Government Role in the Environment

A debate has erupted regarding whether sound environmental behaviour and a responsibility to curb global warming lies with the individual or with the government. Do the hones to help the environment lie with the consumer? Is it your fault global warming is occurring because you have not invested in a low-emission car or a hybrid vehicle? Or should the blame lie with the government who has not set stringent standards or put in place regulations that encourage responsible behaviour?

Despite scientific consensus and a large social awareness, our federal government has not done its part. Prime Minister Harper’s new plan seems to follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush’s, relegating difficult choices to the next government and the next generation. While progress is being made on the provincial and state level, the central governments of both Canada and America have not honoured their moral obligations. Nevertheless, we must, as citizens, stop blaming our elected officials and find a new way of addressing our pending environmental disaster.

There is no doubt that a general social conscience regarding the environment has arisen over the past few years. This is largely due to the tireless efforts of activists and scientists who have been sounding the alarm bell for over four decades. Centuries from now, if we are successful, their work will be regarded as some of the most important work ever done. The question we must now identify is how to address the problem of our impact on the environment without compromising our quality of life.

The free-market optimist perspective is that the market will regulate itself. They argue that when the consumer becomes sufficiently concerned with the environment, he will demand that companies modify their business practices or risk losing his business. My personal spending habits demonstrate this perspective’s fallacy. I have not personally experienced any negative effects due to my consumption, yet I (along with a significant part of society) have elected to purchase more organic food, lower emission cars and produce less waste. However, we must understand that the average individual, lacking time to research products, has spending habits which are a product of circumstance.

The first type of circumstance is the past circumstance. On a development side, scientists generally agree that an individual’s character is 50% genetic and 50% environmental. Judith Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, has convincingly argued that the part of ourselves that is a product of upbringing is tied mostly to the schools we attend, the neighbourhood we grow up in and the friends we have. As long as our family life is relatively normal – loving parents, lack of abuse and basic nurturing – half of our personal traits are tied to the environment outside the home that we grow up in, the other half is genetic.

Pushing the idea even farther; according to drop out rates and delinquencies, a child is better off in a broken home and healthy social environment than in a good home and bad social environment. The application of this principle is that if we surround our children with healthy environmental options such as recycling, sustainable products and energy efficient appliances, we will be much more likely to use them. We are a product of our environment; thus, the environment we create is the environment we will breed.

The second type of circumstance is the present circumstance. Confronted with a purchasing dilemma, it is the circumstances that dictate our decisions, not our principles or ideals. One example is Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, who famously told a supplier of toothpaste that if marked his product 10 cents higher than a competitor’s, he would not sell a single tube. The supplier, convinced of his product’s superiority, insisted that his product be placed next to the competitor’s and be marked with a slightly higher price. After months of lacklustre sales, the supplier succumbed to the reality and dropped his price. The average individual, who lacks the time or desire to examine the quality and sourcing or a product, will nearly always go for the less expensive version. As sad as this may sound, there is hope.

Some will argue that we are moral beings who base part of our decisions on our personal convictions; John Daley and Daniel Batson at the Princeton Theological Seminary did a pertinent study highlighted in the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. They gathered a group of seminarians and asked each one to prepare a talk and fill out questionnaires concerning their personal convictions. Each individual was held in a closed room and told that they had a meeting on the other side of the street where they would deliver their talk. Then, they were told that they should leave and had a few minutes to spare or that they were already late and should hurry up.

Outside the building where their meeting was to be held, the test organizers placed a homeless man who would wheeze and cough when a test subject walked. The test was repeated numerous times and the end result demonstrated the determining factor of whether an individual stopped to aid the man was his time constraint, not his personal background or convictions. Of those seminarians in a rush, 10% stopped, whereas when they had time to spare, 63% stopped. This helps demonstrate that our actions are largely determined by present circumstances. Whether we buy a hybrid car, low consumption light bulbs or recycled paper is tied to their ease of access and price, not consumer awareness or principles.

Another example of current circumstance is a test done in two Home Depot stores in Oregon. When a sign indicating environmentally friendly practices were used to harvest lumber and the lumber was the same price as non-certified version, people were dramatically more likely to purchase the certified lumber (2 to 1). When the certified wood was 2% more expensive than non-certified lumber, the consumer was more likely to purchase the cheaper wood; though a large portion (37%) purchased the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) labelled wood. A large portion of consumers are morally conscience and willing to pay a premium when they know it is for a good product, but they have to know it is.

These sociological studies may not be directly pertinent to environmental behaviour, yet they convincingly demonstrate that we are creatures of circumstance. The items and environment that surround us are the determining factor in our decisions. No matter what awareness we may have, the price and availability of environmentally friendly solutions is the key factor.

It is essential for us to recognize the role of government in relation to environmental regulation. The government’s role in regulating and offering aid and subsidies has dramatically reduced over the past decade. In its place, we have seen an emergence of NGOs (Non Government Organizations) and NPOs (Non Profit Organizations) who perform a variety of tasks in our society and abroad. Certification-type NGOs such as Organic Foods, Forest Stewardship Council, Fair-Trade, Eco Logo and Energy Star have offered us practical ways of evaluating a product’s impact on the environment. In the United States, the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) relies heavily on private consultants to formulate policies. The Canadian government must rely on such organizations, who have developed practical expertise, to implement plans for more environmentally friendly regulations.

The most immediate area where government can play a role is by introducing the cost of externalities. Pertaining to global warming, we need to create carbon credits based on consumption. This issue has been debated ad-nauseum and now appears to be inline for approval and implementation across a large part of North America – though not on a federal level. Suffice to say that it entails the creation of a market for the exchange of carbon credits. An industry or individual who produces more CO2 than a set standard must purchase credits on the open-market to offset their costs. We are introducing the externality of global warming on products. According to a recent poll in the Globa and Mail, 87% of Canadians support heavy penalties for industries who do not clean up their act. Nationalized companies should set the example. Provinces who develop their energy supply from gasoline and coal should pay the premium over provinces that favour wind and hydropower. We must understand, as a society, that costs of production include the future costs to society, not just the present and past costs.

Secondly, the government should mandate ecological labelling on consumer products. We need to emulate what has been done with the tobacco industry. All products should have to devote 15% of their packaging to a description of their sourcing methods, production methods, and wastes. The exact content of the labels would have to be debated, but their prominence should not come into question. The certification of ECO LOGO or another certification should play a prominent role on packaging and more importantly, on in-store display cases and promotional material. Three pertinent examples of packaging campaigns include the cigarette, food and canned fish industry.

Cigarette consumption has dramatically been reduced through social awareness and packaging products. Labelling of food products with their nutritional value and ingredients has also helped improve consumer health. The labelling of canned tuna fished with ‘No Dolphins Caught’ forced a large part of the canned tuna industry to adhere to better fishing practices.

We already have a great deal of social environmental awareness; we now need to make the link to individual products. Similar effects such as those described above can be achieved with ecological labelling and it should be noted that polluting products do not have the addictive power of cigarettes – so the change in consumer behaviour should be all the more rapid.

Protecting our industries by preventing the advance of environmental issues is ultimately detrimental to our society. The protection of the U.S. Steel industry and U.S. Car manufacturers has been their downfall. European and Japanese companies, with more stringent environmental requirements and more aware clients, have surpassed their North American competition. Innovation and development are born out of difficult situations; we need to create a society where more consumers reward environmental innovation, not just the lowest price. The constraints of environmental growth in China will breed an entire industry of products, if we lag behind, our economy will suffer the consequences. As a society, we must stop ceding to companies who are resistant to change. The question is not whether environmental problems are the responsibility of industry, government or the individual; but rather how we connect the three sectors to create a progressive movement towards sustainability. By challenging our companies with new challenges we will see the creation of new innovative products, jobs and wealth.

Forest Stewarship Council
Fair Trade
World Business Council for Sustainable Development
ÉEM Inc.

Published on October 23, 2006