I’m a cynic. Always have been, and likely always will be. And I don’t think it’s just me – I think our whole generation (I’m 21) has a tendency towards this disposition, and really who could blame us? Under the weight of the political minefield, a pandemic, and the looming climate crisis why wouldn’t we be pessimistic about the future? (I’m daring to make some fairly weighty generalisations here, so if you relate that’s all well and good, and if not take this as my personal confession). This tendency of mine comes back to bite me at the best of times, and none more so than when I have to swallow my pride and recognise that my pessimism has me blinkered.
After stepping back from university this summer, I took up an internship with ‘The Festival of Thrift’. They are, and rightly so, the ‘UK’s national celebration of sustainable living’ and every September they welcome 35,000 people to Kirkleatham to discuss, learn about, try out, and enjoy every aspect of sustainability. From swapping clothes to gardening tips to fixing your bike, these guys are really offering it all – with the added bonus of live music and artists showing off their ‘sustainability themed’ works. Amazing, right? I thought so too… until I was tasked with looking at their digital platforms and analysing why they weren’t reaching audiences of my age, especially those of us who might never make it to a live event.
When I first looked at their website, that’s when my cynical voice crept in and I started having those thoughts I didn’t dare share: ‘Look at all these bright colours, it’s very childish’; ‘Make and do? That’s a bit cringy, really who has time?’; ‘Where are the petitions for me to sign?’; ‘Where are the Extinction Rebellion logos?’ It took me a second to realise the real question I was asking – ‘Why aren’t you taking this more seriously?’ – and that’s when I knew I really had been blinded. I was harboring the perception that when it comes to climate issues if you’re not dismal you’re not doing it right.
What I failed to see at first is that the festival is actually doing something incredibly important: it holds up the other half of the essential equation of how we tackle the climate crisis. On one hand, we do need staunch activism and the festival recognises this, for every up-cycling workshop there is a climate change discussion, for every musician or artist there is a featured activist or social enterprise. However, they never lose sight of the need for levity and playfulness when looking to inspire social change. In reality, such an attitude is far from ‘not taking it seriously’, but is actually designed to keep people engaged, excited, and enthusiastic about a topic that can be draining at the best of times. And why would we shy away from this? Chances to feel childish, creative, or silly become more and more of a rarity by the grand old age of 21 as impending adulthood promises the pressure of increasing awareness of global issues. The Festival of Thrift is unique in that it both preserves the (what I call) ‘spirit of thrift’, while always having one eye on our contemporary moment. Why can’t our solemnity be balanced with whimsy? Case in point, the festival has a packed website listing everything from how to make sun and wind faces, noisy toys, and a plastic bottle flower pot, to how to host your own clothing ‘swap shop’. I would consider taking part in any of these activities, a personal rebellion against the social dictum that, by my age, I’m on a one-track road to adulthood and can never again indulge that inner child. The reality is that without that dollop of whimsy the topic of sustainability quickly becomes stale, the conversation stops, and activism loses its momentum.
However, this is not to say that sustainable practices are all fun and games. Take the festival’s ‘Fix It Cafe’, run by two festival veterans inviting visitors to drop off broken items for restoration and teaching them the ins and outs of fixing on the website. Now, watching an hour-long demonstration on how to fix a charger cable, or perusing a list of tips on home D.I.Y, doesn’t appeal to me as all that fun. It remains an intriguing contradiction, however, that our generation fights climate change with such admirable fervour, and yet often fails to recognise that it isn’t all about marches and protests. There is a quieter side to sustainable living, a side championing the value of tinkering away on fix-it projects to resist buying that new toaster, charger, clock, etc. In a world where we are so accustomed to living with a familiar feeling of nihilistic dread, does the thought of joining in these ‘boring’ endeavours really seem too strenuous? Aren’t we the generation willing to go to any length?
Last but not least, I do genuinely believe that there is a lot about the festival that suits students, it simply takes that quintessentially thrifty attitude. In a section proffering ‘downloadable activity packs’, for example, you’ll actually find all the bits and bobs for that summery post-lockdown post-exam picnic. Follow a thrift fest jam recipe, make a mini kite each, learn the rudimentary skills of cloud gazing (add a generous amount of beer – not provided) and suddenly you’ve put a thrifty twist on your usual get-together. Or, as is so common nowadays, why isn’t the next themed prinks (pre-drinks in case that’s a Geordism) ‘dress like a Dandy’? You’ve guessed it, the festival has a remarkably helpful guide for that too. Even more remarkably, the ‘secret life of stuff’ pack might resemble an ‘anything but clothes’ theme more closely than you’d imagine. It might even give you the edge so we don’t all have to see the same Sainsbury’s bag boob-tube for the tenth time over. I’ll also drop in a cliff-hanger to end this article that comes in the form of the Festival of Thrift 2021 marketplace promising to open in the coming months. The page hosts a selection of small businesses for you to support, all in one place and all year round, so it really couldn’t be easier to do your bit.
I’ll sign off there but I humbly offer some food for thought and will be sat in the corner eating my own generous slice of humble pie if anyone needs me – after all, we’re all still learning but sustainability should be a celebration, not an invitation to cynicism.
Take a look at our new commission VIEWPOINTS – One Beautiful Moment by Festival of Thrift