Megan Trethewey is Programmes Manager for the Conservative Environment Network.
‘A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created’. The Prime Minister has repeated this mantra many times since she entered Number 10, but the balance between the invisible hand of the market and the ‘right rules and regulations’ can be a tricky one. This is particularly true in environmental policy – but more rules and regulations aren’t always the answer when consumers can exercise their power over the market. With more eco-brands out there – and more climate warnings from scientists – individuals should be taking responsibility, and using their power to make cleaner, greener choices.
The Government of course plays an important role in nudging consumers in the right direction. The 5p levy on plastic bags was criticised as a tax from a ‘nanny state’ by some MPs (Philip Davies), but small policies like this can have an important impact. According to some scientists, there has been a 30 per cent reduction in plastic bags in the ocean off the UK’s coastline and around some European countries since these charges were introduced.
Plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 signal both to consumers, and investors, which way the market is going. However, demand for EVs will come from consumers and can’t be artificially created by Government policy. If buyers are skeptical about something then they’re simply less likely to buy it, which is where the Government should focus its efforts.
This gets to the heart of conservative environmentalism, providing conservative answers to green issues. Brexit offers new opportunities for increased environmental protections, yet these new regulations must work with green consumers and utilise their sense of personal responsibility over their purchases.
The Great British Consumer significantly underestimates their influence on businesses, and how much change their buying power can influence. Unilever published a report in 2017 showing that a third of consumers internationally are now choosing to ‘buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good’. They estimate there is a market worth €966 billion (£865 billion) for brands with clear sustainability credentials. So it’s no surprise that Unilever recently launched its first personal care brand in 20 years, targeting the green consumer with recyclable packaging and vegan ingredients.
Just as voters can influence their politicians, consumers can influence businesses to change their practices. Blue Planet 2 was the most watched show of 2017, influencing many of us to reduce our plastic use after we saw the impact it was having on our oceans. According to a survey commissioned by channelmum.com, 64 per cent said they were using reusable water bottles, and nearly all (98 per cent) said they were likely to buy a brand that was cutting down on plastic. It’s even led to the revival of the milkman in some parts of the country as consumers go for refillable glass bottles instead of the plastic alternatives, and many big brands are following their reusable example.
While some on the Left caricature big businesses as resource-gobbling polluters, there are an increasing number of businesses innovating and voluntarily holding themselves to high environmental standards. For instance, Unilever’s new brand will be subject to an internal carbon tax to support programmes to reduce emissions and landfill waste.
There is, of course, something to be said for the affordability of these green products. The same survey referenced above found that only 17 per cent could afford the non-plastic alternatives if they were more expensive, but there are some sectors where eco-businesses can be cheaper than non-green alternatives. Some renewable electricity providers (Octopus/Bulb) are now cheaper than the Big 6. This is in part due to the reducing costs of renewables, but also because they have broad consumer support helping them to drive down prices.
It is not blasphemy for conservatives – indeed it is common sense – to say that that all markets need some regulation to work properly. In some circumstances where there is a clear need for them the Government should still step in. Yet in most cases the Government should simply nudge consumers to exercise their power to make purchasing choices that reflect their values, and the markets will react.
The Government can also help consumers to make smart green choices by better informing them of what to look for. Many people now check the energy efficiency standards for buildings before they choose to rent or buy, knowing how it will impact their bills. Information like this doesn’t always come from the Government – Blue Planet was from the BBC – but they can play a role too.
Personal responsibility is at the heart of what it is to be a conservative. We’re all learning to bring reusable coffee cups and bottles with us to reduce our waste, the next steps for the environmentally conscious consumer should be checking the sustainability credentials of their day-to-day purchases. The Government can therefore create the ‘right rules and regulations’ to complement the consumer’s choices, with both working in tandem.
Instead of assuming that the Government should always ban something, consumers should take responsibility for their purchases where they can afford to do so. For those on the centre right, regulations and taxes aren’t inherently bad, but consumers have to do their part too. After all, if there is no one to buy it, then there is no point in selling it, and this is where the green conservatives can find their balance.