Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.


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What will the recession mean for sustainability? With the U.S. subprime tsunami still breaking on Britain’s shores, house prices in freefall, and several major financial institutions in trouble, it’s becoming a hot topic in the U.K. now, with pundits wading in on both sides. Media framing has a tendency to become self-fulfilling prophecy, so it’s worrying that there’s a fair amount devoted to how rising costs and stagnant incomes will inevitably trample on the green shoots of ethical consumption.

And to be fair, it’s not hard to find evidence to support this view. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is, as predicted, getting a good kicking on his planned fuel-tax rises — to the point that it’s a safe bet they’ll be abandoned soon. More worryingly, there are signs that some forms of ethical consumption have slowed fairly dramatically in the last few months. With food prices at supermarkets up around 20 percent on this time last year — equating to around £1,000 (nearly $2,000) per year for the average family — the squeeze is on.

Last year’s 30 percent growth in the sales of more expensive organic foodstuffs has slumped to just 10 percent, and meanwhile, the “pile it high, sell it cheap” end of the food retail sector is booming. Homegrown, low-cost stores like Iceland and Kwiksave, and German discounters Aldi and Lidl, are reporting spectacular growth, particularly amongst middle-class consumers who have been the mainstay of green and ethical consumption. Aldi says its shopper numbers have increased a quarter compared with a year ago, with “ABC1” groups — upper middle class, middle class, and lower middle class — up 17 percent over the same period, and now making up half of their customers. And for now, these stores, which offer savings ranging from 10 to 50 percent on standard household consumables, are escaping the ethical spotlight that has exposed some of the more dubious practice amongst high-street retailers of clothes and shoes.

So, do these trends signal a wholesale retreat from values-led shopping, another false green dawn to be followed by another “don’t know, don’t care” decade? The doomsayers also look back to the last great flowering of environmental consciousness in the U.K., when the Green Party won 15 percent of the popular vote in the European elections of 1989, and a wave of environmentally friendly products hit the supermarket shelves. And then disappeared again in the recession of the early ’90s, when house prices collapsed, interest rates and unemployment soared, and green soap turned out to be an expensive con trick. Won’t it be just the same this time around? Or even worse? At least back then our concerns about the environment felt like they could be put on hold for a few years.

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The worst case scenario — dubbed a “perfect storm” by Ian Christie writing in Green Futures last month — is one in which the financial crisis meets some of the early consequences of ecological overshoot, including soaring oil demand and food shortages born of climate change and the race for biofuels, with consequent human misery at unimaginable scale, and of course a pretty sharp reordering of priorities toward short-term survival.

Clearly we’re hoping it won’t come to that, and there are many in the movement here — including Christie — who are keen to set up an alternative self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the recession won’t be as bad as others we’ve known, and anyway, we’ve gone too far down the road to sustainability to turn back now. They cite a range of factors that insulate us from the worst case: We’re a lot richer, so we can survive more of a correction; house prices will have to fall a hell of a long way before we see millions in “negative equity” as we saw in the early ’90s; and for now, the regulatory authorities seem to have succeeded in keeping the worst effects of the financial crisis within the “virtual economy” of financial services.

Beyond these specifics, there’s also a sense that environmental concerns are mainstream now to the point where it will be politically, culturally, and indeed psychologically difficult to drop them. From the passage of the U.K. climate bill through Parliament, to rising recycling rates, to the growing salience of environmental issues in elections, there seem to be good arguments that a significant proportion of the U.K. population, both amongst decision-makers and ordinary citizens, will find it hard to put the whole thing on one side again. And the jewel in the crown of these somewhat theoretical arguments is that sustainable development principles and thinking hold the key to averting and/or surviving the recession. It’s only by focusing on scarcity, risk, energy security, and so forth, and seeing these agendas as the source of innovation, new products and services, and new markets, that business and communities will thrive in the future.

Well, let’s hope so. For this more optimistic narrative to hold, the green movement needs to make sure that all those individuals and organizations that only “got it” in the last year or so feel like it’s an agenda worth staying with. And to do that, organizations like mine need to make sure we’re delivering the goods on how green thinking works particularly well in a recession. Really convincing case studies are still in worryingly short supply, and whether the major retailers can stick to some of the more demanding commitments they made over the last couple of years will be an interesting test of how mainstream the argument has become.

Good news, then, that discounter Aldi has also been recycling cardboard, charging for plastic bags, sourcing locally, and using low-energy technology for years — mainly because it saves money. The company also seems to believe these measures still play well with customers, and has recently announced the construction of its first eco-store in Ludlow, the out-of-town food capital of the Midlands, where it’ll still be piling it high and selling it cheap, but under a green roof.