A life stripped bare

I recently finished reading the book, “A life stripped bare”. The author, Leo Hickman, is a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and this book came about after his employer set him the challenge of trying to see if he and his family could live more ethically over the course of a year.


He began his experiment by inviting three auditors into his home, to assess his family’s green credentials. The auditors consisted of a director of Friends of the Earth, the founder of the Planet Organic shops in London and a researcher at Ethical Consumer magazine. These three people went through Leo’s home, pulling things out of his kitchen cupboards, reading the labels on cleaning products and probing him about all aspects of his lifestyle. As I read the book I felt mighty glad that nobody was rifling through my cupboards in a similar manner, but some of the what they said was certainly relevant to me.

I admire people who make big changes to their lives in order to lower their carbon footprint or try to live in a more community minded way. My brother Fergus, who went missing in September, was one such person. On his website he recorded his thoughts about a variety of ethical concerns, some of which caused him a great deal of mental anguish. He suffered from depression, and in his darker moments felt overwhelmed by the huge scale of many of the world’s problems. He didn’t just worry about them, however, but made a concerted effort to do something practical in response. A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of him. It also made me think more about which aspects of ethical living instinctively appeal to me, and which I’d find much harder to take on board. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing, for example, that I don’t know where my bank invests its customers’ money, or if the companies I choose to interact with have a poor track record when it comes to human rights or environmental issues. Those things should matter to me, but because they don’t impinge on my day to day life I find it easy to put them to the back of my mind.

On the reverse cover of the book are the following three questions:

How often in life does convenience triumph over ‘doing the right thing’?

Can you really make a difference?

What does ‘ethical living’ mean anyway?

I now have a better idea of how to answer those questions for myself and I imagine most people would agree, in theory at least, that it’s worth trying to live more ethically by making choices that cause less harm to ourselves, to others, and to the local and global environment. An interesting aspect of the book is the inclusion of letters that were sent to Leo from all over the world. Although he did receive a few discouraging messages, the majority of correspondents were positive and encouraging.

The main message I took away was that although none of us can do everything to solve the world’s problems, we can each do something, and something is better than nothing. As Leo Hickman says, “you can’t save the world single-handedly, but you can make more of an effort than you did yesterday.”

I think I have now become more aware of what is meant by ‘ethical living’. If all we do initially is to give a bit more thought to our actions, we’ll be in a better position to have a positive effect on society. I hope I can not only keep that message at the forefront of my mind, but get into the habit of applying it in practical ways. I don’t think this book would have had the same impact on me had I not witnessed first hand someone deliberately living as ethically as they could. For that, I have Fergus to thank. Unfortunately, I can’t tell him about this in person but it’s a comfort to know that he’s left such a positive legacy.


26 thoughts on “A life stripped bare

  1. Interesting post Lorna. There is so much that we all could and should do. My generation are probably the worst. But I do sense these priorities becoming increasingly important in our society and world.

    • That’s very true, David, there is so much that we could do. In fact, the overwhelming nature of what needs doing is often what puts people off doing anything, I’m sure. You have to break it down into manageable chunks and not load yourself up with guilt for not doing more. As you say, these issues are gaining more prominence, which I think is a good thing. If today’s children are brought up with an understanding of the importance of such things it could make a positive difference to society in the future.

  2. It breaks my heart about your brother Fergus . I have witnessed depression in my mother , my husband and myself . It’s a crippling illness . Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all did one ethical thing tomorrow that would change the world in a tiny personal way …so your brother and people like him will always have a voice .

    • Thank you Cherry and I’m very sorry to hear about the depression in your family. It can indeed be a crippling condition, although thankfully it’s becoming better understood and some treatments do seem to work for some people. It’s encouraging to think that if we all make small changes a big change can be effected, and I do think it’s possible if enough people think the same way.

  3. Very interesting indeed – I could spend hours responding to this article but I have a property shoot to edit and its 1830 already 😉 life seems to drives us forward – it is not until we get breathing space or the wind is taken out our sails that we pause and reflect. I believe you can make a small difference but perhaps only to a few people. I hope I can do the right thing if faced with such a choice – but I also know I am human and will not achieve all I want. A bit of a rambling response sorry.

    • That’s true, Scott, it’s very easy to sail along without thinking about this sort of thing most of the time. Even if you do only make a small difference to a few people, I think it’s better to do something than nothing. After all, the few people you do help will appreciate it. As for only being human and not achieving all you might want to achieve, Leo Hickman felt exactly that frustration and I think we probably all do.

  4. Some very valid points here, Lorna, and I could not answer some of those questions. It is good that banks and companies are having to answer more for their actions. I think one of the blessings of ‘immediate’ media is our ability to get at information like this, because even 20 years ago it would have been unavailable, or it would have been thought that consumers had no business to ask.

    • That’s a good point, Jo, the sort of information we might want is certainly more available now. Social media does a lot to get the word out, although there wouldn’t be anything to spread about if it weren’t for the people who have been willing to campaign for more freedom of information and are determined to get at the truth. It can’t be easy getting hold of the sort of information that big multinationals want to conceal.

  5. This is quite a difficult one, I feel. There are perhaps some tiny things that everyone can do, different things for different people, which don’t interfere with everyday living too much. But it is a tough call to deliberately make decisions which may lead to being kind of cut off from things which most of our western society enjoy, whether it is because they are out of reach, physically or metaphorically, or whether it is that you are investing so much more time in your actions than other people and therefore have far less time to use on other activities. Which can be pretty rough in our global 24 hour society where you are expected to deliver regardless of your circumstances.

    As for finding out what my bank is up to, or perhaps my insurance company, or my utility companies, well, it isn’t helping that all of them are relying on delivering to their share holders, as are almost all of the global corporations we are dealing with nowadays. And that they keep a substantial portion of their activities out of the headlines and out of view. They breed greed and a need to cut cost wherever possible, leading to many of the unethical practises which cause the kind of inequality we see in the world today. What is the point if I switch from one to another, then to another, and to another again, they are almost all the same in the end, all it does is cause me hassle.

    I could go on and on, but ultimately, the difference that one person can make is minutely small. The only reason why I still try in various parts of my life, is to give myself the satisfaction about doing something. It would be good if everybody did, but the fact is that isn’t going to happen as it means sacrifice of some kind or another and folk are often not prepared to do that. So, sadly, the way it looks to me, I can try all I like, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference, but it will inconvenience me. Sad state of affairs.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Sonja. It is a trade-off, as you say, and we can’t all do everything. Running a car, for example, is one of the issues that was raised in the book. Leo Hickman, the author, lives in London with a well integrated public transport network on his doorstep and where car use is largely unnecessary. One of the things he was most proud of was not caving in to the pressure to own a car. That’s good, but for people who don’t live in a big city and whose public transport options don’t meet their needs, it’s a completely different story. There’s no railway network near me and although there are buses, the service isn’t that frequent, it takes a lot longer than driving and it’s considerably less convenient. As for banks, Leo Hickman had a bit of trouble with that one because there are so few ethical choices, but there are in fact a small number of banks who are very open about their investment strategies and pledge never to invest in certain areas, such as armaments. With his mortgage he opted to move to a provider that wasn’t necessarily the most ethical, but was able to compete with his current lender’s rates while also having a better ethical record. That was a compromise he made, and you could argue that there was little point in it but he felt he had at least made an informed choice.

      I agree with you that it’ll never be the case that everybody tries to make ethical choices, but I think that if enough people do then it can make a difference. One small example is to support local enterprises. Buying my vegetables from the local farm shop rather than Tesco doesn’t mean Tesco is going to go out of business, but if enough people do the same thing it might mean that my local shop will continue to flourish rather than going under. The farm shop buys its produce locally and sells seasonal fruit and vegetables, thus cutting out massive amounts of air miles and supporting British farmers. It also places an emphasis on organic production, which is arguably better for society and the environment than conventional growing methods. There is the question of cost with this method of shopping, but how often do people succumb to offers in supermarkets, buying things they don’t really need or even want because it’s on special offer? The amount of food purported to be wasted by people being lured in by these offers is horrendous. I’ve sometimes told myself I’m not going to be seduced by any offers, but when I get to the supermarket it’s not so easy to resist. Recycling is another thing we can do that does make a difference, particularly with materials such as aluminium which is expensive and environmentally damaging to produce from raw materials, and very much cheaper and vastly less polluting to recycle. It can become overwhelming when you think of the scale of the problems and how little one individual’s actions count for, but the more commonplace such actions become, the more people will do them as a matter of course and eventually, I believe, we can make a positive difference. I must add that I think the hassle factor is an important one. Like many other people, if something is too big a hassle then I’m not likely to do it. Most people are only going to make changes that will fit into their lifestyles, but the easier those things become the more likely we are to do them. My local council collects food waste and recycles it into compost, which members of the public can then collect from the local dump for using in their garden. I think that’s a great example of recycling benefiting people, as well as the environment.

      • I agree with you, Lorna, on all your points and I wasn’t implying that I don’t care, because I do, al lot. I try my bit, I recycle, I don’t buy new clothes everytime the retailers put new ranges on their shelves, I repair where possible, and for a long time we have struggled with one car. I don’t think we could do without a car, even where I live, and still lead a reasonably fulfilled life. I know some folk who do, but even they have to resort to hiring cars and are also penalised by having to pay extortionate train fares. We resisted the second car for a long long time, but when work gets intense and public transport is unreliable there really is no choice. I mean you still have to get to the railway station and back, you could do it all on foot or by bus but what time do you get up in the morning, you still have to sleep. So I drove my other half every morning, every night, just so I could still have the one car to do everything else that needed doing, including looking in on his ill father in the nursing home at least once a day. We were both so worn out, we needed the second car or someone’s health would have given way. I feel quite a hypocrite for it, but life in this century doesn’t allow the slower pace it used to be back in the day, sadly.
        The recycling comes naturally, I don’t view that as going out of my way to do my bit, but I know many other people do. I would love to get my fruit and veg in a local shop, I used to all the time when I was in Germany. Unfortunately the ones around here don’t believe in growing organic much, and I will not buy conventionally grown if I can help it. So back to Tesco’s (sadly very limited) range it is 😦 unless I want to a 45 minute round tour every couple of days to stock up, or further still. I find this immensely frustrating. My efforts of growing my own veg are not yet particularly accomplished enough to rely on them but I keep trying.
        Personally, since coming back to the UK for good I have had to take a million steps back as far as healthy and ethical living is concerned because the infrastructure is just not there, not where I stay, at any rate. Everything you try, there are boulders placed in your way and it is disheartening over time to the point where I question myself why I bother. When my son was younger I accompanied him to school once, we went on bikes so he could do his cycling proficiency. He was almost run of the road by ignorant car drivers in the process. I haven’t been on my bike since, and yet, in Germany, I did everything on my bike. All my shopping, son in child seat, shopping in pannier bags and handle bar basket. There were cycle paths on the busier roads, not that not having them would have been an issue as the roads were wide enough to accommodate bicycles without car drivers getting frustrated. And here? They have yet to learn to plan ahead, everything is just built for the moment and for the benefit of the lobby group that shouts the loudest at the time.
        I guess what I am trying to say is that behaving ethically is hard work (well except for the recycling maybe), it costs money, it is tiring and very often disheartening. Especially when I then have to listen to folk ridiculing it. Your brother has my full admiration for playing his part given that his depression must have made things difficult indeed for him.

        • I could tell that you cared about it, Sonja, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to take many steps backwards after the benefits of life in Germany. I know many European countries put Scotland and the UK to shame, and I wish we had a better attitude to these things, but change is coming, albeit agonisingly slowly. Public transport in Scotland leaves a lot to be desired. For a while I lived in Dunfermline and worked in Edinburgh and I remember often standing on a freezing cold platform waiting for a train that was frequently late and sometimes cancelled without warning. Every day people had to stand on the train because there were so few seats, and yet we were all paying the same price for a ticket. The poor service was frequently depressing, but at least I had the highlight of crossing the Forth Rail Bridge twice a day. That almost made up for everything else. 🙂

          If you need a car, you need a car, and sometimes you need more than one in a family. I don’t think people should be made to feel guilty about car ownership but it’s good to think about alternatives when they’re feasible. I’m often tempted to take the car when I could walk, for example, but I would still want to have my own transport for other occasions. As for bicycles, I’m ashamed of the attitude we have to road use in this country. Not only in terms of bikes, but also pedestrians. Many of the roads around me have no pavements beside them or anywhere for pedestrians to walk. I think that’s very short sighted, not to mention hazardous for cyclists who have no alternative but to cycle on the main road.

          Have you seen the news about segregated cycle lanes proposed for London? There’s an article about it here, if you’re interested: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2015/jan/28/londons-cycling-superhighway-may-inspire-similar-schemes-across-the-uk. I know that’s just London, and it’s taken a ridiculously long time for it to even be proposed, but it looks to me like change for the better which might well spread out to other parts of the UK. One of the infuriating things about Britain, as you say, is that things like this seem to take such an inordinately long time to come about. Is this only happening in London because so many cyclists have been killed or injured? Thankfully, I don’t think Boris Johnson will let it drop, but we have so few politicians who seem concerned about these things.

          I agree with you that trying to live ethically can be be hard work, unreasonably expensive and often disheartening. If it seems that hardly anyone else is making an effort and politicians aren’t interested in making changes for the better, why bother running yourself ragged by going against the tide? It’s often that way when society needs to make big changes. The people who’re at the coal face, so to speak, the ones who start it all off and get the momentum going, are those who have the greatest struggle. Without them, things wouldn’t change. I don’t think of myself as in any way an ecowarrior, I don’t put myself out as I probably should do, but I can see that other people are doing that and so I want to support them in some way. That’s why I think it’s important not to give up.

          • An interesting article about the cycle lanes in London, not quite what I am used to from Germany, but it is another positive way of integrating bicycles into traffic. Not that I see much hope of it setting an example for Elgin and such like as the space is just not available for it. We have, for one specific Government or Europe funded, I can’t remember which, cycle route, a part of which runs through town, lines painted onto roads that are already too narrow for two lane traffic, indicating a cycle lane, which is no wider than a normal street gutter. Sigh.
            When, in reality, all we need, is an attitude change, and quit this everlasting war between pedestrians, bicycles and cars. We are all in this together, aren’t we? A little give and take would go a long way.

            As for ethical living, which I must admit I never attributed the word ethical to, to me it is just about being considerate to others, even if it is in a roundabout way, I am not about to give it up. Like you, I do my bits and bobs, I could and should no doubt do much more, and hopefully, over time, people will be better and better informed and willing to come on board with whatever much or little they can offer. Bless your brother for being such an inspiration to you.

            • I can imagine your frustration and I completely agree, a bit of give and take would go a long way. You’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment about being considerate to others. If we all did a bit more of that we’d naturally find ways of living more ‘ethically’. It’s a pity it’s taken me this long to appreciate my brother’s efforts but I’m glad I can be inspired by them now.

  6. I do try but my effort is only a drop in the ocean. After reading your post I will try harder. If people just made the change to use small businesses rather that the big chains that would make a bit of a difference and not a huge change to their lifestyle.

    • That’s true, Heather, using small businesses is something many of us can do to make a difference. Each of us can only make a tiny difference, and it might seem so small as not to be worthwhile, but if enough of us do it then the overall effect will be greater. I completely agree with you on the lifestyle question. If changes cause too big an upset to our lifestyle then we’ll be put off making them, but there are things we can do that won’t be too big an inconvenience, and I think it’s worth focussing on those at least.

  7. Three very poignant questions, Lorna. The book sounds as though it has the potential to be life changing for its readers. I think we all need to seriously consider what footprint we leave on this beautiful planet of ours. I’m so sorry there has been no news of your brother. I just can’t imagine. xx

    • Thank you, I think that at the very least if we consider our impact then that’s something. What’s become so damaging is the throwaway lifestyle we’ve got used to in the west, where we don’t even think about the impact of our actions. Just a little more thought might cause us to make better decisions that could have a positive effect in the long run.

  8. Such an interesting post, Lorna, thank you. I found it very uplifting. It’s true that modern life is very complex and we constantly have to make difficult decisions. Our family tries to make ethical choices, and I’m glad that we bank with a bank that draws the line at investing in armaments, for example. But it can be very easy to go through life with a cloud of guilt over your head about the decisions you have to make on a daily basis. I do support local businesses when I can – but our local shop doesn’t sell organic milk or petrochemical-free cleaning products, so I order those online or drive to a big supermarket. And the car – our unwell daughter would be completely housebound without our car, even though we live in an urban area with good public transport. I have just given her some raspberries for breakfast, to try to help her immune system. I know they are not local! So it’s such a trade-off, all the time.

    However, I do believe that when we can opt for the ethical choice, it makes a difference. You only have to look at how many fewer plastic bags have been given out in Scotland since they introduced the 5p charge! I hope in a few years’ time that the sight of a plastic bag caught high up in a tree will be a rarity.

    It’s nice to read about your brother Fergus and his accomplishments. I hope you will feel free to write more about him, if you are that way inclined. Do we ever appreciate our loved ones enough? I’m pretty sure we don’t!

    • It sounds as if you’re very aware of the choices you make, Christine. That’s great and I hope I can start to do that more myself now. It’s a good point about the plastic bags, I think the 5p tax was an excellent idea and it seems to have worked well in other countries so why not here? Presumably, plastic bag litter will decrease the longer we have the tax in place, which can only be a good thing. Of course, a car is an important part of your life, as it is for so many people. I didn’t drive when I lived in Edinburgh and I think if I moved back there I would seriously consider not having a car, but it’s extremely useful where I am at the moment, particularly for ferrying the delightful assistants about.

      I wasn’t initially intending to write about Fergus, but the book did make me think of him a lot. My dad and I are still attending to his business and it’s quite an eye opener. We knew he was a member of many ethical organisations and donated to several charities, but the sheer number of them has been astonishing. It seems he gave most of his money away to good causes, quietly without fanfare.

  9. Lorna, I so appreciated your insights in your blog post. The world woes can be so overwhelming, but you have inspired me today to keep making small steps. I truly do believe that we each can make a difference…one small step at a time. Living ethically is motivating for me…I think too many thing there are “grey areas” when it comes to ethics…I worked for a most ethical company for decades…that’s one of the key reason I stayed, they always reminded us that “there is no right way to do something wrong…and in the end, all you have is your integrity”… so, we recycle when at all possible, we help others as a way of life, we buy organically if we can afford it..and grow our own (or at least try)…we turn lights off when we leave a room…there are so many little things that when millions do them at least do no harm.
    I am happy to know that you have good memories of your brother, although, I am constantly saddened for you and your family with his going missing. I pray you get to find him… thanks for the book review…very insightful.

    • Thank you, Linda. The book inspired me to believe that small steps can make a difference, too. The difficulty is often that the sheer scale of the problems can be overwhelming and make you wonder if anything you do really will achieve anything. I’m glad to hear that Mars (I take it it was Mars you meant?) has such a good attitude towards ethical issues, I wouldn’t have known that. I think people tend to assume that any big company must be unethical, but that’s an unfair assumption. All the little things you listed are, as you say, not doing any harm and are bound to be doing some good. I don’t do all the things I would like to do, but I hope that now I’ll try to do more. Finding out what happened to Fergus would take a huge burden from us, particularly my parents for whom this is an ongoing torture. I hope we get that information one day, but in the meantime we have each other and the support of many kind people who share our sadness.

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