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Chinese Factory Riots Show Solar Isn’t Always Sustainable


3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s MPA Curriculum on a blogging series about “Sustainable Development.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Tommaso Nicholas Boggia

That's a lot of mad workers!

AP

Recent riots at a solar panel factory in China should be seen as a dire reminder to the international business community and political caste that sustainability is a three-legged stool that grows very unstable when the social leg is ignored.

It becomes especially easy to forget about social justice in the San Francisco bubble where the wishful thinking mindset that paints every energy saving gadget as inherently good is cradled by progressive local government. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case elsewhere. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report “Towards a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry” [PDF] reveals an industry in dire need for more regulation to reduce the toxic burden imposed on solar panel producing communities.

The massive fish kill that sparked riots in the solar panel manufacturing town of Haining is just the most recent example that solar panel manufacturing isn’t always ‘sustainable’ and that talking about sustainability without regarding factors of human rights and dignity is a cruel deception. This is increasingly the case as more and more of our renewable energy is being imported from China. While there is much positive talk about Chinese clean tech efforts on this website, few contributors address the country’s neglect of the health and well-being of its workers.

Things have undeniably gotten better since the days of the Cultural Revolution, but China is still a country that doesn’t empower its citizens with the most basic of human rights. For example, a man in the town where the riots took place was arrested for the outrageous offense of publicly voicing his concerns that high rates of leukemia in the region might be a result of the factory’s pollution. This type of repression, both at the firm and at the societal level is the antithesis of sustainability. It is a farse that must be called out by those of us who claim to stand for the triple bottom line both in business and in government.

Factory conditions in China are certainly not always this rosey

Keith Axline, Wired.com

Enough with the moral quandries, let’s talk business. American solar manufacturers are getting a severe beating by their Chinese competitors who have the ‘advantage’ of exploiting extremely low-wage labor, dated and dirty manufacturing techniques, and lax protection for employees. Is this really what American clean tech companies want to be competing with. We can no longer accept Chinese ‘clean’ tech imports as perfect substitutes for products built in our country by people earning a decent wage in a facility that won’t poison their families.

This story should be a wakeup call for all of us on this blog and other ‘green’ hangouts on the web that just cause something is flashy it doesn’t mean it’s gold. Solar panels too can be dirty, and it’s not enough for us who claim to value sustainability to accept them on their green cred. We must always ask: how are the least powerful stakeholders affected by this new product I’m about to write about?


▼▼▼      4 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Howley/1210895635 John Howley

    In an effort to avoid the politically divisive issues of climate change, human rights and international cooperation, too many of us have have tried to sell sustainable energy as means of addressing the domestic concerns with jobs and economic growth. As if we could ignore the rest of the world in a global economy and fix our economic and environmental problems on our own. We must face the fact that when it comes to the environment and human rights, we cannot act alone. We must engage in negotiations and standards setting with other nations. Fortunately, the Europeans and the Australians are already on board. It is time for the US to catch up.

    John Howley
    http://www.johnhowleygreenenergy.blogspot.com

  • Julie Graham

    I love the analogy of the three legged stool. It is easy to get enraptured by the swell of excitement for green market share. Locally, we are so wrapped up in our own economic concerns that the danger exists that before too long green tech could be cranked out to willing consumers like so much tchotchke. I admire you’re never failing ability to articulate the big picture, Mr Boggia.

  • http://www.svtc.org Sheila Davis

    Thanks for mentioning Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report on the environment impact of Solar. We strongly believe there needs to be accountability for being “green” and we have published a Solar Scorecard http://www.solarscorecard.com that ranks the companies on environmental health and justice issues. We encourage folks to use the Solar Scorecard as a means to make decisions about investing, buying and advocating for solar. There are not shared standards for what is “green” in the solar industry, so its important that we support those solar companies that are transparent about their environmental practices and take the lead on recycling, toxic reduction and greening their supply chain. Coincidently, Jinko Solar did not respond to our Solar Scorecard survey or participate in the Scorecard.

  • persephonee

    Actually in a effort to avoid the politically divisive issues of climate change human rights and international cooperation, too many of us have have tried to sell sustainable energy as means of addressing the domestic concerns with jobs with economic growing. As if we could ignore the rest of the world in a global economy and fix our economic and environmental problems on us own.