July 2, 2007

Setting foot on the green path merits support, not censure

By: Colin Isaacs

Ever since corporations began to adopt green programs in the mid 1970's, environmental groups, writers, and other critics have been scrutinizing every announcement and award, making their own assessment of whether or not the initiatives are adequate.

Canadians with long memories will remember that when President's Choice first introduced its green products in 1989, Greenpeace pounced on a garden fertilizer product with the allegation that it contained dioxin. Toronto Councillor Gord Perks, formerly a prominent environmentalist, reminded a CBC radio audience of this fact in a recent interview.

What Perks failed to mention was that Greenpeace had used a lab that was not experienced in testing for dioxin. The test results were wrong.

President's Choice had anticipated this allegation and, through both product formulation and testing, had ensured that the product could not possibly contain dioxin beyond background levels. Tests subsequent to the Greenpeace allegation reconfirmed that dioxin was not present. However, Perks, and likely most other interested parties, recalled only the allegation and not the facts.

One might ask why, in situations like this--and there have been many--groups like Greenpeace attack the product making green claims instead of the conventional product.

One reason is competition. Some environmental groups do not want to see the private sector addressing environmental problems. Either they have a vision of a political system with a much higher level of state control than we currently experience, or they want to see the outright abolition of the specific products and activities they have deemed to be environmentally unacceptable.

In the same radio interview as his fertilizer remarks, Councillor Perks reminded the audience that there had once been a brand of green disposable diapers. He expressed the view that this is an oxymoron and that the only green diaper is a reusable cloth diaper.

With that statement, he tossed away nearly 20 years of life cycle analysis (LCA) studies that demonstrate that there is little difference in environmental footprint between reusable and disposable diapers. The former might have a slight edge where landfill is a major problem, while the latter would be environmentally preferable where water quality and quantity are the highest priorities. Recycling or composting of disposables often reduces their footprint to well below that of reusables.

Discussion over such products as garden fertilizer and diapers can be educational, but too often environmentalists prefer confrontation to conversation.

Many recent books, articles and interviews have slammed household cleaning products for their "toxic" content. Rarely do the critics actually explain what those toxic substances might be. It is just another weapon in the arsenal of criticisms of major corporations that some environmental groups like to use. It is in the same league as environmentalist criticism of private operation of municipal water treatment facilities, export of water, and emissions trading. All are good for fundraising; few are beneficial for public education.

These regular confrontations between critics and industry over green products and corporate greening programs are one of the factors holding back the emergence of a greener economy in Canada. Senior executives understandably come to the conclusion that if they are going to attract criticism by joining the green path, they may as well continue on the conventional path where they will suffer less criticism and where the capital investment and staff training needed for a green program can instead be put into shareholders' pockets.

Too many people in Canada have allowed the quest for the perfect to become the enemy of the good. It is better to do something to reduce our footprint than to continue in our old polluting ways. Companies can bypass the critics and reap the economic and market rewards that come from a solid green initiative. Genuine corporate environmental efforts need applause, even when they are only a first step on a long road.

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for EcoWeek. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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