Resolutions, Collaborations and The Rise of the Conscious Brat
Hilda modelling Jasmine as part of the Miller Harris In Bloom Campaign
Photo: Claire Bowen
It's the beginning of another year (more or less), a time when so many of us sit down and think about our resolutions for the coming twelve months. As well as setting new intentions, I like to look back and see what I was thinking at the same time last year and how I got on with those goals - spend more time outdoors (tick), increase exercise (tick), start growing my own flowers (tick), read more books (tick), eat more healthily (almost), only buy clothes I absolutely need (*coughs*).
I've also been thinking a lot about how Honeysuckle and Hilda has evolved and have been looking back on my hopes and dreams for it when I finally created a website about a year ago and laid out my ideals. In all honesty, I was worried that I had been too regimented in applying every possible environmental consideration to my way of living and my business. It certainly isn't always easy. In an ideal world, I'd be delivering my organic, home grown flowers in a super eco vehicle fuelled entirely by compost from the heap on my farm whilst Walt Disney animated birds fly along behind me and I sing along like Snow White; the squirrels wave from the trees as we pass. The reality? It's the middle of winter, I don't have as much as a hellebore in my garden, I'm desperately envious of all those diesel 4 x4 s that look so good on Instagram shoots, Hilda has chased all the squirrels out of the cutting patch, and whilst Charles is now a fully fledged member of the Church choir, I have been mysteriously overlooked.
Of course, some progress been made. There has been a move to the countryside and the beginnings of a cutting garden. And more: after a long discussion with car manufacturers about the merits of diesel, petrol and electric cars, I purchased a nearly new petrol Skoda. I gave serious thought to an electric one but, practicalities aside, the fact remains that before these eco cars can move, the electricity that goes into them still has to be generated in a way that causes pollution and so, on balance, I decided a second hand petrol car from a company with a strong emphasis on its development process (for further reducing emissions), on recycling the parts of a vehicle at the end of its life, and one that has won awards for its commitment to environmental protection was the most expedient choice for me. (Hydrogen powered cars will, I suspect, prove a more environmentally friendly option but research in this area has been lagging, meaning that even for someone like me, who changes cars once a decade, I am at least a couple of vehicle choices away from hydrogen being a mainstream option. And meanwhile, I have flowers to collect and deliver and the space in the boot of my Yeti is already bringing me much joy).
I'm proud to say that 2017 was a year in which I used no Oasis at all, with the exception of three blocks that were used in a group installation on a retreat I attended in May. I'm now keenly following @nofloralfoam , set up by one lady a community initiative by contributors from all over the world, which is seeking funding for an environmentally friendly alternative to floral foam and asking florists everywhere to share any techniques they have used in place of the nasty green stuff. It's definitely an area that urgently needs to be addressed. I myself even made my own mother's funeral spray using chicken wire and foliage. I noticed our Minister looking at it with a degree of curiosity as probably very few of his congregation arrive under what was, to all extents and purposes, a mini Scottish moor, but I felt happy with it and relieved that even under those circumstances I had stuck to my principles.
Back in the countryside, some days were spent this autumn building raised beds of untreated, reclaimed wood and filling them with organic soil and mushroom compost. The bulbs have been planted, the seedlings are in the cold frames, the bare root roses are heeled in for now. I love the idea of using only British grown flowers, as so many of us do, but this year (and possibly for a few to come) I certainly will be also buying some non British flowers in. And even when my garden is flourishing, there will always be the dilemma of what to do in those few months of deepest winter, on the occasions where foraged foliage and lovely dead things alone just aren’t enough.
And it is this dilemma that I faced when working on two collaborations this winter, one in mid November for People Tree and one in early January for Miller Harris. It’s always lovely to be approached by a company you admire to work with them (or, in this case, two companies). Both of these create products that are both beautiful and ethical and for me this is something I try hard to achieve in my own area of business. I am a passionate consumer of flowers, and try to leave as small a footprint as possible when I do so, and equally, if I’m going to fail at sticking to only an essential quantity of clothes/ cosmetics, I must at least try to be sure of the manner in which they were produced.
I have known People Tree and worn their clothes for many years. I became aware of them when living in Hackney and assisting Katharine Hamnett, fashion designer and environmental campaigner, on a project highlighting the dangers of herbicides. First I began shopping in 69b Boutique an outlet specialising in eco clothing, amongst which was the range by People Tree. In 2013 I began to read more about the cotton industry and went to talks given by Peter Melchett, (Policy Director at the Soil Association), Safia Minney (CEO of People Tree) and Romy Fraser (founder of Neals Yard), and did my own research into the conditions of workers on non organic cotton farms. What I read and learnt as a result has given me many sleepless nights.
Apart from the shocking rates of suicide amongst cotton farmers who have become slaves (both metaphorically and, alas, almost literally) to the largest GMO producers to whom they remain forever in debt, the production of organic cotton saves precious water, helps to combat climate change and helps farmers feed their families. In an interview with Safia, Peter tells us that “Cotton is produced by some of the poorest communities in the world where the impacts of climate change are felt most severely. Buying organic cotton is a simple way that we, in the West, can contribute to reducing the impacts of climate change, as amongst other things, organic cotton is proven to save and protect water resources and reduce carbon emissions. For example, the water pollution impact of organic has been shown to be 98% less than non-organic cotton production”.
But People Tree don’t just care about the environment, their Fair Trade ethics put people at the centre of the way they do business.
It promotes and protects the cultural identity and traditional skills of small producers and ensures that they are treated fairly. For these reaons, I have been a proud consumer of ethical clothing wherever possible, and so to be asked by People Tree to give a demonstration at their Christmas brunch was, for me, a very exciting proposition.
At the same time, it did also throw up a few problems for me. I had spent the spring and summer using British flowers, more often than not sourced from Green and Gorgeous which is just three miles from our current home. This brunch, however, was in November, when even the most stalwart of dahlias had died off and most native flowers had gone to sleep for the rest of the year. And so, what to do?
The first, and most obvious, port of call, was to get my walking boots on and take the dog for a good old forage around the hedgerows of Oxfordshire. A few hours’ walk for Hilda meant armfuls of curving branches, pines, viburnum berries, rosehips, grasses and plenty of dead, crispy bits. An abrupt stop as we drove home also resulted in several long tendrils of jasmine that were trailing down a back wall - just enough to make an impact, but not so many as to decimate the beautiful display for everyone else. Nevertheless, a trip to the market was necessary, and so I headed up early to Covent Garden, where upon close inspection of all the labels on the packaging, I found that many had symbols or kite marks verifying the provenance of the flowers’ origins. In the end I came home with amaryllises (of course), chrysanthemums, lisianthus and hellebores. All from Holland, which meant flower miles, but generally sporting assurances that there had been no human suffering. To these I also added some eucalyptus from GB Foliage -David tells me that 80% of his stock is British but a little of it comes from further afield. It is perhaps a small irony, then, that the colours of the Italian eucalyptus won me over, but I’m not claiming perfection here, only that I’m thinking hard and I’m really trying to do the right thing. And not only that, I was still able to produce something I was really happy with without buying anything of unknown provenance.
It was such a pleasure to work with People Tree, who were honestly the nicest team a girl could wish for (they even helped me load and unload my flowers in a Shoreditch side street) and to be able to stand in front of a group of ethically minded bloggers and journalists with a clear conscience was, to me, a sign that I was taking my brand in the direction I had planned to when I first conceived Honeysuckle and Hilda. One thing I am conscious of as I go about the business of flowers is that, in the process of being as environmentally friendly as reasonably possible, I don’t want to sacrifice the beauty of the piece that I am creating. This is something that People Tree have mastered so well - their clothes are ones that I would absolutely want to (and do) wear, and nothing on the stylistic front has been compromised in the process.
You can read more about their take on the day here.
And that, aside from a very personal flower tribute and some Christmas wreaths from foraged goods, should have been all the flower work I had planned for some time, until the tulips, fritillaries and muscari started to poke their heads out of the beds in late March/ April. But just before Christmas, another email popped up in my in box, this time from Miller Harris, asking if I’d like to collaborate with them again to produce a set of images to be delivered by mid January for two new fragrances that they were launching.
I have on the whole been very lucky with the companies who have asked me to collaborate with them, and like People Tree, the team at Miller Harris have been a lovely lot. Hilda and I met them in person few months ago when we were invited to model their Christmas hats, and it was very jolly affair. Furthermore, these products were inspired by a passage from one of my favourite books. However, another good reason for me to like Miller Harris is for their ethical stance in relation to the production of their fragrances. As well as using only natural ingredients, Miller Harris products are both cruelty free and vegan. I had to break it to my sister that I wouldn't be buying her favourite brand of make up this year because they had decided to start supplying their products to China, who by law are now required to test on animals in order to sell there. How lucky, then, that I could instead offer her some products sent to me by Miller Harris, (a generous gift from them), a company that do not sell in China for precisely this reason. And, of course, the happy coincidence of promoting a vegan brand during Veganuary, was a hashtaggers dream! I have been a committed vegetarian for over 25 years, and have dabbled with being a vegan, but then seem to fall off the wagon for various reasons. I got back on that wagon again for Veganuary and (two poached organic eggs on top of my kale one morning notwithstanding) I’m just about hanging in there. I’m hoping it will be for keeps this time. Whatever the outcome, the promotion of cruelty free products can only help to strengthen my resolve to go as gently as I can in this world.
When reading the press release for the Tender x Scherzo launch, two things struck me. One was that the author of one of the fragrances was French perfumer Bertrand Duchafour, known for his ethical and environmental commitment and part of the Technicoflor team in Paris (in response to the increasing global demand for "natural" products, so strongly felt in the fragrance field, TechnicoFlor has adopted a responsible and committed approach to environmental protection. A range of natural products has been specially developed as part of their portfolio). And then, an alarm bell. One of the perfume’s listed heart notes was leather. My heart sank. I had been striving hard to focus on positive collaborations, but how could it be claimed it was a vegan product when leather had been involved in its manufacture. I emailed the PR company in haste to see if there had been a mistake. Within 20 minutes I had a very cheerful reply reassuring me that the leather note is made from a blend of natural oils such as saffron, birch, juniper, cade oil, and cistus labdamum. This blend gives the impression of the animalistic notes of leather. Yes, that clever. And that careful in their use of ingredients.
And that makes Miller Harris another ideal partner for Honeysuckle and Hilda. And, just as their natural ingredients are sourced from around the world, they are carefully selected in the same way that I can’t always find the ingredients that I would like to during the winter in the UK. And maybe that’s ok. Amy Stewart, in her book Gilding The Lily, recognises that the debate over the environmental and socioecological impact of imported flowers began in this country when others were just beginning to consider food miles. Does it make more sense to import roses from Kenya or to buy them from an artificially lit and heated Dutch greenhouse and truck them to market? Or do we only buy them during their growing season on native soil? As Amy says, there are no easy answers to these questions. Every year, often around Valentine’s Day, a paper will run a story warning us that behind every Latin American or African rose is an exploited worker or poisoned river, and there’s some truth to that story. Amy has seen first hand women in Ecuador dipping long stemmed roses into fungicide. She has, however, also spoken with famers in Kenya and Latin America who are determined to provide good jobs and to farm in an environmentally sound manner. (The Real Flower Company, I would add, is one example of a company who pride themselves on their Fairtrade roses grown in Kenya and shipped via passenger aeroplanes). From the perspective of these farmers, the path out of poverty must involve selling their goods to wealthier nations where the market is stronger. On the other hand, movements such as the British Flower Collective and Flowers from the Farm make a strong case for buying seasonal flowers from local producers, and the #britishflowers hashtag has shown there is a strong appetite for them in the industry. I am reminded of a trip to Cornwall to spend a day learning from Susanne of The Blue Carrot, when I asked her, as we stood in her glorious cutting garden, if she only used British flowers. She told me that she tried to grow everything that she needed and to always work seasonally, but, if she needed to source something to make her work complete, just like another type of artist might seek paint, then she didn’t feel bad about doing so. And I think that’s a pretty good place to be. In addition to Gilding the Lily, another book by currently my bedside is Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia. I’m not going to be disingenuous and pretend to have read and analysed the entire work - I’m not sure anyone would still be reading this is I started talking about the Interdependence of Stakeholders anyway. And as for the parts about the conscious significantly outperforming the traditional model on financial criteria …well, I think I’d have to make some sort of profit to start with. Or maybe perhaps break even this year…? But there are parts that seem very salient to even a modest floral design business like my own. In this work, the authors notes that the greatest change that we as humans are experiencing is in our rising consciousness. “To be more conscious means to be fully awake and mindful, to see more clearly, and to fully understand all the consequences … of our actions”.
And it occurred to me as I read this, that to be more conscious would be a perfect Resolution for 2018 rather than the earlier, more traditional ones relating to appearance or generally beating oneself up for not being perfect. This year I choose to be kinder, not only to myself but to the world at large - both of these collaborations are a reflection of that resolution.
I had lunch with some old school friends a few weeks’ ago. I talked to them about what I had been doing and my plans for the year ahead. One shiftily eyed her diesel 4 x4 parked outside as she adjusted the fur trim on her cardigan. “But what happened to the old Gourmet we used to know? She was a bit of a spoilt brat” (I pointed out that 30 years had since elapsed) “Nevertheless, I miss her...”, she replied, wistfully . “Very true. But how lucky am I that use the most beautiful flowers, wear the most flattering clothes and smell incredible whilst still sticking to my guns?”. We pondered for a while on what my new title should be, whilst picking over some organic superfoods we thought we should be eating. “How about a conscious brat?” I asked. Heads nodded in agreement. Self knowledge is a wonderful thing.