Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Accountability of Ecosystem Impacts in the Green Products Market

As an ecologist, when I see "green" products, services and practices, it means one of four things to me, in terms of real impacts on the health of ecosystems:
1. The product's production impact is sustainable. For example, "certified" wood products should be produced via reclaimed wood or wood that is, following the best advice of scientists, from trees that have been sustainably logged. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as demonstrated by the big difference in the sustainability of logging practices allowable by the similar sounding labels, "Forest Stewardship Council" (FSC) and "Sustainable Forestry Initiative" (SFI).

In other examples:

  • If I go to a ranch that boasts producing "sustainably raised" meats, I will find healthy native vegetation, soils, and streams, not a mess of weeds, eroding soils, and degraded muddy streams that smell of cattle excrement. Unfortunately, I have seen the latter more than once.
  • "Recycled" paper should be made from a significant (e.g., at least 30%) amount of post-consumer content and should really help reduce deforestation and resulting biodiversity loss.
  • "Organic" crops should be produced without toxic pesticides that harm soil and water quality and threaten the health of fish and wildlife (and people!)
2. The product's use impact is sustainable. For example, the product produces clean energy (and thus little pollution), is energy and fuel-efficient (and thus produces little in the way of carbon emissions and other pollution), or non-toxic (and thus won't harm the environment, the kids, or Fido). Examples include renewable energy products, energy-efficient appliances (e.g., EnergyStar certified), clean vehicles, and safe, non-toxic household cleaners.

3. The product's re-use potential is sustainable. In other words, the product is re-usable, "Cradle to Cradle" certified, or biodegradable/compostable. Examples include something simple like a canvas shopping bag, as well as computers and appliances whose manufacturers will take them back at the end of their life to re-use whatever parts and materials they can. Or plastic plates and cuttlery are made out of biodegradable materials. Such products help save land by (1) reducing the amount of waste going into landfills and (2) reducing our need to log/harvest/mine raw materials for use in manufacturing. They help people and businesses save money by reducing our waste disposal costs (among other ways!).

4. The claim is "greenwashing". If it doesn't fit into one of the above 3 categories, the claim of eco-friendliness is probably false. Veritable bullshit.

Numerous eco-certification systems and eco-labels have cropped up to help consumers sort through and verify claims that a product or service is "sustainable". So many that we now even need resources like Consumer Reports' "Eco-Labels" web site just to help us sort through which eco-labels are legitimate!

I'm happy to see this type of independent verification of the true ecological sustainability of "green" prroducts and services starting to happen in the carbon market. I've always worried about whether when people or businesses claim they are going "carbon neutral" by offsetting a given amount (lbs or kg) or carbon emissions, that the "offsets" they purchase so they can make this claim are really accomplishing reductions in carbon emissions equivalent to the amount they are emitting. Is an online purchase of "carbon credits" from right here in my office, a little Tea Leaf Green playing on my computer, really equivalent to the amount of carbon emissions that I am paying to offset? How can I know and receive assurances that this invisible "product" is the amount of carbon savings that I am paying for? It seems efforts are well underway toward providing such assurances. A few recent articles and reports on the matter:
It's a good thing. Because as the New York Times reminded us today with "The Cost of An Overheated Planet", and as I heard firsthand this past April at the World Wildife Fund's Global Climate Camp, reducing our carbon emissions is an urgent matter. We need to take it seriously and make sure that when we buy a carbon offsetting product with the intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for those we are creating, we are getting what we pay for.

To prevent the rising sustainability trend from disappearing in a flash of confusion and deceipt, the same need applies to verifying the ecological sustainability of "green" products and services across the board.

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