By Morwenna Kearns
Jen Gale is proof that a small ripple can make a wave. From blogging her experiences of spending a year buying nothing new for her family she has gone on to give a TEDx talk, write for the Mail Online and be quoted on Radio 4, stirring discussion and gaining thousands of social media followers.
Her blog, My Make Do and Mend Year, documents the highs and lows of buying nothing new for twelve months – with the exception of food, medication, toiletries, underwear and shoes for her two young children – and includes ideas and how-tos for (as you might expect) making-do and mending what you have. Expect DIYs for homemade soap, instructions on turning wide-leg jeans into skinny jeans and ideas on packed lunches for kids.
It's been called an anti-consumerist campaign, but how does Jen Gale see it? "Up until a few months ago, I really resisted the label of 'consumer'," she says. "I thought that through our Buy Nothing New year I had found a way to step away from consumerism. I felt like I wasn't a consumer, and that if only everyone else would join in, we could solve all (OK, so maybe not all, but most!) of the world's problems. I've come to realise recently that as much as I might resist it, I am a consumer. We are all consumers. But that actually therein lies our power.
"There is a great quote by a lady called Anna Lappé, that goes something like 'Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want to live in'. And I love that. We all make so many choices every day, about what to buy, or what not to buy. And within those choices, we each have the opportunity to cast our vote for a better and fairer world.
"So I suppose that I have switched slightly from being 'anti-consumer' to being a 'conscious consumer', and now talk in terms of consuming less, and consuming more deliberately and mindfully. I still strongly believe that we should try to repair and re-use before buying new, but I can now see how being a consumer can be a positive thing!"
This time last year she wrote a piece for the Mail Online about her intentions to not buy new toys for her kids' Christmas presents, instead choosing to make gifts and spend time with her family. It went viral, with newspapers and TV following up the story. It wasn't all positive, though (as you might expect from the Mail's infamous comments section), which Gale says she was 'a bit surprised by'.
But for anyone who grew up spending December (and November, October…) circling toys in the Argos catalogue and wants a more ethical Christmas, what does she advise?
"I think the first thing to work out is what you want Christmas to mean for you and your family. We aren't religious, so if you remove the religious meaning, then there is a risk that all you are left with is a festival of consumerism. I want Christmas for our family to be about spending time together and making memories, rather than being about stuff, so each year I think we buy less and less. It's definitely still a work in progress, but I think getting clear about what you want from Christmas is a good way to guide your purchases and activities throughout the festive season."
Part of this is her family's alternative advent calendar, where behind each window is an idea for a themed Christmas activity to do together.
"I really love this tradition that we have started – it means that we spend time doing something each day – making mince pies, or just sitting and reading a Christmas story – and it helps to move the focus away from 'stuff' and towards spending time together.
"Adults could totally do a similar thing – I've seen some brilliant alternative advent calendars with things like a Random Act of Kindness to do each day, or decluttering an item a day from your house, or donating an item a day to the food bank."
Christmas Day itself will very much be a family time, she says. "We have two boys who are eight and five, so the magic is still very much alive in our house, which is so lovely. This year it's just us and my mother-in-law, and I think we have a pretty traditional Christmas – the boys have stockings with a few second-hand and edible gifts from Father Christmas, and then will usually have something special for breakfast, maybe Chelsea buns that I've made. We have already ordered our free-range, local turkey and will serve it with all the trimmings, and homemade crackers!
"If the weather is kind, then getting us all out of the house for a walk, or a scoot around the block helps to control the energy levels (she says, optimistically), and then if time allows, a family board game (which almost inevitably ends in tears..!)."
Here's Jen Gale's TEDxBedford talk from 2013 – a series on the theme of Everyday Radicals, which (if you get past the shoddy audio) could inspire you to make your own Christmas Day – and 2017 – a bit more radical.