A recent GreenUps event

By Lily Morrissey

13 June 2012 – The “green economy” is a load of bollocks. Such was the ironic key point made by Christopher Zinn (ex-Choice consumer advocate) at this month’s GreenUps network group, which sported the topical theme ­– you guessed it, – the “Green Economy”.

Why did he make this unlikely comment? “Because”, he explained in regard to his work with sustainable energy group The Big Switch, “Green Economy makes it sound different from the ‘economy’, but we want it to be totally normal, totally everyday”.

Zinn was an animated and engaging speaker, one of three alongside Melinda Tually, owner of ethical retailer I Ran The Wrong Way, and Gabrielle Turner, of Green Jobs Network.

Their job as defined by the GreenUps blurb was to try and shed some clarity on this nebulous, ill-defined thing we call the green economy. I can’t say they succeeded in that mammoth task, but the talks turned out to be an insightful and refreshing look into the world of the “green consumer” – if that’s not an oxymoron.

Zinn started with a couple of eco brain-ticklers. What makes us switch from a non-green product to a green equivalent? And, how do we get around our irrational human tendency to stay with the status quo (apparently 50 per cent of Australians have never-ever switched energy plans!), even when it’s worse than the other options?

In answer to his own questions, he insisted that green products need to be a functional equivalent of their non-green counterparts in design, cost and utility. Externalised environmental costs make this hard, but it’s not impossible. And consumers need not more, but better and more reliable sources of information on their products.

Tually’s experiences as a small business owner selling fancy ethical bits and bobs served as a perfect illustration to Zinn’s message. I was sort of (perversely, maybe) delighted at the novelty of hearing Tually say she hates the terms “green” and “eco”, and has consciously avoided them in her branding for much the same reason that Zinn  hates “Green Economy”. She envisages all products as being “green” and “eco’ in the future, and doesn’t think it helps to box them into a specific market.

Christopher Zinn

The way she sees it, she sells quality products that are also ethical and sustainable, not the other way round. She has strong, transparent relationships with her suppliers and relies more on these than certification to source and market her products. “I find that telling a story,” she said, “is a beautiful way of teaching people why this T-shirt is better than one you can get for $4”.

Tually lamented that many retailers on “High Street” don’t tell customers where their products come from, and that they’re failing to invest in ethical suppliers because of too much focus on profit and inflexible ordering practices. But she didn’t victimise consumers either, pointing out that there is now an abundance of cradle-to-cradle, ethical design and production going on, and lots of information out there.

Gabrielle Turner, the middle speaker of the night, represented a couple of those ethical suppliers in a roundabout way, given that she was coming from an organisation (Green Corps) which, among other things, trains disadvantaged people to make nice things out of rubbish and sell them. She asked the audience a few poignant, if ambiguous questions: “How will the green economy work for everyone in the community?”, and pointed out a few uncomfortable truths: “Will it mean a boom in the renewable [energy] sector Or, a spike in the demand for tree planters? Because we’re not seeing that right now”.

The event was a nice little speaker supply-chain. Zinn was the consumer, Tually was the store, and Turner was the ethical supplier… and as a side, Turner also represented the government green jobs training program that got all its funding cut, because of “uncertain economic times”. I’m not sure what it is yet, exactly, but there’s some poetry in that neat little constellation, somewhere.

During the obligatory post-talk mingling that I sometimes enjoy but sometimes also hate in my more socially awkward moments, I had a stand out chat with the very friendly Cate Lawrence of the Green Renters group in Melbourne. These guys give advice to people living in rental situations on how to live greener. Worth checking out.

So all in all it was an interesting night well worth braving the storm for ( one newspaper gave it   ridiculous title of  “Apocalypse Wow”). Thanks again to GreenUps. I particularly liked Zinn’s optimistic yet humorous conclusion, so I’ll shamelessly reproduce it here just for your appreciation.

“Despite”, he began, “ ‘the consumer’ being a term which evokes this image of something that sort of lies around passively consuming things that other people are feeding it, we consumers are actually the drivers of our economy and can make a difference”. If that’s not the best invitation to “switch” to green consumption I’ve ever heard, I’ll kiss a piece of clean coal.

Lily Morrissey is a Sydney writer and sustainability enthusiast and World Wildlife Fund Eco Blogger for 2011 . Her website Groundroots media project has documented sustainability solutions across Asia and the US.