The myth of the green consumer

This is a guest post by Julie Hill, a Green Alliance associate.

Do you consider yourself a ‘green consumer’? If so, you might resent the inference that you are a myth. But if you don’t consider yourself to be a green consumer, you have just helped to illustrate the problem.

There really are some green consumers, those people prepared to seek out and buy, sometimes at premium price, the limited range of green choices wheeled out by retailers, like fairtrade goods, recycled paper, peat-free compost and organic cotton.

It’s just that not enough of us, when consuming, have chosen these products to make them the norm. Sometimes that’s about price, sometimes it’s about awareness and information. Sometimes, let’s face it, it’s about just not caring, or not caring today because there is too much else to think about.

But what is the fundamental problem? That there is a choice. My argument in The secret life of stuff is that by catering for the small proportion of consumers prepared to purchase in a consistently green way, companies have ensured that every other product has been let off the hook. The idea of the green consumer has pushed retailers towards more sustainable behaviours in some limited areas. The growing uptake of FSC timber and paper, for instance, or the moves to scrutinise the origins of GM food or palm oil.

But these are specific, often news agenda-driven initiatives, important as they are. They say nothing about the credentials of the rest of the goods on offer. Take the average mobile phone. How many are green? Or perfume? Or a T-shirt?

What do we want green to mean anyway?
Even here there is no consistent approach. The energy efficiency of appliances is one area where most consumers know to look out for the A-G rated labels. Why? Because the law requires the labelling, so it is comprehensive, consistent and trusted.

We are getting used to the extension of that idea with the compulsory labelling of the energy efficiency of buildings and cars. But there is nothing that states that the energy used to produce the product has to be calculated, so the early forays of some companies into carbon footprinting puts them either ahead of the game or out on a limb, depending on whether you think the practice will spread or not.

There is nothing requiring information on the water used to produce a product, even though a small number of enlightened companies know that this is their most critical and potentially insecure ingredient, and each of us accounts for over 4,500 litres of water a day in the food and drink we consume.

Or the amount of materials, especially the waste that was generated before the product even got to us. And, despite the welcome development of symbols on packaging to indicate whether the materials used are ones commonly recycled by councils, there is nothing that promotes or requires similar statements for the materials in the products themselves.

Wood, metal and other materials
Materials are the next big environmental and political issue. The tiger economies of China, India and South-East Asia have been producing stuff for us to buy in the developed world, enabling the UK’s own ‘total material requirement’ (the resources used to produce consumer stuff) to stabilise.

That means we have been offshoring the effects of taking those materials, as well as the waste generated along the way. It may not show up in our environmental accounts, but it certainly adds to the global ecological debt. Increasingly, the tiger economies are producing goods for their own citizens, whose incomes are rising. That is good for them, and they have a long way to go before they come anywhere near putting the same strain on planetary resources as we do.

But it also means they may have less vital materials to export to us in future. Already concerns are being voiced inside the European Commission about ‘rare earth’ metals, timber and fibre. These are based more on the viability of European companies than the effects of securing new sources of materials on the environment, but they are at least the start of a debate about what materials we need, why, and where.

Less choice, less waste
The secret life of stuff argues that we have been kept in the dark for far too long. Companies are allowed to bring goods to the market (whether made in this country or outside) without any statement of their ecological origins, good, bad or indifferent. As consumers, we shouldn’t have to search out this information, it should be provided as standard.

We also shouldn’t have to make all the complex judgements that arise from that information. We should rely on companies or public authorities to ‘choice edit’ on our behalf. Of course, there would need to be agreement on what information to collect but, after that, setting the design criteria for the future need not be that hard.

We can see the outlines in initiatives already in train. Timber, metals, textile fibres and water are all commodities that should be certified as sustainably sourced. All products should be designed for durability and repair, and then for recovery and recycling.

We need to find ways to keep materials in our economy much longer. Less than half of the materials entering the UK economy are recovered and the rest is written off as waste, with all the energy, water and human effort involved in bringing the stuff to that point written off as well.

All energy used should, ultimately, be renewable, and all biodegradable materials kept in the nutrient cycle to reduce reliance on non-renewable fertilisers such as phosphates. Only by setting these parameters as design criteria, expected of all products on an international basis, can we begin to address the huge aggregate environmental impact of the products we buy.

We don’t need more choice, we need some choice taken away from us, specifically the option to buy bad products.

Has this made you feel powerless? Are consumers to be simply passive recipients of painfully slow bureaucratic processes to set standards for products? We have to be realistic. Whether it is through government action or unprecedented cooperation between companies, establishing new design criteria for products is not going to happen overnight, and it is not going to happen without public support.

We should all be demanding better, taking up the green choices we already have dotted around, while asking for the whole landscape to be transformed. As Giles Bolton wrote in Aid and other dirty business: ‘Our failure to realise our clout in a consumer-fixated world, is, in truth, the most baffling aspect of modern life and at the root of our powerlessness’. Time to take control.

The secret life of stuff was published by Random House on 13 January 2011. You can order a copy from http://www.rbooks.co.uk.

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