The forests are in trouble. The water is, too. The people who make your clothes risk death from the factory, their workplace, collapsing. You leave a building with a headache or a stomachache, and don’t know why. Your food is poisoning you, and the earth. Species and habitats are being irrevocably damaged. Your loved one was diagnosed with cancer. So was your neighbor.
What do these issues have in common? The answer is simple: their complex, ambiguous cause; their result; and their need for change.
Before I dive in, it’s important to acknowledge that most people do not intend to cause harm to others or to damage the environment. Unfortunately, the environmental and health movements are a response to exactly such harm and damage. To summarize, the forests are in trouble due to overzealous logging and profit focused forest management practices. It’s a complex issue that deeply affects the lives of whole communities and the existence of many species. The water is in trouble due to an onslaught of pollution from agriculture, plastic waste, the chemicals of manufacturing, and old lead pipes (to name a few). The people who make your clothes come to work for low wages in poor conditions because employment options are very limited in many parts of the world, and the pressures of cheap, fast fashion and globalized competition causes manufacturers to pass on the economic squeeze to their workers through lower pay, longer hours, and unsafe workspaces. You leave a building with a headache or stomachache because volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being released into these spaces, polluting the air you breathe and causing something called Sick Building Syndrome. Your food is sprayed intensely with chemicals, whose long term effects are still not completely known; the animals you eat are fed food with hormones, and drink water that may be polluted or contain trace amounts of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic compounds (PBTs), which make their way up the food chain to you. This accumulation of man-made chemicals and pollution is destroying habitats and pushing more species to distinction. Our political system’s reactive regulation is often too little, too late, with too narrow a focus. There are thousands of man-made chemicals that have never been tested for human and environmental health or impact, and many of them could be making us sick.
These are clearly big, hairy, audacious, global, system-wide issues. What can you or I, two people of the over seven billion and counting people on this planet, do about this? Part of the answer revolves around transparency.
Transparency is a buzzword today. When a company is transparent, they are publicly sharing information on the inner workings of their business practices, social practices, manufacturing processes and the ingredients of their products. Transparent companies share the good and the bad; they share their successes and they share some elements of their operations that they may prefer to hide. This could include toxic or hazardous ingredients in their products, or social issues within their supply chain.
The first step towards improvement is knowledge and awareness. Transparency helps companies and consumers gain knowledge that can increase their awareness of the effects of their choices. Often companies don’t know the full story of their product’s extended supply chains and ingredients until they dive into a transparency exercise, one product at a time. Once they have this increased awareness, consumers can use this information to make purchasing decisions and request that manufacturer’s develop optimized products that have more benefits and fewer or no harmful impacts. By providing information more transparently, companies are incentivized to improve their products and business practices so that they have more positive news to share with the world.
This in turn helps lead to industry-wide transformation, which raises the baseline of which companies and products are expected to meet and exceed. Turning yesterday’s innovations into today’s baseline of performance gives room for tomorrow’s innovations to be developed. The cycle continues. The more consumers and businesses incorporate health, environmental and social impacts into their expectations and evaluations of a product’s performance, the more these aspects of products will see improvement over time.
Transparency matters because it is the key piece that fosters collaboration for improvement. This can sometimes seem like a chicken-and-egg situation: there aren’t lower impact, healthier product choices in a specific category because there isn’t perceived demand for it, and there isn’t perceived demand for them, and there isn’t demand because the products don’t exist (or “we’ve always had success with this product making it this way”). Transparency and optimization is not as simple and straightforward as it may sound due to the complexity of supply chains and industry competition. However, there are a number of tools available that guide companies on how to be more transparent in a way that makes the information useful to customers through certifications and ecolabels. Many of these include certifications and assessments of current practices. Two ways consumers can help build the demand for transparency are advocacy to companies requesting more transparency, and using the transparency disclosures, certifications and ecolabels that are available today to inform your purchasing decisions.
I’ve already shared information about GoodGuide, a useful database to help consumers understand the health of the ingredients in many personal care and other products. Over the next few posts I’ll dive into the nuances of various ecolabels and certifications in different industries.