Joanna Lumley talks green guilt, sustainable living and how we can all do our bit to look after the planet...
Green guilt is something that affects us all, although few of us admit it.
Among the most common causes of green guilt are buying single-use plastic, wasting food or water, buying takeaway coffees in non-reusable cups and not recycling properly. And COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue, with a quarter of those surveyed citing that disposable masks, sanitiser and PPE have prevented them from reducing household waste.
Enter BRITA and Joanna Lumley, teaming up to ease your worries and turning the key areas of green guilt into their BRITA Greening Good Guide – a handy top 10 list of ways to make small changes and reduce your environmental footprint at home.
‘There is no reason for anybody to be hiding their green guilt,’ insists BRITA ambassador and national treasure, Joanna Lumley. ‘Even the smallest household changes can have the biggest impact. From making and mending clothes, to swapping bottled water to a BRITA filter to get great tasting filtered water from the tap, I want to urge everyone to read the BRITA 10 Steps to Greening Good Guide and do their bit to make a small change which will make a big difference – you’ll feel great for it!’
Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Joanna Lumley to talk about the Greening Good Guide, the campaign (which saw Mary McCartney photograph her in a waste unit) and her advice on ways that we can all live more sustainably.
Tell me about your collaboration with BRITA…
I have been a BRITA user long before our collaboration so I was on completely the same page. It was like preaching to the converted with me. We just wanted to put out this message for people who are feeling guilty that they’re not doing enough, but don’t actually know what to do on an individual level. I love their sweet approach with the Good Greening Guide – changes and steps to free the guilt that we’re not doing enough to save the planet. And it’s the simplest things like to stop buying bottles of water. That’s the first thing you can do. It’s expensive, completely unnecessary and you can’t get rid of it. I would never dream of buying bottled water. Why would you buy bottled water when we get the best stuff in the world out of our taps? We’re a lucky country. We have wonderful water – it’s free, safe, accessible and we ought to be drinking that. And if you don’t like the taste or want to change it, use BRITA. They’ve got everything from filters for taps to little jugs – there are ways of getting around this. So, I was terribly taken by that idea of reaching out to the public and saying ‘Oh darlings, let’s just make a real effort not to use single-use plastic’ because that is what is gradually stifling the planet and we know it doesn’t go away. It’s no use thinking, ‘If I stamp it flat and stick it in a ditch it will go’. It won’t go. We’ve just got to take a little more responsibility and make a bit of an effort. It’s the same with picking up litter – I always do it. Keep a bag in the car or in your pocket and collect rubbish – just half a street. Think, if everybody did just half a street, it would be fantastic.
What are some simple ways people can live more sustainably?
Well, the mantra is reduce, reuse and recycle. So, watch what you buy. If you can (quite a lot of supermarkets do this) you can buy the loose vegetables – they’re exactly the same as the packaged vegetables, but they’re loose. Try to recycle everything you possibly can, so that’s all the tins and things that hold your food – even the little plastic bras that hold avocado pears together, and rinse them out. Never recycle things without washing them. I even rinse out my wine bottle before recycling them – OK so I do buy some things in bottled containers and that’s wine! Be sparing with the things that you use. Switch off lights, take a shower rather than a bath if you can, and if you do have a bath try to share the water. I know a lot of people will go ‘eurgh’, but when I was at school I think about five terribly small children would get into the same bath – one after the other. I’m not suggesting anything as draconian as that, but try to share the bath water. Be careful about the clothes you buy. I darn and sew on buttons and turn up hems, if a seam splits I sew it carefully myself. I take great pride in doing that because I come from a generation where we always did that. We had no money and we couldn’t afford to buy clothes so you had to make do and mend, but there was so much pleasure in doing that! And now when moths have eaten jerseys, either I darn them in a completely different colour or I put a button or a patch over them. I mean, it sounds so twee and I am turning into rather an odd grandmother, but the truth is it’s a nice thing to do and it shows you’ve bothered.
How can we all look after our clothes more?
Respect the things you buy. I was a model in the middle of the swinging sixties and we were rat poor. Even though you had a little bit of money as a model, it wasn’t much and it always came late so you had to look after everything. We wore false eyelashes, and we would wash and rewear them. You wash the mascara off and you roll them around a pencil with a bit of tissue paper to dry. Tights were quite expensive in those days so we would darn the tights so the run wouldn’t go right the way up. I mean, talk about reuse/ recycle, we were just absolutely hellbent on saving and mending clothes and guess what, I’ve still got clothes from those times because I took care of them. I’ve got a Muir coat that I had from the late sixties – a Jean Muir coat – can you imagine that? I still wear it and people go ‘Oh that’s fantastic!’. I can’t think how old that is now – 50 years. Look after and respect the things you buy, hang your clothes up properly, keep your shoes clean and shiny, don’t chuck stuff around and once you respect them, you sort of love them more.
How would you respond to this misconception that little individual changes won’t make a difference?
The little things you do are what’s going to make a huge difference. If everybody did little things, the difference would be stupendous. I’m a vegetarian, but even if you do eat meat, it will make a difference if you can cut down a bit – even if you have one supper a week that is not meat or fish – just one. That may just be one person but then if you multiply that by millions of people, it will have an enormous effect which will mean animals will be bred in better conditions. They will cost a little bit more money but it doesn’t matter if they cost a little bit more money, because you’re not buying so much.
Why do you think people are actively hiding from environmental issues?
I wonder if it’s something to do with the fact that a lot of the nudges and prompts that we get are from our screens. They’re not real so we can turn them off. We look at David Attenborough – we all know he’s god and we adore him and think ‘Oh I couldn’t bear it if that happened’, but he’s on a screen. Even Greta Thunberg is on a screen, so we feel that they’re not really us.
I want schools to start teaching things properly, physically showing people how to sew on a button or how easy it is to clear up, make order and do things nicely. I think schools have got to start this. People say, ‘Oh poor little kids – they shouldn’t have to do that’, but think of Japan where the children go out and sweep the playgrounds every day before they even start school. And where they say a thank you mantra before their lunch – it’s not grace, they just say ‘We are very grateful to have food to eat’. And you just think, what a respectful way of living. Life isn’t anything if you don’t make an effort and I think people have become lazy about this and they just think it’s somebody else’s job to clear it up. ‘I’ve finished with this mask, I’ll just drop it there. Somebody else can pick it up – we pay for street cleaners don’t we?’ Not the way to think. It’s the wrong way to think.
Are you angered by other people’s attitudes towards the environment?
I feel a sense of despair that people go ‘Oh well I can’t do that’. I look at the streets now and they’re absolutely filthy. They’re full of rubbish, stuff discarded, as if people have gone ‘Oh what’s the point?’ They’ve used the pandemic as a rather sinister excuse for doing damn all about things and I think it should be the wake up call. This has been ghastly but it will pass. All great diseases, even massive human horrors like the great Black Death and the terrible Spanish flu (which killed 50 million people) passed, so this will pass as well. What we can’t let pass is that hell is creeping up on earth unless we can do something about it, and the only people who can do something about it are human beings. All the creatures are just living as creatures always did – they are doing their bit. The most destructive (and the most inventive) creatures on earth are human beings, so it is our duty to look after this place and to make plans not to wreck it. We can plan in a way that animal life doesn’t have to. It has its own in-built plans. If a particular region can’t sustain more animals, the cows simply won’t have calves, but we don’t see that. We want everything and because we’re human beings, we’ve been told that it’s our right to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, and that’s got to change.
Can we talk about those Mary McCartney photos in the waste unit?
She’s such a dream – I’ve known her for quite a long time. I met her first when I went down to Paul and Linda’s farm to do some photographs with Linda for Compassion in World Farming, and Mary was a little girl then. Now she’s an extremely good photographer so I was thrilled when I heard that BRITA had engaged her to do these pictures. I loved the idea that they wanted to put through – reading about single-use plastic whilst looking at the waste of single-use plastic and the mounds that it causes – literally you can’t believe how much there is there. You go ‘holy smoke, that’s a lot of plastic’. And in the photographs we just see a fraction of it, and that’s only from Suffolk. I loved the message, the pictures and it was just such a great day. It was cold and it was quite interesting to see all us posh townies in smart kit staggering about in the rubbish dumps. We loved that.
There’s a misconception that cooking sustainably has to mean more expense or effort…
I’ve never understood why people think that cooking should be expensive. The best cooks and the best cuisines in the world have come from the poorest countries. In India for instance (an enormous vegetarian population) – because the food was so scarce, they spiced things beautifully and they took the greatest care. In Italy, out came pasta and pizzas – two of our basics which are fabulous and you can have the humblest dressing of olive oil or pesto on pasta, the pizza you can make yourself – this is poor man’s food made delicious. The French – to be a Bonne Femme (a good housewife) in France, you save everything – you never scrape the plates. You save it all and you put it into soups and stews and guess what, it tastes miles better when you use leftovers so I always do that. Nothing goes to waste.
How can we all use our platforms to make change?
We need to take social media out of the equation completely. What we do individually is what matters. You aren’t what the pictures show you to be on the screen, you are what you DO. You are defined by your deeds, not by your looks, and when we look at the most extraordinary women in history (I’m talking the giants) – the Mary Seacoles, the Florence Nightingales and the Violette Szabos – we know these amazingly brave women by their deeds. So, it’s not how lovely you look, it’s not what you say you’re going to do, it’s not ‘a like’, it’s not putting a tick on something, it’s getting out and doing it. So don’t talk about it, don’t photograph yourself doing it unless you’re going to spread magic and make it the cool thing to do, just do it.
Find out more about the BRITA 10 Steps to Greening Good Guide via their website.