As scientists in Canada and Norway report that long-banned toxic chemicals are being released by melting Arctic sea ice, my initial despair is difficult to overcome as bad news appears to pile upon bad news. However, within this grim scenario unfolding in one of the most pristine regions of the world, there are – believe it or not – some rays of hope for the future.

Greenpeace toxics action in Lebanon, 2001 And no, I’m not some environmental naïf or uninformed optimist; in fact, I’ve worked on the Greenpeace campaign to eliminate toxic chemicals since the 1980s. I know full well the problems we’re up against, though I’ve also seen how common-sense and responsibility can prevail.

As part of the campaign that resulted in the enactment of the Stockholm Convention – a global ban on the production and use of toxic chemicals that are persistent in the environment and accumulate in our food chains and, eventually, in our bodies – I witnessed first-hand the possibility for change.

However, many of the chemicals now being released from the sea ice – Dioxins, Lindane, PCBs and others – were manufactured and originally used before this treaty came into effect in 2004. Atmospheric currents carried them to the Arctic, where much of the pollution was trapped in the ice, thousands of miles from the point of manufacture and use. These noxious substances are long lived, and don’t easily break down in nature.

So where, you may ask, is the ray of hope in this story of the global warming related re-release of chemicals that were supposed to be dealt with by a United Nations treaty?

Well, I see two reasons for optimism here. The first is the reminder that an international agreement about urgent environmental issues is possible – even on measures that are opposed by industry and controversial with governments.

Many of the chemicals banned or restricted by the Stockholm Convention were first brought to the world’s attention by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring (1963). Initial skepticism gradually grew into a scientific and public consensus that governments could not fail to notice.

A Swedish representative preparing to sign a treaty to eliminate POPs at the Stockholm convention, Sweden, 2001.
Photo: A Swedish representative preparing to sign a treaty to eliminate POPs at the Stockholm convention, Sweden, 2001.

Despite massive amounts of pressure and lobbying from industry – including obfuscation of scientific truth and that oh-so-familiar threat of economic catastrophe – governments eventually committed to protect people and the planet. Corporations dealt with the change, and subsequent improvements have been made to regulations in Europe and North America. I find this an inspiring model for international negotiations to prevent runaway climate change.

Spoof Adidas logo
Spoof logo designed for the Detox logo competition at greenpeace.nl

Second, I find great hope in the power of corporations to make rapid changes in response to public expectations. In response to public expectation for action on this front, many of the world’s largest corporations now have public commitments to “cleaner production” and a growing number of companies are adopting a policy to phase out hazardous substances through substitution.

However, they have to be held accountable, and required to do more. It’s not acceptable to spout fine words and still create toxic pollution. Particularly, they cannot make goods in the South using chemical processes that would not be allowed in more developed countries.

Greenpeace is now campaigning to get these companies to clean up their acts and stop polluting water in the global South with poisons that they could not legally discharge in Europe or North America.

At the moment, the focus is on big name sportswear brands. What we expect from these companies is the complete elimination of hazardous chemicals from their production processes. To get there, they will need a plan of action along with a commitment to full transparency so that their customers can see that they’re living up to their promises. It’s a tough set of demands, we know; but, if sportswear brands aren’t up for a challenge, who is?

And, last week, our challenge was accepted! Puma – a company that blends sports and lifestyle – became the first of the big brands to step up to our challenge. With a firm time-frame, Puma declared its intention to completely eliminate the release of all hazardous chemicals from all of its production processes. There’s more to be done, of course, but Greenpeace applauds these commitments.

Indeed, it’s the speed of this change which is so inspiring. The Greenpeace Detox campaign was launched on 13 July and Puma has demonstrated that big and necessary change needn’t wait by making public their commitment in under two weeks.

Every day that companies continue to discharge toxic chemicals, more and more accumulate in the environment.

Corporations can change swiftly. Now the spotlight is on the biggest sporting goods manufacturers – Nike and Adidas – to Detox our water! To put it in terms they should certainly understand: If impossible is nothing, Just Do It!

Kevin Stairs is currently Greenpeace’s Chemicals Policy Director for the European Union. He holds a Bachelor of Science and Doctorate of Law. Between 1988 and 2007 he was Greenpeace’s Head of Delegation at international negotiations on toxics, including the Stockholm Convention.