30 December 2010

end of year wrap-up 2010

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

The year of biodiversity has ended with a lot of up and downs, just like any other year. 2010 has marked the hottest year on record, it is also a year with untold tragedies of the Haitian earthquake, the BP spill, Icelandic volcanic ash, Chinese earthquake, Pakistani floods - all of which has contributed to severe loss in economy and of life.

Over all international news seemed bleak with little causes for rejoicing. However when it comes to biodiversity, the news is a little more encouraging. It all started with the UN declared this year international year of biodiversity. Then the TEEB report finally put a monetary value on biodiversity loss, thus putting it in a political radar - this report did for biodiversity what the Stern report did for climate change.

The CBD conference that was held in Nagoya, Japan saw delegates agreeing to adopt Biodiversity Targets which will guide national strategies and enhance cooperation among developing countries.

Post the Cancun climate-conference governments have agreed on plans to save forests which will not only halt climate change but also aid in biodiversity conservation. In addition to preserving existing rainforest cover, tiger protection also received a boost. Governments of India, Russia, China and S.E Asia joined hands for the first time to make serious inroads into the protection of the tiger.

Just today I read the news that nine species previously declared extinct were re-discovered. British fauna and flora seem to be thriving in spite of the extreme cold weather. All of these little signs are symbols of hope that Life is fighting back. However it does still remain that we are rapidly reducing the Planet's regenerative capacity.

According to UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner, "We are destroying life on Earth. The plants and animals, fungi and micro-organisms that produce and clean our ait, generate drinking water, hydro-power and irrigation; provide food, shelter and medicines and also bring joy and a spiritual dimension to our daily lives need a helping hand - if not for their sakes, but for our own."

Psychologists are of the opinion that children growing up these days spend too much time indoors with computer games and suffer from 'Nature deficit disorder'. E.O. Wilson the famed biologist reckons that all humans have a natural affinity for nature which he calles 'biophilia' and current lifestyles are suppressing this. Therefore finding more ways for people to connect with nature may lead to more of it being conserved.

As a New Year's resolution, let each one of us make the effort to appreciate, to be awed, to enjoy and preserve the wonderful world around us.

15 December 2010

CSR and STEM graduates

Recently I was asked by Aman Singh of Vault's CSR blog to contribute a piece about CSR and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. A version of the piece was also posted on the Forbes blog which can be read here. As a STEM grad myself, I think that the topic needs more coverage so here's my piece that I originally wrote for Vault:

One of the biggest drawbacks in environmental management is the lack of holistic thinkers. Breaking up the environment into bite-sized bits and attacking problems associated with only those specific areas will create more problems than actually solve issues.

Science, technology, engineering and math graduates are the most crucially needed candidates for the field of corporate social responsibility and sustainability

Everything in the environment is linked to something else and it needs to be thought of as a whole system in order to arrive at solutions. By some quirk of brain mechanism, a certain kind of people are drawn to science, technology, engineering and math(STEM) fields and through natural inclination and academic training, graduates from these fields are taught to think holistically. These are the kind of people that need to be given opportunities in the environmental field.

STEM & CSR: An Obvious Career Gap

Environmental issues are no longer the custody of politicians, governments, economists and business leaders alone. Graduates trained in systems thinking need to be able to step forward to lend a hand in solving some of our most pressing problems. Of course, there is no one single solution. But to arrive at a combination of solutions, there needs to be many more people working on the problem. Right now, there is a dearth of talented systems thinkers that look at the environment and its problems holistically.

We see this even within company operations. CSR is a field that is not affiliated strictly to the right-brain or left-brain talent. It sits smack-bang in the middle requiring both creativity as well as logic in order to solve problems. Ironically, most STEM graduates already have the skills to solve logical problems creatively.

Connecting Molecular Biology with CSR

Speaking as a STEM graduate, my academic training in molecular biology has not only sharpened my ability to accurately assess the whole picture but also helped me make logical connections between parameters and arrive at solutions from a holistic lens—all of which are incredibly important skills for a CSR analyst.

CSR Is Unattractive to STEM graduates...

CSR is primarily thought of as a 'business' field and because of this misperception, it does not draw many people from STEM fields; however professionals with a background in marketing, HR, and PR migrate to it much more easily with their people skills. Taking away nothing from the importance of these expertise, corporate social responsibility desperately lacks people who are able to look beyond the business functioning.

Here's the thing: At its core, CSR tries to address how to increase the positive influence of business. Think of it as throwing a net: this figurative 'net' covers the full sphere of its activities from social influence, environmental impact, a business's many stakeholders, supply chains, consumers, etc. CSR then involves looking at everything under this net, studying their interactions and fine tuning each of these 'mini-systems' in such a way that the main-system benefits.

...But CSR is Really Just Another Word for Scientific Systems Thinking

Putting one of these optimally functioning micro-systems into the macro business world as well as extending and adapting the 'net' to serve every kind of business is a model of sustainable business. The close ties that CSR has with business can put off many STEM graduates, however, the function of CSR in reducing externalities and boosting brand value is simply business speak for scientific systems thinking!

The economic world is a sub-set of the ecological world just like the biological world. The base that the modern economic system is sitting on is getting shakier. We need people to fix the foundation before skyscrapers can be built. And these people can only come from science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Thank you Aman for the opportunity to present my piece on Vault and also on Forbes.

13 December 2010

the green student

Take a look at my friend's blog where she talks about her own green journey. She has just newly started it and asked me to comment on a few questions that she had.

The Green Student: The Green Den- 6 Questions with a fellow blogger: "My own blog has (in part) been inspired by the articles I've read in TheGreenDen. A blog by my friend, and CSR practitioner- Akhila Vijayaraghavan..."

18 November 2010

my take on 'no-growth'

In my last post, I talked about the no-growth economic model which could be the model of economics the world is forced to follow due to growing environmental constraints. The US Congress can deny climate change 'til they're blue in the face but the fact remains that we're already seeing negative effects on our economy due to climate change. I choose to listen to the wiser economists and scientists, like Nicholas Stern perhaps.

The way I see it, the no-growth model is already happening. Or at least happening in part of the world. Economical growth in the Western world is beginning to taper off. More and more people are choosing to distance themselves from the rat-race, live alternatively and are seeking to discover that 'lost part of themselves'. In the 1970s they were called hippies; now they are the new radicals, the so-called pioneers of the environmental movement. Basically however, they are the category of people who have realized that economic success is not the real measure of happiness.

In the 1950's, at the peak of American industrialization everything was hunky-dory, people reported an all-time high in happiness. Since then standard of living has grown but happiness quotients have dropped. Something changed: perhaps the measure of happiness itself? Lives became busier, parents had less time for children, for friends, for hobbies - all the things that give us happiness. Instead people bought stuff to fill a void and subsequently landfills became bigger and bigger.

So now all of this is happening in the East, in the 'developing' world. People are working more, earning more, buying more and yet every single high-flying career person I meet isn't exactly happy. We now live in a post-recessional, climate-change laden, biodiversity-decreasing world full of majorly unhappy people who want to buy stuff but can't really afford to. But this view of mine changed when I met a few people recently who work but not crazy-hard, live on a farm, grow their own vegetables and have time for the things that matter. They were happy, like radiating bolts of joy just bouncing off of them.

This is the product of no-growth. It is not entirely bad. However, the bigger question remains: the people in the less-developed world, who want to aspire for the rat-race and fancy gadgets - do they realize what awaits at the end of this rainbow? Or are we just going to go around the wheel and realize that the place where we started from was the best place after-all?

Seems a waste of time to me.

11 November 2010

the 'no-growth' model

It is almost blasphemous for an economist to consider a 'no-growth' model, the very subject itself is the study of economy and no growth = no money, right? Traditional economists propounded that the earth could support endless growth. However, current economics proves that this is not possible - destruction of the ecological system, leads to eventual collapse of the economic system.

It seems to be a Catch-22 situation. Without growth, we spiral into poverty. With growth we head towards ecological collapse. To address the tantalizing question of whether we could have a healthy economy that doesn't grow, Prof. Peter Victor of York University, Toronto created a computer model of the modern Canadian economy. He then adjusted the model so that elements like consumption, productivity and population gradually stopped growing after 2010. He then shortened the workweek to 4 days to stave off unemployment. He also set up higher taxes on the rich and more public services for the poor. He imposed a carbon tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels. According to the model, it took a couple of decades but unemployment fell to 4%, much lower than what it is today, standards of living rose and GHG emissions decreased well below Kyoto levels.

The idea of a 'no-growth' economy is not new. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes have all acknowledged that when maximum growth is reached, man would devote his time to "non-economic purposes". Industrial-age economists did not have to face the problem of resource crunch. The ones that did worry about resources running out where so far ahead of their times and it was not considered to be an issue of concern.

The biggest problem that the post-modern economic system faces is the use of GDP as a yardstick for the measurement of economic growth. GDP is an often baseless figure which is based solely on economic growth, completely disregarding 'unmeasurable' but often important components of actual growth. In terms of growth, the majority of the world's population has hit the point of no return vis-a-vis monetary wealth and real happiness.

In the end, resource scarcity, price hike and climate change will cause global conflict and no-growth thinking could become a realistic economic model. Do we dare hope?

07 November 2010

perspectives: post-travel

Yes I know, this post has been a long time coming. I have been on blogging sabbatical and now I'm back. Over the past month I made a massive trip through Malaysia and IndoChina mostly on work. In Malaysia I attended the AFCSR and met a lot of eminent CSR personalities. It was all very exciting.

Vietnam and Cambodia were both a revelation. Cambodia was only 3-day break during the whole trip of networking and meeting people. So I stayed in a quaint little place in Siem Reap and visited the famous Angkor temples. The people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and live in abject poverty. Yet for some reason, are more hopeful and optimistic than most Indians I know. I also noticed that even if they were poor, they weren't starving mostly because they grew their own vegetables and fished in the three large lakes in the town. Siem Reap is a gorgeously green little town and is under conservation in Cambodia. The country is not without problems; apart from the mentioned poverty, it also has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

The point of food self-sufficiency kept striking me as something obvious that every government should be striving for. The government of every developing country is moving in the opposite direction of introducing a centralized food production system that is taking away from something basic in the lives of most people.

My next stop was Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh City which is very much like Mumbai. It is so much better planned, cleaner and developing at an unprecedented rate. However, unlike in India I saw a plan in their growth and development which was forward-thinking and heartening. Vietnam, like India is an SME-based economy and also many MNCs have entered the market, awareness of sustainability issues are not that high. However, I did have the chance to speak to a few people and through them I learnt that many companies are becoming more and more aware, which is encouraging.

Overall, the trip was fruitful and insightful especially in gaining new perspective about development in other countries. More to follow on here and also on Justmeans.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan © View of Saigon with the Saigon tower.

17 September 2010

growth, development and garbage

Lately there have been many questions that have been bothering me. I wonder why we have to rely on someone else to come and clean up our mess after I read the story of the Garbage Girl. Don't get me wrong, it's great someone is making an effort but are we so fundamentally socially backward that we cannot even insist on basic civic sense? I wonder why we don't have in place a system of municipal waste collection that actually works - this is infrastructure at its most basic. We are the civilization that invented the zero and consequently are one of the biggest players in the IT field. We have a space program that a lot of developed nations can be proud of. We have a culture and history that is unparalleled.

But we also have so many social problems - poverty, malnourishment, the highest rates of maternal death, female infanticide, a garbage problem threatening to mask all our accomplishments. In the eyes of the world, we are still seen as a filthy country in many aspects. When are we to get rid of this image?

Behind the glitz and growth of new malls, multiplexes, supermarkets and all the trappings of the west the real India is being swallowed up in piles of garbage. All of our resources are stretched, our cities are choking with pollution, drowning in filth with not enough water or electricity for the burgeoning population. Do we not deserve more? I'm tired of trying to find a reason for the way things are - corruption, government, politics etc can only get us so far. What about individual accountability? What about you standing up to say that you don't like the way things are and doing something to change it? The father of this great nation, based our independence on the power of singular change... and things went rapidly downhill from there.

I remember reading a chapter in biology in school entitled 'growth and development' and remember thinking that they are two entirely different things that are so easily confused. The understanding of 'growth' and 'development' is not just a study of semantics but there are entire philosophies, economic policies and government principles involved in the distinction. India is sadly an example of growth without development.

This country needs to be built from ground-up. All we are currently focusing on is embellishments whilst nations like China and even Brazil are focusing on grass-roots development. They have similar problems as us, so why aren't we at least trying?

For India to take its rightful place in the world, we must invest in infrastructure, education and focus on growing holistically, sustainably. The kind of imbalanced growth we are seeing will only lead to more social problems and eventual economic collapse. The center cannot hold. The center will not hold. I wonder how long we are going to try to drive this horse with a broken cart until the wheel gives way to complete irreparability... and then what?

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake - Rabindranath Tagore

11 September 2010

the not so golden triangle...

I know I have been terribly neglectful of this blog lately. It's been a month since my last post, the longest gap yet! But rest assured that I have been working hard on my Justmeans blog and have been writing about a lot of things there and now write for two categories - CSR and ethical consumption.

I recently returned from the famous 'Golden Triangle' tour covering Delhi-Agra-Jaipur and it is extremely strange to be a tourist in your own country. Travelling in India is an experience beyond anything that can written about. It is uncommonly hot, difficult, tiring and everything about the place assaults you in a myriad different ways. The kind of tourist attractions it offers is on a gargantuan scale of its own and in many ways pales the rest of the world in comparison.

In the space of 5 days I saw the largest gateway in the world, the Buland Darwaza; the largest sundial in the world in Jaipur; several forts, an entire city of red stand-stone and of course the Taj Mahal. This smorgasbord of sights is difficult to top.

For me, it was also deeply disheartening in many ways. For all the beauty on offer, the monuments in India are dismally maintained. Akbar's tomb in Sikandra which was absolutely gorgeous on the outside was a sad let-down upon entry. The intricately painted walls were peeling and in need of desperate restoration.

The whole city of Jaipur was extremely forlorn in appearance and did not seem at all like a capital city of a large state. The roads were appallingly bad and the rains did not bode well with the ancient sewer systems. The Amber Fort was gorgeous in bits but many of the walls were defaced by visitors and again several areas were in need of maintenance.

I can moan on about the fact that people in India are in desperate need of civic sense which for most part is true but who is to teach this valuable lesson. Without a sense of pride for national treasures how can preservation be insisted upon? Indeed, without civic sense how can environmental consciousness even be comprehended?

We cannot boast of trying to be an emerging super power, our IT prowess, space program etc etc when our basic sense of a civilized society is misplaced. Travelling India filled me with a deep sense of pride and an equally deep sense of shame. I wonder if things are ever going to change for this country so filled with potential and yet so encumbered with blindingly obvious faults.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

12 August 2010

what's with all the oil spills?

The BP oil spill of course eclipsed the others that followed due to its sheer size as well as location. The oil spill in Kalamazoo in Michigan didn't receive as much coverage in comparison because well... it happened in Kalamazoo.

The Enbridge Energy pipeline burst and dumped nearly one million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River which runs directly into Lake Michigan. The pipe that burst is the part of one of the largest networks of pipeline in the world. It carries dirty tar-sands oil from Canada to distribution points throughout the Midwest.

Tar-sands is the most pointless exercise of oil extraction in the history of oil extraction. First the ancient boreal forests were cleared then jaw-dropping quantities of energy and water are required to extract the thing that is supposed to provide more energy and create more pollution. The process is so toxic and leaves a sludge so big that it can be seen from space.

Closer to home the Mumbai spill has been officially declared as an ecological disaster today. Having occurred off the coast of the Elephanta mangroves, it poses a risk for spawning fish and sea turtles which use the area as nesting grounds. The spill coincides very unfortunately with nesting season for endangered turtle species. It will also affect other ocean life like lobsters, sponges, bivalves as well as marine animals and birds. This morning it was declared that the slick had reached the high tide mark and the "slow poisoning has begun". In addition to this, $4bn will be lost by this weekend if the port continues to be inoperational, what with being one of the busiest ports in the world. If the situaiton continues, the city of Mumbai could run out of fuel.

Trickle down effects include losses in the fishery and tourism industry. Already 500kg of fish were found to be contaminated and fishermen in the area are woeful about future prospects. The spill in Mumbai occurred after two Panamanian carrier ships collided and the on-going inquiry will tell us why this happened. However, as with the aftermath of every disaster the reasons why it happened gives little comfort because it did happen.

Everyday we are faced with reasons to wean ourselves off of petroleum. Its about time we started.

03 August 2010

the new Justmeans CSR writer

I have started writing for www.justmeans.com and will be their new CSR writer. For those of you who don't know Justmeans is the largest community of people interested in social and environmental issues. It is full of relevant 'green' news and great articles by a bunch of talented writers who are experts in their fields so jump on there if you are interested. You can connect with the site on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

So far I'm loving it because it means I have one more reason to research CSR news and think about it all the innovative stuff that companies are doing in the world of CSR. I no longer write for the Examiner though because I felt with Justmeans I am able to reach a better-defined target audience.

You can find my writing here - there is also my RSS feed which you can use to receive updates. You can also connect with me on Twitter or just get updates through the Justmeans page.

If you think I should be covering any CSR news or initiative then drop me a line and let me know. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Just holler! Thanks for the support.

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.

22 June 2010

my take on Yosemite...

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan © View of the Yosemite Valley

Photography has been a great passion and I am an ardent hobby photographer. I pretty much make photographs of everything although there are moments that are truly sublime. These moments usually happen when I catch the light at the right time or am suddenly able to 'see' differently. This shift of perception is tangible and it usually happens when I'm photographing landscapes or doing macros.

Art is an accurate barometer of the socio-political and economic atmosphere . It not only reflects these events but also in some way has the ability to influence or change. All great artists know this, which is why they intuitively realize that they have a responsibility towards something bigger than themselves.

In the forum of art and environmental protection, there are countless artists who have made their contributions known. In the era of Woodstock, several musicians sprang forth with anthems that are still popular today. There are others who has made their mark by extrapolating their love of Nature in their work and for me, one of the greats in this category is Ansel Adams. His photographs of America's National Parks pushes past the black and white images and seeks to lodge itself deep inside the retina. Of all the places he photographed, he loved Yosemite the best and it's not hard to see why to anyone who has been there.

Yosemite is one of those places on Earth that seems to have rolled right off of God's hands. Its magnificence is of a scale unto its own - ethereal, sublime, majestic and yet playful. I was in Heaven with mouth-open awe the whole time I was there and couldn't stop snapping away. The beauty of such places cannot be adequately described in words, photographs or even through merely seeing but only by feeling.

Adams' is one of the people who understood this and his work not only manages to convey the silent grandeur of such places but also equally firmly suggests at conservation. The National Parks in America saw an influx of visitors through Adams' work and this still continues to hold true. This was his most important contribution to the environmental movement - to make people go and appreciate their natural surroundings. All conservation starts from the inward retreat upon confrontation of beauty and this is something that he understood very well.

There are so few places on Earth untouched by human activity and National Parks are meant to be protected habitat. Stresses felt on the rest of the world will be felt even in these places. Respect for the natural environment will go a long way to ensure that these little oases of Paradise remain protected.

Sometimes I get to places when God is ready to have somebody click the shutter - Ansel Adams