1 June 2012 The big lesson for consumers is there will be no single big green tick in the new green economy. The notion that there can be a single rating tool for sustainably sourced products that meet ethical, social and environmental guidelines, is still in the realm of fantasy and likely to remain there for some time, the Total Environment Centre’s Green Capital says.
At forums on Thursday this week in Sydney and on 23 May in Melbourne, audience members heard that the world of procurement involves a highly complex supply chain that involves different processes and sources of raw materials, the difficulty of life cycle analysis many good intentions and claims that sometimes override reality in their zeal.
Key problems said presenters and panelists are the confusing, sometimes misleading claims of manufacturers – often well intentioned, but misleading nevertheless – green claims used as kind of competition, issues with suppliers to manufacturers which may also be misleading, and consumer choice often falling at the first hurdle of price.
The forums, entitled “Paper Wars” for the sessions’ primary focus on paper products, elicited some lively debate.
In paper for instance, choice is complicated because paper production often mixes its sources between plantation and native forests and the only reliably sustainable choice is fully recycled paper, the sessions heard.
The sessions also updated the audience on Green Capital’s Better Buying project, an ongoing program which is examining the procurement chain in four key consumer product lines of: paper, meat and dairy, electronics, and cleaning products.
Panellists included ECO-Buy research manager Stephen Reardon, Fuji Xerox Australia International Business Group head of sustainability Amanda Keogh, The Wilderness Society’s Victorian campaigner manager Luke Chamberlain and Good Environmental Choice Australia chair Gordon Renouf.
The ABC’s Quentin Dempster was chair.
Key presenter was Green Capital senior adviser Murray Hogarth.
An edited version of his presentation follows.
Today’s event is an offshoot of Green Capital’s Buying Better program and follows years of work on exposing greenwashing. Not to bash up brands and industries for the heck of it, but to promote higher standards for a genuinely greener marketplace.
A green economy doesn’t just happen, it needs producers and service providers, brands, labels, competitive pricing and quality, watchdogs, and above all trust that it is genuine.
When we started Buying Better two years ago we were responding to growing confusion in the marketplace about the proliferation of “eco-labels” – several hundreds of them around the world, and it seemed more by the week if not the day.
What did we learn then?
- The perception of confusion is the reality. That’s a big problem.
- Many dream of a silver bullet cover-all green tick. That’s a fantasy.
- Much of the confusion is driven by complexity. Just about everything is complex. Footprint accounting, Life cycle assessments, environmental management systems, labeling certifications. Not to mention actually achieving sustainability.
- So we set out to take a simple approach to working out what is most material, most important for selected product areas. It’s life cycle assessment for dummies.
- We also rejected the idea that an eco-label of some kind is the answer for everything. There have to be more tricks in the repertoire. That includes regulation, not just voluntary measures. And removing some products altogether – incandescent light globes for example –not just tweaking them.
We know there are some remarkably straightforward and useful ‘”labels” that most of us can understand:
- Energy Star ratings for appliances and Fuel Efficiency ratings for vehicles. These feature a single, universal metric that converts easily to dollars and customer value
- Areas where a trusted brand overrides the inherent complexity and lack of visibility to the consumer, for example Fairtrade is a stand-out for coffee and cocoa, and arguably the Marine Stewardship Council for seafood
- Areas where complexity is less of a problem because the purchasing decisions always involve technical information and comparisons, such as building materials and their specifications
Late last year Buying Better Phase 2 was born, with support from Sustainability Victoria and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
The first thing we did was to design our stripped down, common sense life cycle tool to tease out several things, whatever product areas and value chains we might be looking at:
- What is the most material environmental issue or issues?
- Where can we best intervene to get better environmental outcomes?
- How can we communicate all of this effectively to purchasing decision-makers?
- And by implication, who is most responsible for getting the better outcomes being sought?
Then we selected our product areas for investigation, including surveying stakeholders, finally coming up with:
- Printer paper
- Meat and dairy
- Cleaning products
- Small electronics
We researched each of these product areas, applied our simple life cycle tool, engaged a spread of relevant stakeholders, and we’re still waiting on further feedback – including from events like this – before shaping our more advanced draft findings.
Overwhelmingly, what we’ve found is that for each product area, one or two factors dominate everything else … and it may not surprise you to learn that carbon emissions are not always a good proxy for the environment overall.
Printer paper – to borrow from Bill Clinton, and his famous election slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid”: it’s the trees, stupid.
Forests where virgin pulp is sourced and therefore the opportunity to use more recycled paper is important – even if that comes at a modest upfront “extra carbon cost” – and also to source virgin pulp from sustainably managed plantations.
I’ll come back to paper shortly.
Meat and dairy – for beef it is mainly about the critical productive resource, the sustainability of the land itself
- A singular focus on environmental footprint, especially carbon emissions and water use, may lead inevitably to more industrial agriculture, with feedlots and factory farms, and more processed and less fresh food.
- If you look at dairy, it could mean the end of mass market fresh milk in favour of long-life or milk powder products and a big issue for the industry is country reputation – the Australia brand being clean and safe (unlike China’s for example)
- If you look at red meat, rangeland produced beef has a significantly different and superior nutritional profile to the exclusively feedlot kind, but demands that cattle be reared alongside whatever is left of our native biodiversity across vast swathes of the Australian continent, involving up to 100,000 producers. That may yet be a huge opportunity, bundling food security, rural enterprise, landscape restoration and biodiversity together.
Cleaning products – they divide up into the clearly useful and the ones with question marks.
- We arguably do need laundry detergents, so for them volume and toxicity are everything, along with how we consumers use them, for example one scoop or two, hot water or cold wash, clothesline or electric dryer
- If we look at the array of “use and toss” wipes and lots of other products devoted to the battle against germs, the big question mark is do we need them at all? Does their material usefulness justify the resources used?
- We think there may be opportunities for a more holistic approach – total life cycle management of clothing, and a healthy home environment that’s more than a daily battle between chemicals and the dreaded germs.
And small electronics – where does one start?
All of the digital gadgets we so love are creating a tsunami of future e-waste.
There are a relatively small number of giant global producers, none of them based in Australia, so our market tends to be a “taker” of whatever environmental standards are dished up from abroad.
Energy efficiency is important and with so many gadgets, design of multi purpose devices is a big area. But end of life is the most prospectively material area from our perspective in Australia.
This may mean prioritising business models that drive recovery, for recycling of rare earth minerals and other materials, and to keep so many easy-to-toss small devices out of landfills.
An additional issue is that smart devices may actually drive sustainability by increasing productivity decoupled from physical consumption, at least that’s the hope.
Each product area has a compelling story to tell. One trend that stands out by comparison with even two years ago is the proliferation of business and industry websites promoting their sustainability plans, programs and arguments, and of course there are community, government and activist sites too.
The work has yet to be done to determine if these are positive developments or more greenwashing on the brand side, constructive or otherwise on the activist side, or most likely a virtual mix of all of the above.
Whatever, the paper war and other environmental claim contests are being fought in cyberspace as well as on the ground. We can imagine a future iteration of Buying Better focused on these websites and social media campaigns in their own right.
So how does all of this help you buy better? We haven’t finished our investigations yet, across all product areas, but I can give you some preliminary thoughts on a key topic of the day, printer paper:
- If you accept our contention that the source of pulp is the most material issue, the first order decision is where the pulp has come from.
- If you want to eliminate sourcing from any native forest, you can do that by buying 100 per cent recycled, as the Australian Government is committed to doing by 2015 under its ICT policy.
- If you are happy with certified sustainably managed forests, whether native or plantation or a mix, there are labels for that like FSC and PEFC
- If you want to buy local, then that’s a lower order decision environmentally speaking, but you can have Australian made 100 per cent recycled.
- If you want lower carbon footprint, you might find yourself buying European paper from virgin pulp, which also means you wouldn’t be buying into pulp sourced from Australian native forests or tropical forests. But there might be a bit of nuclear power thrown in.
Our preliminary thinking is that carbon reduced or neutral is not the best first order factor to consider, but it can be an added extra.
And for some businesses with advanced carbon reporting and reduction or elimination programs, a very important issue. Just not number one if you focus first and foremost on the trees.
At a more macro level, if demand for recycled paper grows substantially from its current level of around 20 per cent of total printer paper sales in Australia, that’s a greener market opportunity worthy of attention.
We will be publishing firm guidance on printer paper purchasing at the end of our Buying Better process.
That may even take the form of recommending a template that all brands could use, instead of the current mish mash of eco claims and standards, presented in various random and confusing ways.
We’ll let everyone know once this process has run its course. Thank you.