28 July 2021

What we get wrong about going green


Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s climate spokesperson, is encouraging us to go ‘One Step Greener’.  The new campaign highlights micro-changes we can all make to cut our environmental impact. She points out that Reckitt, who make Finish, want us to stop rinsing our plates before putting them in the dishwasher. Freezing bread, walking to the shops and buying shower gel in cardboard packaging are among the other steps that can make our daily lives that bit greener.

Now, some criticisms of this approach are unfair. It’s true that individual changes alone won’t save the planet, but no one is arguing they would. Some also point to what must be the dumbest meme in climate policy, that “Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions”, ignoring that fossil fuel producers are responding to consumer demand – they don’t drill for the hell of it.

But there is a problem with the Government’s approach. It is not that individual choices are ineffective – plastic straws disappeared long before laws changed due to consumer pressure.

The real problem is that we are terrible judges of what is and isn’t green.

This isn’t to knock the ill-informed mob – far from it. In fact. It is perfectly rational to be clueless about the environmental impact of what you buy. There is no financial penalty for being wrong. In some cases, there is a penalty for being right when everyone else is wrong.

Take Morrisons. A few years ago they stopped putting plastic wrapping on cucumbers. However, over a decade before they defended its use on environmental grounds, pointing out the plastic wrapping cut food waste (a major source of emissions). The supermarket’s own tests found that unwrapped cucumbers went off two days earlier but said it was responding to customer calls for a reduction. You can’t blame them for giving in. After all, when you’re in business the customer is always right, even when they are, er, wrong.

Part of the problem is our intuitions around waste evolved before we knew about globalised supply chains and invisible gases changing the temperature. It is hard to shake the feeling that local food is greener than food imported from across the world. Fretting about food miles is intuitive.

Yet production, not transportation, is the main source of emissions from food. One study found that importing Spanish lettuce in the winter cut emissions by three to eight times compared to growing it locally.

When we import fruit and vegetables from warmer climes we are, as Madsen Pirie puts it, “importing renewable sunshine from abroad rather than requiring energy resources to be expended at home.”

We are bad too at weighing up competing environmental concerns. Our caveman brains are drawn to visual, salient, and near issues. Climate change dwarfs all other environmental issues, but waste is often the focus.

The eco-conscious consumer may boycott Nespresso pods on green grounds and buy ground coffee. But Alf Hill, a chemical engineering professor at Bath University reckons they have got it wrong. He told Wired magazine “Capsules tend to need less coffee input to make a single drink and so their overall impact can be lower even though we see more waste when we throw them away.”

We might not see the environmental costs of growing, harvesting, processing and transporting coffee, but they still exist.

We can also be slow to update false environmental beliefs. Stratton may have strong views about dishwashers, and it’s true that in the past, they were inefficient and you would have been better off, from an environmental perspective, washing by hand. But dishwashers are now the green option, using less water and energy than the alternative.

Biases can lead to bad policy. Is there a better example than the plastic bag tax? The Daily Mail’s long-running campaign against carrier bags must be one of the all-time environmental own-goals.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency looked at how many times different kinds of bags would need to be used to have the same impact as a single-use plastic bag. The cotton tote bags popular among the eco-conscious need to be reused 52 times to become the low emissions option. And emissions aren’t the only cost. If you take into account the other environmental impacts, the case for cotton weakens substantially. In fact, you will need to reuse it 7,000 times. And don’t think about going organic (20,000 reuses).

Bags for life aren’t much better either. The average shopper buys 54 each year and they need to be used 4 to 11 times (depending on their thickness) to beat single-use bags. Channel 4’s Fact Check points out that once you factor them in, the Government’s claims about the success of the plastic bag charge fall apart. The shift to ‘greener’ bags for life may actually have led to more plastic being used.

It is possible to dispute some of the above examples. Researchers trying to assess a product’s environmental impact from production to consumption have a near impossible task. Just imagine trying to work out the environmental impact of a single pencil. You would need to know the effect of the logging, the millwork, the mining of graphite, the shipping of graphite, the wetting agents to refine it, the application of lacquer, the rapeseed oil and sulfur chloride used to make the eraser, the brass to hold it and so on. But even that understates it, as you also need to know the impact of producing the tools used in each step and of feeding the workers.

The fact that products as complex as a pencil, let alone the device you are reading this on, are made, bought, and sold every day is simply extraordinary. There is no mastermind conducting each step of the production process. In fact, it’s possible that many objects exist which no single person could make from scratch. I once listened to a man who tried to build a toaster from scratch speak. He took a dozen shortcuts and when he finally finished, the device melted five seconds after he plugged it in.

The beauty of the modern world is that a pencil maker does not need to know how graphite is mined or how to grow the rapeseed used to make erasers. All they need to know is the price of graphite, the price of brass, the price of rapeseed and so on.

If only going green were as simple. Imagine a world where instead of reading whole lifecycle environmental audits, you could just compare price tags. Where all consumers and businesses make green shifts unwittingly in search of savings.

In an imperfect way, it already happens. Applying a carbon price to coal has driven massive reductions in emissions over the past decade. The challenge is applying it to everything else, including imports.

We certainly won’t get to Net Zero relying on individuals and businesses to make the green choice. They couldn’t even if they wanted to.

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Sam Dumitriu is Head of Research at The Entrepreneurs Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.