80/20 for staying sane and (mostly) ethical

Or Breakfast With Gussie Finknottle

(a condensed version of something from my old blog)

To be fair Gussie Finknottle* has no more to do with this post than the fact I had my breakfast sitting on the edge of a small pond watching newts appear and disappear. While I was there and Gussie, Augustus, and Gus were popping up to the surface catching bugs for their own breakfast (at least that’s what I assume they were doing although they may have been trying to get to my cheese on toast) I started thinking about my 80/20 purchasing rule.

80/20 Purchasing Rule

I tried for a long time to be ethically perfect. I am by nature a perfectionist and I  struggle with being able to call anything being good enough but the world is complicated and I’m not strong enough to overcome every ruse of every loveless, avaricious big business out there yet I still have to act morally and live sanely.  The 80/20 rule was my solution.

It works like this. The values on the heart above are important to me – fair trade, cruelty free, recycling, etc – and so I make sure that 80% of everything I buy ticks one (and preferably several) of these values. The other 20% can be from anywhere.


So far the 80/20 rule has worked for me. It’s not difficult to be cruelty-free nowadays although it can be harder to buy clothes and other things from countries with fair and enforced labour laws it’s still very possible with only a little research and vigilance. I’m still flexible though because I realise that not everything I eat can be organic, that I can’t get a lot of things secondhand (larger sizes are always harder to find), and that something I know is made by a women’s cooperative in Nigeria might be using chemical dyes. What I used to forget when I was ultra meticulous about the provenance of everything is that an awful job is better than no job. People working in horrific conditions don’t have alternatives because if they did they would take them and there wouldn’t be a problem. I’m all for making manufacturers see that we want decent practices by putting my money towards fair trade purchases wherever possible but I have also come to realise that the women working in the sweatshops want change not close down.

The reality is that I think I do better than 80% most of the time. This is partly because I am a creature of habit and once I find something I like I stick to it and, partly, because by taking off the pressure to be perfect I’ve given myself the freedom to relax and rationalise instead of being caught up in a paralysing state of guilt.

Bird By Bird

Anne Lamott in ‘Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life,’ said, “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.’”

That’s what I’m trying to do. I want the world to be a better place and I want a clean conscience but I’m one woman with financial limitations so instead of doing everything I’m taking it bird by bird (or newt by newt). It might not be organic but it’s enabling someone to feed her children. It might not be local but it’s fair trade. It isn’t from a micro business but it’s keeping people in work. It might go on my credit card but once it’s paid off I’ll have it for twenty years. It’s not perfect but it works.


80/20 rule breakfast

(Today’s breakfast: bread from an organic bakery in Glasgow courtesy of Roomie, Isle of Mull cheddar, tomatoes from my friend’s greenhouse, olives from the counter in Morrisons, fair trade coffee, charity shop cup and saucer).

And Gussie, Augustus, and Gus agree. I’m glad I had breakfast with them. Newts are very good listeners and ours are obviously very with it so never let anyone tell you that just because you live at the bottom of a pond you can’t have an informed and valuable opinion about the things that matter.

*Gussie Fink-Nottle is a regular character in the ‘Jeeves & Wooster’ stories by P. G. Wodehouse and, as you can guess now, Gussie is obsessed with newts. He’s actually an early literary appearance of the modern nerd: weedy, socially inept, and able to bore everyone else to tears with his pet subject in nought to ninety.  When I was a teenager I thought I could probably get him as a boyfriend.


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