29 July 2010

reintroducing the cheetah

I first read the proposals of the cheetah reintroduction scheme in India back in 2009. Today it is in the news that the Central Government has approved of a $65 million plan to bring the cheetah back to India.

Cheetahs became extinct in India in the 1960s as they were excessively hunted. The plan is to import the cats from Africa, Middle-East and Iran. Kuno Palpur and Nauradehi wildlife sanctuaries in MP and Shahgarh area near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan have been selected as the reintroduction site. The program will take about 3 years to complete in various phases and will have IUCN involvement along the way.

Jairam Ramesh the Indian Minister of Environment has been quoted saying that the reintroduction of the cheetah will improve the health of Indian grasslands. Grasslands are one of the most productive terrestrial ecosystems and have been severely exploited by over-grazing and agriculture. Restoring the balance of this ecosystem will mean that other species depending on the grasslands will also flourish. The endangered imperiled great Indian bustard and caracal among others will benefit from the reintroduction of an apex predator whose role is to restore balance to the ecosystem.

One of the most successful reintroduction programs to date is the Yellowstone program to bring back the wolves. It was fraught with complications and almost did not take off, the cheetah program will face similar challenges. Animals that are reintroduced suffer various degrees of stress from transportation to adaptive problems that can affect their reproductive abilities.

If this program is successful, it will be a great boost to Indian wildlife as well as tourism in these areas. The ecosystem of the grass-lands will also benefit greatly due to the introduction of an apex predator. This reintroduction program should also be done without diverting funds away from other conservation programs in the country, most importantly the tiger conservation.

This is something that has been promised by the MoEF and only time will tell if the program can be deemed a success. With only 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild world-over, increasing their range is essential to the species' survival. Cheetahs unlike other cats don't breed well in captivity and are prone to various genetic ailments and diseases due to less diversity and inter-breeding.

Introduction of the cheetah in India will see that the species thrives as a separate sub-species in the years to come. The Asiatic cheetah thrives only in Iran and it is critically endangered - this is the same species that was once abundant in India. With the reintroduction, India can boast that it is the only country in the world that hosts 6 of the 8 big cat species.

I'm skeptical and hopeful at the same time. It seems to me that Indian wildlife authorities are trying to open a new can of worms without figuring out methods to deal with existing wildlife problems. All of the big cats in India are endangered - with this kind of track record, can the cheetah hope to survive?

Photo: Painting of Akbar hunting wiht locally trapped Asiatic Cheetahs c. 1602. He was said to have had 1000 cheetahs assisting in his royal hunts.

24 July 2010

elliott bay café

When I was in Seattle recently, I came across a very good example of sustainable business in action. The historic center of Seattle in located in Pioneer Square and tucked away in a little corner is the Elliott Bay Café - which is most commonly linked to the TV series Frasier, great coffee and good food. It can be very easily missed if you don't actually look for it. Luckily for me, I was.

This Zagat rated gem is owned by Tamara Murphy and run by her very enterprising chef/manager - Zephyr Paquette. Zephyr made the time to speak with me about the café's principles. Her dedication to making a difference in her own way is obvious from the way she approaches food. The café features a small, carefully selected menu that is seasonal, so it is often updated. The food that is served is locally-sourced, seasonal, fresh and more often than not, organic. The beef is grass-fed, the chicken is free-range and sourced from small farms. The tofu is from a local tofu maker in Seattle.

Zephyr sources all her fresh produce directly from local farmers in the Seattle area. She makes sure that the staff are fully invested in the preparation of food and know where the food comes from. Her "teaching kitchen" extends to encouraging her staff to work on the vegetable garden at her home. She believes that supporting local businesses, eating seasonally and organically makes a big difference not only to the taste of food but also a huge impact environmentally. "It is a lifestyle change, it is how I do my job", she says emphatically.

This is an example of how independent businesses incorporate CSR into their practices. Zephyr's commitment is a testament that even small businesses can work a business strategy with key-stone principles of sustainability concepts. These principles of course are industry specific - the identification of where a business can create the highest impact is essential in order to act upon it.

The power of CSR is such that you do not need to be a big business with a million dollar budget to make a difference. It is the simple matter of analyzing the way you want to run your business and then doing it. Zephyr obviously engages all her stakeholders - employees, customers, local businesses as well as as part of the community. This rapport, is the key to all CSR engagements - it is not just what you do but how you do it.

If you are ever in Seattle, swing by here and see for yourself.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

22 July 2010

the story of stuff

Annie Leonard the author of The Story of Stuff tells us the story of how excessive materialism is hurting the planet and affecting our happiness. The Story of Stuff Project's mission to educate and transform the way people use things and make them more aware of where things come from. The underlying message is that when you start examining the whole life-cycle of stuff, you begin to realize how environmentally harmful many of the things you use can be.

After the success of the 20 minute web film entitled 'Story of Stuff' where Annie does a detailed LCA of where stuff comes from and where they go, she has done several other short films. She has done a video of Story of Cap and Trade, Bottled Water and most recently Story of Cosmetics.

The Cap and Trade story talks about why it is not the solution to reduce carbon emissions and why people should not buy into it. This is the simplest explanation of C&T that I have come across and would recommend the video for anyone who wishes to understand what it is. The Story of Bottled Water is rather poignant because it talks about the globalization of trash. Annie mentions how plastic water bottles that are manufactured in America end up in landfills in Madras, India. Pollution outsourcing anyone??

The story of cosmetics was done in conjunction with the Safe Cosmetics Campaign and highlights many of the things that I talked about in my earlier post about cosmetics. Annie's environmentalism was sparked when she visited a landfill in Staten Island when she was in college and saw with her own eyes, the effects of consumerism. Reading Annie's article on abcnews gives a detailed picture of how her upbringing and her 20 years of research shaped her into the 'systems thinker' that she is today.

Thinking about the environment requires this kind of brain-power. It requires knowledge of free-market economics, marketing, manufacture of products etc to know that consumerism is a phenomenon that is not innately human but it is a learned behaviour that has been reinforced by marketing strategies to make consumers dependent on the cycle of use and throw. Why is this done? - to ensure that manufacturers can carry on with 'business as usual' i.e., make more stuff so people can buy more stuff. This the basis of economy - "manufactured demand" which pushes what we don't need and destroys what we need the most.

The story of stuff is powerful in its message and a consolidation of painstaking research into an easy to understand video. So watch and learn. The next time you buy something really ask yourself whether you need it.

20 July 2010

greenwashing, greenblushing

There are a host of enviro-biz terms being tossed around and specific to CSR and marketing there are two that come to mind - greenwashing and greenblushing. These are terms often used to describe companies that either over-talk their CSR credentials or under-talk them. Greenblushing is the most recent of the two was coined by Gregg LaBar. Greenwashing has been around since 1986 and was coined by Jay Westerveld.

From a PR perspective, both are bad news for the company. For consumers who are trying to make the right choice, it can be disheartening. So how can you be a smart shopper and tell the difference? Your first clues are to read the label and be discerning. Top words that should set off alarm-bells are "eco-friendly, all-natural, organic, biodegradable" etc. These words are being used on a variety of products that are simply not what they claim to be.

There is a limit to green, eco-friendly product design. Not every aspect of every product can be green. The first way to cut through the jargon is to ignore the packaging, regardless of whether is it made of 100% post-consumer recycled paper, hemp or bamboo. While you're at that, don't even look at the pretty pictures of rainforests and baby animals that may be on the product. This is a visual 'green-sell' to the uninformed.

Second, look at the product itself - how 'green' can garden pesticides be? or your supposedly "all-natural" shampoo? or cigarettes? or diapers?

Third, look at the company that makes the item. All of this should give you a clue. Whilst you're looking at the company, also look at the list of ingredients that go into the making of the product. Rule of the thumb: for processed food products - the list should not be over 5 items. For all other products - if you cannot pronounce the name of the ingredient, do not buy it because you most likely don't know what it is and what it does.

Finally, the best way to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys is to keep abreast of the news. Corporate policies are not the place that gives you information. Most companies embellish their websites with green marketing jargon. When it comes to CSR, what companies don't do is as important as what they do.

Take all this with a pinch of a salt. because there are companies that do mean it when they say that they are eco-friendly. The greenwashers make it harder for these companies to compete freely. I often find that the best organic, all-natural, most eco-friendly products are from small-scale companies, so focus there.

Farmer's markets and local trade fairs are an excellent place to start. There are several small business owners who sell products like soap, shampoo etc which are made in their own homes using organic ingredients - what can be more eco-friendly than that? Not shopping in super-markets is the single greenest thing you can do. If you must shop at a super-market, then be brand conscious and also price conscious. The cheaper you buy, the less 'green' it is. Aim for a happy medium in terms of price.

Shop with brands that have consistently met industry standards for being green - Johnson & Johnson, Burt's Bees, Gap, Dell, HP etc. The list is endless when you really delve into it. If you are here, reading this post then you must be on your way to becoming a smarter shopper because information is key.

More power to you!

12 July 2010

but all food in India is organic right?

I have been asked the above question several times and it baffles me every time. Why would anyone assume that conventional agriculture is organic? The great illusion of Indian agriculture is that all produce is grown on small-medium sized farms and farmers use traditional methods of cultivation. It is true that most farms in India are small but 'traditional' methods as with everywhere else has been replaced with a fertilizer intensive, hybrid heavy form of production.

Agriculture remains the cornerstone of the Indian economy. There is a need to ensure maximum production to support the growing population as well as ensure export targets are met. All this needs to be achieved in the face of monsoon vagaries and diminishing agricultural land. This has naturally led to the increase in the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The manufacture of both is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. Synthetic fertilizers contributes 6% of India's total GHG emissions. A shift to ecological fertilizers will reduce this contribution to 2%.

The Indian government has been subsidizing fertilizers in order to make them cheap enough for farmers to afford and although the use of fertilizers have been increasing, yield in certain places have been dropping. The average crop response to fertilizer use was around 25 kg of grain/kg of fertilizer during the 1960s, this has reduced to 8 kg/kg in the late 1990s. High use of chemical fertilizers is also associated with high levels of water consumption and micro-nutrient deficiency in the soil leading to subsequent decline in the water table and deterioration of soil health. Furthermore, fertilizer and pesticide run-off has caused various secondary problems to water bodies.

Every year the central government spends crores of money on fertilizer subsidies. The figure for 2009-2010 alone was Rs. 49.980 crores. The good news is that organic farmers are making their voices heard and are disgruntled that the Government spends so much money on an environmentally harmful method of food production. Several bodies like the Karnataka Organic Farming Mission, Greenpeace etc are lobbying with the government to ensure that organic products are also subsidized.

It remains however that India has one of the highest usages of fertilizer in the world. The sooner we realize the potential of organic food not just to restore out diminishing soil resources but also in terms of health, the better for us.

10 July 2010

sporting green

Sunday is the big day for the beautiful game. All the drama and passion of such an event also makes me wonder about the footprint of sports. It is a large category to cover as there are many kind of sports but for the purpose of the post, I shall limit it to spectator sports in giant stadiums.

In June this year the F1 teams said that they aim to reduce their carbon footprint by 12.4% over the next three years as well as increase fuel efficiency of the cars. There is a discussion of whether motor-racing should even be allowed at this conjuncture but I shall leave that debate to the extreme environmentalists.

The sports industry is mega-bucks. From the designing of sporting equipments, transportation, distribution, marketing, disposal and various other steps in between the LCA of a sporting event is mind-bogglingly complicated. Just thinking about LCA and footprint of a major sports company like Nike or Adidas proves this point. The amount of resources that goes into major events like the Olympics or the World Cup rests this case.

The organization of events of this magnitude puts enormous pressure on both renewable and non-renewable resources, creates noise and light pollution, disturbs local ecosystems and creates new waste-streams. UNEP has categorized environmental impacts of sport and lately there are several spotlights on the topic of greening of the sporting experience.

Several teams in the NFL, Major League and NBA have made attempts to green their teams. The Boston Red Sox have plans to 'green' Fenway Park and Philadephia Eagles have been touted as the greenest team of the NFL. Games with year-round seasons have a higher footprint than games with shorter seasons. Energy used in the stadiums also count - for this reason, basketball is better than hockey.

The FIFA World Cup is being touted as being one of the greenest world cups ever played. However there is evidence to the contrary that suggests that this may not be true. According to the article in CNN, this cup has a footprint 6 times larger than the one played in 2006. Although several initiatives were taken there was a lot more that could've been done to make this cup a greener, more eco-friendly event taking a cue from an enterprising businessman who makes vuvuzuelas from kelp.

The 2012 London Olympics are said to be the most eco-friendly sports event ever planned. The planning committee is looking beyond the games to see how the new facilities can be put to use in the future. The planning committee has won awards recently for commitment towards health, safety and environmental standards. The website has a whole section devoted to the sustainability initiatives in place and worth is having a look at. The Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi later this year is also doing its share to reduce the footprint of the event. The organizers have also tied up with UNEP for guidance and advice.

There are several things that spectators can do to reduce their impact and as with everything else starts from being eco-conscious about your personal impact.