V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Are we willing to pay?

Thirty's the new twenty, sixty is now middle age, and green is the new black.

Just ask the people at Diesel, an urban clothing company that calls the timing of their ad campaign launch, "Global Warming Ready," and the current environmental movement "serendipitous."

It's 11 a.m. on a bright weekday morning. It takes a few seconds for the eyes to adjust to the dimmed lighting inside a Toronto martini lounge, but soon the silhouettes of svelte, lean bodies come into focus. Half-clad, urban chic models pose at cheeky tableaus set up throughout the venue -- tropical plants grow at the base of the Eiffel Tower and exotic birds inhabit Venice's Piazza San Marco.

The intro to the ad campaign is earnest: Rapid-fire images of natural disasters are accompanied by panic-laden notes of a string orchestra.

And then: "Hold on!" booms the voice of a posh British narrator after describing the perils of climate change. "Global warming cannot stop our lives."

Cue pulsating rave beats and sexy footage of beautiful women dancing in nightclubs and you've got an ad campaign.

"We don't want to exploit global warming," said Joelle Adler, Diesel Canada president. "That's why we're lending an ironic tone to this. We're not changing the way we shoot ads ... We've done a lot of highly pointed social issues so clearly this is not a new thing for us."

This is not a new strategy for the Italian fashion brand aptly named for their newest campaign. They've also touched on gun control and smoking.

But is environmentalism a trend or is it here to stay?

Recent polls suggest global warming has managed to eclipse health care -- long the priority -- as Canadians' top concern.

If that's the case, are Canadian consumers willing to put their money where their mouth is -- literally -- and pay more for environmentally expensive products like groceries?

Enter Tesco, a supermarket giant in the U.K. Last month, the U.K.'s biggest retailer pledged to label all their products with the carbon or environmental cost, much in the same way products are labelled with calorie and fat contents.

Experts like Peter Nemetz at the University of British Columbia applauded the giant leap, saying for too long, prices have been anything but right.

"If we have a system where the cost of a product more accurately reflects their true social cost, that is probably the best way of moving us towards a more sustainable society," said the co-ordinator of the school's master's program in sustainability and business.

Canadians "don't have a clue" when it comes to understanding the pricing mechanism of commodities, Nemetz continued, and the only way to teach them is to incorporate the carbon footprint into the price. For example, though Canadians balk when the price of gas shoots up past $1 per litre, what we pay is nowhere near its actual environmental cost, he said.

"Basically, we would have people using less of products that are environmentally expensive and shift the pattern to producers who are less carbon intensive."

Take the organic food movement as an example of conscientious buying power, said Brian Kelly, a director at the Sustainable Enterprise Academy at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto's York University.

"Organic produce is seeing double-digit growth. Consumers with disposable incomes are selecting organic produce and in most cases are paying a significant premium," Kelly said.

That leads to another question: What kind of impact will green living have on Canadians without disposable incomes?

More often than not, the poor live in energy inefficient homes. Should the price of energy and goods rise to meet their environmental cost, experts acknowledge it will be the poor who will be hardest hit.

"The environment discriminates against the poor," Nemetz said. "They have fewer resources to protect themselves and less flexibility in expenditures. Clearly if the government is going to create a climate of sustainability, they have to protect the vulnerable."

Chris Sukornyk also acknowledges there can be a premium to being green. He heads up a website, fivelimes.com, that features more than 4,000 eco-friendly products that range from green vacations to organic coffee.

"Green companies are smart and target (their products) towards people who are more affluent and who can pay the price," he said from his Toronto office.

But basic economics dictates a new product enters the marketplace at a low volume and higher pricetag, until mass production lowers its cost.

For a long time, climate resisters have pitted environmentalism against the economy, warning of collapse and economic fallout. According to CIBC World Markets, companies that make up 40% of the Toronto Stock Exchange's market value would suffer negative consequences should a cap and trade system of greenhouse gases be legislated, with coal-fired electrical utilities and oil sands producers feeling the most heat.

But ignoring climate change could lead to even bigger economic upheaval, warned Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank economist, in a seminal report last year. In it, Stern warned inaction could devastate the global economy on a scale of two world wars and the Depression of the 1930s.

Experts widely cite Suncor as an example of an oil and gas company that recognized long ago the merit of sustainability. By the end of 2007, Suncor plans to have four wind power projects in operation, which are expected to offset the equivalent of approximately 270,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Energy efficiency will also lead to a new market and job opportunities, points out Matthew Bramley of the Pembina Institute.

"There will be a transition and we'll need to take that into account, but ... there will be more jobs linked to energy efficiency, like retrofitting homes," he said.

The green movement shows no sign of abating. Climate change now permeates naturally into everyday conversation. Both businesses and Canadians will have to adopt a triple bottom line -- social, environmental and economic factors -- and not just profitability, experts suggest.

David Lertzman, an assistant professor with the University of Calgary's environmental management and sustainable development program frames it this way: "We do need to talk about lifestyle changes. But we have to consider what we're gaining rather than what we're giving up."

Part three of a five-part Sun Media series examining our changing climate and its effects.

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