Saturday, 28 July 2012

Charity collections - or are they?

We regularly get clothing collection bags pushed through our door. But I've calculated that about 90% of them aren't really charity bags, even if they have a charity logo on them.

Collection bags - can you tell the difference? *
(Image: Howard Lake)
Many of the collection schemes are run by commercial companies. They make a profit on the donated clothes, either by shredding and recycling them, or by selling them overseas in developing countries (yes, I said sell, not give away).

The charity gets a percentage of the takings, and this is usually printed on the bag. Something like £50 per tonne of clothes is not uncommon. Imagine: if the airlines gave you a 1 tonne weight limit for your luggage, how much could you take on holiday? Answer: about 50 suitcases full - and that's a lot of clothes to only be worth £50!

There are some genuine charities who rely on legitimate commercial collections. Times are hard, and it's difficult to find funding, so some charities will enter into partnerships with well-run commercial collectors. £50 is better than nothing, especially if you're a small charity.

I use the following general rules of thumb for telling the genuine charity bags from the commercial collectors' bags:
  • Charities will always state their charity number. Commercial collectors will state a registration number as well - although usually in a different place. If it doesn't say the word "charity" next to the number, then you're usually dealing with a business.
  • Commercial collectors working on behalf of charities will state how much of the profit they're donating. Usually the statement is not as noticeable as the charity logo or their publicity photos. Look closely.
  • Look for the Charity Retail Association logo. This guarantees that the charity gets a fair share, and that no-one else is exploiting your generosity.
In addition, there are some fraudsters operating collections, who are nothing to do with any charity. So in addition to the above:
  • Look for a contact address or landline telephone number. Fraudsters won't be keen on giving out details that allow them to be traced. On the other hand, an email address or mobile phone number are easier to hide behind.
  • Remember that, on their own, none of the following make an organisation legitimate: photos of sad-looking children, pictures of kittens, pleas to "help the needy", promises to "help create jobs", asking for donations.

These are all just general tips that I use myself, but they're far from perfect. I find the best way around all these problems is to take old stuff straight to the charity shop ourselves. That way, the charity doesn't have to pay someone to collect it, and they'll keep more of the proceeds - up to 50 times more, according to one source.

Incidentally, thanks to the endless supply of "dodgy" collection bags, we haven't needed to buy any bin bags for nearly 2 years. There's always an upside!

* As always, the examples given above are generalisations, and are not intended to portray any particular organisation or person.
(Credit: "Donated goods bags" by Howard Lake, CC-BY licence, obtained via )

Friday, 20 July 2012

Designed for the dump

Was your laptop built for this?
Image: Alex E. Proimos
This week, a certain well-known maker of computers and phones has come under criticism for launching a product that is not as environmentally friendly as it could be. According to reports, their new laptop has a battery that isn't removable or replaceable. This might not sound like a big deal, but it does have surprising implications.

The battery is often one of the first things to stop working in a laptop or other gadget. By installing a battery so that no-one can replace it (not even a computer engineer) then you're limiting the life span of the device. Which, cynics would argue, is a great way to lock people into buying the latest gadgets.

Sadly, there are many companies that seem to be doing this. Some people have called this approach "designed for the dump" - in other words, a product is designed so that it becomes useless after a couple of years, can't be repaired, and has to be thrown away.

On the one hand, this doesn't seem great for the environment. On the other hand, it causes people to buy products they wouldn't otherwise buy, and so keeps people in jobs and money in the economy.
Personally, I like shiny gadgets and new technology. But I don't like how quickly it can become unusable when it's still capable of working.

There's an interesting video about the life of electronic gadgets that goes into more detail. It's available below, and also via YouTube.

Image credit: Trash Mountain by Alex E. Proimos, licenced under CC-BY licence, obtained via

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The public transport dilemma

I'm writing this on the train home from work. Normally I don't commute on the train, as it's slow for me and expensive. But it does give me an excuse to cycle to the station and back, and get some exercise in the process! So I try to use the train once a week.

I'd love to get public transport every day, but it's just too much hassle and expense. So I compromise. Three days a week, I drive a fuel-efficient car to the outskirts of the nearby city, then catch public transport from there to the city centre. And one day a week, I work from home.

I've never really understood why we have a public transport system based on 1950's life - when people commuted from the suburbs to the centre. Today, the offices and factories have moved out of town, but you often still have to go into the centre to come out again.

I do think that we need to end our obsession with the car. But public transport is often a poor relative of the car when it comes to commuting.

Unfortunately, it's often the case with long-distance travel too. I recently priced up a trip to Belgium for 3 people, booking 2 months in advance. The train was over £700. Taking the car, and using the Dover to Calais ferry, cost about £120 including fuel. No contest - I can't justify the £700 spend.

I think there are some possible solutions, but they need money and time.

Firstly, long-distance train travel has to be cheaper. If I need to be in London for the morning, I can go by car for about £60, by parking in outer London and getting the tube into the city. By coach, it's under £60. By air, it's about £150. By train it's £230. Why?

Secondly, since we're stuck with the "out of town" syndrome (shops, offices, healthcare) then we need to have transport hubs in these places. Travelling 12 miles into and out of the centre, in order to reach a destination 3 miles away, is not the kind of thing that promotes public transport as a viable option! We have cities with successful Park and Ride systems, but we need to build on this.

Thirdly, we need to make cycling more accessible. In Belgium and the Netherlands, many locals don't think twice about cycling to the shops or to the station. In the UK, we've embraced leisure cycling, but we charge commuters 20p per day to access the toilet, so they can change out of their sweaty cycling gear before getting on a train!

The car still has a place, and is a valuable form of transport. Trains and other forms of public transport need a chance to shine too; but this won't happen unless people start using them more.

So why not try using public transport or your bike once a week? It might not be as bad as you think.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

We need to talk about... Yoga

A lot of people believe that yoga is a great way to keep fit and relieve stress. But there is a popular myth that it's not very active. To use the words of actor James Nesbitt, appearing in a TV commercial several years ago, yoga is "a bunch of ladies going 'ommm' - how hard can it be?"
A yoga class.
This pose is called Warrior 1, or Virabradrasana 1.
Photo: lululemon athletica

In the TV ad, James' character enrols in a yoga class to impress his new girlfriend. He ends up falling over on the floor in spectacular fashion, when he over-estimates his ability to balance on one leg! Which goes to show that yoga is more than just meditation, and definitely not restricted to women.

There are different forms of yoga: some have gentle stretching exercises, some have poses that need focus and concentration, and some types build stamina. Even then, the forms that concentrate on stretches and balance can make people out of breath (eg. hatha yoga, see picture for an example pose), and the more active forms (eg. ashtanga) share some similarities with an aerobics class. There are even fun classes designed specially for children (in fact, many children in India learn yoga).

For me, the most important part of yoga is at the end. You don't leave a class panting for breath and ready for a sit down - you have a sit down or lie down as part of the class at the end! This is the meditation part of yoga. As well as letting your body rest, it's wonderfully relaxing for your mind, too. You can leave a class feeling chilled out, or energised and raring to go.

And that's the real beauty of yoga. There is no competition, because everyone learns their own capabilities and limits. You're encouraged to improve over time, but never by forcing yourself. It's up to you what you get out of yoga, but you never leave a class feeling quite the same way as when you arrived.
Most instructors will hold classes for beginners - so don't be like James' TV character and try to jump straight into the intermediate level!

So if you're feeling stressed, or if you feel that you should be doing some exercise but don't like the gym, then look for a local yoga class and sign up for a taster session.

Photo credit: Derivative work based on "Tent of Warriors" by lululemon athletica, obtained under CC-BY licence, via .