Green reality check

Last updated: Nov 2006


I know that it seems obscenely early to ask but, with Christmas fast looming,  have you thought what you’re going to buy your nearest and dearest this year? And what about your Christmas card list? 


When you finally get round to it, the chances are that you’ll be helping to boost one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy - the ethical market.

In 2004 this stood at a whopping £25 billion and all the evidence suggests that this Christmas more shoppers than ever will be putting their money where their beliefs are and buying products which benefit both people and the planet. 

From ethical fashion to Fairtrade food, recycled Christmas cards to recycled Christmas crackers, there’s a vast and ever growing range of consumer goodies which now carry an ethical and environmental message - and a price tag to match.

But just because we buy an ethically traded pair of jeans or environmentally-friendly fridge, does this get us off the environmental hook? If we simply swap our old brands for their ethical alternative and go for Traidcraft rather than Tesco, People Tree and not Prada, is this the end of this story, problem solved for a whole range of environmental issues?



Time for a reality check

Well brace yourselves, as it’s time for a reality check from Friends of the Earth’s Michael Warshaw, who explains that people need to be aware that whatever they buy has an environmental impact, even when it’s greener than the other options available.

He argues that, in our rush to buy the ethical consumer marketing message that we can shop for a better world, we’re in danger of loosing sight of the fundamental environmental fact that rather than just shopping ethically, we need to be shopping a whole lot less. 

The bottom line is that if we’re serious about addressing the issue of the inequality in the distribution of resources between the developing countries in the South and the developed North, then we’ve got to make do with less.

“If our patterns of consumption in the UK were repeated around the world, by 2050 we’d need an extra eight planets,” says Claire Wilton from Friends of the Earth.

“Richer countries need to consume less if we are going to live within our environmental limits and allow others their fair share of the Earth’s resources.” 



Wrong direction?

Despite the urgency of this message, all the indications are that we’re going in completely the wrong direction. 

"While there’s strong growth in the green and ethical market, there’s no evidence that this is at the expense of other non-ethical goods as consumption is still growing in all sectors as our level of disposable income continues to rise,” says Nicola Austin from consumer think tank the Future Foundation.

The truth is that when it comes to consumerism, it’s just business as usual, the only difference being the brands we’re buying.

The one sector where these issues are at their most stark is the fickle world of fashion. By its very nature fashion exists in the here and now and gobbles up eye-wateringly huge amounts of resources, not to mention the over-worked and under-paid workers who produce our cut price clothes in some far-off sweat-shop. 

It’s great that people now have the choice of buying ethical t-shirts and tops, but the crucial question that we should be asking is ‘do I really need to buy this?’



Fair consumption?

So just what are the solutions to this issue?

For Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation, the answer is straightforward: “We need to consume fairly and not freely,” believes Lamb. “Rather than buying two new shirts, for example, we should buy just one but make sure that it’s a fairly traded shirt which means that cotton farmers who aren’t being paid a realistic price for their cotton get a fairer return for their produce.”

Others, such as Nicola Austin, believe that increasing numbers of people are looking to a techno-fix to provide a solution rather than think the unthinkable and - gasp - start reducing the amount of stuff they buy.

But even here there’s precious little comfort. Thanks to advances in the design of washing machines, for example, in the last ten years the amount of energy they use has fallen by 30%. However the number of washing machines sold rose by around 20% in the same period. All this when energy consumption needs to be reduced by nearer 60% to head off the chaos predicted by climate scientists.


From Ethical Consumer, Issue 103, November/December 2006