State of the Ark shopping

In Leicester's pioneering eco-friendly store customers can hug the plan et amid the latest technology. Will the public get the message? Elizabeth Udall reports

A young, well-groomed man in a suit runs through the door of the shop. He slows down as he begins to take in his surroundings. By the time he reaches the central counter he looks uncomfortable. Two women greet him, huge T-shirts stamped with the word "Staff".

"Could you tell me ...," he begins. They are ready to fulfil any request - cruelty-free bath products, a hessian bag or an unbleached cotton top (two on special offer for £9.99). "Where is the Tourist Information Centre?"

Gone, alas. Last December, The Ark took over the former premises of the Tourist Information Centre in this upmarket shopping area of Leicester. Managed by Environ, the largest local environmental charity in Britain, in partnership with Leicester City Council, it is a project unique not only to Britain but to the whole of Europe. With its combination of shop, first-floor restaurant and state-of-the-art technology, it hopes to reach the man, woman and child in the street and raise their awareness of all things "green".

Maz Thompson runs a shop nearby. What does she think about the nine-screen video wall, the electronic bulletin board and the two touch-screen computers which hold environmental information on more than 300 subjects? "I'm addicted to the cruelty-free soaps ... but I really want one of those."

Ms Thompson points to a row of shiny green plastic dustbins. A small brown card nearby reads: "Wormery. A strong, durable, low-density polyethylene bin which houses a colony of Tiger Worms who [sic], through totally natural processes, break down household kitchen waste into top quality compost ... Comes complete with worms." She stares longingly. "I won't be able to resist much longer."

Vikki Moore, manager of the Ark, bounds over. "These jackets are made from unbleached cotton from organic sources. Even the buttons are made from nuts found in the jungles of Ecuador." She glances at the label. "Yes, it is Ecuador." She signals the energy-saving lightbulbs: "One of these saves people £35 in their lifespan."

Then I see it. The Huggable Planet - the eco-friendly item most likely to make any human being reach for a bottle of bleach. The coloured cloth globe is designed to teach children geography. "You can literally hug it," Vikki enthuses, detailing its attributes with missionary zeal.

"I admit most of the customers I've had are middle class," says Kevin Taylor, a partner in the restaurant. "But I'm sure we'll get the lads who might normally go to McDonald's soon."

Environ's press officer, Oliver Savage, says it's only right that this pioneering project should be sited in Leicester. "It was Britain's first Environment City. We were given the title in 1990 by a collection of organisations, including Friends of the Earth and The Royal Society for Nature Conservation, in recognition of the green projects supported by the city council.

"At the Earth Summit in Rio three years ago, there were only 12 places in the world commended for their commitment to the environment. Leicester was one of them."

So is the Ark the gateway to greater environmental understanding for Leicester? A worthy notion - but since public concern about saving the planet peaked about three years ago, has the Ark missed the boat? How many people in Leicester even know they livein Britain's first Enviromental City?

"We did a survey," says Environ's director, Dave Nichols. "Sixty six per cent of people in Leicester knew about being Britain's first Environment City. Similar surveys in Britain's three subsequent Environment Cities [Peterborough, Middlesbrough and Leeds] showed only a 33 per cent awareness.'

"Well, I was never really quite sure what Environment City meant," says Emma Powell, a young middle-class-mum who has just struggled into the Ark with her friend Amanda Crellin and two prams. "We only come in here for the food. We can't get our prams in any of the other veggie places in Leicester."

The interior is indeed spacious - and impressive. Blue and yellow colour scheme, wood floors from an old mill, tables made from recycled juice cartons ... But what do the citizens think of it?

Monica Hingorani, a young professional, says: "Oh, I know about us being an Environment City." And the Ark? "What's that? It sounds good. Shouldn't I have heard of it?" A middle-aged woman who prefers not to be named, clearly feels she should know, but needs her memory refreshed. But Teri Wyncoll, a music production manager, knows the Ark. "It sells expensive goods in a very stylish environment and then tells us it is accessible to everyone. The only people it's reaching are white middle-class adults who are already converted to that way of life."

Still, David Statham, head of environment protection at the city council ,says that the Ark's primary aim is to "appeal to a cross-section of Leicester's population". But despite the fact that Leicester has a population which is 30 per cent Asian, I haven't seen a single Asian person in there all morning.

"Only about a fifth of the Asian community shops in the city centre," says Dave Nichols. "But we have been working with these communities for several years now on other projects such as sending volunteers from Leicester out to Vrndavan in northern India,the birthplace of Krishna, to plant trees and clean up the city, in parnership with the WWF[Worldwide Fund for Nature].

"The Ark is a focus but we have a whole portfolio of projects - the Eco House (`Leicester's environment-friendly show home'), a Materials Recovery Centre and so on - which, collectively, we believe will appeal to the whole community."

Environ has contacted 300 of the city's 660 community groups, one of which is Woodgates Residents' Association. Geoff Force is a co-ordinator and helps to represent about 600 households - mainly two-up, two-down, terraces.

"Environ and the city council have given us grants to brighten up the area with window boxes and hanging baskets," he beams. Mr Force has been to the Ark twice. "It's nice to know there is somewhere I can get my energy-saving lightbulbs. But very few people in Woodgates know it's there. Even I don't know much about it, and I was a Green Party candidate in the local and European elections."

The city council, which was already committed to the lease on the building, has agreed to pay for this and all other utilities for three a cost that will eventually match the £80,000 invested by Environ. It also gave a £3,000 grant to Environ todevelop the project.

"We are confident that by that time it will be funding itself," says Mr Statham. "The figures we are getting back from the shop are very encouraging."

Since the Ark opened on 10 December, Vikki Hall says proudly, "there have been 3,000 paying customers, each spending an average of £6.50. That's brilliant isn't it?"

Perhaps not brilliant, but the Ark, the city council and Environ mean well. But mean well to whom? To the planet certainly. But will the working-class housewife actually absorb any message if she even bothers to pop into the Ark for a couple of energy-saving lightbulbs, a plate of roasted veggies and a huggable planet.? Is the place merely preaching to the converted, a self-perpetuating feel-good factor for those who can afford it?

Tracey Andrews, a student, pauses in front of the video wall and looks around. How does she find the Ark? There's an awkward shifting from one Doc Marten to another, then a blush and an embarrassed smile. "Ah ... it smells nice," she says and makes for the scented candle display.

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