19 November 2009

changing perception of business

Growth at current rates cannot be supported on the precept of development. The definition of sustainability does not offer any explanation as to how this rate of growth can be supported because it assumes that resources are running out and that we are compromising the future generations’ ability to enjoy the current quality of life that we have. What it also fails to address is how sustainability can be a business model.

Businesses are equated with profit which is equated with growth. All growth demands destruction. The definition of sustainability in itself is anti-growth, which is why the incorporation of the concept of ‘sustainable growth’ becomes difficult. The previous generations were used to unprecedented rates of growth with little or no concern towards environmental issues.

The ominous environmental constraint that we feel now is changing the way we think about ‘business as usual’. The global impact we have on the environment is slowing making the phenomenon of globalization and by proxy its downstream implications like, off-shore manufacturing a redundant concept. The realization that there is a difference between ‘price’ and ‘cost’ is hitting all businesses hard.

We have effectively managed to push economic growth, societal well-being into a corner and using the concept of sustainability as the life-ring to ensure that business as usual can proceed. The concept of big business is on its way out. The new business model is one that consists of social entrepreneurship at its core, both in the service and manufacturing sector.

For a concept to be truly sustainable, it requires the involvement of the people in the grass-roots. Business decisions can no longer be made in the board-rooms of the world; it requires involvement from people on the ground in massive scales. This concept has long been idealised as social development. This is the concept that is going to be the future of business. Social development negates the phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons which is the root of environmental problems. If people are involved in the building of something, they will not destroy it. It encourages the exchange of technological advances and traditional knowledge. It is a concept that has a bottom-up escalation of ideas and encourages horizontal management.

In the traditional model of economics, pollution and thereby destruction of these was considered a ‘negative externality’. Now we know that the true cost of doing business also factors in this externality; in fact any economic model that still regards the environment as an externality is ultimately an anti-growth model. The time now is to devise concepts that will pioneer a new business model of true sustainability where the barriers between the developing and developed world are broken down and there is exchange of ideas between both.

The world of the future will consist of increasing population putting pressure on available resources. The challenge would be to ensure employment, education, accommodation, nutrition and health care at the basic level. Increase in level of prosperity and the rise of the middle class in countries like India and China will see further increase in energy consumption patterns. In order to meet soaring demand for commodities, the new business model will first have to address the question of supply in relation to price of products. Secondly it has to address whether cheaper manufacturing is necessarily better manufacturing and whether the price of goods today is worth the cost of resources tomorrow. Finally it will have to decide the kind of services that will enhance quality of life and ensure environmental protection and disabuse. In order to rebuild the world for a better future, it is not possible to be merely idealistic but also have a business idea to offer that is employable and benefits people of various regions.

In order to rebuild the world for a better future, it is not possible to be merely idealistic but also have a business idea to offer that is employable and benefits people of various regions. It is crucially essential now, to do business for the world.

fake plastic world

I was having a conversation recently with a friend of mine who lives in London. She is endeavoring to grow her own vegetables in a little box on her terrace, have a bird feeder and plant flowers. Is totally convinced that being green is the new way to live and eschews all things non-organic, processed and packaged. She longs for an Utopian world where everybody grows their vegetables in little boxes and has cows in their backyard, composts and plastic is a thing of the past. She is one of those rare Londoners who makes it a point to cook, never visits a supermarket and buys all her food from organic shops or the farmer's markets. She longs for clean air and vegetables unlaced with London grime and exhaust fumes. Little does she know that her Utopian world exists - in Asia.

So I proceed to enlighten her about people who have cows in their backyard, grow their own vegetables without pesticides, compost and reuse everything they can lay their hands on. She is amazed at the extent in which people can be fatalistically innovative in reusing and recycling.

Here in India another friend in Bangalore who has been living abroad for a long time and has recently returned cannot stop gushing to me about how India has become 'like abroad'. Everything is convenient, you get ready-made meals that you can boil in bags, everything comes packaged so neatly - cereal, juice, milk in cartons. With an excited squeal she tells me nothing used to have cartons before she left which was about 15 years ago.

15 years ago, we all carried reusable cloth bags to carry our shopping back in. Nobody used plastic with abandon back then, it was expensive. 15 years ago it used to rain with unerring regularity every monsoon, people did not consume so much processed, packaged food, we drank fresh juice and nothing was 'ready-made' or 'instant'. I believe we were happier then.

There is this huge sector of population in the West who are desperately trying to live the 'Eastern' way and vice versa. What is sad about this is that in the East not only are we aping the Western way of life, we are also ignoring the problems that come with it, nor do we have the system in place to cope with the amount of stress it puts on not just the environment but also our basic way of life and our health.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are lot of Western ideas and ideals that are essential for progression. But they have begun to realize that there is something intrinsically wrong with the way they live. We will too if we go down the 'ready-made, instant everything' route, in about fifty years, by then it might be too late. It is essential to find a balance now between western conveniences and eastern traditionalism.

The point I'm trying to get at is this: there will always be trouble when you choose a way of life that focuses too much on the fake plastic world.

17 November 2009

feminization of nature

Everybody knows that plastics are bad, but have you ever stopped to wonder just how bad? I've decided to tackle a subject which is viewed as controversial by many but something that has been on my mind for the last couple of years since I read a phenomenal book by Deborah Cadbury. 'Feminization of Nature' is just as ground-breaking as Carson's 'Silent Spring' and I do hope that I am forgiven the use of the title for this post. In the book Cadbury talks about how pollution from plastic manufacture, use and degradation releases a class of chemicals called phthalates which mimic the female hormone, oestrogen. They are added during the manufacturing process to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity.

This chemical accumulates by biomagnification through the food-chain. This means that the top predators have the highest concentration of the chemical. The book was published in 1997 and it examines evidence and reads like a scientific detective story that uncovers adverse changes to human and animal reproduction. It starts off by stating a Danish study that reports a 50% drop in sperm count in fifty years, confirmed by similar studies in Edinburgh and Paris. It also questions the startling increase in hormonal cancers like testicular, prostrate, ovarian and breast cancers.

Not only are these chemicals affecting human reproduction but there are many species that are showing signs of 'feminization' that shows increase in hermaphroditism, reduction in sperm count and quality, production of eggs by males etc. All of these changes have been linked to these man-made chemicals that act as 'weak oestrogens'. Since hormones are the most potent chemical messengers in the body that act directly on the genes, they are crucially important for proper reproductive functions. What is truly frightening is that we are all eating, drinking and breathing in these chemicals and they affect babies even before they are born. They are literally changing the way we reproduce.

Recently BBC news ran a small article on the subject with the latest research findings by a team from the University of Rochester - phthalates have been termed 'gender benders' and they are found in literally any form of plastic. This new research shows that it affects the way that boys' brains function and shows that male foetuses exposed to high levels of these chemicals prefer to engage in more feminine play habits. The EU and California State have even banned toys containing phthalates for a few years now, but this does not stop it from showing up in milk bottles which are used to feed babies. Various forms of phthalates are used in every form of packaging (and non-packaging) you can think of including PVC flooring, shower curtains, paints, printing ink etc etc.

So what can we do? It boils down to a lot of things that I have been writing about so far: reduce the use of chemicals in every avenue of life. Reduce use of plastic, rethink your makeup, your clothes, your toiletries. Bring your own bag. Be kind to the Earth because what you throw out comes back to you somehow or the other.

16 November 2009

holy fish!

Photo Courtesy: www.treehugger.com

You may have read recently about a Japanese trawler capsizing as the fishermen were hauling up a catch of jellyfish. Scoff if you will, but the Nomura jellyfish or the 'giant' jellyfish can grow over 6ft wide and weigh up to 450lbs. They are one of around 200 species of coastal jellyfish that exist around the world.

Jellyfish swarms have been occurring with increasing frequency in the recent years. These swarms are detrimental to the fishing industry and already there have been numerous cases of financial loss. Entire catches of fish have had to be discarded because jellyfish poison makes it unsaleable. The invasions cost the Japanese fishing industry up to $332 million a year. Increasingly polluted waters off China boost the growth of microscopic plankton that the jellies feed on. Additionally construction around the harbours provide a safe-haven for jellyfish larvae to cling to. As adults they swim on the currents flowing in from China causing major problems for Japanese fishermen. Similar such spawns of Mediterranean jellyfish have also affected salmon farms in Ireland, causing large scale financial loss.

Climate change has resulted in the warming of oceans and has allowed some of the almost 2000 jellyfish species to expand their ranges. They have also started appearing earlier in the year and increase their overall numbers. This same phenomenon has also been observed in ticks, bark beetles and other pests which have spread to new latitudes, increase in number due to warming of temperature.

Increase in jellyfish numbers indicate an unhealthy ocean. It means that the predator-prey balance has gone awry. Overfishing has eliminated many of the jellyfish's natural predators - animals like whales, sea turtles etc which feed on jellyfish and actively reduce their numbers. Overfishing also means that there is more plankton available for the jellyfish to feed on thereby earlier maturity times and increase in their numbers.

In order to alleviate this problem there needs to be stricter laws concerning fishing and pollution control. Active culling of the jellies is a solution that attacks the symptom but not the root cause of the problem. Ocean ecosystems world over are under tremendous stress and unless the fishing industry, governments and consumers grasp this - problems much worse than this will prevail.

On the flip side, innovative entrepreneurs are trying to process and market the Nomura jellyfish as appetizing food choices. Would you eat a giant jelly?

for treedom!

It's tree-pruning time at my house and I watch intently as they saw mighty branches in systematic rhythm . The tree surgeon shouts out a caution before the branch falls with a thud and a cloud of dust rises. I feel a strange sort of emptiness. This is one tree, one branch that interfered with an electric line. I then imagine thousands of trees being felled and stand paralyzed with the images in my head. Yet is it happening. Deforestation is a way of life in many countries.

Indonesia is now the fourth major emitter of carbon, not because of industrialization but because of illegal logging. Almost 50% of Indonesia is covered in forests - forests hosting an enormous amount of biodiversity. Because the archipelago spreads across two bio geographic zones, many species found here are not found anywhere else in the world and there are still others waiting to be discovered. Indonesia hosts 31% of endemic animal species and 60% of all its plant species are endemic as well. It is home to the Orangutan - one of the great apes and most endangered animals - scientists predict will be exist by 2012 if deforestation is not curbed.

The forests are being degraded and destroyed by logging, mining, argicultural activities, fuelwood, paper manufactor etc. Much of the rainforest that is left is logger-over and degraded. The loss of forest cover affects river flow, contributes towards soil erosion and decreases yield from forest products. Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of tropical timber generating more than US$5 billion annually - this means that loggers are moving deeper and deeper into virgin forests and destroying entire ecosystems. Legally harvested timber affects 700,000-850,000 hectares of forest per year but widespread illegal logging boosts this to 1.2-1.4 million hectares according to statistics taken in 2004. This not only hurts the legal timber industry, it also makes conservation and education measures difficult.

The demand for illegal timber with China and Australia being the biggest buyer, fuels the industry. Awareness on both sides of the divide is crucially essential. Within Indonesia several grass-roots NGOs are working towards educating the people against the detrimental effects of illegal logging and are working with them to build alternative lifestyles. The EU has recently called for stricter laws in order to prevent the influx of illegal timber.

The corruption and poverty within Indonesia does provide a conducive environment for illegal logging to thrive however, consumer pressure can work to curb this. This destruction of their forests is not only their national problem, it takes international effort to stop it. Forest logging contributes to much larger global problems like increase in temperature and loss of species. As long as there is demand for illegally logged timber and as long as there are no rules in place to stop the trade of the same, supply will continue. Work to make sure the paper products you are using come from sustainable forests or are recycled.

A recent Greenpeace campaign demonstrated the power of public pressure. Unilever is one of the world's biggest buyers of palm oil, most of which comes from Indonesia and this is a contributing factor towards deforestation. This oil was being used in Dove soaps. The campaign against Dove was designed to ensure that the palm oil for their soap came from sustainable resources. After staggering public pressure Unilever and Dove agreed to protect the Paradise Forests in Indonesia. Never underestimate your voice as a consumer. Do your bit.

Trees are the Earth's endless effort to speak to the listening Heavens above
- Tagore

14 November 2009

blues on the blue mountain

Sunrise in Coonoor
Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

The Western Ghats in India are home to many things that are wonderful - indigenous tribals, a plethora of wildlife, gorgeous scenery, tranquil trekking trails, deep mist-filled valleys and majestic mountains. The area gets its name 'Blue Mountains' due to the blue tint that the mountains get when seen from a distance. This area is also deemed a biosphere reserve due to the sheer amount of fauna and flora present. It houses some of the world's endangered species like the Nilgiri Tahr and the Lion Tail Macaw - both species are endemic and once gone from here, are gone forever.

Nilgiri hills also houses popular tourist destinations in India. Among them are the Bandipur National Sanctuary, Ooty and Coonoor. Due to influx of tourists from all over India, Ooty has been showing signs of stress and pollution. Now however the local corporation has been taking measures towards a 'cleaner and greener' Ooty. Coonoor which is about 45 mins downhill from Ooty is more a getaway spot rather than a tourist destination. It is covered in tea plantations and displays every shade of green there is - a walker's paradise. Both places are very close to my home city and they hold a special place in the heart of most people from Coimbatore.

Due to expansion of roads, poor management of soil, deforestation etc landslides are common in this area. The last major one occurred in 2001 and this year due to heavy rains there has been another one. This year the landslide has been blamed on the widening of roads that happened earlier this year. There are many reasons that landslides occur and one of the most persistent one is gravity. Since that cannot be altered, the design of man-made structures can be adapted in order to reduce the effects of gravity.

Groundwater table changes are also another reason for landslides which could be a possible secondary reason for the recent Ooty landslide. By directing excess water from heavy rainfall into drainage areas will make the slope less susceptible to slide. Soil condition and distribution of soil is finally very important. Soil condition depends primarily on forest cover and availability of vertical vegetation with extensive root systems, in other words trees - exactly the things we are cutting down in large numbers. It is also essential that there is enough soil to support the base of the slope and less weight at the top.

Furthermore, any construction and expansion projects being undertaken in hilly regions should be subject to extensive impact assessment especially in ecologically vulnerable regions like the Nilgiris.

13 November 2009

underwater governance

Yes, I know I'm late talking about this. But I still want to do a post about it to highlight the significance of COP15. As you may have already read, the Maldives government had a Cabinet meeting underwater to stress the consequence of global warming. As a low lying atoll, Maldives is especially at risk due to rising sea levels. Tourism and fishing are its main economies and it is deemed a developing nation.

The consensus of who should make cuts still has not been reached. Wealthy nations say that all nations should make emission cuts whilst poorer nations say that the wealthy ones should make cuts. This was the predominant argument even during the Kyoto negotiations. President Nasheed of Maldives had already announced plans for a fund to buy a new homeland for his people if the archipelago submerged. He has also announced plans to make the islands the world's first carbon neutral nation within a decade. With his ambitious plans, he certainly puts other richer nations to shame.

I'm not entirely convinced that COP15 is the answer to the current environmental problems we are facing. It is indeed an excellent effort and if a consensus is reached, will affect a small piece of the overall picture. What countries are failing to note is that environmental responsibility can be incorporated can fall within a country's own jurisdiction. What is stopping every country from taking a proactive step forward in ensuring a decent future for its citizens? Consensus reached in COP15 is not going to affect recycling programs within a country for instance. Focus on the relatively smaller matters add up to the big picture - this is not something an international treaty can mandate.

It is also unfair that rich countries are expecting poorer countries to sacrifice their own growth. It is especially unfair that most manufacturing of consumer goods used by people in richer countries are being manufactured in the third world. This imbalance of resource use needs to be addressed. Having enjoyed the environmentally expensive comforts thus far, richer countries should now lend a helping hand to the poorer nations to improve their infrastructure and manufacturing processes in an eco-friendly manner.

This is precisely what President Nasheed and many others want from the richer nations. A leg up, to compete fairly. The third world may be poor in economic terms but in terms of indigenous knowledge and natural resources, they are blessed. They are also plagued with mis-management, corruption and poverty -- all of which are hindrances to an environmentally viable future. It will the strength of COP15 if it recognizes that the fight is not between rich vs poor but a fight towards equalization. The time has come to do away with 'us' and 'them'.

bio boxes

I think plastic and its derivatives are on its way out. It is fast becoming a redundant concept. We should stop hanging on to it and take a look around at what else is available, biodegradable and eco-friendly. The Eco Expo in Hong Kong was a real eye opener in terms of alternative packaging material. I've made a passing mention on these alternatives in my previous post. Some of these innovations have been around for awhile like bagasse take-away food boxes which are made out of sugar-cane waste after the juice for sugar manufacture is extracted. These are reusable to a degree, microwaveable and freezer safe and they bio degrade within 3 months. They can be molded into plates, glasses etc which are excellent for party-ware.

PSM material is another innovation that has a larger scale of use. It is a plastic substitute made from corn starch and can be used for disposable dinnerware, food containers, electronic packaging, toiletries, carrier bags, stationery etc. This material is water-proof, oil-proof, heat resistant. It bio degrades to water and Co2 and when incinerated produces non-toxic smoke and the residual ash can be used a fertilizer. The UK based smoothie company Innocent already used corn-starch bottles for their bottles. They are still working on alternative materials for their caps.

Rice husks are being molded into melamine-type crockery and cutlery by a company in Malaysia which are repeatedly reusable. microwave, dishwasher safe and when they reach the end of their life can be safely composted. This is an excellent idea of upcycling or turning waste material into useful products.

India also produces these recyclable material like bagasse boxes and plates, cups etc made out of areca nut leaves. Areca nut is the precursor of beetle nuts and the leaf sheath of the tree dries out naturally which is collected, dried and molded into desired shapes. The next time you have a party consider this option instead of paper or foil plates. Areca nut plates can be composted and they bio degrade easily. India has a rich natural tradition of using natural materials and it is a shame that we are now copying the west. Bring back the time when food used to be packed in a banana leaf and newspaper. Do away with plastic, when you can, where you can. Insist that your local take-away or favourite restaurant uses eco-friendly packaging material, or better yet take your own boxes with you when you order in.

11 November 2009

eco expo 2009

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

I have not been blogging for a long time now as a result of travelling and general inertia. During this time a lot has happened - Maldives had an underwater cabinet meeting, the Indian government has decided to have a public vote on Bt Brinjal, the clock towards Copenhagen is ticking and the UK believes it is not the answer for climate change.

So right now, I'm unsure about what exactly to write about because I am a little disheartened. The lead up to Copenhagen does not see a consensus despite pressure from environmental groups and society in general. Part of the reason for my time off was to organize my thoughts, to stop wallowing in the negativity and look on the positive side of things.

On this front, there are many things happening. My travels took me to Hong Kong and Singapore. In Hong Kong I visited a Eco Expo, a trade fair of sorts and met several people who are committed to running an environmentally sustainable business. Most of it revolved around the area of waste management and upcycling of wastes into products of use. Among these I saw some excellent examples: bagasse boxes being used for take-away food, use and throw glasses, plates and also rice-husk cutlery and crockery. Both are biodegradable, the bagasse whilst typically use and throw, the rice husk item could be re-used and is microwave and freezer-safe.

I also saw hi-tech compost bins for large scale units like hotels and water purifying systems for home use and large scale use. Apart from this bags made out of plastic PET bottles, bamboo furniture were also show cased. It is interesting to note that people are interested in these products and still others manufacturing them. Most of the manufacturing occurs in mainland China, Malaysia and Indonesia. I also had a long and interesting conversation with a friend of mine in Hong Kong who told me that recycled material is usually higher priced and people prefer to buy virgin material because its cheaper. Recycling in the city generally does not fetch profits.

Hong Kong is a very interesting place - an excellent mix of up-market posh and back-streets. The island is almost circular with skyscrapers around the circumference, as a result of this, the smoke from vehicles doesn't entirely leave the town and you can see it forming a thick haze of smog. It is one of the most densely populated places and yet there is an odd sense of space. But it also gives one the impression that it is struggling to support the weight of the population on the island and the smog is a clear indicator.

Singapore on the other hand has always been green and spacious; almost hospital-like in its cleanliness. The amazing thing is that the standard has been maintained and improvements are being made on a continual basis to infrastructure and public amenities. However, on the eco-front there isn't much happening. Plastic bags are still being handed out with gay abandon. Both countries do have dedicated recycling bins but not enough for the average commuter to actually make use of them. The reason that both countries have a head start on waste management is because they already have a system in place that segregates waste types. This is something that countries like India still do not have, this is hindering our progress towards a greener and cleaner nation.

It struck me whilst I was in Singapore that the port city was completely bombed during WWII and yet it has managed to rise to the top in terms of infrastructure and city planning. We have been an independent nation for about the same time - why are we still wallowing at the bottom of the totem pole?

End note: It's good to be blogging again. Watch this space :)