Skip to main content

Paper (&) Tigers: The Trouble with Barbie’s New Commitment to “Sustainable Sourcing”

What should we make of Mattel's October 5, 2011 announcement of new "sustainable sourcing" principles for its paper toy packaging? The move came after a highly-publicized Greenpeace campaign featuring Ken and Barbie “breakup” videos on the internet and huge banners draped from Mattel's Los Angeles headquarters declaring, “Barbie: It’s Over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.”

Greenpeace banner on Mattel HQ, June 2011 (Greenpeace)

The principles commit Mattel to some significant concrete steps.

Under Mattel's new policy, 70% of its paper packaging will be harvested sustainably or recycled by the end of 2011, rising to 85% in 2015, with preference for paper certified under the Forest Stewardship Council program for sustainable forestry certification.  The company has also directed all its suppliers to exit known controversial sources of paper fibre. It has committed to avoid such sources in the future by ensuring that fibre sources are known and traced throughout the supply chain, fibre is harvested in compliance with local laws, and is not harvested from old-growth forests, from forests recently converted to timber plantations, or in ways that violate internationally recognized indigenous rights.

Like most voluntary corporate codes of conduct, the principles are couched in qualifiers like “where possible” and “to the extent feasible”, and do not provide for independent third-party verification. But they are not mere window-dressing. They commit Mattel to some significant concrete steps, including to establish specific goals, report publicly on progress, and adopt procedures to ensure that its procurement practices actually reflect the principles.  They also require Mattel to support “multi-stakeholder” efforts to protect global forest resources and give preference to fibre certified under schemes that “exhibit the highest standards and robust audit processes.”

While the principles do not spell out which programs this language is intended to mean, most people familiar with forestry certification would read it as referring implicitly to the FSC, with its innovative tri-cameral structure (environmental, social and economic chambers, each split further into global North and South sub-chambers), as opposed to its mainly industry-driven counterparts such as the big forestry companies’ favoured American Forest & Paper Association’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management program, and the small woodlot owners’ favoured Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Sumatran tigers (WWF)

Greenpeace claims that the new policy will help the endangered Sumatran tiger by preventing Mattel from sourcing paper from companies like Jakarta-based Asia Pulp and Paper, which Greenpeace alleges is a major contributor to deforestation in the tiger’s rapidly shrinking Indonesian rain forest habitat—and which, incidentally, has been buying up Canadian forest industry operations at a rapid pace.

At one level, this is a victory for environmentally responsible business. Mattel is the largest toy maker in the world, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in play.” Its procurement practices have a significant impact on the behaviour of suppliers around the world and send a strong signal to other global toy brands like Disney and Hasbro. If Mattel goes “sustainable,” others will likely follow. Its new procurement practices will make business more difficult for some of its more ecologically destructive suppliers, and reward those that are less destructive. In the long run, if extended throughout the industry, they might help ease the seemingly relentless pressure on tropical rainforests and Sumatran tiger habitat.

Let’s face it: The Sumatran tiger will not be saved by buying Barbies packaged in sustainably harvested paper.

But will Mattel’s new principles reduce the number of Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher Price toys purchased by and for the children of the world? Far from it. You can bet Mattel hopes they have the opposite effect, boosting sales by easing the consciences of consumers who fancy themselves environmentally responsible.

Let’s face it: The Sumatran tiger will not be saved by buying Barbies packaged in sustainably harvested paper. If Mattel and the other big toy brands stop sourcing paper products from tropical rainforests, less scrupulous players—companies not as susceptible to public shaming—will take up the slack. Tropical deforestation, like other ecological crises, will not be reversed unless we confront humanity’s insatiable and constantly growing appetite for material consumption, especially in the already affluent industrialized countries like Canada.

I have two school-age children. After reading the Mattel announcement, I thought I would count the toys in their rooms. I lost track around two hundred. Then I tried to imagine all the old toys we have discarded or given away, a pile that would dwarf those we currently have. A pile made largely of plastics that take millennia to break down in the environment. And how many of these toys do our children play with more than once, twice, a dozen times?

Instead of saying “I want a toy in sustainable packaging,” consider saying “I don’t need another toy just now.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love toys, and they can be crucial for children’s intellectual, emotional and other development. But how many does one child need? I’m not suggesting that all a child needs for a full play life is a stick and a mud puddle, although those ingredients can fill entire childhood afternoons. What I am suggesting is that the next time you think about buying yet another toy, instead of saying “I want a toy in sustainable packaging,” consider saying “I don’t need another toy just now.” If hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people choose not to buy that next toy, encouraging children instead to create and explore interior and exterior worlds of play with their own minds and bodies using the materials around them, not only will we help reduce the pressure on species and ecosystems, we will help raise generations of stewards eager to protect them.

I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on Greenpeace or Mattel. Initiatives like Mattel’s sustainable sourcing policy are victories of a sort. With Greenpeace turning forty this year, it is worth reflecting what kind of victories its often dramatic direct action campaigns achieve. Their greatest significance, as Greenpeace asserts in a fortieth birthday pamphlet that just arrived in the mail, is to create “the possibility of another future” by shining a spotlight on environmentally and socially unsustainable business practices. “Sustainable sourcing” is one small step toward such a future. Buying less, and creating more with our own imaginations and hands, would be a larger and more rewarding one.

The Challenges of Green Marketing in The Age of Persuasion

I am an unabashed Public Radio junkie. All of my Sony Ericsson Walkman phones back to 2006, have not only had integrated flashlights but also functioned as transistor radios, allowing me to be permanently hooked up to CBC Radio 1, or to BBC and NPR Podcasts.

This week's award-winning Age of Persuasion Episode is titled "It's Not Easy Being Green: Green Marketing" and is one of my three essential Podcast episodes of 2011*.

Rachel-Carson-Bridge-in-PittsburghTerry begins with Rachel Carson (that's her bridge in Pittsburgh) and then traces the history of environmentally conscious consumerism, linking it to how marketers and advertisers have shaped their campaigns for sustainable, green goods. In  2007, 300,000 green trademarks were registered with patent offices, which is more than the number of trademarks and patents sought at the height of the boom.

The three main take-home messages are:

1. "Beginning with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962... various environmental crises have provoked behavioural change and new behavioural changes created new demands from the public." Responding to these demands for new products (such as sun protection lotions following the discovery of the ozone hole) has required "very delicate, very careful marketing on behalf of advertisers".

In green marketing, the public wants to know the motives of companies immediately, and green marketing ignites scrutiny.

2. "One of the biggest problems for marketers is that sustainability is a moving target. And there haven't been any universally-accepted baselines or calculators." E.g. "Are paper products green and good or, do they flatten forests? Is glass eco-friendly or, does it take a lot more fuel to transport glass than it does plastic? Is cotton one of the most natural products in the world or, is cotton one of the world's biggest pesticide crops? It's a very complicated issue."

3. The fatal mistake when it comes to green marketing is that "virtue cannot be proclaimed in green marketing". Smart marketers stay humble in their green marketing, so that the customer and press spread the word about green and ethical companies. Accusations of "Greenwashing", the deceptive use of green marketing or PR (Jay Westerveld, 1986), are likely to be targeted at green marketing campaigns with over-the-top claims, and to have major consequences.

The most cited example of Greenwashing is the rebranding of British Petroleum (BP) as Beyond Petroleum. The campaign strategy was to rebrand BP as a progressive energy company, bp. The rebranding implied that wind and solar were being invested in heavily by BP, but the reality was that BP was investing more than ever in oil exploration. (And, was recently rebranded, and not by themselves, but the public, as Biggest Polluter).

This brilliant episode of The Age of Persuasion ended with the correct observation about the contradiction that lies at the heart of green marketing: that being sustainable means consuming less, while marketing is about encouraging people to consume more. Nevertheless, he goes on to conclude, that the main task of green marketing is to normalize those high quality, truly green products, that are sustainable across multiple social and environmental indicators.

And, from Bruce Philp's new book, The Consumer Republic: "Buy the change you wish to see in the world."

Congratulations, Terry!

Dawn Bazely

*My other two top Podcasts for 2011, so far...

July 26th  2011 Interview of David Altman by Jian Ghomeshi on Q, CBC, about the rise of narcissism in North America:

July 2nd  2011 interview of Lori Gottlieb by Jian Ghomeshi on Q, CBC, about how overparenting is creating brittle youth who lack resiliency because their parents have not allowed them to learn how to recover from failure.

The Green Marketing Manifesto by John Grant, was Terry's essential background reading.

Sack your bags

I've decided to accept IRIS Director Dawn Bazely's challenge to blog about creatively reducing, reusing and diverting everyday household waste (see post "Hey, get me out of here, I don't want to go to landfill!").

The first challenge item she has thrown at me is a milk bag. Not being much of a milk drinker, milk bags do not find their way into my life very often. When I do buy milk, though, I purchase the less sustainably packaged wax cartons of lactose free milk.

For milk lovers and bag avoiders, there is hope. Local dairies and dairy cooperatives like Harmony Organic have reintroduced the classic milk bottle, in addition to also offering carton and bag packaging options. Their website states: "All our products are available in returnable glass bottles* which leaves the milk tasting clean and 'fresh from the farm'. Each bottle is expected to make 15-20 trips before being recycled. In an effort to bypass the use of chlorine as a sanitizing agent, we use hydrogen peroxide in our cleaning processes." While I don't drink much milk, I do eat yogurt every morning for breakfast. Similarly packaged in a reusable glass bottle, I buy delicious, creamy, full-fat, organic yogurt from Pinehedge Farms, located in St-Eugène, Ontario.

I case you're wondering, St-Eugène is at the Ontario border with Quebec, between Ottawa and Montreal, and over 500 km away from my home in downtown Toronto. While I love the idea of reusable packaging, I wonder if shipping a relatively heavy glass jar 500 km each way is environmentally better than shipping a relatively light plastic container.  Would I not be better off consuming the equally delicious Saugeen Country Dairy organic yogurt, which is packaged in plastic and hails from Markdale, Ontario, only 150 km away? If this is the case, surely it would also be better to purchase milk in light weight bags (ideally from a nearby dairy) rather than in glass bottles. It seems we are back to generating plastic milk bags.

There are other, more challenging alternatives.  For example, you could forgo milk entirely, taking on a vegan (absolutely no animal products) or paleolithic (dairy-free with only certain plants and animal products) diets. You could live close enough to a dairy farm, so as to not worry about shipping heavy glass bottles long distances. Or you could lobby the government to allow urban backyard bovine, though I doubt a cow would be very happy living in a 20 square meter backyard.

This question is like so many other "what is more sustainable" scenarios, which are highly complex and -- if you're not careful -- might make you think, it's all bad so why bother? In those cases, often a simple act is a good place to start. So, start by reusing all your milk bags (including the clear ones that are impressively durable). Stop accepting plastic bags from retailers and stop buying them as much as possible. While you're at it, stop buying food storage bags and use these instead. In fact, in many cases they could even replace plastic cling wrap if coupled with a rubber band or twist tie. The goal should not be to make your life guilt-ridden or inordinately complicated. Rather, we should all try to use less and use thoughtfully.

What do you think, Dawn? Agree? Disagree?

Ready for  a new challenge? My challenge to you, Dawn, is what should we do about these pesky items -- cigarette butts?


Good luck,


Hey, get me out of here, I don’t want to go to landfill!

Recently, there have been several changes at IRIS. Annette Dubreuil is staying on as a part-time project co-ordinator, and is giving up her duties as IRIS co-ordinator. She will be putting her sustainable business model for aboriginal communities into action. She has been working on this project for the past 2-3 years, voluntarily, and is going to pursue her dream of making it happen. I have asked her to keep checking in with us and to let us know how it's going.

We welcome, as part-time summer IRIS co-ordinator, Meagan Heath. Meagan is finishing her MES in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. She is an expert on garbage, was one of the organizers of this year's York U garbage survey, and works part-time for CSBO - Campus Services and Business Operations. She is a woman of many talents including being tri-lingual, and she is passionate about reducing waste. If you read my blogs, you will know, that I, too, am passionate about reducing, reusing and recycling.

Meagan is a very good sport, and I have challenged her, this summer to go head to head with me on coming up with ways of getting rid of the annoying items that we keep putting in our garbage, as opposed to recycling them. This could be, preventing these items from even coming into our homes, or coming up with novel ways of reusing them. Each week, we will post a photo and do a duelling blog. Readers are welcome to weigh in with other suggestions. If we can, we will add a voting button to the blogs.

Here is our first challenge - it's the common milk bag and associated milk bags. What can we do to avoid using them or to redirect them from landfill, in the case where they are not part of a blue box programme (other than having a cow in our back garden?)??

Dawn R. Bazely

(Read Meagan's response: Sack your bags.)

Sustainable Shopping, Feng Shui, Suze Orman and Debt

The personal debt of North Americans - both in Canada and the US is staggering. Oprah's "O" magazine's long-time financial advisor, Suze Orman, has published a great book on Women & Money that tells the reader how to track their personal spending. Apparently many North Americans can't do this. Suze makes the link between the lack of basic awareness of where the money's going and personal debt. The Certified General Accountants of Canada 2009 report, "Where has the money gone: The state of Canadian household debt in a stumbling economy" makes this link eminently clear. At the same time, there are tons of tv shows and books on how to declutter your life. They draw a clear connection between personal stress and the accumulation of stuff - as in buying it from the mall. A search of available book titles with the keyword "Feng Shui" - which, in North America, is basically about getting harmony into your life by throwing out stuff, returned 606 titles.

So, here's the thing - most people actually feel happier and calmer in emptier spaces with less stuff in them. If everyone bought LESS stuff, for many people, there would be LESS debt. These people would then REDUCE their ecological footprint and their resource consumption. They would also INCREASE their personal sustainability index. Such a simple idea, yet seemingly so difficult for most North Americans to accomplish.  Has it become easier during the current recession?  And will the notion of living within one's means and differentiating more between needing and wanting become entrenched before our ice caps melt? I don't know the answer to these questions, but they are certainly something that I think about a lot.

Dawn Bazely

“Why Woody?” – for an honorary degree

A very nice reporter from the Toronto Star asked me this question on the phone yesterday, as I was standing in a field in Milton, Ontario, next to 16-Milgiant 2e Creek. I was collecting seeds from Giant Hogweed, an invasive and somewhat toxic plant (see right).

Tomorrow, York University will confer an honorary degree on Woody Harrelson. Back in January, when I wrote my nomination letter, I had no idea that the announcement of this would coincide with the recent release of a popular commercial movie, starring him! I also had no idea as to how receptive the university committee responsible for Honorary Degrees would be to our nomination! After all, universities are very conservative institutions, as I found out from the raised eyebrows, back in the mid 1990s, when I had the temerity to suggest to some colleagues that we ought to consider nominating Oprah Winfrey for an honorary degree. At the time, she was dictating what America and my local Mum's Book Club was reading, through her book selections.

There have been a lot opinions offered about York conferring this degree on Woody Harrelson, in response to the CBC story. In the wake of my interview with the Star reporter, I think there's a few things worth mentioning from my answer to her question "Why Woody?"

1. The whole idea can be traced back to 2006 and the conversation that IRIS started about making York's course kits carbon neutral. Along the way, not only did we discover a huge interest amongst our students in the issue of climate change, but we also learned a lot about how unsustainable the publishing and printing industry is, in terms of how it produces books:  inks, paper, and the energy footprint of shipping books; akin to shipping bricks, a friend in publishing has told me.

2. Then, in August 2008, I was invited by the committee organizing our Fall Green Week, to suggest environmental and sustainability-related documentaries for screening. Since I am always forcing my family to watch educational docs, I had lots of ideas, as did others, and we had a lively discussion. I thought that An Inconvenient Truth was too ubiquitous to have much appeal at the time, and that Who Killed the Electric Car, was just a wee bit too boring. But Go Further was different from anything that I had ever seen, and might just be the ticket for an undergraduate audience. It was not at all preachy and took a very different approach to engaging youth than  found in the standard lecture.

3. When we screened the film, through a colleague at York, who turned out to have a brother in publishing, we also learned about the companion book to the documentary, which is incredibly sustainably produced. From him, we learned that the appearance of these kinds of books tends to have limited appeal to the purchasing public. This is why the books in stores don't tend to look like the Go Further book: they don't really sell that well. In other words - environmentally friendly, unshiny, dull-looking books don't cut it on the shelf - YET.

So there you have it, the boring story of why I got involved in this nomination. We did a bunch of research into and learning about a couple of key items of academic life - documentaries and books and learned about Woody Harrelson, too. And, as a good academic should be, I was also rather skeptical about the nomination venture. As I  wrote in my  letter:

"Mr. Harrelson has turned out to be an embodiment of our new York slogan and our old motto, that the way must be tried. Who would have thought that the goofy bartender from “Cheers” would turn out to be such an important environmental leader and activist?"

If universities are to be leaders, then we must be receptive to different modes of teaching and learning, and be prepared to recognize and honor them.

Dawn Bazely

A Revolution of Values

Fourty years ago, Reverend Martin Luther King echoing his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, took to task materialism in the same breadth as the racial oppression he had been fighting his whole life. King knew that materialism, or more accurately, consumerism, was a slow acting poison that once entrenched, would forever control the destiny of his people. Furthermore, he foresaw how it had already taken root in American society along with the militarism that was then subjecting Vietnam to hell on earth:

"if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." (April 4, 1967)

José Ramón Machado Ventura, First Vice-President of Cuba’s Council of State, reiterated this same prophetic theme in his address to the 5th European Union / Latin America and Caribbean Summit meeting in Lima, Peru, on May 16-17. In a session on “Sustainable Development: the Environment, Climate Change and Energy,” Ventura remarked:

"Sustainable development requires a revolution in our values and in the way we confront the inequalities of today and the challenges of tomorrow. We must launch a global energy revolution, sustained by savings, rationality and efficiency."

Cuba has stood for this alternative world free of King's giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism. In doing so, its people have made enormous sacrifices, going without for the greater good of all citizens and countries around the world who have benefited from the small island nation's famous generosity and humanitarian aid. Sadly, Fidel Castro recently had to remind Barack Obama of Cuba's record of international service, as American politicians of all stripes have become used to heaping calumny on a country that has dared to resist and retain its dignity.

Personally, I too have long believed that only a revolution of values can begin to address the challenges of sustainability. For as long as our lives are measured by material success and possessions, there will always exist powerful pressures to consume upwards. This is stoked by our consumer society that consumes us by engaging in the limitless production of wants and desires (a Buddhist nightmare for sure), all in the name of driving a capitalist economy based on borrow and spend. Moreover, the peer pressure is exerted from generation to generation. How many of us have been judged by the size of our house or car? (And if you rent and use public transit, forget about it!)

The consumption in turn serves to displace higher pursuits and to fill the yawning spiritual void in our lives as noted in the whimsical yet deadly serious road documentary "What Would Jesus Buy?" Channeling the theatrics of evangelical holy roller preachers, Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping takes on the "Shopocalypse", which has turned the holiday season into debt-engorged consumer armageddon. The message of this "church" however resonates with both believers and non-believers alike, as the plague affects us all. In this regard, King and the Cuban Vice-President are also one in calling us out of our Koyaanisqatsi.

One Ecology professor’s view of all this “green” consumer hype

It's over a year since Al Gore won an oscar for An Inconvenient Truth. The 2008 Earth Hour and Earth Day have come and gone. "Green Awareness" events do tend to be more frequent in spring, as we come out of hibernation and notice the environment - tree pollen, tulips etc. But, there is definitely also a tsunami of environmentally-driven advertising, products and newspaper coverage. Globe & Mail columnist, Karen von Hahn wrote about what she sees as some of the hypocrisy of 'ethical consumption' in her May 24th column "Hey Bono, shopping is supposed to be fun".

Ms. von Hahn is quite right to question whether "buying fair trade really does make trade fair". This is an important area of research in universities, and everyone else should think about it too. The ecological reason for why green shopping IS an important piece of the sustainability puzzle, though not the whole picture, is that from its birth, EVERY organism is a consumer. Even if we abolished all shopping malls and our consumer society, we'd still all be consuming, simply by breathing, drinking, eating and occupying space.

One key sustainability goal for Homo sapiens (us humans), needs to be that we each consume as little as possible in terms of materials and energy. Should we be thinking about where stuff comes from, who made it (and how they are being treated), how much gas was burned in getting it to the store, and where the metal came from, etc? ABSOLUTELY Ms. von Hahn! Because when you are doing that much research into the ecological and carbon footprints of stuff, shopping bcomes EXHAUSTING. And that's good, because, in answer to the question that we ask our kids to ask themselves in the local sweetshop "Do I WANT it or do I NEED it?", you are much more likely to buy only stuff that you really do NEED or are really motivated to WANT. So, there's the bottom-line - responsible consumers will tire themselves into reduced consumption as a consequence of their increased awareness!

Dawn Bazely

The two best coffee table books on sustainability?

My colleague, Prof. Larry Licht (see p. 9), is retiring, so I was dispatched by the chair of Biology to assist with gift buying. I had suggested that Larry, who is not just a herpetologist (that's a frog and general green-thing expert), but also interested in conservation and various other causes, might appreciate one of the crop of great books that vividly illustrate the link between environment, people and sustainability.

Paul Marmer, who just got back from a year in Mongolia came with me, to pick up a copy of Hungry Planet, by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio (2005). But, we were also very tempted by Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (2001), which I knew about from an outdoor photography exhibit in London, UK. The latter is pricey, at nearly $70, but is unbelievably gorgeous, and if you need some guilt to go with your enjoyment, visit Arthus-Bertrand's website, and read my blog on your March Break Ecological Footprint. Paul and I spent a lot of time debating which one to get since the budget did not stretch to both.

There are lots of text-heavy books on sustainability and the environment. But the fact is that a picture is still worth a thousand words. Both of these books will get MOST people to THINK about their ecological footprint, and that's always the first step. BUT, both books are engaging and not overly preachy. These are not straight environmental, nature books. They are much more than that. Ideally, we shouldn't be giving each other gifts of more stuff at all.

BUT, if you are looking for something for Father's Day, either of these would be well-received by most dads. The slightly less expensive 365 days of Earth from Above and the paperback version of Hungry Planet are in the $30-$40 price range.

Dawn Bazely and Paul Marmer

Canadians come second to last in green consumer survey

Check this link to a CBC news item that places us second to last in a fourteen-nation survey of green consumer choices. Conducted by the polling firm GlobeScan for the National Geographic Society, the Greendex confirms Canada's enormous per capita ecological footprint as represented most visibly in our large homes and car culture when compared to countries like Brazil, China, and India.

However, the findings of the survey are somewhat too obvious. We are either the top or second highest consumers of powers in the world, fueled by both our general affluence and our cold climate. A more accurate ranking of Canada's progress can be made by comparing us to Scandinavian countries (although, they are obviously far in advance of our American-influenced high consumption lifestyle).

Still, useful information can be gleaned from the survey of 14,000 individuals that weighs both extent footprints and consumer intent. You can likewise calculate your own score from the survey web site.