Political vs personal action

Filed in Blog by on April 14, 2010 13 Comments
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Mrs Green debates political action vs personal

Mrs Green debates political action vs personal

Over on the Green Phone booth, Erin, from The Conscious Shopper is asking us how we find the balance between personal and political action.

She’s asked whether personal changes are too small to matter or if people who do only the personal changes are lazy. On the flip side she asks whether people who expect political changes to solve all of our problems are pushing the blame on others instead of taking responsibility and asks if consumer action or citizen action is more important.

As regular readers will be aware, we’ve stepped up our own zero waste challenge this year. During 2009 we created just one dustbin full of landfill waste for the year.

For 2010, our goal is to send zero to landfill.

Campaigning for change

In order to help us fulfil our goal of zero waste to landfill, we’re going to need to talk to manufacturers and campaign for change.

Last year, anything we could not recycle easily went into our bin. We ended up with assorted unmarked plastics from toys and food, along with broken plastic toys, expired disposable pens, crisp packets and toothpaste tubes. The latter two items we have now found solutions for.

This year, with our massive goal of sending nothing to landfill, what are our options?


Number 1 is to boycott the product. This means we vote with our money and say ‘this product is not acceptable to me because I cannot responsibly dispose of it or the packaging after use’. This can work great for myself and Mr Green, but it’s not so easy for a 9 year old.


Number 2 is to contact the retailers or manufacturer, find out what the packaging is and figure out a way to recycle it. This shows manufacturers and retailers that consumers are asking questions about packaging and care about responsible disposal.

Return to sender

Number 3 is to return packaging to manufacturers with a letter explaining why we are doing this and what we want them to do about their packaging in the future.

Can I make a difference?

Two years ago I would have laughed at the idea of number 3 and been self conscious about troubling a manufacturer or retailer with number 2.

Two years ago I would have thought “What difference can I make?” and felt the biggest difference I could make was to boycott a product.

Now I figure I have to find my voice.

Not buying a product won’t get noticed by a manufacturer; I was kidding myself about my power. I am indeed just one consumer out of millions and one less product being sold will undoubtedly go unnoticed. Unless millions of us boycott a product, it isn’t going to make a difference.

Raising awareness

By doing number 2, I might just make someone stop and think. Indeed this has already happened. One manufacturer, when I contacted them about the cellophane used to wrap their products, got hold of his supplier and found out they COULD have been using fully compostable cellophane all along.
I was thanked for raising awareness about this issue and assured that when their current stocks ran out, they would be switching to the more eco friendly packaging option.

That’s one email from one person and it made a difference!

Collective impact

We always, always promote the idea through My Zero Waste that personal changes DO make a difference. They do matter when we have to focus on the potential collective impact of those changes. As we keep saying, if everyone in the UK recycled just one more tin can per week, that would be 60 million tin cans entering the recycling stream and being diverted from landfill.

Baby steps

Our success has come from taking babysteps. We didn’t change overnight, we put one small step into place overnight; namely giving up disposable carrier bags. Next we started to use our kerbside collection box. Next we diverted fruit and vegetable waste from the bin and into the compost heap and so it went on over a period of 18 months.

People are busy; they are working, have kids to look after, have many responsibilities and are time poor; which is why we promote taking things at a pace which is comfortable for you. If you only make a couple of changes, these CAN and DO make a difference.

Parts of the jigsaw

People who criticise what we are doing because we don’t do all aspects of a green lifestyle, well I agree we can’t do everything, none of us can! It occurs to me how we are all like parts of a jigsaw. Each and every one of us here on planet earth. We are all interdependent, needing one another for some things. Able to exist alone for others.

But we all come together to become more than the sum of the parts.

Follow your passion

I think to my friend who doesn’t care what she eats or feeds her children, but will not use a car because it pollutes the air. Then I think to someone else I know who goes on two long haul holidays each year, but meticulously recycles *everything*. Another person buys more new clothes than I buy food, but spends a lot of her time volunteering to make the world a safe place for people. Another drives everywhere, even to the local shop, but only buys fair trade items. I don’t criticise the actions that have a negative impact on the world, I celebrate the fact that we are all doing something.

Changing the world

Together then, these wonderful people who I am honoured to know, are making the world a better place in their own way. Alone, they are seperate jigsaw pieces – pretty to look at, but at risk of getting lost or forgotten. Put them together and they encircle the world with their passions, energies and lifestyle choices. They become something functional, beautiful and perfectly complete. A Unity. A Whole.

When we put together our passions and actions we can literally re-create and change the world……

Personal responsibility

Those who don’t do anything because they feel the responsibility falls onto the manufacture, Local Authority or Government, surely it’s better to be part of the solution than the problem? We all have our part to play and it’s time to get out of the ‘us and them’ mentality and work together to create the changes we want to see in the world.

If we had waited around for things to change, there would be no My Zero Waste website! Sometimes we have to demonstrate the changes we want to see and begin at a grassroots level. Sometimes we have to rise up and make a start, no matter how small.  We don’t need to preach about it, but simply share what we are doing. Enforcing your views on others rarely gets the desired results, but living by example can.

The ripple effect

Never underestimate the ripple effect of your actions – talking to your neighbour, demonstrating to your children, a chance remark in a checkout queue, a post on your blog, a brief encounter at the coffee machine! All of it adds up to significant change and you never know who you will influence. It really is like sowing seeds; some will fall on barren land (deaf ears) and never germinate. Others will flourish for a while, a bit like an annual plant, but many will fall on fertile land, self seed and grow beautifully.

So don’t allow people to put you off, criticise you, tell you your efforts are futile or mock you. Keep on reducing, reusing, recycling, composting and chatting to people who are interested in your endevours because you never know where it will lead. Every day people email me to tell me about the changes they have put in place with regards to their landfill waste. I am so honoured that they choose to share this with me and I’m sure it’s because they know I’m right there with them doing a happy dance!

Finding your voice

If you feel like stepping things up, speak to your MP or retailers, contact your Local Authority, write to manufacturers or indeed wave a banner outside your local council offices – you never know who you might influence or what changes you can bring about.

This post is part of the APLS Carnival. The topic, hosted by Erin from Conscious shopper over at Green Phone Booth is “Which is More Important: Personal or Political Action?”
Be sure to check it out on April 20th to find out what other people think and let me know what you think about this topic. It’s one that comes up time and time again and gets debated regularly.

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (13)

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  1. Karin says:

    we do need political changes, but unless we make the personal changes we can, however small they may seem, politicians, businessmen and others won’t think it’s worth their while to make the bigger changes. If they can see by our lifestyles and choices that we want a greener world and are prepared to do our bit, they will start to think that we will also vote for/buy etc the greener options and it’s worth their while to make them available. Also, if enough people change their behaviour such as stop flying at the drop of a hat (for example) politicians will see there is no need for a third runway at Heathrow or whatever and if we stop buying the less green products manufacturers just won’t bother to make them.

  2. The root of politics IS people: therefore people are politics; no divisive thinking required, no contest allowed.
    We, each and everyone are responsible for it all in a minute or major way. We are one and all the ones who participated in purchasing the planet’s resources, one baby bottle, one tricycle, one vehicle at a time.

    So i particularly like the small steps approach of this article; one bite at a time, we become aware of what we can do and share with family and immediate environment, and work from there. On toward a smarter generation to maintain a sustainable lifestyle in the crowded world we know as the common ground.

    thanks to the Greens for offering creative and concise advice as always. i can digest this after a day’s work and feel comfortable and hopeful..ns

  3. Jane says:

    Everytime you go shopping and buy overpackaged goods you buy into the manufacturers belief that that is what you want. We all need to stop, think and be bothered for a moment to say “No, actually that isn’t what I’ve asked for, that is what I’m having to put up with because I haven’t spoken up or done something to show my dissatisfaction.”

    You can’t do everything but you can do something.

    You won’t necessarily succeed all of the time but you can some of the time and you definitely won’t and can’t if you don’t make that first little effort – that small step.

    Go for it!

  4. sandy says:

    personal is better, if we wait for the powers that be we will wait for ever, because, they cant know what we all want, they dont speak to all of us just a minority. but if we all do just a llittle bit it amounts to alot. also I think MP live in another wolrd, far removed from mine.

  5. Sarah says:


    We each have the responsibility to make changes in our own lives and habits but we also have the responsibility to make larger changes to prepare the way for our children and grandchildren..

  6. Jane says:

    Politicians are always worried about alienating their voters so you get no progress – a stalemate between the two major parties. Supermarkets are always worried about their competition and so aren’t usually brave enough to step out of line and they can’t act together just in case someone suggests that they are running a cartel. (Party political pussyfooting.) Councils are now dominated by party politics as well and so have the same problem. There is also an awful lot of lobbying of politicians by big business going on too – something that the shopper should be aware of.

    So if we don’t want all the packaging to dispose of then we have to stand up ourselves and be counted.

  7. Thanks for participating in this month’s carnival! I thought this was a really beautiful post showing how personal action and political action are intertwined. We can’t do everything all by ourselves, so we all do what we can and every bit counts.

  8. Mrs Green says:

    @Karin: great thoughts, Karin – thank you for leaving them on Facebook too. I think you’re right; ‘ the people’ can certainly lead the way if enough of us join hands.

    @nadine Sellers: Thanks Nadine, it seems we are pretty much on the same wavelength with Karin – showing the way we want things to be …

    @Jane: Thanks Jane for your inspirational message. I agree that supermarkets seem too ‘scared’ for wont of a better word to make a change; they mustn’t be unpopular or alienate customers . It’s a shame really that they don’t have more backbone and see ‘the bottom line’ as the number 1,2,and 3 criteria.

    @sandy: Sandy, you bring up an important point about leading the way so that others know what we want.

    @Sarah: How do you think we can go about making the larger changes, Sarah – do you mean letter writing and campaigning or something else? Would love to hear more on this from you …

    @Erin aka Conscious Shopper: Thanks Erin; it was a great subject and one I hadn’t thought that much about previously; so thank you for the inspiration.

  9. Sarah says:

    @Mrs Green: I’m not sure really, letter writing and basic raising awareness will help but the changes need to be throughout the entire process – from manufacture to consumption. While it’s all well and good being able to recycle and reuse, what we need is less to waste or deal with at the consumer end.

    You Guys do a fabulous job, but you shouldn’t have to. We can vote with our money and with our voices by choosing the products that have less packaging, less waste and use less resources to make/deliver. We can choose the companies that make those choices too. And if enough people do that then the big corporations will start to take notice.

    We can pre-empt that by writing to the big boys (tesco etc) and tell them what we’re doing, what we want and maybe, just maybe they’ll listen.

    I have to go and buy food now, but I’ll come back to this later.
    Much love,

  10. Jane says:

    Recycling instructions from your Council not clear? Don’t grumble – ask the questions and let them know! You won’t be the only one who isn’t sure. You’ll end up much happier with what you are doing and will make it easier for others. However as markets, machinery and processing changes you can expect to have to change what you do as your Council takes out new contracts. So keep up to date with what is on your Council website.

    Know who your Councillors are and find out what areas of interest they have from the Council website. Then you can write/email them if you find you are getting nowhere with the Council.

  11. Jane says:

    But we’re an incredibly self-indulgent nation – we want it all – and someone else to do it all the dirty work for us. Much of the packaging is just for advertising and stacking on shelves – and not for our benefit at all (that’s the bit the manufacturers don’t tell you). We used to know how to cook simple things now it’s not always that we don’t but we no longer have the confidence to and we look at labels. It is only a matter of time before apples have stickers saying ‘this way up’. Hang on, haven’t Innocent already done that with their packaging LOL!

  12. Mrs Green says:

    @Sarah: Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sarah. I think people are tending to feel that it’s not one or the either, it’s everyone working together – that would ensure the best outcomes …
    @Jane: Good suggestions Jane. We all need to make our feelings heard to the right people. And contacting our councils is a good thing to do as public demand will ensure changes happen. I hear you on the packaging; much of it is for convenience and product placement – it’s a tough market out there and everyone wants their share of the pie…

  13. Sarah says:

    @Mrs Green: Absolutely, we have to make changes in our personal lives and habits too, and we have to accept changes as they happen through the big companies where the products we can buy will change and the packaging they come in will change. But although many of us have found ways to deal with the waste shoved at us by companies that leave us to deal with it.

    It needs to be stopped at source so the consumption of finite resources is minimised.

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