Observer 18th June 2006

Ethical Makeover

Despite his eco credentials, there is room for improvement in the Green Wing actor's grooming habits



I arrive at the Green Wing star's flat in a west London Victorian mansion block to find it full of builders and brick dust. This may not sound hugely inviting, but in ethical makeover terms it's a great opportunity to lay some green foundations.

Sadly, it's too late to influence the paint choice - I would have gone for a water-based eco paint, but the decorator has already chosen the standard mix of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that contribute to indoor air pollution and come with a heavy eco rucksack (they are polluting and water intensive to make) - however, there's still time to advise him on the flooring. Fortunately, Julian is quite keen on a natural carpet, rather than a petroleum-based, nasty nylon carpet that off-gasses xylene among other substances, but he draws the line at good old sustainable coir on the grounds that it's 'too hairy'.

The most immediate energy-guzzling problem is the huge, archaic, copper-bellied boiler that takes up a sizeable cupboard and constantly heats a huge water tank - in a one- or two-person household it's much more efficient to heat water on demand.

A tour of the flat turns up a couple of seemingly small but significant things: Julian has a penchant for two-for-one cosmetic offers and a remarkable working knowledge of the market: 'I'm a bit of a girl about these things,' he concedes, 'but I do have dry skin' - which explains his addiction to petroleum-derived moisturisers and 'dry hair, tending towards frizzy,' hence the palm oil-based shampoos and conditioners. It's not a terrible crime in the greater scheme of things, but he's guilty of falling for big-brand names and marketing hype pushing ever more complex mixes of non-degradable synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals. It takes about 800 years for a standard shower gel to degrade (losing all its constituent chemical parts). I also spot an electric blanket, which according to research by the Rocky Mountain Institute is responsible for around 172lb of CO2 a year.

He has, however, made a valiant attempt to 'civilise' his car, a large Mercedes that he claims he bought at a car auction by mistake (at £30,000 this is an extreme example of impulse buying). By converting it to LPG (liquid propane gas) it makes his Mercedes one of just 100,000 LPG vehicles in the UK, saving an estimated 80,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. But this only slightly atones for his carbon sins: LPG is still a fossil-fuel derivative, and the rule of eco motoring is always buy a smaller car and drive less often. The Ducatti motorbike he also owns is apparently a perk of his Green Wing role (his character Dr Mac Macartney rides it), and he claims he only uses it 10 times a year. 'I'm honestly not a petrol head,' he pleads.


Two visits change the course of Julian's renovation proceedings. The first is from Dave, a green-flooring supremo from the Natural Flooring Company who convinces him to invest in 78 square metres of a Sisal Super Panama Merida from the Alternative Flooring Company (sisal is a sustainably produced grass). Instead of underlay dipped in fungicide (which also off-gasses toxins) Dave elects to lay it on rubber crumb underlay, made from recycled car tyres diverted from landfill.

The second specialist visit is from Jason Reilley, an eco-boiler specialist from Eco Hometec in Doncaster who immediately pronounces Julian's inherited boiler to be 'a monster' and prescribes an eco condensing boiler from Germany. Among other attributes, this model monitors the outdoor temperature (this is standard practice in Germany) and has huge ranges of modulation so that turning on your heating becomes an exact science. At 14mg per kilo watt hour (KWH) it is responsible for around half as many CO2 emissions as other comparable boilers.

To sever Julian's dependency on the internal combustion engine, I prescribe him a Segway - the world's first self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine.

As Julian has changed his electricity supplier over to Ecotricity (unlike some green tarrifs, this company actually invests in building renewables rather than just trading quotas), getting around on this kind of upright scooter, with a top speed of 12 mph, will substantially shrink his CO2 emissions. 'I think it's a brilliant idea,' he admits. The rather crucial downside means that, at least for now, the Segway cannot legally be driven on public roads.

Julian's bathroom products have been replaced with an organic men's care range from Green People and hemp shampoo and conditioner from Yaoh, and he pronounces them, 'very acceptable', but admits somewhere through week two that he's 'pining for the parabens' in the products I confiscated because they made his hair feel softer.

Julian has, however, happily substituted hemp and organic clothes, principally from the Hemp Trading Company and Howies for his usual M&S wardrobe staples and is even happy to wear Fairtrade trainers (the rubber soles of which are from Forestry Stewardship Commission equitable plantations in Sri Lanka). Because of the ongoing flat renovations, his eco habits are yet to settle down: his bokashi compost bin, for example, bizarrely commutes (in the LPG Mercedes) between his dad's house 18 miles away and Julian's London flat. His laundry also completes the same round trip of 36 miles - but at least he is now using biodegradable washing powder when he gets there.


Already relatively green conscious, Julian has focused his ethical aims into ensuring that his flat is as environmentally benign as possible. 'I think I've learned that because there are so many layers of ecological issues, minimising your footprint is hugely complex, and it's easiest and most effective to start with what's in front of you at the moment.' Gratifyingly, he has already decided to sell the LPG Mercedes (though not the Ducatti) and buy a GWizz electric-powered car. The next phase in his composting programme should be to start a wormery (as he consumes a lot of sandwiches these would help eat their way through the cardboard wrappings) and he's keen to look into microgeneration technologies - especially solar, as his new boiler is solar compatible.


Original article