Although the idea of "Green Business" has received much attention, many companies and corporations still involve environmentally and socially unsustainable methods in their production, manufacturing, processing and marketing procedures. Policies and consumer attitudes are gradually creating a market for "green" products; however, many changes must be made at the corporate and consumer level. It is important to note that the system in which businesses operate is supply and demand. As a result, significant changes in this system must be instigated by consumers, since they ultimately dictate the success of products. In order for consumers to make purchasing decisions which support social and environmental sustainability, several issues must be addressed. On a fundamental level, consumers must be aware of alternative models for development which encourage sustainable practices. They must also be aware of their role as buyers in the supply and demand system. Through this knowledge, some subjective criteria for socially and environmentally sound purchasing must be established. The following section is a summary of research that our group has completed into the above-mentioned areas.
Self-reliance entails providing for one's basic needs. As a form of social behaviour, it has existed at all times in human history and in almost every part of the world (Preiswerk, 11). However, self-reliant communities were destroyed as a result of European expansion, in turn causing self-reliance to become the basis of a political theory (Preiswerk, 12). In this context, self-reliance is a system aimed at dissolving the center-periphery formations between the "leader and the led", to develop a society "in which each part is a center" (Galtung, 20). In other words, vertical trade relations - where a powerful partner trades with a weaker unit - would be replaced by horizontal trade, or trade between equal partners.
The practice of self-reliance is based on the principles of mass participation within a community, and the solidarity of the unit. Members within localities attempt to trade with neighbours with the same level of power, abolishing exploitative trade relations typical of modern economic systems (Galtung, 26). Self-reliance is a theory whose practice could accomplish the following:
mass participation through popular control over local resources
local factors better utilized
stimulation of creativity
compatibility with local conditions
balanced relationship between humans and the environment
(Galtung, 27 - 34)
The extent to which these objectives may be met depends greatly upon the context of specific situations, however, the benefits of a self-reliant community are characterized by control over local resources by local citizens. Under these conditions, social change, and changes in peoples' values and attitudes, could have a direct affect on resource use.
Although it may appear as though self-reliance, in its attempt to dissolve exploitative relationships, is relevant only to "developing" nations, it is equally pertinent to "developed" nations such as Canada. According to political scientist Roy Preiswerk, both the "Third World" and the "First World" are mal-developed -- suffering due to the lack of resources and the waste due to the overuse of resources (Preiswerk, 14). The mal-development of First World nations has two notable impacts: dependency and unsustainability. Although many developed nations have met the basic needs of most of their populace, this is not due to self-reliance but rather to a dependency on a system uncontrolled by the average citizen (Wemegah, 119). At the same time, much of the developed world is characterized by its wasting of resources. Many goods that we buy and consume are produced and/or manufactured unsustainably, with little concern for the supporting ecosystems. In the last three decades, many people have become concerned with issues relating to the implications of our lifestyles: pollution, deforestation, resource depletion, and other effects of industrialization.
Ironically, despite growing concern in the First World over the sustainability of the processes through which we attain our goods, we usually do not know the origins of the products we purchase or how they are manufactured. Often, we do not consider the effects of our consumerism. However, because many of our needs and material goods are obtained from abroad, it is not surprising that many of us do not consider the sustainability of the products we purchase.
The farmer who by and large produces what he consumes and consumes what he produces has the gut knowledge that pollution and depletion will be detrimental to him and his offspring, and this very knowledge initiates the type of negative feedback that may prevent ecological problems from emerging at all. Depletion cannot be relegated to some far-off corner of the world, because in that corner they are also practicing self-reliance and do not let raw materials out except to neighbours at the same level...Of course, one may still deplete and pollute, as people have always done - the argument being that if this is the case counteracting forces may more easily come into action than when depletion and pollution take place in remote corners of economic cycles. (Galtung, 31)
Therefore, at the local level, self-reliance helps maintain a balance between human consumption and ecological depletion. As well, self-reliance is a tool in addressing the many social issues related to purchasing. For example, a community member is naturally more aware of the working conditions within his/her own locality than those abroad. Finally, self-reliance materializes the phrase "think globally - act locally", through its global perspective in examining local trade systems.
Although complete self-reliance may appear utopian in view of the complexity and "globalization" of current systems, it nevertheless remains an ideal when contemplating environmental and social sustainablility. Many forces currently oppose self-reliance, however the consumer in the industrialized world may help bring about change. By purchasing products which are extracted, processed, manufactured and disposed of as close to her/his community as possible, the consumer takes a first step in attaining self-reliance.
A bioregion, at its basic level, is a geographic term, describing "a geographical area whose boundaries are roughly determined by nature rather than by human beings" (Haenke). However, when examining consumerism, and its social and environmental consequences, the term "bioregion" becomes much more expansive.
Bioregionalism is a comprehensive "new" way of defining and understanding the place where we live, and living in that place sustainably and respectfully. What bioregionalism represents is new only for people who come out of the Western industrial-technological heritage. The essence of bioregionalism has been reality and common sense for native people living close to the land for thousands of years, and remains so for human beings today. At the same time, bioregional concepts are rigorously defensible in terms of science, technology, economics, politics, and other fields of "civilized" human endeavor. (Haenke)
Bioregionalism, therefore, redefines systems and reunites the human and non-human community. Through this reunion, human subsistence becomes more ecological.
Ecological economics means bioregional self-reliance, receiving as much as possible of our livelihood from within, and close to, our community, only moving farther afield when we must. To be sustainable, we must better see our reliance on and interdependence with the nonhuman members of our community. We must rely on each other for health, sustenance, and wisdom. (Haenke)
Bioregionalism defines the ideal scope of self-reliance. A bioregionalist community derives its needs and goods from the natural system it inhabits. The sustainability which accompanies bioregionalism is presented in both social and ecological terms. Its relevance to purchasing in the industrialized world may be explored by examining our current system.
Many of the products purchased in Canada are made in less-developed nations. Multinational companies take advantage of low production costs due to cheap labour and low taxes in Third World countries (Adams, 32). Although this increases the businesses' competitive edge, it also has social consequences for the workers. Child labor is beneficial to companies as the wages are remarkably low. It is prominent throughout less developed nations, and often characterized by poor working conditions. For example, in Pakistan, "children make up a quarter of the unskilled work force" (Silvers, 126). Between 500,000 and one million children aged 4 to 14 work as full-time weavers in the carpet-market industry, making up 90% of the workforce (Silvers, 126). In a sporting goods factory, Pakistani children earn $1.50 US per day making soccer balls, working in darkness and suffering physical punishments for mistakes and complaints (Silvers, 127-8). Although many Westerners are disgusted upon reading of child labour, "its incidence has been increasing" (Silvers, 126). Ironically, although residents of industrialized nations prevent such conditions from arising in their own countries, they still support unsound social practices - often unknowingly - in other nations. Bioregionalism, by limiting production and consumption to natural ecological boundaries, would facilitate the abolishment of practices deemed unsound. In other words, by literally reducing the distance between manufacturing and purchasing, buyers would naturally be more aware of issues surrounding different products. As primary consumers of these products - which would be marketed within their bioregion - they would also have more control.
The same may be assumed regarding resource extraction. Since colonial times, countries in the southern hemisphere have supplied European nations with raw materials (Korovkin, 1996). Now, Third World countries often depend on the export of primary commodities to earn the foreign exchange necessary to pay debts (Adams, 32). As a result, agribusiness, has become prominent and led to seasonal labour, low wages, pesticides, fertilizers, fossil fuels and soil erosion. Timber extraction to developed nations has resulted in widespread deforestation as well. Traditional lands for many cultural groups have been converted to accommodate the export industry (Korovkin, 1996). As with manufactured goods, concern over these practices in the industrialized world has not resulted in their abolishment.
Multinational corporations exemplify the need for alternative systems of development, such as bioregionalism. They also illustrate the complexity of the situation, for there are few objective guidelines and measures for evaluating these companies in terms of sustainable practices (Adams, 33). As well, in this complex system, it is near impossible to know the origins and processes behind every product on the shelf (Feil). Although bioregionalist self-reliance presents an alternative to this system, it cannot simply be implemented. In order to move towards bioregionalism, the consumer must begin by attempting to purchase products made as locally as possible.
Buying environmentally and socially sustainable products is a responsibility that all consumers share. Consumers have the ultimate power in the market, because they can choose to take or leave what is offered. If consumers demanded socially and environmentally sustainable products, more companies would begin to search for more sustainable alternatives.
An important step consumers can take is to look for locally made products. By purchasing locally made products, our own economy is supported. This also reduces the risk of supporting unsustainable labour conditions, resource depletion and other environmental problems in Third World countries. If there are no locally made products available, consumers should confront the purchasing manager and ask about the possibility of purchasing from a different local supplier.
The best thing consumers can do is educate themselves and share their knowledge with others. If enough people are aware of the impact their purchasing decisions can make, change to a more environmentally and socially sustainable future can take place.
In order to become a responsible consumer, purchasing a consumer guide is recommended.
As a result of the "Green Business" movement, several interest groups and organizations have formed with the intent of raising awareness towards corporate practices. Aside from helping produce an educated and concerned group of consumers, these organizations provide an incentive for businesses to become more responsible (Corson, 7). One of these groups is the Council on Economic Priorities, whose lengthy list of publications includes the annual "Shopping for a Better World". The organization has developed a rating key for many social, political and environmental issues which evaluates major companies based on an objective scale. When buying a product, consumers can look up the company's name, decide whether or not they want to support that company and look for an alternative. The key examines some of the following issues:
Giving to Charity
Advancement of People of Colour
Disclosure of Information
Involvement with Nuclear Power
Environment - large companies and small companies
The criteria developed by interest groups and organizations may serve as a guideline by which consumers may make environmentally and socially sound purchasing decisions. Through their raised awareness, consumers may collectively decide upon acceptable levels of corporate responsibility, revising them when necessary.
wood and wood products should be purchased from sustainably managed sources and tropical woods should be avoided
products should have minimal packaging and/or reusable/recyclable packaging
organic foods should be purchased when possible
alternative fuels should be investigated
buyers shall search for local alternatives
the environmental impact during production, use, and disposal should be considered
goods and services from companies who exercise equal opportunity employment and environmentally sound practices should be given preference
These proposals reflect some of the research that our group has done. The bookstore adheres to the University Purchasing Policy (Patti Cook).
Raising public awareness and education are the fundamental basis for social change. In order for our project to be successful, we feel that an educational component is necessary for three main reasons. First, we believe that education is the link between awareness and action, as education acts as a catalyst for change. Positive social change occurs as a result of rightful action which is based on the combination of awareness and education. Secondly, the education of consumers is important because it is the consumer who has the power to demand changes in supply. For example, if more consumers were to demand hemp paper, more hemp paper would be supplied and prices would decrease (Feil). Finally, we believe in the ripple effect. By raising the awareness of a few individuals, we believe through their interaction with others, this awareness can spread to a larger number of people.
We will be reaching students, faculty members and staff through mediums such as the Imprint, the Gazette, and the campus radio station. As well, we have created posters to hang up in the Student Life Centre, the church colleges, both villages, and each faculty's building. To limit our paper use, we have only produced one poster per building. We will be placing each poster in highly used areas so they will be visible to a large number of students, staff, and faculty. As we are using the bookstore to promote sustainable purchasing practices, we will be using the store to hand out pamphlets during the fall term as well as creating a window display for the first 2 weeks in the fall term. The pamphlet consists of information on the purchasing power of the consumer and the importance of buying locally, as well as socially and environmentally sustainable products. These pamphlets will be placed at each cash register, allowing interested customers to take the information with them. The window display includes our survey results, a brief summary on the importance of bioregionalism, self-reliance, socially and environmentally sustainable purchasing practices, a copy of one of our posters, and a reference to our pamphlets. We will also be using a variety of products sold in the stationary department to show what steps the bookstore has already taken in terms of supplying customers with environmentally sustainable products.
The shirt that was made in Indonesia, the shoes made in Pakistan, and the bananas from Costa Rica all have ecological and ethical consequences for both us Canadians and our trade partners. According to the laws of capitalism, a competitive edge is acquired when companies can lower their production costs. Companies operating in Third World nations do just that by taking advantage of low wages and low taxes. Of course, the smaller the working hands, the cheaper the labour, and children as young as five can be found working in sweat factories all over the less industrialized world. Despite growing concern in countries like Canada, the incidence and severity of what is now being called "child-slave labour" is growing. At the same time, huge multinational corporations such as the infamous Dole are known to give peasant farmers the boot when seizing land for pineapple plantations. Timber companies continue to clear ailing rainforests. Oil companies turn indigenous land into fields that fuel the developed world. The list of accusations continues and continues, leaving us guilty, spoiled Westerners to wonder exactly what we're supposed to do and why we're to blame.
Actually, the answer is pretty simple. We're supposed to buy Canadian. The argument is that if we don't support all these multinational corporations in the Third World, the peasants will be even poorer than they already are. But that's not quite true. The problem that most of these countries are having is their debt. In order to cover their debts they are forced to borrow from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Because of the demand in the Western World for coffee, bananas and exotic shirts, these institutions force governments to develop the export sector in exchange for loans and assistance. If the demand for Third World exports didn't exist, neither would these policies. Without these policies, countires would not be as dependant on the multinationals, child labour, tea plantations and so on. They would be able to focus more on their domestic sectors, and concentrate on meeting their own needs. International loans and assistance would actually help the poor find jobs and sustain themselves.
Which brings us to the next question: What's in it for us? Actually, Canada, like our developing neighbours, should actually be focusing on providing for our own needs.Basically, we're completely dependant upon a complex system for our subsistence. It doesn't take an economist to figure out that this isn't a very stable situation. At the same time, by buying our foods and material goods from other nations, we pass on the resource depletion that we are responsible for through our consumption. We're not really to blame though; we're literally distanced from the destruction that our consumption creates. In theory, if we were self-reliant, or extracting local resources for local consumption and relying on local talent, we would consume only what we could realistically support. This would minimise many of the global social and environmental problems which we feel so powerless to solve. In other words, if we depend on the land we are responsible to it as well.
So how do we start moving towards this system of altruism, social and environmental action, and precautious self-interest? The answer, once again, is simple: Buy locally. Choose Canadian-made products whenever you can. Support your local businesses, live off your local bioregion, and use your local talent. And while you're at it, save a tree.
This article is based on a term project completed by a group of ERS students in cooperation with the UW Bookstore. For more information, please visit our display window at the bookstore. Our assignment can be accessed on the Internet through the WATgreen homepage.
Many products available on the shelves of Canadian stores pose ethical and environmental problems in their production, manufacturing, processing and marketing processes. Due to the complexity of the modern world's supply and demand system, it is often difficult for consumers to assess the impacts of the products they are purchasing. Many items are made far from where they are bought, and this trend promises to increase with globalization. However, this physical distance between the supply and the demand results in a lack of awareness. Without awareness, a sense of ethical and ecological responsibility cannot emerge.
By using the UW Bookstore's stationary department as a model to investigate and propose solutions for this issue, we found that consumer education was needed. Alternatives to our current systems -- bioregionalism and self-reliance -- must be brought to public attention. Educated consumers must select criteria for ethical and environmental purchasing. In other words, the issues that arise from consumerism indicate a need for increased education. If education leads to concern and action, then the `demand' component of the supply and demand system will include social and environmental standards. In response, businesses seeking a competitive edge will assume more sustainable processes.
By conducting a survey of purchasing practices in the bookstore, researching
more sustainable manners through which we may obtain our needs and goods, and
educating the UW community, we feel that we have taken a first step towards
confronting this complex issue. Although the results of our efforts may not be
concrete and instantly apparent, we are nevertheless initiating a move towards
responsible consumerism. After all,
`the person who moved a mountain began by carrying away small stones'.
Further indepth research should be done on the backgrounds and operating practices of companies who currently supply the Bookstore by following ERS 285 students. This will also ensure that continued education and awareness may be generated by future students for future consumers.
Obtain consumer guides for the UW Bookstore, both for sale and for customer use. This will help customers make educated decisions.
The UW Bookstore should emphasize products which are environmentally friendly, socially acceptable and made locally through the use of signage.
WATgreen's suggested additions to the Purchasing Policy should be implemented.
Local suppliers and manufacturers should be given preference by the Stationary Department.
Adams, Richard, Jane Carruthers and Sean Hamil. Changing Corporate Values. London: Kogan Page Ltd., 1991.
Corson, Ben and others. Shopping for a Better World. New York: Ballantine Books and the Council on Economic Priorities, 1989.
Galtung, Johan. Self-Reliance: Concepts, Practice and Rationale. Self-Reliance: A Strategy for Development. Ed. Galtung, Johan, Peter O'Brien and Roy Preiswerk. London: Bogle-L Ouverture Publications Ltd., 1980.
Preiswerk, Roy. Introduction. Self-Reliance: A Strategy for Development. Ed. Galtung, Johan, Peter O'Brien and Roy Preiswerk. London: Bogle-L Ouverture Publications Ltd., 1980.
Silvers, Jonathan. No Life for a Child. Reader's Digest. August 1996, 125 - 130.
Wemegah, Monica. Self-Reliance and the Search for Alternative Lifestyles in Industrialized Nations. Self-Reliance: A Strategy for Development. Ed. Galtung, Johan, Peter O'Brien and Roy Preiswerk. London: Bogle-L Ouverture Publications Ltd., 1980.
Cook, Patti. WATgreen. Personal Interviews, May - July, 1996.
Feil, Larry. Stationary Department Manager, University of Waterloo Bookstore. Personal Interviews, May - July, 1996.
Haenke, David. Bioregionalism and Community: A Call to Action. FIC Directory Articles. Yahoo!, World Wide Web.
Korovkin, Tanya. Professor of Political Science, University of Waterloo. Class Lectures on Third World Politics, May - July, 1996.