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The Guardian: Still shopping around

Saturday April 21, 2007

Whatever their stripe, most businesses’ favourite colour is green. Big companies queue up to announce initiatives for cutting their carbon footprint. Timberlands, the rapper’s boots of choice, are sold with “nutrition labels” relating the amount of energy used in their manufacture and how much of it is renewable. British Gas has this week launched a green-energy unit to sell low-carbon products. Even Shell has a new advert in which an oil executive shows his sulky son how the employer is cleaning up its act. What is evidently intended as a bit of green mollification is unlikely to have that effect: not only does the ad paint the environmentally aware as sullen teenagers; it appears on the oil giant’s website next to details of a partnership with Ferrari.

Missteps like that merely fuel the suspicion that businesses deck themselves out in green solely because it is in fashion and not because the colour suits them. Businesses saying one thing and doing another will provide a cottage industry for journalists. But if corporates are jumping on the eco-bandwagon they are also giving it extra momentum, through marketing and changing their business practices – but only if they really do make a change. Tesco will never have the cred points of a farmers’ market, but if Britain’s biggest grocer greens up its global supply chain, the impact will stretch a long way.

Rather than relapse into cynicism, what consumers and NGOs must do is scrutinise the policies of those companies that have recently come out as green. More than any other industry, retailers could be the focus for action. In other areas of business, such as energy, firms are already seeing tighter regulation and expect more. But shopkeepers have got off lightly on green regulation, and are taking up a hotchpotch of environmental initiatives – some of dubious merit.

Sainsbury’s, for instance, has basked in the publicity created by its plan to ban carrier bags next Friday, and offer customers sturdier “bags for life” made of recycled material. What happens after that? Will the supermarket take any further steps to cut down on the 1.6bn carriers it gives out every year? Er, no. The third-biggest food retailer says it “may look to repeat a similar activity in the future”, but only if the day is a “success” (however that is judged). Marks & Spencer’s green policy feels less like PR and more like a Powerpoint presentation, with a 100-point plan and progress updates. But if the chain plans to slap warning stickers on air-freighted food, it won’t stop selling it. Much about the plan is commendable, but none of it threatens to reduce sales. Retailers may talk about “choice editing” – taking off the shelves those items which are both unnecessary and ungreen – but they hardly ever do it. When Wyevale Garden Centres announced this Easter that it would no longer stock patio heaters, even the consultants who had urged it on were taken aback.

Retailers can argue that they are in business, not charity, and it would indeed be an extraordinary turkey that voted for Christmas. But consumers who want to do their weekly shop while doing the minimum of harm to the environment are left to choose between a welter of individual, often unaudited, policies. All of which means that it is time to look beyond allowing shops to set their own environmental standards. The market has failed and government must play a bigger role. So far, the chancellor has stressed acting in concert with international partners. The removal of standby buttons from televisions and other electronic goods will be enforced from Brussels. But Gordon Brown could bring in the proposed Energy Performance Commitment to reduce carbon emissions from supermarkets and hotels. Or he could tax car-parking spaces at out-of-town superstores. Not the most dramatic of measures but, as Tesco says, every little helps.,,2062463,00.html

Comment submitted by John Donovan for publication:

It is deeds not PR rhetoric which count. One example of the smoke and mirrors approach is given in this excellent article. I refer o Shell’s “green mollification” advert on its website alongside a feature promoting Shell’s partnership with deafening, fuel guzzling Ferrari racing cars. The reality is that Shell has an atrocious environmental track record with numerous Clean Air Act violations, repeated environmental infringements, the tragic explosion at a Shell Oil refinery in Norco in which six people lost their lives, a pipeline rupture in Washington State which resulted in an explosion and more deaths, repeated multimillion dollar fines for groundwater contamination and fines for unauthorised venting and flaring of gas. Gas flaring has polluted the environment in Nigeria for decades. Details of the above record can be found on Wikipedia.


This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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