Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bike Businesses in the News Underscore Weakness in Green Certification

Did you see the Sunday article about South Salem Cycleworks in the Business section of the paper? It doesn't seem to be online.

The piece is also in some ways advertorial for the County's "Earthwise" certification program:
Just the fact that bike shops promote bicycling is enough to call them "green."

But South Salem Cycleworks gives new meaning to the term "earth-friendly business" with the dozens of ways it recycles, reuses, and reduces its environmental footprint.

The business has been Earthwise certified since 2014, although owner Michael Wolfe has been making the environment a priority since the shop opened in 1991.
South Salem Cycleworks also won "Recycler of the Year" at the Green Awards in 2015, and you might recall a profile of Wolfe back in 2013, which also highlighted much of the greenery.

Northwest HUB "Green Service of the Year," 2016
This year at the Green Awards, another bike shop, the Northwest HUB, won "Green Service of the Year."

There's a substantial love for the bikes and those to provide and service them!

But the Salem Airport is also an Earthwise certified entity. And an airport ipso facto is profoundly harmful and not at all green.

You may remember a paper last year that argued climate scientists should cease air travel. Conferences are fun - but at what cost?
To meet international climate goals, aviation emissions must fall dramatically. Technological fixes won’t get us there — the bulk of the necessary cuts will need to come from a reduction in the number of flights.
Greenhouse gas by sector
via Oregon Global Warming Commission
In Oregon transportation accounts for around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and yet even though these two bike businesses have been recognized, transportation in general is barely accounted for in programs like Earthwise. Transportation is a throw-away check-off in "Above and Beyond," the ninth set of questions and a coda at the end of a preliminary assessment for Earthwise certification. Even the headline, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle...and Ride" makes it a coda.

Earthwise sample preliminary assessment
Transportation is regarded as an extra, a frill, a non-essential component in being sustainable. It's not structurally considered part of sustainability. Four automotive companies, including one large car dealership group, are in fact Earthwise certified.

East of Kuebler, the Mill Creek Corporate Center
and Salem Renewable Energy and Techology Center
 are remote from anything except the interstate.
Greenwash - via
Portland Mercury
One of the next steps for programs like Earthwise will be to fold transportation and land use into their analyses of sustainability. Even if you recycle the hell out of everything, if you locate a new business on the edge of the city in new construction with a huge parking lot and force everyone to make drive-alone trips to it, and driving trips for lunch or break-time errands, how can that be considered sustainable? Our "Salem Renewable Energy and Technology Center" is founded upon an internal contradiction, and programming like Earthwise needs to develop a critique or assessment of this.

There are almost certainly other full lifecycle factors that are elided or externalized in the way we assess and certify companies as "green." Reusing an old building, for example, is generally much greener than new LEED certified construction. (The conversation here and here about LEED, Passive House, and Minergie certification is interesting on the gaps in each.)

It is, of course, that old conundrum -  Carrot or stick? Encouragement or enforcement? In late antiquity, and in a way that is really archetypal, it is Augustine's dispute with Pelagius, whether membership should be inclusive for everybody, including the biggest screw-ups who are encouraged to do better, or should be exclusive only for the perfect? (Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and all that.)

But as long as we treat businesses as boxes that can be plopped down anywhere and we limit our analysis of sustainability to the internal processes of things inside that box, focusing on "reduce, reuse, and recycle [things]," and don't look at the external processes and movements of things outside that box, we will be limited in our ability to model more accurately the structural changes that are necessary to real sustainability.

The bike businesses are not just quirky additions for local color and charm. They are actually modeling some of the deepest and most thorough-going expressions of sustainability we currently have.

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