Terminology does matter

In the early days of current concern about the impact of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on the global climate the phenomenon was generally described as global warming. Then environmentalists and some scientists found that those who denied the impact of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases on the climate were making progress with their ideas by pointing out that some key inhabited regions periodically experience cold spells and may in fact experience periods of more extreme cold more frequently in the future. Advocates lobbied successfully for changing the popularly used term to climate change.

Now a report from researchers with the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication suggests that the American public understands global warming much better than they understand climate change. Maybe the switch is terminology was not such a good idea after all.

Among the findings of the report:

  • A nationally representative survey in January 2014 found that while Americans are equally familiar with the two terms, they are 4 times more likely to say they hear the term global warming in public discourse than climate change. Likewise, Americans are 2 times more likely to say they personally use the term global warming than climate change in their own conversations.
  • A separate nationally representative survey (Survey Study 2) in November-December 2013 found
  • that almost without exception, global warming is more engaging than climate change. Compared to climate
  • change, the term global warming generates:
    • Stronger ratings of negative affect (i.e., bad feelings)
    • Overall, global warming generates significantly more top of mind associations to Icemelt (e.g., “melting glaciers”), Alarm (e.g., “world catastrophe”), Flood (e.g., “coastal flooding”), and Ozone (e.g., “the ozone hole”) categories. Climate change generates significantly more associations to Weather (e.g., “storms”) and Global Warming (e.g.,“global warming”) categories.
    • Within the Weather category, global warming generates a higher percentage of associations to “extreme weather” than does climate change, which generates more associations to general weather patterns.
    • Greater certainty that the phenomenon is happening
    • Greater understanding that human activities are the primary cause among political Independents.
    • Greater understanding of the scientific consensus among Independents and liberals.
    • More intense worry about the issue, especially among men, Generation Y, Generation X, Democrats, liberals and moderates.
    • A greater sense of personal threat.
    • A greater sense of threat to one’s own family.
    • A greater sense of threat to future generations among Independents and Generation Y.
    • A greater sense that people in the U.S. are being harmed right now,
    • Higher issue priority ratings for action by the president and Congress.
    • Greater support for a large or small-scale effort by the U.S. (although climate change generates more support for a medium-scale effort, especially among Republicans).
    • Greater willingness to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action.
  • Use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society.
  • Overall, Americans are slightly more worried about global warming (52% are very or somewhat worried about it) than they are about climate change (48%). Americans are +6 points more likely to be “very worried” about global warming (15%) than climate change (9%), which is a statistically significant difference.

The authors note that connotative meanings are dynamic and change, sometimes rapidly. It is possible that with repeated use, climate change will come to acquire similar connotative meanings as global warming, that the two will eventually become synonymous for most people, or that climate change will supplant global warming as the dominant term in public discourse. In the meantime, however, the results of these studies strongly suggest that the two terms continue to mean different things to many Americans.

The report contains much more data on public opinion analysed by use of the terms global warming and climate change, also by political inclination. We have not summarized that data here as it is based on the US political system and, like the rest of the report, may have little or no relevance to Canada. However, with no similar data available in Canada, we encourage readers to look at the US data and come to their own conclusions about its relevance to Canada.

Many people understand global warming and climate change as virtually the same thing but technically they are not identical. Put simply, global warming is a result of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and, after human releases of such gases. is the factor which causes the problem. Climate change, the increasing frequency and severity of disturbances in the already disturbed atmosphere, is the result of global warming. However, GallonDaily’s opinion is that information sources should use whichever term is best understood by users of the information.

The 31 page report What’s In A Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change is available at http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/article/global-warming-vs-climate-change/

Nanoparticles being used in food products without regulation, without labelling

According to a report by the US environmental group Friends of the Earth, nanoparticles are being used in processed foods, are not listed on the ingredient label, and are not being regulated by any government agency. As GallonDaily and GallonLetter have previously reported, nanoparticles are extremely fine particles of various substances that illustrate chemical and biological characteristics that are often quite different from those of the parent material. According to the data published by FOE, titanium dioxide is the nanomaterial currently used most commonly in food products. FOE calls foods containing nanoparticles “nanofoods”.

Note that GallonDaily has no independent confirmation of the FOE report nor is it known whether similar additives are being used in food products sold in Canada.

The 35 page FOE report, entitled Tiny Ingredients Big Risks, states that:

  • there has been a 10-fold increase in unregulated, unlabeled “nanofood” products on the American market over the past six years. The number of nanofood and beverage products FOE knows to be on the market has grown to 94. These products are being made by major companies including Kraft, General Mills, Hershey, Nestle, Mars, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Smucker’s and Albertsons. Due to a lack of required labeling and disclosure, the number of food and beverage products containing undisclosed nanomaterials is likely much greater.
  • many food items that Americans eat on a daily basis contain nanomaterial ingredients. These include familiar products such as processed and cream cheeses, cookies, doughnuts, coffee creamer, chocolate syrup and other chocolate products, pudding, mayonnaise, mashed potatoes, milk, soy, almond, and rice beverages, mints, gum, popcorn, salad dressing and oils, yogurt, cereal, candy, crackers, pasta and sports drinks.
  • the nanofoods market is expected to grow to US$20.4 billion by 2020.
  • there is also mounting evidence that nanomaterials are being used to package and preserve fresh fruit and vegetable products, which could threaten the integrity of staple healthy foods.
  • nano-agrochemicals are now being used on farms and released into the environment in the absence of regulations.
  • an increasingly large body of peer-reviewed evidence indicates some nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment.
  • U.S. regulation of nanomaterials is wholly inadequate and leaves consumers, workers and the environment at risk.

Friends of the Earth makes recommendations for governments, the food industry, and consumers. For the food industry and retailers FOE recommends that food producers and retailers must stop selling nanofood, nanofood packaging, nanofood contact materials and nano-agrochemicals until:

  • The public is involved in decision making.
  • Nanotechnology-specific regulation is put in place to protect the public, workers and the environment from potential new hazards associated with nano-toxicity.
  • All manufactured nano-ingredients are clearly indicated on product labels, allowing members of the public to make an informed choice about product use.
  • The presence of nanomaterials is disclosed to workers and other downstream users along the supply chain.
  • Manufacturers work with regulators to ensure that their products have undergone appropriate safety testing, and provide the relevant data regarding the health and environmental safety of their product. No data, no market.
  • All relevant data related to safety assessments, and the methodologies used to obtain them, are placed in the public domain.
  • All food and agricultural products which include manufactured nanomaterials are clearly labeled to allow members of the public, workers and farmers to make an informed choice.

The report is available at http://www.foe.org/news/news-releases/2014-05-new-report-tiny-ingredients-big-risks


Advanced controls could cut commercial building energy use by >50%

Researchers with the US Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that commercial buildings could cut their heating and cooling electricity use by an average of 57 percent with advanced energy-efficiency controls. Actual energy savings ranged from 20 to 90 percent. The results come out of a year-long trial of the controls at malls, grocery stores and other buildings across the country.

The findings include:

  • heating and cooling are among the biggest energy consumers in buildings, largely because most buildings don’t use sophisticated controls.
  • packaged HVAC units in commercial buildings in the US consume the same amount of electricity each year as 8 million US residents, or about 2,600 trillion British thermal units of energy.
  • HVAC units can be configured with advanced controls to automatically adjust their operations based on conditions inside and outside a building.
  • using sensors and variable-speed motors, the controls decide when and how fast ventilation fans should run, and if the units can use naturally cold air from the outside instead of mechanically cooling indoor air.
  • larger buildings such as malls, which need bigger HVAC units, saved more energy than smaller buildings. And buildings that ran ventilation fans more, such as stores open long hours, tended to save more energy.
  • on average, it will take a building owner three years to recoup the cost of buying and installing advanced controls.

The researchers say that building owners interested in upgrading or replacing their HVAC systems can learn more from the Advanced Rooftop Campaign, which was formed by DOE’s Better Building Alliance, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

More information from PNL at http://www.pnnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=1055

BT’s sustainability report one of the most interesting of the season

BT, formerly British Telecom but now a privatized global telecom company, has published one of the most fascinating sustainability reports of the Spring 2014 sustainability report season. Comprehensively covering environmental, social, and economic aspects of the Company’s activities the web version of the report, published under the headline “Better Future”, puts the exciting stuff upfront and the nerdy details towards the bottom of the series of web pages. The web version is exceptionally well laid out and sections are well connected. The PDF version, with somewhat less information than the web version is far less fun and lacking in pictures, clearly intended more as a reference work than a fun exploration of the Company’s many sustainability activities and most likely with the expectation that very few people actually sit down and read annual sustainability reports. We encourage readers who are interested in sustainability reporting to look at BT’s sustainability report at http://www.btplc.com/betterfuture/betterfuturereport/default.aspx

Among the highlights of BT’s sustainability activities last year:

investment of 1.01% of adjusted pre-tax profits in responsible and sustainable business activities in 2013/14.

reduced energy consumption by 3% in 2013/14, with energy savings programmes generating more than £25m ($38m CDN) in annualised cost saving. This takes the total annualised saving, from programmes run over the last five years, to £131m ($197m CDN).

connected 19 locations in Africa to broadband internet via satellite as part of BT’s Connecting Africa programme, improving access to critical services for around 95,000 people and indirectly benefitting up to 570,000 people.

around a third of the 6.7m adults in the UK who are not yet online live in social housing. BT is targeting these areas of digital and social exclusion and bringing cost effective internet access to those who need it.

invested more than £5m in filtering tools and education to help children and young adults use the internet safety. This year, the Company has launched a new filter, BT Parental Controls, which gives new customers the option to install network-based parental controls as standard. To help our Wi-Fi site partners stop pornographic and child abuse material being viewed on their premises, we have launched BT Wi-Fi Protect.

this year helped customers avoid carbon emissions amounting to 1.3 times the end-to-end carbon impact of BT’s business. This was an improvement on last year, but BT still has some way to go to achieve its 2020 goal of 3:1.

assessed emissions from every tier of its supply chain using environmentally extended input-output analysis (EEIO). This technique estimates the direct and supply chain emissions for different industries by combining macroeconomic data on output and trade with emissions data.

reduced operational carbon emissions from our global business by 25.5%;

all UK electricity consumed now comes from renewable sources, and 78% of employees are involved in energy saving initiatives.

waste to landfill reduced by 57% compared with our 30% target for the year.

water use in the UK decreased for the twelfth consecutive year in 2013/14, to 1,276m cubic metres from 1,308m cubic metres.

worked with a consortium including WWF-UK, Forum for the Future, The Climate Group and leading UK and multinational companies to launch the Net Positive Movement. This is a diverse group working together to promote the Net Positive approach and encourage other businesses to do more than simply reduce harm to the environment.

Much more information in BT’s 110 page “Better Future 2014” report at http://www.btplc.com/betterfuture/betterfuturereport/default.aspx

Fair trade may benefit bosses more than workers

A new report from researchers at The School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London suggests that one of the basic missions of the fair trade movement is not being achieved, at least when it comes to fair trade coffee from Ethiopia and Uganda. The research found no evidence that Fairtrade has made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those employed in the production of the coffee produced for Fairtrade certified export. In some cases the researchers found that those employed in areas where there are Fairtrade producer organisations are significantly worse paid, and treated, than those employed for wages in the production of the same commodities in areas without any Fairtrade certified institutions.

The research team has been careful not to slam fair trade products but it does suggest that fair trade organizations need to pay far more attention to the conditions of those extremely poor rural people – especially women and girls – employed in the production of commodities labelled and sold to ‘ethical consumers’ who expect their purchases to improve the lives of the poor.

The researchers state:

  • Fairtrade has made no positive difference – relative to other forms of employment in the production of the same crops – to wage workers.
  • Systematically, wage workers in the sample in research sites characterised by the presence of Fairtrade certified producer organizations earned less than equivalent workers in research sites without Fairtrade production. A relatively high proportion of wage workers employed in the production of commodities sold to and through Fairtrade certified channels earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage for equivalent work.
  • The reasons for Fairtrade’s failure to make a clear positive difference to wages and conditions, or to the amount of work offered, are fairly clear. They have to do – especially in the production of “smallholder” commodities – with what this research suggests has been in the past a wilful denial of the significance of wage labour and an obsessive concentration [by fair trade organizations] on producers/employers and their organisations.
  • This research suggests that a large number of obstacles remain in implementing improved standards in a way that will benefit rural workers. First and foremost is the need not just for more monitoring and evaluation, but also for better methods. And they have to do – again, especially where Fairtrade certification is awarded to cooperatives – with the espousal of a romantic ideology of how cooperatives operate in poor rural areas. One implication of revealing the obfuscation and even inversion of reality sustained by this ideology is that Fairtrade may well help to make a contribution (though the evidence suggests it is not the most effective contribution) to poverty reduction; but that it does so as an unintended consequence of its promotion of a class of emerging rural capitalists.

On page 122 of the report the authors provide 12 recommendations for changes to fair trade programs that they believe will bring such programs closer to their expressed goals. however, the authors also note:

These recommendations are unlikely to be welcomed by Fairtrade organisations, or by the supermarkets that profit from the important public relations and product differentiation opportunities that certified products provide. It may appear that these recommendations are demanding, unrealistic even. If that is the case, then at a minimum our research suggests that Fairtrade labelling and branding information needs to be changed substantially to reflect the limitations of the claims made and an inability to monitor the wages and working conditions of people employed on the farms of members of small producers organisations. However, it may well be that it proves too costly for Fairtrade organizations, and the producer and retail organizations who trumpet their Fairtrade certification, to implement these recommendations in such a way that a substantive positive difference can be made to the welfare of manual agricultural wage workers. That is one reason why we recommend a broader public attention to, even potentially a reallocation of resources from Fairtrade towards, other types of intervention, to be supported by governments and donor agencies.


The full 129 page report, appendices, and frequently asked questions are available at http://ftepr.org/publications/#publication-563

A response from one of the leading global fair trade organizations, Fairtrade International, which reads to GallonDaily as way too defensive, can be found at http://www.fairtrade.net/single-view+M5a2383b864f.html

Major insurance company sues US municipalities for climate change negligence

Major US insurance company Farmers, owned by multinational financial services company Zurich, the world’s 75th largest public company, has launched class action suits against dozens of US municipalities alleging negligence in management of storm drainage. The suits stem from flooding which occurred last year and which Farmers claims was caused by the effects of climate change and ignored by the municipalities.

The insurer claims that local officials are aware that climate change is causing heavier rainfall but that they have not taken measures to alleviate the resulting flooding. The suits seek reimbursement to the insurance company of moneys paid out to policy holders to compensate for flood damage.

This is a Goliath versus Goliath legal battle which could prove to be an important game changer with respect to municipal government climate change policy. Legal experts consulted by GallonDaily think that Farmers has only a slight chance of winning but it may not be too long before the strategy, which is being rolled out in several parts of the US, finds a judge or jury willing to find in favour of the insurance company. Then it will likely be on the way to the Supreme Court. The key issue is not so much whether the municipalities have ignored the likely increase in flooding resulting from climate change but whether municipal governments are protected in law from liability for this type of policy inaction.

There is also speculation that the municipalities will in turn sue the engineering firms that advised them on their drainage plans.

Note that the legal situation facing Canadian municipalities is not the same as that facing US municipalities and the outcome of this series of suits may or may not have applicability in Canada.

Environment and Energy Publishing is making a more complete report on the Farmers Insurance suit available at http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059999532

Zurich offers a flood resilience program for communities and policyholders, primarily in developing countries. A brochure about the program is available at http://www.zurich.com/internet/main/SiteCollectionDocuments/corporate-responsibility/Flood-Resilience-Factsheet.pdf

Food companies are making climate change worse, says Oxfam

A report published this week by Oxfam International claims that the world’s “Big 10” food and beverage companies, including many well-known to Canadians, are both highly vulnerable to climate change and are major contributors to the problem. Together they emit so much greenhouse gas that, if they were a single country, they would be the 25th most polluting in the world. Oxfam says that “The “Big 10”, Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, should be capable of cutting their combined emissions by a further 80 million tons by 2020. This would be equivalent to taking all of the cars in Los Angeles, Beijing, London, and New York off the road.

Among the many key points made in the report:

  • The “Big 10” together emit 263.7 million tons of GHGs – more than Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway combined. Emissions from their operations account for 29.8 million tons. Of their total emissions, about half come from the production of agricultural materials from their supply chains, yet these emissions are not covered by the reduction targets the companies have set.
  • Experts predict that by 2050 there will be 50 million more people made hungry because of climate change.
  • Some of the “Big 10” companies admit that climate change is already beginning to harm them financially. Unilever says it now loses $415 million a year, while General Mills reported losing 62 days of production in the first fiscal quarter of 2014 alone because of extreme weather conditions that are growing worse because of climate change. Oxfam projects that the price of key products like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and General Mills’ Kix cereal could spike by up to 44% in the next 15 years because of climate change.
  • Agriculture and forests drives around 25% of global GHG emissions and that these emissions are growing as demand for food rises. Experts say that if the world is to keep within a “safe” 2C threshold by 2050, net global emissions from the food sector needs to fall to zero and actually become a “carbon sink” by mid-century – working to remove GHGs from the atmosphere. Yet emissions trends are currently heading in the opposite direction.
  • All of the ‘Big 10’ recognize the need to reduce indirect agricultural emissions within their supply chains and seven of them annually measure and report on these emissions through the Carbon Disclosure Project– but not Kellogg, General Mills or Associated British Foods. Only Unilever and Coca-Cola have committed to reduction targets that address emissions in their supply chains, but none of the ‘Big 10’ have committed to clear reduction targets specific to their agricultural emissions.
  • None of the ‘Big 10’ require their suppliers to set targets to reduce emissions.
  • All of the ‘Big 10’ have set targets to reduce emissions from their operations, but these are often not science-based and don’t reflect their full contribution to the problem.
  • Several of the ‘Big 10’ companies have committed to ambitious timelines to end deforestation in their supply chains for palm oil but only Mars and Nestle extend these policies to other commodities that are drivers of deforestation and land use change.

Oxfam’s announcement of the report and a link to the full 30 page report and a summary are available at http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/pressroom/pressrelease/2014-05-20/big-ten-food-companies-emitting-as-much-worlds-25th-most-polluting-country



A new international intergovernmental organization for the environment

The World Nature Organization came into existence at the beginning of this month as a result of an international treaty, the WNO Treaty, coming into force. Under the Treaty the WNO shall promote sustainable development, information and knowledge transfer among states, organizations and the economic sector, as regards preserving the natural environment, environmentally-friendly technologies, green economies, renewable energies, protection of resources, protection of water, forest, air, oceans and climate, with due consideration of:

a) national and international priorities, as well as the advantages which result from sustainable development within the natural environment;

b) the contribution which is offered to the conservation of the environment by responsible conduct as regards natural resources, by the significant reduction in pollution of the earth, air and water, by the reduction in deforestation and by the effective reduction in desertification and loss of biological diversity;

c) the contribution to economic growth and social cohesion which can be offered by environmental and climate protection, including the alleviation of poverty and safeguarding conditions for the existence of these and future generations.

The WNO promotes sustainable development in support of the following UN declarations and treaties:

  • United Nations Millennium Development Goals
  • Kyoto Protocol
  • Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Agenda 21)
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
  • Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development
  • World Summit Outcome (New York, 2005)

The WNO states that, as a centre of competence for environmental protection, green technologies and sustainability, and as a mediator and initiator, making available experience of practical applications and strategies, offering support on all issues related to responsible conduct as regards the natural environment and its resources and assisting States to benefit from efficient development and from scientific and technology transfer, the organization shall carry out the following activities

1) For the benefit of its members, the organization will: 

a) analyze, observe and, without obligation towards the policies of its members, systemize contemporary practice and development in the area of green technologies and also projects for the sustainable protection of the environment, including: policy instruments, incentive systems, investment mechanisms, proven courses of action and available technologies, together with success and failure factors;

b) promote discussion with other governmental and non-governmental organizations and networks in the field of environmental protection and all related fields and safeguard cooperation with them;

c) improve relevant scientific and technological transfer and promote development of capacities and environmental competence in situ in the member states;

d) support members in establishing green economies, by training, education and transfer of knowledge;

e) advise and encourage members in their requests for financing of sustainable projects and support them within the parameters of its financial means;

f) support research and stimulate scientific work, as well as supporting research networks;

g) grant its members pertinent advice and support for their requests;

h) encourage exchanges among members and international discussions on sustainable conduct as regards the natural environment;

i) inform about the development of national and international endeavors and projects;

j) inform the public about environmental problems, in particular those of the global environment, and in this way promote public debate, awareness and ecological sensibility for citizens, the economy and state departments;

k) promote synergies between the members, scientific institutions and governmental and non-governmental organizations.

2) In the performance of its activities:

a) the organization shall act in accordance with the aims and principles of the United Nations for the promotion of peace and international cooperation;

b) the organization shall use its assets in such a way that their economic application to this end is secured, that all its aims can be pursued appropriately and its activities can be carried out, to achieve the greatest possible benefit for its members and in all parts of the world, taking account of the particular needs of the emerging nations and remote and isolated regions and islands;

c) the organization shall work closely with existing establishments and organizations and shall endeavor to bring about mutually beneficial relationships , in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort;

d) the organization shall pay heed to the resources and current measures of governments and of other organizations; and

e) shall inform its members about its activity in the form of an annual Activity Report and shall inform them about cooperation between the members and other organizations.

The organization is temporarily based in Liechtenstein and its first Secretary-General is Count Oliver of Wurmbrand-Stuppach.  The WNO has declared it as its task, to protect climate, air, water, earth and biological diversity and to still support economic development, which is in the interest of every country. Nevertheless, the WNO is anxious to promote a transition to environmentally friendly, low-carbon and resource-efficient, greener economies.

The WNO is currently preparing for the first World Nature Conference, joined by government representatives, scientists and experts of industrial and developing countries. The following lectures and presentations are planned at the two-day conference:

  • the consequences and impact of climatic change on economy, politics and society;
  • renewable energy, environment protections and climate policy;
  • environmental protection through innovation: renewable energy, biodiversity and sustainable development.

It is not known whether Canada plans to join the WNO.

Lots more information about the WNO is available at http://www.wno.org

Maclean’s Green 30 is a really weird list

The current issue of Maclean’s magazine includes a list of what Maclean’s calls Canada’s Green 30, implying that these are, or are at least among, the greenest companies in Canada. A quick glance at the list left GallonDaily wondering how this very strange list had been compiled. Most notably, there is not a single Canadian manufacturer or energy company on the list nor is there a single company that supplies or operates green technology. There are seven financial service companies and four insurance companies. Almost all of the remaining 19 companies are in a service business: recruitment, marketing, retirement residences, equipment leasing, corporate recognition, management consulting, general contracting, legal services, and so on. In other words, companies that have almost all of their operations inside one or more offices.

Gallondaily is not at all down on office-based companies. After all, GallonDaily is published out of an office, and we certainly encourage office-based companies to do everything possible to increase their level of social responsibility and to lower their environmental footprint. However, the kind of initiatives listed in the Maclean’s article fall far short of being the leading business environmental initiatives in Canada. Maclean’s gives credit to the Green 30 companies for the following initiatives, among quite a few others that are similar:

  • conducting Skype interviews with candidates to avoid transportation costs
  • electronic documents has eliminated more than 50 per cent of print versions
  • standardized printing has saved the equivalent of 40 trees and nearly 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity last year
  • recycling and take-back programs provide customers with no-cost ways to manage their electronic waste
  • volunteer day off included cleaning up the nearby Lake Ontario shoreline
  • office bicycles let staff run errands without the hassle of driving a car
  • recycling centres on each floor
  • energy consumption has been cut with the help of sensor light switches, low-flow toilets and efficient light bulbs
  • so employees don’t have to drive off-site for food, headquarters has free coffee machines and a café serving breakfast and lunch
  • offices are close to public transit, and provide lockers and showers for cyclists
  • every Earth Day, the firm schedules a general office cleanup, complete with big recycling bins and environmentally friendly cleaning supplies
  • a goal in 2013 of eliminating two-thirds of business travel in five years
  • promotes responsible investing by encouraging businesses to disclose statistics on carbon emissions and water management

All of these are positive initiatives but not one of them is ground-breaking, not one of them, or even two or three of them, qualifies a company to be a leading edge green company, and there are hundreds of Canadian companies undertaking similar, if not more and better, initiatives.

Maclean’s does not provide any information on the criteria for a company being included on the Green 30 list except that it is “a collection of Canadian businesses whose employees, according to consulting firm Aon Hewitt, are most positive about their record of environmental stewardship”. Information on how companies were evaluated for inclusion in the Green 30 list is not included in the Maclean’s article nor could we find it on the Aon Hewitt website, though Aon Hewitt does say that the starting point was the Best Employers in Canada and Best Small and Medium Employers in Canada 2014 studies.

If the Maclean’s Green 30 list inspires a few more Canadian companies to take the small green steps that those on the list have taken, then GallonDaily is all for it. But if one of the companies on the Green 30 list starts promoting its inclusion on the list, the it is time to call the list the farce that it is. If Maclean’s wants to repeat the Green 30 list in 2015 it should provide transparent green criteria that go beyond employee opinions (after all, few employees of any ‘best employer’ company are likely to say that their employer is an environmental pig) and a named independent judging panel of real sustainability experts.

The Maclean’s Green 30 article is available, likely for a limited time, at http://www.macleans.ca/economy/business/green-where-it-counts-the-green-30/ 

Aon Hewitt describes itself as a company which “empowers organizations and individuals to secure a better future through innovative talent, retirement and health solutions. We advise, design and execute a wide range of solutions that enable clients
to cultivate talent to drive organizational and personal performance and growth, navigate retirement risk while providing new levels of financial security, and redefine health solutions for greater choice, affordability and wellness.” Its news release about the study is at http://www.aon.ca/surveys/BES/Green30-2014.pdf

Aon’s sustainability reporting appears to be a one page statement at http://www.aon.com/about-aon/corporate-citizenship/sustainability.jsp. There are no annual sustainability reports and no measured sustainability progress indicators in the Company’s investor relations web site. If the one page statement is all there is, then Aon still has as long a way to go to becoming an expert corporate sustainability practitioner.

Avoidance of absolutes: a lesson in language

Yesterday a prominent business litigation lawyer told a transportation conference at McMaster University in Hamilton that she thinks that rail transportation of crude oil is safe. A US communications ngo with sustainable agriculture expertise claims that sustainable agriculture is agriculture that does not harm the environment. This week Maclean’s has published a list called the Green 30 (see GallonDaily later this week for our comments on the list).

The problem with these claims, and with thousands more made in the media, in articles and advertising, and on product labels every week, is that they are presented as absolutes. Rail transportation of crude oil is clearly not safe, sustainable agriculture inevitable causes some harm to the environment, as does every human activity, and even the top companies on the Green 30 list are less than absolutely green, even when we take into account that the term ‘green’ is less than perfectly defined.

These statements are presented as absolutes when they should be presented as relatives. It is not unreasonable to suggest that rail transport of crude oil is safer than other ways of transporting crude oil (though GallonDaily would suggest that such an opinion may still be wrong). It is even more reasonable to suggest that sustainable agriculture has a lower environmental footprint than conventional agriculture, though GallonDaily suggests that sustainable agriculture, another poorly defined term, may not be as sustainable as organic agriculture, a practice which it apparently encompasses but also exceeds.

One might expect that a lawyer would understand the risk of absolutes. Given the number of recent train wrecks involving crude oil, how can a respected lawyer possibly make a public statement that rail transportation of oil is safe. A lawyer can hold whatever opinions she wishes but when speaking from a public platform she is using her professional qualification as a credential. Surely the Law Society should view this as a misconduct? Had she stated that in her opinion transportation of oil by rail is safe enough or safer or, even more preferred, poses less risk than other modes of transportation, and had she been willing to present evidence and been prepared to support public participation in a debate about the relative safety of oil transportation modes, because one part of risk assessment must involve public perception of risk, then the statement would have been defensible. But to state that transportation of oil by rail is safe is nothing short of a lie and a disrespect to the people of Lac-Mégantic and other communities that have been seriously harmed by crude oil train wrecks.

An ngo that claims expertise in sustainable agriculture should at least understand that all agriculture has an environmental footprint. Sustainable may involve minimizing that footprint but the human presence at least since the stone age almost inevitably has a deleterious impact on global ecosystems. We support sustainable agriculture not because it has zero environmental impact but because it is a stepping stone towards more sustainable food production systems. Watch for more information on bioeconomies in the next issue of Gallon Environmental Letter, due in your email box before the weekend.

The above is a GallonDaily opinion. For information on subscribing to Gallon Environment Letter, including a last chance to subscribe to the free edition, visit http://www.cialgroup.com/gallonletter.html