Global warming, climate change, carbon footprint, food miles, the greenhouse effect - the debate about the damage we are doing to our planet is complex. It is difficult to know where to begin and even harder to know what to do about it. The effects themselves are intangible - did it really snow every year when you were young? Have you seen the polar ice-caps melting? Is the sea level really rising?

And yet ...The impact of July's record temperatures was undeniable. As air conditioning units sucked up power and pumped more heat back onto the streets, London's West End suffered black-outs. The world's oil reserves will be exhausted in our lifetime, says BP, and water is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity.

That's despite - or perhaps because of - the leaks that various water companies leave unplugged.

'Green issues' surface

If now is the time to take global warming warnings seriously maybe, as 'green issues' make their way on to consumers' radars, we should point out the implications to our clients, too?

As qualitative researchers, we have to be ahead of the game and spot the latest trends. In various different guises, environmental issues have long been in the public's mind - from the campaigns against nuclear power stations (probably ever since they were first conceived), through to the growth of organic fruit and vegetables, and concerns about 'food miles' (the distance food travels before it gets to the supermarket).

Small wonder, then, that we are seeing such rapid growth in the number of farmers' markets on offer and their stated aim of offering 'local' produce. Similarly, we are seeing retail chains link up in test projects with 'local' suppliers to reduce the distance that their fresh food travels.

Many of you will also have noticed how consumers have started to think in a more environmentally-friendly way, or at least you will have recognised that they want to be seen as such. For example, when asked to evaluate current and potential new packaging options, consumers will frequently comment that there is 'too much' packaging, or even that the pack would be difficult to recycle.

Fastidious recycling?

Of course, this is not to say that every housewife across the country is recycling fastidiously, but it serves as an indication of a shift in attitudes towards the environment. If our clients want to stay ahead of the game and be more environmentally responsible, they need to make it easy for their customers to be 'green' and they need to do this in a credible manner.

Still, it's all very well to extol the virtues of being green, but it doesn't address the tricky issue of how to go about it. Maybe the first thing to realise is that we can't solve all the problems at once, but that a small effort in one area can make a big difference. Secondly, we can take an internal or external approach (ideally both) to dealing with the environment.

At my workplace, we've decided to conduct our business in way that we hope will help make the world a better place. This works on a number of levels. We have, for instance, made a number of changes to the way we run our business that could easily be adopted by any other across the world - and they're not expensive!

Minimising print

We try to keep printed material - all of which is recycled, anyway - to a minimum. In practice this means that we proof read discussion guides and recruitment questionnaires on screen, and encourage our clients to ask for electronic copies of our debriefs rather than multiple printed versions. Not only does this save paper, but it also conserves printer ink (which can be fairly toxic stuff) - plus it reduces costs. We also recycle our paper once we're finished with it.

As every good quallie knows, a big part of the job is travel, and air travel in particular is bad for the environment. Our solution to this problem is to travel by air only when necessary - trains in Britain are fairly efficient, and if you do have the chance to travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow then you will pass through some stunning landscapes that you would miss in the plane.

As for the extra hours the journey takes, they compensate for the time it takes to get to the airport and then check in. When we do have to fly for international projects, we make a contribution to an environmental charity for each flight we take.

Greening of clients

On an external level, we see it as part of our job to help clients become green, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because consumers are increasingly demanding it. We encourage them to travel only when necessary. Much has been written about the growth of online panels, but we can also web-cast groups for clients so they can watch them wherever they are in the world, saving them time and effort getting to the groups while still getting the live feedback they want. Depending on the project, we also give feedback about how companies can be more environmentally friendly - without it appearing like a cynical attempt at jumping on the bandwagon.

Some of these things would not have been possible a quarter century ago. Now, however, they're seen as 'common sense'. The clock, however, is ticking. Even small changes to working practices can have a significant impact, but only if we act now. Consumers are waking up to environmental issues and companies that have a track record of acting responsibly towards the environment will be better placed to meet the needs of consumers in the future.