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Greenwashing Sustainability

“Sustainability” has become a buzzword. But what does “sustainability” really mean? One definition is that it requires a triple-E bottom line—economics, the environment and equity. However, this word sometimes is used to “green-wash” and promote things that are not sustainable. Genuine sustainability must be evidence-based. But language can be used to conceal rather than reveal.

Let’s explore what is currently occurring in the small town of Sebastopol, Northern California, as a case study. In 2001 a salon was formed called Sustainable Sebastopol. It engaged in various activities and had an email list with over 2500 posts, covering a range of sustainability issues, including neighborhood toxics, car-free days and auto alternatives, renewable energy, local organic food production, and appropriate land use development.

This year a group with a different agenda co-opted that name, partly to promote two pro-big business candidates for the City Council. A member of the new, mis-named group published letters to editors in at least two weeklies, allegedly about sustainability. But she only wrote about business, neglecting the environment and equity.

The group’s website is mainly re-posts of letters advocating that the U.S.’s largest bank, Chase, and its eighteenth largest corporation, CVS Pharmacy, be allowed to move into Sebastopol’s downtown commons. What is sustainable about such big chains?

In spite of the several hundreds of thousands of dollars that the developers already have spent, the community has held their development up for over two years at around thirty public meetings, some attended by over 200 people and lasting past mid-night. The website says nothing about the threats of some developments to the environment and to local communities.

The new group’s stated goal is only “to enhance the business community.” Nature gets left out, as well as the rest of us. Their slogan “Buy Sebastopol” reduces sustainability to buying. It evokes a former president’s response to the disastrous 9/11—“go shopping.” Such slogans differ from a group named GoLocal, which suggests that life is more than buying. Walking around or cleaning up creeks, for example, would be examples of practicing GoLocal, but not “Buy Local.” One cannot buy nature, as much as some would like to.

The website claims that it represents “diverse” viewpoints. Yet it reprints only letters favoring Chase/CVS, whereas there have been more opposing it. How diverse is that? This group takes biased, unsustainable positions. It insults individuals who have given years of service to Sebastopol as elected officials and as members of the Design Review Board.

Some founders of the authentic Sustainable Sebastopol group wrote a response, co-signed by many people, including four former mayors, which denounced the letter. It draws attention to the town’s web page on its sustainable policy: http://ci.sebastopol.ca.us/page/sustainable-sebastopol.

The web page includes the following: “The natural environment is fundamental to the concept of sustainability. Air, water, and land are the basis of our very lives…The concept of social equity reflects the understanding that we are a community with diverse composition and varying needs.”

Why might this new group be ignoring such essential elements of sustainability and trying to co-opt the concept?

It endorses the two pro-big business candidates running for City Council, incumbent Kathleen Shaffer and Kathy Austin. Their advocacy of Chase/CVS is likely to draw big bucks from the outside to their campaign treasure chests in our small town of less than 8000 inhabitants. On the other hand, the long-time Sonoma County Conservation Action group has endorsed the other two viable candidates and authentically “green”—Robert Jacob and John Eder.

Big Banks, especially Chase, are not sustainable. For example, according to Sonoma State University Professor Robert Girling, “Chase takes our local deposits and uses them to finance the destruction of the rain forest.” Moreover, Chase has been fined millions of dollars for wrong-doing, as has its frequent partner CVS Pharmacy.

According to Chase’s website, it “provides investment banking services to the oil and gas industry on a global basis. Our clients include many of the world’s leading players and producers.” It’s “Oil & Gas Investment Banking group covers the complete oil and gas value chain, which includes exploration and production, natural gas processing and transmission, refining and marketing, and oilfield services.” How sustainable is that?

In contrast, Exchange Bank is owned locally and 50% of its profits have been used to finance Doyle scholarships that have benefitted thousands of local families. Summit State Bank adheres to the highest ethical standards and has invested $50 million in the local community. Redwood Credit Union also invests the majority of its deposits in supporting the local community.

Local drug stores also tend to be sustainable. CVS has been trying to run Tuttle’s Pharmacy in Santa Rosa and Forestville Pharmacy out of business.

Sustainability has more to do with cooperating and sharing than with unfair, predatory competition by mega-corporations that run local businesses away and take their profits out of town and the county. Developments like the large Barlow Project, now being built in Sebastopol, follow sustainable principles, as does the One Planet Community Sonoma Mountain Village that Codding Investments is developing in nearby Rohnert Park close to SSU.

My background on this subject includes having been a member of various sustainability groups, including the original Sustainable Sebastopol group and the Sustainability Working Group at Sonoma State University. I have taught courses related to sustainability at three North Bay colleges for over a decade and published research in various books, including “Sustainability: Radical Solutions Inspiring Hope,” edited by Bob Banner, and the Sierra Club Book’s “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind,” edited by Linda Buzzell. In this book, and elsewhere, I write about sustainable agriculture, a successful business that I have practiced in the Sebastopol countryside for two decades.

Sustainable implies local, where possible, rather than global. Wal-Mart, for example, is the world’s largest grocery store. It is unsustainable, for many reasons, including that the majority of its goods come from China. Shipping them to the U.S. takes a huge amount of oil, whose supply is declining. Being dependent upon oil is not sustainable. The supply lines that cross the oceans will diminish. Trucking costs will increase, which is why building the local food supply is so important.

Global climate change is already causing problems in the food supply from the Mid-West, driving food prices up. We can expect such threats to survival to continue, which is why focusing only on human needs and neglecting nature and its balance, can lead to more hurricanes and other disasters.

Gas prices are already around $10 a gallon in Europe and are expected to rise even beyond that in the U.S., which is one reason that drive-thru, car-centric developments are unsustainable.

Sonoma County is a sustainability center. One example is the book “The Sustainability Revolution” by Andres Edwards. He acknowledges Graton’s Ann Hancock, who founded the successful Climate Protection Campaign here. She helped guide his graduate studies at the New College of California in Santa Rosa. He also credits the prolific Santa Rosa writer about fossil fuel depletion, Richard Heinberg, both of whom have been popular speakers at SSU.

Decades ago a wise social change activist wrote, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they try to co-opt you. Finally they go along with you.” The local daily is still in the ridicule stage when it writes about Sebastopol, wanting it to be more like big town Santa Rosa.

To her credit, the letter writer has evolved to the co-optation stage where she and her pro-Chase/CVS group falsely use the word that the sustainability movement has popularized. Don’t be fooled by such green-washing co-optation. Hopefully, most of us will evolve in our lovely small town and someday work together to preserve it in truly sustainable ways as we mature into the 21st century, rather than allow invasive big businesses to further dominate us.

Shepherd Bliss has taught at three North Bay Colleges and has run a sustainable farm for the last 20 years. He can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

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Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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