`Green consumers' give up trying to save the world

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The "green consumer", that apparently healthy species that revolutionised shopping in the late 1980s, is at risk of extinction. Sales of "green" products have fallen so dramatically over the past five years that Sainsbury's and Asda have reduced their product ranges, Tesco's is thinking of doing the same, and the Co-op has completely abandoned its own-label green brand "Environment Care".

As well as phasing out own-branded green products, the supermarket chains are also ceasing to stock those from specialist manufacturers. Ecover, manufacturer of "green" washing powder, says that many multiples now refuse to sell its products and admits that sales have fallen heavily.

Greens and consumer representatives say the blame lies with the supermarket chains themselves and the manufacturers, for making inflated claims for products that were often barely superior to the traditional ones. Shoppers became weary of paying more for products that performed badly. Some people had to put more detergent into the washing machine to get the clothes clean, thereby eliminating any environmental benefit.

A report published last month by the National Consumer Council concluded that claims for many green products "are misleading, meaningless or even downright dishonest, leaving consumers cynical and confused". It added that the claims "are often woolly, meaningless, unverifiable, open to multiple interpretations, confusing, or of no real benefit". The result is that "many people give up trying to buy green altogether".

Opinion poll research has suggested that unemployment and the recession made shoppers unwilling to pay more for green products, while their sense of being able to change the world was undermined by Bosnia and other tragedies. John Leaman, senior research executive at Mori, says: "The evidence from our trend surveys is that the environment is vulnerable to whatever else goes on in the media. People's top-of-the-mind worries have stopped including the environment."

But consumers have not abandoned morality. Animal welfare concerns now have a strong influence on the public's spending.

Report, Business, page 7