I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

September 4, 2010

Using information about ecological impact of products to drive consumer decisions

Daniel Goleman summarizes some of the ideas he raised in his book Ecological Intelligence, which I discussed in a previous post, in an article in Yale Environment 360.

How Marketplace Economics Can Help Build a Greener World

by Daniel Goleman
Consumers now have little information about the true ecological impacts of what they buy. But that may be about to change, as new technologies that track supply chains are emerging and companies as diverse as Unilever and Google look to make their products more sustainable.


August 24, 2010

The economy vs. the environment? How much do environmental issues matter?

Blog post, ” The Eco-Debate: How Much Do Environmental Issues Matter?“, confronts the issue of the environment vs. the economy, and argues that the two are not inseparable but that we can, that we need to, pursue sustainability.

I was struck by a quote by Paul Hawken cited in the post:

At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product … We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation.”

(The post also notes that Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce was voted the No. 1 college text by business professors.)

August 7, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

I recently began reading Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who  is probably best known for his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.  He puts ecological intelligence in a different category that some of the other intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in that ecological intelligence has to be developed because the activities, and the impacts they have, are beyond our awareness and occur at such slow rates that there was no need for humans to develop that type of intelligence.  Climate change is one such example.

The subtitle is “How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.”  He focuses on many of the same issues that William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff do.  I found it delightfully surprising that a book by an author known for books on issues like emotional intelligence starts right off with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment and industrial ecology.  (In fact, he refers to William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach in several places.)

His discussion of why “green” isn’t always as green as it seems is useful for anyone wanting to make ecologically responsible purchases.

Goleman argues that one of the best ways to increase our ecological intelligence is through full disclosure of the impact of the products we buy, the notion of radical transparency.  He cites examples such as companies being required to disclose their financial workings as examples of how that disclosure helps investors make better decisions.

He weaves together stories about the effect of synthetic chemicals on our bodies, especially on our immune systems, and discusses how inflammation and oxidative stress could be at the root of all sorts of diseases (going well beyond cancer).  Body burden, toxicology, epigenetics, and green supply chains are all covered, even if only briefly.  He weaves together these topics in a very readable, understandable fashion.

Postscript: Just checked out his website for the first time.  His latest blog post is entitled “Leading sustainability” and discusses how consumers can use resources like GoodGuide.com to make more informed choices.  And I’m encouraged by the fact that he is working with folks like Peter Senge, a management guru.

May 23, 2010

Food safety, marketing, and reducing childhood obesity

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report

This report was released earlier this month. It discusses issues and offers recommendations relating to childhood obesity, including the usual regarding diet and lack of physical activity, but also notes the role that “obesogens” (endocrine disruptors and other chemicals thought to increase obesity by interfering with the body’s metabolic processes), food marketing, product formulation, access to healthier food, etc., play a part in the obesity epidemic.

Report: Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation

http://www.letsmove.gov/taskforce_childhoodobesityrpt.html

Full reporthttp://www.letsmove.gov/tfco_table_of_contents.pdf (chapters also available as individual PDFs)

Contents
  • Early Childhood – A. Prenatal Care; B. Breastfeeding; C. Chemical Exposures; D. Screen Time; and E. Early Care and Education
  • Empowering parents and caregivers – A. Making Nutrition Information Useful; B. Food Marketing; and C. Health Care Services
  • Healthy Food in Schools – A. Quality School Meals; B. Other Foods in Schools; C. Food-Related Factors in the School Environment; and D. Food in Other Institutions
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food – A. Physical Access to Healthy Food; B. Food Pricing; C. Product Formulation; D. Hunger and Obesity
  • Increasing Physical Activity – A. School-Based Approaches; B. Expanded Day and Afterschool Activities; C. The “Built Environment”; and D. Community Recreation Venues

The role of marketing

The report notes:

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that, in 2006, food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. Children and adolescents are an important demographic for marketers for several reasons: (1) they are customers themselves; (2) they influence purchases made by parents and caregivers; and (3) they are the future adult market.

The report says that the relationship between marketing and obesity isn’t firmly established, but that advertising does appear to have an effect on kids. Give me a break. Why would companies spend that kind of money if they weren’t getting the results they wanted?

Many books have been written about the ways in which companies try to market products to kids. A couple of note are Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn. Both books cover food marketing in a good amount of detail (and are well-documented).

One of the things that caught my attention in Born to Buy was Schor’s discussion of how marketing companies want to create a world in which consumers are constantly bombarded by 360-degree advertising (or what one agency refers to as “infinite consumer touchpoint possibilities”).

What are the effects of such marketing? Probably not just obesity. Overstimulation. Psychological effects. Increased materialism. And what are the eventual consequences? In an article, “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability,” the authors (Tim Kasser, Tom Crompton, and Susan Linn) argue that “the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction.”

Food safety issues

The USDA Office of Inspector General issued a report in March 2010 (Audit Report 24601-08-KC) noting that:

One of the public food safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. “Residue” of this sort finds its way into the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants while they have these residual contaminants in their system. When the animals are slaughtered, traces of the drugs or pesticides contained in these animals’ meat is shipped to meat processors and retail supermarkets, and eventually purchased by consumers. In order to safeguard the Nation’s food supply from harmful residue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administers the national residue program.

The Inspector General found that “the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce. Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs.”

So the food we eat might actually be a source of obesity in more than one way.  Does this bother anyone else?

May 5, 2010

The Product-Life Institute’s approach to ‘cradle to cradle’

Perhaps getting ahead of myself here (that is, I haven’t gotten close to finishing my summary of McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle), but I wanted to include this because of Walter Stahel’s  role in the creation of a “cradle to cradle” approach (as opposed to a “cradle-to-grave” approach.

“Cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions.

The Product-Life Institute was founded in 1982 by Orio Giarini and Walter R. Stahel, who were joined after a few month by Max Börlin.  The main focus of the Product-Life Institute is on practical strategies and approaches is to produce higher real wealth and economic growth with considerably lower resource consumption. Create more manual and skilled jobs with greatly reduced resource consumption. Promote the business concepts of the Functional Service Economy that focuses on the performance of goods and services, the utilization value as its central notion of economic value and private-sector initiatives to finance public works.  (from its website)

Cradle to Cradle at the Product-Life Institute

http://product-life.org/en/cradle-to-cradle

From the website:

In their 1976 research report to the European Commission in Brussels ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy’, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday sketched the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings and waste prevention. The report was published in 1982 as a book “Jobs for Tomorrow, the Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy”. Today these factors are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainable development: ecologic, economic and social compatibility.

In 1982, Stahel synthesized these ideas in his prize winning paper “The Product-Life Factor” and identified selling utilization instead of goods as the ultimate sustainable business model of a loop economy: selling utilisation enables to create sustainable profits without an externalization of the costs of risk and costs of waste.

In their 1987 report “Economic Strategies of Durability – longer product-life of goods as waste prevention strategy”, Stahel and Börlin demonstrated that economic actors in a loop economy can achieve a higher profitability than their competitors in the throughput economy. Using 30 case studies, the report showed that for a loop economy to be fully successful, a restructuring of the industrial economy and its framework conditions would be helpful.

As a reaction to this report in 1987, some experts put forward the idea of a product responsibility “from cradle to grave” as an alternative to a circular economy, with the advantage that cradle to grave was compatible with the existing linear economic model.

Walter R. Stahel, by training an architect, countered this idea by pointing out that “cradle to grave” is simply a marketing upgrade for gravediggers, because it still relies on end-of-pipe solutions. Stahel insisted that the really sustainable solution was to use durable goods in a loop from “cradle back to cradle”…..

The main objectives of the Product-Life Institute are to open new frontiers of economic development towards a Functional Service Economy that focuses on selling performance (services) instead of goods (product liability), internalizing all costs (cradle to cradle), product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention.

The vision is a sustainable economy and society resting on five pillars:

  1. Nature conservation
  2. Limited toxicity
  3. Resource productivity
  4. Social ecology
  5. Cultural ecology

Includes a link to the article, Product-Life Factor (Mitchell Prize Winning Paper 1982), which describes the impact product-life extension could have on creating more sustainable economies.

Also includes an announcement of the publication of The Performance Economy: Second Edition (Spring 2010) by Walter Stahel in which he “looks at the role of entrepreneurs and other innovators and how the dominating business models of the current ‘industrial economy’ are changing to those of a ‘performance economy’.”  A performance economy is one in which goods are not sold, but are provided as services.

Other resources

The Product-Life Institute’s blogs

Links to other resources on sustainability and eco-design

Includes links to conferences, websites, and a list of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the Product-Life Institute works with.

A link to the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) is included under “Courses on sustainability.”  SAGE is a research center in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  While it does offer coursework in a wide variety of environmental studies, the only thing I found on the site (admittedly after a very brief scan) was the Roy F. Weston Distinguished Global Sustainability Lecture Series, a limited number of which have PowerPoint presentations or QuickTime audiocasts.  However, it does have information for anyone interested in pursuing studies in sustainability and environmental studies.

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