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Environmental researcher Peter Gudde looks at how green issues are changing our shopping habits

Several things got me thinking this week about the relationship between what we say and what we do when it comes to environmental issues.

Firstly, over 2,000 people were recently surveyed by Britain Thinks looking at their attitudes to waste, recycling and shopping. The majority considered that recycling and waste disposal had ridden up the agenda significantly in the last decade with nine out of 10 saying that they try to recycle in the correct way as much as possible.

Recycling was broadly seen as a good thing, but respondents were unsure how recycling at home fitted into a wider strategy for waste alongside the manufacturer’s responsibility and the work of local authorities. This created a feeling of disengagement with the value of recycling and with recent changes in some recycling schemes made them distrustful or even cynical about the changes.

Is your shopping sustainable? (8162878)
Is your shopping sustainable? (8162878)

When it comes to shopping, we don’t appear to take into consideration the sustainability of the products in our buying habits or how we deal with the product or its packaging when it comes to the end of its use. Only half of respondents said that how environmentally-friendly a product was important in how they chose it.

When offered cheaper more sustainable products of the same quality, even when provided with information about the benefits, those surveyed were not inclined to swap away from their trusted brands. However, people commented that big brands could become tainted resulting in loss of customer loyalty because of bad news about their sustainability. The recent campaign targeting Walkers Crisps demonstrates the impact of consumer protest, where customers posted empty packets back to the company to highlight the fact that they could not be recycled leading Walkers to commit to a recycling scheme.

Participants wanted convenience, simplicity and some reward for doing the ‘right things’. This last point is interesting given the success of the plastic bag tax, which at 5p probably makes little impact on the weekly shop. However, the message that the additional cost sends out has changed shopper behaviour.

The incentive-based approach is thought by some to be more appropriate for some waste packaging, and this could lead to the return of deposit return schemes for drinks cans and bottles. As I have mentioned before, this has been very successful in Norway with the introduction of reverse vending machines on the high street. I remember as a lad taking bottles back to the shops to collect the deposit. Even today, I love a loyalty card even if it does mean you become loyal to everyone offering you a discount – no problem with that, I think. Maybe, there’s even a space in the market for a green loyalty card.

Finally, I learnt my own green ‘walk the talk’ lesson when in London last week with an enviro-buddy. Needing a drink on-the-go, we visited an independent coffee shop. Not being someone who regularly carries a re-usable drinks cup, I paid my money and received my organic yak-milk flat white in a non-recyclable cup about the size of a thimble. John, on the other hand, proffered his own eco-cup made of something akin to recycled pallet wood. The barista served him gladly, charged him the same price as mine then, on John’s request, proceeded to fill it to the brim, probably securing double the amount of my meagre purchase.

See, sometimes it pays to think and act green.

-- Peter Gudde is an energy adviser and environmental researcher