David Cameron has said that he wants 2011 to be the year that the country "gets back on its feet". That probably means what we have long understood it to mean – GDP up, unemployment down, confidence in the economy buoyant. Despite good green talk from the Coalition, the need to change the rules of the consumption that underpins those traditional indicators is not at the top of the agenda. It is certainly not one of the key criteria for the country being "back on its feet". Being a "green" consumer is still considered a lifestyle choice, not a global necessity.
Few of us know, or worry, about the level of stuff coming into (and rapidly exiting) the economy. On one estimate, in a country such as the UK, we each account for somewhere between 15 and 35 tons of basic resources each year (minerals, chemicals, timber, food, fuel). This is the stuff behind our stuff, sourced partly at home, but increasingly from beyond our shores. Woefully little of this is returned to the economy – more than half, maybe as much as two-thirds, gets written off as waste. On a global basis, the amount of resources gobbled has increased by 50 per cent over the past 30 years and could increase by a further 40 per cent over the next 20. These figures don't even include water. Can the planet deliver us all this without something collapsing in the process, especially when we are nine instead of six billion? It is by no means certain.
Can we affect any of this as individual consumers? Not as things are presently designed. The first problem with being a green consumer is that there are no clear boundaries. There is no requirement to label products with their environmental credentials, whatever we think those ought to be. European rules that require some goods to be labelled with their energy efficiency (i.e. how much energy they use that we are paying for) are a helpful but rather limited start. So you can choose a fridge, washing machine or car by looking at its A-G energy rating, but not yet a television, or computer or games console or hairdryer. As to how much energy has been used to make the article in question, that is much harder to ascertain. Why does it matter? Although the global proportion of renewable energy is growing, most energy use is still from fossil sources and so is racking up greenhouse gas emissions. We do not make much of our stuff in the UK any more; instead we "outsource" both the products and their polluting consequences. We may at one moment be holding a piece of paper made using entirely renewable energy in Finland, and the next an aluminium drinks can made using coal-derived electricity in Australia.
"Stuff" uses mind-boggling quantities of water as well, particularly for growing thirsty crops such as cotton, or in hi-tech manufacturing such as the production of silicon chips, where ultra-cleanliness is paramount. In areas blessed with abundant rainfall, this may not be a concern, but in water-stressed areas, using water for stuff rather than people could spell disaster. And then there are the raw materials themselves – where have they come from? If mined, was the mining an environmentally and socially responsible operation, or has it left a trail of destruction and pain? If harvested, will the forest be renewed or will it have been trashed? It's not just tropical forests that suffer, though they get all the attention – in fact, very little of our timber or paper comes from the tropics, and the forest destruction might be in Russia or Canada. How would we know?
There are some labels to guide us, but they do a partial and uncoordinated job. Schemes such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification reward those who do "good" forestry by giving us a label we can ask for, and this has been hugely valuable in encouraging the adoption of FSC standards by growers, but it has a long way to go to achieve comprehensive coverage. Also, products without the label might not be "bad"; the growers simply might not have seen a strong enough business case for getting certified. For those who miss the standard, the pressure from "green consumers" for sustainably grown timber has clearly not been sufficient to get them to make the investment in changing what they do. By the same token, stewardship schemes for metals and for water have been mooted, but are in their infancy. The Responsible Jewellery Council, for instance, has started down the road of accrediting individual mining, metalworking or jewellery-making companies, but cannot yet track individual pieces of bling through their whole journey and declare them environmentally and ethically sound in a way that the consumer can easily use to make decisions. And when it comes to the more generic European "eco label", the criteria are many, and the market incentives to gain the label are few. So loo paper with the "eco-label" daisy sits alongside that with "extracts of cashmere". Which is better in terms of environmental profile? I suspect the daisy, but I have no hard and fast way of making that judgement.
What should we be asking for? That all products subscribe to some basic environmental standards covering how much energy and water is involved to make and to use them, how their raw materials have been sourced, and whether they can be recycled. We could add to that list some durability standards, so that gadgets and appliances can be repaired and upgraded, or maybe not even owned in the first place, but leased so that large items such as furniture can be replaced on a whim but are then refurbished for the next customer. I'm not talking about labels bearing information so that we harried consumers can make an informed choice, but standards that remove a large element of that choice from our shoulders and place it firmly in the laps of product manufacturers and their army of design professionals. After 25 years of environmental campaigning, I have come to the view that this is the only way to achieve change, because the second problem with the idea of the green consumer is that few of us have either the capacity or the interest constantly to weigh up all the factors that amount to a genuinely "green" set of choices.
Would such product standards cause the end of life as we know it? In some ways yes, because they might mean no longer having to put up with products that guzzle energy when all we want is to access some extra television channels, or waste the scarce water of impoverished people because that's the cheapest place to source cotton. We might not have to spend time agonising over which recycling bin deserves that odd mixture of plastic, paper and metal that is the ubiquitous milk or drinks carton, nor feel a sense of needless waste when it is cheaper to buy a new washing machine than have it repaired. In other ways no, life as we know it will endure – because faced with a design brief, most companies manage to fulfil it, and they are perfectly capable of designing out waste and unacceptable practices while giving us the quality and novelty we crave, if they have the right incentives to do so. We just need to change the brief.
It may seem glib to suggest that we can simply design our way out of environmental trouble, but to a certain extent, it really is that straightforward. Less straightforward is knowing how fast we can implement such change. If companies globally willingly embraced a new design brief, it could be very quick indeed. If years of painful international negotiation involving governments and multinational institutions are needed, it could be grindingly slow. But either way, we have to do it, because the alternative is ever-greater consumption of wasteful, ephemeral goods that detract from our collective well-being in invisible and insidious ways. We might not see much of the "shadow" of the things we buy, but it is always tailing us, in the shape of degraded land, extinct species, intractable pollution and decreasing access to clean water and air. Our choices may feel expansive now, but the future is less clear. Better, surely, to take a proactive approach to conditioning choice than to have change forced on us in ways we can't easily control.
Julie Hill is the author of 'The Secret Life of Stuff', which is published by Vintage Books (£8.99). To order a copy with free P&P, call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.Reuse content