Friday, July 17, 2009

Executive Unawareness of Environmental Impacts

Most companies hire consultants to do their environmental programs for them. On the other hand they hire ad agencies or PR companies to promote publicity campaigns, while executives are just willing to pay as long as the proposal looks good on paper and does not affect the traditional bottomline.

In emerging economies, the choices for environmental consultants or PR agencies are still quite limited and more often than not, we rarely encounter agencies who are specialized for green campaigns since the market is very limited. Such contractors work mutually exclusive from each other.

In the west, to ensure truth in green advertising, the use of life-cycle assessment for environmental claims is undertaken ( The use of such environmental impact assessment methodologies have not yet taken off in the developing world since it is too costly and few experts know about the significance of such methodology in the EIA process. People still think that the process is heavily technical but product LCA can easily be done by following the simplified framework of of ISO 14040, however it takes time. A couple of years ago, I did some research on the use of ISO 14040 in application to the specifications and guidelines of ISO14001 with the proper guidelines and safeguards, any layman who is familiar with their jobs and products can do it, but it will take some time and a lot references on data of the actual environmental impacts. I'll try to make a simplified outline and post it next time.

Oftentimes, we work for frustrated executives whose time lines are not in line with achieving sustainable development. They always want the quick fix solution, like the picture I posted above, they see compliance problems as if they are mere cracks on the wall that just needs a little dab of putty and paint and anyway so far no company has totally closed business due to non-compliance with environmental standards. Anyway, national and local regulatory agencies greenwash themselves, right?

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fast Food in the Third World

For most of my life in the developing world, fast food has been a luxury item for the rest of the population. For most families in Metro Manila, getting everyone to eat together inside a fast food outlet on a Sunday after mass is oftentimes the only luxury an average family could afford. In lower income communities, this could happen rarely in the course of the year. The opposite is true in the developing world, with a fast-paced life, fast food became a source of convenience and the consumption rate is faster.

This condition is never a reason for fast food companies to become less socially and environmentally responsible once they operate in the context of a third world economy where monitoring of environmental standards is much more lenient. However, the core structure that made a fast food successful is in terms of speed, quality food and low price is the structure that makes it unsustainable since it utilizes so much resources and produces too much wastes within the course of its life cycle.

The current trend in developing countries had been returning to community-based lifestyles where the supply chain is limited among local producers and benefits are reaped by local consumers. In doing so, the impacts of products are not magnified. Community-based fast food had always been the practice in the Third World where street vendors with minimal impacts on the supply chain, using local produce and serving local produce had been in existence for ages. Yes, street vendors do have impacts on the environment and even on public health but the magnitude of its environmental impacts is only a fraction of what is expected from a major fast food chain.

It will be very difficult for fast food companies to let go of the western standard and revert back to the community-based approach to doing business, it has to become a long and steady process and like the American Auto Industry, the fast food is still in its learning stages when it comes to sustainability, lesson as an industry is never to say that you already have a PhD when you are still grappling with the hormonal changes of middle school that's a blatant lie and in terms of environmental efforts you basically call that greenwash.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Greening of Business in Developing Countries

I got myself a copy of this book sometime in 2005. I didn't buy it from a bookstore or the UNRISD or other publishing house, I found it on Booksale at the basement of SM Manila. I bought the book for 200 pesos (around US$4) way below its actual value since it is a used copy (I checked at Amazon, a new copy is US$99!). Probably, someone from the first world found his or her copy insignificant given the market context of the developed world and decided to donate it. Luckily, someone in the Third World found it...that lucky person was me at a time when I was struggling in financing my graduate studies.

Richard Welford's article Disturbing Development laid a framework of how corporations should act towards achieving sustainable development. According to the article, policy areas and tools for sustainable development must not be simply limited to the physical environment but also other factors such as empowerment, economics, ethics, equity and education.

Fast forward three years later and working in the fast food industry, being quite young and being subordinate to a number of senior consultants with massive years working for the industry, none of my suggestions seemed to go beyond the meeting table. It is still difficult for people to drop their corporate biases and the current system in terms of regulatory guidance for the fast food does not enable the industry to follow a path towards sustainable development because "permitting" is still the core issue. Performance is equated with permits. On the other hand suggestions from civil society groups do not fall in the right context, just awkwardly inserted in an undefined environmental policy.

If any of my former colleagues are reading this, I'm very happy to lend you my copy as long as you return it and change your paradigms. Establish a good framework and please stop committing greenwash by posting ads that are unvalidated.

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Wash VS. Styro

A current concern in the fastfood sector is the massive use of polystyrene packaging. In the UK and most of the developed world, there is already a gradual transition from the use of polystyrene towards more sustainable packaging materials.

When McDonald's reverted back to the use of polystyrene cups for its sweet tea, it received much criticism in for its corporate social responsibility (

In the Philippines, the fast food sector still has a long way to go before it can fully transition towards more sustainable packaging. I am quick to note that I am not advocating the use of paper packaging but rather a packaging system with minimal impacts to the environment in the course of its life cycle. I have decided to write this blog in the context of the Third World since the truth of the matter is economic conditions locally is totally different from the developed world.

One of the challenges of the fast food at the moment is the impact of its transition from polystyrene packaging to reusable melamine wares for dine-in customers. The transition was once hailed by civil society as the first step towards a more sustainable fast food industry, with a number of press releases. I was still in college at that time in UPLB. I remember an email forwarded to me where a civil society group boycotted the offices of McDonald's since it didn't immediately follow suit with its competitor's move to reusable wares.

However, this shift has a catch, it did reduce the volume of polystyrene packaging wastes but for the past five years according to my boss, the waste water quality of the fast food was on a decline and the DENR is now reprimanding the industry for failing to comply to the water quality standards.
Technical solutions have been offered by a number of waste water treatment experts but none so far has been effective or let's say not so economically feasible given the space requirement, initial investment and maintenance cost over time.

Last December 2008, I attended a party of the Polystyrene Packaging Council of the Philippines, those invited where not merely the styro producers but a number of waste recyclers who made it a business to recycle polystyrene products. At that time, the municipality of Los Banos issued an ordinance banning the use of plastics and polystyrene packaging from all its establishments and other local governments are planning to follow suit. The DOST does support the recycling technologies but its environmental impacts should be assessed.

What I have learned is that every policy decision has an impact and my basic training in economics taught me that given this condition, we should optimize our options to come up with the solution with least cost or the least detrimental impact. Ideally, given this type of a scenario, a full Life-Cycle Analysis must be done but being in the Third World, we do not have the capacity in time and money to engage ourselves in this exercise.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Nature of Understanding Nature

I have no intention of antagonizing anyone I'm working with, it is just a bit frustrating when you sit in a table and everyone keeps blabbering about their solutions in fixing the environment. The problem I guess is not the environmental compliance problem itself but we don't have a common understanding of what is the nature of the non-compliance problem we are dealing with, we are looking at it at different angles.

Some say its the lack of technology while some say the sector is trying to achieve a point source standard that is inappropriate for the given industry. Looking back, I find it funny because I also blamed the government that the necessary infrastructure to control pollution is not in place such as the lack of proper land use planning in a given area. We all think differently and I am hoping a proper way of thinking could be established.

I have always believed in the specifications of the ISO 14001 management system standard as an effective, system-based approach towards environmental compliance and eventually improvement in environmental performance but the people I work with would always turn a blind ear whenever I propose the merit of such a system. They think of it as something highly technical and they would go back to their haphazard approach to managing an organization's environmental impact which over the long run fails to register any improvement in overall performance. They just could not see that it is just an outlined framework not a technical specification.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Picture Caught My Attention

This picture caught my attention. It was from the regular newsletters sent to my email by Conservation International. Scrolling down makes the picture a rarity since it allows you to have a view of what's underneath the water surface which is a vast coral reef.

It is a good metaphor of the our current environmental situation. We really don't see what is underneath and often our solutions to environmental problems are just limited what we can see.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Going Green in the Third World

Its quite hard and frustrating to live in the third world. I remember in 2002, when one of the Earth Summit agreements in Johannesburg specified that developing nations also have a responsibility in ensuring the implementation of Global Agenda 21.

Once going to Greenbelt 4 and looking at window of a high end stores, I asked the price of a patent leather pump and the saleslady told me its 56,000 pesos or around a thousand dollars. I realized that there are people who could afford them and the growth of affluence in third world is growing faster compared to the rate of efficient utilization of natural resources. I was always taught that after the Marcos era the Philippines has a very limited natural resource base.

The effort to go green in the third world is very minimal. Firms still chose to produce inefficiently, meaning externalizing their environmental impact. When I conduct trainings for company-assigned Pollution Control Officers, their mere notion is that environmental improvement can be achieved by getting and maintaining the necessary permits. But I have to ingrain in them that it is only the first step and in the long run, they must be able to change the mindset of their management by becoming more responsible through internalization of their environmental impacts.

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We Always Encounter Greenwash!

After years of working in the field of environmental management, I have observed that going green is oftentimes misinterpreted. These are just thoughts...hope my superiors won't ostracize me on this hobby!

We will always encounter greenwash. As long as there is a breakdown in the communication process and people involved in environmental management programs have tendencies to misinterpret and have quick-judge attitudes about things, some actions towards the environment then to be just futile exercises or marketing cum publicity stunts.

I did learn that good intentions are not always the solution and often environmental problems are misdiagnosed. Like integrative medicine, environmental problems require multidimensional and holistic solutions, we should never rely on technology alone nor the human will alone.

Then why focus on fast food? Well, it just so happened that I was once involved in the industry, helping them find solution to their environmental problems and most of my greenwash scenarios were in the industry which is highly competitive and heavily advertised. The heavy advertising can be exaggerated at times.

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