Sustainable(ish) by Jen Gale

Deciding on a total lifestyle change is usually something we decide to do – not something foisted upon us. In 2012, Jen Gale embarked on that wholesale change, telling her young family would buy nothing new for one year, bar good school shoes and, you know, food.


Throughout that year, Jen learned about the emotional crutch that shopping occupies in our lives. I went through a similar process when I was job hunting after uni, and the lean years: it’s amazing how strange it feels to just not buy anything you don’t actually need.

Taking her friendly, approachable tone of voice, Jen reminds us that shopping rarely has any grounding in actual need: “You see, shopping has become more than simply fulfilling a need for the thing we’re buying – it’s become a complex cocktail of pleasure, reward and guilt”. We need clothing, food, shelter. But do we need dozens pairs of shoes, ten ‘perfect’ white shirts and a new outfit for every formal occasion? Does every meal need to be an authentic take on Indonesian, Creole or Chinese cuisine? Who says so?

Each chapter takes a problem: plastic, fast fashion, food. By breaking the book into chapters that tackle a problem, Jen can help you to take bitesized chunks of action. Take two of my favourite things in my life: food and cosmetics. You can pull my MAC lipstick from my cold, dead hands: it helps me to feel professional, battles my anxiety and brings me joy. But there’s room for improvement, and I can nudge other decisions in the right direction: one pot of sustainable coconut oil later and I’m the proud owner of a home-made, packaging free deodorant. I did have to go through the mental gymnastics of working out cup to gram measurements, as I wanted to make a trial batch, but other than that, the recipe was simple and effective (and truth be told, I’m on the stinkier end of the bodily spectrum, so this must work). If I stick at it, I reckon I’ll avoid around 160 plastic deodorant container to be used throughout my life. Not bad for something that cost me about 60p, took 5 minutes to assemble and is simple to use.

On the enormous topic of sustainable eating, Jen reminds us that food production is responsible for ¼ of all greenhouse gas emissions, and that 30% of all food produced doesn’t reach our tables. This doesn’t take into account the rates of domestic food waste (50% in the UK), but is sobering to remember. Moving straight into meal planning as a tool for wasting less food and planning any/more veggie and vegan meals, Jen is one of My People. I love her idea of blanking out ‘white space’ to eat up leftovers, and it’s a change I admit I hadn’t thought of. Since I’ve started leaving one or two nights a week to just fridge dive, I’m finding I’m enjoying cooking, and feeling less overwhelmed. With other sensible tips about veg boxes and avoiding plastic packaging, there are simple tips that you can use immediately to make your diet more sustainable. But seriously, whatever you do, stop eating strawberries in December.

This is a perfect ‘how to’ book as it offers so much room for improvement, charts for you to work with and write in, and prompts to work out how to talk with your family or housemates about making life more sustainable(ish). Much like Jen herself, the book is positive, seeing imperfection as both natural and offering a chink of light for improvement. I’ll leave the last words to Jen: “We’re all in this together. Sink or swim. Let’s grab our armbands, our buoyancy aids, and do what we can to keep this shift afloat.”

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