One of the dictionary definitions of slow is “not progressive or behind the times”. But the times surely are a-changing: slow is becoming the buzzword for sustainable and forward-looking choices, from the food we put on our tables and the clothes we buy for our children to how we mindfully deal with the waste we generate and the amount of “stuff” we consciously try not to accumulate.
In a previous era, slow living was merely, well, living. The hallmarks of the successful housewife at the turn of the 20th century were a mindfulness of waste, and certain frugality in purchasing, alongside a cottage-industry creativity to preserve and re-use everything from left-over food and scraps of fabric to grown-out-of jeans.
Slow living in today’s world is not about a return to the past. Living slowly is a philosophy that can help navigate and ultimately direct the way our industries shape themselves to meet the increasing awareness and demand for responsibly produced goods; from cleaner energy and less disposable packaging to better quality meat.
The concept of “slow” in this decade is still firmly rooted in the food movement. Carlo Petrini, an Italian, launched Slow Food (www.slowfood.com), a non-profit member supported organization, in 1989 in protest to the opening of a McDonalds Restaurant in Rome. Slow Food’s mission is to counteract fast food and fast life, whose effects are felt most keenly in the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat -- where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. The Slow Food movement now reaches over 130 countries with locally generated and supported educational events, fund raisers, and heritage breed and variety preservation programs.
The Slow Food philosophy extends beyond food production to almost any area where intense industrialization has left us with systems that will not successfully serve the planet in the coming years. As Petrini comments “our decision about what to buy and consume, in a world where everything is geared to profit, is the first significant political act we are able to make in our lives,” and this can apply as much to the choosing of a wall paper or a pair of shoes as it does for selecting what will be on the menu for dinner tonight.
The three pillars of the slow food philosophy are that food should be “good, clean and fair.” “Good” is a subjective term that covers two essential factors; “taste” (ie: does it taste good?) and “knowledge” (the cultural history of how a food has historically been produced in that particular place). The industrialization of cooked foods and ready made meals is a case in point. A home-cooked roast chicken with the simple additions of salt, pepper and a few herbs (if that is what you are used to) will always taste better than a pre-cooked, mass produced bird coated with flavorings, monosodium glutamate, colorings and preservatives. The challenge today in determining good taste is that the further we move away from our cultural origins in terms of shopping and preparing our own food, the less we are able to distinguish what actually tastes “good”. A generation that is raised on fast food, or ready made, microwaveable meals is losing touch with this intrinsic value.
In the same vein, the criteria of “good” can be applied to products from rugs to dresses; a certain quality (and traceability) in the raw materials is a factor. As is thinking about the cultural roots of a product, the preservation of traditional craft skills it might represent, and whether there is any link between the culture of origin and the place of manufacture. Viva Terra (www.vivaterra.com), the on-line store and catalog, embodies many of these values.
“Clean” food corresponds to “naturalness” – not so much the intrinsic characteristics of the product, but rather to its methods of production and transportation. Does the product respect the earth and the environment? Does it pollute or over-use natural resources during its journey from the field to the table? The rise in organic foods, and maybe more importantly, the increased availability of farmers markets that offer locally produced fruits, vegetables and meats in season offer the opportunity to make “cleaner” food choices. Today, global livestock production (factory farming) is responsible for 1/5th of all greenhouse gases – more than transportation. Eating less, but better quality, meat (free-range, humanely raised) therefore becomes a cleaner choice. As does supporting local industry of any description, or making use of one’s local environment and technology to cut down on air travel. The translation from food to other product is easily made; “grown to sewn” in the USA is the practical philsophy endorsed by fashion retailer Alabama Chanin (www.alabamachanin.com), whose raw materials, whether they are organic, recycled or new come from the US and are then hand crafted by local artisans from communities in Alabama.
“Clean” might also be synonymous with using less, and using more wisely. Living by the values of the “Good Housekeepers” of yester-year, we could save twelve billion barrels of oil each year if every one of us in America stopped using plastic bags, converting instead to canvas, jute or other re-usable bags made from recycled materials. Every year four billion plastic bags end up as litter and a further 88.5 billion bags end up in a landfill. Try www.ecobags.com for a selection of sublimely simple totes and mesh bags -- and just refuse the plastics offered to you at stores.
Whether a product is “Fair” is concerned with its sustainability and justice. Does this product create wealth, and establish a more “equitable order” among the peoples of the world? Does it respect the farmer, the craftsman and his or her work? The “Fair trade” label for imported food goods (such as coffee, sugar or bananas) embodies Petrini’s values in this sphere. “Fair” products, such as those found at SERRV (www.serrv.org), are likely to retail for a bit more, because they do not support the sweat shop industries of Asia and in addition may include a cost for re-forestation or other practices that support sustainable industries. Broadening the discussion of fair trade into “purely” commercial strata is the next step. Protest in recent years against products made with abusive labor practices – such as Rugmark’s stand against child weavers in the carpet industry (www.rugmark.org) -- is merely a beginning.
On 24 October this year, people in 181 countries came together for the most widespread day of environmental action in the planet's history. Under the banner of 350 (www.350.org), which represents the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the environment that can successfully sustain human life in the future, the message was clear. The world needs to act now! Living slowly, however one chooses to define slow, is the first significant step we can make to change our own buying choices and positively influence what we will be sold in the future.
British author and "slow foodie" Isla Meynell sees Slow Food principles influencing non-food disciplines.