THE RIGHT TO POLLUTE

Kathrin Hartmann worked on the hard-hitting documentary film “The Green Lie” with Austrian filmmaker Werner Boote. She views the current bicycle boom critically, but sees it as a step in the right direction. Her argument is that the bicycle industry should be taking more responsibility for its actions and not leave it up to end consumers.

Interview with Kathrin Hartmann, Journalist

Good morning Kathrin, I’ve just caught you the day before you head off on holiday. Where does someone like you with such strong environmental opinions go on holiday?
Kathrin Hartmann:
Not far away, to South Tyrol. It’s not far from Munich. We’re travelling down by car and taking the dog with us to go hiking.

No bikes?
Kathrin Hartmann:
No bikes. I’m not a big fan of mountain bikes. I prefer to climb mountains on foot.
But I do ride a lot around town. Munich likes to call itself the “Radl-Hauptstadt” (bike capital). But it takes more than a few pop-up bike lanes to earn this title. 

You live in Haidhausen, a rather quiet district in Munich. Where’s the problem?
Kathrin Hartmann:
Munich could actually be a really bike-friendly city. Travelling by car is definitely not an option. Driving takes ages and there’s nowhere to park. I say “actually” because it would be easy for Munich to do much more. However, things started to change during Corona time. There are now a few more bike lanes and cycle corridors and I really hope that they remain in place. So that people notice just how nicer it is. 
 

(Photo: Random House / Stephanie Füssenich)

And when it comes to Haidhausen.
Kathrin Hartmann:
The main road through the district is the Rosenheimer Straße – which is anything but quiet. It’s a four-lane race track. I try to avoid it, there are lots of accidents. At present, one of the lanes is a large bike lane. Let’s hope it stays that way.
The other thing is the lack of places to park your bike. This really gets on my nerves. And as a pedestrian, I don’t want pavements blocked with bikes. You see it all the time. And cycle paths get blocked by delivery vans or people parking. Nothing ever gets done about it. This annoys me on a daily basis.

Watching your film “The Green Lie”, the general thrust is that conscious consumers changing their behaviour is not enough. We should be taking to the streets and demonstrating. Could the bicycle industry market be doing more?
Kathrin Hartmann:
We should definitely be taking to the streets. The pressure that currently exists has a lot to do with movements like Critical Mass or the bike demos. This is making the issue more visible in the media. It’s important to show that in times of climate change, the bike is the ideal means of transport. And this needs to go hand-in-hand with a change in attitude towards consumption. It’s not enough to just buy bikes. The market is much too complex. Some people have seven bikes in the garage. It might be their hobby, but it’s hardly sustainable in terms of resources. There needs to be major structural change. But the market itself is not going to do it. 
 

The bicycle industry must take more responsibility for its actions and not leave it up to end consumers.

The clock is ticking. How do we introduce changes that work for our economies and don’t divide societies?
Kathrin Hartmann:
The more time I work on the topic of greenwashing, the more I see that there is no shortage of alternatives. It’s more a question of what is preventing them being implemented? We know how to farm better. The alternatives exist. But the agricultural lobby is stopping these changes.

The same apples to transport. There is a current study by the Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), which shows that 12 of Germany’s 14 regional airports would make a loss, were it not for subsidies. The entire aviation industry is kept alive artificially with special rights and subventions. Lufthansa was saved with billions of euros – without any climate protection requirements. It would have been possible to do away with unnecessary flights within Germany. But this reduction, which could also have been done in a socially responsible manner, is not going to happen. Instead, there is an attempt to hold on to what is already in place.  

The same applies to the car industry. Lowering VAT in Germany is a huge benefit for this industry. And there are big subsidies for buying electric cars. This is all despite the fact that these industries have done nothing in recent years to develop better drive systems or smaller, quieter cars. In fact, they have done exactly the opposite. Over the last twenty years, this industry, which we subsidise, has manufactured bigger and bigger cars that pollute more and more. And now our roads are full of them.

And as for the impact on the economy. Since the German railway system was privatised, some 350,000 jobs have been lost in its different sectors. This is hardly a positive economic effect. It is possible to do things differently.
 

Is purchasing an e-bike instead of travelling by car the right way to go?   
Kathrin Hartmann: Of course, this could be part of the transition towards a more sustainable transport system. I grew up in a rural area, where you have to travel quite a long way. Bikes are not generally the preferred mode of transport. E-cargo bikes represent a great solution here. But I do wonder if e-mountain bikes make sense. They make it easy for large amounts of people to ride remote trails in the mountains and wreck the countryside.

There is also a problem with raw materials when it comes to bikes and e-bikes. The issue here is always how do we use the limited amount of resources that we have at our disposal in a reasonable and justified manner? E-mobility is in many ways valid, but there is no point in replacing every car with an electric car. For transport vehicles and buses, the situation might be different.

The same question applies though. Where will the resources come from? What can be recycled? This is perfectly possible with many bike components. Will batteries be taken back and recycled? This is a political issue. The recycling quota for mineral resources is disastrous, and yet this is perfectly possible with many materials. It’s possible to recover, recycle and reuse aluminium without any loss in quality. But this does not get done enough. 

E-scooters are a prime example. E-Vespas might make sense. They can be used to transport things or take someone with you. But the e-scooters that we see around town are little more than an annoying means of amusement for tourists under the guise of sustainable mobility. From an environmental point of view, they are an absolute nightmare.

These things have to considered more carefully. For older members of society, who might find cycling too strenuous, they might pose a sensible alternative to cars. The real problem though – where do the resources come from – is far too big for individual manufacturers to solve. Political regulation is what is required. Do we really have to import the majority of components from countries which have terrible labour conditions for the people who work there?
 

The real problem though – where do the resources come from – is far too big for individual manufacturers to solve.

Is it possible for consumers to understand the whole supply chain? Do we need a simpler system, such as an environmentally-friendly label?
Kathrin Hartmann:
You still wouldn’t get the whole picture. And anyway, this is not our job. As a consumer, I want to be able to rely on the fact that my product has been made with no violation of human rights, no exploitation and no environmental destruction. I’m a big fan of a supply chain law. You can see by the way that corporations react, what it would mean for them, if companies within their supply chain were seriously audited and if they were punished for doing nothing against human rights violations. Things might then look very different.

The German government launched the “Siegelklarheit” (label clarity) initiative, to provide a master certification for environmental and sustainable products. But this is just greenwashing, the same as so many other measures. It relies on comparing documents containing information supplied by the companies themselves. There is no proper auditing, or on-site monitoring. This is no coincidence though. We live in a system that is designed to create prosperity by exploiting others. Ulrich Brand, the political scientist calls this “The Imperial Mode of Living”. We can change this politically, for example, by introducing legislation to regulate the supply chain.

We saw what happened during Corona. Some 80,000 workers were flown in from Eastern Europe to work on German asparagus fields in what it is effectively slave labour. The system cannot function without exploitation. And the cause is not explained by the moral misconduct of individual companies. It’s a failure of the system as a whole.

Given the circumstances, there can be no label, which says that everything is OK. It’s not end consumers who should have to deal with it.

This is an international issue. Surely, Germany can do little by acting on its own. If we introduce strict regulations that make production more expensive and neighbouring countries don't, then there might be serious disadvantages.
Kathrin Hartmann:
It’s not like that though. Other countries, for example France and the United Kingdom, introduced binding due diligence rules for companies. Germany is not acting in the same way as everyone else. For example, the German government is committed to the Mercosur trade deal, which will effectively lead to the destruction of rain forests in Latin America to clear land to grow soya. This is in particular due to meat production, which is then exported. We do not act in isolation here, we have a huge international influence on what happens. 

The same applies to the car industry. We are 100 per cent dependent on the import of mineral raw materials. At the same time, German cars are exported and also manufactured in other parts of the world. The manufacturers chose with government support to manufacture certain types of cars – namely fuel-inefficient gas guzzlers and dirty diesels with excessive emissions.

There is a lot we can do. Yes, it is a European issue. However, even at this level, Germany has always done all it could to prevent supply chain legislation. On behalf of the German industry. However, there is no shortage of alternatives. We need to look at who is blocking the alternatives and who benefits from the status quo.

Do private sector initiatives, such as labels like the FSC or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) not work in the long term?
Kathrin Hartmann:
The timber industry produces so much for products that nobody needs, for example the disposable furniture manufactured by a certain Swedish company, which will never meet overall requirements in a sustainable manner. These labels are just a fig leaf for the industry. They are tailored to fit the situation retrospectively, once the companies have made a mess of things. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been in existence for 14 years and yet it has not improved the situation in Indonesia. Quite the reverse. This is greenwashing in its most concentrated form.
 

These labels are just a fig leaf for the industry. [...] This is greenwashing in its most concentrated form.

Does the bike industry not have different requirements? As its not composed of major industrial corporations? Could German premium manufacturers not play a pioneering role by choosing to document their supply chains transparently?
Kathrin Hartmann:
This is true. Bicycle manufacturing is structurally very different to say large food corporations, like Unilever or Nestlé. The same applies to retail sales. The majority of customers are environmentally aware. This could work, because we are talking about a target group with a particular set of interests for the issues connected to bikes. 

I consider the idea of combining to work together here as a good starting point. However, recycling is a key issue too. Being able to return batteries and bicycles. When it comes to the primary raw materials, it’s complicated. It might help to compare this to the FairPhone. They have not succeeded in really building a completely fair telephone. But they are working on it, step by step. 

It would be more exciting to consider the prospect of manufacturing products built to last for a very long time. Raw materials are limited. Demand is increasing so fast in certain areas due to e-mobility and digitalisation that there are not enough resources. There will be no way to avoid the topic of recycling. Repairing and exchanging will be more and more important in the future.

Combining forces and working together is also important as it exerts pressure on the government. Bicycle manufacturers can react in very different ways to say a heavy, lumbering car industry corporation.
 

There will be no way to avoid the topic of recycling. Repairing and exchanging will be more and more important in the future.

Let’s draw to a conclusion and return to the subject of your holiday. Are CO2 compensation schemes a vehicle to reduce problems at least in the mid-term? Or is that just individual greenwashing? 
Kathrin Hartmann:
Personally speaking, I do not have a bad conscience. I cannot remember the last time I flew privately. I rarely drive a car – maybe when I’m on holiday, or in the summertime to drive to a lake or into the mountains, which you can’t reach by public transport. These are the exceptions though.

But coming back to compensation for carbon offsetting. It’s pretty clear cut. You’re buying your right to pollute. This is pollution that others then have to live with. The question we should really be asking is: Does compensation work on a large scale at all? What kind of projects are involved? Many of them are in the global south. There where people don’t fly much anyway. How many solar stoves do people need?

Does compensation lead to us using less? Or does it mean that harmful production goes on and on thanks to compensation schemes for a never-ending list of projects. A CO2 tax is not going to do it either. Instead, we need to reconsider how cruise ships, cars and aeroplanes are built. And how to reconnect railway lines. These are the real issues. 

People who think about CO2 compensation, often act in a more environmentally-friendly manner in other areas of their life too. Why should I, as someone who travels around town almost always on foot, by bike or with public transport, have to pay compensation for something that I cannot change? Can I change the fact that trains still run on coal-powered electricity, although they always claim to be clean? I want these things to be done in a different way.

Emissions trading is more problematic at the political level. This has already collapsed once and it will again. 

Is there anything that gives you a bad conscience? Where you think you have to do better?
Kathrin Hartmann:
Yes, of course. I constantly have a bad conscience. But I also know that like everyone else, I come up against limits. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years (by the way, our dog is too), I don’t buy mountains of clothes, I avoid convenience food and so on. However, I also need a mobile phone and a computer – and these are product where you just can’t buy “good” or “fair” versions. But I’m not responsible for the conditions that these products are manufactured in. We’re all surrounded in our everyday lives by products that are the result of exploitation. I do not want his. However, I think it’s more important to fight in a political manner than to go around blaming other people and making them feel guilty. That only lets the industry off the hook. 

Kathrin Hartmann, thank you for this interview.