Geoffrey Lean: Who would live in the ultimate green house?

You want to live a greener life, so why won't you be moving in
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You could call it the Kermit Syndrome. The Muppet famously lamented, "it's not easy being green". The same realisation is dawning in homes all over Britain.

Huge majorities of us regularly tell pollsters that we want to live more environmentally friendly lives. Large numbers claim already to be doing so.

But the hard facts tell a different story. Actual sales of green and Fairtrade products, though growing, remain tiny. Our aspirations may be Kermit's, but our consumption reeks of Miss Piggy.

This week, as we report on page 13, the Government will announce measures to make it easier for Britons to generate their own electricity to power their homes by "microgeneration" from rooftop windmills and solar cells.

On Wednesday, Gordon Brown introduced disappointingly modest measures in the Budget to raise road tax on the most polluting cars, reducing it for cleaner ones, and eliminating it altogether for the greenest ones of all.

His much-heralded move, though welcomed by environmental pressure groups, will almost certainly have a negligible effect. This week's announcement on microgeneration, by contrast, could mark the start of an energy revolution. But even this will have to overcome the obstacles and inertia that have so far held back green consumerism, once hailed as the ordinary person's way to save the planet.

The gaps between intentions and deeds are staggering. New research, published last week, found that two-thirds of Britons said they would be ready to pay more for an energy-efficient home. But half of us live in homes with a third or less of the optimum amount of insulation in the loft; and 10 million of the dwellings that could have cavity wall insulation do not.

Twenty-one million homes - more than 80 per cent of the entire housing stock - could use solar panels to heat their hot water. But only 100,000 or so solar heating systems, much the most economical way of exploiting renewable energy, have been installed.

Our shopping bags tell the same story. Over half of us claim to be ethical consumers, regularly buying green or Fairtrade products. In practice, sales of such ethical goods are around 2 to 3 per cent of the market.

More than 80 per cent of us are opposed to the testing of cosmetics on animals, but the sales of humanely produced ones are actually falling. Three-quarters of us occasionally buy organic food, but only about one in 20 of us do so regularly.

Again, over 95 per cent of us say that we support recycling - yet Britain has one of the worst records in Europe. The German and Dutch, for example, recycle more than three times as much of their rubbish as we do.

The Kermit Syndrome afflicts even some of the most conscientious of us. John Elkington - founder of the award-winning environmental consultancy and think-tank SustainAbility - is one of the fathers of green consumerism. In the late 1980s, he co-authored The Green Consumer Guide, which topped the bestseller lists for weeks and helped kick-start the whole movement.

But, although he "cycles everywhere" and enthusiastically takes part in "endless recycling", he admitted to me last week that he did not "have a single energy-efficient lightbulb in the house". (My own besetting sin, let me confess, is leaving the lights on.)

Elkington explains this by reporting that when energy-efficient bulbs first appeared, he looked into getting them, but they were expensive - and confusing: they never seemed to have the right fitting for the lamps.

And therein lie two of the reasons why green consumerism faded some 15 years ago after booming at the end of the 1980s.

Confusion grew as manufacturers and supermarkets rushed to cash in. Bold green claims were made for a host of products, often with little justification. Consumers soon rumbled them, and became disillusioned.

A recent investigation by the National Consumer Council found that, even now, there are no fewer than 33 eco-labels or eco-logos supposedly identifying green products in Britain. Ed Mayo, its chief executive, comments: "You need a PhD in environmental science or a masters in philosophy to be able to decide and choose what you should buy to be a green consumer." Consumers also found green products to be expensive and sometimes of doubtful quality.

A third factor is a growing sense of powerlessness. Surveys consistently show that one of the main motivations for green consumers is the belief that they can make a difference through the power of the purse.

But - as the scale of global warming and other environmental crises becomes more evident - people can be forgiven for feeling that their own small decisions cannot make much of an impact. The message is reinforced in spades, when doomsters such as Professor James Lovelock proclaim that there is nothing that we can now do that will save the planet.

Yet surely this makes the prophecy self-fulfilling. Though each individual may feel powerless, ordinary people acting together are the most potent force of all.

Take GM crops and foods. Seven years ago, when The Independent on Sunday began campaigning on the issue, they seemed unstoppable.

Sixty per cent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contained GM soya, and widespread cultivation of modified crops in Britain was assumed to be only a year away.

But now the supermarkets have banished GM foods from their shelves, and no modified crops are expected to be grown in Britain for years, if ever.

The reason for the turnabout is simple. The market has collapsed because consumers have exercised their power, and refused to buy GM foods; 84 per cent of Britons say they will not let them pass their lips.

There are also signs that green consumerism is recovering. Surveys show that purchases of ethical and environmentally friendly products are increasing - and that some, such as organic food, are beginning to boom.

Encouragingly, companies appear this time to be getting ready to push the boom along, rather than just cash in on it. Some - such as General Electric - are reorientating production towards environmentally friendly goods. Others are buying up green brands - for example, Cadbury's purchase of the organic Green & Black chocolate or l'Oréal's takeover this month of Body Shop.

Yet the crucial lead has to come from ministers. Most of the big achievements - such as the removal of lead from petrol, or Ireland's success in eliminating plastic shopping bags - have come about through Government action.

We need more tax and other incentives to buy green products. We need a single, clear labelling scheme to identify them. And we need regulations to phase out ones that waste energy and water; consumers often tell surveys that they would like it to be impossible to buy environmentally damaging products.

The opportunity is there, but taking it will require a great deal more boldness and commitment than the Government has yet displayed.

1. ROOF AND LOFT. Windmill and photovoltaic tiles generate electricity (with any extra being sold to the grid). Solar panel provides hot water. 300mm of sheeps' wool insulation in loft.

2. STUDY. Low-energy computer. Desk made of recycled wood. Carpet made from recycled newspapers.

3. BATHROOM. Fittings made from recycled plastic bottles. Low-flush lavatory with incorporated handbasin on top (the water is let out of the basin into the tank after washing to provide the next flush). "Min-use" shower - as developed for submarines - propelling water with compressed air. Floor made from recycled glass bottles.

4. BEDROOM. Bed and furniture made of recycled wood. Fairtrade cotton bed linen. Carpet made of recycled newspaper.

5. HALL. Draught-proof pet flap in door. Combined heat and power boiler, producing hot water, heating and electricity. Carpet made of recycled newspaper.

6. LIVING ROOM. Highly energy-efficient television. Lighting comes on automatically only when room is occupied. Carpet made from recycled newspaper.

7. KITCHEN. Hob fuelled by biogas. Fairtrade organic coffee, tea and food. Water- and energy-efficient washing machine and dishwasher. Low-energy fridge. Double-walled saucepans to conserve heat. Floor made from recycled glass bottles. Washing water used to irrigate garden.

8. OUTSIDE. Heat pump under garden (fluid in pipes absorbs heat from the soil and delivers it to the house). Biodegradable dustbins. Hybrid car.

IN GENERAL: Low-energy lightbulbs throughout the house. Cavity wall insulation. "Superwindows" with a polyester film that lets light through but keeps 10 times as much heat in as ordinary windows.