The latest edition of RSPB’s membership magazine, Nature’s Home, arrived through our letterbox last week. Bound up with it in plastic shrink-wrap was a bigger-than-ever stack of third-party advertising material. Most of this is relevant only insomuch as the RSPB clearly thinks (or knows) it has an ageing membership – stair lifts, hearing aids and clothing catalogues proffering slippers and sensible cardigans* predominate. You also get adverts for package wildlife holidays. Okay, so somewhat more relevant, but the holidays are also clearly aimed at a certain demographic. All of this goes straight into our recycling box, and may or may not have been produced from recycled paper (I can’t say I checked the small print on the back!), but it does seem rather a waste either way.
Meanwhile, a picture of an Aldi plastic bag bearing the legend ‘with this bag you’re already helping puffins’ alongside the RSPB’s name did the rounds on Facebook, attracting quite mixed reactions. For me, there’s some pretty muddled thinking at the heart of the ‘plastic bag charge as a fundraising tool for charities’ idea, besides the obvious irony of highlighting a marine conservation issue on a plastic bag when awareness of the threat to the marine environment from plastic pollution is increasing. News articles talk of a ‘£2 million boost’ for the RSPB from Aldi bag sales, but isn’t the aim of the charge ultimately to reduce usage to the point where the RSPB wouldn’t be making a single penny from it?
An article from RSPB Cymru a few years ago (the charge has been around in Wales since 2011) highlights this nicely:
This levy not only provides money for conservation, it also encourages people to think about the environmental impact of their actions, and will result in fewer plastic bags littering our landscapes and causing problems for wildlife.
If the levy results in fewer plastic bags littering the landscape, doesn’t that also mean an ever-diminishing pot of money for the RSPB and other charities involved? As the article also points out, the money from plastic bags replaced other funding lost during ‘challenging economic conditions’. Given the current UK administration’s ideological pursuit of ever lower government spending, that money isn’t coming back any time soon. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that environment secretary Liz Truss trumpeted this £2 million figure in a recent speech; it’s all a kind of cover for when the next round of cuts hits DEFRA. Where government steps back, in steps the ‘ethical’ consumer, saving nature one shopping bag at a time.
Ideological purity versus financial expediency: it’s a difficult line to walk, but without a consistent philosophy it’s impossible to know where an organisation stands. My fear is that by trying to play the government’s and big business’s game (the two are pretty much indistinguishable nowadays), the RSPB can only hope to lose. I say this as more than just a critical friend; indeed, as a member I suppose I should say of the RSPB ‘we’ and not ‘they’. I want to see a strong RSPB that stands up to powerful corporate interests which act, unwittingly or otherwise, against nature. It is difficult to see how we can do that if we end up looking like just another big corporation, albeit a fairly cuddly one, mired in naff branding, commercialism and piles of plastic waste. What I would like to see come to the fore is the invaluable conservation work the RSPB does day in, day out: on the ground on over 200 varied nature reserves, in the field alongside farmers and other landowners, in conservation science and policy, and by fully engaging a membership that remains over one million strong.
*Not that I have anything against slippers or sensible cardigans!