I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

March 21, 2010

Sound advice to companies on endocrine disruptors

Found a post on endocrine disruptors that advises companies on steps they should be taking to deal with endocrine disruptors now.  You’re probably thinking what I thought when I first saw the post, “Yeah, right.”

I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s heartening to see an investment manager taking an enlightened  position like this.

The Chemicals That Should Be on Your Radar … but Probably Aren’t

By Richard Liroff – Published February 25, 2010
[This post is a follow up to Liroff’s earlier article “What Does the FDA’s BPA Decision Mean for Companies?” on GreenBiz.com.]

Liroff notes:

As a class, [endocrine disruptors (EDs)] can have profound and unparalleled impacts on families, communities and businesses because of their possible links to learning disabilities, selected cancers, reproductive disorders, diabetes and other health disorders.

Systematically identifying EDs, substituting safer substances and product designs, and reducing exposures promise sizeable payoffs from reduced health care burdens and enhanced employee productivity. Such actions help align consumer-facing companies in particular with consumers’ concerns about involuntary exposures to toxic chemicals in daily living.

Liroff lists several recent developments in public awareness regarding endocrine disruptors, describes what endocrine disruptors are and how they can affect health, and offers the following advice to chemical companies regarding endocrine disruptors:

1. Get educated.

He provides links to European, U.S. EPA, and NIEHS endocrine disruption websites as well as the The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) list of resources.  (A very nice list!)

2. Make sure corporate science staff stay current.

Why the Adage ‘the Dose Makes the Poison’ Can Be Toxic to Corporate Chemicals Policy

Heed the advice of NIEHS’s Dr. Linda Birnbaum: “[T]he timing, as well as the dose, makes the poison.” The American Chemical Society, in a newly published statement on endocrine disruptors, echoes this view: “A large and growing body of environmental health literature shows that endocrine disrupting substances … do not fit the central tenet of regulatory toxicology, namely, that the ‘dose makes the poison.'”

3. Know the chemicals in your products and supply chain.

4. Take action. Join the leading edge companies who are actively screening their chemical inventories for endocrine disruptors and are taking steps to lower toxicity via safer chemical substitutes or designs….

[A] proactive approach of analysis and substitution, and responding to early warning signals, is more likely to buttress consumer confidence in your brand than defensive posturing that reflexively asserts “more research is needed” or “no cause-effect relationships have been shown.”

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org. Disclosure: Liroff serves as Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and served on the priority-setting work group of EPA’s Endocrine Disruption Screening and Testing Advisory Committee.

March 13, 2010

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

Continuation of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1), book by McDonough and Braungart.

One of the themes of Cradle to Cradle is that in nature there is no such thing is waste.  In their words,”Waste equals food.”  They note that ecosystems truly recycle materials.  (They seem particularly fond of cherry trees and ant colonies as examples of how nature operates.)

In contrast, what society calls recycling, they call “downcycling” since in almost all cases, the “new” product recreated from the old is of lower quality each pass through the recycling stream.

In Chapter One, “A Question of Design,” McDonough & Braungart describe the use the example of the Titanic as a symbol of how we perceive technology and how it is a metaphor for the industrial infrastructure on which our society is built.

In what I found an intriguing perspective on the Industrial Revolution and the infrastructure produced by it, McDonough & Braungart ask you as the reader to imagine being given the assignment of retrospectively designing the Industrial Revolution—with the following requirements for the system:

That it:

  • put billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • produce some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations
  • result in gigantic amounts of waste
  • put valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • require thousands of complex regulations—not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
  • measure productivity by how few people are working
  • create prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
  • erode the diversity of species and cultural practices

Intentional or not, that’s what we’re doing.  Not wanting this to be taken out of context, I should note that McDonough and Braungart do discuss how this whole system developed.  I’ll cover that in the next part.  (Wow, I’ve managed to get through the first two pages of Chapter One.  ;-)  )

Links to these posts, as well as posts from other blogs, will be added to the Cradle to Cradle page.

March 12, 2010

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1)

I’ve decided to try to summarize Cradle to Cradle over a series of several posts.  (And I’ve created a Cradle to Cradle page where I’ll post links to my posts, as well as posts from other blogs.)

I won’t be able to do it complete justice, but I think it’s an eye-opening approach to a critical problem.  Having been published in 2002, a lot of progress has been made in the last eight years and many of the ideas are starting to be recognized as a better approach.  Green chemistry, design for the environment, pollution prevention, and sustainable design and materials management (and lots of variations on those terms and concepts) are starting to catch on as being better approaches.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  North Point Press, 2002.

Going beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle”

McDonough and Braungart argue that this approach to waste actually perpetuates the one-way “cradle to grave” approach of traditional manufacturing.

As co-authors of The Hannover Principles (PDF) (Wikipedia article), design guidelines for the 2000 World’s Fair that were issued at the World Urban Forum of the Earth Summit in 1992, they state that foremost among the guidelines is eliminating the concept of waste.  (For more background on related issues, see Agenda 21 documents from the Agenda 21 Global Programme of Action on Sustainable Development from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development–aka the Earth Summit.)

This book describes the steps society can take to do that, as well as why the reasons our current approach will ultimately fail.

The limits of scientific research (my term, not theirs)

Braungart notes that “science as a whole is more invested in research than in implementing strategies of change.”

The scientific community is usually paid to study problems, not solutions; indeed, finding a solution to the problem under study usually brings an end to funding for research.

That, Braungart notes, puts an odd pressure on scientists since they must, like everyone else, make a living.  Which is part of the reason we keep making products containing chemicals that we know are toxic.  We’ve been unable to think of a better approach.

Rethinking the question

Well, as they ask on the back cover of the book, “Why not challenge the belief that human industry must damage the natural world?  In fact, why not take nature itself as our model for making things?”

More on The Hannover Principles

From the Foundation for P2P Alternatives.  (I found this interesting because of this statement on the Foundation’s home page: “We study the impact of Peer to Peer technology and thought on society.”)

[Summary of] The Hannover Principles, 1992

Originally posted on the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) website (link on the Mindfully.org website no longer works)

Note: GSA is responsible for purchasing or managing many tangible assets of the U.S. government.

Copied from Mindfully.org’s Hannover Principles page (unfortunately the Mindfully.org site does not appear to have been updated recently, but it does contain links to older articles on plastics, sustainability, etc.)

Developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Hannover Principles were among the first to comprehensively address the fundamental ideas of sustainability and the built environment, recognizing our interdependence with nature and proposing a new relationship that includes our responsibilities to protect it. The Principles encourage all of us – you, your organization, your suppliers and customers – to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and to re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity. When you make decisions in your organization, remember these essential Principles:

  • Recognize interdependence. Simply put: everything you do personally, in your organization and through your work interacts with and depends upon the natural world, at every scale, both locally and across the globe.
  • Eliminate the concept of waste. Are you considering the full, life-cycle consequences of what you create or buy?
  • Understand the limitations of design. Treat nature as a model, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled

Next installment: “Nature doesn’t have a design problem.  People do.”

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