Paradoxically, the reduced spending power of your average Joe could help green up South Africa more effectively that any campaign warning of the impending dangers of climate change.
The fact is, going green can save you money. Even American personal finance guru Suze Orman offers a list of ways to save money by going green on her website, and it doesn’t get more mainstream than that.
Many of the green tips to saving money you’ll find hinge on using less electricity. South Africans are beginning to pick up on that message thanks to Eskom’s 2008 blackouts and the massive increase in the cost of electricity — note the rise in the number of solar water heaters appearing on suburban rooftops.
And anyone who isn’t now familiar with the green mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle” must be living in a cave. Green consumerism may be an oxymoron but, realistically, who is willingly going to opt to return to a pre-industrial revolution, subsistence-farming kind of lifestyle? And the influence of the “keeping up with the Joneses” factor should never be underestimated.
Being on a budget makes us much more conscious consumers. You don’t want to waste what money you have on disposable rubbish. Besides, buying green can give you a warm fuzzy feeling that you’re not destroying the planet with every cent you spend.
So it makes sense then that going green is also opening up new avenues for entrepreneurs.
Returning to the earth
“Dust is a different kind of status symbol”, reads the bumper sticker on the back of Sonia Armstrong’s bakkie. It is parked outside an earth-coloured building — a cob house — that Sonia and her husband, Alastair, built themselves with a view over rolling green hills of the Rhenosterspruit conservancy, near the Magaliesberg.
Inside, Alastair is standing in front of a whiteboard, finishing off a lecture on the rammed-earth building method to two women who hope to build their own home. Poking out from behind the whiteboard is an extraordinary sculpture of an elephant’s head, with tusks made from bits of weathered wood.
The head is in fact a pizza oven, created above the fireplace, by Sonia, who is a graphic designer by profession. It is made of cob and covered with lime plaster, as are the walls.
Cob is a Welsh word that means bread, says Alastair. It’s a mixture of mud, clay and straw, and worked into clumps that look like loaves of bread, hence the name given to the building technique.
The building is where the couple hold their natural building courses — they run a company called InSynch Sustainable Technologies — but Sonia says, when she conceptualised it, she wanted a place where people could dance. Light floods in from tall windows on three sides of the building, setting off the natural earth tone of the walls.
A breeze blows in off the stoep. It’s a far cry from a mud hut — and not hard to see why architects have been converted to green building techniques by this enthusiastic couple.
Their dream is to build a B&B. The main building has already been started, using earth and rocks dug from the property.
When the Armstrongs moved to Rhenosterspruit they decided to buck the faux Tuscan trend so loved in Gauteng and build something that would blend in with the landscape.
Alastair happened upon an article in the Farmer’s Weekly about straw-bale building and the couple went on a course. That was the beginning of an eco-building adventure. They continued taking courses on different building techniques and devoured books.
Sonia says that when they first started to build on their River Bend farm in Rhenosterspruit “people thought we were the eccentric people on the hill”. But now that natural building is becoming better known, they have become “consultants”.
The first course they gave, which was about three years ago, was attended by their neighbours. Now architects are among the people who do their courses, and they have surrounded themselves with a network of like-minded people who offer other green services. Alastair, an electrical engineer, also runs a solar power company with a partner.
Although they are living the green dream, it hasn’t been plain sailing. “It’s been very tough to live the green lifestyle.” They left suburbia, Jo’burg’s Melville, about 11 years ago. They wanted to raise their children “somewhere they could ride horses rather than skateboards”, says Alastair. “Somewhere they could be in touch with nature.”
They were not connected to the electricity grid and the water came from a borehole. They had to learn to live “green” out of necessity. You learn how precious the things we urbanites take for granted are when you move out to the sticks — like water on tap, he says.
“What we are doing here isn’t a job, it’s a calling,” says Sonia. ” Green building is about putting a spirit into your home that is yours. It’s about restoring old-fashioned values and knowledge into our modern times. In the past the community passed down knowledge but we have lost this.”
Sonia and Alastair want to bring ancient techniques like rammed-earth building back into the mainstream. Their B&B will be classy, geared at ordinary people, not hippies, they say. “A lot of people think green building is cheap building. It’s not. When you build you should look at the price tag as what does it cost the Earth.”
We all know what recycling is — even though not many of us actively recycle anything — but upcycling is a relatively new word in the green lexicon. In practice, though, South Africans have been doing it for years: go to any market and you’ll find all manner of things made from old colddrink cans, for example.
One man’s trash is another’s treasure, as the saying goes, and when you need to make a living and you don’t have the means to buy virgin raw materials, a rubbish bin and a bit of imagination can go a long way. The thing is, upcycling now has some cachet, and its trendy green entrepreneurs who are making a go of it.
Zoë Willems is one and her company, Rooikop, turns discarded plastic carrier bags into a variety of fashionable bags. “When I made my first bag I didn’t think it would become a business,” she says.
It started as a response to an initiative at the advertising agency where she worked. The company had challenged staff members to get involved in a sustainable project. Willems had seen an article in a magazine about fusing plastic together into a thicker material that could be sewn and decided to give it a try — she sewed the resulting “fabric” into a bag.
Soon she began to collect plastic bags from friends and family to turn into bags. She ran out of plastic and went to the Bryanston dump, where she was surprised to find that plastic bags were going into landfill. Now she collects a carload of bags a week from the dump. In her house in Craigavon, in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, she sorts the bags into the different types and colours of plastic and washes them.
She used to work on developing her bags between 2am and 3am. Her husband, Karel, is an artist and helped her with designs. It took a long time to develop the product, she says, but eventually all the hard work in the wee hours paid off. She took one of her bags to work one day and the managing director of the company called her over and asked her if she was planning on resigning. “Almost from day one, I had confirmation,” says Willems. She sold her first bag to one of her colleagues.
Since she started making bags in February 2009 she has expanded her capacity to 200 bags a month and has taken on a full-time employee, David Gwenzi, who helps with designs and sewing. Her main market is corporate gifts and she also sells her bags on the internet. Distributors in New York and the United Kingdom have also expressed an interest.
Willems is very inspired. “It’s not just that I am preventing plastic from going to landfill,” she says. “If I can get this off the ground I can also employ people and upskill them and make a big difference at home.”
Laura Grant is the chief subeditor of the Mail & Guardian
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