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.