The Devil`s in the details: how going green can go wrong



If we all just buy organic, fair trade, sustainable, green products we can save the world -- right? That's what the green business movement tells us and it's what the burgeoning hordes of green consumers want to hear.

Ah, if it were only so easy. The first hint for many sustainable business advocates (including yours truly) that the road to hell could be paved with green intentions came with the food riots of 2007. The trouble started in Mexico, with the Tortilla Protests, and then spread across the developing world. In one year, food prices skyrocketed 80%, threatening starvation for millions.

The causes were several, but prominent among them was a big push toward converting cropland from growing food to biofuels. While the riots led to some pull back on support for crop-based ethanol, de-forestation and conversion of farmland for biofuel production continues. Not only could that mean more hunger, but it also threatens to worsen the very problem biofuels are supposed to help solve: global warming.

As the consumer market for green products continues its explosive growth, the scramble to supply that market by profit-conscious companies can lead to real problems. Take organic food. The demand for organics has grown some 20% per year since the early 1990's.

But as Heather Rogers found out when she was doing the research for her new book, GREEN GONE WRONG, that growth has led to some very unsustainable practices. 'The more organic food we have,' she told me in a recent interview, 'the more that demand was supposed to transform the supply chain into a clean one. 'But if we obey the growth imperative, we could have industrial food transforming what it means to be organic, rather than vice versa.'

That's the opposite of what organic farming advocates hoped when they saw Walmart and big supermarket chains getting into organics. Even the darling of green food shoppers, Whole Foods, plays a part. WF buys its organic sugar from Azucarera Paraguaya (AP), which produces fully a third of the organic sugar sold in US. AP sweetens Silk soy milk and supplies Wholesome Sweeteners, owned by Imperial Sugar, the biggest sugar purveyor to US companies, including Whole Foods.

When Rogers visited the AP plantation, she found the company was replacing local, sustainable, diversified farming with industrial monoculture (threatening tilth and the natural fertility of the soil); using deforested land that had recently been part of one of the world's most biodiverse rainforests; and instituting a vertically integrated local economy that is impoverishing local farmers.

Using the clout that comes with its size, AP is turning Fair Trade certification, which is supposed to help local small farmers, into a mockery. AP is the single buyer of their sugar. Last year, the company didn't need to source any sugar from the farmers, so it never brought its trucks to pick it up. The farmers are so poor, they don't have the wherewithal to transport their crop themselves, so they can't sell it elsewhere. Some were left without a penny of income when AP's trucks went missing, not even able to sell it on the non-Fair Trade market.

In fact, Rogers told me, only 20% of Fair Trade crops are sold at fair trade prices, driving poor farmers to pay higher costs of production without realizing the fair trade premium.

And that's not the only trust mark that is vulnerable to subversion. Rogers found the unregulated market in voluntary carbon offsets was also rife for abuse. A biomass power station project in India she visited, MPPL, (it holds a Gold Standard seal for carbon credits) was abusing its workers and driving poor residents to cut down local forests to supply the station with fuel.

'It's trying to work within the logic of a system that is extracting resources and exploiting labor, and, if we don't question that system, we'll keep on having these conundrums,' Rogers said.

Last week, the Guardian revealed another example of 'green gone wrong' (or, at least, ineffective), when it reported that electric cars can't cut CO2 emissions on their own. It quoted engineers from the Royal Academy of Engineering: 'When most electricity in Britain' -- like the U.S. -- 'is still generated by burning gas and coal, the difference between an electric car and a small, low-emission petrol or diesel car is negligible.'

But at least they have small, low-emission petrol or diesel cars in the UK. US car companies have yet to produce one for the mass domestic market -- although they have no problem doing so for Europe. Take the Ford Fiesta. Sold in Europe for years, it gets 74 mpg. But when Ford plans to (finally!) bring it out in the US, it will get no more than 40 mpg.

And why are the only domestically produced hybrid vehicles SUVs, like the Ford Escape? Because it's all about profits, not the planet. The profit on SUV's runs in the thousands of dollars, but only in the hundreds for small cars.

The Jevons Paradox

And that leads to another 'devil's in the details' conundrum: the Jevons Paradox. Hybrid car owners in the U.S. tend to drive more miles than non-hybrid owners, figuring that the increased efficiency of their vehicles makes up for more use. The intensity of their emissions is lower, but their absolute emissions? Not so much.

Companies are just as prone to the paradox. When Walmart cuts the intensity of its emissions through more efficient lighting and trucks, it turns right around and builds more stores to sell more stuff, which uses more resources and emits more carbon.

It's the growth paradigm itself that's at fault. We need to de-couple the idea of growth from economic prosperity. We don't have to sacrifice comfort for saving more of the earth's resources for future generations. We can live in clustered housing developments that improve community, decreasing loneliness and driving time. We can live in super insulated houses (new or retrofitted) that keep us toasty warm while producing more energy than they consume. We can work (and produce) less and enjoy more.

And the same goes for the developing world. We need to uncouple the notion of development from the growth imperative, developing smarter, not more.

But getting off our addiction to 'growth' will take an even more fundamental change: a change that puts the Golden Rule at the very core of our economy. And that's how to 'go green right.' It means not doing unto others -- both in the present and the future -- what you would not want them to do unto you.

It's an idea embodied in a new initiative just announced at the United Nations in Geneva: the first global information hub on 'Business, Conflict & Peace,' launched by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. War is the ultimate contradiction to sustainability, but so is aggression of any kind. We'll all be more happily green without it.

This article was originally published on and is reprinted here with the kind permission of and the author.

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