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Chinese Factory Riots Show Solar Isn't Always Sustainable

Words by Presidio Local to Global Sustainable Development
Energy & Environment

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

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.

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?

Presidio Local to Global Sustainable Development

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