Green consumer products: Good? Or just less bad?
How can we create products that provide a net good for the planet and for its inhabitants? I often focus on this question because it’s a key challenge facing business leaders and consumers who seek to promote sustainable lifestyles through the purchase and use of consumer products.
Unfortunately, while we have made incremental steps by creating products that are “less bad,” we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we really need: products that are “good.” “Less bad” initiatives, such as smaller caps on water bottles, are small steps in the right direction. Yet they only slow the rate of environmental destruction. In other words, they buy us a few more seconds before we crash into the wall, when what we need to do is turn the car around.
Definitions of a “good” product can vary, but this is mine: from a holistic, systems-based perspective, the product produces a positive and regenerative effect on our ecosystem from start to finish, encompassing the entire supply chain and including the impact consumers have when they use and dispose of the product. Instead of degrading resources and leaving the world worse off, a good product contributes toward restoring the planet and creating a more habitable environment for future generations. Here are a few ways we can create good products using a holistic and system-based approach:
REDIRECT TAX SUBSIDIES
The US government subsidizes the wrong things. More than $380 billion in wasteful government subsidies that damage the environment, harm taxpayers, and destroy the market for sustainable products are given annually. Thanks to the General Mining Act of 1872, for example, taxpayers receive nothing for the approximately $1 billion worth of minerals that mining companies extract annually from federal lands. In effect, mining companies are being subsidized to extract virgin materials. As a result, companies that use reclaimed and sustainable materials to create good products must increase their prices in order to compete. To level the playing field, we need to stop subsidies to companies producing environmentally harmful products.
USE FULL-COST ACCOUNTING
Our current system of pricing products and services ensures that society perpetually makes poor choices. We exclude most of the adverse social and environmental costs of producing a good from the price of that good. This artificially drives down the price of products that are bad for the environment and drives up prices for products that are good.
Utilizing full-cost accounting will fundamentally change the system by which products are created and disposed of. That’s because it measures the true cost of a product, including everything from the environmental impact of pollution created in its production to the health impact of the chemicals that it contains. Like the redirecting of subsidies, this will drive the prices up on bad or less-bad products and decrease the prices on good products.
At Seventh Generation, the green-household-products company that I founded, one of the core principles that guided us to success was what we called “radical transparency.” These days, with consumers becoming more engaged and aware of what goes into the products they buy, a company’s brand and reputation are its greatest assets. Stakeholders now expect “good” companies to be open and candid about their products. They are interested in whether the product is good, less bad, or just plain bad. In this new world, companies can protect their brands by proactively spotlighting the problems and the steps being taken to fix them.
Here’s an example. When the recent controversy over the doping activities of US cyclist and cancer activist Lance Armstrong put the brand of his Livestrong foundation at risk, Livestrong president Doug Ulman wrote an open letter that acknowledged the situation and explained how the organization was moving on. In my opinion, the Livestrong brand was still tarnished, but Ulman’s key intervention may have actually prevented its demise.
Companies need to realize that consumers are a vocal part of the system that creates good product and not anonymous individuals who will blindly accept whatever companies put in front of them. Only by opening lines of communication with consumers will corporations be able to meet growing demand for these products.
As I mentioned before, there is currently no standard definition of a good product. To drastically reduce our environmental impact, we need to move toward a standard that captures the holistic impact of the products and services that we consume. For example, drinks filled with sugar affect obesity and diabetes in ways that more than offset the environmental benefit of smaller bottle caps. We must temper our celebration of incremental improvements. All too often, small steps in the right direction result in products that are fundamentally bad for people and our planet. In general, the consumer-products industry has failed to make any meaningful progress in this direction.
A good start would be to build on consumer rating systems such as GoodGuide in order to create a global standard for good products. Beyond just educating consumers, these standards should also be applied to policy decisions, regulations, incentives, and taxes.
While no product is perfect, some companies have made impressive progress. One favorite of mine is Organic Valley, an organic, cooperatively owned business that supports family farms. Another is the Dr. Hauschka line of medicines, cleansers, toners, and moisturizers, produced by the German company WALA Heilmittel. Dr. Hauschka products contain predominantly organic, raw ingredients. Derived from biodynamic farming practices, these products actually help build and regenerate the soil in which its ingredients are grown.
Sustainability is only the beginning. We need to redesign our system of creating and selling products so that they have a regenerative impact on the planet. We’ve made some progress toward that goal, but so far it’s been too little, too slow, and too late. We face a broad array of looming crises, from global climate change to social inequity, that threatens the very fabric of our society. Unless we make some radical changes, we’ll consume our way to the end of our civilization.