By Robert Engelman
True to its iconic national color—green—Ireland may be the first country whose government is taking steps to measure sustainability and to integrate the concept into its economy.
They’re small steps, not remotely on a scale or schedule that can stop the world’s climate from heating up to well past 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times. But Ireland is a small country, and (as Worldwatch has discovered working with small-island states in the Caribbean) small nations can act as beacons pointing the way to sustainable behavior—particularly when large nations refuse to lead.
Ireland’s “scheme” (the term, while pejorative in American English, means program or plan here) is called Origin Green. It’s an apt name that calls to mind both the deep history of the country’s people and the lush verdure of its land. Origin Green is the brainchild of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, an independent agency funded largely by the government to promote Irish food exports to a globalized world. The board held a one-day conference last week on sustainable food production, and used the opportunity to educate some 800 attendees on the Origin Green program. (Full disclosure: the board covered my expenses to attend.)
Having written a chapter in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013 called “Beyond Sustainababble,” I tend to apply a skeptical ear to the use of the words sustainable and sustainability, especially by corporations. As I note in the chapter, the S-words are often used without meaning or verification to pitch brands and products to consumers who want to help the planet through their purchasing power. And indeed, some of the corporate executives presenting at the meeting on their companies’ efforts did skirt past the tough question of what sustainability really means, particularly for their own operations.
There were plenty of PowerPoint slides showing reductions in the use of energy, water, and other resources. And there were some mentions of long-term targets and even a few goals of achieving zero waste or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the future. These are healthy signs that these companies—ranging in this meeting from Irish firms like Errigal Seafood to multinationals like PepsiCo—are at least showing some leadership and are ahead of the many others that can’t be bothered to worry about their impact on the future of humanity.
But what was more interesting than the individual corporate efforts is the role that the Food Board—and thus indirectly the Irish government—is playing in trying to introduce real metrics of sustainability into the food industry, all the way to the farm itself.