Staff Blog


Friday, June 11, 2010

Sustainable Brands has an app for that.

The sad truth is, we're probably doomed. Our oceans are choked with plastic, our babies are little bundles of flame retardant, and a very cute grebe in Madagascar just went extinct.

But the folks at the Sustainable Brands Conference, held at the Monterey Conference Center June 7-10, were peppy anyway. There's still money to be made.

The conference has been criticized for giving green cred to some of the world's most polluting companies - like Clorox, Dow Chemical and Wal-Mart. At the same time, it assumes corporations must clean up their acts. And it inspires businessfolk (who fork out $2,300 per conference pass) to make changes that can have major global impacts.

SB10 also engages lots of little companies that are doing cool stuff.

Like Design Ecology, a Petaluma firm that installs living walls that remove volatile organic compounds from the indoor air.

And PeopleTowels, a Monterey startup that sells reusable, pocket-sized hand towels made from all-organic, Fair Trade cotton. According to the website, the average American worker uses 2,400 to 3,000 paper towels annually at the office. By switching to PeopleTowels, that same worker can save save one-quarter of a tree, conserve 250 gallons of water and reduce 23 pounds of landfill waste per year.

ECO eyewear makes shades using recycled metal and plastic, and plants a tree for every pair sold.

Even Monterey Bay Aquarium was there, giving out its Seafood Watch pocket guides. I won't be caught in a sushi joint without one.

But I can't shake my skepticism about the huge corporations. While their efforts are certainly a good thing, I don't see them trailblazing a revolutionary new breed of sustainable capitalism.

OK, so Frito-Lay's Sunchips are now sold in plant-based, compostable bags. That's an improvement over the old zombie bags, which will continue to blow around the planet, or swirl in an ocean garbage patch, for all eternity (perhaps passing through a few turtle and albatross guts along the way).

And PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, is surprisingly on the right side of the climate lobby, supporting cap-and-trade and renewable energy bills. But does that make PepsiCo a "sustainable brand," considering the incalculable damage their packaging and emissions have done to the planet? Why not make all their products, from Gatorade bottles to Cheetos bags, compostable? Why not go all-organic? A single product's biodegradable snack pack will not save this spaceship.

Starbucks also tooted its green horn. Ben Packard, company VP of global responsibility,talked up the goal of making 100% of Starbucks coffee cups "reusable or recyclable" by 2015. The company produces almost 1% of the 500 billion cups used once, then thrown away, worldwide every year.

Customers are encouraged to bring in their own mugs for a dime off, Packard said. There are already front-of-store recycling centers in S.F., Seattle and (next month) New York City, soon to be followed by Chicago, Atlanta and Boston, he said. Customers can recycle their cups on the way out of the store...

...except that most people take their lattes to go. Packard admits that 80% of Starbucks cups leave the stores with their cups.

Doug Woodring of Project Kaisei, a San Francisco nonprofit working to find ways to clean up and re-use that swirling vortex of plastic litter in the ocean, wasn't super impressed by the Starbucks pledge.

“ 'Recyclable' is a very deceiving word. Just because it’s recyclable does not mean it will be recycled," he said."And to me, the paper cup is not as dangerous as the plastic lid and straw. Those are what will last 300 years."

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