Green Giants

By George Monbiot

You batter your head against the door until you begin to wonder whether it is a door at all. Suddenly, it opens and you find yourself flying through space. The superstores’ green conversion is astonishing, wonderful, disorienting. If Tesco and Wal-Mart have become friends of the Earth, are any enemies left?

These were the most arrogant of the behemoths. For them, it seemed, there was no law beyond the market, no place too precious to be destroyed, no cost they could not pass on to someone else.

We environmentalists developed a picture of the world which seemed to be repeatedly confirmed by experience: big corporations destroy the environment.

We also recognized that this was a dialectical process. As businesses began to operate globally, so could the campaigns against them. By improving global communications and ensuring that we could all speak their language, they helped us to confront them more effectively.

But hardly anyone believed that change could happen so fast. Through the 1980s and 1990s, they brushed us off like dust. Then, as a result of powerful campaigns against sweatshops in the U.S. and Europe, some of the big clothing and sports retailers broke ranks. Soon after that, the energy companies started announcing big investments in renewable technologies. But supermarkets have shifted faster than anyone else. Environmental campaigners are partly responsible; even so, this sudden conversion leaves us reeling.

Embarrassingly, for those of us who have scorned the idea of corporate social responsibility, some of these companies now claim to be setting higher standards than any government would dare to impose on them. For example, Marks and Spencer (one of the largest clothing retailers and a multi-billion-pound food retailer in the U.K.) has promised to become carbon neutral, to cease sending waste to landfill by 2012, and to stop stocking any fish, wood, or paper which has not been sustainably sourced. Tesco (the world’s third-largest grocery retailer) promises to attach a carbon label to all its goods. Wal-Mart now says it will run its U.S. stores entirely on renewable energy.

These standards, moreover, are rather higher than those the British or U.S. governments set for themselves. Could it be true, as the neoliberals insist, that markets can do more to change the world than governments? If so, it reflects democratic failure as much as market success.

It is also true to say that the Wal-Mart Effect is a real one. When a huge company changes course, the impacts are felt all over the world. One positive decision by the leviathan rumbles more widely than a thousand decisions by its smaller competitors.

But those of us who have fought for the environment and against big business have not yet become redundant. There is plenty to celebrate in the recent announcements and plenty to suspect.

A major contradiction has been overlooked by both the supermarkets and many of their critics. “The green movement,” Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy tells us, “must become a mass movement in green consumption.” But what about consuming less? Less is the one thing the superstores cannot sell us. As further efficiencies become harder to extract, the superstores’ growth will eventually outstrip all their reductions in the use of energy.

The big retailers are competing to convince us that they are greener than their rivals, and this should make us glad. But we still need governments, and we still need campaigners.

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