In January 2011, I embarked on a month without supermarkets – quite a traumatic shift for someone who used to go to Sainsbury’s a couple of times a day. Sometimes for nothing more than a pleasant stroll and a cheeky bag of chocolate raisins.
My local Sainsbury’s has more than thirty aisles; my greengrocer has just two. There is, without a doubt, a heck of a lot more choice at a supermarket than at a corner shop, but I wanted to know exactly how much more choice.
One of the biggest myths perpetuated by supermarkets is that they offer “everyday value” to the customer through their extensive promotions, multi-buy deals and discounts.
The myth isn’t that supermarkets don’t run these formidable promotions: researchers found that more than half the food sold in supermarkets during 2015 was “on special”. No, the myth is that these promotions offer great value to the customer. Continue reading “#11: Supermarkets aren’t cheap”
We think we’re in charge when we walk through the supermarket sliding doors, but that’s naive. Be in no doubt: when we enter the gleaming aisles, we’re entering a fully immersive, three dimensional, 360 degree, multi-sensory marketing experience. Every last element has been fine-tuned to nudge us into making just one more purchase.
“The fundamental problem is that the area used for releasing urine and faeces is compressed between thighs and buttocks, so we are more likely than other animals to foul ourselves.”
That, supposedly, is why we humans must use toilet paper. Other mammals, whether dogs, great apes or unicorns, walk on four legs and so have a clear passage for faeces, once the tail is raised to attention. To keep ourselves clean, we must wipe.
The obvious extrusion in the preceding paragraph is “toilet paper”. Romans used a sponge on the end of a stick. Jews used small pebbles or the smooth edges of broken pottery. French satirist François Rabelais recommends the neck of a well-downed goose.
We have seventh century China to blame for today’s proliferation of toilet papers: one-ply, two-ply, six-ply, quilted, perfumed, perforated, embossed and decorated with the colours of your football team. 83 million rolls of the stuff are produced globally every day, a daily consumption of 27,000 trees to feed our voracious appetite for smearing shit onto paper that we then flush into our rivers and oceans.
NOTE: Oh yeah, this piece might get a bit gross for some of you. Get over it.
Not Saving the Planet
A lot of people, when they hear about my experiments in positive constraints, come to the understandable, but incorrect, conclusion that I’m worried about “saving the planet”, “environmentalism” or “being green”. I’m not.
It’s not that I couldn’t give a crap (sorry) about these things, but we can only change the world by changing ourselves.
It’s impossible for me to comprehend my miniscule contribution to the fate of the planet: I am one of seven billion. What I can understand, measure and describe, however, is the individual impact on my life of changes to my personal behaviour.
That’s what I’m going for with these experiments in positive constraints. Talking of which: I’m duty-bound to remind you that, if you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments and hear first news of the how to get your hands on the book then please join my mailing list. Then come back to read the rest of this riveting instalment of positive constraints…
So the main reason for adopting a positive constraint like No Toilet Paper is not the saving of paper, trees and money, but Ockham’s Razor.
Ockham’s Razor was the first philosophical principle I ever came across, aged about 14, and is the number one reason why, 19 years later, I’m still such an insufferable intellectual snob. (Hey, at least I didn’t use its Latin name, lex parsimoniae.)
The principle has made a celebrity out of fourteenth century theologian William of Ockham (a village in Surrey), but the idea is as old as the hills: the simplest explanation or the simplest solution is most likely to be the best.
If I can explain why the sun appears to rise every morning with basic astronomical physics, then I probably don’t need to invoke the Egytpian Sun God Ra and his star-pulling chariot. Equally, if I can design a perfectly good dining table with four legs, then it’s probably superfluous to add a fifth (Rube Goldberg machines are a delightful exception to this rule).
It follows, therefore, that if I can live without it, then why the hell would I ever bother using toilet paper?
No Toilet Paper: The Principle
Luckily, the rest of the world isn’t quite as insane as Europe, the US and Australia. Large areas of the globe are already on a No Toilet Paper regimen. Unfortunately, Western behaviours are currently “on trend” and the utterly pointless behaviour of scraping around your anus with a patch of wood pulp is spreading.
Large swathes of the Muslim and Hindu world still use water to clean themselves after defecating. The methods vary, but the principle is the same. I’ll illustrate it with a little quiz.
You’re out fixing a new chain on your bicycle or digging up your new veg patch. You finish the job (Well done!) and go inside for dinner. You notice that your hands are covered in oil and grease or mud and worms. Do you:
a) Wash your hands with soap and water?
b) Smear the dirt around with a scrap of paper?
Answers on a postcard to the usual address.
No Toilet Paper: The Methods
Hopefully we’ve established that you’d be mad to continue using toilet paper. But, given our awkward self-befouling human anatomy, how exactly should we clean ourselves?
In the course of my experimentation over the last two weeks, I’ve come across several different options. Here they are, in order of increasing complexity:
Do nothing. I don’t quite mean that, of course, but often I’m remarkably clean and have no need to do anything special. After a few days using other methods, you’ll get a feeling for whether you need to clean more thoroughly or not. WARNING: This does depend on your diet. Since my experimentation with No Meat, I’ve noticed that I’m visiting the toilet more often (that’s fibre for you) and need to clean more thoroughly. Previously, when I was eating a simple meat and beans diet, I was a steady once-a-day man, regular as clockwork. Because I’d go in the morning, I could easily wash myself in the shower, no toilet paper required.
Use your hand. Assuming you’re not having any problems with sticky poo (check your diet), you might be surprised to find that there’s never really much there to clear away. Use only one hand and make sure you wash with good soap (and a nail brush if that’s necessary).
Use a wet flannel. This was suggested by one of my friends. She keeps three flannels in her room and uses them in rotation throughout the day to clean herself. At the end of the day, she boils them all in a pan of water to kill any residual germs. The only downside is you’ll have to carry a flannel with you when you go out.
Use a bowl and pitcher. This is an absolute classic all across the Arab world. To be honest, I find it a little fiddly, but the technique is just to splash yourself with water. Again, this is more annoying if you’re not at home. You could carry a dedicated bottle of arse-water.
Install a bidet shower, “health tap” or a purpose-built toilet. These are all ways of using water pressure to hose yourself down. Options include a basic shower head, a trigger hose or a specially designed toilet. The toilets are particularly good fun, with a little nozzle in the centre of the bowl firing water straight up your anus. Complex, expensive and slightly unnecessary.
Benefits to No Toilet Paper
Stop worrying about public toilet paper provision. (Or at home either.)
Feel cleaner after washing compared to smearing.
Be more ape and feel at home in the great outdoors.
Stake out your independence from the unnecessary comforts of modernity.
Save money. You probably spend about £20-30 a year on toilet paper. It’s one less thing to remember in the shop too.
Stop culling your share of those 27,000 trees per day.
Be more rational and treat Ockham’s Razor with the respect it deserves instead of mindlessly following stupid inherited cultural habits.
Are there any downsides to living without toilet paper? I guess that some people might think I’m gross, but I stopped giving a shit about that a long time ago.
Thanks for reading – I hope it inspires you to look at your life and your habits and to peer round the curtain at what’s really going on. If you’d like to stay in touch and hear about this famous positive constraints book, then please join my mailing list or follow me on Twitter.
If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.
My Old Diet: Meat and Beans
For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.
Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.
This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.
This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:
What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.
Why No Meat?
So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.
Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.
Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.
Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.
Cowspiracy is unambiguous:
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.
But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.
At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.
This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?
The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!
Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:
All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.
In the scramble, I put:
Red onion (fried)
Black beans (boiled)
Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:
I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.
For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.
Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!
Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.
One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:
Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.
If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:
24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.
Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).
Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments
Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.
Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?
As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:
I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.
Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.
Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?
This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:
Why No Money Mondays?
It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.
The History of No Money Mondays
I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.
Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.
But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.
The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.
I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.
But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.
Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.
The Rights of Religion
I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:
These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.
To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.
I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.
So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.
So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.
Things I learnt this week:
Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00.
Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.
The Final Score
Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.
So what am I going to now it’s over?
Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.
Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.
I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.
But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?
I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road.
I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s.
I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
I’m not advertised at.
I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
It’s closer to the college where I study.
I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.
Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.