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2007's Best: Backstories, Footprints and Ecosystem Services
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

My From Corporate Responsibility to Backstory Management

There was a time, not all that long ago, when a company's responsibilities stopped at the office door.

Those days are over. As connectivity increases and activists grow more savvy about forcing transparency in the sourcing of goods (think, for instance, of the blood diamonds campaign or the use of cell phones to reveal the origins of food), William Gibson's prophetic remarks on accountability ring more true every day:

"It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret. In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future... will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did."

The practical manifestation of this trend is that everything matters. Where once a company was held accountable for what it did, it is increasingly held accountable for that which it caused to happen. As the consulting outfit SustainAbility puts it in their report The Changing Landscape of Liability, "boundaries of accountability will progressively expand through the value chain and through the whole life-cycle of a product's development, production, use and disposal."

A company's suppliers matter. Those suppliers' subcontractors matter. The labor standards of everyone who had any part in making the product matter. The materials in the product matter. The energy used to make it matters. The manufacturing process itself matters, as does the producer's plan for the disposal of the product when it's over. Indeed, as far a corporate reputations are concerned, accountability is becoming a vast web of entanglements in the actions of others, some of whom the leaders of that corporation might be hard-pressed to name.

The Eco-Nutrition Label

What makes a good eco-label?

There are literally hundreds of eco-labels in use today. But in an age of marketing spin and greenwashing, consumers and industrial purchasers may feel they cannot trust a label saying "eco-friendly," because they don't know how good the company had to be to get it. Binary yes-no systems have a dilemma: either they have low standards or they exclude products which are good but not great. Multiple rating levels (like LEED or C2C's bronze-silver-gold-platinum) help people judge great from good, and also help budget-constrained consumers or manufacturers balance their green wishes against what they can spend.

However, multiple-level systems can still seem opaque and arbitrary. What gets you to a gold? A regulator will know, but a consumer off the street may not. Customers (and, more so, industrial purchasers) can't necessarily trust some group's opinion about how good a product is, they want objectivity. You get objectivity by showing them the numbers.

Personal Planets and the Little Prince

Using those two numbers, our footprints and the footprint everyone could have without destroying our environment (often referred to as a one planet footprint), we can tell more or less how far off from sustainability we are. Generally, we find that if we living average lives in Europe, we need to shrink our footprints by 70 - 80%. If we're Americans that number is more like 90%. If we're wealthy, we may need to find even more hectares worth of ecological savings.

And here is where the metaphor goes screwy on us. I don't think in hectares, and I'd bet you don't either. I know that a hectare covers about the same area as two (American) football fields, and having spent a fair bit of my misspent youth on sports fields, I can more or less grasp how much real estate that is, but when it comes right down to it, lecturing me about hectares is like talking fashion with a dog.

Alex Lowe's Ecological Footprint 2.0

To understand the subtleties and difficulties in ecological footprinting, think of accounting. In the past few years, Enron's collapse and the scandals that surrounded WorldCom gave people a small glimpse into the intricacies of accountancy. To the uninitiated, the swirl of news reports circa 2003 must have posed several questions: How hard can accounting really be? How can any grey areas exist in an activity as seemingly concrete and dry as counting beans?

But grey areas abound, and the task of accounting for nature's resources as well as their depletion from human demand is, to use the colloquial, a doozy. How can one compare the value of a single fish to that of a bushel of corn or a California redwood? How does that relationship change from the exhaust pouring out of your car or the dishwater circling your drain?

Sensors, Robots and Rivers

Sensors may soon be embedded in all sorts of places and pieces of infrastructure. Some will be personal: sensors in the gardens of absent-minded horticulturalists might keep track of soil moisture and remind them to water, for instance. Others will be public: sensors in sewer pipes that help environmental cops track down people who dump illegal chemicals down storm grates, say. Some will fall somewhere in between, like smart grids linking home energy systems to the wider network.

Of course, using sensors to guide decision-making is nothing new -- we already do this with air pollution and burn bans -- but now these technologies are trending towards ubiquity, offering both granular scientific knowledge of place and flows (think the James reserve on a global scale) and opportunities for observed redesign (for instance, the way power meters inside homes not only change residents' power usage directly -- since people can see when they're wasting energy -- but also offer people the chance to work collaboratively to, for instance, reduce peak demand on a community basis). The point, though, is clear -- if we want to, we can come to know our planet and our lives in startling new ways.

Hassan, David and Chad's excellent collaborative piece Moving Ecosystems Services from Theory to Reality (the same series includes Ecosystem Goods and Services Series: Valuation 101 and Ecosystem Goods and Services: Series Introduction)

Evan: Markets present many opportunities for both the producers and consumers of ecosystem services. By their very nature, markets are efficient, meaning they provide the largest amount of a good to the largest number of consumers for the least price. In terms of ecosystem services, markets often provide a least-cost means for achieving environmental goals. Markets also provide an incentive for violating facilities or individuals to reach further than just the "low-hanging fruit." Firms are often required to make minimal pollutant reductions, but markets can motivate them to go further.

Markets can also complement the efforts of existing government programs. US Farm Bill Conservation Programs award grants to farmers for the implementation of agricultural best management practices (BMPs), which are meant to mitigate some of the harmful effects of agriculture on the environment. Water quality trading achieves the same purpose, but offers another source of funding: purchasers of credits pay for the establishment of these conservation practices.

There are two big challenges to the establishment of these programs. One is a lack of political will. The other is a lack of information on the key decision points that must be reached when a program is developed. Since these programs are generally still in their infancy, the successes and hurdles of market development have not been widely circulated.

Apiculture and Colony Collapse Disorder

If ever you needed a visual example of the value of ecosystem services, try envisioning an army of human laborers attempting to pollinate an orchard of fruit trees by hand, one blossom at a time. Absurdly enough, an alarming decrease of bee populations worldwide, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has some farmers hiring teams to do just that.

With much of our focus on bigger species as indications of environmental crisis -- polar bears drowning, grizzly bears terminating hibernation early -- we sometimes forget about the little creatures that keep things in balance. But bees are an important provider of the ecosystem service of pollination, and as calamity strikes it is all the more obvious how important they are in the agricultural economy. From a strictly financial perspective, pollination is an invaluable service, provided by bees at no cost. But the cost we'd incur if the buzzing workers disappeared has been estimated at anywhere between $14 billion and $92 billion in the U.S. alone.

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