Olivia Cole says that the row over Heathrow’s third runway has revealed that despite the credit crunch there is a resilient class of celebrities and toffs with expensive green tastes
Do you remember Champagne Socialists? Well, there’s a new version of that old clique, with the same curious mix of self-importance and self-indulgence but with a 21st-century green agenda. I call them Champagne Swampies. Swampy was the environmental protestor who became a cult figure in the mid-1990s, huddled in a tunnel by the proposed Newbury bypass, never washing his hair. His 2009 variants, the Champagne Swampies, share his concern for the environment, and they’re out in force at the moment protesting about the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. But they’re more likely to have shelves of expensive carbon-neutral conditioner than dirty dreadlocks.
Chief among the Champagne Swampies is Tamsin Omond (Westminster, Cambridge, daughter of a baronet), the Heathrow protest pin-up and founder of Plane Stupid. In her wake follow other equally glamorous Swampies: actresses like Miranda Richardson and Emma Thompson; then the pop-star contingent headed by Chrissie Hynde.
They’re the rich, often famous or aristocratic eco-activists who found a purpose in life saving the world from global warming, and as the recession eats away at less affluent people’s green resolutions, they’re becoming ever more noticeable.
At drinks parties they have freshly potted orchids blooming left, right and centre — so much kinder than cut flowers. And they talk earnestly about the great ecological benefits of Private Jet Share, a scheme which allows the girl-or-boy-about-the-planet to save a few thousand by buying up empty seats on other people’s private jets. A Private Jet Share seat is not a bargain of the Ryanair/easyJet variety but what an idea… and so ‘good’ for the environment. They buy organic cashmere from Daylesford & Co, order organic veg in boxes and nibble on Duchy Originals cookies as they discuss the plight of battery chickens en route to Ibiza. Welcome to the high-octane world of the Champagne Swampy.
One of the most impressive things about the Champagne Swampy is how easily he or she integrates eco activities into the luxury lifestyle. There is now seemingly no area of life in which it is not possible to be ostentatiously and fashionably green. In St Tropez, once you’ve arrived by private jet (shared or otherwise), you can hire a treehouse for your holiday. And whereas the real Swampy retired to a yurt in North Wales, the new activists can afford ever more imaginative and surreal ways of highlighting their cause. David de Rothschild is about to float around the world in a raft made of Evian bottles, highlighting ocean pollution; Rohan Kale’s collection at the London College of Fashion is made entirely from the cut-offs that go to waste in the production of silk ties. At a recent recycled plastic art show, until I discovered the £10,000 price tag, I was tempted by a beautifully coloured chandelier by the British designer Stuart Haygarth, constructed entirely from hundreds of old party poppers.
In these tough times the Champagne Swampies’ elaborately ethical excesses serve to highlight the fact that, in itself, being green is an expensive lifestyle choice. This should mean that eco-produce is an eminently ‘crunchable’ luxury, as vulnerable in a recession as Porsches, It-bags and expensive champagne, but somehow the new high-living environmentalists seem invulnerable. Most middle-class eco-warriors have by now reluctantly begun to abandon organic produce. After reporting two years of 30 per cent growth, the Soil Association’s next market report, due in March, will tell a very different story. But the exceptions to the decline are telling: boxed deliveries of organic vegetables and organic chocolate — the staple diet of the Champagne Swampies — are still selling. The Champagne Swampies’ favoured brand, Daylesford & Co (run by the Bamford family), again bucks the trend. On Westbourne Grove, as well as their cashmere flight-bootie-purveying boutique, they have just opened a new deli.
The Champagne Swampy is an admirable creature in some ways. Under normal circumstances, when the going gets tough, the green ethics get going — especially in government. Theresa Villiers, shadow transport secretary, described government plans for the third runway at Heathrow to me this week as ‘environmentally illiterate’; an ‘out of touch decision’ from a government who have ‘seriously underestimated the level and the strength of the opposition. The environment is a genie; once you have let it out of the bottle, it can’t simply be put back in,’ she said.
All good eco-toffs would agree. Channel 4 next month screens Pig Business, an anti-factory farming film by Tracy Worcester (that’s the Marchioness of Worcester) who is in a way the patron saint of Champagne Swampies worldwide. Her film points out that Tesco (last week in trouble over its dodgy Hungarian foie gras) is once again in the frame for importing pork produced by methods illegal in this country. Chief villain is the multinational Smithfield, long a target of Worcester’s friend and fellow campaigner the environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. While Worcester is undoubtedly a Champagne Swampie, she is more committed and less hypocritical than most. The film’s long and cold spells of fraught filming in Poland look very far from even a Champagne Swampy’s idea of fun. She funded the project herself and the constant lack of money was helpful only in that it reassured her that she wouldn’t be sued by Smithfield. At the film’s première at Channel 4 HQ on Monday, the Swampies were out in force. There was their favourite organic chocolate in place of popcorn, vegetarian canapés and the fake fur. First-rank Champagne Swampies like actresses Miranda Richardson, Diana Quick and Lesley Ash were there, as were Gordon Roddick, Zac Goldsmith and Rosie Boycott. Boycott, Boris Johnson’s new food adviser, said that the cruelty the film shows made her ‘heart hurt’. On her Somerset smallholding, her pigs are allowed to play with footballs.
As the Champagne Swampies’ poster girl, Tamsin Omond was of course present and correct — and somewhat sheepish at being rumbled for this enthusiastic partaking in the green high-life. ‘If I had to give up any part of what I do, it would be this...’ she whispered. Chrissie Hynde is another of the film’s cheerleaders and has no truck with the idea of being green as a luxury. Shoppers worried about their bills should ‘be vegan, it’s the cheapest way to eat’.
But before we sneer too hard at them, we should remember that, like David Cameron riding his bike to work (trailed by official cars), there’s a contradiction-ridden Swampy lurking in many of us. And that it’s this band of media-savvy, eloquent and affluent activists who have helped make green issues mainstream and fashionable instead of marginal. As Omond and her gang of Facebook activist friends point out: ‘We’re not environmental losers, standing by the road in an anorak.’ No indeed — they’re much more likely to be standing in a field near you somewhere, digging in their Stella McCartney non-leather heels.