The core promise of the Hippocratic Oath, taken by all doctors, is “First, do no harm” – Primum, non nocere (a Latin translation from the Greek). I have been thinking about this a lot recently amid society’s increasing awareness that the planet is burning; that we have squandered our resources and failed to protect the future. I try to recycle where I can, but I buy too many shoes. I try to shop local, but they don’t always stock organic. I have re-upholstered rather than replaced my furniture, but bought too many cushions.
I was struck by a meme posted on Instagram which said, among a much longer list: “To the person who uses metal straws to save the fish but consumes animals, I’d like to say thank you. To the vegan who isn’t aware of homelessness… to the climate change activists who aren’t aware of fast fashion….. I say thank you. It’s not everyone’s job to save every part of the world but it is everyone’s responsibility to thank every person who is doing their part to save the world. Don’t critique, appreciate. Don’t judge, educate. We’re all trying our best.”
And I realised that, for most of us, it’s almost impossible to do no harm, but what if we all made a conscious effort to Do Less Harm? And crucially, to ask the businesses we buy from how they are doing less harm, so we can decide if they deserve our money.
There are three strands (or ‘Es’) to sustainability – environmental, ethical and economic – and too often I just see woolly statements from companies that they are working sustainably, but I don’t know what that means. Do you? We need to know. We need to choose who we give our money to, based on those three Es.
When it comes to interiors, there is already some progress towards using organic materials, sustainable wood sources, and reusing plastic. They are small steps and not yet sufficiently widespread. But there are at least people thinking about that end of things. I want to focus on the other end of the equation: getting rid of what we have, to make room for what we want. Most of us aren’t going to stop shopping. We work hard, we want to create nice homes to relax in when we’re not at work. I read about someone who has taken a vow not to fly and can’t see her sister who lives in Spain. That’s a big step, and one I suspect most of us don’t feel we can take.
But if you buy a new mattress, what happens to the old one? Yes, you can pay £25 for the company to take it away with them (likewise the new sofa, washing machine, oven). But what happens to it then? Landfill for 10 years? Longer?
I think we should be asking these questions routinely, so that we can all play our part and Do Less Harm.
While pondering this I came across Hypnos, suppliers of beds and mattresses to the Queen and Soho House Group. The company is carbon-neutral thanks to a programme of tree planting, they offer furniture collection and recycling services to ensure none of their products end up in landfill – their mattresses are 100 per cent recyclable – and they use no chemicals in their manufacturing process, as well as re-using discarded polymer-based bottles to conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.
They suggest asking your mattress retailer or manufacturer – whoever they may be – if their take-back or disposal service involves deconstructing the old mattress to enable recycled raw materials to be reused in other industries. It’s a process that will ensure your old mattress, which takes up 23 cubic feet of landfill space, doesn’t end up there.
Or what about the bedding company Rise & Fall, whose factory runs on wind power, using dyes and chemicals that are Oeko-Tex and GOTS certified, and where 99 per cent of the water used is recycled and the packaging is plastic-free?
Yes, there will be some who say that’s not enough. But it is a start. And making a start still means we Do Less Harm. And shouting at people who are making an effort for not doing enough isn’t helpful. It just leads to a sense of despair that nothing we do is good enough, so why try at all? We have to begin somewhere.
And yes, Hypnos mattresses are expensive – but this is a question of mindset, rather than economics. It really doesn’t matter where you shop, my point is that it’s up to all of us to raise our expectations of the brands and products we put in our homes – whatever the price point.
I want to create a directory of companies that are genuinely trying to Do Less Harm. So that you, when you shop, know what questions to ask and can base your purchasing decisions not just on the colour and size of the new one, but on what will happen to the old one. I want to come up with a list of questions for companies to answer about how they are doing less harm. But we can start with the 3Es. Environmental: are there solar panels on the roof of the factory for example? Ethical: do their workers have fair working conditions? And economic: Do they give old or surplus pieces to charities or organisations that can use them? Are they investing in better environment and ethical choices? Where are their products made and how do they get here?
But, as I say, not everyone can afford to shop sustainably or locally but we can all think about how get dispose of the old to make way for the new. We can applaud companies who are making an effort to do less harm.
And I need your help for this. Because I am not an expert. What I am is a journalist who is trained to ask questions. I’m happy to ask them but I want you to tell me about companies who are doing less harm. And not just paying lip service to it.
But also because it’s not always easy to find that information. Why bury it? Perhaps because they haven’t got much to say? Or because, at the moment they don’t think we’re that interested? We need to show them that we are interested and that we will reward those companies getting it right with our money. Too often I see brands being shouted at because they’re perceived to not be doing enough. But they are the ones who are trying to do something. And if we encourage and reward them with our money they will do more.
A few weeks ago I dug into the John Lewis website and eventually, with the help of Google, was able to download a report which stated that transport contributes to more than 40 per cent of the company’s operational carbon emissions. So they are aiming for a zero carbon transport fleet by 2045, which means switching to fully electric heavy vehicles. But, as we know, the technology just isn’t there yet. So in the meantime the company has invested in biomethane trucks; by 2028 all its heavy trucks will be converted, and able to run for 500 miles on the gas that is created as a by-product of decomposing food waste, while emitting 83 per cent less CO than standard diesel alternatives.
And of course, there will be those who say that’s not enough. That it’s taking too long. But John Lewis are doing something. They are starting. They are trying to Do Less Harm. And perhaps we can do our bit to speed things up by asking questions, shopping smart and helping the big companies see that we want these changes to happen, so that they respond to us.
When it comes to our own homes we can all make sure we dispose of our old things responsibly. That we buy carefully – things we love and that will last. And that we take the time to repair and mend them. I have re-upholstered two sofas and bought vintage chairs from eBay. My main sofa was new when I acquired it, but I gave my old one to the daughter of a neighbour for her first home. My desk was also from eBay (an antique), and I gave the sofabed away to someone who had just the right space for it in their flat.
Yes, the issues surrounding paint add up to a big subject, and it’s one that I plan to tackle in more detail shortly. In the meantime, I want to build up information on flooring and lighting, furniture and fixtures. Because only when we think to ask can we find the answers, and only once we have those, can we be sure that we are trying our hardest to Do Less Harm.
Is it tokenism? I don’t know. But trying to do something has got to be better than doing nothing, and in the absence of the big Governments taking notice and the light of some terrifying news reports about the future of the planet, we have to try, however we can, to do something. To #dolessharm.
Join me in using the hashtag on Instagram if you come across a company which is trying, or if you have tried in your own home. You can email me on Kate at madboutthehouse.com with the hashtag #dolessharm in the subject field and together we can discover more, and create a resource that will help all of us, individually and collectively, to #dolessharm.