Janet Street-Porter: Spare me these supermarket saints

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The Independent Online

Greenwash is the perfect way of describing the long rinse cycle of fresh initiatives we are told will help avert ecological disaster. Not a day passes without someone in business stepping up to do their bit for the cause. Isn't it exciting being a consumer at the moment, with all these top retailers just falling over each other in order to help us live greener, more responsible lives?

Yesterday, it was the turn of Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy who gave a rare interview on the Today programme in which he managed to plug his company name over and over again without any intervention. Sir Terry announced that Britain's most successful supermarket chain is giving £25m to Manchester University to fund an Institute of Sustainable Consumption. I nearly fell off my chair.

The notion that a company whose stated aim is total domination of the retail market is planning to invest in research in "sustainable consumption" is risible. It's like giving the Vatican a big grant to set up research into new forms of birth control. Supermarkets are about increasing consumption, not reducing it, delivering maximum profits to their shareholders in the process. It's as simple as that.

Of course, David Miliband has welcomed the move as "an excellent example of the important role business can play in tackling climate change". The Government never seems to bother about the clear conflict of interest presented by accepting big wads of cash from entrepreneurs.

The Children's Food Campaign announced this week that the Government has backed down on its insistence that children only have "pure" drinks in school canteens – juice, milk and water – and is going to allow kids to consume beverages laden with additives. This is a clear case of the power of the food industry lobbying to control a lucrative market.

Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, are ploughing ahead with their environmentally-aware Plan A, announcing yesterday that their wares will be delivered in new articulated trailers which carry 16 per cent more and use 10 per cent less fuel. They are holding a coathanger "amnesty" this month, when you can take back any unwanted plastic hangers to their stores. That should let you sleep easier for a few nights.

Unfortunately, their Plan A is not really joined-up thinking. When I bought my lunch at Marks & Spencer yesterday, I took my own cloth bag for my shopping – but they are still handing out dozens of plastic carriers to every person buying a sandwich, which is already in a packet. A mountain of plastic cutlery was stacked by the till. Plan A doesn't seem to have covered the possibility of giving out biodegradable card utensils for snacks.

The Liberal Democrats might have come out top in the environmental audit carried out by Friends of the Earth and other pressure groups, but that's not saying much. None of the main parties have opted to cancel their annual conferences, with all the unnecessary consumption these bunfights involve, from booze, to printing mountains of leaflets, to ferrying delegates in cars, to drinking out of plastic cups.

Any party concerned about the environment would be conducting its affairs via video-conferencing or the internet instead of shacking up in hotels in seaside towns. Further greenwash is evident in Mr Cameron's Quality of Life report, published yesterday, which promises council tax refunds to encourage more recycling, and parking fees at out-of-town shopping centres. It's all too little, too late.

None of the parties are prepared to admit that accepting money from retailers to fund education and research just compromises the results. You can't be in partnership with Tesco, the company that builds huge car parks around its out-of-town stores, and believe that their concern for the environment is anything other than window dressing.

English landscape isn't just the Lakes

As Bill Bryson fights to save the South Downs from future development, research indicates that we are building over countryside at an astonishing rate, and have lost an area the size of West Sussex since the 1990s. Having just taken part in a television series about the most beautiful views in Britain, I found it depressing that the landscape which received more votes than any other from the 6.5 million viewers last Sunday, was the Lake District, which already attracts 12 million tourists a year. My favourite view, of Bamburgh Castle, above, is hardly ever packed. That feeling of isolation is part of its charm. Why do tourists like to stick together?

* The dozen or so terracotta burial figures from the legendary Chinese army on display at the British Museum are only part of what is a sensational piece of theatre. By placing them under the spectacular dome of the Reading Room, and lighting them as carefully as a rock concert, they have been showcased for maximum effect. Equally impressive are the displays of other artefacts, including money in the shape of knives, elaborate bowls inlaid with silver and gold, and stone rubbings showing assassination attempts on the First Emperor, which seem as lively and vibrant as contemporary graphics.

I suspect we find the figures so engaging because of their lack of colour and their minimalist style. One case shows a replica figure, painted in garish colours, as it would have been originally – and it looks repulsive.

We find Gothic cathedrals uplifting for exactly the same reason. Stripped of all their original decorations, their plain symmetry plays well to 21st-century sensibilities.

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