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A recent Henley Centre survey suggested that 86% of people were eager to buy goods with less packaging, up 20% in the last two years. Nothing arouses as much spontaneous anger among British householders as the ‘over-packaging’ of foods. Recent newspaper headlines conveyed righteous indignation about the policies of UK retailers, in particular the failure to make all packaging recyclable.

The newspapers completely missed the point. Three issues need to be emphasised:

  • Food packaging is a vanishingly small fraction of UK waste. Waste food is far more important.
  • Good packaging is vital: it helps protect food from damage and helps lengthen its shelf life.
  • Recyclable food packaging may actually be bad for climate change.

Making these points too loudly can get you lynched in some middle-class areas of Britain. Nevertheless, it needs to be said repeatedly that packaging, particularly of food, is not the environmental disaster it is made out to be.

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Many companies selling to UK families have a strong sense that consumer demands are shifting rapidly. M&S recently talked to Carbon Commentary about its perceptions of changes in attitudes and behaviour. This article compares its results with those of a survey by the Henley Centre in summer 2007.

During the last year or so, the percentage of ‘green zealots’ in M&S research has risen from 3-4% to nearer 8%. Henley also sees a figure of 8% for the two greenest groups ‘principled pioneers’ and ‘vocal activists’. A further 31% (Henley Centre) or 30-35% (M&S) are actively concerned and want to adjust their behaviour. There has also been a big growth in this group in the last year.

In both surveys another third are aware of environmental and ethical issues, but are unlikely to take active steps unless pushed. A final quarter or so don’t care very much. M&S says that they are ‘struggling’. Henley calls them ‘disengaged’.

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The rivalry between Tesco and Wal-Mart is well known. Tesco’s imminent entry to the US heartland of the world’s largest retailer may have created an extra edge to the battle. And, unsurprisingly, the two giants are squaring up over carbon issues as well as over such things as employee conditions and global sourcing policies.

Tesco said earlier this year that it would eventually put carbon labels on all its 70,000 food lines. It has been trying to find way of doing this using Life Cycle Analysis, putting a greenhouse gas cost on every element of a product’s move from farm to plate. This was always a hugely over-ambitious project and recent weeks have seen the company drift back from its early optimism. Now Wal-Mart has come up with a similarly impossible dream – to use the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) to assess and manage the energy footprint of its suppliers. These big retailers know that they have to be seen to be doing something about greenhouse gases, so they have both launched incomplete schemes that will achieve little.

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