Putting new definitions around “Being Green” isn’t easy

There are many green ideas out there and many widely differing perceptions of what environmentally friendly businesses should look like. This was recently brought home to me at a Green Mondays session where we heard about Japanese cottage industries from around Japan through a company called Ecotwaza, a company that promotes Japanese traditional handicrafts and products with an environmentally sustainable theme. We learned how using a “furoshiki” is green because it cuts down on the use of bags – although I could not help but observe how that furoshiki is made (from synthetic fabrics) is not yet seen as a part of the picture. Making cooking utensils (that can last several generations) out of iron and without synthetic coatings is seen as green, despite the fact that making the iron involves smelting based largely on traditional coal and CO2 intensive processes. There was no background given on how the iron itself was made, although the message on the durability was clear, and one was left to assume that the iron continues to be made in the traditional manner. While it is wonderful to see these green concepts being considered in terms of long-term usage and adherence to the 3R’s (reduce, recycle and reuse), it is at the same time rather discouraging to see virtually no focus on the fundamentals of how we produce the items. None of the companies introduced made a point of describing new ideas to change their traditional production processes or explore new environmentally friendly materials that leverage technology that might actually reduce emissions in combination with traditional design.

The startling fact, according to the Ministry of the Environment in Japan, is that CO2 emissions of households in Japan has risen by over 30 percent since the Kyoto protocol was signed. This underlines the inherent stubbornness and resistance to change that characterizes our complacent Western society, so eloquently described by former Prime Minister Fukuda at the 2008 G8 Summit as: “living in a state of false affluence.” What will it take before we look at fundamentals of the building materials we use and the processes behind the products we buy and sell? The statistic above tells us that consumer choice alone cannot make a difference to emissions. Manufacturers will not change their processes without regulatory requirements if concerned consumers can be convinced to buy products on the basis of just being told they are “green.” Our willingness to pass down cooking iron utensils and household items through the generations in the name of environmental sustainability is highly unlikely given the “disposable society” we have built. Factoring in the trends of globalization, the widespread adoption of Western lifestyles is having a huge impact on consumption patterns around the world. Our basic definition of what a green business should look like, has got to change from merely a consumer-centered “usage” perspective, contingent on the good will of the well-informed customer, to a “production and process” perspective which will mean real change in available products whether households wish to adopt them or not.

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