Depending on who you believe, the Green movement is either regrouping for another blistering attack on Britain’s less-than-ethically minded manufacturers or it is suffering the worst decline in popularity since Mussolini was strung up by his former supporters.
In poll after poll, consumers express the view that yes, they do still care about fair trading – and in particular about animal welfare – but their support has steadily dipped from a vehe ment dark green to practically yellow.
While Green consumerism is still apparently on the agenda, however tenuously, shoppers’ principles and their concern for the health of the universe are having to take a poor second place to the more pressing demands of their pockets.
Although at the beginning of the decade many “light Greens” could be persuaded to pay a few pence more for recycled kitchen rolls or more enlightened washing powders, value for money is today overriding every other concern.
If there is a little left over after the weekly shop, why not spend it on the Lottery or a scratchcard, rather than on absolving one’s consumerist conscience, runs the argument.
The evidence for this new Green apathy, which many observers say stands little chance of improvement until general economic conditions recover, has never been clearer.
Five or six years ago, when “Green marketing” was still a definable term – it usually meant environmentally-friendly detergents, with a bit of anti-vivisection thrown in – hard-pressed conference organisers found any shade of Green a great lure for speakers and delegates.
And at the coal-face itself, supermarket shelves were positively groaning with phosphate-free detergents, recycled lavatory papers, cruelty-free pork chops and organically-grown fruit and vegetables.
Yet today, as people worry more about losing their jobs and homes than the fate of Britain’s rivers, or the rise of pesticides in their food, there are few multiples willing to give up more than a cursory amount of space to the new generation of Greens.
And, as far as conferences go, the Green revolution and Green loo-paper is suddenly less of a hot topic than loo-pack promotions.
In part, the (unproven) allegations about The Body Shop and others are to blame. After all, why should consumers, at no little cost to their purses, hoist the Green flag when some of the country’s largest ethical manufacturers stand charged with making money out of widespread hypocrisy and cant?
But what may be a far more serious problem than all the bad publicity afforded to the Green producers is the continued claims and counter-claims inside the Green movement itself. Everyone says that they are more ethical than their rivals but consumers remain ill-equipped to make any but the most sketchy of judgements.
The last retailer survey of attitudes to ethics was done by Gallup for CWS Retail and it was highly revealing.
What it showed was that while commitment to certain ethical issues – notably animal welfare and practically anything to do with the environment – was continuing to grow, concern about other issues, notably those concerning human beings, was becoming less of a draw.
Hard though it may be for humanitarians to accept, most British consumers believe that while the welfare of British sheep, or French veal calves should be a cause for concern in a civilised society, the starvation wages paid to Bolivian coffee growers is not a pressing issue.
In France, Italy and other parts of Europe, where sensitivity towards rabbits is less advanced, the Green movement has found that publicity over Third World wages and living conditions is far more of a draw.
But while few would deny that Green has lost its sheen, albeit temporarily, there is an argument for saying that Green principles haven’t so much disappeared as been successfully assimilated into mainstream marketing.
Reckitt & Colman, producer of the Down to Earth range of household cleaners, is today claiming significant growth for its products after a period of stagnation.
While the Green household cleaners sector has experienced a year-on-year decline of 18.6 per cent throughout the recession, Down to Earth is bucking the trend with a three per cent increase in sales.
It now has a 47 per cent share of the market, which makes it more than four times as big as Ecover, its closest competitor.
Reckitt believes the disappearance of so many of the early Green detergent products reflects not so much dwindling commitment to Green living, but to disappointing product performance.
While some of the first entrants into the Green detergents market simply failed to live up to consumer expectations of cleanliness – not because they didn’t lather, simply because they didn’t shift stains – Reckitt believes there is plenty of room for products that work.
The company’s view is backed by recent MORI and Mintel research claiming that if anything, environmental concerns now motivate a wider range of people than their former middle-class base, including older people and blue-collar workers.
It is possible then that like Green politics, Green marketing hasn’t so much been abandoned, but simply absorbed into the overall consumer scene.
The important initiatives have been taken up by mass market providers, while several of the smaller manufacturers have found that they need to work harder to find a market for the less mainstream Green qualities, no bad thing perhaps for the consumer.
And there are other signs that the Greens haven’t so much closed for business as regrouped.
Next month the country’s first environmental retail body, the Green Retailers’ Association (GRA), launches. It aims to unite retailers such as Safeway with smaller Green firms including Ark.
Backed by the British Retail Consortium, the GRA is already mooting the possibility of European Union funding for a collection of projects that will include recycling and more responsible packaging schemes. The GRA also has the support of Boots, The Body Shop, and HMV.
One of the other positive signs at the moment is the imminent launch of Britain’s first ethical shopping chain. Out of this World – which rather grandly calls itself Britain’s “first post-war national consumer co-operative” – has already exceeded its initial 600,000 start-up target and expects to open its first premises this autumn.
Not a moment too soon for the Greens.