Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why green business is the new conservation

An ongoing fight over sustainable seafood is really a fight between old vs. new conservation. That's why the latest brouhaha over the Marine Stewardship Council is interesting. One side is building the green economy, while the other side calls foul over greenwashing.

On the left, scientists and advocates attack the Marine Stewardship Council certification of sustainable seafood products as "failing on its promises as rapidly as it gains prominence." That's a revealing bit of critique. If the MSC were small and insignificant, certifying as sustainable only near-perfect boutique fisheries, the same critics would likely be singing the praises of the Marine Stewardship Council. In fact, Jacquet, et al., say as much in their opinion piece in Nature.

Memanwhile, on the right, support from sustainability advocates and the seafood businesses that are rapidly transforming to improve the environmental performance of fisheries. Oh, and the MSC has their own answer, although a bit wordy and technical.

Think about it, what would you rather have? A shining stamp of approval for the very best fisheries on earth, relying on (for example) hand-thrown harpoons to catch a few tons of big swordfish each year? Or a broad march towards lower-impact fishing by a large fleet of big fishing businesses that catch a few million tons of all kinds of fish each year?

The right answer is we want both examples. And that's a silly part of this fight. Both examples are needed, and the fight is mostly about which word to apply to which example. Since "sustainable" is the only handy label, both sides want to claim it. Even the most hard-core purist who thinks all fishing is bad ought to agree that improving fisheries is a good long as they don't try to appropriate the "S-word" until their fishery is perfect.

No matter how you define it, sustainable fishing is what the green economy is all about. Transforming business to include improved environmental performance. It's happening in fisheries and seafood, and we need to see the movement spread.

What should we make of the greenwashing claims? Attacks over supposed greenwashing are getting louder and more strident as the green economy grows. Let a company mention a change to reduce packaging or make a more concentrated product, and critics jump all over them for allegedly claiming to be green. Where is it written that improving a business is bad if the improvement doesn't go all the way to deep green? Here's an example of a greenwashing expose that finds 99% of corporate green ads to be guilty of greenwashing, and by-the-way was done by a group of people that offers to help you avoid such criticisms for a fee.

Green guru Joel Makower finds greenwashing attacks are often overblown, and I tend to agree. Green advertising is often overstated, but a religion of green that finds 99% the flock to be sinners is using damned harsh judgment. I don't think this is the way to build a new movement of green business. Fear of greenwashing attacks may force companies to be careful, but such attacks may backfire and actually hinder progress towards real business sustainability. We should expect step-by-step improvement and offer some encouragement instead of attacking 99% of companies claiming some green values for products.

This greenwashing and sustainability argument is not unique to fish, note the picture (top left) and delve, if you will, into the deeply intellectual green vs. greenwashing debate over the "Swiffer," a replacement for the good ol' mop. And maybe you'll find, as I do, that the whole greenwashing argument gets a bit tiresome, and move on to the real work of changing the world instead of arguing about who are the real greens.

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