of foraging for berries and straining our own nut milk, amounts to a hobbling of women and a loss of hard-fought freedoms. Every time I read a recipe from an additives-free mummy blogger that starts ‘soak chickpeas overnight’ or ‘chop and steam a sweet potato’, it makes me nostalgic for the good old days of glass-ceiling smashing and the Marks & Spencer’s chicken Kiev.
If we are saying no to nasty, squeezy, straight-to-landfill baby food pouches, it’s no, too, to disposable nappies. Instead, it’s Little Lamb and Beaming Baby’s washable cloths. Before Christmas, the model, activist and art historian Lily Cole gave an interview in which she expressed her ‘guilt’ at having used throwaway nappies. Oh goodie, I thought. Just what working mothers need: more guilt. Late for the nursery pickup and the planet is burning. Formula milk, too, is out. A report published by Imperial College London in October found that the energy used for boiling kettles to sterilise bottles and the disposal of formula packaging is a global concern. Breastfeeding, the report concluded, was an ‘environmental imperative’. Breast is best — not just for baby but for the whole planet. Nothing about what might be best for a mother facing a ‘financial imperative’ to get back to work or weeping over mastitis and a fretful newborn. Of course the birthers would say: don’t have kids at all. But who are we saving the planet for then? The polar bears, I suppose.
Periods, too, are a problem. Tampons are bad for the oceans, sanitary pads bad for the earth. But both are good for feminine ease and discretion. I notice that the new cotton sanitary pad companies all describe their products as ‘reusable’. What they mean is ‘washable’, which means that someone has to do the washing. While working in a university library recently, I picked up a copy of the student paper. An article about ‘people who have periods’ sought to de-stigmatise the boiling of menstrual cups on shared hobs to sterilise the plastic. I take my hat off to the girl who manages that in the freshers’ flatshare. And what are the girls starting their periods at schools with gender-neutral loos supposed to do? Rinse their Mooncups beside the boys at the sink? Another battle, perhaps, for another, bloodier-minded, day.
When it comes to contraception, the Pill is a major pollutant. Plastic blister packs go to landfill, oestrogen leaks into the seas. The alternatives are menstrual apps that promise to track your natural cycle, telling you when your body is and isn’t fertile. Fine if you’re trying to get pregnant, not if you’re aiming against. One app — Natural Cycles — was found in breach of advertising standards with its promise of a ‘highly accurate contraceptive’. Such apps are really just whizzier versions of the old pray-to-the-moon-and-hope method that has served women so very badly for centuries. And if the greatest threat to our planet isn’t fossil fuels, or plastic straws or even Donald ‘Fracking’ Trump, but simply that there are ‘too menny’ people for the earth’s resources, well, there is a Pill for that.
While we’re on fossil fuels: forget about driving your kids to school. Or to work, or the shops, or to visit elderly relatives. Through the nine attempts it took to pass my driving test, what kept me going was one thought: freedom. No longer dependent on parents, Sunday taxis, erratic trains. Twice in December I was stranded by cancelled cross-country services. I wished I’d taken the car. What is practical in London — Uber, Streetcar, the dockless bike — is not so good in rural Saxmunden. To many men, cars are about torque and top gear, power and speed. To women, a car of one’s own is a symbol of safety and independence. A car means never waiting for a lift on a dark street corner, never calling the number of an unknown cabbie, never waiting at a party for a driver who’s still drinking. In domestic extremis, a car means putting the kids and the cat on the backseat and getting the hell out. Until some scientist — man or woman — comes up with sustainable fuels, rechargeable batteries, reliable hybrids at the price of a second-hand hatchback, I will continue revving my Mini down the A-road to petrol hell.
If I focus on women it is because it is still mostly women who do the school run, cook the supper and wrap the children’s lunches in sustainable beeswax wrappers. I wish I could be as chipper as my husband arriving at a restaurant, wishing the table ‘Happy Veganuary!’ and ordering the deep-fried pork knuckles. Instead, I zhuzh-up cannellini beans and feel sad about empty milk cartoons. (I’ve noticed, incidentally, a new species of infidelity: the men who meat-cheat. The chaps who nod loyally as their partners announce ‘We’ve gone vegan’ and who then do dirty burgers and doner kebabs when out with the lads.) As the diet and beauty industries know so well, women and their worries are easy prey. Energy that might once have gone to counting calories now goes elsewhere. Does my carbon footprint look big in this? Who has the teeniest-weeniest, most wasp--waistedest emissions output?
Eco--signalling is becoming a luxury lifestyle choice, an economic affection. Western women with money to burn — or should that be to compost? — can choose to switch to high-cost, low-impact products. Doesn’t this bamboo toothbrush go well with my copper-clad bath? As I order silk dental floss and rock crystal deodorant from the online eco shop, I feel half-Marie Antoinette, half-Swampy.
As a woman and as a consumer, I consider myself relatively sensible, if susceptible, but the repeated message that the EARTH IS ON FIRE has got to me a bit. It is right to do better, to consume less and recycle more, but not to make oneself miserable or one’s life impossible. As I add shrinkwrapped cheeses and packets of mince to the virtual shopping basket, I feel both shame and relief. Lord, make me green. But not yet.
Laura Freeman and plastics campaigner Sian Sutherland on eco-women.