The Sunday Age | 21 October 2007
If you want to be a green consumer, you’ll have to pay a premium. Miki Perkins discovers why it has to be so dear.
HYBRID car, $38,000. Eco-renovation with water tank and solar panels, $25,000. Carbon offset for flight overseas, $500. Organic vegetable box, $85 a week. And so the list goes on.
Going green can be expensive. Why does reducing our impact have to cost so much?
Some people are happy to spend extra dough on saving the planet, says Tanya Ha, author of new book The Australian Green Consumer Guide and “eco-coach” on SBS reality show Eco House Challenge.
She says “deep” green shoppers seek out eco-friendly products, “light” greens select these products when given a choice and other consumers will buy them only if it makes economic sense.
Products made from green ingredients often cost more because of their higher material costs, she says. Plant oils and waxes are usually dearer than petrochemical-derived oils. Products such as five-star washing machines use the same materials as their less-efficient counterparts, but are better designed and constructed.
“In some cases, going green can be an expensive process, but it doesn’t have to be,” Ha says. “In the long term, particularly with green energy, some things that cost more have a payback period - it’s cheaper in the long run.”
But Ha counsels against promoting green consumerism as a silver bullet for climate change.
“I certainly don’t recommend chucking out a washing machine in good working order for the sake of a one-star increase in energy efficiency,” she says.
Chaining yourself to a tree or lecturing people are the “old ways” of the green movement, according to G Magazine editor-in-chief Wilson da Silva.
“People criticise green consumerism because it (being environmentally friendly) has to be done in a certain way. Who the hell are they? Who,” da Silva asks, “is sitting in a court of judgement, saying you should live your life in this way or that?”
One of a new crop of green magazines, the glossy pages of G cover stories ranging from an election form guide to “40 enviro shopping ideas”.
Those who buy G Magazine are told it’s for people who want to reduce their impact but don’t want to compromise their lifestyle. But surely there has to be some compromise if humankind - and all the other beasties - are going survive?
A commitment to buying green comes with a serious premium, whether it’s your grocery bill or your renovation.
“The cost to grow an organic apple, without taking shortcuts and using pesticides, is always going to be more than the mass-produced version,” says Pierce Cody, owner of the Macro Wholefoods chain. “But as the market gets bigger and the economies of scale start kicking in, prices are coming down.”
Eco-renovating a house can cost considerably more than a box of organic apples. Chris de Campo, of de Campo Architects, estimates that the average green upgrade of a home, with an underground water tank, insulation and solar panels, costs about $25,000. But, he says, people often pursue “iconic gestures” such as water tanks at the expense of cheaper options.
“The first thing you’d do would be insulate, plant trees, protect your windows, tape up drafts and install thermal curtains on the inside. All that secondary stuff gets you halfway there,” he says.
In some cases, he believes green additions have become a status symbol, something he finds “really annoying”, given that sustainable building design has been around since the 1940s. “It’s become a real bandwagon thing, but better late than never, that’s for sure.”
Heath Garratt, manager of Cradle Mountain Huts and Bay of Fires Walks in Tasmania, says certain people are willing to pay more for services that operate sustainably.
In 2000, the company built the Bay of Fires Lodge in the dunes behind a remote Tasmanian beach. Running on solar power and reliant on rainwater, the lodge is not accessible by road.
A four-day hike, with two nights at the lodge, costs close to $1900, a price that Garratt says reflects the cost of building in this location.
“It’s remote, and in terms of tourism experiences it’s quite unique. But generally I think our clients are happy to pay that cost because they’re the sort of people who would love to have that experience but want the luxuries involved.”
He says some tourism operators piggyback on the appeal of eco-tourism, and his company has been reluctant to describe themselves in those terms. “It’s a brand that’s definitely over-utilised, which is a shame. We’re an operator that has been proven to run sustainably, so we can’t really cut any corners.”
Corporations are falling over themselves to attract the green dollar: Qantas and Virgin Blue offer carbon-neutral flights, green bags line supermarket checkouts and money lender MyRate.com.au recently announced a carbon-neutral home loan. British food company Walkers now has a carbon-footprint label on every packet of potato chips.
Even the Australian Government is in on the act - a $23 million dollar strategy to sell the coalition’s message on climate change led to ads advising shoppers to buy energy-efficient fridges.
But the cost of going green remains the primary consideration for many people. A study of 2000 people issued last month by the University of Melbourne and CSIRO found people were often unwilling to buy green power because of the additional cost and wanted the Government to support renewable energy so that the price would drop for householders.
Monash University’s Andrew Cavanagh says calling a product “green” will attract only about 15 per cent of the Australian market - the rest need an economic incentive.
Christopher Zinn, a spokesman for consumer watchdog Choice, says a reliable green labelling scheme is needed.
“A growing sector of the market is prepared to pay a reasonable price for greenhouse-friendly products but they want to be really sure it’s not marketing spin,” he says.
Because our insatiable demand for commodities got us into this mess, the logic follows that it’s up to consumers to steer us back from the brink. But a consumer-driven approach takes the heat off governments and places it squarely on the shoulders of the individual, says Australia Institute head and Affluenza author Clive Hamilton.
“We didn’t solve the hole in the ozone layer by appealing to everyone to buy different sorts of fridges. We introduced an international treaty, backed by domestic legislation, to ban CFCs.”
Hamilton says that as we become wealthier, we consume more. By 2005, each Victorian was generating two tonnes of waste a year, 6 per cent more than the previous year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
“What green consumerism does is allow you to create a different sort of identity - a noble greenie identity,” says Hamilton. “So it continues to promote the whole idea of self-creation through consumption.”
Many businesses have become avid green consumers. Just ask Environmentally Sustainable Objects (ESO) owner Robyn Galloway. Her company makes furniture with an environmental licence that is sold to architects and designers who want green star accreditation with the Green Building Council of Australia.
For $1650 you can buy her half-circle ottoman - a funky modular seat made from plantation timber, recycled fibres, recycled boxboard and low-allergy adhesives. She says the price reflects the quality of materials.
“Even though it’s licensed environmentally, it’s only 5 to 8 per cent dearer than anything else. When you only look at the lower end, they’re all manufactured offshore,” she says. “People should buy and keep quality products if they can afford it.” If cost remains a concern, she recommends people buy second-hand furniture and have it covered in sustainable materials.
While the green dollar now commands serious buying power in Britain and the US, Australian companies lag.
In Britain, retail giant Marks & Spencer is undergoing a £200 million ($A458 million) “eco-refit” that will see it put warning labels on air-freighted food and go carbon-neutral by 2012. Meanwhile Wal-Mart, in the US, plans to install solar panels on warehouse roofs.
But the major retailers here, says Cavanagh, are largely silent.
“The comments I’ve read from all the large retailers seem to be spin,” he says.
“They will do it as long as it’s economically viable, so the driving force is still cost management and return to shareholders, rather than the environment.”
Individuals in this country are not buying green purely to elevate themselves on the social ladder. They do actually care. Australia leads New Zealand, Britain and the US in environmental consciousness. About 89 per cent of Australians, compared with only 75 per cent in the US, agreed with the statement “If we don’t act now we’ll never control our environmental problems”, when surveyed by Roy Morgan in 2006. And 65 per cent agreed that, at heart, they were environmentalists.
G Magazine’s da Silva says we shouldn’t fret about the motives of the green consumer. “Some people are making these decisions, let’s be frank, for the look of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“If everybody chooses green power, or drives a hybrid car as an image thing, who cares, because it has an impact.”
Tanya Ha’s Green Shopping Tips
GreenPower You can pay a little extra on your bill to get 100 per cent of your power from an approved GreenPower source. When you combine GreenPower purchasing with energy efficiency in the home, it can be a cost neutral exercise.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs This one is a no-brainer. Replace all incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents. They may cost more but will last far longer and use up to 80 per cent less electricity. Each bulb saves up to $50 over its life.
Water-efficient shower head Older-style shower heads have flow rates of about 12-20 litres per minute. If you swap to a three-star rated shower head, the rate drops to nine litres per minute or less. City West, Yarra Valley and South East water companies will swap your old shower head for a water-efficient design for free.
Refillable water filter bottle Drinking imported bottled water in Australia wastes plastic packaging and transportation energy. Water bottles are available with a replaceable filter for those with fussy taste buds.
Bicarb soda Bicarb soda is a must for household green cleaning. It is great for shifting baked-on spills, scrubbing chopping boards and removing odours. You can even mix it into a paste with a little water and use it to exfoliate your skin.