How we shop in twenty years' time is a big deal. Along with the future of how, when and where we work, it is one of the most important factors shaping the future of how we move - and how things that we buy are moved.
And January 2007 may be remembered as the month when Britain - possibly to be followed soon by America - went green-consumption crazy. Marks & Spencer, continuing to rebuild its place as the darling British retailer, launched its 'eco-plan' on 15 January, and the press stood up. By Friday, when Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco (by far Britain's leading retailer) things were getting serious as it announced a massive project to rethink its business around the following:
I am determined that Tesco should be a leader in helping to create a low-carbon economy.
In saying this, I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy where human comfort, activity and growth are inextricably linked with emitting carbon. And to transform it into one which can only thrive without depending on carbon. That is a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution in thinking.
We are going to have to re-think the way we live and work.
For Tesco this involves something much more than listing a series of environmentally friendly actions, although those will play their part. It demands that we transform our business model so that the reduction of our carbon footprint becomes a central business driver.
Here are the commitments lifted directly from Tesco's press briefing:
A revolution in green consumption
The biggest barriers to green consumption are a concern that individual action cannot influence a global problem, and a belief that it is more expensive to make the green choice. We must provide better information and make green consumption affordable and exciting.
• We will work with others to develop an accepted and commonly understood measure of the carbon footprint of every product we sell. It will enable us to label all our products so that customers can compare their carbon footprint easily.
• We will take the first step towards developing a Sustainable Consumption Institute to lead this project by commissioning work from the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University.
• We will work with our suppliers to reduce our indirect carbon footprint. We have begun to do this with Unilever and are looking to collaborate with others around the world.
• We will bring down the cost of going green. We will begin by halving the price of energy-efficient light bulbs. We will work with our suppliers towards making sure that for every light bulb there is an energy-efficient alternative that provides an equivalent performance.
• We will offer more energy-efficient products throughout our Value range at value prices. This will help to make green choices a real option for the less affluent.
• We will work with the Energy Savings Trust to develop stronger energy efficiency labelling for our electricals products – from light bulbs to TVs.
• We will promote and incentivise energy efficient products through our Green Clubcard scheme – televisions which use less energy both when they are on and in standby; energy-saving kettles and set-top boxes; energy-efficient power adapters and intelligent plugs that switch off appliances when they are not being used.
• We will also use our Green Clubcard scheme to encourage re-use and recycling as well as organic, Fairtrade, biodegradable and other green products.
• We will launch a Kids Carbon Calculator with DEFRA and the Royal Society of Arts. It will show children how simple everyday choices, like sharing a car for the school run, or buying seasonal fruit, can make a big difference.
• Tesco is the UK market leader in the sale of biofuels to customers. Over the next twelve months we aim to double the proportion of biofuels we sell, and increase the number of petrol stations in which we sell them to over 300.
• We will seek to restrict air transport to less than 1 per cent of our products. To provide customer information and choice we will put an aeroplane symbol on all air-freighted products in our stores.
Over the weekend the press got really moving. On Sunday 21 The Observer was running 'Bright Ideas - 36 steps to saving the planet and cutting your carbon emissions'.
By Wednesday we were at The Guardian 'G2' supplement's "How to calculate your carbon footprint - the definitive guide".
At this stage, it all reminds me of last year's Future of Community Festival in London, when Hilly Janes, editor of The Times Body & Soul supplement admitted that her 'green lifestyle' section had received a letter from a lady wondering whether it was better to use the hot air dryer or a hand towel in the airport toilet.
Now I haven't done a trawl of the Daily Mail yet, so can only begin to imagine (I'll ask my mother at the weekend). But let's take a look at one of these pieces. First, The Observer:
"Lucy Siegle provides 36 'positive suggestions' on how we can change our lives, reduce carbon emissions and help save the planet... all in the form of three simple and enticing menus, calculated not in calories, but 'carbs'. And best of all, if you reduce your carbon footprint you can treat yourself."
"It is this spirit that we have come up with this carbon-saving diet: a one-month detox to reduce your planet-destroying size-11 carbon footprint into a dainty size 4."
This is exactly the kind of approach that William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle would argue is unacceptable. While there is a logic in the approach, McDonough puts the folly of a cut-cut-cut response into its long-term context by pointing out that if someone described their marriage as 'sustainable' you wouldn't exactly be enamoured at the prospects for the future.
It's just not enough. A bit like diets really - there's usually a bigger root cause.
While it's an amusing spectator sport, care should be taken to avoid letting consumer newspapers turn the issue into a lifestyle diet. While it is not unhelpful, it is not the answer.
Posted by Mark Charmer, who is now back. 31 Jan.