Green consumers, the real revolutionaries

The Real World initiative can achieve its goals by harnessing spending power, says Nicholas Schoon
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The Independent Online
Post-materialism. It's not a catchy phrase. Like all those other fashionable posts - post-modernism, post-Fordism - its unlikely to enter common parlance. But post-materialism is arguably the great sleeping giant of British politics, and yesterday Real World, Jonathon Porritt's new campaign coalition, set out to awaken it.

Sadly, he may well fail to achieve his aim to broaden the debate in the forthcoming general election beyond tax and economy, the state of the NHS and schools, on to the terrain of post-materialism, where social justice, democratic reform, the state of the environment and the fate of the planet converge. If Real World fails, it will be because, at heart, it is a conventional political creature - a cluster of single-issue pressure groups mounting one big, joint lobbying operation.

There is another way to go: to ignore party politics altogether and encourage people to change their consumption, their lives and the world about them by themselves. This has special relevance for Friends of the Earth (a Real World supporter) and Greenpeace (which has declined to join). These are the two best-known UK green pressure groups, which, in the absence of proportional representation and a credible UK Green Party, have largely substituted for it.

Both are 25 years old this year. Between them they have more than half a million supporters. They have won many victories, but, these days, they are treading water. Most FoE and Greenpeace supporters now realise all of us are to blame for environmental destruction, not just big business and government. FoE and especially Greenpeace are finding it harder to propel a protest into the newspapers and then on to television, forcing the politicians to address it and thereby getting name recognition and public support. Their core proposition, "You pay us, we protest", is no longer enough. They need to make more direct connections with supporters. One of the most direct links, which they have neglected, is to offer them a service: to help them live less environmentally damaging lives.

Their supporters would like to move towards a more sustainable way of life. Many of them are already doing something about it, keeping compost bins, cutting down on car use (FoE is asking its supporters to forsake their cars for two days a week).

But many people would like to go further, buying more organic food (but not at high supermarket prices) or installing green technology in their homes, such as solar water heaters. These products would help them to gain independence from huge, ungreen organisations such as utilities and supermarkets, whose main imperative is to increase consumption.

But because there is no mass market, most of these green goods are only available in small quantities at high prices. Green pressure groups could, and should, help to bring producers and enlightened consumers together, to build up markets and bring down prices. Why should they not promote "vegboxes", for example? This is the scheme in which organic farmers supply households in a district with a box full of vegetables once a week in return for a guaranteed price.

A few of FoE's 250 local groups are involved, but less than 10,000 people are participating in Britain. Imagine what would happen if a few hundred thousand got their food this way. Organic farming would flourish and, in a large area of once intensively farmed countryside, wildlife would get a break from pesticides and fertilisers. Urban food consumers would start to make connections with food producers with whom they have little in common at the moment. It might weaken the near-stranglehold the supermarkets have on farmers and consumers.

There are other possibilities. By promoting furniture made from native oak, ash and other hardwoods, pressure groups could boost a timber market and help to expand British broadleaved forests and the wildlife that inhabits them. A coalition of green organisations could join with a manufacturer to retrofit pollution-curbing catalytic converters to old cars.

This is an approach not without pitfalls. The superficiality that characterised much of the "green consumer revolution" of the late Eighties gives ample grounds for suspicion. Supermarkets and manufacturers offered a huge range of products they claimed to be environment friendly, then embarked on an extensive "delisting" of these lines in the early Nineties, when a sceptical and confused public began to lose interest.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth would, understandably, be worried about compromising their independence and authority in teaming up with manufacturers seeking profits.But if this approach worked, they would be directly promoting the greener technologies and farming methods they are forever badgering government, industry and agribusiness about.

Many of their activists and leaders will recoil from the idea. It sounds too commercial, too compromised, too risky. But before they reject it, they should look at the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - two conservation bodies with longer histories and more supporters than FoE and Greenpeace. Both the National Trust and the RSPB have been going down the road of service provision for decades. They offer their paying members free visits to their properties and reserves, where treasured buildings, landscapes or wildlife are looked after. In doing so, they give their supporters a sense of being directly involved in conservation. Both began as organisations campaigning against environmental damage; both wield considerable influence. Their model is something the younger environmental campaigners could learn from.