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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.

IRIS researchers praised for helping make sense of the “assisted migration” debate

For academics, there are few things more satisfying than having a research paper you slaved over for months published in a top peer-reviewed scholarly journal. When a leading scientist then blogs enthusiastically about the article, telling the world how great it is, the feeling is even better. That's what happened this week for a group of IRIS researchers after they published an article in the prestigious journal Biological Conservation about whether to use "assisted migration" to help species adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

Assisted migration is the intentional translocation of species outside their historic ranges to mitigate biodiversity losses caused by climate change. While this idea has been around for decades, it has recently become the subject of fierce controversy in the academic literature.

The article was written by IRIS Senior Fellow and York geography instructor Dr. Nina Hewitt and an interdisciplinary team of IRIS-affiliated researchers from biology, environmental science, business, law and social science. It takes stock of the burgeoning academic literature on this topic and identifies possible avenues toward consensus on how to address what might otherwise become an intractable ethical and policy problem.

Joern Fischer of Leuphana Universität Lüneburg in Germany, a leading scientist in the field, wrote about the article yesterday in his "Ideas for Sustainability" blog. He congratulated the article for its thorough analysis of a very complex and polarized debate. It is polarized because many scientists see assisted migration as pitting two conservation goals against each other: the preservation of a single species from extinction, versus the protection of entire ecological communities against the risks posed by introduced species, which can have impacts similar to invasive alien species.

Fischer lauded the article for focusing on the nuances and complexities of the debate rather than accepting a polarized, black-and-white view. He especially liked a figure in the article that presents the arguments for and against assisted migration and their key inter-relationships in a one-page schematic.

Professor Fischer praised the article's effort to provide a conceptual framework within which scientists and policy makers can find common ground:

"The authors state that the debate is complex, and rather than proposing a simple solution, they try to provide a framework which can help to reach case-specific solutions. Hooray …! I wish more scientists did this. ... Hewitt et al. have done a great job of giving an authoritative overview of many relevant arguments. I highly recommend their paper!"

This endorsement from one of the protagonists in the assisted migration debate is a great vindication for the hard work that went into the study, and it suggests that the article will have a constructive impact both on the scientific debate and on conservation policies and practices on the ground. Achievements like this article really help to advance IRIS's mission as a national and international leader in practical, collaborative and interdisciplinary research that influences policy and decision makers on a variety of sustainability issues.

There is one irony in this story. The research was funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, one of the victims of the Canadian federal government's recent massive cuts to scientific and environmental programs. These cuts are one of many sad indications of this government's unfortunate head-in-the-sand attitude toward climate change and other ecological challenges.  CFCAS pleaded with the government, to no avail, to reconsider the cuts and devote adequate funding to weather and climate research.

Spring is here… too early

This morning, the novelist, Rui Umezawa, who is a neighbour and who kindly reads my blogs, asked me why I have been so inactive on the blogging front. "Too busy", I yelled across the garden fences. This term I have been teaching BIOLOGY 2010, the Plants course, which I taught from 1991-97, before powerpoint and course websites. So, while all of those life cycles are forever burned into my brain, chalk and talk, as we call that style of lecturing, is, in science, pretty much gone the way of the dodo. I have had to create Keynote and Powerpoint lectures and to learn "moodle" which is the most comprehensive electronic classroom software that I have ever seen. This open source software has replaced the way that I previously accessed my course websites - namely through the very nice, and now retired Biology Department Lecturer who functioned as our webmaster.

Moodle has allowed me to teach this course as I always wanted to: skipping from chapter 1 directly to chapter 32, and then to 21, to chapters 2-8, to 11-12 and then 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13 in Raven et al's Plant Biology 7th Ed.  CRAZY, right? But in fact, moving through the material in this sequence always made more sense to me than the linear way that I was forced to teach in earlier versions of the course text book: i.e. start at chapter number one and proceed forward in a one-way sequence. The internet and moodle has provided me with the tools to lay out a completely different roadmap than that provided by the book's author's and index, and, in 2010, the students can follow my map and route through the text book. If I had tried to do this in the 1990s, supported by paper course handouts and chalk and talk lectures, there would, most likely, have been a revolution in the lecturehall. Students who missed classes would have been griping about the jumping around, and any deviations from the lecture schedule, when I found that I was not delivering planned lectures on the expected date. With moodle, I  constantly update the students about where we got to, and with podcasted lectures, they have more flexibility than ever before, to miss a class and still catch up.

I LOVE IT - but it's been a heck of a lot of work at the back end. Still, there's nothing like jumping into a new technology with two feet, and sinking or swimming. The York University support staff have been amazing and I have taken several mini-courses. And, the time involved, has meant no time for blogging here. But, I have sought to imbue the course with a large measure of sustainability thinking. This is easy to do in a course that is essentially about biodiversity, why plants are important to humans, and about evolution. Our lectures on the Carboniferous and the tree ferns and progymnosperms (ancestors of seed plants) that fixed enormous amounts of carbon, and which subsequently turned into fossil fuels, relate directly to human-produced greenhouse gas emissions arising from the burning of these fossil fuels. I found an amazing old You Tube video about fossils, from the 1950s or 1960s by Royal Dutch Shell (that's Shell Oil to you and me), that the students have watched.

Everything is connected. Teaching about flowering plants and pointing out to my students that trees are already flowering , has reminded me, every day since early March, that climate change is happening NOW. I told my husband yesterday that one is supposed to prune roses when the forsythia blooms, and today, I have seen forsythia flowers. My gardening journals from the 1990s tells me that in 1994, the forsythia was only just flowering on April 27. In the early 2000s, I was noting that the forsythia blooming in mid-April was just "too early" - and in 2010, it's been flowering since the 2nd or 3rd of April. Climate warming is here, and in fact, in the USA, the Gardening Zones were  adjusted in 2006 by the Arbor Day Foundation to reflect this.

Dawn R. Bazely

Why does anyone bother with Bjørn Lomborg?

Here's another reason why history matters. Because anyone who has done their research into Bjørn Lomborg's history would be aware that most of what he has published in the peer-reviewed journal literature (and it's not much), has hardly ever been cited by other academic scholars in their peer-reviewed journal articles! (I checked Lomborg's citation record on Web of Science). He and his appallingly researched book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, (defended by Cambridge University Press as peer-reviewed), were investigated for academic dishonesty. While the book was found guilty (but not the author), the decision was later overturned by a Danish government review for "process" reasons.

Like Daniel Simberloff, when I read the chapters in the book on which I would consider myself an expert, I was shocked at the poor coverage of the pertinent literature. My own book with Judy Myers was also published by Cambridge University Press, and I was therefore interested in the overall implications for and interpretations of the quality of their in-house book review system. How had Lomborg's book gotten through the process, and was it really as bad as it seemed? So, in 2003, I taught a Biology graduate course in which students "deconstructed" the Lomborg book's chapters. They scrutinized Lomborg's sources, and detailed the many ways in which he skewed and misrepresented the data. Frankly, if Lomborg was a new Master's student in Biology, and he submitted any of these chapters to me as essays, he would receive a failing grade. The reason for this would have nothing to do with his polemical positions, because good scholarship is essentially about challenging the status quo, and everything to do with his poor scholarship. But Lomborg has simply never acknowledged his shortcomings. A few years ago I wrote to Scanorama, the SAS airlines magazine (the one you find in your seat pocket), after they profiled Lomborg, and made the following points:

"Dear Sir - I enjoyed your article about Dr. Lomborg in the October 2004 issue
of Scanorama, and feel compelled to share four thoughts I had after reading
1. Dr. Lomborg is photogenic, and I doubt he would have received so much
attention if this was not the case.
2.  As a practicing field ecologist, I learned early on to avoid consulting
colleagues who are trained as pure statisticians for help in analyzing my
data, because they lack practical experience.  I invariably feel more confused
after a conversation with a statistician, than I do beforehand.  Dr. Lomborg's
book left me feeling both irritated and confused.
3.  It is particularly noteworthy that the people who lodged the formal
complaint against Dr. Lomborg were not environmental activists but first and
foremost, peer-reviewed scientists, with pretty comfortable careers in
academia.  Why did they exercise themselves when they did not need to?
4.  From the point of view of Cambridge University Press, the publisher of The
Skeptical Environmentalist, that there is no such thing as bad publicity when
it comes to book sales.
Sincerely, Dawn R. Bazely, Associate Professor, Biology Department, York
University, Toronto, Canada."

Apparently some form of my letter was published, although I never saw it. And then, I simply forgot about the book, except that I refer to it as an excellent example of how to misrepresent the biodiversity literature. BUT now, I find that this is the man sponsored by the Munk Lectures to debate Elizabeth May and George Monbiot? And, no one in the Canadian media and certainly not on the Munk Debate website is making any reference to Lomborg's history as an academic against whom formal charges of dishonesty were brought? The latter event is so rare and huge that it cannot and should not be ignored, regardless of the highly political outcome. Academics gripe and moan about each other, but are loathe to spend time insisting that formal charges of academic dishonesty be brought. I have been directly involved in only one such formal case at York University in the early 1990's, in which a PhD dissertation was found to contain manufactured data. The entire incident was quite emotionally exhausting for everyone who was involved both in uncovering the fraud and in investigating it.

Contrary to what one might expect in terms of a balanced assessment of Lomborg, the Munk Debates website states that Esquire Magazine described him as: "one of the world's 75 most influential people of the 21st century". What, influential like the Jonas Brothers and Simon Cowell of American and British Idol? I would certainly also approach all of Lomborg's subsequent writing with the working hypothesis that his selective  and biased approach is likely unchanged. Why would it change, when it has served him so well in the past?

This apparent lack of willingness by the Canadian media to research the full picture surrounding Lomborg can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but, if you want an analysis that is more of a political than scientific deconstruction, I would direct you to the Lomborg analysis on The Way Things Break blog, and the post called Lomborg and Playing the Long Game.

Dawn R. Bazely

Can blogging be sustainable?

It's about a year since I last blogged.  When we got the new IRIS website up and running, it was great fun to learn about blogging, but it actually took a lot of time to write and fact-check serious blogs (as opposed to simply churning out drivel).  It's been a challenge to get people associated with IRIS to commit to blogging and to sustain it.  This challenge has given me insight into why social networking sites such Facebook, and the sms-driven Twitter, are so appealing.  Having said that, while you CAN post to these sites really quickly, I also think that far too many people (including members of my family and a lot of students and older people that I know) spend far too much time on these sites; there is a very addictive quality about them.

My issue with finding time for blogging, is that, not only do I have lots of "Administrative Duties" (around here, the Director is as likely to be taking out the trash as to be schmoozing with VIPs), but I also lead active field-based research projects, supervise graduate students, write papers and book, carry out peer-review for journals and governments, and serve on many external bodies - plus I have children (teenagers need as much time and attention as toddlers) and a husband who is on the road a lot.  So, my blogging about sustainability had to be sidelined.  But, no more - I have decided that I will be doing less intensive and more twitter-like blogging, that is much more frequent.  Why?  Because a large part of my job is about being a Connector in a Gladwellian, Tipping Point, sense. The more that I participate in sustainability-related conversations, the more I have come to realize that many concerned people remain hugely unaware of many important issues that relate directly to their concern about sustainability. Additionally, because IRIS is about sustainability in an academic setting, IRIS members - including myself - are also Mavens or information specialists (again, see The Tipping Point).  For example, my research on why many forests in southern Ontario are falling down and are NOT sustained forest ecosystems, is producing new information and knowledge (see photos of Rondeau Provincial Park, and the low density of trees, due to deer browsing on the twigs of saplings, resulting in long-term mortality of high woody species i.e. trees).

So - as a professor, who cannot resist giving homework - today's assigned reading is Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point - but if you don't have time, the Wikipedia page on this one is just fine.

Dawn Bazely


Hold that cell phone purchase!

From the late 1990s onwards, a genocidal conflict has been raging in the Congo with little notice from the West. Indeed, western multinationals have been deeply implicated in the brutal regional war that has claimed up to 5.4 million lives. At the root of the conflict has been yet another scramble for the Congo's enormous wealth of natural resources including timber, minerals, gold, and diamonds.

One of the most overlooked, but profoundly disturbing of these resources is Coltan, a tantalum containing mineral that is a key component of modern electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops, and media players. Coltan is mined from the same region as the habitat of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, and illegal extraction has led to the steep decline of the overall wildlife population in the Eastern Congo. The exponentiating demand with the increasing disposability and affordability of consumer electronics has also fueled the conflict to new heights.

The whole sordid story is outlined in "Apocalypse Found" that speaks to the connections between "Coltan, cell phones and crisis in the Congo." The article starkly illustrates the relation between this catastrophe and our consumer habits in the following excerpt:

Earth Island Journal argues that the 2000 spike in coltan prices was caused by the launch of the Sony PlayStation 2 and a new generation of mobile phones. The irony of that observation was not lost on British Labour MP Oona King when she expounded, "Kids in Congo are being sent down into mines to die so that kids in Europe and America can kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."

Major manufacturers such as Nokia have taken note of this, but they argue that because of third party sourcing it is often difficult to tell where your components are coming from (Nokia is however pushing suppliers on this). At the consumer end, cell phone recycling programs such as the Eco-Cell Initiative at the Toronto Zoo are beginning to make headway, but it might be worth unplugging your life to really get away from another nightmarish impact of our modern technologies.