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.
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!
Someone just forwarded me a great resource for parents who are concerned about all this BPA business: a blog called Z Recommends and its report on BPA in children’s feeding products, which rates makers of products such as pacifiers and sippy cups. Besides the online directory, there’s a mobile component. Just text-message “zrecs” followed by
the name of the company you’re curious about to 69866 to receive info on your
The blog points out one problem that I’d never considered: while the main functional part of any given children’s product may indeed be BPA-free, that’s not necessarily true of the item’s other parts, which are equally likely to end up in kids’ mouths. The “shield” on a pacifier, for example, isn’t meant to be sucked on, but we all know how that goes. Said shields are often made of polycarbonate plastic, which contains the endocrine-disrupting chemical.
The ratings—there are four categories, ranging from Excellent to Poor—are based on “product quality, innovation, the range of products a
company offers, their stance on BPA and their openness about sharing
information about their products.” Z Recommends also provides a list of companies whose wares are all BPA-free, so you can trust anything they make. I found it heartening that there are 30 names on that list.
Z Recommends isn’t just for parents, by the way. It’s chock-full of informative posts such as this one, which talks about Wal-Mart U.S., Nalgene, and BPA-related company claims that warrant skepticism.
I recently ponied up $30 for a year’s subscription to Ethiscore.org,a British site that aims to help users “quickly and easily identify the best products to support and the worst
companies to avoid.”
It’s a neat tool, but it’s far from perfect. There’s no search, for example. (Its sister site, Corporate Critic, which is aimed at institutions rather than individuals, does have search, but it costs nearly $1,800 a year to subscribe.) To access the data in Ethiscore, you scroll through nearly 150 product categories (that’s if you’re a subscriber; otherwise you can only access 15) and select one you’re interested in. That calls up a list of brands, each with a numerical rating on the somewhat nonintuitive scale of 0 to 20 (0 to 4 = very poor, 5 to 9 = poor, 10 to 14 = average, 15 to 20 = good).
The ratings are based on five categories: environment, people, animals, politics, and product sustainability. Much like Alonovo, you can customize how much weight is given to each category based on your preferences. Unlike Alonovo, Ethiscore is not integrated into the shopping experience. It does let you generate shopping lists, though. And it has a cool mail-form feature that lets you email companies and tell them that you like (or don’t like) their practices.
Overall, Ethiscore’s data offering feels a bit limited, both by its selection of product categories and by the number of entries in each category. Only 27 brands are listed under breakfast cereal, for example, many of which I don’t recognize (it doesn’t help, of course, that the site is naturally quite heavily UK-oriented).
Most important, however, is that Ethiscore’s mission and business model are working at cross-purposes. The information the group provides has the potential to spur real change in the socioeconomic landscape—but only if it’s easy and convenient for consumers to obtain it and factor it into their everyday buying habits. Charging even a relatively small amount for this data represents a big barrier to a world in which consumers habitually vote with their wallets. But at the same time, it obviously requires considerable time and effort (read: money) to conduct all this research and analysis.
I traded email with one of the researchers at Ethical Consumer Information Systems (the organization behind both Ethiscore and Corporate Critic), asking about this conundrum, and she replied that the organization had always grappled with the problem, and that it was considering becoming a multi-stakeholder cooperative that could bring in “some decent money,” which would enable it to give more information away. “We are also looking into more developments on the internet side of things,” she added. “Watch this space!”
Founded by a hip-hop artist
and a spoken-word poet in Rhode Island, Knowmore.org is a wiki-based repository of information that rates companies (using a method it describes as “evolving” and “unscientific”) in six areas: human rights, workers’
rights, ethics, political influence and litigation, environment, and
fair trade/globalization. The site radiates grassroots activism, with photos of anti-war protesters sprinkled throughout.
The organization’s interns are working to pump up the database, but as mentioned earlier, this is a wiki, and editors are sought. Knowmore aims to be a “people’s corporate and political encyclopedia,” expansive enough so that users can search it for products, services, and brands they buy and learn more about what their dollars are supporting.
Knowmore certainly has its work cut out for it: Curious how many companies it had ratings for, I counted 210, which is probably not even a drop in the bucket when you consider the gazillions that must exist in the world. Plus, how do you keep all that info current? But all power to this effort, I say. I like the fact that there’s an immediate, reachable-sounding goal to cover every Fortune 500 company by the time the site is redesigned in the fall.
Knowmore is also handing out the code for anyone who wants to put its banner and interactive search bar (for companies, brands, and products) on their site.
Instead of buying stuff on Amazon, I’ve started using Alonovo, an online shopping outletthat provides ratings of its merchants (some of them, anyway) in such categories as social responsibility and business ethics. Users can customize those ratings (which come from KLD Research & Analytics and the U.S. Federal Elections Commission) according to their own values—for example, assigning more importance to how well a company complies with environmental regulations and less to how generous its charitable giving program is. In addition, Alonovo donates a portion of its revenue to nearly 100 nonprofits and activist organizations (such as the ACLU, the Breast Cancer Fund, and Unicef); shoppers choose which group their purchases will benefit.
Here’s how it works: Alonovo is a member of Amazon’s Associates program, so it’s basically a portal through which Amazon’s wares are sold. Shoppers get the same selection and price as they would on the e-commerce giant—in fact, Alonovo’s site is powered by Amazon, and the checkout process takes place on Amazon—but with the added benefit of the ratings and donations.
For each purchase on Alonovo, Amazon pays Alonovo a referral fee of up to 8.5% of the revenue associated with that purchase. Alonovo donates either all or half of that commission to the beneficiary organization chosen by the shopper. The group gets 100% if it’s an “active” partner of Alonovo’s (active partners promote Alonovo in their newsletters, websites, and email campaigns); otherwise it gets 50%. There are currently 22 active partners and 73 passive ones.
Registration on Alonovo is free and not required; Alonovo adds no fees to the products purchased through its site. It also offers forum discussions and links to CSR-related news stories.
I only wish the site could provide ratings on more companies and products—as does Alonovo itself, I’m sure—but acquiring and streamlining the data required to do that is hugely complicated, to say the least, so I’m not going to blame them.
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).