As we are both green minded we were already thinking about how to ensure we minimise our wedding’s environmental impact. However thanks go to Nicole Barton from Cambridge Carbon Footprint who suggested we knock it up a notch and make it a full blown circular economy theme. It seems to have resonated well, with various news outlets covering us after the event.
The following is the meandering personal account of how we put together a circular economy themed wedding. For a more formulaic “how to” guide, please check out the Circular Wedding page.
Before jumping in, I would say that arranging a circular wedding has both environmental and economic (and potentially social) benefits. Note however, since (social) circular economy describes a set of principles, or design boundary conditions, it is necessarily a little harder to put together. That being said, here is how we went about it:
Invites: There were none. Or rather, it was just an email with a link to our wedding website to RSVP. We also had a dedicated circular economy propaganda page, asking folk to think about how they could be more circular in their lives.
Gift registry: Again we didn’t have one. We already have enough stuff and since more than 40% of our carbon footprint is associated with “stuff” it made logical sense to ask for no more. If people felt compelled to give us something, we provided a link to donate to Sarcoma UK, a charity dear to us.
The bulk of the food choice was actually relatively easy to do as I was rather familiar with FoodCycle, a wonderful organisation that really fits within the Social Circular Economy framework. It valorises surplus food picked up from supermarkets to serve up delicious community meals. This means food doesn’t go to waste, supermarkets have less waste disposal costs, volunteers get an opportunity to cook and dish up within a fun team setting and folk in the community, particularly those that are disadvantaged, get a free meal and great company. We enjoyed joining the Cambridge hub for a Saturday morning to support the cooking and knew we had made a great choice. Alex Collis deserves particular praise for all that she does and was very easy to work with.
While FoodCycle took care of the majority of the food needs, we wanted to inject a little of our own heritage into the day – we have British, South African, Japanese and American backgrounds that we wanted to make tributes to. So we spent time looking into local suppliers that could meet these needs and landed on the following:
British: We frequent the Sunday Cambridge market and have long been enamoured by the sweetest strawberries grown in Cambridgeshire by Chris “The Strawberry Guy” (the corner stand nearest Don Pasquale) – so we got 30 punnets delivered the night before. We also had FoodCycle make lovely scones for the dessert.
South African: this is where we went a little astray in terms of being meat-free; hard to do if you know anything about South Africans… We sourced biltong and boerewors from Chapman's the award-winning South African butcher in Baldock - they also do a scrumptious melktert, a classic milk-based tart.
Japanese: a little harder with the dearth of suppliers and an ability to check provenance but we ended up going with Itsu Cambridge for sushi. My mother also whipped up some dorayaki desserts, a childhood favourite.
American: FoodCycle made some Mac n’ Cheese and Apple Pie. We were meant to have a small amount of sliders made with CamCattle meat (the cows on Grantchester Meadows) but unfortunately I was too slow to get it in the fridge and didn’t fancy taking the risk with our guests – I was particularly annoyed at myself for this because it was one of the few “meat cheats” we had and also one of the most environmentally unfriendly.
We rather enjoyed the preparation for this. We were keen to source as local as possible so ended up tasting with increasing radius until things passed our personal “good enough” threshold (we don't pretend to be connoisseurs!).
Wine: Chilford Hall Vineyards about 10 miles from us was first in line; we had a lovely tour but only took a shine to their white Ortega Siegerrebe 2015 - we took a couple cases home for the wedding. The sparkling options didn’t quite cut it so we expanded the radius. We found a lovely sparkling rosé from Dedham Vale (~40 miles away); we decided not to make a potentially unnecessary visit and just got a bottle to taste from M&S before ordering a bunch more. We couldn’t find any vineyards close by with a good white sparkling wine and ended up with the Chapel Down brut (IWSC silver) based in Kent. It may not be a surprise but we never found an appealing English red so we took the reduce option here i.e. eliminated it.
Beer and cider: we went with Lord Conrad’s Brewery based about 5 miles away. The beers taste great and is brewed from local sustainably sourced ingredients. Even the waste water is returned safely. Jon was also a thoroughly nice chap and easy to work with. He also sourced our cider for us from the Cambridge Cider Company (Much Merriment and Strawberry Cider).
Other: we stuck with Pimm’s, Cambridgeshire apple juices (Watergull Orchards) and local gins for something harder.
ON THE DAY
We wanted an informal and fun wedding in a natural setting (both for ambience and energy burden) so we couldn’t think of a better place than the historic Orchard Tea Garden which is just around the corner from us in Grantchester. We chose the zero emission transport mode of a flotilla of 13 punts laden with aforementioned local food, booze and guests, floating the party upriver in brilliant sunshine. We arranged for the punts to be returned by cutting a deal with students – we would cover the hire costs for them to enjoy punting back from Grantchester as long they ensured the punts’ safe return; win-win.
On arrival we were greeted by music played by family and friends, alternate duet sets of violin-cello or flute-piano. English sparkling wine and FoodCycle canapes were available as folk got stuck into a variety of hired or repurposed garden games. The undoubted winner of these was a nod to my Japanese heritage in the form of giant sumo suits which proffered many rambunctious battles. Decorations were limited to bunting made from recovered textiles from Cambridge Community Scrapstore (now being reused in our garden) and a shelf and mirror from Emmaus used to liven up the food serving area (now being reused at home.) Again, these organisations both social circular enterprises i.e. help society using circular economy. We considered a walk to forage wild flowers the day before but with all the running about involved, we decided to leave this out.
Dinner was also a relaxed affair, a get-it-when-you-want buffet as guests continued chatting and playing outside. As the sun set, we made a short two-part speech – one promoting the circular economy including supplier details and another thanking those that were with us and those not. This part was the only time we used artificial lighting during the day as we then started the silent disco. This was something we were keen on for several reasons:
The oxymoronic silent music took us through to midnight, only interrupted by FoodCycle pizzas around 2230 to provide calories for continued vigorous dancing. We ended the night by doling out favours by FoodCycle - lovely chutneys from recovered food and rejected M&S gingerbread men due to the lack of eyes. That capped off a long but thoroughly enjoyable day – hopefully portending many more for our married life!
On entering the building, we were very warmly greeted by the ladies of Grupo de Maes - there was a very obvious warm energy and mutual caring between the two groups.
Grupo de Maes stemmed from a sewing course given by a local cultural NGO (OCA – Escola Cultural). It became evident that this was a common theme in Brazil - an enterprising group taking skills they’d learnt from a social investment and spinning out into a business of sorts. In this case, a collective of seamstresses had been upskilling over a number of years, including obtaining funding to share cultural experiences and skills with other groups across Brazil. One area they had become strong in is the embroidery from the Pernambuco region in the north east of Brazil. Traditionally, it was produced by slaves based on European stylings – one of the techniques was even named after Louis XIV.
Some of Grupo de Maes' handiwork
Ecotece has been helping Grupo de Maes to become more commercially savvy, move to more sustainable inputs and access brands and markets. For example, they have been pushing the women to move from incredibly delicate but time-consuming designs to new ones that are far quicker to produce (per given unit area). This brings the costs down to make it viable for brands to source from them. Typically a 10cm by 10cm piece was easily taking 2 hours, through simplification, enlargement and iteration, they were getting down to 30-45 mins. The most difficult part of this change was behavioural because the Grupo de Maes women felt they were making far less intricate and beautiful designs – ‘selling out’ essentially. Ecotece helps to manage this transition and also supports with basic electronic record keeping and process mapping.
Prototyping new designs (note upcycling dog food packets for the base fabric!)
Today was an important showcase day with the visit of Fernanda Yamamoto, a very well-known designer and brand who had been particularly taken with Grupo de Maes' embroidery. She was interested to see the updated embroidery and the environment where the women worked. She arrived shortly after us with her team and then we were all treated to a tour of the building and an extensive review of the various products – first the older intricate designs, and then reluctantly the newer formats. There was much discussion of the history, approach, process and challenges of various pieces – a lot of which was lost on me partly due to my fashion inexperience and my lack of Portuguese. Cecile from Ecotece as ever was very helpful in giving a running commentary.
Show and tell about OCA, Grupo de Maes and their embroidery work
Tour of the building
This show and tell then lapsed into a tour of the rest of the building owned and ran by OCA who support youth education and women in the community. The building was of a lovely open design acting as a community hub for local children and mothers to relax, learn and be creative - it is of a somewhat haphazard construction which suited the organised chaos of kids running around having fun. It resides on a heritage site just down a gentle slope from the best preserved Jesuit village in Brazil dating back to 1580. The building itself is extremely fit for purpose with large open spaces for activities, maker spaces, a library, kitchen and a long series of wardrobes to keep all the various costumes for the children. Further, the building itself was an example of social circular economy with the majority of the construction being produced from donated telegraph poles from the nearby town of Itu. Luckily, the founder of the organisation was a professor at the architecture department at FAU-USP, a university in Sao Paulo. He well understood the design requirements for using reused materials and the need to construct something that was appropriate to the surroundings and respect the heritage of the site.
Surrounding area: around the building, Jesuit village (including upcycled art) and local area
Then to cap off the tour, we walked up to the Jesuit village and then to the local park. Interestingly, a park of this nature would not usually survive in such good condition in most favela/periferia areas as they tend to be exploited (understandably), typically as illegal landfill sites or habitation. Being part of or at least adjacent to the heritage site likely helped it stay relatively untouched.
We ended the day back in the OCA building with a traditional “lanche”, afternoon snacks of coffee, corn cakes, bread and other knickknacks. I was variously poked by laughing kids at this point who wanted to test (shout?) English greetings – as good as my Portuguese.
It was a lovely day, getting to see the community and observe how Ecotece works on a typical day. A big thanks to Cecile Petitgand of Ecotece who has been unendingly helpful with translations, connections and general pointers.
As I begin my Churchill Fellowship trip, I wanted to address the incongruence between the sustainable practices I’m exploring and the fact that travel, particularly intercontinental travel, makes a huge contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. While some of the mitigating actions I’m taking are small, orders of magnitude smaller in some cases than say a flight from London to Sao Paolo, sticking to those principles can have large effects over time. Here it is about demonstrating principles.
My aim is to perform some carbon mapping during and post trip so that I can report the footprint of my travels so watch this space!
Most of my flights have been booked through Diversity Travel who support Fellows to find the best deals. Diversity provides carbon offsets for their flights – while there is a lot of debate over the effectiveness and appropriateness of carbon offsets, as long as it doesn’t provide an excuse for more travel, my sense is it is better to do than not. Flights are likely to be the vast majority of my footprint and thus the final amount of CO2 will very much depend on the assumption/perspective one takes on the carbon offset. I’m waiting on Diversity to send me their policies so I can delve into the exact details and pass some comment on this…
I will aim to keep land travel to public transport to share my emissions with many others. When practicality dictates, I will try to use Uber or the ilk in keeping with one of the key tenets of the circular economy: maximising the utilisation of assets.
Similarly to the above, I will be using AirBnB / house shares as part of maximising the utilisation of assets. Again, I know there have been unintended consequences e.g. San Francisco, but my view again is that the social impact is neutral and the environmental impact of not building big hotels and resorts are positive.
From a utilities usage perspective, I will generally be out and about so I will not be in the accommodation much meaning my power and water needs will be small. I cannot control my source of electricity (fossil fuel versus renewables) so I will assume a worst case scenario when I come to calculate.
As an aside, if I were to buy iPads and a lot of textiles from virgin resources, then this category could rival the Flights category for carbon footprint due to the large associated extraction energy (without even considering the depletion of material stock). I’m sure I will succumb to one or two souvenirs in the end but I’m more than happy to walk away with memories (sometimes snapped by my camera).
Food, drink and other consumables…
Local sourcing is generally a good rule of thumb. However, it becomes very tricky very quickly – consider growing a tomato in a greenhouse with heating and lighting in the UK versus sourcing from Spain – the carbon calculations will most likely show that the foreign veggies are better for the environment. The New Zealand lamb industry like to point out that their lamb is less burdensome to the planet even when eaten in the UK when compared to Welsh lamb, due to the efficiencies in farming practices which outweigh the travel footprint (I’ll let the reader look through the data and decide for themselves!). The trick is to stick in season with your local area – don’t buy fresh strawberries in December in the UK, but go wild in May/June. The implication for me is that I will have to learn what food is in-season wherever I go! Luckily, I’ll be in rather fertile lands meaning that I shouldn’t be limited to turnips.
The above categories cover the main contributors to my footprint and will be something I keep a record of as best I can while tripping, with the intention of collating it all at the end to show the environmental impact. I’ll try to aim low!
I happened to be in Belfast to meet a good friend from my New York days - we hired a car to go up the coast to the Giant’s Causeway, a thoroughly recommended trip in my view
Photos from the road
Coincidentally, I had come to hear about an innovative model being operated by the East Belfast Mission so we took a small detour before we headed up the coast. We parked up in a side street in a rather deprived area that had some striking political murals like the more famous ones on the other side of the city
East Belfast Murals
I was met by Gary Robb, Centre & Development Manager at the SKAINOS Centre which is a state of the art facility operated by EBM since 2012 hosting other community support organisations like New Life Counselling, Tear Fund and Age NI. Gary was kind enough to tell me more about the local context, EBM’s work and in particular how it extracts value from the circular economy.
The local area of Ballymacarrett of East Belfast is particularly socially deprived having been decimated by the decline of the shipping industry resulting in high unemployment and homelessness. EBM continue to play its historic role since the 1800s of supporting and regenerating the community through a variety of activities including outreach, homeless support, employability training, day care, cheap access to community spaces and a community café. A small but poignant symptom of the pressures of the area’s deprivation was highlighted in the café – I noticed that we were only given disposable cutlery and our hot drinks were provided with just the milk required. This was because unfortunately there was a tendency for proper metallic cutlery and jugs of milk to go missing.
EBM operate a triple bottom line i.e. social, environmental and financial objectives for their business arm (‘social economy projects’) that help the sustainability of the social projects. They run several ventures that showcase the circular economy through the social enterprise model, going to market with a nice suite of brands:
Refresh and Restore (including some Refurb, Recycle and Repaint products)
Beyond this EBM provide cheap access to high quality facilities i.e. sharing economy:
Employment project poster, chapel and sports hall for hire and therapeutic garden
It was great to see the excellent work EBM was doing, delivering social and financial value from the principles of the circular economy. Thanks to Gary for his time and sharing his insights.
I was lucky enough recently to have a chance to visit Ruth’s Reusable Resources (or 3R’s) in Portland, Maine and have a tour by the gregarious founder Ruth Libby, who was very accommodating and kind considering I dropped in unannounced.
3R’s has the mission of supporting schools with access to surplus business supplies meaning all manner of things from tables and chairs through to printing paper and coloured card for arts and crafts. To date, the organisation has managed to match Maine schools with around $58m worth of stuff that would otherwise have ended up most likely in landfill!
Social: with school budgets squeezed, there is always cost pressure to reduce ‘non-essential’ items like books, crafts’ supplies and stationery in preference for staff salaries, maintenance and repairs, and so on. As a school governor myself, I’m all too aware of this challenging balancing act that needs to be made within budgets. From the teacher’s perspective, if the district does not provide these materials, they will often spend out-of-pocket to procure the supplies for their students. Further, teachers are busy with lesson planning, teaching and marking, meaning having to go to multiple locations to procure items for classes can become an onerous task that affects work-life balance or instead be skipped to the detriment of the learning experience.
Environmental: Be it a corporate rebrand, lack of storage space for newer (‘shinier?’) items, new packaging/product specifications, minor blemishes, relocation, overly conservative ‘use by’ dates or any number of other reasons, businesses are prone to generating a huge amount of ‘waste’. All of these relatively rational behaviours create a depressing amount of ‘waste’ which would in most cases be landfilled. For example Ruth showed me buckets of top quality pencils that were surplus to requirements because the eraser on the end can harden over time and the manufacturer does not want to sell these to customers and damage its premium branding and reputation.
Provide a very affordable one-stop shop (or is it ‘warehouse’?) of stuff so that every child has the variety and quality of supplies to succeed in school. Further, allowing all these items to be picked up efficiently and without having the pressure of budgeting carefully on each trip means teachers can incorporate all the teaching aids they want to improve the learning experience.
For the environment, the model redirects a huge amount of items for reuse. When this is not possible, items can be disassembled and repurposed, and as a backstop recycled – only a very small proportion of items are not recyclable (typically certain plastics).
Ruth was often asked by her son’s school for arts and crafts supplies to enrich the learning experience – luckily she is not one to throw things away and was often able to meet their needs. Things changed considerably when she heard about a lady elsewhere in the country taking business surplus to give to schools and realised that she could take her own regular donations to the next level. That was 22 years ago, and since then she has scaled up her operations to be the biggest in the country. This took 3R’s from her basement to a classroom at a local school through to a multi-storey gymnasium. The last big step up was when the gymnasium was to be sold, Ruth managed to hustle a warehouse for purchase with kind support from Unum (an insurance company) who gave her a knock-down price for it and even help getting hold of financing. Further, she was also able to get volunteers to build her a wall to create a Teachers Store within the premises to really make it fit for purpose.
Businesses (primarily) donate surplus stuff for schools. 3R’s then provide the value-adding step of sifting through it, disassembling, sorting and recycling the items. For example, they may strip down a single child face painting pack and collate it so that brushes are kept with brushes, etc. into bulk stock. This provides far more opportunity for the items to be taken by teachers who may otherwise not be able to access the lone paintbrush within a packaged item. These processed items are then either kept in stock in the warehouse or move through to the front Teacher Store. Teachers at Member schools can then come and pick what they want from the store for their classes – albeit within a sensible limit so they don’t walk away with the whole store!
Teachers come into the store and pick up a sign-out sheet that has 58 categories of items with estimated monetary values associated with them – the teachers go around the store picking out the items they would like into a shopping trolley and noting down on their list that they hand in at the end. This system allows 3R’s to make sure someone does not walk away with too much in one go and also allows tracking of the value provided to the Maine school system. Further, 3R’s is currently unable to take full inventory records of items that come into the warehouse due to all the work involved and the lack of expensive digitised inventory systems, so it concentrates on the outflow.
3R’s rely on a network of great volunteers that help with all the back office activities. For income, the model relies on a small per student membership fee of $3 from participating schools. This is supplemented by donations typically from those that see the great benefits 3R’s brings and where possible, Ruth tries to add some grant funding and sponsorship.
Ruth took me around the giant 2,000 square metre warehouse with towering shelves going up to the ceiling. I was struck by just the sheer volume and variety of things that her team were saving from going to landfill - wandering down these darkened aisles, it was somewhat reminiscent of a temple to Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle…
As we walked around, the amount of thought and detail behind some of the activities going on became evident - as we turned one corner a volunteer was disassembling something, around another a team of three were chatting over rock music sorting through various piles of things. Some examples:
After meandering through the warehouse we entered the immaculate Teacher Store, beautifully ordered and layout clearly thought through. As Ruth showed me around, she could not hide her underlying meticulousness and pursuit of excellence that has built the organisation, correcting any minor deviations from perfection - from a slightly misaligned tub of pens to a small piece of leftover packaging, these were Ruth-lessly rectified.
We concluded the tour by returning to the great aisles of reuse where we encountered a map of similar organisations loosely affiliated each other across the country. Ruth’s was the biggest operation in the country – although I would not be surprised if it’s the biggest in the world...
Many thanks to Ruth for a great lowdown and tour, especially due to the unplanned nature of my visit.
I've been mulling for some time how the circular economy approach might be married to the social enterprise model. The more I looked around, the more I realised there's a lot of it about but not always obvious or at large-scale. I also found that a lot of exciting models were to be found outside the UK, perhaps because elsewhere they better understand that 'waste', with a bit of ingenuity, can in fact be a resource rather than a liability.
To explore the 'social circular economy' further, I need to speak with and observe those that are practicing it. The more I learn, the better I will be able to articulate what it is that makes their operations sustainable (in multiple ways!) and therefore be able to spread that knowledge around. My goal is to develop the tools and frameworks to help people transition from linear to circular, all the while supporting society to thrive.
Travel to learn – return to inspire...