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The global plastics treaty can fight climate change — if it reduces plastic production

During the second round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty in Paris this week, diplomats have clashed over competing priorities — including the role of recycling and how to address toxic chemicals. But some experts are arguing that one issue…

New Zealand boosts budget funding for climate resilience in wake of Cyclone Gabrielle

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It is imperative to decouple sustainability and greenwashing

Sustainability makes corporate production responsible and the average consumer more aware of every action

There are a number of traditional conservationists who dismiss the works covered under the broader sustainability/nature-based solutions framing as a bit of baloney. On the other hand, there are hardcore business folks who almost always feel a false sense of piety towards the sustainability agenda. 

As controversial as it sounds, for many decades, the conflation between both these opinions has remained synonymous with the idea of ‘greenwashing’ the existing human impact on the environment. 

It is imperative to interpret the distinction between the words. Sustainability in the context of the “E” in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) risk discussions typically includes managing and avoiding the depletion of natural resources to maintain global ecological balance (nature and people together as opposed to people vs nature).

Also read: The deception of greenwashing in fast fashion

Whereas, greenwashing is typically corporate action to be perceived as environmentally conscious for marketing purposes without any notable sustainability efforts (content vs intent).

Good intentions do not guarantee environmental sustainability, but they are not equivalent to greenwashing. The development sector is rife with examples of local non-profits working in the field and not getting adequate credit for it as well as civil society organisations (CSO) and consumers losing faith in corporate claims around sustainability owing to years of greenwashing. 

Traditional conservationists often argue that the conflict between human lives today and the environment (people vs nature) is exemplified by work in the sustainability domain. But business needs to be managed in the context of the planet and a utopic interpretation thereof.

While both schools of thought must be acknowledged, this conflation is a cause for dissent (and exclusion) within the sector itself and runs the greater risk of dismissing significant efforts being made to do better.

At its core, sustainability is the ability to maintain or support a process over time. What is required is perhaps the strengthening of a better understanding and a space for deeper engagement and collaboration.

While conservation is more action-focused on specific areas (landscape, theme, species), sustainability remains a bit more overarching. It is a strategic process of convening multiple stakeholders around a policy objective and programme strategies that would augment the work being done through conservation approaches.

Supporters of sustainability are far too often at loggerheads on how conservationist approaches expect the proverbial silver bullet and that the single-minded focus on protection and reduction alone would not percolate to human behaviour. There is merit in working at the intersection of people and nature rather than on only one or the other. Moreover, the radical transformation required by conservationists may necessarily come at an uneven cost. 

At this stage of CSO action, decoupling sustainability and greenwashing is imperative. Most sustainability practitioners use the pivot that sustainability is really building a case for protection, prevention and inclusion.

Also read: India’s evolving carbon market: Eye on policies for uniform emissions trading, Net Zero

As this understanding grows and new workstreams and jobs open (ESG in the finance sector is currently booming), wildlife biologists are being onboarded in consulting companies, including the Big4. And almost every consumer-facing brand has sustainability jobs opening up in the procurement/supply chain verticals.

There is no way around taking sustainability seriously. Even as it may be dismissed as a do-gooder approach, companies confuse doing good with tree-hugging or radical idealistic behaviour. These are mutually exclusive but not necessarily the same. 

Given the world’s established market dynamics and value chains playing out against ever-evolving geopolitics, any real market transformation would disproportionately impact the world order. While the developed countries (and erstwhile colonisers) may have the economic outlay to make the fast-moving changes, the developing world may not necessarily be able to keep up.

An example is the recent European Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) — an initiative to limit deforestation caused by forestry and agricultural activities all over the world. Climate advocacy groups are celebrating the law as a landmark in targeting deforestation risk related to cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber, soy and wood, as well as commodities that have been fed by or made using those products, such as leather, chocolate, printed paper and furniture.

While governments lead the regulation and hope to ensure that companies verify the origins of the products to ensure that these are not sourced from an area that was subject to deforestation or forest degradation after 2020, there are concerns. An important and emerging criticism of the law is that it might not be enough to stop deforestation as it misses regulations on biomass imports, such as the burning of wood pellets, which the EU considers carbon neutral despite contributing to significant forest loss.

The law also does not include at-risk ecosystems that are not rainforests. How the EUDR plays out and impacts global agricultural trade and continued soft power while simultaneously addressing climate and poverty risks in developing nations will be important. 

Read more: Emissions Gap Report 2022: Pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions way off track

In the case of deforestation, commodity chains like soyabeans, coffee or palm oil, traditional conservationists had also initially missed that consumers, as well as smallholders producers (especially from Asia, Latin America and Africa — much of the formerly colonised and now developing world), are stakeholders in the conversation.

As long as consumers exist, production, large and small, will produce at the cost of the forests. Many years of interpretations have been brought into the narrative to address the need to dovetail corporate and consumer responsibility into the conservation agenda — which is exactly the point that sustainability makes.

Perhaps this is the stepwise approach that the EUDR will also need to work through to improve itself. And while long-term behaviour or policy change and the general movement via sustainability might not be leaps and bounds in a short period of time, these would be paced steps that do not need to be retracted. 

One of the many ambitions hosted within the sustainability narrative is the harmonisation of protecting both nature and people juxtaposed against the current political and economic world order.

As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s common but differentiated responsibilities says: The aim is minimum disruption and destruction — not to destroy the planet, the environment and the existing human life and ensure that this life remains available to future generations in its totality. With this understanding, countries and companies are building sustainability reporting into everyday action and attempting to turn theoretical issues into concrete actions.

A large part of this also aims to help organisations set priorities to reach environmental and social impact goals by exposing both positive or negative impacts on the planet, society and the economy.

Fundamentally human beings are willing to do better. In India, we segregate waste. Recycling is part of Indian household systems through the customary practice of ‘raddi wallas’. The conversation on conservation often misses these local, sustainable practices because the focus of the policy is both narrow and exclusive. Empowering each consumer is the responsibility that countries and companies must start striving for.

Sustainability makes corporate production responsible and the average consumer more aware of every action — it recognises the least disruptive, most effective transformation towards living.

The world is, in fact, tangibly better if our actions are pivoted on sustainability. It isn’t the bad guy. What is perhaps required still is reinventing the narrative used around it. So far, it is a bit of an exclusive space.

Sustainability practice is beginning to take the same route as traditional conservation. There may be an opportunity for improvement in raising the level of understanding around long-term environmental sustainability rather than taking the ceiling up.

Nay saying reduces the value of any long-term positive impact that countries and companies may otherwise get — with the only other option being the subpar “business as usual”. A new normal needs to be created. The answer to unstainable practices is not a boycott but definitely a demand for more responsible sourcing.

Simply put, unless we speak to the laggards (countries and companies), only early adopters won’t be able to turn this around. Because if they had to, they would have managed.

It is not a sprint — every action counts in this marathon and every step takes everyone a bit further in addressing critical climate risks. 

Neha currently leads SPRF India, a think tank based in Delhi, working on a range of critical themes to bridge academic research and public policy. She is also the Head of Market Development  (Asia-Pacific) for the Forest  Stewardship Council and works with global teams and intersectional engagements across five countries and specialises in natural capital management, deforestation risk management and environmental sustainability.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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