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Green machine 

Businesses are jumping on the ecologically friendly bandwagon.But is Halifax buying into it?

Hippies, granolas, eco-geeks, activists and other deviants once thought to scorn consumerism now make up one of the fastest-growing billion-dollar market demographics. According to Colorado-based market research company Natural Business Communications, this group spends upwards of US$230 billion a year and makes up one third of the American population.

They’re called “Lohas,” a word coined by NBC standing for “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” It’s described as “a marketplace for goods and services that appeal to consumers who value health, environment, social justice, personal development and sustainable living.” It covers everything from health food and yoga tapes to acupuncture and ecotourism. In 2003, 68 million Americans, or about 33 percent of the population qualified as Lohas consumers. And these buying habits are occurring year round, not just on Earth Day, which lands on Friday, April 22 this year.

The parameters are huge—almost unrealistic. Who hasn’t purchased a few organic bananas? Who hasn’t gone to a yoga class at the local gym? Who hasn’t tried alternative treatments like acupuncture or chiropracty? I’m sure there are many who haven’t—but hey, they have vibrating shiatsu massage chairs at most airports now.

If the new $230 billion estimate seems like the wishful thinking of a few eco-minded marketers, other studies prove that the interest in green products is indeed growing. There are more and more people demanding ethical products and services, all over North America, and even, to a small extent, right here in Halifax.

Sales of natural foods and natural personal care products in the US were reported to be $36 billion in 2002, up from $14.8 billion in 1997.

PC Organics, the Superstore line of organic grocery products put out by Loblaws, now owned by Weston, has in the four years since its inception grown from 100 to 300 certified organic products and makes over $2 million a week.

Local Halifax entrepreneurs have also been tailoring their products and services to meet new green demands. Tony Bebbington, president of Bebbington Industries in Dartmouth, creator of the Down East line of environmentally-friendly cleaning products, started out in 1992 manufacturing conventional industrial cleaning supplies for hospitals, industries and other institutions.

“I was amazed with the chemicals being used in most of the cleaning products,” he says. “Most of them are unnecessary and potentially harmful.”

He said the alarm bells really started to go off when, in the early ’90s, over 600 employees at the Camp Hill’s Veteran Memorial Hospital in Halifax fell mysteriously ill. Their headaches, rashes, and fatigue was finally attributed to indoor chemicals, like cleaning products and paints, circulating through their faulty ventilation system. It was one of the first of thousands of cases of “sick building syndrome” to crop up across Canada, and the birth of environmental illness.

Recognizing a growing need for an alternative, Bebbington set out to make a line of industrial and home cleaning products—from dish soap to ship degreasers, marketed under the logos “Green Knight” and “Down East”—using simpler and safer ingredients.

He now employs 12 people in his 9,000 square foot factory, and sells 60 commercial products, available across Canada, all of them a cleaner, greener alternative to their toxic counterparts. The entire line is certified under Environment Canada’s Eco-Logo, a stringent set of criteria ensuring cleaning products that have “low potential for environmental illness and endocrine disruption.”

The Down East dish soap costs about $1.50 more than a bottle of Sunlight the same size. Sobeys sells it for $3.99 per litre.

And then there’s Wilson Fuel Co. Ltd. A Nova Scotian business, Wilson Fuel is recycling oils leftover from Clearwater fish plants to make biodiesel (a blend of 80 percent regular heating oil and 20 percent fish oil) for home heating. It sells and delivers biodiesel for the same price as regular heating oil. The biodiesel works in a regular tank, and can even be blended with whatever you have leftover—but is a cleaner burning, locally-available alternative to Mid-East oil.

Ian Wilson, president of Wilson Fuel, says he launched the product a year ago to meet the growing demand for more ethical and environmentally friendly products.

“We read and see and hear and talk to politicians about the real desire out there on the part of society to move toward renewable fuels,” says Wilson. “Now we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

But unfortunately, Haligonians aren’t behaving like model Lohas consumers. Wilson says his biodiesel hasn’t been accepted as widely as he expected.

“It’s tough to communicate the message to people,” says Wilson. “There really aren’t that many people willing to change their ways, even if it’s as simple as this.”

Wilson is bitter. Here he is providing a superior product to regular diesel and home heating oil, more environmentally and politically sound, and it requires nothing more than a phone call to set up, yet less than one percent of their home heating customers are choosing it. So Wilson is focusing his biodiesel efforts on big customers like Metro Transit, which is now fuelling all its buses with his fish gas.

“More groundwork by government is needed to bring the environment back to the forefront of people’s minds,” says Wilson. “I’m not going to do it. I’ve already spent as much time and money that I can marketing this.”

There’s also been a sharp rise in people seeking alternative medicine and health practices. For example, Yoga Journal reported last year that 15 million Americans practiced yoga in 2003, an increase of 28.5 percent from 2002.

But does practicing yoga mean that you truly care about health or the state of the world? Or is it just another Lycra-clad fitness fad, millions of people switching out of step aerobics and into yoga, just because it’s trendy?

Certainly, these figures indicate that more people care about their health and the environment than ever, mainstreaming some of the fringe beliefs of the ’60s counter-culture. But does this really indicate the birth of a huge new economic sector of ethically motivated shoppers, intent on making a better world?

A more radical environmental argument is that an “ethical purchase” is an oxymoron and that buying alone is not going to save the world. If we really care about the state of the Earth—routinely ripped open and torn apart to make our everyday products—we should simply buy less. And maybe Lohas shoppers merely justify their material addictions by choosing the green-labelled products.

Equally, just because a product is labeled organic, doesn’t mean that it’s grown in an agricultural utopia. Many industrial organic farms are only marginally less stressful on the environment than their non-organic counterparts. And with huge multinationals like General Mills buying up the name brand organics such as Glen Muir and even the overwhelming presence of PC Organics, it means the food is being flown, shipped and trucked in from thousands of kilometres away, grown by migrant or rights-abused workers, and often processed up the ying-yang.

The whole concept of a Lohas marketplace worth billions seems like more of a marketing wet-dream, a slick opportunity for big business to greenwash their products and services to appeal to society’s ever changing demands. The companies improve their behaviour as little as possible without jeopardizing their bottom line: growth.

Maybe green consumerism is the only thing the establishment has to offer in the face of mounting ecological destruction.

And in the words of local eco-pioneer Ian Wilson, “I don’t think there are very many people actually committed to green initiatives.”

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