14 May 2008

The Interview: Timothy Hurst, the Ecopolitologist

The second installment of my interview series is with Timothy Hurst, who writes and contributes to a number of environmental policy blogs such as his own Ecopolitology and Cleantechnica, Sustainablog, and Red, Green and Blue. As an academic, a policy wonk, and an environmentalist, he's the kind of person who touches and influences multiple communities - the kind of cross-cultural discussion driver that I always find so interesting. Tim is also a Red Sox fan, which means he basically can do no wrong with me. He started a blog as a means to organize his research for his Ph.D., and he's really embraced the medium. I think he's one of the better enviro-policy guys out there.

I asked Tim a series of questions that talk about policy and then turn to the practice of "greenwashing," a sadly all-too-common practice by some in my profession. Greenwashing may mean different things to different people - to me it's when companies overplay their environmental efforts to obtain goodwill from an increasingly eco-conscious public. Tim had a somewhat different angle on it. Here's the Q&A.

Q: What got you interested in environmental policy?

I’ve had an inherent interest in all things political since I was a kid (kind of sick, huh?). And even though I later got my B.A. in International Relations, read newspapers regularly, and enjoyed the occasional dinnertime chats about politics, I didn’t fully nurture my fascination with “the political” until I witnessed the effects of several years of unsustainable growth in small Colorado mountain communities.

The growth was almost exclusively in the kind of upscale rental units, second homes, and winter getaways that are only occupied part of the year, yet guzzle resources year-round with heated driveways, 8 person spas, extensive sprinkler systems, etc.The growth drove up the cost of housing so much that middle-income folks like me couldn’t afford to live in them – let alone think about buying a home in one.

It was at about that time I decided to go back to school to re-engage with politics. Not necessarily to stop those particular problems of growth, but to explore the root causes of problems like them. Since then, my unceasing intellectual curiosity for politics has found a constructive outlet in my passion for the outdoors and desire to contribute to a healthy planet.

Q: There are plenty of ways to get involved in environmental issues. Why blog about them?

I actually started blogging as a creative outlet and to encourage regular, disciplined writing that I would ultimately use in my doctoral dissertation. I soon found that blogging was an excellent way of working out my ideas, reading what other people are writing about in energy and environmental politics, and really engaging with the issues themselves, as they are being reported and disseminated. In doing all of this, I have managed to become part of a community, connect with people of similar interests, build relationships, and even make a couple of bucks, to boot.

With that said, I think the blog medium (as well as/used in conjunction with communication tools like Twitter) is speeding the flow of information beyond what most people ever considered possible. The internet has the potential to become the Great Equalizer, with the free-flow of information limited only by the speed of one’s bandwidth. The internet has the potential to become the Great Democratizer – though it is not there yet.

Q: Who's doing better on environmental issues these days, American companies or the American government?

Is there a “None of the above?” I don’t mean that entirely. I think the increase in public awareness of environmental issues has forced American companies and American governments to reevaluate every input and output of their work - and that is a good thing. Unfortunately, there are also public and private organizations that are not making any efforts to seriously evaluate the environmental impact or carbon footprint of what they do, yet they make concerted efforts to shape how their organizations are perceived.

By and large, I would say American companies are doing better on environmental issues than the (U.S.) government. There are a handful of states and many more municipalities that are doing as well as, or better than, some of the ‘darker green’ companies (at least as well as could be expected considering the scope of work they perform). But the critical difference is that companies are obviously in business to make money, whereas, governments are in operation to maintain certain infrastructure and provide for the public welfare.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of companies who are doing quite horribly – both in terms of actually improving their environmental performance and in terms of framing that performance in a way that doesn’t sound hokey, vague, or fabricated. Similarly, there are companies whose product or service may be quite good, but their PR campaign promoting it isn’t. Here is an example from a recent email I received that illustrates this point (note the “Hi Contact,” language – maybe not the best way to open a message, regardless of the substance).

Hi Contact,

It is no secret that many vendors are claiming their products are now "green." But how can businesses validate whether a claim is true or just "greenwashing"?

Q: How would you define greenwashing? How serious is it, say, compared to polluting?

In short, greenwashing is any attempt to market a product or service as environmentally friendly when it isn’t. I think greenwashing is a very serious problem – a problem I would actually liken to pollution.

The problem with “effective” greenwashing campaigns is that they not only convince consumers that a particular widget (or the transportation, production, disposal, etc. of it) is safe for the environment, thus ensuring that consumers will continue to purchase it. But they also convince consumers (who are also, importantly, voters) that the widget is benign, and that no legislative or regulatory action could possibly be needed to address the environmental problems the widget causes. So in that way, greenwashing spreads like and a cancer and expands beyond the rather narrow goal of convincing a consumer that a particular thing is okay for the environment, to the much larger one of convincing consumers that they don’t need to do anything about it politically.

Q: What can be done to stop or prevent greenwashing?

Of course there’s no magic bullet to stop greenwashing, but I would suggest there are some things that can be done to prevent or slow greenwashing, or at the very least, educate people about it.

  1. Companies shouldn’t sell themselves as green unless they can show that they actually are. This sounds silly, but unless companies are doing something significantly different, they should not go advertising about how “green” their production process is, because the chances are good it could be greener. Companies that are exposed for making dubious claims will be called out and challenged at every step by a growing army of vigilant consumers. No matter what the type of organization, if it is making some sort of environmental claim – it should have the evidence to back up that claim.
  2. Organizations need to continue to build certification organization accrediting standards to regulate industries worldwide. Certifying entities are perceived with even greater legitimacy when they include, not only representatives from the trade and industry groups, but scientists, consumer groups, environmentalists and labor groups, as well. This sort of self-policing may ultimately be one of the strongest deterrents greenwashing in the years to come.
  3. Government intervention and regulation should also play an important role in curbing greenwashing. But it must be done so in a way that discourages bloated bureaucracy and heavy-handed regulatory control.

1 comment:

Maria Surma Manka said...

Thanks for the interview, David and great points, Timothy. I'm putting together a presentation about "Communicating Green," so I found the point about greenwashing relating to political apathy quite compelling.