By Catherine Franks
As another week begins I consider how we move a step forward while simultaneously taking several steps back. It feels very much like this is the dance we are all doing at the moment and I wonder when we will stop, look at the bigger picture and all start walking together in a forwards direction.
Every day the news seems to be worse - the looming energy crisis, the cut to Universal credit, the gaps in the supermarket shelves, the increase in NI contributions. Today there is the proposal to reduce the threshold for reclaiming student loan payments, what will it be tomorrow?
The bigger picture
When you look at the headlines day by day it is like staring at an impressionist painting close up. One crazy dab of colour after another. Splotch, the customs charges on goods coming from the EU. Dab, stopping free school meals. Splat, panic buying of fuel. Dab, the doubling of young people being referred to mental heath services. The announcements hit you rapid fire and you barely have time to catch your breath before the next thing to worry about comes at you. This constant barrage of bad news has many of us wanting to hide. My initial instinct is to duck under a duvet and hibernate through winter, hoping to emerge miraculously into a better world come spring. Another common reaction is noticeable too with more people buying into the fear mongering and conspiracy theories which fly about as readily as the bad news.
I do believe we need to step back to see the big picture, but not in the way the conspiracists would have us believe. Rather than some plan by Big Pharma or Bill Gates I think we should look at a much simpler explanation. When our world stopped in March 2020 many of us reassessed how we spend our time at work and we also noticed clearly who were the essential workers which kept our society running. It felt like there would be a seismic shift, the first for a generation at least (possibly since WW2) where we would look at restructuring our society to make it more equitable and to perhaps come together to tackle the existential crisis of climate change. The BLM movement felt like it was breaking through to the mainstream as did the fight for LGBT+ rights. It felt like there was a burning urgency to redress past wrongs as statues were toppled and people came to the streets in protests.
Discontent is the first necessity of progress.
I reckon this got those who benefit from the status quo seriously worried. If people actually recognised the contributions made by nurses, would we expect them to be paid as well as politicians? If store clerks and postal workers were so vital to our needs being met, would people come together to ensure they were paid a living wage - how about Amazon's workforce? Wow, that would need to come out of somebody's profits.
Then the lockdowns of 2020 faded into the reopening of 2021 and this urgency for change seemed to recede again as we rushed to ‘return to normal’. We wanted to have BBQs and travel and go to festivals. We crammed into pubs and football stadiums, some people seemed to throw their masks away with the fervour of the bra burning feminists of the 60’s. Then as Covid rates started going up again we all started blaming each other - for not wearing masks, for gathering in crowds, for getting vaccinated or not getting vaccinated.
Then the shelves started showing strange gaps and we started to realise that closing our doors to European workers meant that we weren’t getting … European workers. You know, the ones who drive the lorries and pick the crops and clean the rooms and who propped up the UK economy for years. This is squarely on the current Prime Minister who spread anti European xenophobia for decades and eventually came to power on a Tsunami of broken Brexit promises. The government’s proposed solution: visas for European workers. Through this morally bankrupt Tory plan we can get these people's labour without them being afforded even the most basic rights that they had as EU workers, even working in the hardest jobs that many British workers refused to do at the rates being offered. Here’s the thing, we don’t really have a labour shortage we have a living wage shortage. Now the government think that they can have their cake of closed borders and eat it too by having the very same workers they accuse of taking British jobs come in under temporary visas to fill in the shortages. Honestly, I hope they don’t come so that Johnson, Farage and their cronies can stew in the mess of their own making.
So here we all are, some of us in uncertain jobs, some with no job, and yet others with way too much work to do. A small number of people have become infinitely better off through the pandemic, the majority are now worse off. Where do we go from here?
One step forward
If we zoom back in to the tiny detail of our business in our small town on the coast of Scotland, what has been happening here? Finally, after 18 months of no sitting inside Steampunk, we have taken the decision to open up with a few tables downstairs. But we are not going back to how things were before and here is why. We want to maintain a safe and sustainable way of working for our team whist offering great service to our customers and we do not think it is economically viable to do this while trying to offer a larger menu, table service or even washable cups. If you duck back behind the scenes in the cafe you see that to enable these you need so much additional labour to serve, clear and wash crockery - one that is not profitable with such restricted customer numbers without exploiting the workforce. The entire model of cafe profitability is dependent on relatively low prices and rapid turnover. And stressed and exhausted workers. We don’t want to climb back on this hamster wheel.
Our menu remains unchanged from our lockdown offering - focussing on coffee and cake. Ordering will continue to be self service as it has been since we reopened earlier this year with customers clearing their own tables. We hope that by reopening the cafe in this way we can work together with our customers to have a relaxed and welcoming environment whilst operating safely for staff and within the capabilities of our current staffing levels.
The decision to use only take away cups is not one we take lightly. From the customers point of view, we understand how drinking out of ceramic is an infinitely nicer option and there is also the environmental consideration of the waste from take away cups.
Several steps back
This is really tough for us as we have spent the past few years campaigning hard to reduce the use of take away cups. From 2018 until 2020, we offered a 50p rebate for using reusables cups. This was self financed out of our profits. We are proud that we managed to get our reusable rate up to about 30% of our take aways pre pandemic (the national average is only around 2%). Although we continue to offer a 20p discount for reusables and have many regular customers who always bring their own cups, with everything moving to take aways the volume of waste has increased tremendously and the proportion in reusables has correspondingly dropped.
At the same time as championing reusables we also managed, through a fair bit of effort, and in collaboration with another local business (shout out to Elly Douglas-Hamilton at Archerfield Walled Garden) to get the Vegware Close the Loop composting service extended out from the central belt to North Berwick. Through this service we have paid for between 2-4 wheelie bins per week of food waste, coffee grounds and disposable cups, lids etc to be taken for commercial composting. Although not as environmentally friendly as reusing cups, this at least enabled us to divert much of our waste from landfill so that it could be properly processed. We tried hard to get other local businesses on board, even hosting an evening at Steampunk in 2019 to share information about reusables and waste composting with fellow business owners.
Sadly at the end of last week we were notified that this waste collection service can no longer be offered to us in North Berwick and will end this week. It is yet another victim of the perfect storm of the logistics crisis of driver shortages and spiralling costs and I fully understand why it is no longer viable to drive out here to collect waste from only two businesses. With the volume of take away waste produced here in North Berwick, much of it compostable, I think it is a shame that there was not a greater take up of the service which could have perhaps sustained it. I don’t really understand why businesses invest in compostable packaging just to happily send it off to landfill where it will not break down. But what do I know?
Another really shit bit of news just recently was the closure of People’s Energy, our energy supplier at Steampunk. Having supported their crowd funding to start up and been one of their earliest customers we were 100% on board with their aims of greener energy and sharing the profits of the company with its customers as owners of the company. It was a great example of an ethics led business and one which I would have hoped would be an example of the direction businesses should follow. I am so sad that they have fallen victim of the current crisis and my thoughts go to David and Karin the local couple who began the company and the many people who have lost their jobs.
With these sorts of things happening it is easy to feel hopeless and that we are backsliding on much of the progress we have made on environmental and justice fronts over the past years.
Which direction now?
And now where are we as we face the winter of fuel and possible food shortages? We stand divided. Online opinions are confrontational and discussions heated. And that works out perfectly well for the current government and maintaining the status quo.
Remember that the anti litter campaigns from the 1970’s onwards were brought in by the manufacturers of all the litter? More recently the invention of the ‘carbon footprint’ by oil companies has been pretty successful in shifting public attention from the largest polluters to the consumer. If we are all busy fighting one another, ranting online about conspiracies or hiding in our homes who is going to actually take steps to make the changes necessary to improve our lives and the lives of others?
Maybe instead we should all double down on what really matters - civic participation. We are all in this together - so we can all do simple things like picking up some litter or wearing our masks. We all have talents and skills to share and that we can use to make our communities better, but we need to look outside of ourselves as individuals to our wider society.
As we face this winter, we at Steampunk are determined to not lose hope. We will continue to take steps forward, we will try to think through the repercussions of our actions and try to continue to offer something worthwhile. We will acknowledge our limitations and try to tackle them creatively. For now, that will need to be enough.
Have you seen the little recipe book that I put together during the first lockdown in March 2020? Alongside all of our best selling cake recipes there are photos and thoughts and quotes from the time. You can find Recipes for Happiness here.