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Let us green our economy: No greenwashing please!


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 14 June 2012 00:03


We are in the month of June where stirrings of environmental conscience or rumblings of environmental activities are heard and reported.

Corporate big guns line up many photo events. Some may be eagerly waiting to get down to business in Rio where the Rio+20 Summit is scheduled to start on 20 June. Hopefully the carbon emitted travelling to and from Rio will be adequately mitigated as well as compensated by action taken subsequently as otherwise all the additional carbon dioxide would only contribute to an earlier demise of the world as we know it.

Safeguarding the ecosystem

Safeguarding the ecosystem is not an easy task. We know we do not hear the same sense of glee and anticipation from the business side and nor from certain development circles in June when the flavour of the month is environment.

Though there is a strong business case for safeguarding the environment though buried inside a numbers game of more profits, doubling and tripling growth, share holder net worth and of course your performance bonuses it is easy to lose the concept of one planet and the fragility of the biosphere.

Some may wish and hope that the same human ingenuity that propels us this far to take us through the emerging challenges as well though with misunderstanding and ill directed practices the ingenuity may just be getting focused on wrong set of issues.

Today global conferences have a new meaning and the frequencies of those too have risen. The number of such meeting of minds cannot be equated with ease to success stories. You disembark and attend with much anticipation and few days later only have accumulated experience of being there.

Considering the difficulties in getting one’s own small team to agree on something and to be effective, try extrapolating that to the global platform with inequalities and mistrust, the difficulties in agreeing to save the world appears quite daunting. That had been the story in many of these situations though a singular success story appears to be the ban on ozone depleting substances and the progress that had been made in that sphere.

The technology and the science have enabled the population to increase and significant gains in quality of life to be achieved. The threats too have been evolving and that is the reason to check the growth of particular technologies as well as patterns of consumption purely based on individual wants.

Environment Day

In the early days when the debate started to develop the two areas of population and environment were poles apart. The world met for the first time in Stockholm in 1972. Rio+20 today celebrate the Earth Summit that took place in Rio in 1992. The global Environment Day celebrated on 5 June by United Nations came in as a result of Stockholm summit which opened on that particular day.

Countries undertake worldwide activities on this day and period reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the environment. However, what really matter is what you do on all the other days!

Policies and politicians go together but the presence of political figures was missing in Stockholm with the exception of the Indian Prime Minister. Indian PM was the only foreign head of government to attend the Conference apart from the host PM Olof Palme. Today the situation is quite different and Rio+20 will also not be an exception.

For the very first time at Stockholm, the world focused on a crucial issue, the future of our planet Earth and the concept of environmental security. Yet when reviewing the conference after 40 years, some interesting features emerge. In 1972 at Stockholm it was the human environment but not the population and environment that were under discussion. The interrelations were simply not considered.

The subsequent UN conference held in Bucharest in 1974 also failed to explicitly address population environment linkages. It is interesting to note that the linkage was considered as a study item under the heading other social and economic variables in the conference report.

Enormous implications

However, the variable of yesterday has enormous implications today. With seven billion living off this land and many more awaited (the number added per year is 77 million and the average number of deaths amount to 55 million which approximately comes to nearly one Sri Lanka being added to the world population every year). Now projections for 2030 speak on 50% more energy, 50% more food and 30% more water needed to support these numbers and the question begs? How?

Srimathi Indira Gandhi made a unique contribution to the event and made a lasting impression by way of her speech. She asked “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? With unmet basic needs everywhere evident to-date her question is still relevant.

She further commented: “It would be ironic if the fight against pollution were to be converted into another business, out of which a few companies, corporations or nations would make profits at the cost of the many.” How important that question and how true her fears have turned out to be.

Market opportunity

The business indeed has evolved to use the environment as a market opportunity. Some have really evolved to embrace environment and to be model businesses that upheld planetary virtues too. It is not wrong and that is what is really desired if one corrects the direction and move towards natural profits as rewards which a truly green economy dictates as the ideal!

It is claims minus action that is worrying and placing a green mark up on a green makeup what is worrying and wrong. Green products and services with many such claims are to be found everywhere.

Reading between the lines on green claims are not quite easy as lot more need to be understood than the ability to read through the list of vitamins present and the popular statement all natural! Both you and I along with the environment will stand to lose unless honesty prevails and deception for the sake of few market percentage points are avoided.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerwald a New York biologist and environmentalists and Big Apple is indeed big enough to allow such thinking to take root! He was referring to organisations that spend more time and money advertising that they are green than on implementing actual practices on the ground.

It is indeed interesting to note that one of his chosen examples was the hospitality industry’s practice of placing notices on each bathroom and bedroom encouraging guests to help conserve water by reusing their towels and sheets, etc. Next time you see the message do not start praising for being really green but look beyond for more meaningful activities to acknowledge and reward.

Straightforward statements like the reuse of a bath towel has resource conservation benefits but the direct gain is more and as such are popular ‘green’ practices and the message is that such practices with obvious outcomes should not be claimed with pomp and pageantry.

The term greenwashing today is used with those institutions and industries that adopt outwardly green acts but with increasing profits as the underlying purpose. The process of checking claims and searching for technical accuracy and then making results known is too practiced under this concept.

In this regard the activity of University of Oregon in USA in running a web based activity termed Greenwashing Index where public claims are evaluated and rated is important to note. This certainly can be made use of as well as implemented in Sri Lanka too as marketing claims go beyond the possible at times and the choice of adjectives appear in no way connected to the manufacturing attributes.

Key challenges

Key challenges that await answers are: Can we feed these billions in an equitable, healthy way and the additional numbers to come? How are we going to sustainably meet the future demands on energy, water and materials?

We will have to achieve these within the context of climate change that has begun to influence us thus seeking its own adaptation and mitigation means. We must not forget we are just one species among many and planet actually may be happy see us not being their along with other species (try asking that question from an elephant at the famous Gathering!).

I was recently told of an actual event of a girl who had been requested to study habitat conservation and human animal conflict in turn heard that her father had been killed by an elephant a month before. This is conflict personalised and in real time. Just one event and we may only see the one side of the story when the personal touch is missing.

The environment today is in need of empathy and not sympathy. Do not forget Rachael Carson’s famous quip: “The butterflies can do without us but we cannot do without the butterflies.” It is this fragile relationship we keep forgetting in our quest to realise big and even bigger figures in economic growth and adding fat to the bottom line.

The month of June in any year may be an opportunity to go through a refresher course on the planet that we live on and to understand what we should mean by living!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

 


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