Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan is fed up of negative sneerers

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Lucy Mangan
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“It’s such a failure of empathy and imagination to sneer at small gestures. Our lives are made up of small gestures.” 

Every day I try – like I suspect increasing numbers of us do – to find something to keep me going through the next 24 hours. Just a little thing. Something to give me a tiny bit of a lift and power me through the day, lest I otherwise chuck everything in the air, gather my survival kitbag from under the stairs and head for the hills to start digging my bunker.

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Most recently I found and clung to the uplifting news that the Oxford branch of Waitrose has started trialling packaging-free shopping. And in quite a big way: asking customers to bring their own containers and fill them with any of around 200 dry goods and cleaning products from big dispensers. It represents both a marked departure from modern practice and a pleasing (for those of us who have always preferred life as lived in a historical novel) return to the ways of yesteryears’ grocery shopping.

You don’t get long these days, however, before the deluge of pieces damning an initiative begins. A PR stunt! They cried. Too little, too late! Radical government action is what we need to save the planet!

Talk about letting good be the enemy of better, perfection being the enemy of progress. I’m so sick of this attitude. It can be used to undermine absolutely anything positive that anyone tries to do in a world urgently in need of all the good things we can muster.

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Of course, it’s good PR for the company. A supermarket is not in the business of putting itself out of that business. But there are a million ways it could do itself good without benefitting anyone or anything else. Instead, it has chosen to do both.

It’s good PR for Tesco to be increasing its minimum wage, for publishers to be making new efforts to broaden the diversity of the authors they take on, and for George Clooney to have hired a mostly-female crew to counterbalance the mostly-male cast of his new show Catch-22. It’s good PR to make Doctor Who female. But it’s also just… good.  

It may only be a drop in the (overheating) ocean and of course it won’t be enough without large-scale interventions elsewhere. But do you know how many global problems can be solved with one, single, gorgeously sweeping action? None of them. But do you know what else? Governments are swayed by electoral pressure. The kind of pressure that might come, say, from a cohort of people made aware by small, daily interactions with their retailers, books and televisions that there might be a better way of doing things.

 I’m old enough to remember when ozone-destroying CFCs became ‘A Thing’. Suddenly, alternative and non-aerosol hairsprays filled the shelves and it became odd to use what we unthinkingly used before. Legislation followed, and the green movement took a pace forward.

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 It’s such a failure of empathy and imagination to sneer at small gestures. Our lives are made up of small gestures. We rarely change our minds overnight. We are nudged there, most efficiently by being encouraged to try new things that then prove workable without inconveniencing us too much.

Sneerers are legion and they often make us feel naive or childishly foolish. But it’s not morally superior to do nothing unless you (or someone else) find a way to do everything. It’s lazy, cowardly and I’ve no more time for it.

Well done, Waitrose, and everyone else who finds a little way to contribute to our collective good. You got me through the day and have given me the energy pass on some positivity. So the unsneering world turns. 

Images: Getty

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