Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Mar. 25, 1996
Published on: Sunday Age
3 min read
Conservation guru Dr David Suzuki: Economics ... is fundamentally disconnected from the life-support systems of the planet.” 

By Wilson da Silva

HE’S uncompromising. A conservationist’s guru and, you would think, a businessman’s nightmare. Take his view of economics.

“Conventional economics is a form of brain damage,” Dr David Suzuki told a gathering in Melbourne last week. “It’s fundamentally disconnected from the life-support systems of the planet. 

“If you ask an economist, with all of their diagrams of what the economy is . . . if you ask where in those diagrams is the ozone layer, or the ice sheets off Antarctica, or the atmosphere, he’ll say . . . they’re not a part of the economic system.

“Well, you might as well be on Mars. Because those diagrams have no relationship to the real world,” he said.

So you would think corporations would keep well away from the Canadian environmental firebrand, leading eco-warrior and trenchant critic of economic growth. Yet here was Dr Suzuki quaffing wine at a bayside restaurant in St Kilda, the honored guest of consumer goods manufacturer Reckitt & Colman.

It was a function for Down to Earth, the environmental brand launched by the consumer group in 1989. For every product sold in the range, five cents goes to the Down to Earth Foundation, which annually shells out $400,000 to grass-roots environmental projects.

“It’s easy for commentators to hold up companies such as ourselves as trying to cash in on the environment,” said Mr Ben Colman, category manager for the range at Reckitt & Colman. “You can march and protest all you want. But you’ve still got to wash the dishes.

“There is a consumer opportunity there, and I guess this demonstrates the company’s commitment to fulfilling that and to doing something for the environment,” he said. “We’ve done our homework on the products . . . on what people want and we’re confident it will stand up to scrutiny.”

Even the scrutiny of Dr Suzuki, it seems. “Oh, I don’t know about them,” Dr Suzuki said of Reckitt & Colman. “I think there are many companies that have a serious commitment to being environmentally responsible. The problem is that they live within an economic system that is fundamentally flawed. So however enlightened you are . . . we will still be drifting towards destruction.”

Mr Colman, who was sitting next to Dr Suzuki, blinked. Later, he defended the use of the Canadian environmental guru, despite the public relations risk it posed. Environmental products account for 15 per cent of consumer purchases, and generate $10 million a year in revenue for Reckitt & Colman.

“The environment as a consumption trend is not going to go away,” Mr Colman said. “It’s a tough road for manufacturers pioneering it. But it’s like any social trend; it will eventually hit a critical mass.”