Christmas prawns? No thanks

Tips for surviving the festive season with your Christmas spirit and green credentials intact

It’s far too early to start talking about Christmas, but I’m afraid I have no choice. Improbably snow-bound English villages, 'seasonal' recipes for prawns and this year’s must-have gadgets, are cluttering up every advert break. So, as I too have already been out recording ‘Green Christmas’ specials for the TV, and have been doing my research, I thought I would strike back early too.

Christmas, like the average wedding, is becoming more elaborate each year. What started out as a simple trip to church and a big meal now lasts about nine weeks and involves buying more and more every year.

It’s impossible to avoid taking part, because everything to do with the Christmas season, no matter how newly invented, becomes instantly ‘traditional’. Secret santas, Harry Potter films, East Enders, chocolate fountains. All suddenly compulsory as if they had been around forever. And yes, what about those king prawns? Since when were tropical crustaceans a staple part of midwinter cuisine?

Believe it or not, I do love Christmas. It’s the only time of the year where my voicemail and inbox calm down and I can spend a few days eating, drinking and playing board games with my sisters and family without a bulging ‘to do’ list nagging at the back of my mind. At its simplest as a family get-together, Christmas is a joy, but it’s so easy to let things get out of hand during the run-in and be swept away in a consumer frenzy that – needless to say – can have a terrible effect on the planet.

It’s not energy use that soars at Christmas (in fact with us all staying in and drinking egg-nog, the roads are unusually quiet, and sharing the cooking has its energy plus points too) but the quantity of stuff that gets bought, wrapped, cooked and then simply wasted. Each of us receives around £90 worth of unwanted presents each year, and over a third of the food we buy is thrown away uneaten by twelfth night.

So, with my bah-humbug detector turned up to maximum, here are my green ideas for a better Christmas, with more fun, less stress and less waste.

An easy one to start off with: buy nothing this Saturday. Yes, for twenty-four hours take a break from shopping, put that Christmas list aside, take your life back and buy nothing at all in a celebration of non-consumerism.

An ideal day to spend in front of the TV, scorning adverts featuring Jamie Oliver or the Spice Girls, or at the pub with your mates talking rubbish. (I haven’t checked the small print, but I think the rules of Buy Nothing Day may exempt purchases at the bar.)

Next, food. A typical Christmas dinner these days can contain ingredients that have been transported over 30,000 miles, but it’s really easy to cut this down simply by picking local products off the shelf instead of far-flung alternatives: hazels rather than brazil nuts, English beer rather than Australian wine, local ham instead of Indonesian prawns.

The original midwinter festival involved a feast of seasonal produce, embellished with preserved items from earlier in the year, so root vegetables, cabbages, sprouts, dried fruit, nuts, local cheeses and chutneys are all real traditional low-carbon fare.

Don’t get hormone-stuffed, frightened food for your roast, invest in an organic, free-range bird from nearby, and ‘offset’ the extra cost by getting a smaller one. It’ll taste so much better and, with fewer grotty bits, you won’t have to worry about forcing leftovers down your relatives.

Visit your local market for a real bargain on the rest of the meal, compared with overpriced supermarket vegetables. You’ll be supporting your local economy, plus, if it’s unpackaged, you can buy just the amount you need and won’t end up throwing half of it away.

Moving on to presents, as we must. Let’s start by ruling out pointless gadgets that will simply end up in the cupboard after a couple of weeks. No golf ball polishers, no coffee machines that need an endless supply of little plastic cartridges, no choppers, heaters or mixers that can only do one thing - no attic fodder at all.

Instead, get non-material gifts: something useful like tickets to an event, vouchers for meals, downloads or books, or membership of an organisation such as the National Trust or the RSPB.

If you feel obliged to get something that won’t fit in an envelope, use gift-giving as an excuse to introduce your friends and family to green stuff. Basics that everyone needs are best. Get bamboo t-shirts, hemp socks, quality recycled notebooks, local organic foodstuffs or non-polluting shower gel, and make sure they know where to buy replacements when they find they love them and want more.

At the end of the season, make sure everything is recycled. We create three million tonnes of extra waste over the Christmas period and use over 250,000 trees’ worth of wrapping paper, so buying recycled and putting everything from the Christmas tree to your sprout peelings in the recycling box or the compost bin is essential.

So, there’s my very brief seasonal tips and the bah-humbug detector has hardly flinched. I hope this shows that having a ‘perfect’ Christmas doesn’t involve going crazy and consuming everything in sight, and that having a ‘green’ Christmas doesn’t involve shivering around a candle in fingerless gloves for a fortnight. Just don’t forget to shun those prawns!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation