Friday, February 29, 2008

Ariel's delighted Polar Bear: Cause for applause or nausea ?

I must have been desperate for reading material while I ate my muesli (but not a beard or sandal in sight) earlier this week. My brother always used to amuse us at home by reading the text on the side of the cornflakes packet while he ate his breakfast. I reach for the Riverford Organic vegetables box list. On one side it tells you what's in your box ("Sweet mama squash" is this week's special attraction). On the other side there is a little homily from Guy Watson, head and chief of the Riverford empire.

Normally this little newsletter tells you about some local event of their like the commissioning of their field kitchen or news of this season's purple sprouting broccoli.

This week, I found myself reading an interesting treatise on commercialism, spin and the green agenda.

Guy Watson is not a fan of "spin" in green matters:

There is a huge dichotomy between the motivations that business leaders profess to the public (beliefs and values) and those revealed to investors. Behind the closed doors of the business world growth, shareholder value and dividends are King with ethics tolerated as a means of driving sales an d building brand. These individuals may have more altruistic inclinations but within the predominantly macho world of business it is not yet acceptable to admit to them.

Watson quotes the "furore over biofuels" as a case in point. Citing his own research, which quickly showed biofuels to be fairly pointless, he writes:

Why is it that biofuels have formed a central plank in so many companies' corporate responsibility claims (Tesco, Virgin and indeed our Government)? Either they could not be bothered to do the most rudimentary research or are more consumed with winning short term approval than achieving true responsibility.

So, there is a picture emerging of companies transparently adopting the "green agenda" in order to boost profits. Sometimes what they are doing is not necessarily "green".

Nowhere is this transparency more remarkably demonstrated than in Ariel's "Turn to 30" campaign.

When the green agenda extends to washing powder, one of the most cut-throat, low margin businesses, then you know it's time for a reality check. Procter and Gamble are not known for advertising campaigns unconnected to their "bottom line". So it was with an outburst of incredulity and nausea that I greeted this TV advert the other night:

That seems to be the moment that green issues got sexy. If you turn your washing down to 30 degrees, the glaciers will suddenly recover and polar bears will let out a little murmur of satisfaction. It is that murmur of satisfaction which got me.

You have to hand it to the advertising wallahs. What a superb, populist advert! All shiny and nice! It's great to see a large commercial giant like Procter and Gamble embracing the fight against global warming.

But on the other hand....Pass the sickbag, Alice.

After experiencing that advert, I was groping around for reasons to be cynical about it. Fortunately, help was at hand in last week's Observer magazine. Lucy Steigle wrote an article entitled: "Does my washing at 30C clean up my act?" The short answer is yes, but buying less clothes and extending their wear time in between washes would do just as much, if not more, good:

It began last year with Ariel (the market leader) and you can see what inspired them. We wash hotter in the UK than they do on the Continent, thus wasting 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of energy a year (but how much of this is the legacy of the industry emphasis on whiter than white whites?)

It almost adds up. Studies on jeans, a polyester blouse and a T-shirt show that laundering accounts for 60-80 per cent of the garment's total environmental impact. But there's no denying it's extremely clever marketing, too, allowing detergent manufacturers to up their planet-saving credentials without particularly changing a product's ingredients (phosphates and optical brighteners are especially unfriendly to watercourses).

...what lurks in our obese wardrobes are 2.4 billion unwanted items, each of which took huge amounts of resources to be made, shipped and brought to point of sale.

Meanwhile Dr Kate Fletcher quotes Dutch research in her book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles which shows that the average garment stays on the body for 44 days and is worn for between 2.4 and 3.1 days between washing. As we buy more these times are decreased and wash days increase. So a sustainable laundry manoeuvre might also include learning to love stains; a little dried egg or butter grease never killed anybody.

Which brings me finally to a little book for which I have great affection. It's called "Keep it simple" by Nick Page. Page argues that we all tend to make our lives ridiculously complex. By reducing complexity, he says, we will lead more contented lives. One of the key ways he demonstrates this point is in the area of wardrobe management. If we recycle or donate anything we haven't worn for a year and concentrate on a few well-loved articles of clothing, rather than a wide eccletic mix (half of which we hardly ever wear), we will actually make our lives far simpler and easier. He uses a quote from Charles Kettering of General Motors which sums up our cultivated desire to buy more and more clothes and, indeed, things:

The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction.

So, yes, we'll all click our washing down to 30C. But it will do that polar bear a lot more good if we stop buying things we wear once and then leave in the wardrobe for five years.

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