Musings on a Green Economy pt3: What’s Working
Here’s part 3 of my holiday musings on a green economy. Last time, we looked at two models of sustainability – eco-efficiency (doing more with less) and eco-system models (copying nature’s solar powered loops). This time, we’ll be looking at what moves to a green economy are genuinely making progress.
I haven’t bought a CD for years. This is not an insignificant sign – I was the archetypal ‘£50 bloke’ who would have felt strange coming back from my weekly shopping trip into town without a bag of those shimmering disks. About half of these I would love, the others would sit on the shelf after a play or two. Now I rarely bring such stuff into my house, yet my life is still full of music due to the wonders of t’internet, MP3s and iPhones. In fact I rarely ‘go shopping’ anymore.
When I considered eco-efficiency last time, I mused that the only way we would get step changes would be new models of consumption which sell us ‘experience’ rather than ‘stuff’. Experience is the music, stuff is the CDs. Experience is the movie, stuff is the DVD. Experience is the picture, stuff is the film and the paper it used to exist on. Experience is the words in a book, stuff is the pages, glue and card, nevermind the packaging and transportation. Experience is a webinar, stuff is the fuel required to attend a training session.
And you can see the effect – two of the big purveyors of CDs and DVDs on the British highstreet, Woolworths and Zavvi (nee Virgin Music), have gone, and the survivor, HMV, is said to be struggling. Camera film has almost disappeared from the shelves and sales of compact cameras have plummeted as smartphones make them redundant. Many books’ electronic versions outsell their paper’n’glue equivalents.
Of course this digital experience has an ecological price – but the carbon footprint of a downloaded music album is said to be 40% that of the physical equivalent. And now server farms are being relocated to the far north or powered by renewables to bring that burden down in way you simply can’t do with a physical product. And the lightweight nature of home entertainment may be weaning us off our addiction to accumulating stuff as status symbol – witness the rise in other collaborative consumption models such as Airb’n’b and ZipCar. But more widely it shows us what we need to do to make such eco-efficiency gains: think different and make the new version so desirable that consumers willingly ditch the old.
Looking at the eco-system model, renewable energy is booming. Germany, the spiritual home of the feed-in tariff, hit 50% of electricity production from renewable sources for an hour in May. OK, that was just an hour, but it shows new energy sources are capable of biting significant chunks out of fossil fuel’s dominance of the market. Here in the UK, solar panels are springing up all over the joint and capital costs have dropped 30% as a result. Renewables companies are often being paid not to generate – a bizarre state of affairs which shows their increasing contribution.
In terms of zero-waste, domestic waste collection and reprocessing is climbing steadily as local authorities and individuals suss each other out. Numerous companies have declared themselves as wanting to be ‘zero waste’ and some ‘waste’ companies are finding where there’s muck there’s brass, for example plundering street sweepings to recover platinum from catalytic converters. And toxic materials are being eradicated left, right and centre, mainly on the back of tough EU legislation which ripples out around the world.
More broadly, another interesting shift is the number of big retailers and public sector organisations which have taken on the mantle as gatekeepers for the citizen and are driving sustainability down through their supply chains. This has many advantages over the niche of green consumerism as these players can use their buying power to demand performance, price and planet from their suppliers – a pretty good deal for the consumer.
So is it all rosy in the garden? No, certainly not. There’s plenty to be optimistic about, but a long, long way to go to sustainability. In Part 4, we’ll look at some of the big sticking points and what can be done.