Back in Jan 2012 I re-carpeted the main bedroom with ‘sustainable carpet’. The experience give a little illustration of why the shift to sustainable consumption is hard.
In late 2011 I moved to a 3-bed house in SE London. (It’s nice, you should come over.) The previous owners hadn’t redecorated since the 80’s, and they had a smelly, hairy dog. The carpet in the main bedroom had to go. After redecorating and a few months of bare floorboards, we got round to trying to buy a new carpet Jan 2012. A sustainable new carpet.
So, we went to some shops. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to buy carpet. You walk in and there are thousands of 1 ft square samples, arranged like a Rolodex. You turn them over to have a subtly different shade of beige (who knew there were so many shades of beige?). There are lots of choices to make: colour, pile, look, pattern and so on. All rather overwhelming.
Barrier – we had made our shopping more complex: all the other decisions plus sustainable.
To make it easier for ourselves we chose a particular shop because: (1) it was local; (2) it’s window advertised its carpets as good for reducing carbon; (3) they had a sale on. Big tick. Let’s reward them with our custom.
We spoke with the shop owner. Could we buy some sustainable carpet please? I wish I had filmed his face. Roughly, his expression went from confused to surprised to slight-dread to the salesman-default ‘here to help’.
He showed us the different sustainable ranges. There were quite a few (though still a small proportion of what was in the store) and I can’t remember them all. A few from sheep’s wool. A few from recycled plastic. A few from corn starch.
The sheep’s wool were far too expensive; above the average price in the shop but not remotely the most expensive in there. The recycled plastic and corn starch were both in our price range, though still more expensive than the equivalent standard non-sustainable carpets.
Barrier – cost: many of the more sustainable options were more expensive
Now, I work in sustainability , but off the top of my head I couldn’t tell you which is better: making something from recycled plastic or from corn starch. So much depends on the energy source for the recycled plastic, and the nutrient source for the corn starch, plus how else that land might be used. Plus they were made in North America. How important were the transport emissions compared to production? Annoyingly, so many answers on sustainability are “well, it depends“.
Barrier – what is ‘sustainability’? There were many aspects of production to trade-off against each other.
Fortunately, there were labels, in cheerful red if I remember right, which explained the benefits in a sort-of official way. It wasn’t always clear if they were the manufacturer’s point of view, or a third-party certification.
Barrier – the labels try to give confidence, but do the opposite because there are so many of them, all trying so hard and their source of authority is unclear.
We asked the shop owner, which have the best sustainability credentials? He looked at us like we had asked him to build a rocket from scratch.
Barrier – lack of capacity in sales people to help customers.
We gravitated to the cheapest (hey, I work for a charity). The shop owner looked uncomfortable. “That’s new in, that is. We haven’t sold many. I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t know how it wears over time. This one over here [points at expensive sheep wool], I know that lasts. This one, well, you just don’t know, do you?”
Barrier – distrust on performance of a novel product. (By the way, I respect his honesty on this – better to be open than to pretend.)
In the end, we did buy the cheapest. It was made by Mohawk from a ‘renewably-sourced polymer’. One year on it is not showing any signs of wear, which is great.
Interestingly, their website sells the carpet on the basis of peace of mind and comfort, because it has “built-in stain and soil resistance that will NEVER wear or wash off”. Clearly, they are not trying to sell it on the sustainable production, but on the performance for the customer. That has to be the right choice.
Stepping back, I’m sure there are more barriers to sustainable consumption than I experienced here. I’m also sure that we only got through them all with a certain amount of bloody-mindedness on my part.
Some of the barriers are about being an early adopter. Over time, the product will have a track record and the shop owner will actually sell it, rather than warn people off.
One thing is clear: we’re not making it easy for people to have sustainable lifestyles.