'Tis the season to be green: David Nicholson-Lord detects environmental values making their way into Christmas

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The Independent Online
FED UP with Christmas shopping? Had enough of loose scrums in the high street? Angry at spending too much money on presents that people don't really need? This year there has been an alternative.

Consult the catalogues - from Oxfam, Barnardo's, the National Trust. You probably won't save money and might still end up buying things destined for a car boot sale. But at least you'll know that a portion of your extravagance is doing some good.

The new wave of green and ethical consumerism that began rolling in the late Eighties is washing up against Christmas. In the face of opposition from the high street chains, it has taken a substantial share of the Christmas card market. It is providing more, and better, gift catalogues. It is also evolving cleverer methods of protest - the latest is known as 'ethical shoplifting'. In the process it is raising fascinating questions about consumer power.

It has become fashionable recently to declare that environmentalism is yesterday's issue. In part this is a reaction to the propaganda overkill that attended last year's Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. It is also traceable to a green version of compassion fatigue - people are said to be fed up with being made to feel miserable. In fact, the evidence points the other way. Mori puts the proportion of green consumers - those who have chosen one product over another because of its 'environmentally friendly packaging, formulation or advertising' - at 44 per cent this year, an increase over the 40 per cent figure for 1992.

Such figures do not necessarily mean a green Christmas. Some argue that Mori's criteria are insufficiently exacting. And people also have a habit of professing high principles to the pollsters, then nipping down to the cash-and-carry. Richard Adams, of the New Consumer organisation, which campaigns for fairer trade, argues that the proportion of people who go out of their way to buy goods for ethical reasons remains at around 1 per cent and concludes: 'There has been no breakthrough.'

In between lies a complex truth. Much of it hinges on definition. Is a 'green consumer' a being in home-made clothes eating organic rice and vegetables bought through the local health food co- operative, or is she - or he - someone whose buying decisions are merely coloured by environmental or ethical awareness and who is content to patronise Sainsbury?

For all those heady dreams of transformation in the late Eighties when The Green Consumer Guide topped the best-seller list, the latter, a more recognisable if less ideologically pure creature, was always a likelier candidate, not least because of the realities of power in the market place. The store chains in particular, and business more generally, did not want environmentalism, did not know how to handle it and adapted to it with reluctance.

The impact of the new consumerism on Christmas sums up some of the complexities. Cards sold through charity catalogues or shops have captured almost a third of the pounds 150m market, an increase of about 30 per cent in three years. According to Neville Bass, chief executive of the Charity Christmas Card Council, high street retailers first resisted the idea, then saw an opportunity and started selling their own charity cards.

However, only a tiny proportion of the proceeds of cards sold in the high street goes to charity. Buy a pack of five Shelter cards for pounds 1.95 in a big store and only 10p goes to Shelter. Buy the same card direct from Shelter and you will save 10p a card. You will also be donating pounds 1.40 to Shelter. Not surprisingly, charities feel they are being exploited by the retailers.

For this reason, many conservation, children's and Third World groups try to by-pass the retailer. According to some estimates, the number of charity catalogues has doubled in recent years and their range products has also moved up- market. The bulk of their business is done around Christmas.

Rachel Wilshaw, of Oxfam Trading, says that many people will make an 'ethical purchase' - a handcrafted product bought at a 'fair' price from a Third World co-operative, for example.

Charity catalogue sales, at around pounds 100m, remain a tiny fraction of the market, but there have been some noteworthy successes. National Trust catalogue sales are up 17 per cent this Christmas. The trust's trading arm, meanwhile, has increased turnover by almost 50 per cent in five years and turns in around pounds 5m profit a year to help fund the protection of historic buildings and landscapes. But customers do not buy its goods out of love alone. According to Anne Roberts, managing director of National Trust Enterprises, they must like the product and its price. It is then that a 'third value' - altruism, environmental concern - comes into play.

Where does this third value come from? The answer, it seems, is an ideological alliance that now embraces deep-green activists and captains of industry alike. Earlier this month a group calling itself Crisp - Citizens' Recovery of Indigenous People's Stolen Property - staged its own version of Christmas shopping, touring Harrods and making off with, or 'recovering', mahogany products to highlight damage to the rainforest. A couple of days later, the Institute of Directors published a survey showing that the proportion of companies in which environmental issues appear on board agendas has slipped from 64 per cent last year to 56 per cent.

The important point, however, is that even a 'low' figure of 56 per cent would have been inconceivable as recently as five years ago, when most boards of directors scarcely knew where to find the environment. Similarly with green consumerism: this year's Mori figure of 44 per cent is down from its peak of 50 per cent in 1990, but compares with 19 per cent in 1988. Before that, it barely registered.

What is suggested by such figures, and by the slow greening of Christmas sales, is the existence of a new collective moral imperative, undreamt of a decade ago but now commanding the assent - sometimes explicit, occasionally overwhelming, more often tacit, even grudging - of large sections of society. The business of translating this imperative into practice is slow and complex - we can't even decide which is greener, a real Christmas tree or a plastic one. Nevertheless we have begun it, and it now looks as though we can't, and won't, stop.

(Photograph omitted)