Activists materialise

Are eco-warriors and warlords more than a rebellion against the hangover of Eighties’ Thatcherism and materialism? Gaynor Williams thinks they are pioneers of a new social order, where motor-ways are out and Karl Marx and eco-friendly supermarkets are in

Long words and general gobbledygook are getting very fashionable. It’s nearing the end of the twentieth century that does it – a sense of moral panic has set in. Lots of strange interlopers are creeping into the English language, most of them to do with salving our cringing consciences. Untrueisms like “worker-empowerment” and “collateral damage” are the order of the day.

The latest abstract noun is Post-Materialism. Pardon? No, not Post-Modernism, that’s history. No, I’m talking about Post-Materialism, which I hadn’t heard of either until a few days ago. And now that hoary old red beast called Communism is rising from its grave and becoming fashionable again. Believe it or not, the Communist Manifesto (the 60 pence super-condensed, read-it-on-the-train version, that is) is attracting readers.

According to MORI, there’s a growing number of people in the UK who want to turn their back on the rat race, forming a “silent revolution” which is apparently stretching its tentacles across the developing world. P-Ms reject a consumerist lifestyle. They are more likely to travel by bike than car; they are the type that make do and mend. And, before this conjures up visions of a stultifying Dennis Potter 1950s lifestyle, let me say that P-Ms are not only environmentally and politically aware – they’re sexually tolerant.

Like the old free-love body-painting hippy movement it replaces, the new eco-collective movement is refusing to be moved on by the security guards and police and go away.

MORI’s figures may be pretty hard to believe: a weekly look at the scrabbling greed of the 5bn a year National Lottery is enough to persuade anyone that we have a materialist culture – in spades. (I buy tickets – but only on the roll-over weeks.) Yet what else has been in the news lately? The Newbury by-pass protesters, the education debate, Prince Charles complaining about the lack of a spiritual dimension to the Millennium Festival… (as one of the UK’s wealthiest landowners, our most famous Post-Materialist shagger-on-the-side ought to know about this).

Other research organisations, like Mintel, confirm that we are spending less on the fripperies and more on the necessities: health, pensions, self-improvement. But if 20 per cent of us are indeed turning our back on the consumer culture, if P-M is a fact and not a phantom, then it’s going to be bad news for old style marketing managers everywhere. And designers, unless they don their hand-made Tibetan hair-shirts and embrace the change.

There are signs of this happening – and I don’t mean Muji’s “undesign” tinkerings. Get this: a new chain of whole earth, CFC-free, collectivist recyclable supermarkets is hitting the UK – and it’s home grown, with real designer compost. I mock not – honest. Out Of This World opened its first two stores, in Bristol and in Gosforth, at the end of last year. And there are many more to follow – if enough people stump up the 5 life membership fee. And it seems they can’t wait to do so.

Product range is 70 per cent food: organic, healthy-eating, fairly-traded and locally produced food, that is. The other 30 per cent includes “cruelty-free personal care items,” environmentally friendly goods, paints, clothing, crafts, and organic wines and beers. Founder Richard Adams sees Out Of This World “as a focal point of the community…” (a nice change from MacDonald’s, then) “…committed to ever higher social, environmental and ethical standards”. Phew!

Adams explained to me that Out Of This World had to “speak to the market as it is” – and that it is “not the market we hope it will be in ten years’ time”. Mmm… I think I get the picture.

By happy coincidence, the design group chosen to fit out the co-operative eco-markets is called Fern Green, a consultancy based in north London. It has graced the stores with recycled plastic bottle-top counters, shelves made of “pine-tree thinnings from managed plantations”, non-solvent-based paints, finishes and stains, low-energy and long-life lighting, new Green refrigerant and waste thermal pollution heating systems.

These folks mean business: Green business. And what I say is more power to their collective elbow. It’s about time a few things changed round here. After all, it’s nearly the year 2000.

I’ve already started plaiting my armpits… what about you?

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