Sunday, June 29, 2008

A subject of grave importance

Inasmuch as any of us seeks to tread lightly on the earth in our day-to-day life, it's usually just that: in our day-to-day life. But what about in our death?

Reading the July issue of National Geographic, I was stunned by some statistics about what gets buried along with the deceased in the U.S. each year: 30 million board-feet of casket wood, including some from exotic, possibly endangered, trees; 90,000 tons of steel, enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and then some; 1.6 million tons of concrete (for burial vaults); and upwards of 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, more than enough for an Olympic-size pool. Whatever happened to ashes to ashes, dust to dust?

As it happens, a movement exists that advocates for a return to simpler end-of-life practices. "The goal then and now is the same: to allow the body at death to rejoin the elements it sprang from, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life," writes Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, in his blog.

Proponents of green burials are attracted to the idea of making their last act on the earth a sustainable one. Eco-friendly approaches conserve natural resources (decedents are lain to rest in shrouds or biodegradable caskets or crematory urns) and avoid the use of toxic embalming chemicals like formaldehyde (dry ice may be used to preserve bodies for memorial services). They also tend to cost much less than conventional burials.

But where it really gets interesting is interment location. The Green Burial Council has developed a certification program for cemeteries that emphasizes environmental stewardship and seeks to ensure that burial land remains burial land. To attain its highest-level certification, a cemetery must be owned or protected by a conservation easement held by a government agency and/or conservation-oriented nonprofit. Taking it a step further, the council has been meeting with land trusts and conservation groups to promote the use of burial as a conservation strategy. "Burial is another layer of protection," Green Burial Council executive director Joe Sehee explains in Grist. "It consecrates the land and offers another barrier to development."

Not that burials have to occur on land. Scattering ashes at sea has long been an established practice. There is even such a thing as a memorial reef, a structure that does double duty as a container for a loved one's ashes and an artificial reef to provide habitat for marine life.

But whether on land or on sea, the theme is the same: to seek harmony with the earth in death as in life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Questions of design

A photo of a man building a house out of newspapers appears in the summer issue of On Earth, the NRDC's magazine. It's part of a profile of The Newspaper House, an interactive installation by conceptual artist Sumer Erek, who in March recruited volunteers to help construct the five-meter-high structure in London's Gillett Square to draw attention to the problem posed by the scads of free publications that end up littering the city's streets and subways.

As an attention-getter, the installation is a success. An actual house made of newspaper, however, wouldn't be such a great idea. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart write in their seminal design manifesto Cradle to Cradle, newspaper, being made of recycled paper, contains short fibers that easily abrade into the air, and numerous people have developed allergies to it.

The authors point to the use of recycled paper in insulation as an example of the difficulties of creatively reusing of materials: "additional chemicals (such as fungicides to prevent mildew) must be added to make ... paper suitable for insulation, intensifying problems already caused by toxic inks and other contaminants. The insulation might then off-gas formaldehyde and other chemicals into the home."

It's an example of what they term downcycling (what most of us call recycling): when one type of thing is melded with like items of lower quality, the overall quality of the resultant material is reduced over time. McDonough and Michael Braungart call for a new design sensibility, one inspired by biological systems in which one organism's waste is another's food.

Not that Sumer Erek is advocating building paper houses, of course. As the artist states on his blog, The Newspaper House is meant to "open the 'reduce-reuse-recycle' debate as well as make our voices heard about making the city—our city—clean and liveable."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Clearing the air

When you hear the term "air pollution," what do you picture? A factory smokestack, perhaps? Or the tailpipe of a truck belching out black fumes and causing you to cover your mouth? While such things no doubt qualify, we should be more concerned about the air we breathe when we're indoors, according to the U.S. EPA.

In its report "The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality," the agency states that things like furniture, carpet, insulation, and cleaning products in homes and other buildings can expose us to high levels of pollutants. While any one source of pollution may not amount to much in isolation, the cumulative effect of all these sources can be considerable—especially given that most people spend the majority of their time indoors.

So how can we improve the quality of the air we breathe inside? Houseplants like Boston ferns and spider plants have long been championed for their air-cleaning abilities (for example, see this graphic from Good magazine), although there is controversy about their efficacy. The EPA recommends air cleaners for certain types of pollutants.

Most mileage can be gotten from eliminating the sources of pollution. Limit your exposure to paints, varnishes, and non-green cleaning supplies (you can make your own cleaners with simple ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and borax). Avoid air fresheners, vinyl shower curtains, and paraffin candles. Steer clear of traditional dry cleaners, which use a chemical that's bad for both you and the environment.

Consider replacing furniture or flooring made of pressed wood or plywood, much of which offgasses formaldehyde (not all of it, though; the largest U.S. manufacturer of plywood furniture, Columbia Forest Products, uses formaldehyde-free technology). When shopping for furnishings, look for the Greenguard Environmental Institute's low-toxicity product certification, or consider secondhand items that have pretty much finished their offgassing.

Finally, simply opening a window to increase ventilation helps a great deal. And don't forget to get outside!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fishing for answers

Reading my local newsweekly the other day, I was struck by a review of a sushi joint whose menu is focused on sustainable seafood. I've been hearing a lot lately about how our oceans are overfished, but this was the first time I'd seen a sushi restaurant engaging directly with the issue. 

So, what makes for a sustainable sushi menu? And what can I as a consumer look out for the next time I'm at a seafood restaurant? To get some answers, I talked to Gretchen Helsel, who manages Tataki (the aforementioned sushi joint), and Casson Trenor, who works for the nonprofit FishWise and acts as a sort of fish consultant for the restaurant.

One red flag is farmed salmon. Tataki doesn't serve it because oftentimes the farms "are extremely dirty open-containment, or net-pen, farms where there's no barrier between the open ocean and farm," Trenor said. This was a problem I'd heard of: large concentrations of sewage from the captive fish pollutes the ocean; also, contagious diseases and parasites spread easily in a net pen and then infect wild fish.

Instead of farmed salmon, the restaurant offers wild Alaskan salmon and farmed Arctic char, which is better suited to farming, Helsel told me. "It's smaller, and it's better raised on vegetarian diet," she said. 

Also absent from the menu are unsustainably farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia and unagi, or freshwater eel, whose wild populations are crashing, Trenor told me. "A huge proportion of unagi comes from China, and the industry is notoriously opaque" and plagued with problems such as escapism and disease. In place of unagi, Tataki serves anago, a wild saltwater eel.

Another item consumers might think twice about before ordering is bluefin tuna (toro, or fatty tuna, on menus). Why? Severe depletion, for one thing. "They're tasty and coveted, and because of that, they're disappearing faster than we could ever replace them," Trenor said. A bluefin farming industry has sprung up, he added, in which the fish are ranched—captured as juveniles and raised in a pen. "Every tuna you get out of a ranch would've been in wild and won't have a chance to breed." Another problem is that it requires an enormous amount of feed to produce a relatively small amount of bluefin; the protein ratio "approaches or exceeds 20 to 1," Trenor said. "It's inherently unsustainable."

Instead of bluefin, Tataki servesnet-caught skipjack and hand-line domestic yellowfin and albacore. Which points to another consideration for fish consumers: hand-line vs. long-line. "Hand-line means just using one hook and one line to catch one fish," said Helsel. "When they long-line, that's multiple hooks and lines that are miles long, and they leave them out there for days. By the time the boats go back out, there's a lot of bycatch—meaning turtles, birds, and so on that are dead."

Various seafood guides have been published to help consumers eat fish in a more sustainable way, but no one guide is sufficient for everyone, since where you live is a factor. has a list of a number of guides, with links, here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Consumer power in numbers

Word of mouth is a force to be reckoned with. Businesses crave it; there's even a Word of Mouth Marketing Association. But it's generated by consumers, and that can't be faked—at least, not for long. And now that the internet is such an inextricable part of all our lives, word of mouth is even more powerful.

Earlier this year when my dishwasher broke, instead of combing through the Yellow Pages to find a repair service, I did something I'd never done before: I used Yelp, a user-generated review site I'd heard about from friends. That way, I didn't have to smudge my hands with newsprint and, most important, I got access to something the phone book would never tell me: what others think about appliance-repair shops in my neck of the woods.

Recently I've learned about other, similar sites that have taken social responsibility and sustainability as their unifying theme. IzzitGreen, in Boston, encourages users to rate brick-and-mortar businesses on both how good (as in effective) they are and how green they are. It's only in beta now, so not all of the buttons work (the discussion forums, for example), but already there are inklings (as in this review) of how a tool like this can not only provide sustainability-minded consumers with good information but also help business owners get greener.

Then there's SustainLane, which features reviews, green ratings based on six categories (Good for Me, Good for the Planet, etc.), and lively discussions. In both cases, the ratings are, of course, subjective, but if you believe in the wisdom of crowds, sites like these have the potential to be gold mines of eco-wisdom.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nuptials with a conscience

It's June. Love is in the air, and weddings are in the calendar. According to the Kiplinger Letters, some 2.3 million couples will say "I do" this year. A number of those brides and grooms are choosing to have their big day reflect their values by minimizing the environmental footprint of their wedding.

I remember when bird seed began to replace rice as a more environmentally friendly confetti to throw on the happy couple. Today's weddings go a lot further than that. Following are some favorite tips I've found (aside from the usual advice to make sure there's recycling and composting at the reception) on having nuptials that affirm a commitment not only to marriage but also to socially responsible ideals.

• Use eco-friendly paper for the invitations, and have guests RSVP electronically.

• Choose vintage wedding wear.

• Get vintage or heirloom rings, or new ones made with responsibly sourced gold or other metals; look for diamonds that are Kimberly Process certified.

• Hold your wedding in a locale that's close to as many guests as possible. 

• Pay for carbon offsets as wedding favors.

• Use local or organic flowers and food, and arrange to donate leftover edibles to a food bank.

• Instead of putting disposable cameras on the dinner tables, set up a free Flickr group or Snapfish group room and encourage digital camera-wielding friends and family to upload their shots.

• Afraid of getting a dozen chip-and-dip servers as gifts? Consider using organizations like the I Do Foundation or, which let guests donate to a favorite charity in honor of the couple. 

• Investigate sustainable-travel options for the honeymoon.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The greening of gaming

A recent Greenpeace report on the presence of hazardous materials in three leading gaming consoles contains good news and bad. First the bad news: the analysis (of Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii, and Sony's Playstation 3 Elite) turned up beryllium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

However, not all of those chemical bad boys were found in every console. The Wii, for example, "managed quite well without using beryllium in its electrical contacts, and use of PVC and phthalates was limited." The PlayStation 3 "included 'bromine-free' circuit boards," and the Xbox 360 "used fewer brominated materials in its housing materials."

That's good news, because it shows the potential for improvement through collaboration. If manufacturers got together and shared their expertise, it would be relatively easy for all of them to replace toxic components with clean ones. (By the way, as the report points out, the dangers posed by these materials lie in their manufacture and disposal, not their household use.)

In other gaming-related enviro-news, Gizmodo highlights this chart from Australian consumer organization Choice comparing the energy usage of common household electronic devices, including the PlayStation, Wii, and Xbox. The Wii comes out on top by a long shot, but the main takeaway is, of course, to turn off your games when you're not playing.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Carbon-neutral in Sri Lanka

A lingerie factory near Colombo shows how green design makes economic sense, as this week's Economist reports. The MAS Holdings bra plant, with its natural lighting, green roof, and rainwater harvesting system (to name just a few attributes), was built at the behest of U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), for which it is a sole supplier. It's touted as the world's first carbon-neutral factory; MAS also calls itself an ethical employer, providing a medical center onsite and hiring no underage workers. confessions_of_an_ecosinnger

Thanks to the MAS factory, M&S lingerie shoppers no doubt feel pretty good about their purchases. But the company's fair-trade socks present a more complex picture, as I discovered while reading Fred Pearce's new book Confessions of an Eco Sinner. In one of the chapters in which the author tries to find the origin of his clothes, he details the 12,000-kilometer journey taken by the fair-trade socks M&S sells for twice the price of the regular ones: The cotton was grown in Cameroon, then shipped to India to get spun into yarn, then taken to two locations in Turkey to be dyed and knit into socks before being trucked to England.

The cotton came from Cameroon only because the Indian supplier of organic and fair-trade cotton was overwhelmed with orders, Pearce writes, but because "Indian labour is comparatively expensive in the cut-throat world of global textiles... it cannot compete for many labour-intensive activities." Thus, "it makes economic sense to ship these products back and forth across the planet."

However, all these calculations must be placed in the context of M&S's Plan A initiative, which according to the website aims to make the company "become carbon neutral, send no waste to landfill, extend sustainable sourcing, help improve the lives of people in our supply chain, and help customers and employees live a healthier life-style" by 2012. Launched last year, it's already producing dividends. As the Economist story reports, M&S projected the initiative would cost £200 million, but already Plan A "has generated savings equal to the investments it requires." The retailer expects it to be profitable next year.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Taken aback

Last week I blogged about the phenomenon of nonprofit advocacy groups teaming up with corporations that once might have earned their censure. One such partnership (which I didn't mention in the post) can be found in the Sierra Club's endorsement of Green Works, Clorox's foray into the eco-friendly cleaning products market. Now comes an interesting twist...

take_back_the_filter_badge2 Co-op America just brought my attention to the Take Back the Filter campaign to persuade the Clorox Company to restart the take-back program for its Brita water filters in the U.S. Pointing out the dissonance between the shuttering of the program and the fact that Clorox's Filter for Good campaign "promotes the use of its Brita filtration system ... as a means to reduce disposable plastic bottle waste," Beth Terry, the woman behind Take Back the Filter, invites consumers to contact the company—and to send her their used filters in the meantime (using minimal mailing materials, of course).

Right at the top of Take Back the Filter's home page is a link to a letter to Clorox from none other than ... the Sierra Club. Granted, it's signed by Norman La Force, chair of the San Francisco Bay Chapter, not Carl Pope, the executive director of the national organization, but I would think that it still has some pull.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of this.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Green plate special

Lately, every time I go to a restaurant, I wonder what kind of food-related practices I'm supporting by eating out. For my own cooking at home, I buy mostly organic food, but I have a feeling that the vast majority of eateries I patronize aren't doing a lot of organic sourcing. "Wouldn't it be great if they were?" I keep thinking to myself. "I'd pay extra for that."

After talking today with Michael Oshman, now I'm wondering why I've been keeping those thoughts to myself. "Restaurants are very, very,gralogo4 very sensitive to consumer demand," he told me. Oshman is the founder of the Green Restaurant Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that since 1990 has run a certification system that not only certifies restaurants but also helps them through the process with education and consulting services.

The choice to serve organic food is just one small part of what it means for a restaurant to be green (or at least greener) in the GRA's eyes. Other considerations include energy and water use, recycling, cleaning agents, and what types of materials are used for everything from to-go containers to tables. In order for an establishment to sport the GRA's logo, it must be styrofoam-free and have a full-scale recycling program in place (defined by the city in which it's located), and—crucially—it must make four improvements per year in any of the 11 areas delineated on the GRA's website.

"It's different for each restaurant," Oshman said. "If you already have the best equipment, we'll look at areas you haven't touched, like energy or waste reduction, for example. Even after only a couple of years of making four improvements per year, it's pretty exciting what an average business can do."

I asked whether there were any menu-based disqualifications for certification. For example, would serving seafood varieties that are overfished or caught unsustainably prevent a restaurant from joining the club? No, though "we would give them credit for getting rid of those things." Ultimately, pragmatism reigns, Oshman said, pointing out that many restaurants use energy that is nuclear- or coal-based. "In an academic vacuum, you'd absolutely say no to those things, but in the real world with six billion people, no one would go forward [with such limitations]," he said.

Which brings us back to consumer demand. If diners make their voices heard, restaurants will listen. To help stimulate such communication, the GRA's website has downloadable suggestion cards customers can leave at restaurants encouraging them to join the association and get certified.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Get the skinny on food additives

I'm an inveterate label reader, especially when it comes to food. So I was excited to find that the cover story of Nutrition Action Health Letter's May issue is all about those polysyllabic additives that average consumers like me sometimes wonder about. In addition to demystifying them, the list also tells you which additives are considered safe, which ones people should cut back on, which are largely untested, and which should simply be avoided.

Just because an ingredient is difficult to pronounce doesn't mean it's necessarily bad for you. For example, sodium carboxymethylcellulose gets the green light. It's a thickening and stabilizing agent used in beer, candy, diet foods, ice cream, icing, and pie filling. Also on the safe list are mono- and diglycerides, which soften bread and keep the oil in peanut butter from separating.

Here are a few notables from the "avoid" list. Sodium nitrate (or sodium nitrite) is a coloring, flavoring, and preservative used in smoked fish, corned beef, and pork in all its various forms. It keeps the meat looking pink instead of gray. Unfortunately, the article states, its use can also result in cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines getting into food, especially bacon, and "several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer." Although the nitrosamine problem has been greatly reduced because companies now also add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid, which inhibits its formation, sodium nitrate/nitrite is "still worth avoiding."

The story points out that while the meat industry justifies its use of sodium nitrate/nitrite because it prevents the growth of bacteria that cause botulism, "freezing and refrigeration could also do that, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a safe method using lactic-acid-producing bacteria."

Another interesting additive: potassium bromate, which is used in bread to increase volume and improve crumb structure. Bromate, which causes cancer in animals, mostly breaks down to nonpoisonous bromide in the process of breadmaking, but small amounts do remain. The additive "has been banned virtually worldwide except in Japan and the United States."

Finally, I was surprised to find stevia, an herbal sweetener that my local worker-owned food co-op sells in bulk, on the "avoid" list. But as the article points out, just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good for you. Although "small amounts are probably safe," studies on rats found that high dosages of stevia caused "reduced sperm production and an increase in cell proliferation in their testicles, which could cause infertility or other problems." Stevia has been rejected as a food additive in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Monday, May 26, 2008

From pointing fingers to shaking hands

Oftentimes when we think of nonprofits and advocacy organizations (such as the many groups that benefit from your purchases on Alonovo), what comes to mind are those typewritten pleas for assistance that fill our mailboxes at an alarming rate (do-gooder junk mail, as I call it), or those endless email petitions entreating us to help stop someone or something from taking a destructive action.

But there's another side to such groups. A number of them are forging alliances with companies they used to criticize in order to promote socially responsible initiatives and behaviors. A story in this week's Economist lists a bunch of such partnerships: Ikea and Kingfisher teaming up with the WWF and Rainforest Alliance, Marriott International with Conservation International, and General Motors and ConocoPhillips with Environmental Defense and the World Resources Institute.

Why the transformation from adversary to ally? As the internet and other tools of the digital age make it easier for advocacy groups to learn about and publicize news regarding companies' behavior, businesses are realizing that it's in their interest to do more than merely appear to have a good reputation. They're interested in doing good, and who better to show them how than the very organizations that have sometimes campaigned against them.

In one striking example of that phenomenon, Limited Brands is now getting help from ForestEthics, which once publicized the company's clear-cutting ways with provocative images like these, on sourcing paper for its catalogs. In another, the WWF last year announced a partnership with Coca-Cola focused on freshwater conservation.

Such alliances are not without controversy, of course. In some people's eyes, they represent a grim double-whammy: selling out on the part of the advocacy group and greenwashing on the part of the corporation.

Another point of view is presented in the Economist story, which argues (summarizing James Gustave Speth in his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World) that "environmental externalities are an unavoidable feature of capitalism" and that the only real solution to that sad reality is for regulations to be enacted requiring business to act more sustainably. Until such laws exist, partnerships between companies and nonprofits offer the next best thing: a way for firms to up their credibility quotient and hopefully also contribute to their bottom line by thinking and acting for the long term.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Clean(er) diesels motoring to the U.S.

If you're a conscious consumer in the market for a new car, the first word that pops into your mind is most likely "hybrid." But there is another option that's greener than traditional gas-guzzlers: clean-diesel vehicles.

Most people think of diesel as being anything but clean. Plus, aren't diesels slow, clunky, and hard to start? Not necessarily anymore. A new breed of autos is coming to market that promises to be cleaner and generally more appealing than your mother-in-law's rumbler. Thanks to a 2006 EPA mandate, oil refineries are now making ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD), which is significantly less polluting than old-style diesel. In response, carmakers are coming out with filters and exhaust-scrubbing systems that keep much more particulate matter from exiting the tailpipe.

As Clayton Cornell reports in Gas 2.0, we'll see the first clean-diesel cars—made by Volkswagen—hitting the road as early as August. These will be followed by BMWs in the fall and Mercedes in November; Audi, Honda, and Jeep clean-diesel vehicles are due in 2009.

With fuel prices shooting through the roof—especially diesel—and not likely to come down anytime soon, it may not be appealing to choose a diesel car. But as Cornell points out, in return you get mileage that's 25% to 40% better than comparable gas models. And they still cost about the same as their conventional counterparts, with some, such as VW's Jetta SportWagen, likely having an even lower sticker price.

Of course, some hybrid fans thumb their noses at clean diesel, saying that hybrids can also use clean diesel (although no clean-diesel hybrids are available yet in the U.S.) and that the two types of cars will only be competitive in the short term, since hybrid technology is still nascent and keeps improving by leaps and bounds.

But let the chips fall where they will, I'm just glad to see the number of greener options growing for our auto-addicted society.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A formula for improvement

Sometimes consumer awareness hits close to home. My sister-in-law just had a baby, and while she would love to breastfeed her daughter, she is unable to, so our niece will be formula fed. Which is fine, except that I recently learned something troubling: most infant formula containers have bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical associated with adverse developmental effects in studies on lab animals, in them.

While awareness is spreading about BPA in products such as water bottles and baby bottles, for some reason its presence in infant formula containers has not been as widely discussed. One place where it is being examined is the blog Z Recommends, whose authors have undertaken a rigorous campaign of contacting manufacturers of children's feeding products to ascertain whether those items contain BPA, and then sharing their findings with their readers through reports such as this one and this one. The Environmental Working Group also published a report on BPA in formula and baby bottles late last year.

I was glad to learn that at least the type of formula my sister-in-law is using—powdered, in a can—is considered the best option, since the liquid varieties leach more of the chemical. But it's still nonideal.

After the publication last month of a National Toxicology Program brief [link] expressing "some concern" about BPA's effects on humans, the FDA initiated a review of current research and new information on the chemical for all products it regulates. However, its current stance on the matter is this: "Based on our ongoing review, we believe there is a large body of evidence that indicates that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects."

That's not what the market believes. Because of customer demand and government concern, Wal-Mart's Canadian stores have stopped selling baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers, food containers, and water bottles made with BPA. Its U.S. stores will halt BPA-containing baby bottles next year. Toys "R" Us is following in Wal-Mart's footsteps, Nalgene is phasing out its production of BPA-containing bottles [pdf], and a number of companies are now offering BPA-free products.

It seems likely that, despite the FDA's arguable foot-dragging, once the infant-formula issue makes it onto the radar of mainstream consumers and retailers, similar changes will happen there too. That would be good news for my sister-in-law, and lots of others, too.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bright Future Department: Every RoHS has its thorns

... but they may not always be so prickly. RoHS is the long-time-coming standard for electronics manufacturers that restricts lead and five other substances. It took effect in mid-2006. Thanks to RoHS and its cousin, WEEE, the parts that go into lots of the gadgets we buy are becoming less toxic.

And as ScienceDaily reported on May 12, cast-off computers "could one day wind up fueling your car. That's because researchers in Romania and Turkey have developed a simple, efficient method for recycling printed circuit boards into environmentally-friendly raw materials for use in fuel, plastic, and other useful consumer products."

E-waste is still a huge problem, of course, but brilliant responses like this are heartening to hear.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Avoid guilt trips this travel season

Summer is a-coming in, and for many people, that means a vacation is in the offing. We hear a lot about "green tourism" nowadays, but what does that term really mean?

I recently came across this article on how to avoid greenwashing and make better choices when on the road (or in the air), but the story focuses mainly on the environmental consequences of travel. There is also the social dimension to consider. Particularly when it comes to international travel, the concerns are manifold: Tourism can spur irresponsible land development, hasten the loss of indigenous values, cultures, and species, and encourage prostitution and other forms of exploitation. U.K. charity Tourism Concern does a good job of elucidating the social issues; check out its list of tips here.

One kind of resource for travelers who want to tread lightly on the earth can be found in certification programs that certify accommodations and tour operators as sustainable or green, much in the same way that fair-trade and organic certifications work. But just because a hotel's front desk features a seal with the word "green" or "sustainable" on it doesn't mean you should necessarily trust it. As Michael Conroy points out in his book Branded: How the Certification Revolution Is Transforming Global Corporations, in 2005 approximately 80 programs claimed to certify some aspect of tourism—and some of them required only that the hotel or tour operator pay a fee for the use of the certification logo.

For a cert system to have any weight, it must have publicly available standards and a mechanism for monitoring compliance with those standards. A little research can go a long way toward understanding what you're buying into.

It's a shame that there is no one certification in the travel industry that commands the same credibility and name recognition that fair trade and organic do in the food sector. But there is movement in that direction. In 2000, the Mohonk Conference on Certification of Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism yielded an agreement among travel-industry stakeholders to create a global organization called the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council to accredit tourism-related cert systems.

Rainforest Alliance was charged with taking that effort to the next level, and to that end, it has helped launch the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, a regional group of certification systems that includes such programs as Costa Rica's Certification for Sustainable Tourism, Guatemala's Green Deal, and U.S.-based Green Seal (which focuses on other industries as well as travel). The intention is for the network to evolve into a successful model that can be replicated in other parts of the world. Let's hope that journey is fruitful.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Just because you can't pronounce "phthalates" doesn't mean you can't avoid them

But it won't be easy. Phthalates (for the record, "phth" is pronounced like the "th" in "thumb," and that troublesome first syllable rhymes with "mal," as in the malformed masculine bits of lab animals exposed to phthalates) are a class of industrial chemicals found in a wide range of consumer products. They're used to make plastics pliable and to hold scent and color in a variety of items many people use every day.

You're familiar with "new car smell"? Phthalates. That cute rubber ducky in your bathtub? Phthalates. Most shampoos, body washes, deodorants, and cosmetics? Yup.

Phthalates have been in the news a lot lately as more and more people cotton on to their potential health hazards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (pdf), their health effects in humans "are not yet fully known," but "several studies in people have explored possible associations with developmental and reproductive outcomes (semen quality, genital development in boys, shortened pregnancy, and premature breast development in young girls)." The paper states that "more research is needed."

More research came out in February, when a study by University of Washington researchers concluded that "infant exposure to lotion, powder, and shampoo were significantly associated with increased urinary concentrations of monethyl phthalate, monomethyl phthalate, and monoisobutyl phthalate, and associations increased with the number of products used."

The European Union banned two phthalates in cosmetics in 2003, and all phthalates in toys in 2005. China and Mexico have also prohibited their use in toys. The U.S. has been a bit slower on the uptake. (And ironically, the other countries' bans are based largely on U.S. research.) Last year, California became the first state to ban the manufacture, sale, and distribution of children's products containing phthalates, but the restriction doesn't go into effect until 2009. In March, the U.S. Senate passed legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein for a similar ban in toys. If it becomes law, perhaps false "phthalate-free" labeling scandals like this one will be a thing of the past.

In the meantime, here are some tips for concerned consumers on how to avoid phthalates:

* Avoid items made of polyvinylchloride (PVC), which contains phthalates. Such products, like vinyl shower curtains, often have a strong odor. (Here's a helpful webpage on how to recognize phthalate-containing ingredients in labels.)

* Stay away from any product that has "fragrance" listed as an ingredient (see—I told you it wouldn't be easy!).

* And on the toy front, choose playthings made of latex or silicone (or ones that were made in Europe). has a searchable database of toys made of PVC, and has a text-messaging system that taps into that database: text "healthytoys" plus the name of the toy you're curious about to 41411.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can Consumers Expect Less PVC In Stores? Wait A Minute, Should They Care?

Should Wal-Mart’s Consumers and Employees Pay for Deborah Shank's Health Care?,0,635924.story

“32% of GDP Comes From Finance and Only 20% from Manufacturing, So What Does Wall-Street Actually Finance?”

Risk Management Gets a New Twist: Lawsuits Bring Corporate Social Behavior to Court

Monday, March 17, 2008

Saint Patrick's Day Panic! Are Supply Shortages and Price Increases Caused by our Environmental Conscience?

Master Brewers are claiming that price increases in beer are due to the increase in demand for bio fuels, which in turn causes farmers to grow more corn to support the bio fuels industry and grow less hops for the beer industry!
Large breweries like Miller, are starting to own their source material by buying up farmable land. Seems smart, but it has the unfortunate affect of increasing the company’s water footprint: a big problem for breweries! In fact, the most expensive part of the brewing process is water. Water is the largest input into the process and largest output from the process. It takes a lot of energy and money to course water through the beer making system, not to mention the additional problem that every drop devoted to beer making is a drop not being used for making clean drinking water.
But wait, don’t turn from the pub now, there is some good news on the frontlines of the beer-to-suds wars. The industry tends to use terms like waste opportunities , microbial fuel systems and anaerobic digestive systems to describe some of the positive externalities related to the beer making – such as organic matter that turns solid wastes into energy producing material and processes that convert solid waste into reusable water. And beer activists will tell you (and yes, they actually exist) that rootlets, which are spawned from the malting of the barley, if collected, can be used for animal feed. Even reused hops, filtered from the finished wort, can be used as fertilizer, and, residual yeast has been touted as a good source for vitamin B and ends up in pharma products. These beer aficionados ( pardon, activists) will also tell you that the used beer cans and beer bottles can also be recycled. But we all know that recycling is trending down at a rate of 20% per decade, ensuring the beer industry will continue to be a menace to landfills for years to come.(

So is beer green or not? And if not, who among the brewers are greener than most?
The only economist who I would trust with this question is former Chief Economist for the City of New York and NYU Professor, John Tepper-Marlin in his Huffington Post Blog about the corporate social behavior scoring of three dominant players in the beer industry.

If professor Tepper-Marlin can save our Saint Patty’s day, perhaps he can next help us determine whether the beer industry really qualifies as an industry since the three largest players making up 80% market share or whether there might be something entirely different going on to drive up our beer prices!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Former Labor Secretary Reich: CSR "A Pale Substitute" For Regulation

The Alonovo Review looks at the debate around Robert Reich's new book. Reich, a professor at UC Berkeley and Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, recently published "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life." In his book, Reich argues that "reliance on voluntary 'corporate social responsibility' is a pale substitute for effective laws against corporate misconduct. The only remedy is to purge corporate cash from the political system." In addition, Reich believes that we should not view corporations as entities with rights and responsibilities but rather hold the people behind them accountable.

Stanford Law Professor and social entrepreneur Lawrence Lessig challenges this notion, arguing that "there are times when it does make sense to think about the corporation as an entity and to allocate responsibility in that way." However, Lessig agrees that "there is something fundamentally wrong with trusting (corporations) to restrain the drive for profits in the name of doing the right thing... It is government's job to set the appropriate limits on corporations (and individuals) so that... they will not harm a public interest."

On the other hand, Roger Lowenstein questions the wisdom and likelihood of going back to regulation in order to tame the market and some of The Economist critics fear that Reich's approach is merely naive, ignoring the long history of government failures when it tries to, again, catch the government's own tail.
And CSR folks--from the right as well as from the left--respond that corporate social responsibility can satisfy both camps: it is about businesses genuinely becoming more attuned to social and environmental concerns just as much as it is about making a profit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Social investment: a growing trend

A recent report by the Social Investment Forum (SIF) suggests that "socially responsible investing assets in the U.S surged 18 percent from 2005 to 2007, outpacing broader managed assets."

To learn more, go to

B Corporations: incorporating CSR into the business model?

A concept introduced by a group of social entrepreneurs, B ('Benefit') Corporations seek to "create benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders, by meeting comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards; institutionalize stakeholder interests; and build collective voice though the power of a unifying brand."

To learn more, visit
For a panel hosting the B-Corporation co-founders, go to

What do workers think about Corporate Social Responsibility?

The HR News cites a survey conducted in 2007 that found the following:

• 70 percent of workers don’t consider a prospective employer’s CSR program very important when it comes to evaluating job offers.
• 58 percent of workers at organizations with 500 or more employees said their organization has a CSR program. That’s true for 45 percent of all workers surveyed.
• About one-third of workers at companies with less than 100 employees say their organizations have CSR programs.
• 82 percent of workers at large companies said their organization arranges volunteer activities. That’s true for 70 percent of all workers.

To learn more, go to

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Embedding CSR practices into all of our lives

Taking CSR out of the board room and putting it into the hands of managers and consumers is the quickest path to eliminating economic incentives that drive businesses to make decisions that are harmful to society.

CSR practices have been frustrated by the lack of integration into broader corporate and commercial strategies. The more we are able to create consumer-led demand that reflects the social values of individuals and managers, the stronger the connections between consumers and corporate behavior. By tightening these connections we ensure that socially harmful decisions will be exposed and socially beneficial decisions will be rewarded. Core to this idea is our ability to concisely deliver an accurate view of corporate social behavior not only to the commerce experience but embedding it at the point of sale.

From's up to the market to decide!

Learn about the corporate reputation paradox why reputational risk management matters

Learn more about why connecting directly to corporate behavior matters and how we achieve our mission

and see as just one example a company whose business model expresses similar intents
Retail activist: The Body Shop

Will They Meet Again? Latam bringing up the rear in the race to the top.

First and last meeting of Latin American and Carribean networks? UNs' GC for Latin America met Panama back in 2006. And the agenda? "Giving substance to an already vibrant movement everywhere in the world."

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Green Leap Forward: Is China's Version of Eco Building Utopic or Ectopic ?

Today in the Review we look at the controversey around massive and efforts to create model societies. From Tian Jian and Dongtan to Abu Dhabi we look at the hopes and dreams scenario versus the economic and social truths behind these glamerous projects.

Dongtan project brief

Hao Hao's take on whether eco-cities will persist...

learn about other social ramifications...

Communication Junction: How is CSR managed in the global context?

This week, The Alonovo Review takes a look at perspectives and global issues facing Asian regions.
First up is China, where we take a look at communications as a key driver in mobilizing the connections between businesses and society and especially in the global context where buisness to society interfaces are increasing in number and in kind. The Review takes an in depth look at how to deal with these ongoing challenges for even the best intended.

See Bill Valentino's viewpoints at:

Next we look at the India Times coverage of how the demands of liberalization and openess in business calls for new paradigms for external relations. Changing realities of doing business are forging business models that couldn't exist without transparency.