Category Archives: Sustainability

The Ghost of Winters Past


Tweeted @Vailmtn Resort on January 25th.

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows’ Facebook page professed on January 24th, “Over 7 feet of snow in 5 days leads to a whole lot of powder. The skies will be clearing up this week, so don’t miss bluebird days and all-time conditions.”


@Jacksonhole Mountain Resort posts pow shots on Instagram. simply states “20+ FEET OF SNOW & COUNTING”.

While I sit overseas in rainy England, jealously scrolling through endless Instagram posts of friends slashing through chest deep powder I can’t help but wonder if the stoke for this epic snow year is overshadowing the fact that 2016 was globally the warmest year ever. Are we forgetting that in 2013 only 109 inches of snow fell over an entire year in Mammoth Mountain (this season it had already snowed more than that by January 4th)? Are we forgetting that Mount Hood’s Palmer Snowfield melted almost entirely in 2015 forcing Timberline Lodge Ski Resort to close over a month early? Are we forgetting that earlier this season the Beaver Creek Birds of Prey and Lake Louise World Cup races had to be cancelled due to lack of snow? But most importantly are we forgetting what this climate change trend means for the future of our sport?


NASA‘s image of temperature warming trends from 1880 to 2016 including 23 record warm years.

Research has shown that, unsurprisingly, skiers perception of climate change risks are much higher in warmer winters and much lower in colder, snowier winters. Our confidence in and reliance on resorts’ snowmaking abilities amplifies our denial in climate change and decouples the ski industry from the natural snowfall. The winter tourism industry is aware of the financial risks posed by poor seasons yet continues to contradict long-term sustainable business and environmental management to optimize short-term trail conditions and shareholder profits.


First day lift lines at Arapahoe Basin CO. A-Basin is known for it’s early start date and late end to the season but this wouldn’t be possible without snow guns, which you can see working hard to create a snow cloud and what is known as the white ribbon of death down the center of an otherwise green run (image source

News of an earlier opening date, a warm spell mid-January snow gunned over or a harder base lasting further into spring all excite us but snowmaking has long been known to be incredibly harmful to the environment (and the budget). 1 hectare of snow cover requires up to 1.5 million liters of water and up to 27000 kWh of energy. Artificial snow using imported water diverts the natural flow of the water basin and brings in foreign elements while the snowmelt of manmade snow melts much slower, all damaging fragile alpine habitats.

Powder Magazine recently came out with an article showing ski industry executives including Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Jerry Blann and owner Jay Kemmerer and Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory supporting and donating large sums of money to climate change denying congressional candidates who are actively fighting greenhouse gas and CO2 regulation legislation. If these political decisions that are made in light of rising ticket prices with worsening conditions confuse anyone, you are not alone. Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of environmental sustainability says “Right now, supporting these guys is like we’re saying: ‘Hey, we’ll give you money, just as long as you can guarantee you’ll destroy our livelihood.’”

The costs, already exorbitant (Australia invested $82 million USD in snowmaking infrastructure, Tyrol Austria spent 55 million Euros while resorts in Switzerland reported that each kilometer of a ski run cost 650,000 Euros on average to cover with artificial snow), to maintain snow conditions amplify the fact that this tactic cannot be sustained, environmentally or economically.



A helicopter bringing in a load of snow to help cover the track of the famous Hahnenkamm Downhill in Kitzbuhel Austria in 2007. Venues are hesitant to cancel races as they bring in money, but these types of conditions are increasingly common across the World Cup circuit. (Source New York Times/Kerstin Joensson)

Multi-resort passes such as the Mountain Collective, Epic Pass and the MAX pass have been popping up for exactly this reason. Localized weather variance with climate change has increased risks in snow supply and demand from skiers at each ski resort. However by diversifying geographically, resorts can ensure passes are bought and skiers have the option to follow the snow wherever it may fall.

Ski resort corporations may be marketing, selling, politicking and scattering their way around climate change, but we as skiers (and consumers) are eagerly eating this all up. We play along as we post photos of powder days past on Instagram when resorts are closed, watch ski films showing endless snowcapped peaks not questioning the increasingly remote locations and rave of epic January mountain bike rides when things go real south. We forget our role in the cause of climate change but more importantly in the solution.

As the first downhill races of the season were being cancelled due to lack of snow some athletes like Steven Nyman felt “it brings to light the whole climate issue, which I believe is the real deal.”, but others were less certain of the link to climate change. Dustin Cook, a Canadian Alpine Ski Team member told the Toronto Sun “I look at the term climate change, and I think that’s definitely affecting things, but also it’s just early in the year… I just don’t buy that it’s too warm.” US Mens Head Coach Sasha Rearick said “I’m bummed FIS (International Ski Federation) didn’t have more confidence in the snowmaking to pull this thing off last minute.” None of the news articles from various papers covering the cancelled events showed pictures of the grassy slopes instead pictures from previous years and different races accompanied the articles.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 4.03.08 PM.png

The Denver Post cites lack of snow as reason for cancelling the Birds of Prey race but shows a snowy picture from last years race.

Research on skier behaviour shows that nearly all skiers, particularly experts and die-hards are willing to travel upwards of 2 hours farther (70 percent would travel to another region) and pay 10 percent more for reliable snow conditions. No one in the study indicated they would stop skiing!

We won’t stop skiing and are willing to adapt, but can we change our behaviour and that of our resorts enough to ensure we don’t create a situation that forces us to stop?

Some people are trying to do just that. Films like Salomon’s Guilt Trip; A Climate Change Film with a Skiing Problem (watch here), books like Porter Fox’s DEEP; The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow and organizations like Protect Our Winters (POW), Outdoor Industry Association and SHIFT are all starting a positive conversation of not just how climate change impacts us, but how we impact the environment and our responsibility as skiers to act. As skiers we have to think about how our actions are contributing to this conversation. Whether it’s through writing news articles, posting photos to Instragram or choosing which ski resorts to support our words and actions must align with and push our industry to meet our collective goal of a snow filled future.

We have to continue the climate change conversation, remembering the rainy days of the past and fearing snowless days of the future, as we shred the epic winter of today.




Fishy Business: Can blockchains provide supply chain transparency?

Transparency of product supply chains has become a key issue in recent years. Increasingly, we want to know what’s in a product, where it’s from, how it was made and by whom – just think the horsemeat scandal, stricter EU food labelling standards, and the creation of the UK National Food Crime Unit.

Continue reading Fishy Business: Can blockchains provide supply chain transparency?

But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Christmas trees are everywhere

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it is nearly impossible to ignore the decorations that pop up everywhere around the holidays. Shops, city streets and homes spend the month of December decked out with lights, garlands, and most prominently, Christmas trees. Compared to the blatant consumerism of the holiday season, Christmas trees seem so harmless and wholesome. Who doesn’t love the warm glow of the lights and of course that evergreen smell.

The Christmas tree industry is huge – over $2 billion was spent on real and fake trees in just the USA last year. In Canada that number is smaller, but ever rising – sales of fresh trees grew by over 20% in the last two years. Any industry this large has the potential for huge environmental impacts. Are real Christmas trees an environmental problem? And are fake trees any better? For consumers hoping to make conscientious decisions, it can be hard to find the kind of information that will put these questions to rest.

In writing this post I hope to dissect some facts about the tree industry, to weigh real trees against fake in terms of negative environmental impact, and to suggest ways for those of us who couldn’t feel festive without a tree to make more informed decisions. Continue reading But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Bring the kids back to the woods!

Someone told me a while ago that a surprisingly large number of inner-city kids today are not aware that milk comes from a cow. That is, they have not considered where the milk was before it ended up in the carton that they then pick up from the supermarket. I laughed and shook my head at the time, but the statement has come back to bother me lately.

Back in the day, if you wanted to have a glass of milk, you would first have to find the cow in a pasture somewhere, make sure it had some milk to give (i.e. that it had a calf) and then convince it to stand still while you milk it. That, I would assume, would make that glass of milk mean something more to you, and also perhaps make you grateful to the cow (and calf) for sharing it, and to nature for feeding the cow so that she in turn could give it to you.

We are living in a time of rapid technological development and urbanization. This means that an increasing number, more than half of the world’s population according to the United Nations, are living in cities. City-life and innovations have enabled a lifestyle where you seldom have to risk bumping in to dangerous animals, where one can swoosh from one end of the world to the other in a matter of hours by airplane, and where you can get basically everything you would ever need and want from a store a few kilometres away. But what implications does this lifestyle have for our perception and understanding of nature?

Continue reading Bring the kids back to the woods!

Ecotourism: can tourism pay for conservation and development?

With the Christmas holidays ahead, it is tempting for many of us to start to think about new holiday destinations. With the recent popularity of green living and sustainable lifestyles, more and more people opt for ecotourism destinations. A few images that directly come to mind when thinking about ecotourism are of unspoiled natural landscapes, ecosystems devoid of human impact and encounters with local communities. The term ‘ecotourism’ gained popularity around 25 years ago and now makes up a substantial part of the international tourism industry. Although ecotourism is now relatively commonplace, there are a number of uncertainties and criticisms around the subject.

What is ecotourism?

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’. From this definition, ecotourism seems to be a win-win situation: tourists can enjoy natural and cultural environments, whilst contributing to nature conservation and the development of local communities. Sounds great right?

The TIES Principles of Ecotourism

Is ecotourism too good to be true?

Despite the popularity of the term, ecotourism is not as straightforward as it seems and has been subjected to fierce critiques. One source of problems is the fact that ecotourism is a typical example of a ‘fuzzy concept’, meaning that the exact application of the term can vary significantly in different contexts. Ecotourism is often interpreted differently by different stakeholders, including tour operators, travel agents, businesses, governments and tourists themselves. The  TIES and UNEP have developed principles and guidelines for ecotourism businesses, but in practice there is no way to enforce them. This means that businesses can advertise themselves under the label of ‘ecotourism’ whilst actually contributing little towards the cause of ecotourism. This is a process also referred to as ‘greenwashing’.

Greenwashing by larger tourism businesses can lead ecotourism away from the ideal of small scale and ecologically friendly tourism towards a form of tourism also referred to as ‘mass-ecotourism’ or ‘eco mass tourism’.  I vividly remember going on a hike last summer in one of Slowakia’s green tourism destinations. Instead of enjoying the surroundings by walking the trail in a comfortable pace, it rather felt like I was in line in a theme park. The path was packed with fellow tourists that not only moved extremely slowly but also left a trail of rubbish behind in the once unspoiled forest.

In line in one of Slowakia’s national parks – author’s image

Many more examples show that there are many contemporary tourists who do have an interest in green travel, but also want to use the benefits of the mass tourism infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, if this form of tourism is not well-implemented, it can lead to considerable environmental impacts ranging from environmental degradation as a result of tourism infrastructure to disturbance of flora and fauna and pollution of the environment.

If not well-implemented, ecotourism can also have negative economic and socio-cultural impacts on local communities. Ecotourism has in most cases failed to achieve the promised empowerment of local communities due to a combination of factors. These mostly relate to a lack of a mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of income between local communities and other stakeholders. It can also lead to land insecurity of local communities and is sometimes associated with compulsory displacement. The ecotourism business can also have an effect on local culture.  It may be  altered as a result of ecotourism by bringingin foreign influences or by a commodification of traditional cultural symbols.

Then there is also a set of critiques focusing on the character of tourism itself. Ecotourism has been described by many as an oxymoron, implyiing it is impossible to be an environmentally friendly tourist because tourism in any form will alter the environment. A critique in the same spirit is that the people who are drawn to ecotourism are often also people who have to travel long distances to get to their exotic destinations, often by plane. Greenhouse gases emitted during long distance travel will offset the positive environmental impacts of ecotourism.

Are the prospects for ecotourism really that bleak?

From the above it may be clear that ecotourism is not the panacea that many had hoped it to be. But I don’t believe that that means that ecotourism will go away: in today’s society it becomes more and more popular to have so-called ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ lifestyles. An example is the increased number of people with vegan or vegetarian diets, often motivated by celebrities or social media stars. Amongst businesses it is also increasingly necessary to work according to green practices as more and more consumers demand ‘green’ products. There is no denying it: the popularity of a sustainable lifestyle isn’t going away. It is therefore possible that this movement can play a role in improving ecotourism.

To achieve successful ecotourism, it is important that the label ‘ecotourism’ is used correctly and not as a marketing method. The International Ecotourism Society has already set a number of standards ecotourism destinations should adhere to and has done important work in identifying legit ecotourism providers. Ecotourism providers that work according to the standards can obtain ecotourism certification.

But how to pick your new holiday destination? Here are a few things you as a tourist can do when choosing to find out if your holiday destination is as eco as it presents itself to be.

  1. Make sure you understand the principles of ecotourism
  2. Look for destinations with eco certification, such as that of TIES
  3. Ask the destination clear information on how their activities contribute to sustainable development and nature conservation
  4. Ask how the money you spend on your holiday is used towards these activities
  5. Stay away if the destination has a strong focus on entertainment – avoid direct interaction with protected species
  6. Look at the scale of your tourism destinations – try to stay away from mass activities

Happy holidays!







Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Worldwide, countless people depend on fishing for food, culture, and economic well-being.  From local subsistence fishermen in small coastal communities to large industrial-sized operations, oceans contribute to societies and economies at all scales.  To keep pace with demand, fishing rates have greatly accelerated, to the extent that over 77 billion kilograms of seafood are harvested each year.

Harvested fish on ice to be sold at a market
Fisheries around the world capture large harvests of fish to sell at markets.

At such high rates, many fish populations cannot reproduce quickly enough to replenish their depleted numbers, thereby classifying them as overfished.  Currently, 90 percent of fisheries around the world are burdened with or on the brink of over-exploitation beyond sustainable yields. Continue reading Plenty of Fish in the Sea?

Can One Bad Apple Rot Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Reputation?

Canada is known for having some of the most rigorous sustainable forestry regulation and enforcement in the world. Holding 10% of the world’s forests including 552 million hectares or nearly 30% of the world’s Boreal forests and as a leader in the forestry industry, Canada’s sustainable forestry management has global implications, setting standards both environmentally and economically.


75% of Canada’s forests are Boreal. 3.7 million people live within the area including 70% of Canada’s Aboriginal People. This area is also a major carbon sink, a source of freshwater storage and home to high levels of biodiversity.

Complementing the management process are three voluntary third party sustainability certifications that “provide a stamp of approval that shows consumers they are buying products from forests managed to comprehensive environmental, social and economic standards”. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global NGO initiated non-state market mechanism, and is considered the “gold standard for well managed forests”. The other third-party certification schemes, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA), are both industry-initiated under the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) international umbrella organization.

Resolute Forest Products, a global forestry force based in Montreal Canada holding logging rights on 22 million ha of mostly public land, has 100% sustainable timberland certification by third-party Forest Management Standards and is a signed member of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Resolute company values include be accountable, ensure sustainability and work together.

Corporate responsibility is clearly fundamental to Resolute, their management, brand value and reputation, so what is the problem?

It seems they will go to any lengths, including violating sustainable certification principles, disregarding indigenous rights, suing governments and suppressing environmental organization freedom of speech to assume this farce.

From an ecological standpoint, Resolute’s “sustainable”, “eco” and “recycled products” have in fact come from clear cutting three endangered forest areas; Ontario’s Caribou Forest and Quebec’s Montagnes Blaches and Broadback Valley. These areas are home to 150 birds, the highest densities of threatened woodland caribou and many Cree First Nations communities. Woodland caribou are considered an “indicator species”; sensitive to disturbance, and an “umbrella species”; their protection could ensure the survival of other species in the same habitat. The Grand Council of the Cree have challenged Resolute’s logging practices stating they are detrimental to their trapping lifestyle and the ecosystem balance throughout the area.


Woodland Caribou have already been pushed north of their historic range. Unfortunately logging industries are also being pushed north and since protected areas don’t sufficiently cover their habitat meaning the caribou must rely on sustainable forest management for security. (Info-Map from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society)

In what way can they continue to state claims of sustainability and certification?

Many major US and global brands have moved away from SFI citing “the logging industry-run program misleads consumers and allows massive clear cuts, other destructive logging and human rights abuse”. Resolute instead is moving towards them. Their FSC certified lands have dropped by 50% since 2010 because of non-compliance and non-renewal. By switching to SFI, Resolute improved their sustainability certification cover to 100% without environment practice or management changes

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative offer competing sustainability certifications. While all non-state market driven certification schemes have implementation, management and accountability issues to contend with, FSC is considered more non-discretionary and broad based in their policy. 

But how is Resolute getting away with this?

Resolute, aware that its reputation is at stake, has used its corporate weight and legal prowess to squash critics and competitors with SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

Following a failed audit in 2014 for “not complying with good environmental standards”, Resolute sued Rainforest Alliance, the FSC certified auditor. Bypassing the normal FSC dispute resolution, the case was settled and the report sealed. In 2015 Resolute filed a $70+million suit against the Canadian Government because the Nova Scotia Provincial government provided a subsidy to their local mill creating competition, which Resolute says caused their Quebec mill to go under. Resolute is in court with Greenpeace over a $7 million defamation suit for a report Greenpeace published in 2013, which critiqued the logging companies environmental and social conduct. While this case is still in progress, the Ontario Superior Court has dismissed broadening the case stating Resolute’s allegations of Greenpeace are “irrelevant”, “scandalous and vexatious”. They have now brought the case against Greenpeace to the US under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) with goals to silence Greenpeace’s freedom of speech.

Well, what are the implications of Resolute’s actions? It’s only one company right?

Public interest groups are worried over extrapolated implications of using the RICO lawsuit against freedom of the press/speech. The RICO law originated to combat the mafia, but it’s use “as a club to silence Greenpeace from using non-violent means to mobilize the public, raise awareness alongside the necessary funds to operate, and seek to bring about change in respect of environmental practices it opposes would chill the exercise of First Amendment rights not only by Greenpeace but by other groups, by Amici. It would endanger the ability of non profits to operate and set a dangerous precedent,” says the Sierra Club. Resolute’s lawsuits against NGO’s, governments and auditors can threaten not only the viability of non-state market drivers of forest governance, but traditional governance and advocacy roles.

freedom of speech Resolute .png

80  public interest organizations have come together to “condemn Resolute’s intimidation lawsuit and call on the company to respect the US Constitution – and our planet” via an advertisement in the New York Times earlier this month.(New York Times)

Sustainable forestry certifications are growing in supply and demand without a price premium attached or new markets opening up. Consumers aren’t willing to pay more yet they appear to expect these certifications as a minimum standard for forest products. Resolute feels their; “adherence to third party verified forest certification standards gives [them] an important competitive edge. It provides our customers with the assurance that our forests are managed responsibly according to rigorous standards”. With Resolute’s reputation benefiting from eco-certification where does that leave other logging companies particularly smaller ones. Forest managers must absorb the costs to gain and comply with certification schemes. Without significant product pricing benefits, where is the incentive to comply with stricter FSC protocol? This leaves the door open for industry-wide environmental degradation and unsustainable forestry practices.

Resolute has failed to adhere to not only it’s sustainable certifications, but it’s own corporate values of being accountable, ensuring sustainability and working together without any consequences. As indigenous groups are undermined, protected areas harvested and species threatened, Canadian Sustainable Forest Management practices are fundamentally destabilized. What does this mean for the legitimacy of Canadian Sustainable Forestry Management and third party sustainable forestry certification schemes? Can they continue to function as global environmental and social responsibility standards? How can the system be revised so the Boreal Forest, it’s residents both human and non human and it’s consumers aren’t left vulnerable to corporate greed?

The author will continue to look at these questions over the next month while writing a paper on Corporate Social Responsibility in Canada’s Forestry Industry. If you are interested in learning more or have insight, critiques or ideas please feel free to leave a comment or contact the author.

Natalie Knowles is an MSc student from Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include forest protected areas, ecosystem function and indigenous roles in conservation.


Conservation and Economics: Why should we love Ecosystem Services?

I have always been passionate about nature and its wonders. I am therefore extremely concerned about the destruction that we humans are causing, as it does not only compromise our future, but the one of all the other species with whom we share this -one and only- planet. I just cannot stand the idea that our selfishness and blindness is a death sentence for many of the marvels of this world.

I studied Economics as undergrad because I understood that economic incentives are one of the primary causes of nature depletion. However, while I was studying, it seemed difficult for me to find a concrete link between economics and conservation. This was until I discovered the concept of ecosystem services (ES), which gives an opportunity to merge the two fields and get answers that can be useful for both. In other words, win-wins everywhere! (This is however not exempt of polemics as I will explain).


Food. An example of a Povisionning ecosystem services. Photo source:

To give a general idea, ecosystem services can be understood as all the goods and services that nature provides, and that enhance humans’ wellbeing. Continue reading Conservation and Economics: Why should we love Ecosystem Services?

The Living Planet Report 2016 – Impacts of the Anthropocene? The ugly, the bad and the good

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future
Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winning physicist

Recently WWF published its famous ‘Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era‘ showing  an alarming reality of the state of the planet and what the future holds if concrete actions are not implemented NOW.

Hear it from Marco Lambertini – Director General WWF International

The Living Planet Index (LPI) showed that from 1970 to 2012 (little over 40 years!) vertebrate population abundance has declined in average 58% (more than half!). The Terrestrial, Freshwater, and Marine LPI showed that populations have declined by 38%, 81% and 36% respectively, between the same period of time.

For any person these numbers surely pose an alarming reality of the pressures humans have put on the planet. Are we seeing on this report the crude impacts of the so called ‘Anthropocene’?

Continue reading The Living Planet Report 2016 – Impacts of the Anthropocene? The ugly, the bad and the good

Will sharks and rhinos thank bioengineers one day?

Social Entrepreneurship and Wildlife

When thinking about entrepreneurs I think about risk taking in a reasonable way. “Social entrepreneur”, something I personally like to put down as a career option, is a lot harder to define. According to Ashoka’s definitions of social entrepreneurs, they come up with innovations in order to confront a social problem. Depending on our viewpoint, the consumption of wildlife products might represent such an undesirable situation.

This year, startups aiming to produce substitutes for illegally and legally traded wildlife products have been trending. Two of the most prominent examples from the Incubator IndieBio are going to be covered in this post. Can these firms be regarded as examples of social entrepreneurship? And, do these bioengineered products notably contribute to an overall better situation and recovery of threatened animal populations. At first sight, it seems quite obvious that a replacing product, that can compete with the natural one, would take pressure from animal populations. Yet, it remains to be seen, if these innovations can take away a substantial share of the black market for wildlife that is estimated between $8bn and $20bn?

The measures taken

Tackling the supply side has proven particularly difficult due to the huge incentives for organised crime. Rhino horn is worth more on the markets than gold or the estimated wholesale price of cocaine. This explains why many argue that a ban is counterproductive. The development in recent years after the introduction of the ban (e.g. 2009 in South Africa) indicates that the ban had no positive effect at all: Poaching numbers in South Africa are up to an all time high.

There has been a variety of reasons why most measures to drive down supply did not achieve the desired results. Legislations have been highly diluted and proven ineffective as there are many exceptions and loopholes that transnational organized crime can easily make use of. In this respect, corruption is also an immense problem. As a result task forces to combat wildlife crime have been set up and wildlife crime has been declared a top priority, but if this is going to have a noticeable effect has yet to be seen.

NGOs and Intergovernmental organization have tried to actually put the focus more on the demand side by raising awareness in consumer countries and thus drive down the demand. This seems to have worked in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. However, the demand of China and especially Vietnam are still highly problematic.

Bioengineering approach to alter the market

Two biotechnology startups funded by the same accelerator are working under the assumption the that market-based approaches can actually alleviate the critical situation. Their assumption is that if there is a demand for these wildlife goods that is rooted in the culture the best way is to satisfy this demand artificially rather than critisizing these consumtions habits (possibly without any right or reason).

Synthesizing rhino horn

Pembient is one of these two young entreprises and it starts off as quite an ambitious one, wanting to replace the “$20bn illegal wildlife trade black market” with sustainable commerce. Their first product and one of great interest here, is the synthetic rhino horn. The idea is to stop stigmatizating the end-user and redirect the demand away from the natural product to the synthetic horn that is very similar to real rhino horn (genetically and visually). The product is not on the market yet, but estimated sales prices of $7500 to $8000, promise good chances of taking a share of the market. In Vietnam studies have been conducted by Pembient and there seems to be substantial demand for the synthetic alternative.


NewWaveFoods, a team of three young researchers, focus on bioengineered seafood and one of their products, the SmartFin, notably addresses the issue of shark finning. The SmartFin artificially and successfully replaces the most controverse ingredient of the shark fin soup.

While one in four chondrichthyan fishes is threatened (according to the IUCN red list), one of the stress factors for shark populations might be easing off now: The demand for shark fins has been declining strongly over the last couple of years seeing leading to a market price drop of roughly 50%. Whether this is due to consumer-targetted awareness campaigns carried out by NGOs (e.g. by Wild Life as shown below) or other factors like a changing age structure of users and a lifestyle more exposed to Western ideas cannot be said at this moment of time.

Yao Ming Shark Fin Soup Campaign-MANDARIN from Shark Savers on Vimeo (Mandarin version of the “Say ‘no’ to shark fin soup’ campaign featuring Yao Ming. WildAid and Shark Savers.)

The critique of biotec solutions

There is a fair amount of critique to these high-tec solutions and I consider myself a scepticist as well.

Firstly, by creating an artificial “copy” of these natural products the side effect is, in my opinion, that the demand for the “real thing” might be reinforced. The cheaper bioengineered version is in a way an entry point for many users. This could mean we create a complement to the original good and do not greatly effect the demand of the targetted product.

Secondly, one might argue that our replicas are very tolerant and peaceful approaches as they accept other cultural preferences and customs that we might not be entitled to critisize. However, should we push down our concern about species being deliberately taken from this world? Of course not. It has been seen that NGOs did achieve a turn-around in consumer behaviour in China and other Asian countries meaning that there has been agreement these goods should not be consumed also from diverse cultural viewpoints. Yet, it is now not unlikely that this new type of product undermines the hard efforts in awareness raising and education over the last years, especially for shark fins.

In any case these products should be given a chance because no measure aimed at these issues has had the desired effect yet. In the case of the rhinos our time is running out and thus we have to act now. Bioengineered products could play a role in this, but it is of utmost importance that they do not undermine other measures. One way would be not trying to make it look like the original which then in return makes it harder to market, but in that way there would be consistency with a ban and awareness campaigns. The biotec companies concerned should team up with the NGOs and communicate a clear message: The consumption of this product is banned worldwide for good reasons. Instead, buy the available products that have the same composition and do not harm any species.