Monday, November 11, 2019

Canada's Green Party - Which Way Forward?

In his Nov. 8 Globe and Mail column, Gary Mason puts forward the interesting argument that the Green Party of Canada should either merge with the NDP or “try to build a broader, more serious platform that is palatable to a greater cross-section of Canadians.” By taking this latter path, Mason suggests, “the Greens in Germany reinvented themselves” to become a major player on that country’s political scene.

Let’s look more closely at the German experience. The Greens in that country have indeed been riding high in the polls, and they have indeed put forward a broad, serious platform. But have they done so primarily in the way that Mason suggests—by watering down their environmentalism in order to make themselves “more attractive to centrist voters”? That's highly debatable.

The German Greens recognize—as, in Canada, even the Green Party is sometimes hesitant to do—that fighting climate change and protecting our future isn’t only a matter of reducing the production and consumption of fossil fuels. In particular, they recognize that industrial animal agriculture is damaging to human health in a wide variety of ways, and is responsible for a very significant percentage of global warming. Here are some highlights from the German Green Party’s set of agricultural policies (which together form a central part of their overall program):
We will replace intensive factory farming over the next twenty years by livestock welfare-centred husbandry. We will enforce higher animal welfare standards by law, based on the needs of animals, and on ending agonising breeding techniques and intensive animal farming. … We will restructure Europe’s tax billions to ensure that environmental protection and animal welfare become new income opportunities for farmers, because the new agriculture will depend on these farmers.
A German Green party spokesperson recently confirmed that the party supports increased taxes on meat consumption, with the proceeds being directed to improving animal welfare. In all this, the German Greens are considerably bolder than the Green Party in Canada—which is currently the only major Canadian party to engage at all seriously with the damage done by industrial agriculture. (The NDP echoes the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the Bloc in their enthusiastic defence of the status quo in the Canadian agriculture sector—including massive subsidies to animal agriculture.)

A few years ago things were different for the Greens in Germany; in 2013 their support fell dramatically when they proposed a once-a-week Veggie Day, on which cafeterias would be required to offer only vegetarian choices. The change in the party’s fortunes is partly a result of having pulled back on coercive policies of that sort. But it’s also a result of real changes in public opinion. Germans may still be opposed to any party trying to tell them they can’t eat meat on any given day. But many seem no longer to be opposed to putting a price on the damage done by industrial animal agriculture.

Slowly—ever so slowly—Canadians may be starting to move in the same direction. A 2018 survey by Sylvain Charlebois of Canadians’ eating habits reported that 7.1% of Canadians self-identify as vegetarian, with over 2% of those being vegan. (By comparison, just 3% self-identified as vegetarian in 2003.) A further 10.2% described themselves as “flexitarian” or as having a “primarily vegetarian diet”; that’s over 17% either vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian. And of those Canadians who do eat meat, fully 51% reported that they were willing to consider reducing their meat intake.

I would argue that the Canadian Greens should be gently encouraging Canadians to move in just those sorts of directions. The Greens should take the lead not only in calling for an end to government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, but in doing the same when it comes to animal agriculture. And the new Green leader (whoever he or she may be) should speak to us as individuals as well, pointing out that we’re all in this together, that our governments can’t do it all, and that, just as we should all do what we can to reduce our impact when it comes to driving, flying, and heating our homes, so too should we do what we can for our environment, our health, and our children’s future when it comes to choosing what we eat and drink, what we wear, how we live our lives. The German Greens have been doing just that—and public opinion now seems finally to have caught up with them.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Blackface (and Brownface): What's the problem?

The reactions from the general public expressed on phone-in programs and in newspaper comment sections to the Justin Trudeau brownface and blackface incidents strongly suggest that many people honestly don't know about the history here--don't know why it's a racist act for a white person to wear blackface. Yet many columnists and editorials, instead of recounting that history and explaining things, have merely referenced it briefly. For any who don't know the history of the minstrel shows and so on, a very good overview is provided in a June 11 2018 piece published in The Conversation. Entitled "The Problem with Blackface," it's written by Philip S. S. Howard of McGill University. Here's a link:

Farming and Global Warming

CBC Radio's Sunday Edition with Michael Enright today featured a panel of three farmers repeatedly asserting that farmers are "the good guys in the carbon debate.” The facts are otherwise: study after study has shown that industrial agriculture—and animal agriculture in particular—is a massive contributor to climate change, responsible for something like 15% of total global warming and for much of the deforestation that accounts for another 15% or more. It’s not just the methane the cows emit and the many energy inputs that are required to produce a pound of hamburger; it’s also that getting the same protein and other nutrients from non-meat sources takes several times less land and several times less energy. The best carbon sinks are not on our farms; they are in the Amazon rainforest that’s now being cut down at a tremendous pace to create grazing land so as to feed the world more beef. “Eat less meat” (or better still, no meat at all) should indeed be a rallying cry for environmentalists.

One of the participants went so far as to suggest that the current agricultural policies of our political parties are created “out of the whinings” of those who protest cruelty towards animals in the turkey and other farm industries—the exact opposite of the truth. With the notable exception among major parties of the Green Party of Canada (and among smaller parties of the Animal Protection Party of Canada) Canada's political parties have been just as reluctant to address the issue of cruelty to animals in farming as they have been to address animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change; instead, they continue to direct billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money into subsidizing those industries.

In a couple of other interviews earlier this year--notably, one with Isa Leshko, author of Allowed to Grow Old--Enright had sounded as if he was starting to understand the problems associated with animal agriculture. But today, he sounded as much in denial as any of the three farmers.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Money and Happiness

In recent years I have been making the case for paying people at the top of an organization no more than 3-4 times what the lowest paid member of that organization is paid.* So if the cleaner or the newly-hired junior clerk makes $30,000, $90,000 or so is an appropriate salary for the CEO. I've been arguing that on grounds of fairness, but it now appears that such ratios may benefit those at the top of the ladder as well as those on lower rungs. A 2018 study by Andrew Jebb and Lewis Tay of Purdue University concludes that there is a point beyond which having a higher income is not likely to make you happier-and may even make you less so. Depending on the measure used, the study suggests that the "point of satiation" is in the range of $75,000 to $95,000 (in 2018 US dollars). Amy Patterson Neubert (also of Purdue) summarizes the results in this way:
The study ... found once the threshold was reached, further increases in income tended to be associated with reduced life satisfaction and a lower level of well-being. This may be because money is important for meeting basic needs, purchasing conveniences, and maybe even loan repayments, but to a point. After the optimal point of needs is met, people may be driven by desires such as pursuing more material gains and engaging in social comparisons, which could, ironically, lower well-being. (Purdue News, 13 February 2018: Money only buys happiness for a certain amount)
The fairness argument is still the most compelling one, of course. But it's good to know that rich people have reason to support a much fairer pay structure too-even if they find it difficult to look beyond their own self-interest!

P.S. My attention was drawn to the Purdue research by an excellent article in today's Globe and Mail on how large houses can also make you less happy. It's by Matthew Hague; I highly recommend it. (
*See "Why Plato was Right: Those at the Top Should Be Paid No More than Three or Four Times What We Pay Those at the Bottom "

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ethical Clothing and the Need for a Fashion Revolution

Over the last few years I’ve started (finally) to pay attention to the ethics of what I wear. If something’s been made by a company that treats its workers horribly, I don’t want to wear it. (The same goes for the fabric that goes into what I wear.) I’m sure many feel the same—but as anyone who has tried will know, it can be extremely difficult to obtain reliable information on such matters. When I have asked in shops, the answers I’ve received have ranged from “They don’t tell us that” to “People don’t usually ask us that sort of question” to “That’s a pretty reputable brand; I don’t think they would allow unethical practices.”

But the fact is that the vast majority even of “reputable brands” aren’t transparent about their practices. And, interestingly, there seems to be little or no correlation between the list of companies that have cultivated reputations as ethical enterprises and the list of companies that actually behave in a responsible, transparent, ethical way. I came across one instance of this recently when my partner was ordering some of my favorite L.L. Bean shirts for me. I thought I had some sense of L.L. Bean being an ethical brand, but after Maureen had put in the order I thought “maybe I’ll just check their website and see what it says.” Sure enough, the reassurance was all there in black and white—and in large print too: “You can be assured that [an L.L. Bean product] was manufactured under legal, safe and fair working conditions. Because we believe every worker—and every person—deserves respect.”

Those visiting the site can also click on the L.L. Bean Official Manufacturer’s Code of Conduct. That’s in much smaller print. Here is some of what it says:
As a base, employers will pay employees the prevailing industry wage or at least the minimum wage required by local law, whichever is higher….
Except in extraordinary business circumstances, employees …will not be required to work more than … 66 hours per week.
My favorite L.L. Bean shirts are made in Malaysia, so I looked up the minimum wage in Malaysia—it’s equivalent to roughly $1.25 in American currency. Was the “prevailing industry wage” any higher? I couldn’t find anything suggesting that it was; “prevailing industry wage” is of course a notoriously slippery term. So too is “extraordinary business circumstances.” I sent the folks at L.L. Bean an email:
Dear LL Bean

… I’d always assumed LL Bean would have high standards; what a rude shock it was to discover that what you describe as “strict standards” are in fact so lax. You allow people to work 66 hours per week in your factories—that’s 10 ½ hours a day, 6 days a week! But in fact they may have to work even more than that if their employer declares that “extraordinary business circumstances” apply. That’s a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack Truck through.

And how much are employees paid? In Malaysia, where these shirts are made, I see the local minimum wage is 5.05 local currency an hour—equivalent to roughly US $1.25. In other words, when one checks out the fine print in your “Official Manufacturer’s Code of Conduct,” it’s clear that the workers in your factories can work incredibly long hours at incredibly low wages. Yet in the large print you make this boast: “you can be assured that it was manufactured under legal, safe and fair working conditions. Because we believe every worker – and every person – deserves respect.”

How do you square the two? And when will you be raising your standards?

That was over a month ago; I’ve received no reply.

But I did discover late last week that L.L. Bean is far from unusual. The CBC had an excellent feature last Friday on The Current—a David Common interview with Carry Somers, the founder and head of Fashion Revolution, “an advocacy group that demands transparency and improved business practices in the fashion industry.” They publish a Fashion Transparency Index that lists 200 leading suppliers of clothing—and ranks them. I urge you to check it out. You’ll find, among other things, that no brand achieved a score of over 70%, and that only five brands achieved a score of between 61 and 70%. Of the 200, 92 scored in the 0-10% range. And in between? Let me pass along a very partial list of the various categories:
61-70%: 5 brands— Adidas, Reebok, Patagonia, Esprit, H&M

51-60%: 15 brands, including The North Face, Wrangler, Nike, Converse, Banana Republic, The Gap, Old Navy, and Levi Strauss

41-50%: 17 brands, including Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, United Colors of Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, and Lululemon

31-40%: 15 brands, including Gucci, St Laurent, Bonprix, Burberry, and Target

21-30%: 30 brands, including Walmart, Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue, Ralph Lauren, Prada

11-20%: 47 brands, including Land’s End, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Hanes, Macy’s Bloomingdales, Joe Fresh, J.C. Penney, J. Crew

0-10%: 92, including Brooks Brothers, Footlocker, Urban Outfitters, Versace, Eddie Bauer—and L.L. Bean
Again, there seems to be little or no correlation between the list of companies that have cultivated reputations as ethical enterprises and companies that actually behave in a responsible, transparent, ethical way. Nor is there much correlation between higher priced, luxury brands and brands that behave more ethically. Prada and Ralph Lauren and Saks Fifth Avenue are in the same low group as Walmart—while Old Navy and Converse are in the second-highest group. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the companies that could most easily afford to treat their workers better are not always most likely to do so.

I know one thing: next time I buy shirts, I’m going to be looking at what Patagonia has to offer before I consider buying my old favorites at L.L. Bean!


I sent the letter below to The Globe and Mail this past week after reading an excellent column by Paul Shapiro. The letter was published in yesterday's paper (along with a very good letter by Anna Pippus, calling for governments to play a much more active role on these issues).
Re If You Don’t Want to Ditch Meat For your own Health, Do It To Avoid Pandemics (April 24): Paul Shapiro’s piece on the many good reasons we should transition away from eating animals mentions the UN’s conclusion that 15% of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal agriculture. But the relevant UN Food and Agriculture Organization study looked only at the agricultural operations themselves. An additional 10-15% is attributable to deforestation, which is primarily also related to animal agriculture; we cut down “carbon sink” forests primarily in order to grow crops that are to be fed not to us, but to animals we will then eat.

When we obtain our nourishment directly from plant sources, far, far fewer forests are destroyed; if we transition away from eating animal products, the net positive effect on climate change will be closer to 30% than 15%.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Voting Green

I've just posted the message below on the Facebook page of Vegans of Nanaimo. (That's a group that had a little over 400 members a year or so ago; now it's well over 1,000--in a city of fewer than 100,000.)
For the past several months I’ve been doing everything I can to lobby two Canadian political parties—the Green Party and the New Democratic Party—on issues relating to the harms caused by animal agriculture to the environment, to human health, and of course to non-human animals.

A couple of weeks ago I urged members of this group to come out to a town-hall style NDP meeting at which federal leader Jagmeet Singh would be speaking. As those of you who were there will know, both he and local candidate Bob Chamberlin spoke at some length about the environment. As is usual for New Democrats, however, they said nothing in that context about animal agriculture. The flyers I started to distribute on this issue were collected by an NDP staffer almost as fast as I could hand them out. When I spoke with Singh one-on-one following the meeting—the second time I had spoken to him on this issue—he said he was thinking about it; he gave no indication that his thoughts might translate into policy recommendations for the party anytime soon. Over the phone, a staffer said local candidate Bob Chamberlin would phone me about this issue; he never has. I had also written Singh (and two other NDP MPs who I thought might have an interest in this area) over 6 months ago; there has been no response whatsoever from any of them.

Over the same period I’ve been in touch with Green Party people; what a contrast! When I wrote Green Party shadow cabinet members last fall on these issues, several responded thoughtfully and at length. Elizabeth May herself eventually wrote to say that she agreed that “we must transition to a more plant-based diet as part of the fight to combat climate change.” And this week local candidate Paul Manly wrote, saying that he “definitely would support policies to encourage Canadians to eat a plant based diet.”

The Green Party as a whole is still very far from fully recognizing the importance of these issues. As my email correspondence with Green shadow cabinet members made clear, there are many in the party who regard it as much more important to support organic meat and dairy operations than it is to encourage Canadians to move away from animal products, period. And there are many Greens too who are reluctant to acknowledge the importance of animal agriculture (and associated deforestation) as a key driver of climate change; under the heading “Solving the Climate Crisis,” the Green Party’s website still says absolutely nothing about animal agriculture and the degree to which it contributes to climate change. At the moment there is nothing on the party’s website supporting policies to encourage Canadians to eat fewer animal products, and more plants and vegetables. But however slowly, the Green Party does seem to be moving in the right direction on these issues—and certainly that seems to be the case for Party leader Elizabeth May and local candidate Paul Manly. Moreover, the Greens are clearly open to hearing us—and to welcoming us into the Green Party and encouraging us to try to influence the shaping of future policies. The NDP, on the other hand, does not seem to be moving at all on these issues—and they don’t even seem willing to listen.

I first joined the NDP in 1978, and I’ve volunteered for the party in dozens of elections since then. I ran as a federal candidate for the New Democrats in 2000. But gradually over the past couple of decades (I started changing my meat-eating habits in the late 1990s, and went vegan in 2011) I’ve come more and more to appreciate just how important and just how interconnected these issues are. On this network of issues—arguably the most important we face today—the NDP has failed completely. I’ll be voting for Paul Manly and the Greens in the May 6 by-election; I urge you to do the same.