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What does 'green' really mean?

Patrick Feng_April 2011.JPG

Research to
investigate the meaning and effectiveness of environmental certification

Have you ever bought a product because the label claimed it
was green, biodegradable, environmentally friendly, free range, carbon-neutral,
recycled or any number of other sustainability claims? Your decisions to
purchase were influenced by eco-labels, which are certification programs that
according to Science, Technology and Society professor Patrick Feng are mostly
unregulated and whose true environmental impact has seldom been assessed.

Feng, who received a 2011 Fulbright Regional Network for
Applied Research (NEXUS) Award to research sustainability issues, says there
are two big unknowns when it comes to eco-labels: how accurate the labels are
in communicating the actual environmental impact of a product and how effective
the labels are in terms of promoting sustainability among consumers.

“In order to get certified you have to meet certain
standards, for instance ‘carbon emissions from this product don’t exceed ‘X’,”
says Feng. “But, in reality, while a company may have reduced its carbon
emissions, overall emissions may not have been reduced because the product
might have been transported across a long distance or a supplier to the company
may not have met any certification standards at all.”

Even carbon offsets, which have become increasingly popular,
are confusing. Feng says when we pay to offset the emissions from a flight from
Calgary to Vancouver, the idea is the user is paying for someone else in the
world to plant a tree or engage in another activity that will reduce carbon
emissions. But where was the tree planted? What if it dies? What if the area is
later bulldozed for development?

“Doing something that will count in the short term doesn’t
necessarily help the environment in the long term,” says Feng. “There are
different standards for carbon offsets and some programs are more rigorous than
others in terms of criteria and auditing activities.”

“This is what makes comparing environmental claims so
difficult. When people argue over the environmental impact of the oil sands,
for example, they may be using different measurements standards, and these
so-called standards can vary dramatically,” says Feng.

In fact, far more is known about whether certification
programs are good for a company’s image or growth than is known about the
environmental record of a company or its products and services.

Part of the confusion is due to most certification programs
being voluntary. Feng says it is rare that a certification is grounded in
actual law; one notable exception is organic food certification, where many
governments including Canada and the United States have enacted legislation
that defines what foods can be labeled “organic.”

Through the Fulbright NEXUS Award Feng will study how
certification programs are being used to promote sustainable energy
initiatives. He will research how carbon emissions and carbon footprints are
measured and how these measurements play into regulation. He will also meet
with scholars from ten other countries to exchange ideas on innovation,
entrepreneurship, and sustainability. 
The goal is to gain greater insight into how certification programs work
and how they might be leveraged to promote sustainability.