Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Thinking differently: An international perspective

(Photo credit: The Green Giving Company)

Yesterday I had the privilege of giving a presentation about The Rubbish Diet to our local International Women's Group.

I say it was a privilege not just because of the chance to share ideas about zero waste but because of the invaluable opportunity to find out more about other people with vastly different backgrounds. It was great to listen to their stories about how waste is regarded in the places they have lived or through which they have travelled.

But what struck me most deeply was a conversation with a lady from Russia, who moved over to the UK about seven years ago. She told of her surprise over how different things were here compared to her home country.

One particular anecdote she shared was the culture of giving presents and she related her experience of growing up in a society where friends and relatives gave each other gifts that were unwrapped. No paper was involved. Just the gift itself.

Of course when she arrived in the UK, she was surprised at the waste created through the process of gifting with the wrapping paper, tags and ribbon, which might all be able to be reused or recycled but often end up dumped in landfill with no further use at all.

Her story really got me thinking about the way we do things as a society and how we accept our traditions because they are simply the traditional way. It also made me reflect on my own expectations and what I would think if someone gave me a present that was unwrapped.

And indeed I recall a particular occasion, ten years ago, when we visited friends at Christmas time. As I handed over our own beautifully wrapped and festively adorned presents, they passed back several gifts in a Tesco carrier bag, with an apology that they didn't have enough time to wrap them.

At the time I felt rather put-out. Didn't they care? Didn't we matter to them? And yes, I felt cheated - because I'd cared enough to make their presents look pretty and I'd stayed up late to make sure they were wrapped in time for the visit because that was tradition and how things were done. And it was polite!

Goodness me, I can't now help think what utter nonsense!

My ingratitude! I was like Hyacinth Bouquet - or should I say Bucket - from Keeping up Appearances, fussing over just a few sheets of paper.

How blimmin' petty!

And I am very pleased how I've changed.

Of course these days if someone offered me an unwrapped gift, whatever their reason I'd say "good on you" and thank them as much for the unwrapped status as I would for the gift itself.

I now consider a gift to be a lovely surprise in itself because it's the offering of that gift and connecting to the recipient that is really important. And despite being an admirer of luxury presentation with beautiful adornments, which can often cost as much as the gift itself, I now feel that such things are unnecessarily excessive.

When thinking about such matters, I can't help recall the words of eco-designer Oliver Heath and the wisdom that he shared during an interview last year.

When I asked him about the experiences that have had the most prolific influence on him, without any pause for thought he said travelling. He told how it had given him the opportunity to see how different societies lived and how he has soon realised that just because we do things a certain way in our society, it doesn't mean it is the right way.

Those words still ring loudly in my consciousness and meeting people from other walks of life keeps the message at the forefront of my mind.

These days I like to encourage friends to ditch the wrapping when passing presents on to me and when I give gifts, depending on the recipient and their expectations, I offer them unwrapped, or in reusable packaging such as a material Kerchief. I also have a large present sack at hand for special events such as birthdays in the Almost Average Household.

Gifting is only one cultural habit where waste-free practices can make a difference but I can't help wondering what other opportunities there are for comparing with other cultures and the chance to enjoy the sustainable benefits of other societies.

So I'd like to thank the ladies at the Bury St Edmunds International Women's Group for listening yesterday but most of all I'd like to thank them for sharing their perspective and wisdom. It certainly makes you wake up and realise it's actually okay to think differently.



Anonymous said...

It is great to be exposed to other cultures and realize that our wasteful ways are not universal. In fact, I've got a guest poster over at Fake Plastic Fish tomorrow morning who writes about the culture shock she experienced coming back to the consumption and waste of the U.S. from Mexico.

And this reminds me of one other thing I've been puzzling about. One of the most wasteful people I know grew up very poor. I wonder now if for her, being too poor to waste then has created a desire to show the world that she can now afford to be wasteful. I feel compassion for her, and also utter frustration.

John Costigane said...

Hi Mrs A,

Great to see you spreading the word about waste reduction. Learning from others, including from further afield, has value.

Reusable wrapping is the answer, apart from unwrapped. Furoshiki, the Japanese stylish wrapping, can also be practised here.

Anonymous said...

I wrapped our boy's giant box of a Christmas present in a piece of green and gold tartan remnant I'd had for ages. All gathered up at the top and with a gold bow (another piece of ribbon we had about the place) it looked great. My sister in law, who teaches at an International School in Denmark, told me this is how the Japanese do it. There was, however, also a big bin bag of normal wrapping paper - oh dear.

I now try to use the gift bags - we have one in our family which has been going back and forth for at least four years! And we save attractive boxes to put things in, just with a ribbon round them, hoping (or hinting if we know them well enough!) the giftee will go on to do the same...


Hi Beth - thanks for the heads up about your guest post. I'll pop over and have a read tomorrow. It's also interesting what you you write about the reaction to being brought up in a poorer household. I experienced that too and my reaction was to spend, spend, spend on lots of stuff that I didn't really need. I feel lucky to have now found the balance. :-D

Hi John - yep, reusable wrapping is most definitely the solution and the great thing is every time you give a Furoshiki-wrapped pressie, it becomes an opportunity to share the idea. :-D

Hi Fi - how wonderful and I love your story about the boxes that keep getting reused. Thank you.
P.S. That greenhouse on your blog is fabulous....I nearly wrote "a smasher" but that would have tempted some horrible fate :-D

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