‘Green’ Asbestos

While scanning Logistics Management, an article by Jeff Berman that said a new approach for sustainable supply chains is needed caught my eye. I’m a big believer in sustainability, but I’m also a strong believer that in their effort to jump on the bandwagon, some companies, governments, and individuals are doing – to be blunt – stupid things.

The article was based on a recent report by Adrian Gonzalez of ARC Advisory Group, in which the author notes that there are various tradeoffs when shippers and carriers strive towards sustainability. The tradeoffs exist because most products, manufacturing processes, and supply chains were not designed and built with sustainability in mind.

Gonzalez also noted that many people in the space are equating green with the reduction of their carbon footprint, as if the two concepts were interchangeable. Furthermore, even among those that realize that there is a spectrum to environmental friendliness, the author is finding that individuals are giving higher priority to initiatives perceived to reduce their carbon footprint – and, contrary to what you might expect, this may not be a good thing.

Let’s start with my favorite pet peeve – bio-fuels – and corn-based ethanol in particular. Although it’s true that the amount of contaminants, and carbon, produced by burning a barrel of corn-based ethanol is significantly less than the amount of contaminants, and carbon, produced by burning a barrel of crude oil, the fact of the matter is that, when you factor in how much oil you have to burn to create the bio-fuel, it actually increases your carbon footprint!

Using today’s technology, it can take up to 7 barrels of oil to create 8 equivalent barrels of corn-based ethanol. That’s a 12.5% return. 12.5%!!! That say’s that if you simply reduced your energy requirements by 12.5% you’d be a lot more environmentally efficient using oil! And you wouldn’t be harming the poor every time you drive your converted Honda. That’s right – by burning bio-fuel that’s inefficient to produce, you’re harming the poor every time you drive your Honda by driving up food prices! Last November, the American Farm Bureau (as chronicled over on Supply Excellence in Inflation at the Thanksgiving Table) reported that the cost of a traditional thanksgiving dinner rose 11%. Not only are corn prices rising due to ridiculous bio-fuel demands, but so are prices of wheat, grain, barley, and hops around the globe as farmers start planting corn for bio-fuel instead. These increases are in the double digits, and in some cases, triple digits as shortages are starting to become common. (Hops shortages are already threatening European brewers – who like their beer almost as much as us Canadians.) In other words, I guess what I’m saying is if you don’t mind increasing the lines at the food banks, then feel free to stay on your ethanol kick.

Now if this was the only example of stupidity from a sustainability perspective, it might not be so bad, but it’s only one example. Another example of ‘green‘ asbestos is the over-promises and unreasonable expectations associated with the use of fluorescent bulbs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in this technology (I use them myself) – but it’s not as green as you think it is. The average bulb contains mercury for crying out loud! And it’s not as efficient to produce them as an average light-bulb. They do require less energy, and they do, on average, last a lot longer, and I believe that this offsets the extra damage caused by the manufacturing process and inevitable recycling process, but it’s not a silver bullet. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about leaving your lights on 24 hours a day – they still take energy! The only way you’re going to be green in using them is to be green with respect to their use – and turn them off when you don’t need them. This means you need to do more than just outfit your office building with them, like installing sensors that actually turn them off when there’s no one in the room!

I could go on (and might in another post), but the point is that it takes more than just “reducing your carbon footprint” to be green and sustainable. Furthermore, everything you do has a price or tradeoff associated with it. Ethanol is green, but its production is not. It’s still better to be energy efficient (better processes, new technology with lower energy requirements, conservative uses). However, it’s not the only green source of power – what about the stuff that occurs naturally around us – like wind, waves, and sun rays? So be smart – and then you’ll truly be sustainable and not just another product of ‘green‘ asbestos.