Already in retreat due to the global financial meltdown, evangelical capitalists are now in a lather over a little documentary running on YouTube entitled “The Story of Stuff”, which takes a stab at educating young people (and old ones who haven’t been paying attention) as regards to where stuff comes from, how much stuff is needed to make that stuff, and where the stuff goes when we’re finished with it. Think Paul and Anne Ehrlich and their influential work on ecology, updated for the digital generation.
Attempting to understand and catalogue the full story of stuff has given rise to the academia of Industrial Ecology, Life Cycle Analysis and Closed-Loop Production Systems. Bill Moyers on PBS recently had a fascinating discussion with psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence, a book which “reveals the hidden environmental consequences of what we make and buy, and shows how new market forces can drive the essential changes we all must make to save our planet.” Goleman’s work, and that of many others, asks us to challenge the notion that something can be ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’.
In his book, Goleman points out that, “Every small step toward green helps, to be sure. But our craze for all things green represents a transitional stage, a dawning of awareness of ecological impact but one that lacks precision, depth of understanding, and clarity. Much of what’s touted as “green” in reality represents fantasy or simple hype. We are past the day when one or two virtuous qualities of a product qualify it as green. To tout a product as green on the basis of a single attribute—while ignoring numerous negative impacts—parallels a magician’s sleight of hand.”
“In a day when major players in every industry, and more and more consumers, are pressing for green, we would do well to understand the implication of improving impacts all along the supply chain and throughout a product’s life cycle. Green is a process, not a status—we need to think of ‘green’ as a verb, not an adjective. That semantic shift might help us focus better on greening.”
Goleman illustrates his reasoning with the case of glass production. “Manufacturing bottles… requires getting stuff from dozens of suppliers—including silica sand, caustic soda, limestone, and a variety of inorganic chemicals, to name but a few—as well as the services of suppliers of fuels like natural gas and electricity. Each one of the suppliers makes purchases from or otherwise utilizes dozens of its own suppliers.”
“The basics for making glass have changed little since the time of ancient Rome. Today, natural gas- powered furnaces burn at up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty-four hours to melt sand into glass for windows, containers, or the monitor on your cell phone. But there’s far more to it than that. A chart showing the thirteen most important processes deployed to make glass jars revealed a system stitching together 1,959 distinct “unit processes.” Each unit process along the chain itself represents an aggregate of innumerable subsidiary processes, themselves the outcome of hundreds of others, in what can appear an infinite regression.”
“As Life Cycle Assessment of just about anything shows, virtually everything manufactured is linked to at least trace quantities of environmental toxins of one kind or another, somewhere back in the vast recesses of the industrial supply chain. Everything made has innumerable consequences; to focus on one problem in isolation leaves all the other consequences unchanged.” As one industrial ecologist noted, “The term ‘eco- friendly’ should not ever be used. Anything manufactured is only relatively so.”
Understanding that the story of stuff is a dirty and sobering one means that society will need to retool our linear production process of ‘take/make/waste’ into one that better serves people and the planet. Certainly government can play a role by facilitating this transition with the various means at their disposal. But I think it ultimately boils down to the behaviour of corporations, and even more importantly, the willingness of the shopping masses to make better-informed consumption decisions.
As far as corporations are concerned, well, we all know they’re in it to maximize profits, so the case has to be made that to ‘green’ a company, that is to mitigate negative aspects arising from a life cycle analysis done on a company’s products, is ultimately compatible with the profit goal. One CEO who has proven that this is possible is Ray Anderson of carpet maker Interface Inc. (NASDAQ – IFSIA). Perhaps the closest thing to a ‘corporate visionary’ that exists in America today, Anderson’s efforts to make his company more ecologically benign were also inspired by the Ehrlich’s work. To understand his vision of Interface is to retain some faith that corporations need not eventually lead to the demise of life on earth. (See his presentation at www.ted.com)
And if one believes that consumer actions ultimately shape the stuff that corporations bring to the marketplace, then don’t underestimate the capacity of high-speed wireless communications to help shoppers make decisions that can influence corporate behaviour. It’s easy to log on to a website like www.responsibleshopper.org, or www.goodguide.com, where you’ll find all manner of products rated with consideration to life-cycle types of analysis. Kids can now stand in the cosmetic department and call up applications on their mobile phone that give them the dirt on which hair styling gels are rated the safest and healthiest. Access to these tools should hasten the greening of business and commerce.