Meet CEO Of Good Environmental Choice Australia, Rupert Posner
There has been an increasingly environmental flavour to your career over time. What has driven that “greening”?
I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision. I’ve always had strong opinions and views on what is right and believed that one should speak out about things that matter. I have always looked to find an environmental bent in everything I have done and I guess over the years my experience in this area has grown. I have been lucky to have created a career out of it, made a difference in a small way and done a few interesting things. My experience has made me a firm believer that to get results we need to make people have good experiences. If people have a good experience they are likely to do something again. It is just as effective with senior business and political leaders. Give them a good experience doing something for the environment then they will do it again. And on a personal level I guess that has been the case too, so I have stuck with it.
You’ve campaigned for Greenpeace, advised politicians, managed communications for a government department and directed the Australian arm of The Climate Group. In which of these roles do you think you’ve achieved the most in terms of environmental protection or improvement?
I guess, at the end of the day that is the important question, where have you actually made a difference. The Climate Group gave me the flexibility to come up with ideas and make them happen. I convened the first meeting of all Australian premiers with business leaders on climate change – that seems a world away now! Providing the idea and making the introductions that led to the AFL and the clubs going carbon neutral was good to see but I guess the initiative that will have the longest and biggest impact was coming up with the proposed changes to enable solar PV to be scaled up in Australia. Seeing more than 1 million roofs with solar panels on them is great and a massive improvement from where we were less than a decade ago. And importantly, it has a demonstrable impact on our energy supply. There is no going back now, solar will play a big part in Australia’s energy future.
For several years you were the Australian Director of The Climate Group. The Australian office was closed in June 2013 “in the light of the increasingly challenging political environment for action on climate change in Australia”. What was your reaction to that? Does the closure of the Australian office undo many of its achievements?
Of course it was disappointing to see the office close. It is disappointing to see so many environmental groups doing it tough all around the world. There were so many points over the last decade where I thought we had got to the stage were we didn’t need to discuss the science anymore and could debate the strategy for action. To see us having gone backwards on this is very disappointing. Many of those questioning the science are bullies and many, including those in the media, withered and did not stand up to their unsubstantiated rubbish. That is disappointing.
On the positive side though, there has been substantial change and this has been maintained. Companies that took action, including many The Climate Group worked with, have continued on with that. Few companies that take action move backwards as they realise policies to address environmental issues are generally good for their business. The political environment will change again, and when it does, business and the community will be ready for more robust and credible action.
You are presently the CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA). How does GECA differ from other eco-labelling schemes?
GECA is the only not for profit, transparent and multi-sector ecolabel in Australia. What is important about our ecolabel is that it addresses the environmental and social impacts of a product through its entire lifecycle. So while it is good when a product addresses one important issue, such as carbon or palm oil, it can only really be considered better for the environment if it has addressed all the impacts across its life. Our scheme does this. And in a world where it can sometimes be difficult to know whether a product really is better, it provides confidence to purchasers when they want to make a better choice.
There has been talk recently of industry developing their own, weaker ratings standards to undermine stronger standards. How real is that threat? Does there need to be “ratings of the raters”?
In many sectors industry often develops its own standards and can do this for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a genuine desire to do the right thing and move its sector along, sometimes it is because it is seeking to ensure government doesn’t act and sometimes it does so in direct competition to initiatives that set more robust standards. All we can do is run the most robust and credible program and trust that people recognise this. GECA is the only Australian member of the Global Ecolabelling Network, the global body for ecolables that comply with ISO14024. We are being audited by them. Our scheme is transparent, so people can see our standards on our website and see what products are audited against. And we don’t check the products, only auditors accredited by the Australia government body JAS-ANZ do that. Credibility is important for us and for those companies that seek our certification.
Is there a risk that too many labelling schemes can confuse consumers? Would it better if there was one set of consistent, universally understood international standards?
I am all for collaboration and mergers where possible but the challenge with ecolabels is that the egg has already been scrambled. The German government established its ecolabel back in the 1970s and it is very successful, the more recent Chinese scheme is going great guns, with literally thousands of new products certified in the last year. While we do work together and the level of cooperation is increasing, it is unlikely countries will give up their own successful local schemes to become one global one.
Does GECA rate products itself, or is its role confined to developing the standards?
GECA develops standards as part of a transparent process which includes public consultation. But it does not check the products themselves, this is done by independent auditors that have been accredited by JAS-ANZ to audit against our scheme. This ensures credibility, robustness and the confidence needed for a credible third party scheme.
Is certification delivering goods that are as good as they can be, or is there still a gap between what is currently practical and what is desirable?
GECA certified products are environmentally preferable, that means they are better than most of the others on the market. But of course they still have an environmental impact as virtually everything we consume does. But we look to reduce that impact. Our standards are updated as environmental knowledge and expectations change to ensure that over time the products certified under them also improve. The challenge for an organisation like us is where to set the bar. Do we set it at the highest level possible, and have virtually no products for people to choose, or do we set it a little lower, so there are options for consumers? Clearly, we have to set it higher than where products are already produced, otherwise we’re not delivering an environmental outcome and we’d be wasting our time.
What do you rank as the most pressing area for GECA and similar bodies to address?
Demand. We need to encourage more people to choose environmentally preferable products. While many companies will voluntarily improve their products, the reality for most is that they are driven by what their customers (business, government or consumers) want. When their customers demand environmentally preferable products they change.