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Green GradesCan Information Save the Earth?$

Graham Bullock

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262036429

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262036429.001.0001

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(p.ix) Preface

(p.ix) Preface

Green Grades

Graham Bullock

The MIT Press

A local watershed association in central New Jersey designs a River-Friendly Town Certification Program to encourage the adoption of environmental ordinances and policies. An international nonprofit organization in southwest China develops a Green Tourism and Ecotourism Program to assist local government officials and villagers in creating new models of community-based, environmentally friendly tourism. Five U.S. government agencies recruit stakeholder representatives from government, nonprofit organizations, academia, and industry to help choose a set of national environmental indicators. A social venture Internet startup builds a website that provides information to consumers about the social, environmental, and health performance of products and companies.

These four efforts were initiated by different types of organizations, at different scales, in different places, to solve very different problems, but they all employed similar strategies that share a common goal. Each of these initiatives provides information in order to catalyze improved environmental performance. Over the course of my career, I have had direct experience with each of these initiatives, and they have demonstrated to me the increasingly important role that information is playing in the environmental arena. I believe that the emergence of such information-based governance strategies is one of the most important developments in environmental policy and management in recent years. These strategies include eco-labels on products and services, environmental ratings of government agencies, green rankings of private companies, and scientific assessments of environmental quality. They have been employed by a wide range of actors across the economy and around the world.

These initiatives present difficult organizational and strategic questions for policymakers and advocacy groups interested in regulating (p.x) industry—does information disclosure complement, replace, or distract from more traditional governance approaches? They also present challenges for companies, consumers, and citizens as well—what is the right response to the multitude of green claims that we encounter in the marketplace? On a more theoretical level, information-based strategies raise important questions about the mechanisms of collective action, the roles of state and nonstate actors, and the importance of individual vs. institutional action in encouraging policy innovations.

And yet their emergence and effectiveness is poorly understood and hotly contested. Proponents view these initiatives as useful approaches to tackle problems that are either ill-suited to top-down regulation or not politically urgent enough to drive such regulation. Critics see them as poor substitutes for effective government regulation and a form of “greenwashing” that reduces support for legislative action. I believe the resolution of this debate requires a deep understanding of the many different factors that influence the outcomes of these initiatives. This book is designed to contribute to such understanding, and enable policymakers, corporate executives, civil society advocates, researchers, and individual citizens to help increase the effectiveness of information-based governance. It builds on important foundational research by scholars in a wide range of different fields, including political science, management, psychology, economics, sociology, and engineering. Their contributions have focused on an impressive diversity of specific industries, initiatives, concepts, and issue areas, and have yielded key insights about the nature of these programs.

My research builds on this work by defining the disparate strategies they describe as a new form of governance that has distinctive properties revolving around their value, trustworthiness, quality, and usability. I have analyzed these initiatives using an interdisciplinary mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, including semi-structured interviews and software-based document analysis and coding. By rigorously looking at this phenomenon across a wide range of sectors and issue areas, this book is designed to provide new insights about the dynamics of information-based governance that can inform both broader comparative studies across different contexts as well as more focused studies of particular initiatives.

I hope that my diverse professional and academic background has enabled me to make this book both intellectually rigorous and practically useful. I have been involved with information-based strategies since (p.xi) early in my career, starting with my first job out of college working for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. I drafted a plan for a “River-Friendly Town Certification Program,” based on research I conducted on environmental ordinances adopted across the state of New Jersey. I then moved to China to work for The Nature Conservancy, and over the course of three years developed a new sustainable tourism program focused on creating green tourism development plans and community-based ecotourism enterprises. Much of this work involved identifying criteria for defining green tourism and ecotourism and then implementing projects that met those criteria.

After returning to graduate school in the United States, I cofounded the social venture startup GoodGuide, and was responsible for identifying and collecting over six hundred data points from a diverse range of product and corporate datasets and then aggregating them into user-friendly ratings for consumers. Through this experience I developed an extensive knowledge of the landscape of environmental certifications and ratings and an awareness of the complex organizational and technical processes behind them. These hands-on experiences at both GoodGuide and The Nature Conservancy give me a practitioner’s understanding of the challenges facing environmental policymakers, activists, and entrepreneurs at the international, national, and local levels as they pursue information-based governance strategies.

My academic research complements this professional experience. As an undergraduate ecology and evolutionary biology major at Princeton University, I investigated the environmental and economic effects of tourism development at nine sites in southwest China, and developed a metric to measure the extent of those effects. As a Master in Public Policy (MPP) student at the Harvard Kennedy School, I examined stakeholder engagement in the development of national environmental indicators by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. And my dissertation research at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources used a mixed methods approach to study the popularity and perceived effectiveness of product eco-labels and corporate green ratings. This book is in large part based on that work, as well as my continuing research at Davidson College, where I have served as a professor of political science and environmental studies since 2011. At Davidson, I have also (p.xii) taught several courses directly related to the focus of this book, including Environmental Politics; Citizens, Consumers, and the Environment; and the Politics of Information.

I have therefore been engaged with the environmental information space for nearly twenty years, in a range of both professional and academic contexts. Throughout these experiences, I have observed and participated in many debates about the effectiveness of information-based strategies, and been torn between the arguments presented by the opposing sides. As an academic I have often been skeptical of the optimistic rhetoric I have heard from information entrepreneurs, who often do not seem cognizant of the complexities and limitations of these strategies. But as a practitioner I often found myself frustrated with the knee-jerk negativity of academics and advocates who criticize any and all governance approaches that rely on information. Even those who make reasonable arguments for or against particular programs often seem to be animated by a deeper optimism or pessimism about this form of governance.

I too have felt the push and pull of these opposing perspectives; I remember, for example, explaining my work on the river-friendly town idea with particular gusto and enthusiasm, and with little emphasis on the challenges it faced. I was similarly optimistic about my work with GoodGuide and The Nature Conservancy. And I remember being perhaps overly critical of particular programs in class discussions as both an undergraduate and graduate student. But throughout these experiences, my intuition has been that neither the fully positive nor fully negative perspective are right, as they fail to capture the complexity of both information-based governance specifically and the enterprise of governance more generally. It is from this intuition and these experiences that I have tried to articulate the more nuanced third way of “information realism” that is presented in this book.

My own history of involvement with the four initiatives I describe earlier may be a bit of an outlier, but I believe most readers, upon reflection, will also recognize the ubiquity of such information in their own lives, and acknowledge the complexity of our relationship with that information. Whether it is the air quality index reported in the daily weather report, the fuel economy rating of your car, the instructions on what to recycle at the office, or the panoply of food labels you experience at the grocery store, we increasingly encounter information about the environment (or our impacts on the environment) in both our personal and professional lives. And we (p.xiii) understand, at least subconsciously, that this information is not perfectly accurate or absolutely trustworthy, but may nevertheless be useful to us at some level. Rather than deciding whether all of these different forms of information are either unvaryingly good or bad, the real challenge is figuring out which information is most and least useful to specific decisions we have to make.

Building on my background in the field and using a variety of research methods and theoretical concepts, I have written this book to help scholars, practitioners, and the rest of us tackle this challenge and make sense of the panoply of information surrounding us. The book focuses on environmental information about products and companies, but I believe it is applicable not only to other forms of environmental information, but also to information in other sectors and arenas as well. I hope that it not only empowers scholars to do more research in this field of inquiry, but also encourages organizations to design more effective information-based initiatives and consumers to more effectively evaluate and utilize these initiatives.

I have thus tried to write the book for a diverse set of audiences, which is always a challenging task. In order to accomplish this goal, I have organized the book around the accessible but novel concept of an information value chain, which is explained in more detail in chapter 1. Each chapter discusses one component of this value chain and the challenges and opportunities associated with it. Each chapter is also animated by the common theme of information realism, which I suggest is a useful alternative to the information pessimism and information optimism that currently dominate the debate about information-based strategies. Readers are introduced to this debate in chapter 1, and reengage with it in the context of the different components of the information value chain in subsequent chapters.

The chapters themselves are also designed to provide useful information and insights to different audiences while still being broadly accessible to everyone. The introductory chapter introduces the topic and provides some historical background and political context for it, while the final chapter summarizes the book’s insights and provides both general and specific recommendations for a range of actors. Each of the main chapters begins with a short vignette about an individual facing a decision about some form of environmental information. These individuals range from corporate executives to government officials to environmental activists, and they help situate and ground each chapter’s focus.

(p.xiv) These vignettes are then followed by a discussion of key theoretical concepts that are useful in analyzing information-based strategies. By clearly articulating the meaning of these concepts, which are highlighted in italics the first time they are introduced, these theory-based discussions are designed to make these concepts more accessible and useful to all readers. Understanding the meaning of legitimacy and the difference between replicability and reliability, for example, can help practitioners design better information, scholars do more precise research on that information, and users evaluate it more accurately. Within each chapter, I provide a theoretical framework for readers that connects the different concepts discussed. Discussion of these concepts is complemented by related insights from empirical studies by a wide range of political scientists, sociologists, economics, engineers, and scholars of management, marketing, and psychology.

Following these theory-oriented sections, I then present original research from a cross-cutting dataset of 245 cases of product eco-labels and corporate sustainability ratings related to each chapter’s primary focus. I created this dataset to provide an overarching cross-sector perspective on these programs, and it provides valuable insights on the patterns of organizational behavior that have developed among existing programs since the first modern examples were created in the 1970s. It also enables the identification of the most promising and problematic practices across a wide range of sectors and initiative types, which are also discussed in each chapter and applied to each chapter’s opening vignette.

Before we begin learning about these practices, exploring this dataset, and engaging with the debate over environmental information, a few quick notes about terminology are in order. Throughout the book, I use terms such as “environmental,” “green,” “sustainable,” and “ethical” to describe the programs that are the focus of my analysis. Each of these terms arguably deserves quotes around it whenever it is used to signify its contested and vague nature. Such a convention would quickly become tiresome, however, and so instead I note here that my use of these terms is not an endorsement of their implied meaning (i.e., that a particular product is indeed sustainable) but a placeholder for my longer definition of the phenomenon I am investigating—information-based environmental governance strategies that generate publicly-available evaluations of products or companies (for more on this definition, see chapter 1 and appendix I). These strategies are (p.xv) the “green grades” named in the title of this book (and my dissertation), and make claims of sustainability and environmental benefits that may or may not be valid. Likewise, the terms “evaluation organizations,” “labels,” “certifications,” “ratings,” “programs,” and “initiatives” all generally refer to this phenomenon.

A couple of other caveats are necessary. While sustainability has generally been recognized to include both social and economic dimensions, the scope of this book is confined to the environmental, or green, dimension of the concept. This decision was not based on my evaluation of the relative importance of this dimension, but the need to narrow my focus of analysis and the fact that my own expertise is in the environmental domain. I do briefly discuss social issues in chapter 2, but they deserve much more extensive treatment than is possible in this book. The same caveat can be made about the book’s geographic focus—I chose to focus on initiatives that evaluate products or companies that are generally available in the United States not only because of the disproportional impact that Americans have on the environment, but also because it is the context with which I am most familiar (despite my work in China). But I believe the frameworks and conclusions presented in the book may be useful and relevant to other national contexts as well as other policy domains.

A final note is one of intellectual gratitude and humility. I could not have completed this book without the guidance and advice of a great number of people, from my many academic mentors, professional supervisors, intellectual peers, and organizational colleagues. They include Kate O’Neill, Bill Clark, and Andy Dobson, my academic advisors who expertly guided me through my thesis-writing experiences at Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton, respectively. My committee members at Berkeley—David Levine, David Vogel, Keith Gilless, John Harte, and David Winickoff—also were immensely helpful to me throughout my dissertation research process.

I received helpful feedback on each chapter of the book from a wide range of both scholars and practitioners. Sarah Anderson, Chris Ansell, Mary Bullock, Susan Caplow, Charlotte Hill, Ben Cashore, Holly Elwood, Elena Fagotto, Archon Fung, Gill Holland, Allison Kinn, Erika Weinthal, and Ken Worthy all read one or more chapters of the book and provided me with useful feedback that was informed by their particular areas of expertise. The book also benefited greatly from comments on individual chapters (p.xvi) from a multidisciplinary group of my Davidson College colleagues, including Besir Ceka (political science), Sean McKeever (philosophy), Tabitha Peck (math and computer science), Kevin Smith (biology), and Anelise Shrout (digital studies). I was also fortunate to receive particularly detailed and constructive comments from several anonymous reviewers on the full manuscript. And many others too numerous to list—at UC Berkeley, Duke University, and elsewhere—provided useful advice and assistance on my work over the nearly ten years I have been occupied with various components of this project. I am also grateful for the many engaging and insightful conversations about certifications and ratings I had with my colleagues while I was at GoodGuide (e.g. Dara O’Rourke, Shawn Jeffery, Ryan Aipperspach), Resources for the Future (e.g., Jim Boyd, Leonard Shabman, Roger Sedjo), The Nature Conservancy (e.g., Ed Norton, Rose Niu, Angela Cun), and the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association (e.g., George Hawkins, Noelle MacKay).

My research assistants Hayley Currier, Becky Johnson, and Ashley Page were particularly instrumental in conducting the research presented in the book. They served as tirelessly systematic collectors and coders of the text from hundreds of webpages, contributing tremendously to the compilation of the EEPAC Dataset. Both their work and my work were made possible by the support of the National Science Foundation, the Intel People and Practices Research Group, UC Berkeley, and Davidson College. I am grateful for the comments on several of the chapters from students in my Politics of Information class at Davidson, including Naomi Coffman, Becky Johnson, Chris Johnson, Hannah Lieberman, Kacey Merlini, Sean Vassar, Charlotte Woodhams, and Philip Yu. And I also deeply appreciate the willingness of my interviewees to share their perspectives on eco-labels and sustainability ratings with me. Last but not least, special recognition goes out to my wife Sally Bullock for providing detailed comments on all seven chapters (and sometimes on multiple versions!). Suffice to say, I am deeply grateful for all of the assistance and feedback I have received from so many different and generous people.

This support has enabled me to come to the conclusions and make the recommendations that I do in this book, and I genuinely believe they will be helpful to scholars, practitioners, and citizens. But these insights also require an important caveat that should accompany all credible knowledge claims—they are contingent and open to critique and revision as our (p.xvii) understanding improves over time. This is why I have identified practices as “most promising” and “most problematic,” as opposed to simply “best” and “worst.” The latter implies a finality and certainty that at this point in time is inappropriate and misleading; instead, the former suggests the necessity of continued inquiry and experimentation that is the hallmark of both sound science and democratic governance. The aim of this book is to serve as a catalyst for such inquiry and experimentation, by building on the lessons learned from the past and informing the efforts of the future. Information-based governance, like any form of governance, requires such constant and continuous improvement to truly mature and develop its full potential. (p.xviii)