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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toward a Greener Commerce

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with author and businessman Paul Hawken about creating an environmentally sustainable system of commerce and trade for the planet. Hawken believes that we can create an ecologically- sound global economy by taxing environmentally harmful goods and activities and imposing trade sanctions on countries with poor ecological habits.


CURWOOD: The economy versus the environment. It's a conflict that resounds around the world as countries and communities try to reconcile the desire for economic growth and development with the need to protect natural resources and public health. But many environmentalists and businesspeople have been saying in recent years that it's a false split; that the economy and the environment needn't be - in fact ultimately can't afford to be - viewed separately.

Paul Hawken is one such person. He's a highly successful businessman who's just published a book called The Ecology of Commerce. He says we must recognize the environment is a key part of our economy. And that while our natural resources are absolutely vital to our survival, our commercial and tax systems don't give people any incentive to protect them.

HAWKEN: Right now, you and I unintentionally destroy the world. We get up, go to work, we shop, we go home, we take care of our families and the world is worse for it. What I'm suggesting is, wouldn't it be interesting to have an industrial system where we do the same thing and the world actually gets better? Right now, conservation restoration are basically for upper middle class white people. That's who can afford to conserve. Unless the cheapest alternative is the conservative, restorative one, it's not going to happen. So what I propose is to scrap the tax system altogether.

CURWOOD: Get rid of the tax system altogether?

HAWKEN: Well, yes, taxes on employment, payrolls, salaries, profits, business - all things we supposedly encourage in economic terms.


HAWKEN: And phase in "green fees" on fossil fuels, coal, pesticides, herbicides, virgin materials, water mined from the Oklahoma Aquifer, and other activities that are basically going to cost us more in the future if we don't pay for them now in real terms, full cost accounting. Then the cheaper products become the one that are renewable, that are sustainable, that have a conservation ethic to them, so that your incentive to save is going to lead us to a more sustainable world.

CURWOOD: This sounds like a revolution. How do you take the first steps here? What do you do? And what are some examples that you can give us of everyday business decisions that are working in this positive feedback loop that you feel we should have?

HAWKEN: Well, Germany basically is instituting what I describe in the book as the intelligent product system, where basically there are only two types of products. Either products you literally throw away - I know this sounds heretical when you talk about the environment - but you throw them away, they completely degrade back into dirt. And there's no toxins or metals or persistent or biocumulative chemicals inside them. The other types of products are called products of service, which we know as durables - TVs, radios, cars, refrigerators. And what the Germans are instituting and mandating right now is if you make a durable product it's yours. You can let a consumer use it indefinitely, like a license, but when he or she is done with it, it has to go back to you. You must take it back. And you can throw away nothing. So the Germans are designing their automobiles to have value when they come back. BMW, for example, has reduced the number of plastics from 400 to 13 and is creating a revolution in chemistry and materials composition in assembly techniques which are actually making them economic, more efficient, increasing the amount of employment per car, and so you have essentially a win-win situation. Less stuff, more employment.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about a number of examples of true costs not being respected. I'm wondering how your concept deals with the global inequity of the distribution of wealth - that it's been built up primarily by paying a very low price for Third World materials - let's say, raw timber - and then collecting a very high price when these goods are sold back to these countries, gradually impoverishing them.

HAWKEN: That's an excellent question. In Rio, Agenda 21, all the nations agreed in principle that they would move toward sustainable development with no means whatsoever to accomplish that. One of the means we have at our disposal is the tariff system. And what we should have is a most sustainable nation tariff system as opposed to a most favored nation tariff system. Those countries that destroy native cultures, that exploit child labor, that are clear-cutting the Amazon, or what have you, would have such prohibitive tariffs on their products that there would be no incentive to continue those practices.

CURWOOD: How does the NAFTA agreement compare to your views here?

HAWKEN: There's many good things in the NAFTA agreement - it's not, you know, black or white. But there's a very deep flaw in it, which is we are holding up a model of prosperity to the rest of the world, not just the Mexicans, that is absolutely unattainable. 20 percent of the industrial world's population consumes 80 percent of the world's resources. If the rest of the 80 percent of the world emulates us, the world is stripped down bare, gone. And so therefore what NAFTA does is basically sort of tell a lie, which says, 'You can do what we have done and we're gonna open up the border, reduce the tariffs, and have free trade.' You know, it's a nice thing. But free trade that perpetuates an industrial system that destroys in the very act of manufacturing, that creates more pollution than we're possibly gonna mitigate is really leading ourselves and our trading partners down the wrong path.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Paul Hawken is the author of The Ecology of Commerce. Thank you.



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