Were you to count the copies of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo that sold globally, you would think that millions of consumers would be switching to green’s top values – curb your consumerism and if you have to buy, shop green. It’s easy to paint business as the only anti-green boogieman but surely the government (municipal, provincial, and federal) also plays a role. Must government only set rules, impose carbon taxes, freak out oil investors, and make doing business generally more difficult?
"Part of being green," says John Loewen, CEO of Loewen Partners, "is caring for the environment and for indigenous people." Tsonga Shoes became “green” and manufactures in an 80%-unemployment-riddled area of South Africa. On-site childcare and educational facilities were established in order to encourage the mostly female workers to create micro businesses and sell their shoes to Tsonga for a living wage. It was working well until, as all manufacturers around the world are discovering, consumers started responding to cheaper goods from China.Tsonga management visited China to look into combining manufacturing locations and were astounded by their discoveries.
The massive, half-empty shoe factory they visited had marble floors. Stunned, they asked the manager how he had raised the capital to build such a place. He told them the Chinese government had paid for the factory. Workers came from hundreds of miles away and stayed in dormitories for stretches of up to a year.
“How can we compete?” asks Russell Lindsey, CEO of Tsonga. “We can put a story about our Zulu shoemaker and her child in each shoebox, but ultimately, the consumer won’t buy Tsonga if cheaper shoes are available.”Indeed. Are those No Logo readers in fact rejecting Wal-Mart’s cheap goods for Bono’s sustainable (but pricier) line EDUN.
We seem to have ADHD consumers this side of the world who, once they enter a store, ignore Naomi’s advice and stampede for the latest lead-painted Barbies from WTO members, such as China. How does our government help our businesses compete and how do we reconcile the fact that green is difficult to achieve when competing with China’s support of their own manufacturers?
Our government talks of Toronto following London’s traffic access restrictions. A good idea for London, but Toronto has much fewer travel options in its infrastructure and few trains to link our cities. Indeed, our transportation seems to be planned by Monty Python with Hamilton’s train track from Toronto stopping 16km away from the city, while other trains pass through without stopping. A functional train for passengers between Hamilton and Toronto would reduce a wretched two-hour trek to 30 minutes. Attractive enough to leave the car behind – you bet!
Instead, our government’s priority is the bun fight about inter-provincial transfers. It’s hard to believe that Canada is one country. And who suffers? Entrepreneurs. With so much inter-provincial paperwork, it’s death by a thousand cuts. Take a lesson from business: Centralized IT departments charged each division service fees so as to share costs. In reality, however, division heads ended up arguing so much about the fairness of the system they eventually turned to outside IT companies to get the job done. Outsourcing became the norm and boomed. Perhaps we could outsource government action for basic transportation services because there is more argument about payment for services than green action. Indeed, it’s time for the government to create joint public-private partnerships with green as the goal.
Canadians balk at these sorts of private-public partnerships despite their success in other countries. Mike Harris’ Superbuild project demonstrated how business backs a project if the government provides initial financial support. When ROM received a $30M commitment from Superbuild, Frank Potter, chairman of ROM’s fundraising arm, said, "This lead investment from the Ontario government will be leveraged many times over by the private sector.”
Potter’s words were prophetic as the private sector followed the government, contributing the bulk of cash and project stamina.Let’s go beyond idealism and get down to action.