THE time has come, sisters Hannah and Rachel Dare believe, for an overhaul of Christmas traditions. We need to move away from over-consumption and towards modest, sustainable gift-giving and valuing family time.
“When we were kids, food was very plain and often vegetarian, so feast days really did stand out,” says Hannah, who is three years older than Rachel.
“My children are fairly spoiled in comparison. A huge feast isn’t what they want anymore.”
“When we were growing up, the big thing used to be a visit to Santa’s Lapland; you don’t really hear that anymore. There’s a complete swing away from anything involving excess and excessive travel.”
The trend towards simplicity and a reduction of the orgy of excess at Yuletide has become something to be welcomed by both the pocket and the planet, both sisters agree.
Hannah and Rachel are sitting in their café in Bantry discussing their plans for the festive season.
Like many independent small business owners in food and retail, their Christmas doesn’t really begin until they close the doors of Organico on Christmas Eve; up until that point, they’ll barely get a breathing space in one of their busiest times of the year.
It’s already been a jam-packed 2019 for the family business that employs 30. In May, the sisters upped their already impressive green business credentials with the introduction of a new zero-waste refill store, where customers bring containers to stock up on a packaging-free selection of dried goods, oils and condiments, and eco-friendly cleaning products and toiletries.
In August, they received a grant award from Enterprise Ireland to expand their online shop to 20% of their retail business. Top this off with the energetic duo’s hosting of an array of events and workshops, and the desire for a restful Christmas makes perfect sense.
Rachel, who heads up the café end of the business, lives with her husband, Keith Hurley, about 10 kilometres from Bantry town; she’s looking forward to a low-key Christmas with Keith and her brother, Jaime.
“We used to have really big family gatherings with aunts and uncles travelling from the UK or us going over, but in the past four or five years, it’s become harder to extricate ourselves from the business before Christmas Eve, and travelling anywhere at that point seems stressful and unnecessary,” Rachel says.
“Hannah is celebrating Christmas with her kids, and me and my husband and Jamie are coming up with something different: it’s the first year we haven’t had a gang so we’re kind of excited about creating our own version that’s just whatever the three of us want to do that day.”
Keith, who does design and maintenance work for Organico, used to raise free-range turkeys as Christmas gifts, but this year their festive fare is likely to be more plant-based.
“I’m not labelling my diet, but I’ve given up dairy recently and my younger brother has just gone vegan,” Rachel says.
“Last year we had a lovely organic chicken that we sell in the shop that’s about 3kg in weight, so they’re like a small turkey. This year, with three of us, one vegan, we’re going to have an interesting one.”
Following the wake-up call of an excessive mound of gifts some years ago, the Dare sisters talked about reducing gift-giving amongst adults; for the past two years, they’ve instituted a new family tradition of only giving each other books.
“It’s great, because then we all swap the books, so you get to read right into the new year,” Rachel says.
“And it still requires a lot of thought and care and knowing the person and what they like.”
With kids, it’s a different story. Hannah, who oversees the shop and online retail elements of the business, is mum to Lucy, 10, and Max, seven.
“We’re trying to minimise presents,” Hannah says.
“The only plastic thing allowed is Lego because that has a fabulous long life and can be passed on through generations. We’re trying to get them thinking about what they wish for and what’s good for them and sustainable.
“That can be challenging enough with a seven-year-old boy who is mad about gadgets, though!”
One solution is to gift an experience instead of a toy, Hannah says, which makes treasured memories instead of mountains of household clutter.
Despite being a self-confessed family of “foodies”, this simplicity also extends to the Christmas dinner.
“If you’re focused on doing Christmas with your family, you don’t want to spend the entire day cooking,” Hannah says.
“The past few years we’ve had Tom Durcan’s spiced beef, with white sauce and roast potatoes; a turkey’s just too big when there’s four of you. We have a nice Christmas dinner, but also a very relaxed day with no stress.”
In their business, the sisters are noticing an increased demand for sustainable gifts. Although consumable luxuries like Fair Trade chocolate or handmade soaps are a good option, Organico dispensed with the traditional hamper packaging several years ago, opting instead for selections of goodies presented in a simple jute bag.
“We’d be up to here with Cellophane and ribbons and everything, all just to make it look good for the moment it was opened, and we just thought it was crazy,” says Rachel.
This year’s popular gift ideas amongst Organico customers also include stainless-steel water bottles and lunch boxes, truly the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to the environment, for the disposable packaging they’ll take out of circulation during their lifespan.
In many ways, Organico’s entire ethos has been decades ahead of the current trend for sustainability and waste reduction. As teens, the sisters worked in their dad Alan Dare’s health food shop, Essential Foods. As with many of the network of health food stores that opened in Ireland’s towns and villages from the ‘70s to the ’90s, foods arrived in bulk and were zero-waste by default.
“We used to decant miso into jam jars,” Hannah says. “All the spices were loose. Our dad went to a warehouse for short-dated foods that were still fine, things like peanut butter and honey. He’d look at the stock and offer a sum for it and then bring it back to the shop.
“We’d have a queue of people on dole day; people who wanted to eat well but couldn’t afford it. You look back, and you realise it was zero waste, instinctively.”
“The history of the business is as a really old-school refill shop,” Rachel says.
“About five years ago, this trend started popping up around the world. But we can’t go back to sacks on the floor with scoops in; everyone’s far more aware of health and safety these days. You’ve got to have a better system.”
This took time, effort and ingenuity; after much trial and error, the sisters installed a pressurised system based on bar technology, complete with re-purposed bar taps, to dispense liquid cleaning products.
“We bought barrels that exploded, taps that couldn’t handle the viscosity of the products,” Rachel says, laughing. “But now our decanting system is really quick and easy to use, and our customers are actually educating each other in how to use it.”
As local business owners who are in constant contact with their customer-base, the siblings’ ethical approach is a far cry from that of giant, faceless multinationals; the Dare sisters say that not everything in their business is motivated purely by profit.
“If you were only thinking of the bottom line, there are a lot of things you just wouldn’t do,” Hannah says with a smile.
“The refill store definitely doesn’t come from a financial impulse in terms of labour and physical space. It may even turn out to be a loss-leader. But we just kind of felt we had to do it. We feel that as a business we’re responsible for creating a lot of waste, both directly and indirectly, and that we have a responsibility to reduce that.”
Today, we continue our three day series on people who are planning a ‘greener’ Christmas. Sisters Hannah and Rachel Dare, of Bantry’s award-winning shop and café, Organico, tell ELLIE O’BYRNE that instead of excessive gifts and meals, this year they’ll celebrate a sustainable Christmas that is all about quality time with loved ones.