By Pierre Sadik

As the federal government shows a marked reluctance to introduce new environmental regulations as well as a repeated failure to enforce existing ones, environmentalists have, often out of desperation, turned to the market to fill the gaping holes left by government.

The next time you are at the seafood counter in your grocery store or picking up plywood at the hardware store keep an eye out for a little symbol designating the product as environmentally sustainable.

The FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) symbol is almost ubiquitous on lumber products and the Canopy symbol can be found on many paper products. The Dolphin Safe symbol is ubiquitous on canned tuna and the SeaChoice label is becoming more familiar at seafood counters, particularly on the west coast.

There are other symbols such as these, each denoting a "market campaign" by environmentalists who are trying to influence the purchasing decisions of consumers, and trying to let producers and retailers know they are doing so.

As the federal government shows a marked reluctance to introduce new environmental regulations as well as a repeated failure to enforce existing ones, environmentalists have, often out of desperation, turned to the market to fill the gaping holes left by government.

Market campaigns come in many different flavours and varieties, but they all share one common feature: environmentalists seek to distinguish certain brands from others on the basis that the certified brands are fundamentally superior to all the others in terms of how the producer treats the environment.

The failure that prompts market campaigns can be viewed as part of an unfortunate pattern of the incremental abrogation of government's role in society and part of the larger pattern, previously documented in this newspaper, of declining government accountability to the public. This failure likely started well over a decade ago as the federal government, near the end of then-Prime Minister Mulroney's term, reached the zenith of its willingness to act in the public interest in relation to the environment.

Perhaps the first of many milestones on the road to government neglect of the environment was the Chrétien government's cynical and roundly condemned (though, ultimately for very different reasons) adoption of an international commitment to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, followed by a complete failure to follow through with regulations that had any hope of meeting that commitment.

One of the next milestones, though by no means the last, was the Martin government's 2004 decision not to protect the Cultus Lake sockeye salmon under the federal Species At Risk Act. In 2004 the stock was already close to extinction, with the Cultus Salmon run having declined from 70,000 to less than 100 fish (according to a report released by the federal government). This was a clear-cut case where the government failed to apply its own regulations. In instances such as this environmentalists are left with few options but to respond with a market initiative such as the SeaChoice campaign.

After some early rumblings from the current government that it would do things differently in the area of environmental regulation (one environment minister, in particular, could be heard repeatedly and emphatically referring to "tough" pending regulations) the government has more-or-less lapsed into the pattern set by its predecessors. Ironically, this pattern is followed most assiduously by the government in the realm of greenhouse gas reductions, an area where the current government took great pleasure in deriding the dubious record of the previous administration.

Another milestone again involves the Species At Risk Act, under which the federal government has a regulatory mandate to identify the critical habitat that threatened boreal woodland caribou need to survive. The government was due to release the caribou recovery strategy in June 2007. Instead, it has still not been released and the government has no plans for a release until 2011 — four years late. Meanwhile, key intact caribou habitat continues to be logged.

Just as the Cultus Lake salmon failure prompted environmentalists to rev up the SeaChoice market campaign, the government's caribou failure has, in turn, prompted environmentalists to go directly to the forestry sector and its customers with a market campaign seeking to protect caribou habitat using the Canopy paper products label.

All of these campaigns have met with only mixed success. Market campaigns involve very long lead times before the market for unsustainable goods experiences a meaningful decline. In addition, market campaigns can only cast a narrow net — and one with very large holes at that. Ultimately, they must appeal mostly to a consumer's sense of enlightened self-interest, which many are simply not susceptible to, in order to achieve success. Market campaigns cast a net with very large holes that allow numerous unsustainable producers to swim right through with impunity.

At the end of the day, legislators should recognize that market campaigns are a poor second cousin to the comprehensive, well designed environmental protection coverage that only government can provide.

Pierre Sadik is the manager of government affairs for the David Suzuki Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.

This column was first published in The Hill Times.

July 22, 2009

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