Whatever happened to the green market?

Eco-shopping is down, but will rise again, says Nicholas Schoon
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Change your shopping habits and save the world. These days that sounds daft, but in the great Green Shopping Boom at the end of the 1980s some people took it very seriously indeed. The retailers and manufacturers did so because there was market share to be won and money to be made from offering the punters "environment-friendly" products with jolly green labels attached.

A lot of the shoppers took it seriously too, because they felt guilty about the environment. There they were in boom Britain, wanting to enjoy the feeling of prosperity but highly receptive to the notion that pollution was mounting and nature on the run. How convenient, then, to believe you could be a friend of the earth by buying recycled lavatory paper.

But for the past six years the green consumer revolution has been either treading water or quietly retreating. Once there were whole sections of supermarkets devoted to products which claimed to be environment-friendly. Several of the big chains developed their "own-label" green brands. Since then the number of product lines sporting those labels has shrunk drastically on shelves across the land. And yesterday, when J Sainsbury's published its first annual environment report, the giant admitted that it had withdrawn a clutch of its Greencare household cleaning products because they had "no environmental advantage over standard products."

So is it the idea of green consumption which is doomed, rather than the planet itself? Not at all: it will be back because it has a role to play in protecting the environment. But it will only return in a more sensible and useful form, able to make a contribution, if we learn from our mistakes.

Mistake number one is the term "environment-friendly." There is no product available in supermarkets which really merits this description; at the very least it has travelled many dozens of miles from factory to distribution depot to superstore in a fossil-fuel-burning, fume-belching juggernaut. I cannot think of any happy, positive, brief way of saying "this product does less harm to our environment that its rivals" but that is the correct expression for any green label, and if we lose sight of it then we are fooling ourselves.

Mistake number two was the failure to insist on the standards and scrutiny that were needed to make the thousands of green claims credible. Without some authoritative body able to check and endorse the claims, some of the public were bound to grow sceptical.

The Government made the mistake of letting the European Commission devise a EU-wide "eco-labelling" scheme instead of coming up quickly with a rough- and-ready British-only one. The European Commission took ages to get its eco-labels sorted out and completely missed the moment. The first of them, with their 12 stars and flower logo, have only begun to trickle out for a few types of product in the past year and a half, once green consumption was really in the doldrums.

I doubt whether you can have an effective, long-lasting shift towards greener consumption without the Government being fully on board. Perhaps the best example is the switch from leaded to unleaded fuel. Only when the state had decided that leaded should be taxed more heavily than unleaded did the real shift get underway. Before then, motorists may have felt bad about using a fuel which produced a potent neurotoxin and could damage children's brains, but very few did anything about it.

If there is strong and sustained economic growth then green consumption is likely to revive and become a subject of debate. But there is a much bigger debate to be had about what sort of shift in values, rather than "consumption patterns" and shopping choices, may be needed to protect the environment for our children and grandchildren. We live in a society which encourages us, almost every second, to believe that we are what we consume. The thought of us actually wanting to earn less and consume less for the sake of the planet, or our mental well-being, or both, is one that our political and business leaders simply cannot cope with. This is the real green consumer revolution and it may never come.