1/30/14

Store Loss and Disenfranchised Grief

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I stood with my head pressed against the glass. Behind it, a thoroughly empty shop, long and narrow. The bald fact of it: walls, carpet, back door. Everything else – the shelves, the posters, the old counter at the back with its pale pink curtain into the inner sanctum that held the DVDs – all gone. The closing down signs still mocking the windows, a picture of understatement.

How absurd, to get upset about a video store closing! How old was I? Well, it was early January, which is always a disorientating time for me. And this was a local video store, not a franchise, owned by a sweet family headed by a short, white-haired middle-aged woman who always treated me with kindness and courtesy. This family were already installed in the store when I started to use it after returning, ten years ago, to live in the nearby suburb where I grew up.

It was a damn good video store, with plenty of stock to choose from. It charged only $3 for new releases, obviously an attempt to compete with the DVD vending machines that had become a fixture at supermarkets in recent years.

It had no pretensions to being an arty place aimed at cinephiles – I used to think how much more it could do to capitalise on the hordes of students in the area – but the owner had realised, she told me once, that keeping a back catalogue of videos rather than selling most of them off was good for the business, tiding it over whenever the crop of new releases was particularly disappointing.

My angst came from several sources. I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye and thanks for being real, and independent, and genuinely friendly. Mixed in with this was the frustration of human curiosity – I’d missed the inside story. I’ll never know whether the owner had simply had enough and was retiring with a nice little nest egg, or, much more likely, was a victim of the switch to vending machines along with the rise of Quickflix and internet streaming – and perhaps rising store rents.

But it wasn’t just the owner I’d lost the chance to say goodbye to. It was the shop itself, its familiar layout, the time I used to spend painstakingly choosing my five weeklys for only $6.50. I’ve used those DVD vending machines, but it’s just not the same. Going out to choose a video is still a treat for me, and having a machine dispensing it takes all the fun away.

The small losses of daily life

As we get older, familiar places seem to become more important. There is so much change, and yet another small adjustment can sometimes seem like a blow.

Gerontologist Professor Kenneth Doka has an expression for the sense of loss that we have trouble letting go of because our grief is not socially sanctioned – he calls it disenfranchised grieving.

Such losses are often large but they can also be small ones. Life is full of them – every new stage we enter results in the shedding of old routines, places and companions – but modern life changes so fast that we may be in a state of constant adjustment, never having the chance to find our feet until the next earth tremor of change.

Pic: Grove Arcade bookstore, by Joel Kramer
Shops are commercial ventures, but the ones we visit regularly become part of our psychic maps, our mental touchstones. I hadn’t expected to feel bereft when the Borders store at my local shopping mall closed. This occurred when the entire Australian arm of the business went into receivership in 2011. All over Melbourne Borders stores were holding closing down sales and I joined the swarms of bargain hunters combing the fast-emptying shelves for books going for a couple of dollars.

I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss once the Chadstone Borders at closed. I knew that it was a heartless multinational, had read somewhere that workers in its US stores were so poorly paid they had to get second jobs to survive. Nevertheless there was something profoundly civilising about all those books in my local shopping mall. I’ve always fetishised books and it was the sheer number at the Borders store with its two floors that captivated me.

Still, losses have their consolations. About a year ago a new independent bookstore moved into Chadstone, with genre labels that look a bit home made, and a refusal to grant the kinds of massive discounts that stores like Borders and Dymocks have relied on. It’s a new branch of the independent chain Robinsons Books, and seems so far to be well patronised – long may it reign!

Have you ever experienced a sense of unexpected loss when a familiar store closed down?

Until next time!

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1/21/14

Ethical Investing: A Greener Term Deposit

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Please note: the following is not financial advice. You need to do your own research before making any investment decision.

I’ve been frustrated with the options for ethical investing in Australia for a long time. Then I read Greenwash by Guy Pearse and it clarified what I’d been closing my eyes towards – the bank that underwrites my term deposit, the National Australia Bank, is continuing to invest in new coalmining projects at record levels. I’d had enough. It was time to find something else. But options were limited.

I think I have found the answer – a green term deposit.

If you want to buy shares, in Australia at least there aren’t that many blue-chip, mainstream companies that can be described as ethical; it’s not an option for me to invest in supermarkets (gambling, coalmining, high greenhouse emissions, duopolising exploitation of suppliers) or mining companies, and after that you’re not left with many options apart from dodgy telecommunications companies.

I don’t have a large enough sum to make it worthwhile to hire a financial planner, and I don’t like the idea of the high fees and commissions that you pay if you put your money in an ethical managed fund.

It’s amazing what a little exploration on the internet can yield. I’d never heard of the Maleny Credit Union but as far as sustainable financial institutions go, they’re not doing too badly.

Maleny is a small, scenic town north of Queensland on the Sunshine Coast hinterland. The credit union was set up in 1984 by townsfolk who wanted more local credit, and two in particular who wanted to direct investment into ethical and employment initiatives. From the start members were determined to retain it as a community owned resource, and even volunteered their time to keep it open.

Then, in 2011, the board voted that the credit union merge with one of Australia’s largest credit unions, Credit Union Australia. But the townsfolk would have none of it. They wanted to keep it as a local enterprise that would always put people before profit.

Today Maleny Credit union is a social enterprise, which basically means that ‘its purpose is to improve the lives of members through ethical, sustainable and community focused services’.

The credit union’s ethics policy is quite extensive but I would have liked more detail about specific things that the credit union is investing in. In the absence of alternatives, however, I’ve decided to go ahead and take out a term deposit with them.

Credit unions versus banks
My experience in Australia is that credit unions per se are a good choice for term deposits even without sustainability credentials, because their main aim is not to make a profit, but to benefit their members. I intend to keep some of my savings in my current credit union while opening a term deposit with Maleny.

In the longer term, I’ll start to research putting some of my savings into ethical shares. The beauty of term deposits is that they give you somewhere to park your little nest egg while you decide what the heck you want to do with it in the longer term.

(Credit unions also tend to be much cheaper to bank with – by restricting different types of transactions I completely avoid monthly fees on my account, Also, given I’ve got an online savings account, I’ve never been fined when my online everyday account goes into the red!)

My term deposit with the bank is due to mature at the end of the week. When I made the decision to remove my savings, I wrote to National Australia Bank explaining why. I’d suggest doing this if you decide to remove your money from banks with dodgy investments, or sell shares for the same reason. I think it’s worth letting the companies know. If enough of us put our money where our beliefs are, the world would be a cleaner, greener place. Here’s a portion of my letter:

Recently I read a book called Greenwash by Guy Pearse. It highlighted the hypocrisy of companies like yourselves that provide copious information about cuts to operational emissions while continuing to expand your investments in dirty, emissions-intensive industries, particularly coal mining and export. These industries, as well as speeding up catastrophic climate change, are also ultimately bad for our economy because they make the Australian dollar very high while providing very little employment, relatively speaking. Further, much of the profits go out of Australia.

Have you decided to green your investments? If so, what has your experience been?
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1/12/14

A Rant about Packaging

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A few weeks ago I went to buy a simple torch from the supermarket. It wasn’t until I got the thing home that I realised how overpackaged it was. The torch was attached to a large, hard plastic backing – by three rings of plastic (as shown in the pic above). It also came with a completely superfluous hessian holder that can be attached to a belt.

Is there anything more irritating than the overuse of packaging in consumer goods? In the absence of effective regulation, packaging is wasteful in the extreme. How many acres of forests are lost each year, how much superfluous hard and soft plastic is produced in order to make run-of-the-mill goods seem exciting and sexy?

The Australian Conservation Foundation wants the Australian Government to set up a federal agency with powers to ensure that packaging is ‘kept to the minimum required for the preservation, labelling, safe handling, and economical usage of goods’. This is a great idea, but such a body would also need to require manufacturers to choose the most sustainable options for their (minimalist) packaging.

The government could offer assistance that made it financially viable for companies to do this. This would have the flow-on effect of encouraging companies to produce environmentally responsible packaging materials - fostering innovation and new green industries and jobs, possibly selling to global markets.

Manufacturers view packaging as being vital to their branding – the ideas and emotions they want consumers to associate with their product. Yet if they were forced to reduce it, they might think up more imaginative ways of appealing to their customers – indeed, a reduction in packaging would actually appeal to many customers anyway, contributing to a green image that had some substance to it.

New uses for old packaging

Another item I’ve been looking for is a sustainable pencil case – I looked on Etsy and the Australian version of Etsy, Handmade – and found some lovely examples, such as this cute knitted pencil case.

But then I decided I didn’t really need to buy a pencil case at all, because I just used a plastic holder that had inexplicably arrived with a recycled toothbrush I ordered over the internet (pictured below). What was the use of producing a toothbrush from recycled plastic, I asked the manufacturer at the time in an email, when it is accompanied by unnecessary packaging? So I have at last found a use for this plastic container, which I couldn’t bring myself to throw away at the time. (Another option would have been to use a wallet from an op shop.)


Plastic recycling has come a long way, but manufacturers seem to be using this as an excuse to keep producing more of it – in its produce section, Woolworths now provides small plastic bags that are a pleasing grass-green hue with the comforting message that they are produced from ‘at least 30 per cent recycled plastic’. Why don’t they encourage customers to bring their own mini-plastic bags for fruit, vegetables and nuts?

Wikipedia describes greenwashing as ‘a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organisation’s products, aims and/or policies are environmentally friendly’. Superfluous packaging often appears in examples of greenwashing. For example, Scotch tape has produced what it cannily calls (perhaps to avoid accusations of greenwashing) a ‘greener’ rather than a ‘green’ tape. But this greener tape comes with its very own mini plastic dispenser, encouraging buyers to purchase a new dispenser every time they buy tape.

I don’t want to discourage readers from trying to buy green. I originally planned to write a blog entry on green stationery items for kids going back to school. It is worth shopping around for more eco-friendly items from online stores such as BuyEcoGreen, and Officeworks now stocks many more green stationery options that it used to. But until we have tough Australia-wide laws on packaging, the waste-a-thon of cardboard and plastic production will continue.

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1/5/14

Necessities or Luxuries: Which Do You Put First?

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Happy New Year! Now that the Christmas spendathon is over, and the January sales spendathon is in full swing, I’m in the process of dutifully parting with the unspecified sum of money my parentals always grace me with at Christmas in lieu of a present.

The difference is that this year I am not going to spend it on something big. In fact I’m in the process of buying those boring things that I usually put off buying because I am trying to save money, can’t be bothered searching, or have throughout the year prioritised frivolities and ‘extras’.

But the fact is, when I put my mind to it I love buying these necessities. It makes me feel as if I am looking after myself.

After a misspent (literally) youth of frivolity with money, I became a rabid stinge in my early thirties. Along with this came a willingness to get the basics paid for first – rent, bills etc – and to stock up on the dull necessities of life before venturing to buy anything frivolous. I adopted the kind of mentality that privileges having enough underwear in your drawers over having a new pair of tailored pants, a glamorous dress or Italian shoes.

It’s a sane way to live, but I think I overdid it for a while. For example, I used to spend a fortune on vitamins, and I’m not sure I needed all of those tablets rattling around in my insides.

In the last few years I’ve been rebelling against this tendency a bit, and buying a few frivolities ahead of necessities (although I will always be a stinge – most of my frivolities come from op shops). But when I received my Christmas money this year, I knew it was time to get back to basics. I’ve been ignoring some dull requirements for a few months now, and it was time to play catch up.

So here’s the list of basics I’ve either bought or am intending to buy:

Cruelty-free lipstick – it can be a hassle finding cruelty-free lipstick if you don’t want to buy online. I’ve discovered that three mainstream brands, Innoxa, Australis and Face of Australia, are cruelty-free (it’s sad that there are so few since many of the big brands started selling to China, which demands animal testing). These brands are available at some Priceline stores and Innoxa is also sold at Myers.

Neck support – for tele watching. Aesthetically unpleasing – downright daggy in fact – but very comfortable.

Lumbar roll – long overdue. I need support for my lower back while using the computer, watching tele, reading on the couch, etc, etc.

Neem oil – this seems to be the go-to oil for organic gardeners. Apparently it keeps away the little pests such as snails while not harming beneficial insects like butterflies and bees. I am also hoping it will deter (without actually poisoning) the possums that populate my garden and love eating my succulents.

Oversized hair rollers – these are perfect for getting my flyaway fringe under control – the standard size rollers don’t do the trick at all.

Big new diary – of course I would have bought this anyway, but I have bought one of those A4-size ones and it’s carbon neutral to boot!

New torch – I dropped and broke the last one during the traumatic period a few weeks before Christmas when I went for three days without electricity while some of the wiring at my place was being fixed. It was a nightmare time and dropping the torch didn’t exactly help matters.

Cute shower cap – for the bath, not the shower. (Does anyone wear a shower cap in the shower anymore?) Must have more baths this year.

New hessian bag – for library books and the beach. Hessian is incredible, a light material that holds heavy weights and lasts for years. My last hessian bag, 15 years old at least, finally bit the dust in 2013, so it’s time for another.

New saucepan – boring but necessary.

Hair cut – I would have had this done anyway, but may as well use the Christmas money for it!

Calendar – I always buy these after 1 January to save money, and this year will be no exception.

Parasol – currently I use my boring navy blue umbrella as a parasol on those boiling hot days when a hat just isn’t enough. I am looking for a cute parasol that will do the job with a bit more style.

That's enough necessities for now. Even when I'm buying necessities I still use my intuition, which makes it more likely that the things I buy are right for me.

And I did manage to also buy a half-price, oversized wool top at the Salvos in Malvern, certainly not a necessity for this time of year but a bargain too good to pass up.

Do you normally skimp on necessities but buy luxuries instead, or do the opposite? How do you feel when you put luxuries first, and how do you feel when you put necessities first?


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