Taking a Practical Approach to 'Green' Living

Steve Howard, CEO of the British non-profit organization Climate Group, shares his thoughts about helping the environment in practical ways by being a savvy consumer. Britons are eager for environmentally friendly products.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Reporting from London all this week, I've been out and about learning what people here are doing about the threat of climate change. Today, an international panel has just told the world how it can reduce greenhouse gases, and we're meeting a man who knows all about that. Steve Howard is a consultant to businesses and governments on reducing carbon emissions.

Mr. STEVE HOWARD (CEO, Climate Group): We've now walked into Waterloo Station, about five or six…

MONTAGNE: Steve Howard has brought us to this grand old train station next to his office to talk about what individuals can do. We're here, in a way, to talk about shopping. Waterloo Station has plenty of shops, and we can see how some British businesses are making the most of concern about global warming.

Mr. HOWARD: You will actually look just across the way where we - Boots over there, the High Street pharmacy. Boots has got carbon-neutral shampoo. Carbon-neutral shampoo is a revolution.

MONTAGNE: Carbon-neutral shampoo, what is that?

Mr. HOWARD: What they've done is they looked at all of the greenhouse gas emissions. So you look at where do the raw materials come from, what's the energy used to make them, how much pollution was generated, how did they get from the factory to the distribution center to the store. And then you can total it up and you can se, well, it took a pound of CO2 to produce that shampoo.

MONTAGNE: Then, to make up for that pound of CO2, the shampoo maker will invest somewhere in the world in a project that reduces CO2. High on the list: planting trees. Enough people in Britain are worried about their own carbon footprint that things like this sell.

Mr. HOWARD: Perhaps we should actually go and look at Marks & Spencer, and then we can look up - talk about what's actually happening in the retail sector.

MONTAGNE: Marks & Spencer sells everything from shirts to sandwiches. It's all over Britain. This Marks & Spencer in Waterloo Station is one of the small food shops. And some food shops in Britain may soon help their customers make choices based on what are called food miles.

Mr. HOWARD: We can look at some fruit salad here - plastic wrapped, it's all nicely chopped up; it looks very tempting with kiwi fruits and pineapple. Now those will have come from different places around the world. They've been prepared in one place and will have been flown in. That's food miles.

In the U.S. - and it's pretty similar in the UK - the average plate of food travels 1,200 miles to be with you. It doesn't get there on its own two feet. It doesn't ride a bike. It will come there by flying. It will come there by a big truck. So there's lots of CO2 machines generated by the distribution of the food. And what some of the retailers like Marks & Spencer are going to do is to start labeling the food. They're going to put little plane symbols on food that has been flown in.

MONTAGNE: And even if food hasn't traveled that far, British consumers could soon see other information: Carbon related numbers, a bit like the numbers you now see for sodium and fat.

Mr. HOWARD: I'm just going to pick up (unintelligible) packet. For a packet of potato chips like these, 75 grams of CO2 was emitted for these products.

MONTAGNE: That information on a bag of chips, can a consumer even understand what it means?

Mr. HOWARD: At this point in time I think you'd have a confused consumer that would think, what does that mean? Should I buy them or not? It's not yet a useful label. What it means, actually, is that at least they're measuring it.

MONTAGNE: Here Steve Howard motions us out of the store and, like a magician, pulls a small t-shirt out of his pocket. A prop to point out something anyone would understand.

Mr. HOWARD: If you look at the label here, it says think climate, wash at 30 degrees C.

MONTAGNE: Thirty degrees Centigrade.

Mr. HOWARD: Yup. Say, 85 Fahrenheit. So what Marks & Spencer has found is that people are washing their clothes too hot. So, from July all of those clothes will be relabeled like this. You can save 40 percent on the energy of a wash by reducing that wash temperature. That will save tons and tons of CO2 across the UK.

MONTAGNE: The market for climate-friendly products is part of a larger trend here. Buying organic not just for health but for the environment. Buying fair trade products to help others around the world. And then there's the science, which has convinced most Britons and their government that global warming is real.

Unidentified Man: Hello.

Unidentified Woman: How are you?

MONTAGNE: As if on cue, another product appears for the climate-savvy consumer, a collapsible bicycle. It's in the arms of Tony Juniper. He's head of Friends of the Earth UK, and we just run into him in the station.

MONTAGNE: So, you've just gotten off the train, bike in hand?

HOWARD: It's fantastic. Tony, do you want to tell us about the bike?

TONY JUNIPER (Executive Director, Friend of Earth UK): So one can travel around the country using this folded up on a railway carriage, and you can go pretty much anywhere without having to get in a car. And now I'm going to cycle back to my office, and I can do it quick and like that than any other means of transport in London. Certainly quicker than a taxi. And one can get around pretty much zero carbon. And it's absolutely wonderful, I find.

MONTAGNE: Of course, not everyone is that committed or that energetic. As Steve Howard sees it, if you're going to get consumers to do something about global warming, more businesses will have to jump in. Here in Britain, a group of eight companies, household names all, including Barclays Bank and British Gas, are running a big campaign offering costumers various ways to cut carbon emissions.

HOWARD: Business can really reach out to the public and help them. We're in a -sort of not everybody, but in the West we're more cash rich and time poor than we ever have been. It needs to be made easy for us. It needs to be everywhere we look for us to actually trip over and say this is the right choice to climate change and the right choice for the environment. And there's nothing more powerful than consumer brands in doing that. Whether it's just one t-shirt at a time, one light bulb at a time, one relabeled food out at a time, we'll begin to see a real cultural shift on the issue.

MONTAGNE: Steve Howard is founder and head of the Climate Group, which is based here in London.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And there's more on climate and our changing world every month in National Geographic magazine. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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