Shopping can be a hazardous sport sometimes, particularly if you're doing it online. It's not just as in 'Will I receive what I actually ordered or will it be a pale imitation?' but also: 'What's it made of?' 'Will I inadvertently contribute to the demise of the planet, or the exploitation of workers, if I buy it?' 'Will I be helping to expand the economy of a country whose ethics I don’t agree with?'
Yes, shopping in these enlightened times might require a little more thought and a more involved examination of one's conscience, but buying something that has been produced sustainably in an environmentally-friendly manner from premises that plant as small a carbon footprint as possible has got to give you a pleasantly warm and fuzzy feeling, hasn't it? Of course!
We are all making a far bigger effort than ever before to ensure that what we make and what we buy, and the way in which we buy it, has as small an impact on our planet as possible, but it must be said that some companies deserve a bigger pat on the back than others.
One of these is Derwent, which manufactures a huge range of top quality artists' pencils and materials from the UK's last remaining pencil factory. Possibly the most appealing aspect of their approach is that being environmentally-friendly wasn't so much a conscious decision (commendable though that is) but simply the way they've always done things.
Keswick, in the heart of the staggeringly beautiful Lake District, has been making pencils in one form or another since 1832, and the Cumberland Pencil Company was formed there in 1916, just a few miles away from where graphite was first discovered almost 500 years ago. (Incidentally - and just because it's interesting - graphite is a form of carbon: squash it enough and it will turn into diamond). Early pencils were simple sticks of graphite wrapped in sheepskin or string, but things have moved on since the 1600s and Derwent's pencil casings now use sustainably-produced wood from managed forests. Just as well, really.
While the original factory is now the site of the Derwent Pencil Museum, Derwent are still not that far away, in Lillyhall. And the reason they moved was not because they'd got bored of Keswick but rather that the factory had become inefficient.
Opened in 2008 by The Queen and Prince Philip, their new premises are custom-built and feature an awe-inspiring array of green credentials. The internal lights are movement-sensitive, so if there's nobody around, the lights will go off. 'The only downside,' says Sales Director Tom Lewington, 'is that if you're concentrating very hard and not moving very much, you'll find yourself in the dark, which is when you need to start waving your arms around!'
Waste is an inevitable by-product of manufacturing. Stringent quality checks enable Derwent to keep waste to a minimum, but not at the expense of quality: a sub-standard pencil will ultimately cause more waste for the end-user, and who wants a sub-standard pencil anyway? Fortunately, pencils are made of largely natural materials, ie graphite, clay and wood, so the waste is relatively easily dealt with. Shavings and sawdust are collected and compacted and used as fuel to heat the factory. They have a portable compactor for cardboard, and ALL of it is recycled; in 2018 this amounted to 26 tonnes. That's equivalent to about 7 fully-grown elephants (or over 4 million coloured pencils, if you prefer!) And it goes without saying that all cans, bottles and glass are separated out and recycled.
Derwent's commitment to ongoing improvement is reflected in their professional memberships and accreditations. They comply with ISO 14001, which demands that they show continuous improvement on waste management and sustainability, requiring a yearly independent audit. They are also a member of the Valpak initiative, which advises on improving product packaging.
And they value their employees: in 2019 they earnt the prestigious RoSPA Order of Distinction Award for Occupational Health and Safety Excellence. In these strange times of COVID-19 their efforts have proved invaluable: they have been rewarded with a resilient, flexible and adaptable workforce which has enabled the business to carry on carrying on. They are also a member of the government's 'Cycle to Work' scheme which encourages workers to commute on two wheels instead of four; not only is it an easy way to incorporate exercise into a working day, it's better for the environment and easier on the pocket too.
Once upon a time, all businesses were naturally environmentally-friendly. Admittedly this was more by accident than design because the internal combustion engine didn't exist and plastic had yet to be invented. So companies who - despite the availability of cheap labour, cheap alternatives and 'easy fixes' - have nevertheless taken it upon themselves to be pro-active in minimising their impact on the environment and constantly investigating more sustainable ways of doing things… and STILL offer a top-quality, well-made product are to be congratulated.
But Derwent have always seen the bigger picture. They probably look on it as just good old common sense.
1 June 2020