In June, I attended the Annual Meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) at Santa Clara University, which is right outside San Jose, CA. I presented a paper on “Environmental Evaluations of Companies and Products: The Role of Academia,” which built on data from an online survey of over 400 individuals I conducted as part of my dissertation research. Among those surveyed, academic institutions were the most preferred source of information about the product and corporate environmental performance — more preferred than government, non-profit, media, and company sources. And yet my coding of over 245 eco-label and rating initiatives indicate academic institutions are the least likely to be directly involved in the implementation and design of these programs. I analyzed several examples of initiatives that are run by or closely associated with academic institutions, as a means to demonstrate the range of ways academics can be involved in these efforts.
We then discussed why academic researchers have had such limited involvement, whether they should be more involved (without losing their credibility and independence), and ways that might facilitate academics to becoming more engaged with these programs in the future. While there are important pitfalls to avoid in doings, the strong preferences survey participants have for academic involvement suggest that they can very much improve the perceived quality and credibility of existing eco-labels and ratings.
The conference overall was fantastic, and I learned a lot from the diverse sessions that I attended. Strongly recommended conference for people who research environmental issues, and especially those who teach in interdisciplinary environmental studies and sciences programs.
This spring I worked with several students and staff in creating a “Responsible Consumption Working Group” on campus. The idea of it was born out of a talk I gave last fall for an event students organized on “responsible consumption,” and there was enough interest in the concept that we decided to create this group to actually work on testing out and implementing the idea in our lives.
Our organizing question has been whether or not we can come up with innovative new strategies to make buying more environmentally and socially responsible products easier and more fun. Some of the ideas we have been testing out have included picking out our own issues we want to research but then meeting monthly to compare notes, sharing our results with each other online, and deciding to research and make a decision on what to do about product category within a specified amount of time. So far we’ve made some great progress, and our group was recently featured in the Davidson Journal, Davidson College’s alumni magazine (http://davidsonjournal.davidson.edu/?p=2385). We plan to continue our work this fall — stay tuned and get in touch if you are interested in joining us!
In November, I attended and presented a paper at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) in Cleveland, OH. The paper was titled “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Expertise and Democracy in Eco-Label Accountability,” and looked at the role of several new initiative that have emerged to evaluate the effectiveness of eco-labels and sustainability ratings. Rating the raters, or “guarding the guardians,” hence the reference to the famous phrase in Latin. These different initiatives all attempt to employ different processes of science and technologies of participation to establish their legitimacy as such guardians, and I analyzed the approaches of two particular cases, the FTC and EnviroMedia.
The obvious question that arises is, who watches the watchers of the watchers? There are two possible ways to end the infinite loop — one is competition and peer review (they watch each other) and the other is public transparency and accountability (we, the public, watch them). Whether or these mechanisms are effective is a question for another day…