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Extreme action from green campaigns

From B Corp certification for environment-friendly businesses to baby carrot vending machines exhorting school children to ‘eat ‘em like junk food’, hundreds of innovative campaigns across the world are getting the message of social and environmental well-being across, says Darryl D’Monte

As the UN converges on Cancun in Mexico, one year after the abortive Copenhagen meet, there is a deep sense of foreboding that the US is far too beleaguered to come on board in any meaningful way. Indeed, if anything, President Obama is entangled in interminable and cumbersome Senate and House of Representatives procedures. While this writer was in Greece and Italy earlier this month, there was even talk of the EU being proactive and taking the lead in hammering out some form of agreement between industrial and developing countries without the US, in the hope that it will be shamed into joining the league of nations later on.

However, this is not to say that the American people and others from industrial countries – which include corporations, consumers and common folk – are equally recalcitrant. At the annual meet of the Rome-based organisation, Greenaccord, which hosts an international media forum on the protection of nature and is now the world’s biggest such convention, speaker after speaker listed how the US and other countries were taking measures hopefully to prevent the world’s ‘dirtiest’ countries (pollution-wise) from rack and ruin.

Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow and Transforming Cultures Project Director at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC, provided several examples of such initiatives. For instance, the pied bus movement encourages (presumably slightly older) school children to walk to school: an important statement in a country which is ridden with obesity, particularly among children addicted to TV and fast food. Even the small gesture made by Michelle Obama to start gardening in a backyard – even though, in her case, it was none other than the White House kitchen patch – signals that this is a fashionable pastime for the US supremo’s wife to be indulging in. Apart from the exercise, it reinforces the importance of consuming vegetables – not just an accompaniment to meat or fish, as far too many Americans (and those like the elite in our own country who wish to adopt each and every feature of the American way of life) are wont to do.

In Thailand, otherwise not considered particularly green, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) has promoted a chain of restaurants called Cabbages & Condoms. The initiative was to tackle the 100,000 AIDS victims of the country, a consequence of rampant prostitution which dates backs to Bangkok being used for what was euphemistically called “R&R” (rest & recreation) during the Vietnam War, and continues unabated today. The restaurants, often by the river or seaside in Thailand, are very environmentally conscious and try to blend with their surroundings instead of obtruding on them. As the name suggests, along with food, the restaurants also promote condoms, as part of the anti-AIDS campaign. It is a green, clean and fun way to spread a message which is literally a matter of life or death. “Condoms are given away free like mints,” Dr Assadourian notes, “This maximises social well-being. The profits [of the restaurants] are reinvested in community development.” The PDA, in addition to training rural women to dispense contraceptives, organises ‘Miss Condom’ beauty contests in Bangkok’s red light district

Dr Assadourian was the Project Director of Worldwatch’s State of the World 2010 book, which is titled Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability. For example, the B (for Benefit) Corporation has a corporate charter which explicitly states, as the book says, “that businesses over time are legally bound to consider the well-being of Earth [note that the ‘the’ is dropped to make Earth more of a living entity], workers, customers and other stakeholders as they make business decisions…By expanding legal responsibility, B Corp certification allows businesses to alleviate the pressure to pursue nothing but the exclusively profit-centred ‘bottom line’. In addition, the designation helps to distinguish the corporations that are truly committed to socially valuable and environmentally sustainable practices from those just wanting to ‘greenwash’ their operations.

“The B Corp brand has already certified more than 190 companies spread over 31 industries with revenues totalling over $1 billion. Although its financial depth is admittedly a drop in the bucket compared with the roughly $14-trillion US economy, this innovative tool could have lasting impact as corporations strive to reach B Corp standards,” concludes Worldwatch.

A soap company in the US produces a more sustainable product, which is organic; there is no more than a three-fold differential between the highest and lowest paid employee, in sharp contrast to a relatively hierarchy-ridden corporate culture in many industrial countries. However, if truth be told, the differentials in developing countries – India being a prime example – are far higher. The company uses its profits – presumably the soap is bought by green consumers – to sue its competitors on false advertising claims. This columnist can vouch for the fact, having served on the Advertising Standards Council of India’s consumer complaints committee (the advertising industry prefers to regulate itself; it is paranoid about government intervention) for a decade, that at almost every monthly meeting, there is a complaint by Hindustan Lever against Procter & Gamble (the two biggest soap manufacturers worldwide), or vice versa.

In the US, there is a thriving Baby Carrot Farmers’ movement, which seeks to propagate such veggies for schools children as a snack, instead of deep-fried and sugar-laden ones.. Some schools even have Baby Carrot vending machines. Their slogan: “Eat ‘em like junk food!”: if you can’t fight the superior marketing methods of fast food companies, you can always join them. The Baby Carrot business is now worth $20 million.

Ecuador in 2008 incorporated ‘Earth Rights’ into its new constitution, declaring that “Nature of Mother Earth, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and evolutionary processes” and that “every person, community and nation will be able to demand the recognition of nature’s rights before public institutions.” According to Dr Assadourian, “Citizens can sue on behalf of Earth. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that due to such pacifist and green ideology, Ecuador was able to create a conservation corridor on its border with Peru, for the preservation of wild plants and animals. This may have actually helped to resolve the border war between the two countries in 1995.

In Washington DC alone, some malls have started charging 5 US cents for a shopping bag; conscious consumers have bought 22 million of these in a recent year, up from just 3 million in the first year. The revenue from these sales has gone into a fund to clean up the Potomac river in the US capital.  Activists have also adopted the same advertising techniques as their opponents: the iconoclastic Adbusters Magazine has launched a ‘Buy Nothing Day’, which was originally the day after Thanksgiving, which is supposed to be the biggest shopping day of the most shopaholic country in the world.

Now ‘Buy Nothing Day’ has spread to 65 countries, where – Worldwatch reports – people plan different activities, “the zanier, the better. Volunteers stand in malls with scissors and a sign offering to cut up people’s credit cards. Others sponsor a ‘zombie walk’ through malls , mirroring the blank looks  on the faces of shoppers. People have fun driving their shopping carts around n Wal-Mart or filling their carts and leaving them without buying anything. Adbusters encourages ‘culture jamming’ to fight consumerism, and it stages events like giving fake tickets to SUVs (large vehicles) or sponsoring a ‘detox week’, encouraging people to ‘unplug’ from video games and computers.”

Such activists also target the global $60 billion bottled water industry, which sold 241 billion litres in 2008, more than double the volume sold in 2000. The industry has used high-octane advertising techniques to convey  the impression that bottled water is healthier, tastier, and more fashionable than publicly supplied water. A World Wildlife Fund survey around a decade ago, however, found that in countries like the US in particular, tap water is as good, if not better, than bottled water. Some bottled water brands are less safe than public tap water, because cheaper brands are in cheap plastic which, especially when exposed to heat and sunlight, can cause serious health problems. Fancy brands like Evian, which is a small French town just across the Swiss border, can cost between 240 to 10,000 times as much as perfectly good tap water. Thanks to environmental campaigns, a Washington grocery store has stopped stocking plain (as distinct from fizzy) bottled water and screens a video to educate consumers: a perfect example of biting the hand that feeds it! Unfortunately, this craze is fast catching up in this country too, where some posher restaurants leave bottled water (including Evian in the fanciest places!) on the table, making customers embarrassed to ask for a cheaper Indian brand.   

Activists also believe that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend”. A company that markets tap water purifiers in the US – the Indian equivalent is Aquaguard, among others – has taken out a 30-second spot on TV. Its copy is something to the effect that “30 minutes on a treadmill, drinking bottled water, ends up forever [non-biodegradable plastic] in a landfill”.  Artists like Chris Jordan have put together an 8 ft by 11ft “photograph”, composed of 2.4 million pieces of coloured and plain plastic.

This is reminiscent of the Celebrate Bandra festival in the Mumbai suburb in 2009, the theme of which was the preservation of the environment. Artists used the façade of the MET College in the suburb to put up an array of some 20,000 or more empty plastic water bottles. Backlit at night, the installation looked like a glittering assembly of some fancy jewellery. It made the point about discarded plastic – college students scoured local raddiwallahs to buy back bottles! – in a customer-friendly way. In the US, there is a Cool Climate Art Contest which attempts to propagate virtually the similar message, while zoos can help change people’s perception of waste, if the hippo ( a perennial kids’ favourite) pool is instead filled with junk, and the animals are missing.

Infochange News & Features, October 2010