Monday, May 29, 2006

Hay fever plus

It's that time of year: watery eyes, runny noses, wheezy chests, etc. Some expert says the pollen count would peak at 6.02pm today.

It's been a funny sort of day weather-wise. We've been out at an expensive 'theme park'. It was sunny, and it rained, it cleared and was sunny again, and it rained, then sunshine, and just a few minutes ago at home, we had hailstones.

My hay fever has been tolerable so far this year. (In any case I think I usually have it bad later in June/July rather than May). I am not complaining. I have a couple of bad sniffles in the morning and later in the evening, and that's about it. It's pretty much what I had when I first moved from Singapore to Amsterdam years ago.

I was well-known amongst my friends for having a constantly runny nose. I never left home without stacks of paper tissue. It was not uncommon for me to go through a whole box or two of tissue in a day. I even had a 'pattern' in the way I folded the tissue, blew my nose, and then rolled it up till the next dry bit. Urgh!

A change of location and climate seemed to have cured my hay fever. When I talked to my mum on the phone, her first question was often, 'How's your nose?'

I was feeling so blissful about the situation I got a bit smug and used to laugh at a colleague. Well, then about five years after I moved to London, the hay fever set in again, this time with a vengeance. (Ironically, I get a reprieve from the symptoms when I return to Singapore. How very odd.)

I remember waking up one morning about four years ago and felt like my eyeball had been detached. It scared the hell out of me. The GP assured me that it was merely an effect of hay fever (that was new to me).

Then I started drinking honey regularly. Husband puts it in my tea. And I think -- after all these years -- it has helped to some extent. The other thing we've been doing -- since our son was born six years ago -- is to consume a lot more organic food, fruit, milk and juices. Yes, the food bill has gone up, but since we do not usually indulge in 'junk foods', it is affordable.

What puzzles the scientists is why there are many more people suffering from hay fever these days. For someone whose nose could be set off by the smell of certain (cheap as well as expensive, brand-name) perfumes, I have no doubt that particulates in the air (from exhaust fumes, eg) could be a likely reason.

Take the smell of freshly-laid carpets. Nice smell? Not to me. It's formaldehyde. I think of it as 'brain-addling' fumes. I recently walked into a shoe shop, was overwhelmed by the smell of 'new shoes' (formaldehyde) and couldn't get out of the shop quickly enough.

There is no scientific basis for what I have to say here, but I think chemicals (eg pesticide residues) entering our bloodstream and the stuff that now fills our lungs with every breath we take could cause our bodies to over-react to give us hay fever.

Meanwhile the only people who benefit from this phenomenon are those who make potions, pills and sprays that purport to alleviate the symptoms. I am more interested in getting to the root of the problem.

Consider the shampoos and skincare one sees being advertised in the media. When I was growing up, we read 'teenage magazines' that advised us on what (not) to eat to get healthy hair, nails and skin. Diet was the route to clear skin, strong nails and shiny hair.

These days, hair shampoos are loaded with silicon to make one's hair smooth and tangle-free, and make-up utilizes light diffusers to make wrinkles disappear (at least temporarily for the cameras). As for nails, people just go get a false set in nail bars that stink of brain-addling solvents.

Even washing powders do not clean like they used to. Whiteness is merely an illusion brought about by 'optical brighteners', chemicals that reflect light, making clothes look cleaner than they are. (They also cause an irreversible chemical bond with the skin without actually increasing the hygiene of the wash.)

So, I'll let readers draw their own conclusions.

If, as the Chinese say, bing cong kou ru (illness enters through the mouth), then there's a lot to be said about what we eat to control our wellness.

Well, it's past 6.02pm and if this is indeed the worst day for hay fever sufferers (which I don't believe is the case), then there is hope for me! But I won't be celebrating till after mid-July. That was when I had the worst symptoms last year.

For those interested, there is also a new hay fever forum at: http://www.hayfeverforum.co.uk/

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Bullied

I had long wanted to run my own business. Part of me thinks that if Richard Branson could get his Virgin empire started with Tubular Bells (the CD), then surely all I need to do is find that one product (or two) that is really worth selling.

When I learned about the harmful impact of conventional cotton growing on the earth, I knew had to do something. Coupled with my personal desire to cut down on non-essential paper usage, it all added up that organic cotton hankies are the one good earth-friendly product that I had been searching for. (Other earth-friendly products like string bags were added along the way.)

I am not a risk taker usually. So, silly me, you might say, but I actually went and bought goods unseen, bought website space when I knew nowt about designing websites, printed leaflets, bought advertising space, etc, to get the business going. I knew I had something 'worth' selling. Not only from the point of making a (small) profit, but in terms of making a difference to the environment.

The business has been trundling along quite happily. Despite the initial reluctance by this generation to try something not-so-disposable and the mythical 'yuck!' factor that cloth hankies seem to have acquired, the business was doing alright. I am proud to be the first and only person to bring organic cotton hankies to the UK.

Then a certain international conservation charity took interest in 'my' organic cotton hankies. My initial reaction was that this huge organization was muscling into my territory. I didn't like it. Surely they are going to undercut me.

Look at it positively, my supplier said. With their marketing clout, they could be doing us a favour. Knowing full well that there is no way they could do better than me when it comes to customer service, I went along and we talked about their stocking some goods from my range.

Then came the news that they do want to stock my goods. Why was I not jumping for joy?

I was sent a questionnaire not only on the goods concerned, with questions like content of recycled material in the packaging, is it covered by liability insurance, etc. I mean, these are hankies. Is someone likely to meet any danger using a hankie?

Of course, there's this case of a woman who went to the hospital, dropped a hankie and picked up the MRSA bug from using the same hankie. If people do not use their common sense, then what can you do? I won't ever use a hankie that I have dropped on the floor/ground. Would you?

The questionnaire also wanted to know: Have I got a corporate environmental policy? If so, please attach. Do we produce an annual environmental report? Are we certified to any environmental standards? Are we on a green energy tariff? etc, etc.

As the answer was 'no' to all but one of the questions (why did they not also ask me what kind of car I drive, or rather what kind of car I do not drive seeing that I usually walk or use public transport instead of taking the car?) I decided that this environmental charity is clearly not interested in doing business with 'small' producers and traders like me.

I source my products mainly from co-operatives who in turn source from other co-operatives. The whole ethos of our business is people and the environment.

We work on principles that allow women (especially) and other marginal people to work around the needs of their families (or disabilities) and at the same time make a positive difference to the environment. We believe in keeping alive the traditional skills like hand-weaving and keeping it a skill rather than moving the manufacture to large factories, etc. which is so easy to do for so long as you find a willing financier.

We work on the basis of trust. So if one organization says 'please do not undercut us' by selling their products on too cheaply or at a loss that would take retail business away from them, we comply, even when that means it is more difficult for us to shift our goods (ie we can't profit from a lower profit margin but gain from a higher turnover).

We think not only in terms of the monetary bottom-line here and now. We think also of the long-term impact of our decisions on people up and down the supply chain.

We do not have whole departments of university graduates vetting other companies' 'ethical policies'. What would their donors think if they knew that this organization makes it so difficult for people like me to jump through hoops they have set up and that effectively means 'little people' do not matter?

There is a place for bureaucracy of course, and yes, when dealing with other large corporations, putting would-be suppliers through this vetting process would present at least a veneer that this organization cares enough to make their suppliers comply to certain ethical standards.

But surely there is also a place in such bureaucracies for small traders? We do not sit in our offices all day long devising 'ethical sourcing policies' or 'environmental policies' just so to trade with other big corporations. We ARE the embodiment of these policies. We keep our organization structures flat and simple, awarding no one company cars, eg, to maximize efficiency and benefits.

The 'bottom line' is I felt well and truly bullied by this organization, whether or not they had intended this effect.

So, in return, I want to know what policies, if any, does this charity have in supporting and working with 'little people' like myself. Could they please attach a copy?

Looking at their website I realize that they now endorse some of the big names in businesses in return for grants from these companies to support their work.

You know how big corporations are now buying up fair trade and ethical brands. It seems to me every major food company now has some 'fair trade' brand in their stable and every bank has adopted some 'ethical' cause. Even big cosmetic companies are taking over fair trade and cruelty-free brands. Department stores and supermarkets are stocking fair trade goods to up their 'ethical credentials'.

The fact is, the size of this fair trade element or grants given to conservation projects are just a tiny insignificant fraction in the profits made by these corporations. But instantly it would take their 'ethical score' from zero to positive.

Why do big companies go 'fair trade'? Because it is worth it.

So consumers -- especially those who care for people and environment -- can decide for themselves: have these big corporations really bought and internalized the message that 'fair trade', 'organic' or 'ethical' are good for people and the environment in the long run? If so, why are these 'owners of the means of production' (to borrow a Marxian phrase) not using their economic clout to influence the style, manner and fabric of production?

Or have they simply used their resources to buy publicity and privilege?

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Molar of the Story

My right forearm has been hurting again, which explains the time away from 'non-essential' writing of every kind.

Last Friday son and I went to the dentist. It was a belated routine visit as two months ago I was trying a treatment that could mean my not using glasses or contact lenses in the day and I didn't want to risk driving to the dentist with dodgey eyesight. When it was clear (pardon the pun) that the treatment was not working on my poor old eyes, I switched back.

And the next available dentist appointment was ... last week.

'No wobbley teeth?' I asked casually. Of course I knew my son had no wobbley teeth. It was driving him nuts that he was not losing his milk teeth like all his mates. He can't wait to get his new teeth so that he could learn to play a wind instrument.

With no sign of new teeth, he has gradually come round to accepting that it has to be the piano or violin and not the saxophone.

Imagine my shock when the dentist then let on that son's new molars have sprouted.

'What?'

'Here! You can take a look.'

Sure enough, behind his milk molars are white enamel that has just broken out of the gums. These molars are still being formed. More importantly, these are his permanent molars.

I didn't realize till then that little children get new teeth before the milk teeth fall out.

'We call them the six-year-old molars'.

You can call them anything you want, I thought, but why is it that parents are told so little about these teeth that sprout so early and need to be carefully cleaned?

Sometimes when trying to decide if son gets more chocolate, we say, 'They (the teeth) have to come off any way.' Sometimes we are a bit lax about teeth-cleaning because, yes, 'they have to come off any way'.

Not any more.

Trawling the internet I learned too that these six-year-old molars are crucial in shaping the lower face and are important to the position and health of other permanent teeth. If these molars move forward (as they would if the teeth at the front have been lost) then the new permanent teeth might get rather 'crowded' and that would require lots of orthodontic treatment (wearing of braces, etc).

As we talked about it over dinner and we remembered what it was like when his milk teeth sprouted -- O! how he used to love the homeopathic teething granules we used to pour into his mouth -- I suddenly remembered that son was suffering a slight fever and had complained about pain in his cheeks.

We dismissed that pain, knowing full well that it could not be mumps. With hindsight we now know that that pain must have been due to his new permanent molars breaking through.

Molar/Moral of the story: Don't think that just because children must lose their milk teeth we can be slack about cleaning them. They could have permanent teeth long before the milk teeth first go. And the milk teeth are crucial in shaping the jaw.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Making paper work ... and work

I've taken to sewing again as I've noted previously. One of my more difficult tasks recently was trying to buy thread and zips that match the colour of fabric.

It caused me to remember what my mum used to do whenever an item of clothing got too worn out. She removed the buttons and zips so that they could be re-used elsewhere, or by someone else.

It was the same with umbrellas. Most of us would be familiar with umbrellas turned inside out and the metal frame is bent backward beyond repair. Most people would simply throw these away. Mum carefully removed the cover bit from the metal frame, so that if/when she found a metal frame with a broken cover, she might marry the two again.

My latest 'research' into recycling concerns paper. I've never understood what is meant by 'handmade paper' that I come across often in catalogues. I now realize that this is made from used paper or clothes, commonly found plants, etc that have been pulped and shaped into sheets and dried in the sun. Because of the different ways that natural materials like flowers, leaves and grass can be added to it, such paper are very distinctive and popular with people who make cards and those who are into scrapbooking. (Scrapbooking is something else that I do not understand. Perhaps in another blog....)

Commercial manufacturers of such 'handmade papers' are often found in India, Nepal, North Thailand and some African countries. The capital outlay to start up such businesses is low and there are lots of women who are happy to do this kind of work. The climate means there is no shortage of raw materials (lokta, mulberry, silk, etc) and the constant sunshine makes drying the paper naturally possible.

So I'm planning to try paper-making myself in the summer with my son during the school hols or even before. Nothing like letting him get messy and enjoying the result of our labour.

There are lots of unwanted paper coming through my letterbox all the time which needs shredding because of personal details printed on it. Anyone who gets hold of these details can simply phone up the company concerned and make orders in my name. All the companies ask for in terms of identification is one's full address. This is clearly pre-printed on every bit of promotional material they send out.

So what better way to make use of this unwanted paper than to convert it into handmade paper again. I somehow can't see myself doing this as a commercial venture, but I think it will be very therapeutic to see the mountains of wasteful paper in my house being turned into something useful again.

There is one catch though. Water is required in the process. I've read about how some manufacturers in India recycle their water. I imagine that the water used in paper-making can also be reused in the garden.

Any advice from other paper-makers out there will be welcome.

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