Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Resolutions.

I'd just like to say a big Thank You to everyone who has been reading this blog for the past 2 months. I hope I have been able to share some useful/new/insightful facts and views about green consumerism. From discussing whether green consumerism is even a good thing, to acknowledging its merits but recognising problems of greenwashing, to discussing green labels as a possible solution, to sharing some fun resources and experiences with green consumerism and finally to painting a possible vision for green consumerism in the future, writing this blog has been an enriching learning experience. Still I am no expert on green consumerism and there is so much more to learn. I am looking forward to reading up more, learning in ENV classes and just experiencing green consumerism in daily life. And maybe if I find something interesting, I might revive and continue this blog! Before I end this blog for now, I would just like to summarise and share some personal reflection points I have gained on green consumerism in the last 2 months, which will serve as personal reminders and motivation for me to continue on the journey to become a green consumer. I hope some of this points will inspire you too and once again, thank you for taking this journey with me! :D 

1. Green consumerism is not a perfect concept. But if you have thought of being a green consumer, chances are, you are ahead of the pack. 
Most of us are consuming at unsustainable levels. Thinking of going green in your consumer choices is a great first step to becoming an ecological citizen-consumer!

2. Wanting to be a green consumer is a great start, the next step is to learn the ropes. 
Deciding that you want to be a green consumer may be daunting in the beginning because there are many contradictory pieces of information out there - false advertising, opposing viewpoints, greenwashing, fine print...A good place to start would be to read up on what green consumption is and what it is not. Learn the signifiers of a green product in your area, be it a label, terms or places and brands. 

3. Learn to be a discerning consumer. 
Just because it has the word "environmentally-friendly" plastered all over it does not make a product truly green. Learn to think about whether a product is really as green as it seems, if your dollar will make a positive difference on the environment. 

4. Don't be too hard on yourself when you just don't know 
Sometimes green labelling fails, there are no feasible alternatives or there is just that one product you love and cannot give up. Don't be discouraged. Take your time to learn and find better products or work on other areas of purchase. 

5. Sometimes, the 3Rs are still the most trusty
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Enough said. 

6. Go local 
You will be surprised how many green products stores in Singapore have to offer! But don't forget point 3. Also, this point means that buying local goods reduces the distance your product had to travel to make it to the shelves. 

7. Think outside the box 
Green consumerism does not necessarily mean purchasing a green good off the shelves in a store. Sometimes it could mean visiting secondhand stores, other times trading and sharing, sometimes handicraft or not buying anything at all!

8. Take small steps 
Don't go on cold turkey the whole week from "mainstream goods" and then burnout and binge on all the things you were trying to stay away from. Start by changing one good at a time. Maybe your shampoo is running out - could you switch to a more eco-friendly brand? Or you need to buy vegetables - could you get organic ones? 

I hope you have been inspired to become a greener consumer. Lastly, let's end off with an inspiring video: 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Sustainable Consumption: Looking Into The Future

I hope my blog has been an enjoyable read for everyone thus far. As the official posting period draws to a close, I think it would be apt to draw some visions of green consumerism in the (near) future. 

For that, I think the journal article Sustainable lifestyles 2050: stakeholder visions, emerging practices and future research is an interesting read. The paper was based on the results of a study known as SPREAD Sustainable Lifestyles 2050 which brought together experts from various fields to look at possible scenarios of sustainable consumption in the EU in 2050. 

The paper presents an interesting methodology known as backcasting, where researchers come up with a possible, ideal case scenario in the future, taking into consideration context and projected data, and then "work backwards" to show the necessary actions for the scenario to come true. In this study, researchers devised four visions of "sustainable lifestyles" in 2050: 

As can be seen, the four scenarios are based on two main uncertainties identified through preliminary studies - whether technology will be "globally circulating or based on local competencies and resources" and whether society will be "based on informal and local social ties and skills or based on their formal and most often professional qualifications" (Mont, Neuvonen & L√§hteenoja, 2014:27). In essence, if we pool our technological resources globally, resource efficiency and new technologies will open new routes to sustainable consumption, while if we specialise and harness local technologies, reduction in miles travelled by our products will minimise our carbon footprint. On the other spectrum, if society is based on expert knowledge, then better infrastructure and services will give rise to a sustainable production and consumption loop, while if collaboration takes the front wheel then sustainable consumption becomes possible due to sharing and political will to drive change. 

The four scenarios show the potential for sustainable consumption to become the norm rather than the exception by mid-century. The visions show something I feel people will be open to - that green consumerism is not about buying only green goods and depriving ourselves of material comfort, but a way of life that celebrates community spirit, social interaction and exploits technology to provide us with a modern yet low-carbon lifestyle. Of course, this is much easier said than done and if anything, the backcasting was the easy part. The difficult part lies in convincing key stakeholders to take the steps towards one of the visions, or some midpoint. 

The journal article provides an optimistic outlook, but there are gaps to be filled. Firstly, the visions were based on the assumptions that limited fossil fuels reserves and a cap on GHG emissions will force the EU to diversify and work towards a greener future. However, as we know, actions to mitigate the two problems have been slow to take place. Governments may not necessarily take action to work towards sustainable consumption, preferring to stick to the status quo and not recognising the urgency of the problem. Another problem lies in the methodology itself. Backcasting is largely a qualitative analysis (Mont et al., 2014) and is subjected to inherent bias of researchers and uncertainty of future events. While a lot of effort has been put into ensuring that the scenarios are feasible and based on factual evidence, projection and extrapolation of data always leads to a certain level of uncertainty. Lastly, and this has been identified by the authors, changes in mindsets and the way policymaking is done is also crucial in realising the above visions. The visions devised are wide and encompassing in nature, and this will require big-picture and long-term thinking by policymakers. This is not always the case, however, as policies in different sectors of the economy are sometimes done so in isolation. A huge shift in mindsets is required if we are to attain any of the visions of a future where sustainable lifestyles is the norm. 

Perhaps this quote from my leadership coach is apt at this point: 
"Action without vision is merely doing.
Vision without action is merely a dream.
Vision with action can change the world."
The vision is set. Let us move towards a future where sustainable lifestyles and green consumerism culture is the norm.

References: 
Mont, O., Neuvonen, A. & L√§hteenoja, S. (2014). Sustainable lifestyles 2050: stakeholder visions, emerging practices and future research. Journal of cleaner production, 63, 24-32. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.09.007

Friday, 24 October 2014

Green Products Around My House

So for my second post this week, I thought of sharing some personal stuff...my own inventory of environmentally-friendly products, that is. I looked around the house to find some products that could possibly lighten my environmental footprint. 

First up is what I thought to be the pencil of the future when I first came across them back in secondary school. These pencils are made out of recycled newspapers rather than wood, which makes them more environmentally friendly. With mechanical pencils these days, I am not sure how this compares, but for the pencil purists, I feel this is a pretty good substitute for the conventional wooden pencils. These are from O'Bon, which is a stationery brand that specialises in green stationery. They are not based in Singapore though, so the flight miles that these pencils took to get here may make them a little less green then they are. Nonetheless, I support the idea of newspaper pencils and in any case, they look pretty cool. 

Next on the list are some secondhand books that I bought. The National Library Board (NLB) holds an annual sale to clear some of their old collections. Although the books are old and outdated (which makes sense, otherwise they should belong in the library), there are some good finds and I try to pop by every year. I think that giving a second (or some thousands, since the books were previously used by other users in the library :D) life to these books is a great initiative by NLB. Rather than paying $20++ for a new book, getting a secondhand book at under $5 is a pretty good deal and reduces the forests cut down to make new books too. 

Following, I found this pack of Sutchi fillets in my freezer. It is certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to be from farms that practise sustainable farming. The certification is similar to the MSC label that I discussed last week and I know I gave MSC a hard time but I still do support sustainable fishing practices. Having said that, Sutchi has not had the best reputation when it comes to eating fish. Most Sutchi sold in supermarkets are from farms which have a rather negative impact on the environment. There are some scary blog posts here and here. Although sustainably farmed fillets are better than those conventionally farmed, I might be reconsidering other more sustainable fish the next time I visit the supermarket. 

The next product I have to share is this familiar household cleaning agent MaMa Lemon. Every Singaporean must have heard of this dishwashing liquid. I never realised until today that it carries the Singapore Green Label though. It is great to know that one of the most popular dishwashing liquids in Singapore is going environmentally friendly. What I did find a little disappointing however, was that the product did not state the ingredients inside so I really cannot tell how it is environmentally friendly other than trusting the label it carries. 

The last product I wanted to show is really not an environmentally friendly product it itself:
I just wanted to make a point that sometimes the most environmentally friendly purchase one can make is really not to make a purchase at all. My table lamp broke a couple of months back and I wanted to use that as an excuse to get a new lamp. However, the lamp was actually still working so I held back the temptation to buy a new lamp and fixed this one instead. Two months down the road it is still working fine although I have to say it is quite ugly HAHA. They ask why fix what's not broken. Well, why not fix what is broken? 

So that ends today's adventures around the house to find green products. As always, green consumerism is a two-edged sword and whether or not a product is as green as it sounds is debatable. Many of the products I have shown above may not be the most environmentally choice. I certainly cannot say for sure these products are the greenest you can find. However, green consumerism is about taking small steps sometimes, about replacing the downright dirty stuff in our homes with slightly greener products and continuing that cycle until we are able to reduce our footprint on the environment. I do not consider myself a green consumerism expert but I do try to find out the environmental impact of the things I buy and take small steps to lessen my environmental impact through my consumer choices. And of course, lessening our environmental impact also comes in many other ways "post-consumerism", i.e. after buying the product, daily habits of usage, etc. And sometimes the most environmentally friendly thing to do is really not to do anything at all.

My lamp would be happy to hear that it will still be relevant for some time to come. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

green.com

I guess I have been covering a lot of serious issues ranging from green consumption possibly being a necessary evil to acts of greenwashing and the eco labels that may (or may not) counter them. So I thought I might share something fun this week instead. 

I found this website called Recyclebank and thought it was a fun and interesting way to get consumers to go green:


The website is kind of a cross between social media, a wiki and an online shopping mart. Essentially, registration is free and users can collect points by completing interactive material on a variety of topics: recycling, food waste, sustainable living, etc. They can then use these points to get rewards ranging from compost bins to Starbucks eGift Cards. The website also has many interesting articles and info pages for those who want to learn more. 

Personally, I'm not sure how effective this website is at getting consumers to go green, considering that it does depend on people to consume in order to continue running, but I do think it is an easy, and fun way for the unacquainted to learn more about green consumerism. As mentioned in previous posts, green consumption is about engaging the masses in the environmental movement and what better way to do so than by providing an online platform for users to learn, play and purchase at the same time? This webpage may not be for the green consumption purists, but I do think it is an interesting read for those of us who are curious about what others are doing to go green and pick up some small tips here and there. 

The only downside to this website is that it was made for consumers in the US and so some things may not be applicable. No harm in finding out more though. I'm going to create an account right now. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Big Green 'M': McDonalds, Sustainable Fisheries and Green Labels

Can you imagine a big green M instead of the big yellow M we're used to seeing?

Source

That's exactly what McDonald's is trying to do - paint their logo green. Okay, well, not literally, but they are taking actions to go green or, be more environmentally-friendly. Or at least that's what eco labels on their fillet-o-fish in the EU promise.


McDonald's in the EU obtained the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label for the fish they use in 2011. The MSC label basically certifies that a piece of seafood was produced in a sustainable manner and is widely used in many countries (MSC, n.d.). You can find MSC labelled products here in Singapore. 

This sounds good, almost too good to be true. McDonald's, the world's largest fast food chain that stuffs us with convenient food loaded with saturated fats and so artificial they don't decompose...sourcing sustainable seafood? Or as described in an article by BBC:
Think of your most ethical friends. The ones who order organic or fairtrade. Would they be seen in McDonald's? 
I smell a red herring here, no pun intended.

Doubts have been raised regarding the credibility of this program that McDonald's has adopted and rightfully so. Firstly, how much impact is sourcing sustainable fish really going to make in McDonald's cumulative ecological footprint? Is buying fish with MSC's blue label really going to make a significant difference or is this just a form of tokenism strategically used to distract us from worse ecological sins that McDonald's is committing? Furthermore, the MSC label has itself been challenged by environmentalists for their credibility, due to its vague definition of a 'sustainable fishery' (Schueneman, 2013). The odds don't seem in favour of McDonald's. 

But if large companies' green marketing schemes are always acts of greenwashing and green labels themselves don't deliver what they promise, then we are basically doomed as consumers trying to go green, aren't we? 

Well, maybe not. I posed a question to speaker Mr David Emmett, a representative from Conservation International during the BES seminar on Wednesday. The question was basically regarding the sponsors that the organisation partnered with for their conservation efforts, of which a large proportion were large MNCs not often associated with environmental sustainability, or in some cases, arguably the cause of the problem itself. McDonald's happened to be on that list as well. I asked Mr Emmett if he felt that this was contradictory to the company's cause.  His response was interesting. He said that if we wanted to make a large impact on how things work in the economy, we couldn't just target the players who are already green, we had to work with the big companies to go green as well. He acknowledged the seemingly contradicting objectives and recognised that it was indeed a risk that environmental organisations may end up helping mainstream companies to greenwash if they were not careful. But he believed the key was in working with the company in changing the way they did things, from the supply chain to production to lessen their impact on the environment. And if we were successful in doing so, then we would have made a change in the way the masses think about green production and consumption, no matter how small. 

I found his response interesting because I had never looked at things that way before. And I think his response is relevant to McDonald's use of the MSC label as well. Rupert Howes, CEO of MSC makes a similar point in the above video as well. 
"The fantastic thing about the McDonald's commitment is it's going to help raise awareness of seafood sustainability issues with a whole new range of consumers that might not be aware of the challenges our global oceans face. [...] I think this is a tremendous opportunity for these consumers to become engaged and hopefully start preferencing seafood in all of their shopping."
I don't think the MSC label is going to turn the big yellow M green but it does provide an opportunity to make people rethink the environmental impact of consumer goods at both ends - at the supply chain level and the consumer level. While it remains that more needs to be done if MNCs live up to the green claims they make, I now recognise the potential of engaging them in environmental efforts. We should still question and remain skeptical about the possibility of greenwashing in companies, but I think some credit should be given to those who work to effect the small steps to a more environmentally conscious corporate environment.

References:
Forbes, K. (2011). McDonald's ocean rescue: sea change or greenwash? BBC News. Retrieved Oct 17, 2014 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15181350

MSC (n.d.) 21 facts about MSC. Retrieved Oct 18, 2014 from http://www.msc.org/about-us/21-facts#the-msc-is-a

Schueneman, T. (2013). Saving the ocean or fast food greenwashing? Retrieved Oct 17, 2014 from http://thegreenwashingblog.com/2013/02/18/mcdonalds-saving-the-ocean/ 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Just because it has a green sticker doesn't mean it's green: green labelling, its challenges and developments in the industry

Two posts ago I talked about greenwashing in the case of Lego and Shell and how consumer choice is important in supporting environmentally-conscious companies. I thought, and I think many of us do as well, that at its worst, greenwashing would mislead consumers to choose the wrong products and support the wrong companies. The author of Greenwashing: do you know what your buying? made me reconsider this, however, by showing how greenwashing may have a direct negative impact on the environment and human health. One example of a greenwashing ad really hit home: 
"Malaysia Palm Oil. Its trees give life and help our planet breathe, and give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Malaysia Palm Oil. A gift from nature, a gift for life."

Really???


After this?!

The statistics are insane. According to a survey by TerraChoice, 98% of products claiming to be environmentally-friendly surveyed in the USA were "greenwashed" (Dahl, 2010). As a result, there has been increasing talk about how to prevent this is consumer products via the better regulation and usage of green labels. The article Greenwashing: Do you know what your buying? gives a concise overview green labelling and its challenges and developments. 

The article mentions that as of today, green advertising is not strictly regulated by many governments (Dahl, 2010). This includes green labelling, of which there is great variability in the reliability of green labels in the market. The article highlights plans by the US's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide more specific definitions for terms such as "carbon-neutral", as well as a possibility of better standardising green labels. Dahl then addresses some of the current problems associated with unregulated green labelling, including loss of consumer confidence and "dirty" companies hiding behind green labels to evade regulation. The article also included short interview statements from experts in the field; and while they approve of FTC's plans, they also acknowledge that the movement towards an effective green labelling scheme will take time and conviction to achieve and that there is still work to be done. 

I generally agree with the author on the status of green-labelling in the consumer market today. Personally, I find many "green" efforts of companies to be half-hearted in saving the environment. What this journal article has not mentioned, which is also often the case in other journal articles, however, is the possibility of companies who think they are saving the environment through these half-hearted measures. Greenwashing is often mentioned as a deliberate attempt for companies to up-play the environmental benefits of their products, but I think it is possible that companies may also participate in superficial acts of environmentally-conscious behaviour and think that their product may be better for the environment. 

For example, a company could source for organic fibres for their clothing and on the surface, this could be seen as a good move for the environment and one that a company could market as "green". However, how environmentally-friendly the final piece of clothing really is would also depend on other factors such as the production process or even non-manufacturing activities in the company. The line here is blurred because it is unclear whether the company is deliberately overstating its environmental efforts, or if a lack of proper evaluation and holistic environmental actions in developing the products has led it to be greenwashed. 

As such, I am for a standardised labelling system that is able to regulate green advertisement in the industry and inform consumers about how green a product really is, but in addition, I feel that this might need to be supplemented by training programs for producers on how to truly green a product and a company. Furthermore, I do think many companies are increasingly realising the need to go green but some are more dedicated to the cause than others. Hence, a scaled labelling system, awarding different amount of points depending on how environmentally sustainable a product is, may be useful as well. This may encourage companies to start somewhere and take small steps to being green, but also give the necessary recognition to companies who have been playing a green game for a long time. Such a label will allow for a more dynamic system to accommodate variations in the market.

The question remains, however, which stakeholder will be most affected by the need for a better green labelling system to put in the required effort to do so. A comment by Scot Case, President of TerraChoice, says:

"I think there is room for some kind of unifying green label [...] [b]ut I'm not sure if the government wants to get into the business of putting 'approved' stickers on good products."

The consequence of repeated greenwashing is a loss of consumer confidence in green products, which should be a rallying cry for something to be done about it, because if consumers become skeptical and dismiss all green products, including those which are truly that, then "we've lost an incredibly powerful tool for generating environmental improvements" (Dahl, 2010). 

References: 
Dahl, R. (2010). Greenwashing: do you know what you're buying?  Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(6), A246-A252. doi: 10.1289/ehp.118-a246 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

A Trip to the Farmer's Market

So today's post will be a little special. Rather than to talk about a topic I heard about online or in the news, I'm going to share about something local. I decided to take a break from studying today to venture out into the Wild Wild...North?

Haha. I made a trip to Kranji Countryside today to explore the Farmer's Market event:



The event was organised by the Kranji Countryside Association, which comprises of local vegetable and animal farms, horticulturists and entrepreneurs. The Farmer's Market brought together these firms at Gardenasia to showcase and sell their produce.

There were hydroponics and organic produce and all the vegetables on sale were locally grown on farms in the Kranji area. I also saw fish, eggs and goat's milk.

Hydroponics 

Fish from our local farms 

There were also several entrepreneurs selling mini "gardens" and "kits" that visitors could bring back home to plant.

Many of the booths also sold food items that were "homemade", some from the ingredients that were grown on our local farms.  There were...

bread, cakes and other baked products,


drinks, be it tea, fruit and vegetable mixes, alcoholic beverages, 

condiments and snacks,

and many, many more, including complete meals with barbecued meat and sides to go along. 

The event also showcased art&craft items from local entrepreneurs,
Local clay figurines

and other firms as well as NGOs set up booths to educate the public about an array of issues, including food waste in Singapore (The Food Bank Singapore Ltd) and animal rights (ACRES).
This was an interesting concept about urban food gardens

Lastly, there were hands-on activities for children to learn more about gardening, local art&craft and the Kranji Countryside. 
Kid's activity area

A facilitator teaching two boys how to pot a plant


So the event was meant partly to show Singaporeans that we can consume locally and support local farmers. Eating locally grown produce means that our food doesn't consume additional energy to ship or fly the food to our supermarkets, lowering the carbon footprint of the product and therefore, ours. 

I found it interesting to see different local entrepreneurs gather in one place and see what our local farms and farmers have to offer. The event was successful, in my opinion, in exposing Singaporeans who have little understanding of the local farming scene to the possible options in consuming locally. It was an enriching experience, definitely and I even bought a book on basic gardening in Singapore and sharing local entrepreneurs' stories, which came with free (?) organic soil (haha):



In retrospect, however, I don't think the event was entirely successful in spurring long-term behavioural change in Singaporeans to eat local. Rather than being a frequent event, as with Farmer's Markets in other parts of the world, the event is held on a quarter-yearly basis, which suggests that most visitors were here for the vibe rather than to really "go green". At the event, I observed many visitors to be more interested in the food and novelty of the event and questioned how many of them were really here to learn more about the local farming scene. It was a pity because there were many local farmers and entrepreneurs who had interesting ideas pertaining to sustainable farming in Singapore but many people seemed to be more interested in eating and sampling the food. 

I think many Singaporeans viewed the event as a "getaway" from their normal routine rather than as a lifestyle habit. While that's not a bad thing, it doesn't necessarily translate the event into longer-term sustainability and behavioural change in Singaporeans. For one, Kranji Countryside is not easily accessible by public transport so it is unlikely for many of us to go back to buy our produce on a regular basis and the event was limited in showing Singaporeans where they could find their local farmer's produce elsewhere. 

Nonetheless, kudos to the Kranji Countryside Association and team for organising an eye-opening event and pave the way for Singaporeans to rethink their eating habits and increase awareness for local farmers. Looking forward, I believe there is much potential for more of such events and to expand the local agriculture and produce scene. I do wish to see events that are targeted at longer-term change rather than a "one-off" flagship event. 


That's all Folks!