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Pundit’s Mailbag — Global Warming’s
Shameful Marketing Attempts

Our piece Carbon Footprinting Gone Wild! brought a letter from a European who is experiencing this issue on a level Americans don’t even approach:

The largest share of CO2 emissions is produced by the SUVs that the consumers drive to the supermarket to pick up their locally grown, fair trade, CO2 neutral, ethically responsible, guaranteed-no-child-labor-involved fresh produce, ideally packed in tons of non degradable plastic….

I am no scientist, but someone offered the following idea the other day: What if we were to put all the glass houses in Holland along the highways? A) They would be a great soundbarrier, and ) We could channel all CO2 emissions from cars into the hothouses, where the plants thrive on extracting CO2 out the air…

Second: when considering paying € 16.00 carbontax on your next airplane ride — for some scheme to offset “your” transatlantic CO2 emission — do some investigating and find that only (!) € 4.85 goes to planting new trees…

The bottom line: We need to bring hysteria and fear mongering out of the debate. Global warming is too serious an issue to not be able to have a constructive debate about it.

Every little bit helps, but let the consumer make his/her own decision based on sound facts, and not just based on some fancy marketing tools — who is really going green here in fresh produce?

Are we going to turn global warming into some fancy marketing gimmick or a competitive tool (just like food safety to some extent), or are we just going to go do something REAL and get it done without fuss?

And are we going to take our responsibility to leave this planet in better shape for our children and grandchildren? Tackling global warming is more than a scheme or project: It will fundamentally change the way we work and live. It will be driven through massive amounts of local projects. It will be a TRUE grassroots success. It will be a composition of ALL kinds of alternative energy, including (!) fossil energy.

We spend hours and hours writing about this… because it opens up exciting new possibilities also for our industry. That’s what we need to look at!

— Marc De Naeyer
Managing Partner
The Netherlands

Marc is referencing a study done for the government in the U.K. that found commercial transport — which typically involves large quantities traveling together, as in trailers, railcars or ships — is rather efficient in terms of CO2 emissions per pound of product. What is very inefficient is consumers running to the market and picking up a few items and driving home.

An obvious implication here is that if a consumer drives a half hour out of his way to go to a farmer’s market that sells exclusively locally grown produce, because he is “saving” highly efficient commercial transport miles and replacing them with highly inefficient consumer miles, he is as likely to do harm as good.

Global warming is an enormously complicated issue. Not every scientist believes it is happening, and even if it is happening, it is not 100% clear that mankind has much to do with it. We know there was an Ice Age, and it was followed by global warming without any help from our man-made carbon emissions.

Even if we knew it was happening and knew it was caused by man, it is not obvious that it is bad. It would certainly be bad for some people in some places but probably good for other people in other places. Finally, even if we know it is happening, know it is caused by man and know it is bad, we don’t know at this point if we can change it in any way. It might be too late.

To overlay this complexity with a simple-minded marketing message — don’t eat produce flown on a plane — is bizarre. It is an attempt by retailers to position themselves marketing-wise with total disregard to the actual issue at hand.

In this particular case, where much of the produce flown into British supermarkets is from impoverished African nations, it is, without reason, an elevation of one particular value — reducing carbon emissions — over every other value, such as helping poor people.

Our piece spoke to still another point — the CO2 numbers being bandied about are inaccurate and meaningless. We gave an example of a transport backhaul as contributing little to carbon emissions. Only highly complex studies on each individual item could tell us anything useful and, even then, unless you know what will happen in the future as a consequence of one’s actions, it doesn’t tell you much.

If a developing country sees its markets close in the U.K., maybe it will fly the product to a more distant market and increase carbon emissions. Or, maybe, people left in poverty by having their markets caught off will not be able to pay for centrally generated electricity and will burn animal dung and the local trees to cook with. So perhaps the environmental impact of this is worse than flying some produce to London.

This is not about the environment; this is marketing, pure and simple, and it is a shame.

Many thanks to Marc for his thoughtful letter.

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