Category Archives: Sustainable Living

Not buying (much)

I’ve had several periods during my life when I’ve made a real effort to reduce my spending on consumer goods. Buying stuff is bad for the environment, and it’s not good for the wallet either. Almost everything we buy used electricity to make it, used ungodly amounts of water, contributed to water and air pollution, came in packaging that will go to landfill, was often shipped here from another country, driven to our city on a truck… you get the picture. Much of what is available in shops in Australia is also made by people working in miserable conditions. Every time we buy something, we are sending a message to the manufacturer saying “Great – please make another!” And just as we need to reduce our electricity use by turning off lights when we aren’t using them, and unplugging appliances at the powerpoint, we also need to reduce our “virtual” use of resources – that is the resources used to manufacture the things we buy. If this seems obvious, my apologies – it took me quite a while to “get” this particular point, and to connect my buying as clashing with my desire to live sustainably.

I read a great book called Affluenza, which examines the way we spend our money in Australia, and it included quite a few tidbits of eye-opening information for me. The authors point out that the government says we’ve had a good year if we’ve experienced economic growth – that is, if we as a society spent more money than we spent the year before. The only measure of “success” is this – financial – there is no attempt to measure wellbeing, health, contentment or other indicators of a successful society. Similarly, on a personal level, most Australians aspire to financial growth – ie to earn more than we do currently, to own more or more expensive stuff, and to move into a bigger house in a better area when possible. This attitude that “growth is good” forms the backbone of our lives, for most of us.

The government and the marketplace work hard to establish this attitude and keep us operating this way. Much of the message is achieved through advertising. Advertisers, rather than giving us factual information about a product, strive to make us feel discontent with our current situation, and aim to build anxiety and uncertainty, which leads to buying more.

Interestingly, although most Australians believe our society is too consumerist and too materialistic, most of us believe that we as individuals are not, and that we have barely enough money to meet our basic needs. This holds true regardless of how much we earn: most Australians have come to see luxuries as basic necessities, and we deny that our purchases are materialistic. Advertisers capitalise on this, by telling us “You deserve it”, whether it’s a holiday we can’t afford or a fashionable piece of clothing.

When large corporations worried that we might stop spending, they introduced the credit card, so that we could spend money we hadn’t even earnt yet. The convenience of the credit card has led to a culture of instant gratification, which will have to be paid for later. Australians pay for their debts by working longer hours than workers in any other country in the world. These long work hours are causing individuals numerous problems – relationship breakdowns, children who long for more time with their parents, depression, fatigue, ill health, and an obsession with money. Even though most Australians would like more time with their family and friends, this goal is often deferred until later in life (generally retirement), while long hours are put in now to pay for luxurious “basic necessities”.

Almost one quarter of Australian adults, however, have decided to step outside of this cultural model, and “downshift”. Lacking public role models for this, we each operate in isolation, often with the disapproval of those around us, despite the fact that so many of us are doing it. Downshifting means working less hours, working for less pay, and/or consciously consuming less than before. While the income drop can be challenging, especially at first, 90% of downshifters end up with less stress, more time for meaningful activities, better community networks and participation, less anxiety – and the obsession with money generally melts away.

That, in a nutshell, is what I understood from the book. Wow – one quarter of us are downshifting – and there’s no mention of it in the media or anything to help us realise how common our actions are. My readership on this blog has skyrocketed since I started blogging about living sustainably – so it seems there is interest out there.

After making a strict budget for myself for consumer goods one year, I found I didn’t want to spend it on things like socks, undies, watches and so on. So my biggest challenge was to find a way to meet as many of my basic needs as possible in a way that doesn’t involve buying anything new. Op shops meet a lot of my needs.


A few tips for not buying stuff:

  • stay out of shops and shopping centres.
  • don’t read magazines (or if you do be very strict and avoid looking at the ads).
  • don’t watch ads on TV.
  • if you catch yourself fantasising about various new things you might like to own, try to nip it in the bud and think about something else.
  • focus on being happy with what you have, and making do with stuff you have on hand or can find.
  • go to op shops and maintain a running list of items you are watching out for.
  • try borrowing from a friend instead of buying.
  • make stuff (from second hand materials), and give gifts that are homemade or provide an experience or service (a gift voucher to a restaurant, to a bath house, a massage voucher). Or give plants, ideally some you’ve raised yourself, preferably in a pot you didn’t buy new.

And a few tips from readers:

  • make use of your local library rather than buying books
  • take a good look at why want to shop – are you avoiding something or trying to fulfill an emotional need?

Please send in any more tips!  Thanks to those who already did.  Read the comments for more insights 🙂

So what about you, is there anything you’re not buying? Have you found any solutions for the ordinary, every day things we “need”?

Storing Woollens

Now that it’s warmed up here in Melbourne, it’s time for people like me who live in very small houses to put our winter clothes into storage and bring in my summer garments.  I used to just shove all my woollies into a box and jam it into the shed, but now that I’ve made so many of my own clothes from scratch, I feel more inclined to look after them properly.  I think when store-bought clothing is so cheap it’s easy to chuck out once a button goes missing or a moth nibbles a hole in it.

But the leggings I knitted myself, which took me months.. well I want them to last as long as possible.  My down jacket made from my own home-reared chickens, my felted ugg boots from the fleece of my pet rabbit, and the garments I’ve spun myself then knitted… they were so very labour intensive, they have to last for as close to forever as possible.

So I’ve learnt how to store woollens and natural fibres properly.  This is my third year of doing it, and so far so good.  My clothes have had a a few nibbles, but they’ve all occurred while sitting in my loft, not in storage.  Here’s what to do:

  1. First step is to wash all the clothes, thoroughly and properly.  This is the single most important thing you can do, and if you only do one thing before shoving your woollies out of sight, this is it.  The moth larvae that nibble your clothes do so because they are feeding on the bits of sweat, grime and body oil that lives on them.  No dirt, no oil = no food for larvae, and they die, having done minimal damage to your clothes.
  2. Put your dry, clean clothes inside a tightly woven cotton pillowcase or bag.  Apparently the moths and larvae can’t nibble through cotton, but they can eat their way through plastic.
  3. Now, if possible, store the cotton bag inside something the insects can’t easily get into, such as a plastic tub with a lid, or a zipper bag.
  4. Optional: in with your clothes, you can add some sachets of herbs that will repel the moths.  I’ve read mixed reports about this – alone it doesn’t seem to work.  Whether it really helps much is questionable.  But I have lots or herbs in my garden and quite enjoyed making my sachets.  Simply gather a handful of herbs, hang them up to dry for a couple of weeks, then crumple them into a handkerchief or small square of cotton fabric.  Gather up the edges and hold with a rubber band or piece of string.  Or you can sew yourself some very pretty sachets.  If nothing else, they help the clothes smell nice next autumn when you take them out again.

If, like me, you are turning into the sort of person who actually does this, and looks after your clothes properly, there’s a companion job that goes with this: mending.  I did a huge pile of mending last week, when I spent the day at a friend’s house.  I brought my sewing box and damaged clothes, and in a few hours had made amazing progress.  I promised myself, when I knitted those leggings, that if I saw the teensiest hole, I’d sew it up straight away, rather than letting the leggings get ruined.  I’ve a gorgeous pair of slipper socks I knitted for myself a few years ago, wore about ten times, then discovered them later hideously moth eaten to the point of unwearability.  What a waste of all that knitting.  Never again.  I’m now a sworn mender.

I keep a running list in my diary of things that need mending/minor alterations.  There’s no point making a pile of them because these clothes are too much in circulation to dump in a mending basket.  And if I don’t keep a list, then when I finally get around to my mending session, I forget half the stuff!  While it only takes a minute or two to sew on a button or repair a small hole, I find it hard to do this whenever the hole first appears.  It’s easier for me to set aside time and do a whole pile at once.  My last session was probably about 6 months ago, so it doesn’t need doing all that often.

Do you have any tips for keeping your clothes in good condition, and looking after them properly?  Leave me a comment with your suggestions.

Lettering Practice

I’ve been practising and practising my lettering, trying to learn to make pretty signs with my words. Here’s one of them, an affirmation that reminds me to be present with my own life:

Lettering Practise

And another… a reminder that more of something isn’t necessarily better. We need to strive for enough, not more.

Lettering Practise-1

Practising with chalk on a blackboard is very liberating. If I make a mistake, it’s easy to rub it out and try again.

Organising My Memorabilia

You might have heard of Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She suggests you only keep things which bring you joy. That may sound a bit impractical, but I decided to follow the programme she created to find out for myself. It was a mammoth job, to put every single aspect of my life in order, and complete all undone tasks. I thought I didn’t have much stuff, but it took three months of being my major project.

The rewards were huge – not only was all my stuff sorted, organised and well-stored, but I learnt significant skills along the way which I believe I will use for the rest of my life. I highly recommend giving it a go.

By far the biggest area for me was organising my memorabilia. I can’t tell you how amazing felt to have sorted and made accessible every photo since the day I was born, every old home video, every newspaper clipping and poster I want to keep. In retrospect, the most challenging thing was working out systems for storage of these items. Kondo doesn’t give precise guidelines for how to do that, so I had to make up some of my own. In case you’d like to have a crack at getting your memorabilia in order, I thought I would share my process. I can see that with my systems in place, it will be much easier to keep incoming photos, videos and other momentoes sorted, without letting them build up to the chaotic mess that I had when I started.


First thing to do is gather all your photos into one place. Digitally that means into some kind of photo-organising software such as iPhoto or Lightroom (which I use). In real life that means you get your albums and boxes of photos and make a pile.

I started with the pre-digital era. I had an album my mum gave me when I turned 18 of photos of my childhood. Looking through it gave me much joy. I could have kept it as it was. But the problem is, my photo albums, when gathered together and stored in a large plastic tub are just too heavy to carry. They lived in our shed, so if I wanted to look at a photo, I’d have to heft the tub off the shelf, at great danger to my back, and then I could only carry one or two albums into the house at a time. The result: I didn’t do it, and never looked at the photos. We don’t have space in our small house to store all our photo albums, so keeping them on a bookshelf in, say, the lounge room, was out of the question. I decided to remake the album in its entirety.

Using an iPhone app, I scanned each photo. I didn’t want to damage the album in case I changed my mind half way through, so I opened up the plastic covering, left the photos in place, and positioned my phone above each one to snap a photo of it. I started at the beginning and worked forward, so that if I sorted by date, the photos would be in order. Then I imported into Lightroom and spent a bit of time with each photo, increasing the contrast, adjusting the colours and orientation. I created a folder on my harddrive called Family Photos, and a subfolder within that called 1974-1989 My Childhood, where I stored all the photos.

For my remaining albums, I decided that I had too many photos – multiple photos of the same event, too many of people I barely remembered. I also had boxes of extraneous photos. I sorted the loose photos, choosing only the best to keep, and chucking the rest. I put the loose photos wil the album that most closely corresponded to that time in my life.

Then I started with the earliest album and removed just the best photos, which I would keep, adding in the loose photos at appropriate spaces. Often I ended up ditching the loose photos when I realised I had a better one in my album from the same event. I made a stack, ordered chronologically, of just my favourites. I took them to Officeworks for scanning – I found using the iPhone app tedious, and later I felt that the quality of the Officeworks scans was much higher. The scanning cost me $0.40 per photo. I did this step in batches – first the era between my childhood until I met Paula, then Paula’s and my early life together, then baby photos once Jesse was born, and so on. To do them all at once would have been too unwieldy and overwhelming.

Once all my photos were tweaked and stored digitally in folders corresponding to that era, I imported them into iPhoto to make Apple photobooks. I don’t think the Apple books are necessarily better than any others, but I had already printed a couple of these books, was happy with the quality, and liked that my new books would be the same size and shape. They would be pleasing sitting together on my shelf.

For most pages I used the 6-photos per page design, which meant that many of my photos were printed quite small. Even in small size, the image jolts the memory and makes me happy, but doesn’t take up too much space. It meant that my entire life, up until now, could fit onto four photobooks.


I stored them on a shelf in my wardrobe. They are small and light and already have been passed around interested visitors, in a way that I would never have done with my old albums. The old albums I threw out, except for that childhood one which Jesse wanted to keep. I’ve put it in the box of stuff I’m keeping for Jesse for when he’s grown up. Whenever I print a photobook of our family life, I print an extra copy for Jesse and add it to his box. As my mum did for me, I’ll give them all to him when he turns eighteen.

Finally, I exported all my Lightroom folders of photos, and stored them on Dropbox, and also on a USB stick and an external harddrive, so I’ve got plenty of back ups. It’s easy to find a photo because there’s not too much to wade through, and they are sorted by era, and in more recent cases, by year.


I got all my old VHS and mini-DV tapes and paid to have them converted to DVD. Then I used the free software Handbrake to rip from DVD to my computer. While Handbrake can rip at full size, I ripped a bit smaller. Like with the photos, I don’t need the highest quality image to enjoy it – I just want the memory. By ripping my videos smaller, it meant I could make a folder of home videos that is small enough to keep on my computer and Dropbox and that USB stick.

I used iMovie to edit the videos into small movies of around 5-15 minutes each, with a theme. I had a lot of videos of Jesse playing with his friends, dancing around wildly, so I created a dance video with clips of them from that time, all mixed up. It’s bright and fun and captures just their funniest moves. I made another video of my circus training days, that includes snippets of training on trapeze, web, cloudswing and more. I made a video of our family life for a particular era, and another video of my extended family. Each video I exported with the filename as YEAR_WHAT IT IS. Eg 2003 A day in the life of Jesse aged 7 weeks. That means that by sorting by title, they will be arranged in chronological order, and it is easy for me to scan through and find a video that would be of interest to show others.

I stored all my edited video clips in a folder called Home Videos.


I had a whole box of my creative writing from when I was a child. Novels and short stories I’ve written over the years. Many were print outs for which I didn’t have a matching digital file. I discovered that one novel I’d written had disappeared altogether. Although every time I’ve moved computers, I’ve been meticulous about transferring across my writing files, and I did have them all in Word orginally, obviously some files have not come across and I didn’t realise at the time. Hence the importance of keeping hard copies of these sorts of things. I was glad I had the print outs. It’s also why I made sure to print photobooks of my favourite photos.

I used Evernote app Scannable to scan in my documents – I found that easy and straightforward. The result was a PDF for each novel. I then loaded the PDF onto Google Drive and opened it with Google Docs – that automatically used OCR software to turn it into an editable document. Some docs came across fantastically and only needed a bit of editing to fix them up. Other, older pieces, that were printed back in the 80s, didn’t come up so well, and needed a lot of work to restore.

I decided to use Lulu to print a single book that contained all my creative writing and novels. Lulu is a print on demand self-publishing platform and the prices per book are very reasonable. The books look incedibly professional. I downloaded a Word template, and pasted in all my stories, making sure to follow the formatting. Using Heading 1 style for the title of each story, I could then generate a table of contents. I wrote a little introdution which describes each story, so that later if I or others want to read them, it’s easy to find one that will appeal in the moment. For the cover of my book, I ripped off Penguin’s classic book cover. I created a file in Photoshop with my book design.


I used the same templates for inside and book cover to create books with different coloured covers and titles, to print other items, such as my old digital journals, and a book I’d written about building my house. After I’d printed them all on Lulu and arranged them on my shelves, I was thrilled with how they looked. A key thing in creating these books was to keep it simple. I just used default templates and didn’t add fancy designs or fonts. All the books I printed have the same cover format. This saved me time and stress.




Over the years I’ve collected many press clippings from newspaper and magazine articles about me and my work. I arranged the best of these into plastic pocked folders, again in roughly chronological order, and included folded versions of my favourite posters and flyers from shows I made. I also kept a handful of posters which I rolled into a tube, which I might use later.

I ended up with three plastic pocket folders of clippings, which I’ve arranged on my shelf, along with a fourth one ready for future clippings, should there be more!

Digitally, I also organised my press clippings and work related memorabilia. For example, I had video clips of showreels for each of my circus acts, and I had videos and photos from various shows that I did. Since I do a lot of public speaking and am often asked to talk about my experiences, I find it’s helpful to have photos that reflect my history, but when the time comes, I can never find what I’m looking for. I’ve now made a single folder called Folio, in which I keep a record of publicity photos for my shows, key newspaper articles, and other achievements that reflect things I often speak about, such as building my house. I included a few photos of me as a child making dolls, and as a goth during my teenage years, to illustrate the way these fed into my creative life later. Again, every file has the year first, followed by a description of what it is. If I sort by title, they are in chronological order. Now if I give a talk about, say building my house, or obstacles I faced becoming a Deaf circus performer, I can grab the relevant images from my folio folder to illustrate my talk.

This digital folio also forms a wonderful record of my achievements to date and gives me much joy. Once I’d compiled everything and sorted by year, it was easy to include key files with my photobooks, so that my new albums also contain images of the shows I was working on at that time and articles in the press that made a difference.

I made a separate photo of Work Videos, again, each one titled with the year first, to put them in chronological order.


The final step was to create a folder called Memorabilia May 2016, and store all my sub folders in it. Once a year or so, I plan to add in new photos, videos, writing and folio items, and then I’ll update the date on the folder name. I’ve backed that up by storing it on Dropbox, an external hard drive, and a pair of USB sticks, each stored in a different physical location. Having put so much work into organising my memorabilia, I’d don’t want to risk losing it!

All my physical items I arranged at the back of my wardrobe shelves. They take up about 1.5 metres of shelf space, and consist of my journals (that’s most of it), my photo books, a copy of each book I’ve had published, the Lulu books I made of my writing, and a few miscellaneous items such as some scrapbooks, a folder of drawings from when I was a child and a book my mum made about our ancestors. Also filed as if it was a book is a small book-sized box, in which I keep a few physical treasures.


Since my wardrobe is deep, I also store other items in shoe boxes in front of my memorabilia. I don’t need to access my memorabilia every day, but now when I want to find something, it’s right there, not buried in a box in my shed, and it’s easy to move the shoe boxes out of the way to find what I’m looking for.


There you have it. Pardon the somewhat tedious descriptions. I wanted to show you HOW it was done. I would have found a guide like this really helpful, back when I was looking at boxes and boxes of stuff which didn’t, as a whole, bring me joy, even though the individual pieces did. Like I said, it took me about 2 months to do this, spending around 20-30 hours a week on the project. I wish I’d done it sooner. But now it’s done, I doubt I will ever let my memorabilia spiral out of control again. My systems should make it easy to maintain and catch up, with a bit of attention once a year or so.

All my creative things are stored and arranged neatly at my studio at the Abbotsford Convent.


My studio-4

My studio-3

My studio-2

My studio-1

All this organisation makes for much less clutter in my brain It’s easy to find things, and I feel lighter and clearer.

When I threw out most of my clothes, I was a little worried that I hadn’t kept enough. I could later see that I had plenty, and could easily pare down further. Here they are, arranged in shoe boxes so they all stand on end. I took these photos when some items were in the wash so you could see the box system.




We really don’t need much stuff to live well. It was amazing to have put my life in order, completely, and caught up all the un-done tasks that have been at the bottom of my to do list for years. I felt I learnt skills that I will apply for the rest of my life, for managing and storing my stuff. It was worth the huge life focus it took. I highly recommend it!

Green silk skirt makeover

skirt and jumper

When I went through my clothes recently, following the KonMarie method, I had to chuck out everything that didn’t bring me joy. I picked up a black skirt I made last year to go with the jumper my friend Torhild knitted me, and was so sad to see that it didn’t bring me joy afterall. I just didn’t like the shape of it. The fabric didn’t fall right. It disappointed me. Skirt went into the Goodbye pile.

But then I found a green silk dress my friend Suni gave me. I adore the fabric, adore it. But the dress itself, it wasn’t very flattering. It rather highlighted the fact that my boobs are somewhat lower than expected. Ahh. No joy there.

Looking at them side by side in the Goodbye pile, inspiration struck. Perhaps they could be combined? Hmm. This project was seriously at risk of going into the One Day (yeah right) pile which would also need to be chucked out. I decided to do it right away.

So here it is, my newly updated black skirt layered with green silk from my friend’s dress. I think I like it. The Joy Jury is still deliberating. I need to do a few test outtings to see how I feel about it. But, so far so good!

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Some of you may have seen my personal and Grimstone posts on Facebook recently. Who wants Mortimer Grimstone’s Epithium? Anyone fancy a box of gothic miniatures? Or perhaps some candle-making equipment? Some tricks to use in a professional magic show? In case you haven’t guessed, I’m doing a clean out.

Tidying up

When my mum told me about Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she explained that the idea is that rather than choosing stuff to throw away, you remove everything from your cupboard and then decide what to keep. And the only criteria for your decision is this: when you hold it, does it spark joy? Forget practicality, forget all those things you should have or might need one day. If it doesn’t spark joy, you toss it.

It sounds rather far-fetched. But my mum, who has a house full of clutter, has been sufficiently inspired to deal with it all this year. There’s got to be SOMETHING in it if it’s got my mum inspired. Once I read the book, I was skeptical.

Marie says that if you tidy up by doing your entire house, for once and for all, the proper way, clutter will never rebound. Wow. That’s seductive. But it has to be done the proper way, in the proper order. You have to do your clothes first, then your books, then your papers.. and on it goes. By the time you get to the hardest stuff, memorabilia, you are well trained.

I decided, on a whim one evening, to try step one. What have I got if I toss out far too much stuff from my wardrobe? It wouldn’t kill me to get more clothes if I make bad decisions. I got started, and sure enough, very little of what I own truly brings me joy. By the time I’d carted many huge bags to the op shop, there was very little left. Once I’d stored it as instructed, the ‘proper way’, with everything standing up vertically, I had a little thrill of excitement. Actually, I felt euphoric. There was my wardrobe filled only with clothes I love. When I get up in the morning, I give myself permission to wear the clothes I want to wear, instead of the clothes I think I SHOULD wear. Ok, we’re touching on the life-changing bit now.

As I’ve worked through my house, filling car load after car load, bag after bag of actual rubbish, and overflowing my recycling bin, I’ve come to understand the life-changing magic bit. As I’ve given away every show I am equipped to perform, except for The Grimstones Hatched, I feel myself growing lighter. I’m letting go of the past and opening myself up to the future. But I think the real crux is this: the point of tidying up this way is not to Be Tidy.

It’s to learn what brings you joy, and to learn how to cast aside that which does not. The tidying is merely practise for that, a way of simplifying and uncluttering your life so you can see and feel clearly.

I already see it filtering into every aspect of my life and my relationships, as I start to make more choices that bring me joy and become better at turning down the options that don’t. I tell you, this is big and radical stuff. I think reading about it can’t do it justice. DOING it, on the other hand, is very transformative.

I highly recommend this book, and her companion book, Spark Joy. Happy reading! (Or should I say, Joyful Reading…)

Beware: the big corporation

Beware - the big corporation

While working on the book I’m currently writing, Future Girl, I realised that one of the key subtexts for the book is the idea that big corporations are dangerous to us.  This is something I feel very strongly about, and although I’m not perfect, for the most part these days I refuse to give my money to big corporations, especially those that I believe to behave irresponsibly.  I created this painting to express my outrage at the central place that these big corporations occupy in our society.

So what’s wrong with big corporations?

You could say that we are the new serfs, with big corporations as our lords, regulating every aspect of our existence and requiring our servitude.  Is this really so?  Are big corporations actually bad, and if so, why?  I’ve done some research to try and understand the ways in which big corporations impact and shape our society.

The thing about big corporations is that they are just that: big.  They rake in the bucks, and as a result, have enormous spending power.  Since the ethos that underpins most big corporations is the aim to increase profits, values such as quality and meaning of life, job satisfaction and health are often cast aside in pursuit of the dollar.  But surely we, as individuals, have the power to make our own choices about how we live, how we bring meaning to our lives, and to look after our own health?  The reading I’ve done suggests that no, actually, we are dominated in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways by the corporate monoliths that surround us.

How did we come to need them?

Let’s take the fast food industry as a general example, and look at McDonald’s in particular.  Since 1973, once adjusted for inflation, the hourly wage of the average worker has declined.  These days it’s very hard to run a household on one income, and with two adults out at work, there’s a need for some of the domestic tasks that used to be performed by women at home (such as food shopping, cooking and washing up) to be outsourced.  McDonald’s is just one large corporation that has stepped up to the task.  The company is the largest owner of retail property in the world, America’s largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes, and an estimated one in eight workers in the US has at some point been employed by McDonald’s.  The company has the world’s largest marketing budget, and even operates the most playgrounds and distributes more toys than any other brand.

Targeting our children

With playgrounds and toys, McDonald’s is very appealing to young children, a deliberate part of their marketing strategy.  Not only will children bring in extra customers in the form of parents and grandparents, but their ‘pester power’ can be harnessed to increase sales.  ‘Cradle-to-grave’ advertising strategies involve getting young children to see a company as being like a beloved family member, allied with good values such as health and patriotism, and the aim is life-long brand loyalty.  Young children are mainly reached via television, and studies have showed that most cannot distinguish between programmes and advertisements.  While McDonald’s and Disney pioneered the targeting of children in marketing, it is so effective that these days it is a standard part of the long term selling-strategy for most large corporations.  The result is that many youngsters today grow up with an overall feeling that their favourite brands know and care about them.

Fast food companies extend their marketing reaches into schools, knowing that children are still establishing their tastes and habits, and have many years of purchasing ahead of them.  Schools on tight budgets often accept lucrative advertising packages offered by large corporations, justifying that this increases their revenue and allows them to expand what they offer to students.  It is not just food companies that employ this technique.  Corporate-sponsored teaching materials have now become commonplace, and in 1998 a study in the US by the Consumers Union found that 80 percent were biased.  For example, they would teach that logging was good for the environment or that fossil fuels created few environmental problems.

Walt Disney has hosted numerous ‘entertainment’ broadcasts which are really propraganda, such as “Our Friend The Atom”, sponsored by a manufacturer of nuclear reactors, which makes nuclear fission sound fun instead of terrifying.  By reaching our children through television programmes and commercials, schools and prominent billboards, big corporations have significant power to shape the values and messages our children grow up with.

Exploiting vulnerable workers for cheap labour

Teenagers, too, are targeted by big corporations, and often used for cheap labour.  The two brothers who opened the first McDonald’s restaurant quickly tired of having to retrain staff when they left.  They created an innovative solution that has since been replicated by large, profit-seeking companies everywhere.  They restructured the workplace to an assembly-line format, where each worker contributes only a single, small skill.  A staff member might spend, for example, an entire eight hour shift just flipping burgers.  If that worker leaves, it doesn’t take long to train the replacement in burger-flipping.

With the de-skilling of jobs, corporations are able to hire unskilled workers who will accept low pay, often teenagers and migrants who are also easier to control, and less aware of unions and fair work standards.  They can be manipulated into working long hours, without overtime pay, by managers whose annual bonuses depend on them increasing profits and reducing costs.  While an after-school job has been shown to be good for children, studies have shown that when kids work long hours in addition to schooling, and when the job is boring, overly regimented or meaningless, it can create a lifelong aversion to work.

For teenagers, working at a fast food outlet can be surprisingly dangerous.  The injury rate for them is about twice as high as that of adult wokers in the United States.  With a high staff turn-over, many disgruntled ex-employees return to rob their former workplaces, sometimes resulting in violent crime and murder.  While being a manager at McDonald’s is a far more interesting and rewarding job than lower positions, and even includes training at McDonald’s ‘university’, managers are most often targeted in violent crimes by ex-employees.  In America, four or five fast food workers are murdered on the job every month, making it more dangerous than to be a police officer!

Fast food restaurant chains use their buying power to keep the minimum wage as low as possible.  For example, the Nixon administration received $250,000 in donations from the head of McDonald’s franchising, and in the same year supported a bill to reduce the minimum wage from $1.60 to $1.28 per hour – the bill was even known, informally, as the ‘McDonald’s bill’.  Meanwhile, the income of the company CEOs has consistently risen.

Side-stepping regulations

The Fair Labour Standards Act was designed to prevent unfairness, danger and injury to our workers, and unions aim to enforce these laws.  However, McDonald’s and other large corporations use their immense purchasing power to sidestep regulations.  When workers attempt to join unions or fight for fairer conditions, McDonald’s will simply close down the restaurant and fire all its staff, reopening new premises nearby.  When re-hiring, they avoid all staff who have previously signed union cards.

Franchise risks

Workers higher up the chain in the fast food restaurant business also face challenges.  For example, franchise owners absorb all the risk involved in starting a new branch, often legally waiving their right to file complaints, while the corporation maintains control, forcing them to buy from certain suppliers and follow fixed price schedules.  Corporations often practise “encroachment” – placing new franchises close to existing franchises, driving down the sales of the established buisness.  As with the minimum wage, large corporations use their significant financial power to lobby the government to thwart regulation of franchising.

Forcing suppliers to cut corners

As well as negatively impacting the lives of our children, vulnerable workers and franchise owners, large corporations often impose stringent requirements on their suppliers, forcing them to run manufacturing premises which are both dangerous and unpleasant for workers.  It is common for the few buyers of a single product (say, potatoes, used for chips), to band together and make a behind-the-scenes agreement about the price they are willing to pay.  Potato growers and processors cannot then turn to an alternative market for better pay, which would enable them to maintain better conditions in their plants.

Price fixing

In America, only four firms slaughter about 84 percent of the cattle (ConAgra, IBP, Excel and National Beef), and they have devised an ingenious method of price-fixing to ensure that cattle prices from independent ranchers remain low.  They buy up 20 percent of the nation’s cattle and hold them in feedlots.  Then when ranchers try to increase their prices, the meatpacking giants flood the market with their own captive supplies, forcing prices to drop.  In twenty years, the rancher’s share of the retail dollar has dropped from 63 cents to just 46 cents, forcing small farmers out of business, and forcing large enterprises to cut corners to maintain their ranches.  Ranch owners need to take second jobs or sell their cattle at break-even prices or a loss, and the suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in America is now three times higher than the national average.

In a similar fashion, chicken growers must adhere to strict feeding schedules, equipment upgrades and veterinary services, in order to sell to the meatpacking giants.  The necessary growing house, which holds 25,000 birds in overcroweded, stressed conditions, costs about $150,000, forcing the growers into significant debt before they can earn anything.  The average chicken grower in America earns just$12,000 per year, and about half of them quit after just three years, selling out or losing everything.  Growers who complain often find themselves suddenly unable to sell their birds.

Dangerous factory conditions

Like the fast food restaurants who slashed costs by creating an assembly-line format for their workers, enabling them to hire unskilled employees at minimum wage, the meatpacking giants have also restructured their plants to use assembly lines.  The meat travels on a large conveyor belt through the factory, and staff members stand in a single spot for their entire shift, making exactly the same cuts or moves over and over again.  One way for a meatpacking company to increase profits, is to run the line faster.  The same systems that once processed 50 cattle per day, have now been sped up to process 400, resulting in enormous danger to employees.  The injury rate in a meatpacking factory is about three times higher than elsewhere, and every year more than a quater of a factory’s workers are injured.  The work is heavy and repetitive, causing strain injuries, back problems and tendonitis, and lacerations are the most common form of injury.  The injury rate correlates directly with the speed of the production line.  It is common for workers to lose limbs on the job, and anecdotes in Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser suggest that these limbs, and sometimes entire people, end up ground in with our meat.

Such a high injury rate usually results in pressure from insurance companies to improve work practices, but large corporations like ConAgra and IBP are self-insured.  Like McDonald’s, they avoid unions and regulation by firing employees after an average of four months on the job, maintaining a vulnerable workforce (often of illegal migrants), and closing down plants when things get out of hand.  They also use in-house doctors to medically assess injured workers, and these doctors are under pressure to deny the existance and severity of injuries, so as to minimise compensation costs borne by the company.

Food poisoning – the spread of dangerous bacteria across the nation

Food poisoning, while rarely reported in the media, is a surprisingly common result of eating in a fast food restaurant.  In America, every day 200,000 people become sick from food poisining, 900 are hospitalised, and 14 die.  Food poisoning has been shown to have long term effects, beyond the initial gastrointestinal illness, and can herald chronic disease such as autoimmune disorders, kidney damage, heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease.  In 1996, a study showed that meat samples taken from meatpacking giants had a high rate of contamination with salmonella, listeria, staphylococcus and clostridium, all of which can make people ill.  E. Coli is also frequently found in meat samples, along with faeces, hair, insects, metal shavings, urine and vomit.

The reason for this high rate of contamination relates directly to the speed of the production line.  These bacteria are found in the faeces of infected animals, and at the time the stomach, bowel and intestines are removed from the animal, great care must be taken not to spatter the carcass with their contents.  It takes a skilled butcher to do this job well, and accuracy depends on taking the time to do it properly.  With the high speed of the line, and the reduction in skill of the workers, spillage of faeces onto the meat happens in as many as one in five carcasses.  The contaminated meat remains on the production line, and is mixed with cleaner carcasses, resulting in a very wide spread of dangerous bacteria.  In pursuit of profits, the meatpacking giants are endangering the health of the entire population.  Although they claim that once cooked, the meat is safe, the reality is that by bringing contaminated meat into our kitchen, we risk the spread of dangerous bacteria onto our knives, chopping boards, into our sinks and more.  Charles Gerba, a microbiologist, discovered in a series of tests that the average American kitchen sink contains more bacteria than the average American toilet seat!

Disregard for the public and workers is endemic

While I have focussed on the fast food industry, the danger faced by workers of corporate monoliths, the disregard for the health of the population, and the pursuit of profit at the expense of all other values appears to be endemic across large corporations.  For example, as I write in 2014, Apple has fired 24 employees (leading union members) for refusing to work on public holidays.  Conditions in factories where clothing, mobile phones and other consumer goods are made are regularly reported in the media as being miserable and dangerous for workers.  Even the courts agree that big corporations often behave irresponsibly.  In a case against McDonalds, Justice Bell concluded that the company did exploit children through its advertising, endanger the health of customers who eat there several times a week, pay its restaurant workers unreasonably low wages, and bear responsibility for the cruelty inflicted upon animals by many of its suppliers.

The reality is that large corporations use their immense budgets to sidestep regulation and to lobby the government for laws that will make them richer and more profitable.

What can we do?

Is there anything we can do?  The single, most powerful act an individual can make, is to refuse to give them our money.  It is our money that makes them powerful, and by withholding it, we are one step closer to diffusing their dominance.  Choose carefully to whom you give your dollars, and vote now, with your purse.

I used to think this was an impossible mission, but one step at a time I have made changes to my shopping habits, so that these days I rarely buy from big corporations.  I buy my food from farmer’s markets instead of supermarkets, I eat out at family-owned non-franchise restaurants, and I rarely buy new mass-manufactured products – instead I make my own or look for similar items in second hand shops.  Choosing to spend your money ethically cannot be done in a day.  It takes time to change habits and work out a new way to provide Christmas presents, a new way to eat, a new way to do all the things we regularly rely on big corporations for.  But it can be done, one step at a time.  If you have tips or ideas for making the change, leave a note in the comments!