Today’s post is by Dr Ian Humphreys, the Chief Executive of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, and an NAEE Fellow. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association.

It was an eventful start to 2024 for us at Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful as we launched a new campaign called Buy Nothing New Month which encouraged consumers to look at pre-loved and more sustainable options on the high street. 

Whilst not a new campaign in the UK, this was the first time it was rolled out in Northern Ireland provoking a contested debate between us on the one hand and others in the retail sector who voiced concerns that we were urging people to boycott buying anything for the entire month of January.

What lessons have we learned from our experience of running this campaign and how might we apply those lessons in the future?

Buy Nothing New Month has been going on in other parts of the UK since 2023 through Keep Britain Tidy, with some councils supporting the campaign. The message is relatively simple, we want people to think about their consumption choices and how they can source more environmentally friendly goods. Developing a more circular economy is critically important for making progress on fighting the climate emergency and this campaign brings that message home. We make no apology for delivering this message, it is simply essential. If we are serious about making long-lasting changes that can benefit everyone in society, then we have to do things differently.

However, whilst the message is a necessary one, how we deliver it, is something that is just as important. In some ways this campaign was a huge success. For several days news channels (TV, radio and print) were all focused on this hot debate. Buy Nothing New Month became a (sometimes contentious) discussion point across the country, in workplaces and on the street. The cultural norm was challenged, and our hope is that where that norm now lies is in slightly different place than it was prior to the campaign. Perhaps next year we will find out. That said, the debate also highlighted the chasm in understanding of the context that led us to run Buy Nothing New Month. As far as possible, we want (and need) to bring people with us. In that space, we still have work to do. For an average retailer January is a difficult month and in a cost of living crisis, this financial squeeze is felt even more acutely. In Northern Ireland this is being exacerbated by additional business rate rises. So, I get why many retailers would run 100 miles in the opposite direction of anything like this.

My belief is that the economy and the environment go hand in hand. They are not opposites. Building a circular economy is good for both. We are not seeking a wasteland on our high streets; quite the opposite. It is those of us in the environment sector who are arguing strongly to make better use of our town centres and make them places for people to visit. Our messages on greener spaces and more efficient public transport are good for business. We want to bring all sectors with us, at least as far as that is possible. We want to promote the many opportunities that are out there through properly implementing a circular economy and yes, aiming for the top of the ‘three Rs’ with tangible reductions in consumption. Providing consumers (I hate that term and much prefer civilians) with higher quality and longer lasting items then becomes the default.

We have to think longer-term and clearly show what we are aiming to achieve. Tackling over-consumption is one way we improve our environment and ultimately lower costs for businesses. Increasing our waste simply increases costs. Doing what we have always done has gotten us to this mess, where for example, the increased frequency of adverse weather events (think of the recent flooding of town centres) is resulting in longer closures of businesses, with loss of stock and increasing difficulties in obtaining insurance. This sets the real context by which to measure the need for more campaigns like Buy Nothing New Month. As an aside, in its own way, the Dry January campaign has been championing this approach with little resistance for some years now. And the banning of single use plastics, the extension of producer responsibility to cover recovery of their packaging and the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme are all inexorably moving us in the right direction, despite the lobbying and resistance of those who cannot see past the failed approach of business as usual.

Do we need more of the (judicious use of) shock tactics that get us all thinking about this in a way that otherwise never happens? I think so, but it has to align with at least some people in our society if the resulting debate is to have any chance to change behaviours. Finding our advocates ‘out there’, aligning where we can (such as through our shared values), and empowering them to take on the difficult discussions is essential. We can never achieve the necessary change alone.

None of us are arguing for dramatic change overnight, though it is needed at both pace and scale. We want to work with people to identify what changes need to be made in whole supply chains and how we can get there. Completing any journey starts with a first step. Buy Nothing New month is very much one of those first steps.


Comments welcome. Ian can be contacted at:

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