Sustainability isn’t new – ask Nan

Written by Rebecca Jones on 30th Apr 2019

There are some that would be forgiven for thinking sustainability is a new idea. An obsession, perhaps, of a sensitive generation of millennials keen to virtue signal their way to 1 million Instagram followers all applauding their use of shampoo-soap and biodegradable wet-wipes.

However, while the latter may have more than a painful twinge of truth about it, the former assertion is, unequivocally, balderdash.

Indeed, while we 30-somethings are busily inventing plant-based plastic bags and compostable take-away coffee cups, another generation is quietly parking their decades old shoppers in caf’s across the land as they sit to a (ceramic) mug of tea, perhaps accompanied by a digestive – or two.

That’s right kiddo: Nan and Grandad are more eco-friendly than you’ll ever be: and don’t you forget it.

While our generation has been raised on shrink-wrapped convenience, many of Britain’s octogenarians remember a time before Pret a Manger, before microwaves – before refrigerators, even. A time when groceries were bought on the day, put in a pot and made the best of. And if you didn’t like it? Well, you went hungry.

Waste not, want not

According to a recent survey by the Company Shop Group, the over 55’s continue to be significantly more sustainable in the supermarket than youngsters. Less than one in ten surveyed by the surplus food distributor claimed to have an issue with wonky veg, compared to a staggering 39 per cent of 16 to 34 year olds who said they would not buy imperfect produce.

And when questioned as to whether they would mind buying food in unbranded packing, just 11 per cent of over 55’s said they would think twice, while a third of young people said they would be unnerved by a no-logo product.

The only point of agreement was on buying chilled food, with 50 per cent in both categories claiming they would avoid products approaching their use-by dates – demonstrating, perhaps, the corrupting influence of said fridge-freezers.

Commenting on the findings, group managing director of Company Shop Group Jane Marren said: “This fascinating research shows that while there is a shift happening in the consumer habits of older generations, the admirable environmentalism of young adults today isn’t yet translating into what they are buying at the supermarket.”

If it’s yellow….

Arguably, the survey findings underline an attitude to waste that has – until now – been largely forgotten; or rather relegated to an impoverished past that we have all been glad to say our economy has developed beyond.

Today, anything less than a shower a day – two if you hit the gym – is considered unhygienic. However, our grandparents can recall a time when bathing was a weekly event: an occasion requiring several buckets of water boiled over an open fire that were then poured into a tin bath shared by the entire family, dirtiest going last (if you were lucky).

And while we can now couple our toilet time with quilted, scented, ultra soft loo-roll in a centrally heated bathroom, five year old granny Jones fondly remembers trotting out to her outdoor toilet in the dark armed only with lovingly cut squares of The Daily Mirror.

On lunch breaks across the land we now sit hunched over our computers munching mindlessly at mass produced sandwiches pulled from plastic cartons, however somewhere in the 1950’s colleagues are sitting down to meals in a company canteen enjoying a hot meal and, perhaps, a conversation.

Make and mend

And as summer approaches, our grandmothers might regale us with tales of once sewing their own floral dress – recounting the joy of a new fabric their mothers showed them how to turn into something that would become her picnic outfit until it quite literally unravelled.

Meanwhile, we make our third ASOS purchase this month from our smartphone, perhaps as Netflix plays on a laptop in the background, adding next day delivery to a carbon footprint already bursting at the seams of an item made in two minutes by an impoverished mother in Bangladesh.

Sustainability is not, then, a new thing at all. It is a very old thing – a centuries old thing in-fact. The difference today of course is that eco and sustainable living is a choice (at the moment at least, until the penny really drops), rather than an unavoidable by-product of poverty or lack of other options.

In the modern world we are faced with a dilemma our grandparents’ generation never imagined: give up the hard won comforts of ‘progress’, or perish. Today, we find ourselves looking backwards to look forwards, recognising that there was a time not too long ago when plastic water bottles were not a feature of everyday life, but dysentery and cholera were – and trying to find a solution.

The challenges we face as we attempt to lead healthier, longer and better lives while not sacrificing the living world around us are vast and not perhaps as easy as turning back the clock. Nonetheless, we could likely all benefit from taking a a square or two from Nanny Jones’s pile of newspaper cuttings.

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