University of Calgary

NEXUS Awards

April 28, 2011

What does ‘green’ really mean?

By Jennifer Myers

Patrick Feng received a 2011 Fulbright Regional Network for Applied Research (NEXUS) Award to research sustainability issues. Photo courtesy of Patrick FengPatrick Feng received a 2011 Fulbright Regional Network for Applied Research (NEXUS) Award to research sustainability issues. Photo courtesy of Patrick FengHave 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.


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