Posts Tagged ‘Ethical and green living’

The eco guide to Christmas trees

December 14th, 2017

Powered by article titled “The eco guide to Christmas trees” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Sunday 10th December 2017 06.00 UTC

This year I’m going real. Given the plastic pandemic, my goodwill doesn’t extend to manufacturers of oil-based fake trees shipped across the globe.

From an ecological point of view, all cut trees are imperfect. Three-quarters of the trees put up this Christmas in the UK will be grown here (this at least cuts down on tree miles). But these trees are raised on plantations that are as quick growing as possible. They are not carefully calibrated forests for the benefit of the future.

A standard UK forestry guide I came across cheerfully recommended to growers that they apply glyphosate in summer (this is the weedkiller that controversially just had its licence renewed in the EU) and a spritz of another pesticide in the winter.

There are few agronomic studies of Christmas tree growing. But one from US researchers reports that pesticide residues are not found on harvested trees by Christmas. If that offers cold comfort, seek out a certified organic tree.

Christmas trees are grown from seed held in cones and stored in the crown 30m above ground – these are then collected by cone pickers. The seeds for our plantations largely come from Georgia. Here, campaigns on the human cost of the industry have uncovered exploitation and dangerous working conditions. In 2010 a Danish company started to produce fair trade Christmas trees grown by workers paid a fair wage in decent conditions.

Of course, by Boxing Day it is hard to remember that the disco ball in the corner is a forest product at all, let alone that it needs returning to the earth as mulch via a recycling scheme. But this is your chance to claw back some eco advantage. Better still, if you’ve got a good-quality potted tree, shake the tinsel, replant and nurture for the next 12 months.

The big picture: watching Alaska’s whales

Aerial whale-watcher: the non-invasive Parley SnotBot.
Aerial whale-watcher: the non-invasive Parley SnotBot. Photograph: Christian Miller/Courtesy Parley for the Oceans

Advanced drone technology in the form of the Parley SnotBot was recently sent on an expedition to study whales in Alaska. Finds included the identification of a whale from a past expedition and a confirmed pregnancy in another, all discovered without the need to leave the boat and disturb the whales. It has been described as the new frontier of non-invasive marine research.

Well dressed: get a head start with a carbon fibre helmet

Head savers: the gloss cycling helmet from Dashel
Head saver: the gloss cycling helmet from Dashel

To wear or not to wear? As the debate over cycling helmets and whether they should be mandatory rumbles on, the idea of designing better helmets seems to have been eclipsed.

But Catherine Bedford has been quietly getting on with designing a small, lightweight carbon fibre helmet. Bedford, with a background as a designer of accessories for luxury brands, has transferred values around premium craftsmanship into her helmet design.

The carbon fibre shell is hand-finished by a family-owned factory in Cornwall which manufactures helmets for the military and marine industry, and the harness webbing is sourced from Derbyshire.

Already featured as ‘an accessory of the future’ at last year’s Cycle Revolution exhibition at the Design Museum, the Dashel helmet has now arrived.

Gloss cycling helmet, from £170

Email Lucy at or follow her on Twitter @lucysiegle © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Tackle UK’s plastic bottle problem with money-back scheme, ministers told

July 5th, 2017

Powered by article titled “Tackle UK’s plastic bottle problem with money-back scheme, ministers told” was written by Matthew Taylor and Sandra Laville, for on Tuesday 4th July 2017 05.00 UTC

The UK government is under growing pressure to introduce a money-back return scheme for plastic bottles, in order to tackle huge volumes of waste in a country where 400 bottles are sold every second.

Opposition parties have called on ministers to introduce a deposit return scheme that experts say would drastically reduce the number of plastic bottles littering streets and seas around the UK. Similar schemes have been successfully introduced in at least a dozen countries.

The idea has the backing of global drinks company Coca-Cola and comes amid warnings that the worldwide plastics binge poses as serious a threat as climate change.

Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, urged the government to take swift action. “A deposit return scheme would have widespread public support and would go a long way to ensuring that we recycle as much of our waste as possible,” she said.

Kate Parminter, environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said momentum was growing behind calls for a deposit return scheme. “Earlier this year, Coca-Cola said to the Scottish parliament they would back a well-designed deposit return scheme,” she said. “Now that industry are backing this scheme, it is high time the UK government began to throw their weight behind it.”

Last week, new figures obtained by the Guardian established that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021.


According to an unpublished parliamentary report, more than 4m plastic bottles a week could be prevented from littering streets and marine environments in Britain if authorities adopted the kind of deposit return schemes that operate in countries like Germany and Australia.

The Conservative party’s manifesto did not mention such a scheme in the run-up to last month’s general election, but a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the idea was being considered as part of a wider litter strategy launched in April.

“We have made great progress in boosting recycling rates for plastic bottles, with their collection for recycling rising from less than 13,000 tonnes in 2000 to over 330,000 tonnes in 2015,” the spokesman said. “We are considering further the practical ways in which we can deal with the worst kinds of litter, including plastic bottles.”

However, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the Green party, said ministers must do more.

“The government is under growing pressure to take action on the plastic bottle crisis,” she said. “With such a slender majority in the House of Commons, and with the public swinging behind the campaign against plastic waste, there is a real chance that ministers will consider introducing a bottle deposit scheme.

“For a government desperate to salvage its reputation, taking such a simple step forward isn’t just the right thing to do – it serves their self-interest too.”

In Scotland, support is growing for a deposit return scheme. Last week, the Scottish National party launched a detailed study into how such a scheme for bottles and cans would work.

Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, said: “Clearly there are a number of issues for the Scottish government to consider when it comes to deposit return schemes, which can only be addressed by carrying out work to understand the design of a potential system.”

Recycling rates for plastic bottles in Britain stand at 59%, compared with more than 90% in countries that operate deposit return schemes, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden.

Coca-Cola in Britain and Europe has made a U-turn on deposit schemes and now supports their adoption in the UK, after pressure from environment and anti-waste campaigners. “We believe a new approach is needed,” the company said in a report to the environmental audit committee before its inquiry into plastic bottles was dropped after the dissolution of parliament.

“From our experiences in other countries, we believe a well-designed, industry-run drinks container deposit return scheme could help increase recycling and reduce littering,” Coca-Cola added.

Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Campaigners say plastic is polluting every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on the planet, with some of it already finding its way into the human food chain. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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The eco guide to a happier, greener workplace

February 13th, 2017

Powered by article titled “The eco guide to a happier, greener workplace” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Sunday 12th February 2017 06.00 UTC

If you’re dreading the start of the working week tomorrow can I just check it’s not the lighting? A 1990s study showed plentiful natural light to be a top determinant of job satisfaction.

If you can’t get near a window at least press for LEDs (they have a life of up to 60,000 hours in comparison to 6,000 hours for a fluorescent tube). They also improve your mood, productivity and energy efficiency.

But for real practical change in the workplace, you need to influence facilities and purchasing staff. This is where the power lies. In Europe, better purchasing has led to 72% of our paper now being recycled.

Get your office in order and you’ll be up for multiple certifications, such as ISO14001, but if you want to aim high I suggest looking to festivals for inspiration of what we can achieve in our own workplace. Shambala, the UK festival held in August, has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 81%, partly down to its plastic-free initiative; no bottled water sold onsite as part of its “bring your own bottle” campaign.

There’s so much innovation in the green festivals movement and offices can learn from them.

If greening your office – or festival – isn’t enough and you want to get deeper into saving the planet, The Ethical Careers Guide: How to Find Work You Love by Paul Allen is an excellent resource, full of real-world experience. By coincidence the book’s publisher New Internationalist will also be launching a community share offer at the same time.

In the world of green careers, things are moving fast. By 2018 Riverford Farm, the originator of veg boxes in the UK, aims to be employee owned. Start off changing the lighting, and you could end up with a stake in the future.

The big picture: the consequences of climate change

a dried-out patch of land seen from the air.
Drying up: an aerial view of the devastating effect of climate change

If you’re looking for the ultimate take-down of Trump’s flirtation with climate-change denial, Jared P Scott’s new documentary The Age of Consequences should just about do it. This is an investigation into the impact of climate change on increased resource scarcity, migration and conflict. It is frightening, but it also shows some unlikely climate-change allies – namely the US military (

Well dressed: Vivienne Westwood goes to China

the Vivienne Westwood exhibition, Get a Life!, in Shanghai.
Viva Viv: the Vivienne Westwood exhibition, Get a Life!, in Shanghai.

Chinese curator Adrian Cheng is credited with kicking off an art revolution in his native country. When he talked about climate activism with the veteran British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood some time ago, he became fixated on telling that story to Chinese designers and consumers through the medium of fashion. The resulting exhibition, Get a Life! (named after Westwood’s book on her brand of climate activism), has been three years in the making, but is now attracting record audiences to the K11 Art Museum in the Chinese capital, Shanghai. Alongside, China’s top fashion colleges are competing in an eco design competition, based on Westwood’s environmental vision. The work of the two winners will be stocked in K11’s concept store, Kuriosity.

Email Lucy at or follow her on Twitter @lucysiegle © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Climate-smart cities could save the world $22tn, say economists

September 9th, 2015

Powered by article titled “Climate-smart cities could save the world tn, say economists” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg, for on Tuesday 8th September 2015 04.00 UTC

Putting cities on a course of smart growth – with expanded public transit, energy-saving buildings, and better waste management – could save as much as tn and avoid the equivalent in carbon pollution of India’s entire annual output of greenhouse gasses, according to leading economists.

The Global Commission on Economy and Climate, an independent initiative by former finance ministers and leading research institutions from Britain and six other countries, found climate-smart cities would spur economic growth and a better quality of life – at the same time as cutting carbon pollution.

If national governments back those efforts, the savings on transport, buildings, and waste disposal could reach up to tn (£14tn) by 2050, the researchers found. By 2030, those efforts would avoid the equivalent of 3.7 gigatonnes a year – more than India’s current greenhouse gas emissions, the report found.

The finding upends the notion that it is too expensive to do anything about climate change – or that such efforts would make little real difference. Not true, said the researchers.

“There is now increasing evidence that emissions can decrease while economies continue to grow,” said Seth Schultz, a researcher for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group who consulted on the report.

“Becoming more sustainable and putting the world – specifically cities – on a low carbon trajectory is actually feasible and good economics.”

The report called on the world’s leading cities to commit to low carbon development strategies by 2020.

The findings, were released as the United Nations and environmental groups try to spur greater action on climate change ahead of critical negotiations in Paris at the end of the year.

The Paris meeting is seen as a linchpin of efforts to hold warming to 2C by moving the global economy away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

The UN concedes the climate commitments to date fall far short of the 2C goal. But the strategies outlined in the report – some of which are being put into place already – would on their own make up about 20% of that gap, said Amanda Eichel of Bloomberg Philanthropies who also consulted on the report.

Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, with Africa’s urban population growing at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

The right choices now, in terms of long-term planning for urban development and transport, could improve people’s lives and fight climate change, the report found.

Investing in public transport would make the biggest immediate difference, the report found. Air pollution is already choking the sprawling cities of India and China. Traffic jams and accidents are taking a toll on the local economy in cities from Cairo to Sao Paulo.

But building bus lanes, such as those rolling out in Buenos Aires, could cut commuting time by up to 50%, the report said.

Green building standards could cut electricity use, reduce heat island effects, and reduce demand for water. In waste management, biogas from waste could be harnessed as fuel to provide electricity to communities, as was already being done by Lagos in Nigeria and other cities. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture

May 7th, 2015

Powered by article titled “The UK company turning coffee waste into furniture” was written by Josephine Moulds, for on Tuesday 5th May 2015 15.06 UTC

Britain was falling in love with coffee just as Adam Fairweather was exploring ideas for new products and materials. Ten years ago, Starbucks stores were opening on every corner, followed by the burgeoning industry of artisan coffee roasters.

Fairweather, a designer by training and expert in recycling technologies and materials development, now develops materials from coffee grounds and uses them to design products including furniture, jewellery and coffee machines.

A poll of 2,000 Britons by Douwe Egberts in 2012 found 69% spent between £1 and £5 in coffee shops five days a week. “We use coffee as a moment to take a break, it’s a luxury product,” says Fairweather. “The idea that it already had this high value but we only use a little of it, that was interesting because I felt that there was a way of tapping into this perceived high value the product has intrinsically.”

On average, we use just 18% to 22% of the coffee bean when we make a cup of coffee but Fairweather says that coffee waste is not “the biggest problem”. “There are already massive recycling programmes in the UK that manage organic food waste very well. My interest is that we can use materials that have a perceived value to them, to communicate and get people excited about the idea of sustainability and social change and environmental management.”

Google seats coffee material
An example of Re-Worked furniture: easy chair and unity coffee table made with Çurface boards containing 100% recycled content and ash wood. Photograph: Re-Worked

Fairweather first tackled coffee waste by helping to develop the Greencup scheme, which provides offices around the UK with Fairtrade coffee and then collects their waste coffee to turn it into fertiliser. His new venture, Re-Worked, works with Greencup, so he has a ready supply of waste coffee grounds and a list of potential clients who may be open to the idea of other products made from their coffee waste.

Google uses Greencup’s service and has bought designer furniture from Re-Worked, created with a hybrid material made up of 60% used coffee grounds. “They’re all very quick sales,” says Fairweather. “It’s five or six conversations rather than hundreds, because we already have a relationship with the catering facilities management.”

Re-Worked has also teamed up with Sanremo, which uses a material made of 70% coffee grounds for the decorative housing of its Verde coffee machine. Fairweather says they have sold 300-400 of these each year since it was launched in 2013 and they are currently being installed in Wyevale garden centres around the country. High-end jeweller Rosalie McMillan makes use of another of Re-Worked’s materials, combining it with gold and sterling silver for her Java Ore collection.

Scaling up for profit

Re-Worked is a non-profit and Fairweather says the quest for funding has been one of his biggest challenges. “I’m really under-resourced. Because it’s been pioneering work, it’s made it quite hard to get the buy-in from people. We’ve never had huge amounts of wealth in the background to make things happen quickly.”

Re-Worked does generate revenue from trading, which it invests back into the business but Fairweather says the organisation still relies on grants. “In all honesty it’s not been massively profitable. The way we sustain ourselves is by getting government support.” This funds ongoing research into new materials and better production processes.

Fairweather says the process of making materials from coffee grounds would be economically viable if Re-Worked were to scale up. “Doing the life-cycle analysis of materials, is a very good way of seeing whether or not something stands up. If it’s more environmentally friendly, generally it’s more economically-friendly, because it means that you’re using less of everything.”

Java Rock Bangles
Java rock wrist bangle made by Rosalie McMillan using a custom Çurface material containing 70% recycled content. Photograph: Rosalie McMillan

Fairweather only wants to scale up, however, if he can maintain true to the original aim. He says the company explored the option of developing a low-value product, making fuel pellets out of coffee, to act as a staple to keep the business running. That hit a stumbling block when he realised they would have to take waste coffee from other sources and not just Greencup.

“It’s about promoting the idea of a circular business, if we started to offer the service to Nero, then we add value to their business, but we don’t promote the idea of this circular business model that excites people. It just becomes a service that people use.”

He admits he is not particularly commercially minded and that is, perhaps, why Re-Worked is not a million-pound business. “I’m not a marketer I’m more of an inventor. I like to invent the stuff. I like to work problems out.”

The circular economy hub is funded by Philips. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled brought to you by. Find out more here.

Join the community of sustainability professionals and experts. Become a GSB member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home

March 20th, 2015

Powered by article titled “The way we live now: the rise of the energy-producing home” was written by Elisabeth Braw, for on Monday 16th March 2015 13.49 UTC

Imagine living in a house that contributed to society: a house that produced energy, while consuming none itself. Well, imagine no more. After perfecting the “passivhaus”, which consumes minimal energy, engineers and architects have developed the energy positive house.

Generating energy is one thing, building a house is another. But with its plant-decorated walls and enormous double-glazed windows, the ArchiBlox Positive House, introduced in Melbourne’s City Square last month, looks elegant and modernist. “The trick is to make the sustainable and performance products visually pleasing while also practical,” reports David Martin, construction director of the ArchiBlox Positive House – the world’s first pre-fab energy positive house.

Rooftop solar panels and cooling tubes generate energy and regulate the temperature, while double-glazed windows and thick walls conserve energy. The end result: surplus power.

Energy producing house diagram
How an energy-producing home works. Photograph: Snøhetta

The ArchiBlox team is not alone in successfully completing the energy positive challenge. The German city of Königsbrunn, working in collaboration with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a local gas and electricity company, is finalising the cube-like Visioneum in the central square, where city officials hope its presence will inspire residents to think about their household energy consumption.

At the University of California, Berkeley, students working in collaboration with Honda have developed yet another concept, the Honda Smart Home, which looks more like a typical terraced house, but which generates surplus energy the same way as the ArchiBlox and the Visioneum: by radically conserving it while generating more than it needs though solar panels.

Students at the Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have invented a highly innovative “skin” that can be attached to existing houses with similar results. And in Norway, architecture firm Future Built has managed to turn two ordinary office buildings into energy-generating ones, cutting their energy use by 90% through additional insulation and the use of sensors to control light and heating. Here, too, solar panels on the roof provide energy that can be sold back to the grid.

With cars and homes accounting for 44% of greenhouse gasses in United States (and similar percentages in Europe), it’s no surprise that researchers and architects are trying to find ways of making homes more energy-efficient.

“The development of smart technologies, like the Google Nest, is making energy savings more convenient for users by allowing for control over temperatures in the house while you are away from the house, and allowing temperatures to follow your daily routines”, notes Esben Alslund-Lanthén, an analyst at the Danish sustainability thinktank Sustainia.

ZEB house
The ZEB house. Photograph: EVE

Kristian Edwards says building a plus-house is technically straightforward. “We calculated how many square meters of solar panels we needed and optimised the angle of the roof to get maximum solar yield,” he reports. “But plus-houses are also about minimising energy consumption, so we used as much recycled material as possible, such as whole bricks from a barn nearby.” With its box-like wooden top floor slanted over the lower floor for maximum sun exposure, Snøhetta’s experiment – the ZEB Multi-Comfort House, located in the Norwegian city of Larvik – boasts a visually striking appearance.

There’s just one thing: the cost. “Cost is always a factor when building houses that are taking advantage of the newest technology”, notes Alslund-Lanthén. “Plus-houses will likely remain more expensive than conventional houses, but on the other hand the owners will benefit from lower utility bills throughout the lifetime of the house, and in many cases from added benefits such as a better indoor climate due to improved ventilation, more daylight and better insulation.”

But Edwards, an architect at the Snøhetta architechture firm in Oslo, argues that plus-houses don’t have to be expensive, noting that a ZEB-style house may only cost 25% more to build than a similar, newly-designed home. The dropping cost of photovoltaic cells will also aid the advance of plus-houses.

Either way, utility companies are currently developing new payment models that will allow home owners to pay back the cost of the new technologies through energy savings. Other plus-house owners may opt to sell their surplus energy to the grid. At the ZEB house, in turn, surplus energy will power the electric car that future residents may own.

What’s life in a plus-house like? Norwegian families have volunteered to test the ZEB house for three months each and will report their findings to Edwards and his Snøhetta colleagues. And David Martin is about to find out for himself, having signed up to live in his ArchiBlox construction with his young family for the next 24 months.

The technology and innovation hub is funded by BT. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

Join the community of sustainability professionals and experts. Become a GSB member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners

March 9th, 2015

Powered by article titled “Observer Ethical Awards: 10 years of winners” was written by Megan Conner, Katie Forster, Ed Cumming, for The Observer on Sunday 8th March 2015 08.45 UTC

The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast)

Diver Howard Wood on how the winners of the 2008 Conservation Project category went on to secure a marine protected area around the south of Arran

Nothing changes fast in marine management, so the higher your profile, the more government may listen to you. That was something that became apparent after winning our ethical award in 2008.

We have grown as an organisation since; at heart we are still a Highland-based community organisation, but we now have two-full time employees, whereas before it was purely volunteer-led. And we have an office. The whole business has become larger and more professional.

Scotland had decided that the only people involved in fisheries management would be commercial fishermen – a bit like only having builders and developers on a planning committee. With some excellent lawyers, we managed to convince the government to acknowledge that the seas were a resource that they have to manage for the public benefit. In 2008 we achieved the designation of Scotland’s first-ever marine No Take Zone and community marine reserve; last year a marine protected area was designated around the whole of the south of Arran. I think that’s a huge achievement for a small community group.

Next, we hope to achieve better marine management for the entire Firth of Clyde, to set up marine interpretation facilities on Arran, and replicate our work around the coast of Scotland in other communities. There is a constant challenge to be heard by the Scottish government and get better policies for our badly degraded sea beds and fisheries. Being ethical is not always completely possible; we still need petrol outboard engines to get around the islands here, for example. But you can try.

Things are slowly changing. If you look at larger companies, they now have ethical policies. Even if it’s just a bit of greenwashing, they’re still thinking about it.

'By 2016 we hope to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries': Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt
‘By 2016 we hope to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries’: Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer


Their waterless lavatory bagged the Big Idea award in 2013. Now, says Virginia Gardiner, CEO of Loowatt, they’re providing sanitation systems all over the world

Ours is not your everyday message, so getting recognition from the Observer was important. The waterless toilet system we created, Loowatt, collects human waste in a sealed filter that can be easily emptied. It’s basically waterless toilet technology, but we also generate energy from human waste, so it’s very popular in developing countries and areas of the UK where you need an off-grid toilet: the countryside, festivals… We first publicly demonstrated the luxury mobile loo unit at Latitude in 2014.

I was actually very pregnant at the time we won the award, but it was great to be at the ceremony and meet like-minded people who are also interested in sanitation. Since winning, we’ve received more than m in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Initiative, which will help us to scale up our pilot system in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and put in more than 100 household toilets. We are also testing a new model designed for women in informal settlements, who have nowhere safe to go to the toilet at night. By 2016 we hope to be ready to provide sanitation systems in more developing countries.

An interesting part of our job is working with two markets that are so different. In the UK we’re building more event systems offering a luxury experience and we’re taking the toilet on the road to festivals. People are always surprised the toilets are so nice to use, so if you get to try a Loowatt, let us know what you think.

'There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there': Greg Valerio.
‘There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there’: Greg Valerio. Photograph: Richard Saker/Observer

Greg Valerio

Since winning his Global Campaigner award in 2011, Fair Trade jeweller and activist Greg Valerio has travelled all over the world to investigate the mining industry and expose the murky business of the trade in gems and precious metals. Now he’s launching his eponymous label

I’ve been a jeweller since 1996, and there are times when I have wondered why I’m in the business at all. I was in India when I first saw the exploitation of the supply chain – slavery, child labour, people working in terrible heat. That’s when I became an activist in the industry. By 2004, I’d managed to deliver the world’s first traceable gold, from mine to wedding ring.

I never expected to win the Global Campaigner of the Year award, though. I was up against Greenpeace and Avaaz, who both do a fantastic job, and I was very happy just to be nominated. Since then I’ve been travelling a lot, helping to initiate better supply chains. I’ve been to Sierra Leone, and worked with ex-militia in eastern DRC; I’ve been to Greenland to look at the problems with conflict rubies, and to California to see the toxic legacy issues of mercury left over from the gold rush – an estimated 19 million pounds of mercury in the watersheds. There is no conscience in the mining industry: if you want to look into the dark soul of capitalism, look there.

Now that we have traceable supply chains, it’s really important to expose the hollow marketing narrative that holds the jewellery industry together. It’s a completely manufactured value based upon people’s narcissism and the false pretence that somehow these products – gold, diamonds – make them special.

The dignity of the person who dug the product out of the ground is just as important as the dignity of the person who buys it. So I’ve written a book about the story of Fair Trade gold, called Making Trouble, and last year I started shooting a documentary in Uganda with Dartmouth Films, the production company who made Black Gold and The End of the Line.

As for the future, I’m going back into jewellery under my own name: Valerio Jewellery will have launched by this summer. I’m also working alongside the Gemmological Association of Great Britain on an accreditation system for gemstones and diamonds, which is really exciting because they’re the next big thing that needs to be addressed.

We have to be able to say this is not just a negative campaign: here we have the opportunity to do it right. If I look at a wedding ring and know where it has come from, and the impact that purchase had on that community, and I see the joy on the faces of the couple who buy it, that’s a positive legacy.

'There’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more': Carry Somers (left) and Orsola de Castro.
‘There’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more’: Carry Somers (left) and Orsola de Castro. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/Observer

Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers

Since winning their respective Ethical Fashion Awards in 2010 and 2011, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers have partnered to create Fashion Revolution, a global initiative to encourage transparency in the fashion supply chain

Orsola de Castro It was cool to win an award for sustainability in fashion at a time when sustainability was not at all in fashion. Since then, From Somewhere [the designer label De Castro co-created, working with pre-consumer surplus from manufacturing houses and textile mills] has collaborated with Speedo and worked with Topshop on three bestselling collections. Fashion Revolution began as a reaction to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. Carry had the idea and called me straight away. Its aims are to encourage transparency and redress issues within the supply chain: there’s a misconception that if something is expensive, the worker is paid more. There are events all over the world, from open-air catwalks in Madrid to workshops on how to detox water in Nepal, and a dedicated Fashion Revolution Day [24 April, the anniversary of the disaster]. It’s about treating everything you buy with the respect it deserves.

Carry Somers In the days after the Rana Plaza disaster, there was a lot of discussion around why we need a more ethical fashion industry. I thought unless we channelled that momentum, it would dwindle and something similar could happen. Orsola seemed ideal to work with as she’s the “queen of upcycling”. The idea of Fashion Revolution is to create a platform which everyone – retailers, designers, academics – can use to showcase best practice. Pachacuti [Somers’s Fair Trade company, best known for its Panama hats] has helped a few hundred people, whereas Fashion Revolution can potentially change the lives of millions. Last year, Fashion Revolution Day trended worldwide. This time we’re asking people to turn an item of clothing inside out, take a selfie, contact the brand and ask: “Who made my clothes?” If we keep asking questions, it will start to filter through to the people who make the decisions.

'It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste':
‘It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste’: John Hall (centre, with Anne Watkinson and Terry Morris) of Essex Wildlife Trust Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Observer

Thurrock Thameside Nature Park

Essex Wildlife Trust won the Conservation Award in 2011 for its plans to transform a landfill site. CEO John Hall reveals how it happened

Four years ago we were deep in the planning stages to turn an 845-acre landfill site on the north bank of the Thames into a nature park. The site had taken waste from six London boroughs for 50 years, but we’d secured a 99-year “pie-crust lease” that would enable us to build on top of 20 metres of landfill. I can remember feeling like we were up to our necks in it; the first phase was building a visitors’ centre that required unique engineering and various people were questioning what we were doing. The Observer Ethical Award came along at a time when our resolve was being tested and gave us a much-needed boost of energy and confidence.

We opened a year later, in May 2012, to great fanfare: HRH the Duke of Kent visited the site and in 2013 we had an official ceremony with Sir David Attenborough and more than 2,000 attending. In his opening speech David described the project as “a miracle” and I think we were just so pleased to have him there that we all started crying.

It’s been amazing to see so much wildlife flourish on a site that was previously household waste: we have cuckoos and nightingales singing, peregrines and short-eared owls hunting, skylarks, shrill carder bees and adders out in the sun – and even a pod of porpoises in the Thames estuary. Years ago the area was populated by swarms of gulls, so it’s quite amazing to think that such a variety of animals are living on what is essentially a pie of rubbish capped with clay. We still have a way to go – there are still 400 acres to restore – but already it’s a living landscape.

Tanya Ewing in front of Longannet power station, Fife.
Tanya Ewing in front of Longannet power station, Fife. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Observer

Tanya Ewing

The entrepreneur dedicated her life to her groundbreaking energy-and-water monitor, which won the Big Idea Award in 2008. Now she’s championing a new money-saving invention

When I first entered the awards, I was at the prototype stage with my product. I was in awe of the judging panel and to have their endorsement was a great seal of approval for its marketplace possibilities. We took the product to market a few months after we won; a year later we were starting to see revenue from sales. I was receiving tens of thousands of emails a week from people wanting the product, but because of money constraints we could only manufacture small volumes, so we focused on the new housing market. House builders were given points under the code for sustainable homes for installing our product, and that helped generate the sales we’re enjoying today.

I left the company seven years to the day after I founded it. I wanted some flexibility – I’d given the company my life for all that time, and I wanted to spend time with my young son. I also wanted the freedom to work on something without having to worry about shareholders. I started helping other low-carbon inventors take their products to market, and came across an innovative magnetic secondary glazing business called Glaze ’n’ Save. Now I’ve bought the concept and begun commercialising it. So I’m starting all over again!

Grace Harrop (left) and Emma Howard, former pupils at Queen Elizabeth II School in Peel, Isle of Man.
Grace Harrop (left) and Emma Howard, former pupils at Queen Elizabeth II School in Peel, Isle of Man. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Observer

Queen Elizabeth II High School

Pupils in the Isle of Man scooped the Ecover Young Green Champions award in 2013 after their Grow Your Own Clothes project impressed judges. Grace Harrop, 18, reveals what happened next

The intention of growing our own clothes was always to make a statement about the impact of fast fashion: clothes made cheaply but unethically. It just so happened that by experimenting with bacteria, tea, vinegar and sugar in a bath, we also grew quite a good fabric. Since winning the award we’ve become fascinated by the science of it, but we’ve also been able to keep publicising our message. We’ve taken part in a fashion shoot at the Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots awards, appeared on BBC Songs of Praise and spoken at the UN Convention Framework on Climate Change in Bonn. We’ve also won more awards, including the Society of Biology Prize at the National Science and Engineering Finals. And we were filmed for the Zayad Future Energy Prize, presented at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

In the meantime, some of us have left school – the four founding members finished their A levels last summer so we’ve handed the project over to Year 9 students, but we’ll still be their mentors. It’s their project now, we want them to develop it – maybe see a bit of the world publicising it, like we have, because it’s been fun.

'People are amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid': Averil Stedeford outside her eco house in Oxford.
‘People are amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid’: Averil Stedeford outside her eco house in Oxford. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/Observer

Averil Stedeford

The first ethical awards in 2006 saw Averil Stedeford, now 82, win DIY Project of the Year after she helped pioneer ‘retro-greening’ through the transformation of her own 1950s semi-detached house

Winning the award kick-started a whole series of events. The local press heard about it and named me “Oxford’s green granny”, which was rather nice. I started having open days so people could see the house and there were so many visitors I had to get stewards to help. Professional architects also came, which flattered and delighted me no end. People were amazed at the underground tank in my garden because you can only see the lid, and they didn’t know that rainwater could be used to flush toilets and run the washing machine. I still come downstairs and think: “This is my house.” But a lot happens in 10 years. Since winning, I’ve had a stroke and, just recently, cancer – I have no plans for the future but to enjoy living here as long as I can. Awareness of eco homes has improved a lot since I won the award 10 years ago. I am pleased there are more grants available now for those who want to build them. In 2006 hardly anyone had heard of using organic paint or fleece for insulation and it was very expensive. Now it’s actually quite reasonable. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the turbine I’d planned to in the end, as they’re not very efficient in an urban setting, but everything I’ve installed has worked well without any problems. The sun heats up water in the solar panels so the boiler doesn’t have to work so hard. To make your home more eco-friendly you should insulate well. When the gas man came to read my meter, he said: “You don’t use much!” as if I was a very bad customer – I liked that.

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