Sowing the seeds of biodiversity

bbka_album_12_1364148653_thumbSpring is in the air, and the birds and the bees are a buzzing.  But the cacophony is more subdued than it once was.

We have known for sometime that our ecosystems, globally, nationally and in many cases locally are in decline.   The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, concluded “over the past 50 years humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and more extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel.  This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.”  Our own UK National Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2011, found that about 30% of our ecosystems services have been assessed as currently declining, with many others in a degraded state.

All of this matters, as we rely on these ecosystem services for our survival.  Provisioning services of food and fuel can be easily understood, and valued.  Others are less tangible: regulation services such as trees providing local cooling and carbon capture (yes a shady tree); or the non-material benefits we derive from cultural services (put simply, enjoying a walk on the beach); and  supporting services, such as soil formation and  nutrient recycling (or composting).  Biodiversity underpins all of these services, and the greater the biodiversity, generally the more resilient the systems are.  The Lawton review, Making Space for Nature, (2010) concluded unequivocally that England’s wildlife sites are too small and too fragmented to provide a coherent and resilient ecological network.

bbka_album_12_1393322838_thumbAs for bees, over the last 20 years there has been a 50% decline in honey bee colonies, while at the same time, the areas of crops dependent on insect pollinators grew 38%.  84% of European crops rely on insect pollinators, and pollination is worth £440mn per year to UK agriculture (The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature, DEFRA, 2011).  So it is worth our while in every sense to act.

What is more, as 80% of our population live in urban areas, the green in our cities matters, but over the period, 1999-2008, London alone lost, on average, 500 gardens each year (London: Garden City? ,2010, London Wildlife Trust).  Some of the loss was due to development, but changes in garden design and management are also responsible, with a a 26% increase in hardstanding over the same period.

OlympicParkImage1-1A wide range of evidence suggests that contact with green spaces improves our well-being, so incorporating green infrastructure into urban design reaps wide social benefits.  Speaking at Ecobuild, Blanche Cameron, Founding Director of RESET, reminded us “Nature in cities is something we can all do – and is everyone’s job to do” as cities provide great opportunities to support biodiversity by integrating nature into our habitat.  Given the shortage of ground, choosing living roofs and walls, rain gardens, tree pits, or even a window box, are a great way to provide some green infrastructure to punctuate the grey.

As Toby James from Wildflower Turf, suppliers to London 2012 (pictured left), noted at Ecobuild, green roofs help filter air and water pollution, provide opportunities for rainwater capture and harvesting,  and reduce energy demand by providing insulation, creating better public and private spaces where we can all thrive.  They are also low maintenance, needing a trim only once a year in the autumn, and watering only in case of drought.The wildflowers also provide essential fodder for pollinators.

IMG_2009So what can you do to make space for pollinators, in gardens and on roofs?  The London Wildlife Trust‘s Garden for a Living London campaign has come up with six gardening actions to turn your backyard into a mini nature reserve.  They have ‘how to guides’ for each available for free download, from planting a mixed hedgerow to ‘wild up’ your decking.  RESET run one day masterclasses on DIY small scale green roof construction, or suppliers such as Wildflower Turf can provide installers’ details.  A video on Wildflower Turf UK’s website shows how quickly the wildflower turf can be established.

As Jane Moseley of the British Beekeepers Association says, “We don’t all have to be beekeepers, but we can all be keepers of bees”.  In London, for example, there are plenty of bees, but not enough for them to eat.  Just mowing the grass less often so that clover, dandelions and other pollinator fodder can flourish, would help, and how lovely to be implored to be lazy for a change!  BBKA provide a range of resources and advice on how to help bees and beekeepers.  Here are their top 10 ways to help the Honey Bee:

1. Adopt a beehive

seeds12. Make a bee-friendly habitat.  Plants they like include sunflowers, larkspurs, and foxgloves.  Vegetables like peas and beans, and the flowering herbs, such as mint and rosemary are also popular, along with most native wildflowers.

Perfect-for-Pollinators_RHS_P4P_LOGO_LWLook out for the RHS Perfect for Pollinators symbol at your local garden centre, or ask for advice, as now is a great time to sow your (wildflower) seeds.  I am not sure we followed all the instructions on preparation, but  Thompson & Morgan, and Sutton Seeds both stock pollinator-friendly mixes.  Packets of wildflower seed mixes make a great party bag filler and thoughtful alternative for wedding favours. Or sign up for your Bee Cause, bee saver kit from Friends of the Earth.

t440_7ace90caf718423162690a916f788d22Provide bees in your garden with a home.  Wildlife World have a whole range of options, from a simple bee log  (pictured right), via the functional Kinsman bee nester (made from rice husk and bamboo  and priced £18.99) to the palatial Highgrove Solitary Bee House, which is inspired by the design of classical temples in the Highgrove gardens, there is an option to suit all tastes!

3.  Encourage your local authority to cultivate bee-friendly, wildflower spaces. Local authorities manage a huge amount of space, so a policy change can have a real impact.  Eastbourne Borough Council has formally backed the Bee Cause and planting in all their parks and gardens now aims to be pollinator-friendly.

bbka_album_52_1375983647_thumb4.  Consider letting  a local beekeeper use your spare space. Your garden will get a boost from good pollination, and you might get some honey too!  Contact your local beekeeping association to find out more.

5.  If you spot a swarm, report it to the police or a local authority.

6. Do not keep unwashed honey jars outside as overseas honey can contain spores and bacteria very harmful to honey bees.

7. Contact your MP to urge their support for research into the decline of honey bees.

8. Invite a beekeeper to your local school or club.  Bees have been on Earth for around 30 million years, and cultivated for around 5,000 years.  Quite a history!

9.  Buy locally-produced honey.  It will taste different to foreign supermarket honey, and the flavour will reflect your local flora.  It is also a boost to pollinating local crops.

10.  If it sparks your interest, try a beekeeper for the day taster course, or become a beekeeper’s buddy and see if you are keen to take on a hive!

Simply let some native colour back in!

2012_london_olympic_park_wildflower_meadow

Photo credit:  British Beekeepers Association, Gardenvisit.com, Wildflower Turf UK, Wildlife World

Sebastian Cox Pop-up @ Heals

sc1Catch him while you can.  Tomorrow, Sunday 23rd, is the last day of Sebastian Cox’s Woodland Workshop pop-up in Heal’s Tottenham Court Road store.  Sebastian is an award-winning designer and maker, with a strong ethos of sustainability.  As you might remember from earlier posts, he is famed for his work with coppiced hazel, an ancient method of woodland management.

For the last couple of weekend’s Sebastian and his team (today, George) have been very much front of house for Heal’s ‘Made for you‘ series, hand crafting drawers in the store window.

IMG_3054The stack of drawers are for their latest Heal’s piece, a five drawer ‘Tall-boy’ in celebration of British grown hardwoods.  Each drawer is individually crafted using one of ten timbers, showing their distinctive grain, and colour, to subtle and stunning effect.  The timbers have all been sustainably sourced.  In fact, they can even tell you when the wood was milled and grown.  The Tall-boy pictured right is in oak, walnut, sycamore, London plane, and elm.  We were particularly struck by the flecking and wavy grain of the elm.  The undulating grain is what gives elm its characteristic strength.

IMG_3057Other timbers available are ash, brown oak, chestnut, hazel and birch.  The ‘brown oak’ is not a different species, but oak that has been infected with fungus, leaving it a rich tea colour.  The choice of timber and tonal scale is yours.  If you are undecided, you could order a pair and then mix and match the drawers to your heart’s content.  The Tall-boy retails at Heal’s for around £2,000, depending on your choice of timber.  Remember a thing of beauty is a joy forever!

IMG_3058Seeing Sebastian and George deftly making use of the range of hand tools was fascinating, for us, and our young daughters.  They were enchanted by this real-life Mister Maker, and thoroughly charmed when Sebastian used his hand plane to give them a couple of shavings that spiralled in their palms.  They watched, coyly, as George meticulously prepared a dovetail joint.  It was a moment for us all to appreciate the skill of hand crafting furniture, to connect the elegant piece with its humble beginnings and reflect on the beauty of Britain’s natural resources.

Revamp complete!

chairsAfter many hours of elbow grease, painting, and waxing, I was delighted to finish revamping the interiors of two flats for a private landlord.  It was a first for us both.  As a rental flat, there were budget tight constraints for me, and for the landlord it was an experiment to furnish the flats with a lower impact, at a similar cost to the conventional alternative.

The landlord had some chairs from former tenants, an Italian restaurant that had closed, and another who was downsizing.  The chairs are in perfectly good condition, just a bit too country house kitchen for a city flat pitched at young professionals or couples.  You can find similar at secondhand furnitures shops, or at your local furniture reuse and recycling centre.  The Furniture Re-use Network is a national body supporting charitable re-use organisations across the UK.  Re-use enterprises combine social and environmental aims.  Typically, they collect unwanted furniture or domestic appliances that are then refurbished providing work opportunities and training for the socially excluded, and helping people in need turn a house into a home by providing affordable furnishings.  Every year the sector re-uses 2.6 million items of furniture and electrical equipment and diverts 90,000 tonnes of waste from landfill.  Anyone can donate or find furniture via the network.

Look for pieces that are solid, in good working order, and whose basic shape you like, then you make it your own.  I selected a set of chairs for each flat and set to work sanding where necessary, painting and waxing.  The chalk paint from Annie Sloan has a smooth, matt finish and can be used on almost any surface from wood to plastic, inside and outside without much preparation.  It is low odour and low VOC (volatile organic compound).  It dries fairly fast, so you can apply a second or third coat without too much delay, before sealing the paint with soft wax.  The Annie Sloan website has a series of short video tutorials, or you can contact your local stockist to ask about workshops.  We sourced a drop-leaf table and some bedside tables from Sunbury Antiques market.

cranhurstThe bedside tables were treated to a livery of Annie Sloan paint on the sides, sanding and clear Auro matt varnish on the front to accentuate the grain of the veneer, and decoupage.  The Auro varnish is environmentally-friendly and free of solvents.  It has a milky colour when you apply it, but dries clear.  I used an off cut of a favourite fabric to cover the top of the bedside table, using Auro universal adhesive, a natural latex milk adhesive, and then a few coats of the matt varnish to seal the fabric.  I used the same fabric, Carnival, from Christopher Farr,  to soften the black faux-leather headboard.  The fresh, exuberant print of pomegranates in blue and green on the fabric gave the room a focal point making economical use of an off cut and staple gun.

Beeld-handle-4Another trick to quick refresh a cupboard or set of drawers is to change the handles.  These leather handles (pictured left) from Nu Interiuer Ontwerp were featured in the March issue of Elle Decoration.  Simple, elegant and available in four colours.  Chloe Alberry, on Portobello Road and online, has an encyclopaedic range of handles in glass, wood, ceramic and other materials.

If you are daunted by the thought of DIY then look for a course in furniture painting or restoration at your local adult education college.  In London, the Goodlife Centre runs a range of courses in upholstery, furniture restoration and painting that are said to be “Suitable for absolute beginners. Enjoyable for everyone.”  Maybe a Mother’s Day treat for someone?

WWT-21_largeOr if you like the look, but not the effort, then three of my favourite up-cycling ventures in the south of England are Out of the Dark, Xylo Furniture and the Restoration Station.  The sleek monochrome matt finish of this drop-leaf table from Xylo Furniture (right, £280) highlights the craftsmanship of  the beautifully shaped legs, but brings it bang up to date.  As well as working on their own stock, Out of the Dark can also work on yours.  The OOTD team can refresh an heirloom so it sits more comfortably in a contemporary home, or repair wooden and upholstered furniture.  Restoration Station also take commissions. So bring a little spring zing into your home.

Photo credits:  Nu Interiuer, Xylo Furniture

Fairtrade Fortnight round up

kantha-bedspreads-made-by-womens-social-enterprise-for-decorators-notebook-763x800Fairtrade Fortnight has just ended, but it case you didn’t notice it was about bananas, chocolate and hot drinks.  As the Fairtrade Foundation explains “Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.”   The Fairtrade standards, set by Fairtrade International, have minimum social, economic and environmental requirements that producers have to meet, as well as demonstrate developments in farmers organisations and workers’ conditions.

Typically under a fair trade scheme, farmers receive a fixed price for their crop that reflects the sustainable cost of production, plus a premium that their community can invest in education, healthcare, or other ways to improve yields or processing facilities.  A fair price is not just a few more pence in pay, but promotes capacity building that creates other opportunities for a community to develop.

Certification schemes are not without their critics, both conceptually, and in terms of their implementation.  However, too often, free global trade has been a race to the lowest cost option.  In Europe, we operate within regulatory and policy frameworks that protect workers and the environment.  Other geographies lack those safety nets.  A fair trade alternative offers customers some assurance that goods have been produced in sustainable conditions.  That is a long introduction to why Carefully Curated not only supports Fairtrade with a capital ‘F’, but looks for products that are transparent about where, how and by whom their products are made.  Mindful of the fact that the price I pay for a product should reflect the true cost of the labour, materials, energy and natural services involved in its manufacture.  As Fairtrade Fortnight ends, I thought I would highlight a few fairly traded favourites.

All-Weather_hammock-r100-1Cotton is a commodity that is has a reasonably well-established organic and fair-trade infrastructure, boosted by the Better Cotton Initiative that was launched in 2005.  Organic and fair-trade cotton bed linen is available from John Lewis and other retailers, but for a more colourful use of fair-trade cotton, inspired by the recent sunshine, I picked these all-weather hammocks from Handmade Hammocks made of fair-trade cotton and FSC wooden rods.   How I long for a summer evening lounge in one of these double all-weather hammock is priced from £69.99.

Blocks & Peaks collection by Donna Wilson for SCP-1I love the colours of these hand-woven linen baskets from Donna Wilson in collaboration with SCP and People of the Sun, a non-profit social enterprise based in Malawi.  Using their traditional knowledge, and working with natural materials such dried palm, local artisans in Malawi create bespoke products by hand.  People of the Sun connects these artisans with business training, designers and a wider marketplace to build more sustainable businesses that create economic, social and cultural value in Malawi by boosting incomes and preserving traditional skills. Prices start at £27.50 for a place mat, to £150 for the Peaks Linen basket and are available in SCP stores.

Travelling further east, the women of Basha, a social enterprise in Dhaka, Bangladesh make beautiful kantha bedspreads (pictured at the top of the page).   In Bengali basha means ‘house’ and asha means ‘hope’, the house of hope enterprise supports victims of domestic violence and sex-traffiking with training and counselling as they rebuild their lives.  Once the women are ready, the enterprise provides opportunities for work with educational, health and childcare support.  The bedspreads are hand-stitched from vintage saris, embroidered with the maker’s name for £165 are available from the Decorator’s Notebook.

Banner_Rattan_Sept2013_2Rattan has made a real comeback, and Emily Readett-Bayley’s natural rattan baskets provide the perfect fireside accessory or toy basket.  The baskets are sourced directly from seven village communities who live within a 200.000 hectare rainforest concession in Katingan, Borneo.  Rattan’s natural strength has been used for generations to make baskets that are durable even in a tropical climate.  As part of a sustainable forest management, the raw rattan is woven by villagers in workshops offering an alternative income to illegal logging, poaching endangered species such as Bornean orangutans, gibbons, clouded leopards and proboscis monkeys or clearing forest for palm oil cultivation.  The baskets are available individually or as a set, with prices starting at £25 for the small basket, 38cm x35cm.

MRD-Set-Classic-150x150For an every day dollop of fair trade, what about this elegant monochrome placemat and coaster set from Shake the Dust (priced at £40)?  The set of four placemats and four matching coasters has been handmade from a sustainably-harvested mountain grass, Lutindzi, which is indigenous to the Swazi mountain, and coloured with GOTS-certified dyes (GOTS is the Global Organic Textile Standard which requires a minimum of 70% organic fibres).  Gone Rural, the producer, works with 750 artisanal weavers in Swaziland.  The weavers are self-employed and receive around half the wholesale price of the goods they make.  Profits are invested in health, education, water and sanitation projects.  The Artisanal Board provides women with a key role in the defining the future of Gone Rural.  It is a venture that provides a sustainable income, preserves traditional crafts and is building skills for the future, and the products are beautiful to boot.

So next time you are browsing the aisles or scrolling through the drop down menu, take a moment to enquire where the  object of your desire had a suitably responsible journey to your shopping basket.  Retailers and manufacturers should have no reason to be bashful about where their goods come from.

Photocredit:  Decorator’s Notebook, Handmade Hammocks, Posh Graffitti, SCP, Shake the Dust

A conversation with Unto this Last

Unto This Last Shop 1A conversation with Olivier Geoffroy, founder of Unto this Last, was a much anticipated treat.  Unto this Last is a contemporary workshop in London that makes furniture using digitally-controlled cutting tools.

As you walk in you are struck by the manifesto suspended from the ceiling.  The name, Unto this Last, comes from a book by John Ruskin (whose picture hangs on the adjacent wall), published in 1862, in which he advocated a return to local craftsmen and workshops in reaction to the monotony and conditions of the rapidly industrialised working class of his time.  For recent generations, this would have been a nostalgic process affordable to the few. Mass produced furniture was for the many, just as today, Olivier observes, Ikea make good value furniture on a global scale.  The efficiencies of repetition, high volumes and uniform products allow low industrial prices.  The flat-pack design of the products is dictated by the need to package and transport them easily.  Unto this Last is turning this economic model on its head with local craftsmen creating products that are made to measure, and hand-finished in a workshop, but at an affordable price. “Unto This Last’s purpose is to offer the convenience of the local craftsman’s workshop at mass-production prices.”

Unto This Last WorkshopDigital technologies can change the economics of small-scale manufacturing.  The Future is Here exhibition last year at the Design Museum, of which Unto this Last was a contributor, characterised the changing boundaries between designers, manufacturers and consumers and new distributed manufacturing techniques as a new industrial revolution.  In fact, Unto this Last was launched in 2001, and CNC (computer numerical controlled) routing is not a new technology, but perhaps the wider interest in micro-manufacturing reflects a confluence of trends: revisiting making things in Britain; a focus on provenance and who is making things; a concern for materials and how things are made.

Our conversation began with Olivier’s definition of the environment.  So often we are bombarded with global definitions, but at Unto this Last, the environment is the workshop, the immediate physical surroundings and conditions in which he and his team work.  Every aspect of design, material choice, production, and delivery is examined through this lens.  Perhaps because the enterprise is so closely connected to its environment, there is an imperative to tread lightly.

boardThe workshop is characterised by 3 principles.  The first is less mass generated by using more data.  Starting from software designed to make aircrafts, it took 6 or 7 years to develop a special biometric format able to adjust to the variations of the wood, and clients’ needs.  Tools that are easy to use, and flexible reduce waste.  Nearly every square centimetre of a standard 2metre plywood board plywood is utilised (see picture).  Small areas are used to make candlesticks, utensils or toys.  The remainder is used for heating, or recycled.

The second principle is optimising logistics.  Digital technology streamlines supply chain management and scheduling.   The local, made to order production process means that there is no overproduction, warehousing or packaging costs (or materials).  Everything is delivered wrapped in blankets within the range of the big electric-van.  And when your clients are local, you take great pride in the quality of your work and care over your choice of materials.  The Latvian birch plywood is from a man-planted forest, where plantation is growing at 10% a year, and certified FSC and PEFC.   To simplify the supply chain products are made with the same material, even down to the hinges, so easily recyclable.  The only metal parts are shelf-pins.

Underpinning both of these principles is a stringent focus on improving productivity and absolute precision.  Influenced by production methods developed in the car industry, assemblies are timed and analysed to ask ‘can we do it better’.  It is an iterative process with feedback revealing a more elegant and efficient dynamic.  So the team at Unto this Last are selected not only for their skill as designers and makers but also for an enquiring mind.   This spirit of enquiry and desire to do it better has relevance and merit far beyond this Brick Lane workshop.

Unto This Last TV Stand bespoke coloursThe third principle is that the workshop is the brand.  From the street, through the shop, the workshop is visible.  Everything is on display, and this literal transparency is integral to Unto this Last’s approach to micro-manufacturing.  Clients are buying the story, and involved in tailoring their piece with a wide choice of finishes.  As the workshop, and process is open, no solvent-based paints are used anywhere in the process (pictured right is a TV stand and colour chart).  The plywoods are laminated in the workshop with impregnated paper, cold-bonded with PVA glue.  The surfaces and edges are finished with hard wax oil from OSMO, a food safe mix of sunflower, soya, linseed and thistle oil with wax.

Unto This Last Kids ChairThe aesthetic is clean, contemporary and sensual.  When I mention Unto this Last, without prompting people remark how they just wanted to touch the furniture.  Servicing a local, loyal clientele necessitates a wide catalogue of products.  The design is inspired by the production process, the environment, and Olivier’s requirement to furnish the needs of a young family (kids table and chair, pictured left).  Every detail is considered.

Unto this Last does more than make joyful products, as they hope their “workshop contributes positively to the life of the city”.  It is an enterprise with a tangible and transparent integrity.  Olivier tells the story with a combination of passion and eloquence, I hope I hear it again in other cities and enterprises.

Photo credits: Unto this Last, except for photo of plywood board, which is mine!