Greening the Titanic
Elle magazine announces that eco-friendly fashions are hip and features Stella McCartney vegan, silk dress sandals at $495, which would work well on a date in the $100,000 Tesla electric sports car. “In this epoch of global warming,” declares Green Guide online fashion consultant Anne Wallace, “fall fashion rules are undergoing climate change: it's OK to wear knee-high faux fur boots with a light cotton skirt and wool sweater.” Vogue magazine advises, “prepare for erratic weather by putting warmer wraps over something skimpy.” Like your awareness of the issues?
To be fair, for decades, those in the environmental movement have wanted ecology to become popular, so we can hardly complain that it is. Consumer choices impact the environment, and we might rejoice that the shopping public is aware of this. Nevertheless, since consumption itself remains a root cause of our ecological crisis, we must ask: “Who is really gaining ground and who is blowing promotional smoke?”
When we buy an electric roadster or hybrid SUV, half the energy consumed by this vehicle over its lifetime has already been used in its mining, manufacture, and shipping around the world. When we buy avocados from the tropics and shoes from cheap labour pools, we’re heating up the planet and dispersing resources, no matter how ‘green’ the product. To approach social and ecological harmony, the wealthy nations must consume less, not more, but this is not a message any politician or ad-selling media giant wants to deliver.
Marketing managers now dominate everything from newsrooms to political candidates. These are the masterminds who tutored people in slow suicide with tobacco and convinced millions of men that they’ll get laid if they use the correct razor. Selling something new is the goal of these geniuses, anything new. Green is in. Ka-ching, ka-ching. But if ecological awareness is a fashion trend, what happens when the editors think it isn’t cool anymore?
In our ecology-conscious age, the worst polluters have switched from denial to greenspeak. Corporate publicity departments do not call this ‘public relations’ anymore; the new insider lingo is ‘reputation management.’ This means safeguarding corporate brand equity, not the earth or future generations.
The modern king of reputation management is Frank Luntz, US spinmeister for Pfizer ‘health services’ and McDonalds’ ‘nutrition experts.’ In 2003, Luntz circulated a memorandum telling corporate clients how to “win the environmental communications battle.” Luntz’s first rule of greenspeak: “Convince them of your sincerity and concern for the environment.”
“Them?” That’s us.
Don’t ever say ‘global warming’, Luntz warns, as this “connotes catastrophic consequences.” Rather, say ‘climate change.’ Hey, weather is always changing and Luntz assures us this is “less of an emotional challenge.” Make use of broad, unassailable principles. Say: “We all want to move towards a healthier, safer future.” And, Luntz reminds industry’s marketeers, always “portray the scientific community as divided.”
Cherry-picking on the astroturf
Tricks of the spin trade include ‘astroturfing’, making industry support groups look green. The global spin-doctors at Burston-Marsteller pioneered this tactic in the 1980s with ‘Share Groups’ and ‘Forest Alliances’, funded and controlled by the international forest industry.
‘Ventriloquism’ is the practice of paying people who appear credible to deliver the talking points, exemplified by ‘doctors’ pushing drugs in television ads. Industrial giants such as Monsanto, Newmont Mines, and Wal-Mart now employ ‘environmentalists’ to sell their projects worldwide.
‘Cherry-picking’ data feigns science while promoting a single point of view. The ‘echo chamber’ technique bounces the preferred data and foregone conclusion through the astroturf organisations until the corporate message gains public ‘traction’. Spin-doctors routinely demonise rival voices, co-opt hip rhetoric, and conceal arguments in swarms of red herrings from which objective facts never return.
When a corporation screws up beyond repair - as Union Carbide did in Bhopal, Windscale nuclear plant did in the UK, or as Arthur Anderson did, caught with its hand in the Enron cookie jar - the preferred tactic is to dodge responsibility, sell endangered assets to other corporations, or simply change your name. Union Carbide sold Bhopal to Dow Chemical, who shrugged off responsibility to the poisoned citizens. The embarrassed Windscale plant changed its name to ‘Sellafield’, and Arthur Anderson split off its lucrative consulting division and changed the name to ‘Accenture’. The earnings never missed a beat.
In 2003, Co-op America selected Starbucks as one of the ‘Ten Worst Greenwashers’ for its reluctance to reduce paper waste or purchase Fair Trade coffee. Starbucks responded with ads to announce its intention to add “up to 10 percent” recycled material in its coffee cups, “within five years.” Although authorisation was not required, Starbucks initiated a Food and Drug Administration review, which added two years to the development process.
In January 2006, before the first 10-percent-recycled cup reached a customer’s hand, Starbucks earned a National Recycling Coalition Award, an honour it gleefully announced in a new ad campaign. In fairness, Starbuck’s policy of offering a discount to those who bring their own cups is the right idea, “but 10 percent recycled content is minuscule,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Coca-Cola also adopted the ‘10 percent’ solution by agreeing to use that portion of recycled plastic in its bottles. The massive corporations, who create most consumer goods, appear to believe that 10 percent is the magic formula, just enough to say you care. To me, it sounds like 90 percent bull effluent. History is not calling on us to pose or do the minimum.
One in a thousand
Corporate retail giant Wal-Mart discovered that ‘green’ products increase sales. It now adds some trees on the roof, an organic food section, and bingo: takes over another neighbourhood and eradicates another 100 local businesses that might sustain a community. In 2007, TerraChoice of Canada studied 1,018 alleged ‘green’ products available in big-box stores. It found outright lying; vague language, irrelevant and unsubstantiated claims, and ordinary ‘eco-friendly’ features concealing authentic environmental concerns. Among the 1,018 products, 1,017 failed the simple TerraChoice test for authenticity. One single brand of paper towels offered accurate information on its packaging, backed it up, and received independent certification.
Several years ago, Greenpeace analysed computer manufactures regarding toxin in products and recycling. Astonishingly, cutting-edge Apple Computers finished almost last! Greenpeace prodded Apple to eliminate brominated fire retardants and polyvinyl chloride from its products and to launch a worldwide “reuse and recycle” programme.
Greenpeace urged Apple users to write to the company. The corporate accountability advocates, As You Sow, filed two shareholder resolutions – to resolve the recycling and toxin issues – at Apple's 2007 AGM. However, before the resolutions came before the shareholders, Jobs changed his position and promised a ‘greener Apple’. A year later, Apple has not yet put a completely non-toxic product on the market, and its take-back program is not yet available worldwide.
Canon Cameras promotes itself as the pre-eminent ‘wildlife’ camera company. Canon CEO Fujio Mitarai, is the current chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren). Greenpeace Japan has asked the influential CEO to live up to the company image of caring for wildlife by helping Japanese environmentalists and the government put an end to Japanese whaling in the Antarctic whale sanctuary. Talk is cheap. Companies who covet a green reputation must lead and achieve results.
Do the math
One-sixth of humanity – about a billion people – consumes five-sixths of the resources. This level of consumption makes it virtually impossible for the poor of the world to improve their living conditions. China envisions turning 700 million farmers into urban consumers, but even if partially successful, this plan will bankrupt world resources. Global liquid fuel production has peaked and will henceforth decline. Each year the planet loses 12 million hectares of forests and 20 billion tons of productive soil, while sending 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and adding 75 million new people, most living in poverty in the most degraded environments. None of this adds up to a better life for future generations.
The wealthy world must embrace a dramatic paradigm shift to achieve a sustainable human culture. The unit of survival in nature is not an individual or even a species, but rather a species-in-an-environment. We've built an economic system based on private rewards, limitless growth, and a disregard for nature and community, the only two things that can sustain us. Exponential curves don't rise forever in nature, they find a sustainable plateau or they crash. Those are the only two options.
The world is finite. We won’t change this with vegan shoes and hybrid cars, no matter how green. We need to make second-hand shoes and public transportation our fashion statement.
Otherwise, we’re just greening the Titanic.
- Rex Weyler
Here is an example of some spin gems from current news reports in our media:
Convalescing forests: A story circulated recently that the “world's forests are recovering.” Several industrial countries in Europe and North America, having destroyed most of their forests, now show an increase in forest acreage, not the more important number of standing timber volume. Meanwhile, global forestry and agriculture companies do their slash-and-burn logging in developing countries such as Brazil, Burma, and Indonesia. The planet loses about 32 million acres (12 million hectares) of forest each year. Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University in New York, a credible scientist, originally reported the forest recovery data as a few isolated cases that included monoculture tree farms. Corporate forestry interests ran with the story, proclaiming the planet’s forest recovery. This is classic ‘cherry-picking’ of data, topped off with pure salesmanship in headline writing.
Plenty of Oil! This good news landed on editors’ desks in 2007. Business sections reported that, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates in the US, there could be 3.7 trillion barrels of oil reserves left, over three times the reserves reported by Petroleum Institute data. The report extrapolates current reserves, counting on technology improvements to discover and retrieve hard-to-reach oil. This it calls ‘exploration potential’, a fancy phrase for pie in the sky. It counted all the Canadian tar sands, including deep sources that cannot likely be retrieved at a net gain of energy. It counted the Colorado oil shale, which would require taking out major sections of the Rocky Mountains and superheating the rock with nuclear reactors, not likely able to produce any net energy. The report’s numbers for authentic known reserves came to 1.2 trillion barrels, slightly higher than the Petroleum Institute. The industry knows it cannot profitably recover much more than 80 percent of this oil, so we're back to one trillion barrels, as everyone in the industry knows. The industry also knows that oil production has peaked and will almost certainly fall in the coming decades. But the hype about plenty of oil made great headlines and a long lunch for harried editors.
Aral Sea returns: More good news flashed on the wire services: “the Aral sea is recovering.” The truth: the sea has been shrinking for decades as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan divert water flow for cotton farming. Over three million people have suffered economic devastation, a health crisis, and ecological disaster. Once-active fish boats sit on dry land 100 km from the water. But recently, Kazakhstan built a dam to keep water from flowing from the ‘North Aral Sea’, a fragment of the original Aral Sea, into the ‘South Sea’. The dam preserves the little lake in the north, which is actually rising. Presto! The renaissance of the Aral Sea, neatly packaged for the world media.
Forestry hype II: Another loony forestry study claimed that some Canadian forests were actually losing carbon. Forestry hacks fired up the headline machine across the land, reporting “forests not necessarily a carbon sink,” a completely spurious idea. Mature forests don't capture more carbon and can even lose carbon, but growing forests always capture carbon and shrinking forests always emit carbon. Perhaps that’s too complicated for the public, and besides, we need some uplifting ecology news.