Green and affordable can go hand-in-hand

Would you buy two ultra cheap t-shirts if you were told the story of how they were made? Berlin shoppers were confronted with this question by a brilliant vending machine installed as part of Fashion Revolution Day. Before getting their hands on the cheap clothing they were shown a story of the working conditions and pay of the workers. They were then asked whether they wanted to continue with the purchase or change their money into a donation.

There is no doubt that cheap products frequently indicate shoddy environmental and social practice. These practices need to be called out and brought to our attention whenever possible. For this Channel 4 should be applauded. Their recent expose of the less than salubrious business practices of Sports Direct being a great example of investigative reporting telling a story that the company would rather not be known.

But we need to be careful of falling into the trap where cheap automatically equates to bad whilst expensive means good. Unfortunately this is still the rhetoric of many prominent green commentators and needs to be challenged when not backed by evidence.

For too long the environmental movement has been seen as the preserve of ‘mildly concerned Guardian readers against the bomb’ depicted as a middle class hobby for those people with sufficient wealth to buy their way to a cleaner conscious. Whilst we play in this space it is easy for the environmental movement to be marginalised by politicians and seen as irrelevant by large sections of society.

The narrative needs to change and there are a growing batch of companies perfectly demonstrating that you can provide affordable products in a way that doesn’t ride rough shod over the environment.

IKEA for example were winners of the Business Green company of the year award last year with judges praising them for ‘one of the most ambitious green strategies ever enacted by a major corporation’. This is a company that is moving its entire lighting range over to LED later in this year as they believe this is the best environmental option and offers customers great products. H&M was recently highlighted by Greenpeace as taking a leadership position in the fashion industry for going toxic free as part of the Detox Campaign. Last month McDonalds pledged to end deforestation across its entire supply chain.

These companies demonstrate that you can meet the requirements of a mainstream audience in an environmentally thoughtful manner. Obviously it doesn’t mean that everything they do is clean but their leadership should be held up as examples to the many laggards in mass market sectors demonstrating what can be achieved.

Instead of recognising these positive steps some commentators are happy to lump together all companies providing products to a mainstream audience as unethical. It is a too simple approach and if continued will keep the environmental movement firmly entrenched in the muesli belt.