I'm very excited to read it, not least because he discusses "the toxicologist’s dilemma": the fact that standard, accepted methods for determining "safe" levels of exposure to different chemicals don't take into account today's environmental
But the good news is that we don't have to accept those methods.
In this post (adapted from Goleman's book) on the Environmental Working Group's blog, Goleman writes that if each of us did three things, we could get companies to phase out their use of toxic chemicals: "(1) Know the true ecological impacts of what we buy. (2) Favor improvements. (3) Tell everyone we know."
In other words, the more demand we create for safe products, the more incentives corporations have to find or develop safer alternatives. Granted, it's not always easy to know the true ecological impacts of
our consumption, but there's more info out there now than ever before. Like, for example, Goleman's book.
SC Johnson, the corporate dynasty behind such well-known brands as Shout, Windex, and Ziploc, has done something a bit radical: it has set up a website called What's Inside that lists the ingredients, and the purpose of said ingredients, in its home-cleaning and air-freshening products.
According to GreenBiz.com, the site came about after cleaning-industry companies came up
with a voluntary initiative in late 2008 to disclose their ingredients
via websites, toll-free numbers, and labels. Currently there is no legal requirement for products to list ingredients that
may cause harm over time, only immediately hazardous
ones, so it's kind of a big deal.
But only kind of, because What's Inside doesn't tell you what's inside preservatives and fragrances. Indeed, a quick glance at the Glade products in the "Air Care"
section (a term that makes me chuckle—let's care for the air by
spraying stuff into it!) revealed a message that "Fragrance information will be added soon." According to the GreenBiz.com story, "soon" is about two years from now.
The lack of labeling requirements could change if legislation introduced by Sen. Al Franken becomes law. The Household Product Labeling Act would require household cleaning products "and similar products" to completely and accurately state
on their labels all of their ingredients. I don't know what the chances are of such a bill actually passing—big corporations generally wail, "But we'll go out of business if we have to share our proprietary secrets!" and then the case is closed—but if mainstream giants like SC Johnson are voluntarily listing ingredients (albeit sluggishly for some important ones) and not going out of business, that's a major positive step.
Perhaps I should have read Joel Makower's post on Wal-Mart's new green labeling system before blogging about it last week, as he knows far more about it than the Wall Street Journal does, having seen early versions of it and talked to many parties involved with the effort.
The two big letdowns for me are (1) that the labels will address only product manufacturers, not specific products, and (2) that Wal-Mart isn't actually rating anyone (companies or
products), because it hasn't set any performance benchmarks.
Which is not to say that the whole thing is crap, but... You can read his post in full here.
Thanks to SmartBrief for giving me the heads-up on this one:
America's retailasaurus rex today told its suppliers to start providing it with the full environmental costs associated with making their products, so that Wal-Mart can start putting "Nutrition Facts"–style labels that give sustainability ratings on all of the products it sells. (Read the full story in the Wall Street Journalhere.)
The company says it will take about five years to construct the ratings system and distill all the information from companies into a format consumers will find useful.
I've talked to many individuals who have had this idea and even taken a stab at it (but are often stymied by a lack of financial resources). A multitude of certifications and eco-labels exist, and there are companies such as Patagonia that have come up with their own labels, but this is by far the largest effort in the green labeling arena that I've heard of, and it has the potential to set the template for how future such labels emerge, at least in the U.S.
The devil will be in the details, of course. Standards makers are the new diplomats in today's globalized world. How trustworthy will the data be? Will there be an auditing process to ensure that suppliers are honest?
I will be watching this development with great interest!
I have to put up a quick plug for a new website by flour maker Stone-Buhr. Full disclosure: The company just paid me to write some copy about it on their packaging. But it's very cool and exactly the type of thing that I'm interested in!
FindTheFarmer.com lets you type in the lot number on your package of flour and see where the wheat that went into it came from. Most wheat that we consume is an anonymous commodity hailing from who-knows-where, but Stone-Buhr has cultivated relationships with bona-fide independent family farms in the Pacific Northwest and is, I believe, the first company to offer identity-preserved flour, as it's called. Not only that, but these farms are using sustainable methods certified by the Food Alliance. Interestingly, the flour is not organic, but it's still considered sustainable. That's a post for another day...
Two BPA-themed e-newsletters just landed in my in-box. The Center for a New American Dream’s dispatch mentions a helpful site, the Bisphenol A Portal, which compiles news reports about the endocrine-disrupting chemical. Particularly helpful is the site’s Smart Plastics Guide (pdf), which breaks down what all those numbers on plastic containers mean and gives tips on how to avoid BPA.
The most recent e-newsletter from the Environmental Working Group’s points to the BPA cheatsheet on its Enviroblog. Interestingly, the central graphic used on that page is a water bottle made by Nalgene, which recently announced that it will phase out production of BPA-containing bottles.
A couple months ago, I blogged about Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles site, which lets consumers see the path taken by five of the company’s products, from origin to distribution center. A new story on Fast Company’s website delves into how the project has “put the company’s design and manufacturing process under the
It’s an interesting piece, but I found it odd that the opening description—of Patagonia environmental analysis director Jill Dumain “investigating,” camera in hand, one of the company’s T-shirt suppliers—was never followed up on to reveal what the investigation was for. Had the Footprint Chronicles found a supplier with dirt on its shoes?
Nope, Dumain just told me. The supplier, Nature USA, is a good company. Patagonia is “looking at the impact of a variety of our garments, and the T-shirts made by Nature USA are on the list for next fall. It was just their turn.”
Oh well, no juicy skullduggery to report. But it’s good to know they’re on the lookout.
Speaking of transparency, outdoor-sportswear maker Patagonia has pulled back the curtain on the environmental effects and manufacturing processes behind some of its clothes with a cool new web feature.
The Footprint Chronicles tells the life story of five Patagonia products, showing the path each travels from design through fabric acquisition and processing, and finally to the distribution center. Each stage of the process has a thumbnail photo that you can click on for additional reading or videos on specific factories, sourcing philosophy, etc. And each product’s page details the total distance it traveled, its CO2 emissions, the total amount of waste it generated, and its energy consumption.
It’s a pretty neat tool—it reminds me of Timberland’s Nutrition Facts–esque labels from a couple years ago, only with more detail. (Hmm, I wonder if Patagonia will ever put this info on its labels in some form?)
But I must confess that my first reaction to the data behind the curtain was tinged with disappointment. The Wool 2 Crew sweater, for example, travels a total of 16,280 miles (thanks in part to its wool’s origins in an eco-friendly New Zealand ranch), generating 100 times its weight in carbon dioxide emissions. As the webpage itself states, “This is not sustainable.” And the Synchilla vest, which is (happily) made from all recycled materials and is itself recyclable through Patagonia’s Common Threads program, still generates 44 times its weight in emissions, despite the fact that its mileage figure of 5,150 is significantly less than the crew’s.
First reaction aside, though, I applaud Patagonia for launching the Footprint Chronicles and being willing to give us the straight dope. That in itself speaks volumes about the company’s ethos—clearly, it’s genuinely interested in engaging with consumers on these issues rather than making vague claims of responsibility and then hoping no one asks for elucidation (like some companies). Personally, I’m more likely to buy a jacket whose environmental footprint I can know something about than one that’s shrouded in mystery.
Furthermore, it’s good for consumers to be educated about what a globalized economy looks like. Certain products may be better than others in certain regards, and certain companies may have a higher commitment to lessening their impact on the earth than others, but the fact is that most products zip around the globe, merrily generating waste, warming the atmosphere, and expending energy before they land on store shelves. The more people realize this, the more attention will be paid to making smart choices given the current realities.
One thing I was excited to see, in several of the Footprint Chronicles product pages, was reference to a third-party auditing firm. To get more details, I talked to Nicole Bassett, Patagonia’s social responsibility manager. Turns out Patagonia works with a number of different auditors, not just Global Standards (which is misidentified as Global Solutions on the website). “We want to work with local auditing firms as much as possible because of their knowledge of local law and language,” she said.
So are all of Patagonia’s factories being constantly audited? Not exactly. Bassett herself schedules the audits “when we want to know about a factory’s social compliance.” (I meant to ask how often that happens and what the triggers are, but didn’t). An audit is scheduled for each new facility that the company starts using, Bassett said, and she also checks on factories that have been in Patagonia’s supply chain for years.
While I had her on the phone, I asked why the Footprint Chronicles had such scarce information on the natural-latex components for the Honeydew shoes. The reason is that the shoes are actually made by a company called Wolverine. “We just don’t really have the expertise in shoes,” Bassett explained. “So we license our brand name to Wolverine,” and Patagonia simply hasn’t been able to get all the numbers from Wolverine yet. Bassett said she expects the information to be available on the next version of the Footprint Chronicles, which should come out in April, and should also include four more Patagonia products.
Did you hear Michael Pollan flogging, er, discussing his new must-read,
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, on NPR last week?
Wallet Mouth, well trained to attend to such things, has been worked up
all week about how Pollan’s comments on the rise of “nutrition” at the
expense of simply “eating healthily,” relate to the project of
consumer education and product labeling—one of Wallet Mouth’s core
As Pollan pointed out, it was (and remains) easier to quantify
the amount of beta carotene in a healthy person’s diet than the
quantity of carrots. But this opened the door for manufacturers to begin
crowing about the “healthy” additives in their high-profit processed
During my pregnancy I’ve been reminded more than once about
how many of the nutrients added to products are not actually usable by
the body. In this case, as is Pollan’s point, an effort to empower
consumers has obviously had a somewhat serious unintended side effect.
Mr. Wallet Mouth has been speculating whether there are
less-well-documented analogs to this lurking behind other labeling and
disclosure efforts. I’ve mentioned suspect (i.e. toothless or
fabricated) certifications here before, as well as the perfidious
technicality of “zero grams of trans fat.” And of course, the
notoriously weak teeth of “USDA Organic” is a sore spot for many...
None of this suggests we shouldn’t continue to advocate for
truth in labeling—only that we should notice, and take action, when
that becomes “truth” in advertising.
I found this Salon article interesting in its own right, but it also reminded me of the importance of having widely available public information about corporations. That’s because, in the story, the writer says, “Leading manufacturers, like Georgia Pacific and Kimberly
Clark, increasingly use up to 100 percent recycled fiber from the
United States.” Only in the fifth page of the comments did a reader correct the writer: As I have mentioned in this blog, Kimberly-Clark is actually under fire for clear-cutting virgin forests to make its Kleenex and paper towels. If info on such corporate misdeeds were more freely available, perhaps the writer would have taken a different tone.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).