It turns out that vegan-friendly alternatives to fur and leather, as seen on display at Australia’s recent Fashion Week (above), can harm sea creatures, because they are made of that other pervasive ecovillain: plastic (see Vegan-friendly fashion is actually bad for the environment). The evidence is not yet clear, but some animal fabrics may be the least harmful choice overall. Such unintuitive outcomes crop up again and again when we try to make ethical lifestyle choices. As New Scientist has reported, ditching disposable plastic bags for a fetching cotton tote only pays off after you have used it 131 times, due to the large environmental burden of cotton – which is also an issue for clothes. Beware the bandwagon, 'New Scientist', 13 JuneThe sort of life-cycle analyses (LCAs) required to establish the environmental benefits or otherwise of shifts in our behaviour are bedevilled by boundary issues, measurement difficulties and the difficulty of weighting one type of environmental impact against another. They might be better than blandly assuming that vegan clothes are 'better' than animal fabrics, rail is better than air travel, solar power is better than coal-fired power stations, etc, but for the making of robust policy LCAs would need to be continually reassessed in the light of our ever-expanding knowledge of the environment and our ever-changing environmental priorities.
Government policy cannot be so responsive nor, probably, can any single organisation - at least not as currently structured. If government did use life-cycle analysis with the aim of altering our behaviour, it would necessarily do so on the basis of a one-time, limited, and possibly subjective assessment of environmental costs and benefits. It’s not good enough, but even worse would be what we largely have now: environmental policy based on corporate interests, 'what feels right', media stories and the launching of visually appealing initiatives that attract air time but are otherwise useless.
Social Policy Bonds would take a different approach. They would subordinate environmental policy to targeted environmental outcomes, which could be national or global. Say, for instance, that we wish to preserve the Earth's marine environment. A Social Policy Bond issue that rewarded the sustained achievement of such a goal would generate incentives for bondholders to bring it about at least cost. They might well carry out life-cycle analyses in their attempt to do so. But there is an important difference between the way do they would conduct their research and the way government, or any supra-government body would do so: bondholders have continuous long-term incentives to achieve our goal efficiently. This is likely to mean responding to and stimulating increased knowledge of scientific relationships, and technical advances. Investors might conduct LCAs, but they would do so in ways that optimise the benefit to the marine environment per dollar spent.
Effective environmental policy must take a long-term view and for national or global goals, will need to encourage diverse, adaptive approaches. The environment and our knowledge about it are just too complex for an 'it feels good', command-and-control approach that, for instance, brands animal-derived clothing, or plastic shopping bags as bad. Diverse, adaptive approaches to addressing complex problems are precisely the sort of responses that government does very badly. However, government does have crucial roles in articulating society’s environmental goals and in raising the revenue to
pay for their achievement: in the democratic countries government performs these functions quite well. But actually achieving society's social and environmental goals is a different matter. Such achievement requires continuous, well-informed and impartial decisions to be made about the allocation of scarce resources. For that purpose, Social Policy Bonds, with their incentives to achieve targeted outcomes efficiently would, I believe, be far better than the current ways in which environmental policy is formulated.
For more about application of the Social Policy Bond principle to the environment see here.