Sylvia Earle’s TED wish

In this TED video, Sylvia Earle talks about her TED wish – to protect the oceans. It’s a pretty amazing video, and an important statement about the damage we’re collectively doing to our oceans and how it’s going to affect us before long.

I can’t help but think that while our “political reality” is centered around an unsustainable concept of growth, the required changes to behaviour simply won’t come about.

In a similar vein to framing sustainability around aspiration, perhaps we need to reframe our concept of growth to something that is more akin to the growth we see in natural ecologies (the very ones we are destroying).

So rather than saying “we have to stop growing”, we could instead change how we view growth so that our human tendency to pursue it can be satiated, but not at the expense of the planet.

Retailers “doing it tough”. Again.

It seems every year, in the lead-up to Christmas, we hear about how “retailers are doing it tough” and that the Christmas period is crucial for retailers, so we, as consumers, had better “spend, spend, spend”.

This year was no different, except the “global financial crisis” had “hit retailers hard” and that, more than ever, we needed to spend, spend, spend. Never mind the fact that families might need the Rudd government’s handout for bills and savings – it was our duty to spend to save the economy.

Before the Christmas rush I commented to Ang (though I wish I had have blogged the prediction here) that by the time Christmas was over we’d hear that spending was up this year, if not to record levels. Why? Because I’ve noticed that this happens every year.

Last year it was the weight of growing interest rates denting consumers’ spending. This year, the economic crisis. I forget what it was the year before that.

I did entertain the thought that the financial “crisis” might, in fact, have an impact this year – but I posited that we’d still see a surge in spending all the same.

Well… the scare tactics appear to have worked.

According to the salesman at The Good Guys near my Mum’s home, large LCD TVs have been “walking out the door” (hardly an objective measure I know). And Gerry Harvey is surprised that sales had increased 8.7% over the same period last year.

Mr Rudd must be very pleased that his bonus is being spent so wisely…

Now, I am aware that retailers have experienced a significant decrease in spending over the past few months and that some, especially I suspect smaller operators, will actually be “doing it tough”.

I don’t know about you, but I just find the whole “it’s your duty to spend” line a little sickening and that the justifications for why we should are wearing a little thin when retailers continue to report record profits even after claiming that they’re “doing it tough”.

I’d like to see journalists, when reporting such statements, take a look at the profit figures across the previous year and put it all in a bit of perspective: “Despite the fact that David Jones posted a record profit last year, the best in it’s history, the retailer says its preparing for ‘tough times’.” (tough times = “net profit after tax … in line with previous guidance of five to 10% growth” – emphasis mine.)

I think it’s all very much a sign of our myopic focus on growth at all costs (hilariously captured by this YouTube video) as though the environment is just a never-ending source of resources and that permanent, endless growth is possible.

It’s quite simply not possible – the environment has limits that are already stretched by our current consumption habits. Sooner rather than later we’re going to have to face that fact.

Perhaps we should be looking for alternative models and starting to look at the economy from a different perspective? Models and perspectives that don’t rely on infinite, unsustainable growth fueled by private, debt-enabled spending – which, after all, got us into this mess in the first place.

The benefits of certification

Originally posted on the Green Loves Gold blog.

When I was thinking about starting a sustainable business one of the things I looked into fairly early on was certification standards. In the clothing business there are a growing number of standards and certification programmes that need to be considered.

Standards in the textile industry

In the industry that I’m entering with Arketype, there are a number of potentially applicable standards – to name just a few:

  • Fairtrade Cotton – Fairtrade certification for the raw fibre and textiles production
  • Certified organic cotton schemes, such as USDA National Organic Program or EU 834/2007 (which takes effect in Jan 2009) – covering raw fibre production using methods that are much less impacting on the environment
  • Oeko-Tex – testing and certification to limit use of certain chemicals
  • Homeworkers Code of Practice – an Australian programme that accredits garment manufacturing as “No Sweatshop” (which is part of the Fairtrade cotton standard for garments manufactured in Australia)
  • NoC02 – programme for auditing, reducing and offsetting carbon emissions

Of course there are many standards and logos which can be quite overwhelming for business owners and customers alike. The good folks at Eco-Textile News have produced an excellent guide for the TCF industry that outlines the major standards for that industry.

Even so, businesses can’t carry out all of these certifications, especially so during the start-up phase where capital (and time) are often limited. So the challenge is to be discerning about which programs we engage in.

Of course, we can also incorporate the principles of the various other programs into our practice, even if we’re not in a position to carry out certification against those standards.

Certification counter-acts the tyrrany of distance

I attended a talk recently by a member of a local food co-op and talk turned to “certified organic” produce. Many of the local growers are using organic methods, but not all are seeking certification.

In discussing this, the member explained that one of the aims of the co-op was to connect local growers with their customers directly. In breaking down this distance – creating a direct, personal connection – he argued that the need for certification is greatly reduced as a relationship is built up and trust develops.

If customers can talk directly to the farmer about their methods, perhaps even visit the farm etc., the farmer is less likely to break that trust as their customers are people they know.

In other words, it’s when distance is introduced – when the supply chain gets between the customer and the producer – that certification becomes increasingly important. The longer the supply chain, the more important certification becomes. I find it a thought-provoking alternative “approach” to achieve the same goal as certification.

For example, at a recent event held by my primary supplier, Rise Up Productions, the makers of our products were there at the event, and were introduced to us. Bronwyn Darlington, Rise Up’s founder, often visits the manufacturers and suppliers of our textiles in India – she has a personal connection to the producers – radically reducing the distance between producer and customer.

This builds confidence in me (the customer) that Rise Up are doing the right thing.

Why should we certify?

Interestingly, though, Rise Up are provide certified organic and Fairtrade cotton products, and are accredited under the Homeworkers Code of Practice. So why, given her close connection to producers, is Rise Up going through the certification process?

I can’t speak for Bronwyn and her team, but for me, certification is still important even under this circumstance for one reason: customer confidence.

Thanks to the effects of greenwashing – essentially an abuse of trust by companies who do more talking than walking – certification is essential to build confidence that what we’re doing is not just a marketing pitch and that our claims have been verified by an independent third party.

Without it, we risk being tainted with the same brush as other companies that aren’t as committed to social and environmental outcomes, but are trying to jump on the bandwagon of growing consumer interest in sustainability.

Recording progress

Fuzu EP on mixing desk at GPHQ

On Sunday and Monday we had the pleasure of working with Sean Carey to record 5 tracks for our next EP at GPHQ/gigpiglet.

We had an absolute blast, and managed to track all the instrumental parts for 5 tracks in under 2 full days in the studio (we even had a bit of time to experiment with some piano and glock parts).

I’ll be tracking vocals (and we’ll be doing a couple of minor guitar overdubs) with Sean in the coming weeks – so we’re not quite there yet. But given the results so far, I’m really looking forward to it!

Our time in the studio was as fun and productive as last time I worked with Sean – back when I was in a band called Glance with Barry and Dave (along with Toby who is also in Fuzu). Sean’s just getting back into recording after pretty much being on tour for the past few years – so if you are wanting to record we can thoroughly recommend him.

The studio had an awesome vibe too – and we’re really chuffed with the results. Gigpiglet founder Gareth has created an amazing place to record. The studio is climate neutral – part of gigpiglet’s sustainability policy – which is awesome, as we were unable to do that for the last EP. He’s also developed some great sustainable packaging that we’ll hopefully be using if we press CDs.

Anyways – hopefully we’ll be able to share the results before too long (we don’t intend to take as long this time ’round getting everything up and out). And if you’re in the market to do some recording, we can’t recommend highly enough both Sean and GPHQ – check ’em out…

Update: Toby has posted some great pics of the session to Flickr.

Sustainable investments in the “credit crunch”

Strangely enough I’ve been thinking about my financial situation given the apparent impending collapse of the global economic system… (Or has it already collapsed? I can’t quite work that bit out.)

Although the tanking Aussie dollar is a little bit of a concern, I have a suspicion it’s going to bounce back a bit in the coming months. (Besides, if it wasn’t for the recent buoyancy of the dollar we probably wouldn’t be too concerned – it’s not like the first time the dollar has been hovering around $0.70).

And despite all the ups and downs of the interest rates, I’ve only actually seen one small increase in my mortgage in the past 12 months, so there’s not much to concern myself with there either.

Most of my “net worth”, though, is in my superannuation – so I’ve been thinking about that a bit.

I recently shifted my super across to a more aggressive fund option that includes international shares. This has increased my exposure to the current volatility – though I’m not panicking and “locking in” my losses by changing strategy just yet. Allow me to explain why…

For a number of years my super has been invested with Australian Ethical Superannuation. This means that my money is invested in businesses geared towards a sustainable future.

As far as I can tell the fund has been a strong performer for some time – and one of the nice things is when there’s a downturn the fund typically doesn’t see as great a loss as the general market (unless tech stocks are particularly affected – there’s a slight bias towards bio- and medical-tech in the fund).

Additionally, I truly believe that sustainable businesses are the way of the future and that as the market recovers the sustainable stocks will recover well, especially as people reconsider their investment options and perhaps put some thought into sustainable strategies, rather than the “growth at all costs” approach that started this whole mess. (Call me naive – but that’s how I view things.)

So while I’m expecting to be a bit shocked at the level to which my super goes backwards in my next statement, I’m confident that over time the value will be restored and I’ll be better off in the long run. And I’m really glad I made the choice all those years ago to invest in a strong SRI fund…

$2 that lasts a lifetime

A few months back I picked up a stand for my laptop. I decided to shell out for a Griffin Elevator. I’m quite sensitive to neck strain, so having a stand for my laptop is important, and I’d used the Elevator at Digital Eskimo, liked the look of it, so went with that.

When I picked up the Elevator from the store I was disappointed to find that the packaging was predominantly vacuum molded plastic. Not only that, but there were no indications/markings on it indicating recyclability (the little recycle symbol with a number on it).

Having visited a recycling depot (yes, I’m truly an enviro-geek!) I knew that I couldn’t put this in the recycling as they are hand sorted and would end up in landfill anyways – so I was left with no option to but to throw it into general waste.

Annoyed by this I wrote to Griffin suggesting that, in this day and age, it wasn’t good enough to be putting out packaging that was unrecyclable – let alone something that wasn’t recycled to begin with. The response? We’ve looked into it but it’s too expensive.

Now, call me naive – but for a product that retails at around AUD$80 for what amounts to being two formed strips of aluminium and a piece of plastic, I’m sure that Griffin could afford the extra few cents (even a dollar or two) per unit to clean up their packaging. Perhaps by exploring other materials, like molded cardboard, they could possibly even reduce their costs (I’m not sure – but creative thinking might uncover cost savings is my point).

Ever since I read Cradle to Cradle I’ve been quite averse to plastic – especially for so-called “single-use consumables” – plastic water bottles etc. (For example, the Elevator uses plastic in its construction – but it has a long expected life usage. That’s not to say that it, too, shouldn’t be recyclable – which it isn’t – but it offends me far less.)

Sometime whilst reading that book it really struck home how insane our use of plastic is. Here’s a material that has a life expectancy of hundreds, if not thousands of years (depending on the plastic) – and we use it for “single use” products?! As the book says – isn’t it odd that we use a container that outlives its contents by thousands of years? Why not use materials that degrade within years, or months, instead?

It’s not just Griffin, of course. The use of plastic in product packaging is deeply embedded. What bothers me most is that this is the “cheaper” option – the incentive is there to use the most damaging option. That, to me, is broken.

In my view it’s a systemic failure – a market failure. Since I’ve been thinking about it I’ve been wondering what sort of “market mechanisms” might be employed to correct this failure. I’d be really interested to know what David thinks, because so far I’m at a loss.

The thing is, solutions are coming – but as we saw with the recent ruckus by retailers about phasing out plastic bags, we seem unwilling to change our damaging ways. This is a legacy that will last for generations – one of those clear cases where we’re borrowing against our childrens’ future – it’s disappointing (to say the least) that we’re not being more pro-active in embracing and developing solutions.

In my new business I am resigned to the fact that plastic is going to make up part of what we do. I know that Rise Up has found alternatives to plastic coat hangers already – but it seems everything from the buttons (usually plastic) to packing cases to the threads (polyester) seem to be unbiodegradable plastic.

I had the pleasure of meeting a materials scientist at the RMIT textiles workshop I attended earlier in the week and I would dearly love to continue the conversation with him, to continue to explore options. Hopefully we’ll find some alternatives that can help be part of the solution.

And while I don’t have the capital or scale to effect a lot of change – I will be doing all I can to find alternatives…

High petrol prices

Well, those of us that have been focused on the environment have known that petrol prices were likely to rise significantly, so all the hand-wringing and shouting comes as little surprise.

It’s a shame that the emphasis has been on short-term relief by the way of the government dropping the excise on petrol. Although I really feel for the folks that are finding it tough with daily commutes etc. I think that dropping the excise is a terrible idea.

Even if the petrol companies don’t see it as an opportunity to wrestle more profit out of the market (which is a likely scenario) – the price of petrol will only continue to rise, making this a very short-term solution.

Instead the government should announce that it is funneling the revenue generated from the excise into alternatives – public transport in particular, but also better planning of areas to alleviate the need for car transport in the first place.

Another area the government could invest in is building Australia’s R&D capacity in car manufacture. It’s a pet subject of mine – I’ve ranted enough on the topic here that regular readers will know my views. But in a competitive market I find it incredible that the industry, and government in general, continues to subsidise big car development for the middle eastern market at the expense of alternatives like hybrids and electric vehicles.

I did have to laugh, though, reading this article by Richard Glover a few weeks back: Here’s to high petrol prices. Some choice quotes:

HOORAY for high petrol prices. No one wants to say the unpleasant truth, so I’ll say it again. Hooray for high petrol prices. They are changing our behaviour faster than decades worth of hand-wringing over the environment.

… What’s frustrating is that there are real ways in which our politicians could help; not by making false pledges of cheap petrol but by helping us permanently adapt to this new world of highly priced energy.

… Whatever we do, we won’t be able to avoid pain. Australians of past generations showed great fortitude in the face of the global challenges of their time; they proved themselves to be resilient and adaptable.

… Will we need to make sacrifices? Of course. Will those sacrifices be as difficult as those faced by the generation who lived through the Great Depression, or World War II? Um, no.

The biggest irony, of course, is that when I viewed this article, this was the ad that came up:


An ad for a petrol hungry 4WD…

Geo-sequestration mis-reporting

Environmental Leader highlights a Reuters report on the new geo-sequestration plant opening in Victoria.

The basic principle of the “plant” is to pump 100,000 tonnes of CO2 into the ground (and, I suggest, hope that this won’t cause unforseen and/or longer-term issues). I’m dubious about geo-sequestration generally, but that’s not my real gripe with this report. This is the lead:

A geo-sequestration plant, capable of capturing and compressing 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide which is stored two kilometers underground, has opened in Victoria, Australia. Researchers hope the project will help to significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

(Emphasis mine.) Whilst, technically, it could be argued that sequestration reduces the emission of greenhouse gases – because it’s funneling the emitted CO2 into the ground – it’s not actually reducing the emissions. Just storing them somewhere else for an indefinite period.

But the corker is when the voiceover of the report says:

… it uses experimental low-emission technology that has the potential to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

This is patently untrue. In fact, a successful trial is likely to lead to a continuation, or even increase, in the burning of fossil fuels, as it delays the need for investment in truly renewable energy and allows the continuation of use of coal fired power stations and the like.

I’m astounded that an agency like Reuters would get this so wrong in their report…