The above quote sounds almost like the tagline for this blog, doesn’t it? In fact, it is from a letter to the Monterey Bay Aquarium written by Erica Etelson, a friend of one of my Green Sangha friends. Erica visited the aquarium with her family a few months ago and was disappointed by all the plastic and other petroleum-based items for sale in the gift shop, as well as food packaging in the cafe.
Now, we’re used to seeing gift shops at zoos and museums. It’s one of the ways these places bring in cash to fund their educational work. However, the mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is special. Their purpose is to educate the public about the health of our oceans. They are the folks who publish the Seafood Watch sustainable seafood guides each year. And through their Center for the Future of the Oceans, they “champion policies that conserve and restore threatened marine wildlife on the California coast and in the northern Pacific, including the southern sea otter, sharks, tunas and sea turtles.” So to Erica, it was ironic that they would offer for sale so many items that are actually contributing to the sickness of marine eco-systems.
My Green Sangha group saw the irony in the situation too when we read Erica’s letter and the response she received, and so as a group action we all handwrote our own letters to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Below I have reprinted the full exchange: Erica’s initial letter, the response from the gift shop manager, and Erica’s follow-up letter. Included is the contact info for the aquarium gift shop manager if after reading this exchange you feel inspired to send your own message.
—– Original Message —–
From: Erica Etelson
To: firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com
Sent: Friday, April 04, 2008 3:14 PM
Subject: ocean-friendly concessions
Dear M-Bay Aquarium Friends:
My family recently enjoyed its first trip to the aquarium and were particularly impressed with your efforts to educate guests about sustainable seafood–efforts that were in evidence on the menus of several of the local seafood restaurants. The flush toilets are great too!
But I have to tell you how dismayed I was by the volume of petroleum-based items for sale in your gift shop and cafe. Plastic toys, synthetic clothing, plastic beverage bottles and food containers–how ironic it was to see a display of books all on the theme of averting climate catastrophe right next to a rack of fleece jackets made in Guatemala.
You folks surely know better than I do how much damage plastic debris and the burning of fossil fuels do to the health of the oceans. We can either have plastic toy sharks or real sharks, not both.
I’m actually writing a book about how to transition to greener lifestyle choices so, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to go into further details about some of the problems I observed and can even come down again and do a more complete audit. I know how devoted you are to your mission of protecting marine species and so I hope you will take my comments in the spirit of promoting our mutual goals. If the aquarium blazed the trail on greening its operations, surely other museums and aquariums would follow, not to mention the thousands of visitors who would receive a firsthand education.
—– Original Message —–
From: Andrew Fischer firstname.lastname@example.org
To: Erica Etelson
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 3:58 PM
Subject: Monterey Bay Aquarium Guest Feedback Response
Dear Ms. Etelson
My name is Andrew Fischer , General Manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Gift and Bookstore. I received your comment regarding us offering products that are manufactured in other countries and therefore may contradict the message of conservation, and I wanted to get back to you with a response.
I personally appreciate feedback from guests like you. We can only improve our operation with comments such as these.
The concerns you raised regarding the origin of our products is a challenge for my team on many levels as we strive to provide our 1.8 Million visitors a special selection of quality items at an affordable price.
Our buying team is addressing the concerns that you noted by reevaluating each category in our stores. What we face is that in many areas (such as giftware, key chains, mugs, magnets, apparel, plush, and many toys) there are no options to purchase at the quantity, quality, and selection as what overseas production offers.
In fact, almost all of the books we offer on the topic of environmental concerns are printed on non-recycled paper and in other countries. If we chose to offer only domestically printed book publications, our selection would be minimal at best.
My staff and I are prepared to make a major shift in our business practices in certain categories, but it will be a challenge to do this overnight. We are working with our vendors on sourcing products from within North America , but as of this moment, we are limited.
We will be looking to offer a consistent message by presenting a permanent Think Green section of the Main Gift and Bookstore. This will officially start on Earth Day (April 22nd). The items will include many of the books you noted, as well as organic cotton shirts, actual trees that you can plant, recycled pencils and glass, as well as other aquarium themed recycled items. We will add to this department over the coming months.
We are also very proud to be the exclusive location to offer an Organic Plush Penguin (made with Soy and the fiber from the Kapok seed). This hypoallergenic Penguin is however manufactured in Indonesia . The Penguin is a great example of the challenges I noted above. No US manufacturer of quality plush exists, let alone one that would go to this length to produce an earth friendly product.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans, as well as to educate on environmental and ecological concerns. The Gift and Bookstore helps contribute funds to achieve this mission, and should follow the path set-forth by the dedicated staff and founders. It is my job to find options, and to take the right direction to better match this mission.
I thank you for your focus on this very important area of our operation.
If you have any further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me at 831-645-4945 or via my e-mail at email@example.com
I have also sent a copy of this response to Ed Prohaska , our Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Enterprise Development.
General Manager of Merchandising
Monterey Bay Aquarium
—– Original Message —–
From: Erica Etelson
To: Andrew Fischer
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 12:36 PM
Subject: Re: Monterey Bay Aquarium Guest Feedback Response
Thanks for your response. I do understand the challenge you’re facing and am glad to hear of the initiation of the Think Green section. But I still want to challenge the assumption that the aquarium’s mission includes providing your visitors with affordable products. I think that’s Wal-Mart’s mission. The aquarium’s mission, on the other hand, is to promote the protection of marine life by educating the public about the dire environmental threats to the oceans. I don’t see how encouraging your visitors to buy petroleum-based products manufactured by exploited workers in countries with lax environmental standards and shipped across the globe is anything other than a direct contradiction of your mission.
Part of environmental education includes challenging consumers to forego their entitlement to products that have cheap price tags but come with hidden environmental costs. It is far better to buy nothing than to buy a product whose manufacture damaged the environment. I imagine that the bookstore provides the aquarium with needed revenue but I would guess that that portion of the budget could be made up for by a fundraising campaign that highlights the aquarium’s downsizing of the bookstore to a small, 100% eco-friendly selection of items. I think donors would step up to bat to help the aquarium avoid the hypocrisy of selling plastic fish and other items that often wind up as ocean debris that kill real fish.
I’d also encourage you to inventory the items sold in your cafe, most of which are non-organic and many of which are excessively packaged in plastic. There is absolutely no need for plastic water bottles or beverages of any kind. Nutritious, organic food and drinks should be sold on washable or at least bio-degradable plates and cups. Chips can be purchased in bulk and sold by the handful or by weight to avoid the packaging of single-serving snacks. There’s a lot to look at here, and I hope you’ll take the bull by the horns.
Besides being a kindred spirit, Erica Etelson is a terrific writer whose articles have appeared in the SF Chronicle. The world needs more people like her.