Going green – are consumers becoming bored with green issues?

Dr Gary Robertshaw

It seems that UK consumers are becoming bored with green issues according to a report by Mintel, which found that many people are no longer even bothering to make small gestures. The report goes on to suggest that Britons are less bothered about the environment than they were previously. So, what is the cause of such apathy?

Are UK consumers unconcerned that their bargain clothes might have been made by deprived children living in the third world working under sweat shop conditions? Are Britons happy relying on imports of foreign oil, being involved in conflicts to secure oil resources or being associated with corrupt regimes? Do people believe that destroying the rainforests and pumping billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year is not detrimental to the planet? On balance, the answer has to be no to all these questions. So why, then, does such apathy persist?

One possible reason is misinformation and confusion when it comes to green issues such as fair trade, renewable energy and conservation, some of which is deliberate at a corporate level. Otherwise known as greenwash. And the problem is that it is both pervasive and pernicious.

For example, many major supermarkets in the UK claim to be concerned about the environment and lend support to eco causes, charities and local community projects. However, scratch beneath the surface and the reality is rather different. Examples include cheap food flown in from around the globe clocking up a huge carbon footprint whilst cutting out local producers. Palm oil in many of the supermarket products such as biscuits, sweets, confectionaries, margarines, breads, crisps and bars of soap often comes from rainforest areas that have been cleared for palm oil plantations placing tigers, orang utans and other species at risk of extinction. Cheap labour and appalling sweatshops in third world countries are used to produce bargain clothes. Landfill sites, streets and the countryside are littered with plastic bags given away free. These are just a few examples of the long list of ecologically damaging and unfair practices that the supermarkets pursue. Yet, the perception they create is that of being caring and environmentally responsible.

It is not that shoppers do not care about environmental issues, rather they have been deliberately misled into believing that the supermarkets are taking care of everything and that everything in the garden is rosy.

Faced with companies deceptive promoting themselves as green (greenwash) illustrated in a Guardian article about a flights for lights promotion, in which Tesco offered air miles in exchange for low-energy light bulbs, which it said was like giving away a pack of Benson and Hedges with every Nicorette patch, its hardly surprising that people have become bored or confused with green issues.

Then there is debate and confusion over what is eco-friendly and what is not. Take the example of the eco-conscious consumer who wears hemp pyjamas made organically under fair trade conditions. But then takes a long haul flight to the Maldives emitting more carbon than an entire years worth of car driving. The list of what does and does not constitute green consumerism is endless, is it greener to run an older, less fuel-efficient car than buying a resource-intensive new, more fuel-efficient car, etc? Balancing an individuals lifestyle taking into account all the environmental impacts is clearly not easy and it can come across as patronising.

Defining ethical consumerism has become paradoxical and that, coupled with greenwash may be the root cause of consumer apathy. This in itself should not present an insurmountable obstacle towards the pursuit of a more ecologically sustainable and fairer future, but it does make the path more difficult.