When it comes to green issues, we are transfixed by tokens

When it comes to green issues, we are transfixed by tokens

A recent survey asked leading environmental campaigners for one thing they would want to ban on ethical grounds, and one favourite ethical innovation or product. The answers are illuminating precisely because they are, taken as a group, incoherent and often tokenistic.

Products to ban include outdoor patio heaters, incandescent light bulbs (score on that one, then), bluefin tuna, 4x4 cars, private health insurance and plastic bags.

There's big stuff in there as well - military aircraft, coal fired power stations and the like.

The favourite products often go to the quirky. A wind-up torch. A folding bicycle. Organic boxer shorts. More substantial answers include electric vehicle technology, locally grown food, ethical investment vehicles.

It shouldn't be a surprise that there is such a diversity in the answers. The environmental movement is hardly one homogenous branch of thought.

But I am interested that the politicians polled generally came up with substantial answers - focused on the big priorities and big issues - and campaigners came up with small-fry (a generalisation, certainly not all of them did).

It fuels my suspicion that the target of campaigns is often fuelled by certain factors that are not related to the substance of the issue.

1. Proximity. Things that campaigners see in front of them that annoy them become targets for criticism and action. Outdoor patio heaters, for instance. And plastic bags.

2. Piecemeal solutions, focused on individual symbols or targets. Why did several people mention bluefin tuna, rather than suggesting the banning of all seafood that is rated as endangered? Why focus on 4x4 cars rather than cars with a certain fuel consumption efficiency (luxury cars are not 4x4s, but can be similarly hungry). Generally, the answer is because we can only understand these trends via the symbols.

3. Lack of strategy. You can't achieve real lasting change simply by saying 'no' to stuff.

Of course, some of the respondents to this particular exercise may have taken it more seriously than others. Just because certain environmental leaders talked about relatively petty dislikes, doesn't mean that these choices reflect their world view.

Even so, the survey by Ethical Consumer does highlight that there is no consensus on the priorities going forward. Companies should remember that when they take actions driven by what they imagine the NGO community wants to see. Taken as a group, they don't know what they want to see. They just know that they want to see it now, not later.

It's not a criticism. We need good NGOs. But the companies still need to work it out for themselves.


This blog submission was used with consent, and can be found originally on Mallen Baker's blog.