Out of this World shopping

For the shopper tired of consumerism, an alternative way to share in the experience has come to light – buying into the shopping business. By Virginia Matthews

Despite the annual spectacle of shopaholics queuing their lives away for the standard January sale “bargains” of remaindered china and discontinued TV sets, serious moves are afoot to puncture the bubble of continuous consumption.

In Canada, shopping-phobics are looking forward to September’s “Buy Nothing Day” – billed as a 24-hour moratorium on all consumer spending – while in the US itself, anti-commercial elements are raising money for “TV Turnoff Week,” when it is hoped that thousands of couch potatoes will rise up as one to cast off the shroud of mindless passivity.

Being British, our faint protests at the creeping tide of commercialism are a little more muted – mutters of complaint about the cost of Christmas trees, or how the ad-breaks ruined the Christmas Eve showing of A Christmas Carol.

Yet here too, the ethics of the consumer society are coming under the sort of scrutiny not seen since Ebenezer Scrooge stitched up his wallet.

“Out of this World,” says the bumph for an innovative chain of green stores due to open for business later this year, “is a direct challenge to destructive consumerism which turns its back on exploitation and enables people to shop for a better world.”

“Most shopping just seems to add to the world’s problems,” it adds. (But) “By making practical, ethical choices about where we shop and what we buy, we can become part of the solution.”

After all, says the company’s managing director Richard Adams, “even if we hate consumerism, we can’t help being consumers.”

The brainchild of a four-strong management team, including Julia Hales of the Green Consumer Guide and John Berry, the former technological director of Boots the Chemist, Out of this World hopes to launch its first store by the Autumn, with a further 11 shops in operation by spring 1997.

But unlike other Green-tinged firms, the company’s entire development programme will be shaped by the “members” who buy into it.

It will be financed with a members’ share offer which is expected to raise ú600,000 among a wide range of Green sympathisers – anyone from the “armchair ethical” shopper who is frustrated at the lack of Green products in conventional shops, to the “truly motivated” Green campaigner.

And it is these same members, investing anything from ̼50 to a ceiling of ̼20,000 Рwho will directly decide where in the country the (members only) shops should open, what they should sell, even how they should be designed.

Initially at least, potential members will be targeted via the in-house magazines of such organisations as Amnesty International, Oxfam, the Soil Association and Business Age.

Later, says Adams, the general public will be given their chance.

“Although all our research shows that the general public are in theory very interested in ethical products, the notion of paying around ú50 to help get an ethical chain off the ground will only appeal to perhaps one per cent of the population.”

Initially at least, 60 per cent of the stock will be food, but with the shop size expected to be in the order of 2,000 square feet – four or five times as big as the average charity shop – Adams and his team hope to stock anything from fashion and furniture to household basics as well as 1,200 to 1,500 ethically-produced food lines.

Recycled paper products are an obvious contender for inclusion, as are rechargeable batteries, Green lightbulbs and detergents and longer-lasting electrical appliances.

There will also be an in-store cafe and takeaway service for lunchtimes, as well as tie-ins with local organic producers. Where possible, an in-store library and creche will also be added to the list.

“We envisage an ABC1 type of customer, who traditionally spends around ú90 a week on household items,” says Adams.

“If we can get even 15 or 20 per cent of that switched to us, we would be content.”

To qualify as a shopper in an Out of this World store, a consumer needs to pay only 50 pence for temporary membership and ú5 for lifetime membership, with customers being encouraged to work in stores in return for share credits.

Although the very notion of a members-only chain sounds strangely elitist for such a democratically-run green organisation, Adams makes no apology:

“We’re not so much trying to tackle the problems of poverty as the problems that are caused to the earth by too much wealth.”

“It seems quite logical to us that our membership should be among the very people who cause many of our consumption-related problems – the affluent.”

And in return for their support of the out of this World concept, the affluent investors can expect not only access to a wider range of green products than has hitherto been possible in Britain, but also a guaranteed eight per cent return on their investment.

To get a listing in one of the stores, a product must first meet rigorous criteria.

It must have personal health benefits, meet animal welfare or environmental requirements, be produced in a way that has a beneficial impact on the local community – including sound working conditions for employees – and have been supplied by a country subscribing to fair trade principles.

While Adams believes that the growth of the `social market’ and the “new consumer” has made conditions in Britain ripe for a green revolution, he declares himself “impatient” and “frustrated” at the way in which supply continues to lag behind demand.

“Consumers face three major problems in their search for ethical products. Accessibility is the biggest bug-bear, but there’s also the lack of confidence in green claims and the fear that they may be a con.”

“Thirdly, they wonder if Green products will be as effective as traditional products in, say, washing clothes. Well the answer is that they often aren’t, but that there are other issues aside from sparkling white clothes.”

In its bid to educate consumers about the effect that the manufacture of everyday products has on the earth’s resources, Out of this World hopes to employ the latest barcode and scanner technology to give shoppers a comprehensive list of a product’s ingredients and health claims, as well as details of how it is made.

Adams says: “We want to give people all the facts about what they consume, so that they can choose what goes into their baskets.”

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