Some time ago we posted on Wal-Mart’s attempt to lead the creation of a sustainability index. The idea was to provide consumers with clear guidance on the impact of what they bought. Instead of wondering why one product cost a buck more than a different brand, they would have some information on why. Along the way, it was hoped that such transparency would lead to greater competition between firms to drive costs out of the system in a responsible fashion. So how’s that all going? According to Fortune, not so well (The trouble with green product ratings, Jul 13), forcing Wal-Mart to back off some of its initial goals.
There are several dimension to the challenges Wal-Mart has encountered. For one, not everyone has gotten on board. Wal-Mart had hoped to create a standard for the retail industry but other big retailers such as Target have not signed up. Also, the article suggests that some big brands while going along with Wal-Mart to some extent are not overly thrilled. Further, there have been some administrative headaches like finding program directors. However, the biggest problem appears to be just the daunting nature of the task.
The trouble with any consumer scoring systems is that ultimately consumption is about trade-offs. All products — no matter how “green” — impact the planet in some way. The best a consumer index can do is suggest that one product in some particular way might have less of an impact on the planet than another. To achieve this, mountains of data have to be gathered about the impact of thousands of products across every stage of their life cycle, from raw materials and manufacturing to final disposal, while including social factors like workplace conditions. How much waste was generated by the factory in rural China that made that zipper? How much phosphate was used to make this laundry detergent? Were the chips in that Blu-ray disc player manufactured in an energy-efficient way?
It gets even more complicated once such data are obtained: How should various forms of sustainability be ranked? Is soil erosion less important than carbon emissions? Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, now a subsidiary of the food giant Dannon, has been trying to measure the impact of his own organic yogurt products since the early ’90s. “I’m not saying it’s impossible,” he argues, “but it’s very difficult to do in a credible way.” …
It’s enough to make you wonder whether creating a sustainability index is even worth the Herculean effort. Hirshberg thinks not. A company, for example, might earn high marks for using recyclable packaging, but Hirshberg found that Stonyfield reduced its carbon footprint more by switching to yogurt cups that aren’t recycled. It turns out that cups made from plants and then thrown into landfills generate far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than recycled plastic containers. Similarly, a yogurt company might score high for using organically fed dairy cows, but Hirshberg found that a significant source of his company’s methane emissions — a potent greenhouse gas — is cow burps, of all things. (Stonyfield is in the process of reducing those emissions by tinkering with the feed.)
“In the end we realized that to get a real score is a very costly, complex process that’s probably not worth it,” Hirshberg says. Instead he founded a nonprofit, Climate Counts, that does not rate individual products but scores the world’s largest companies on their commitment to fighting global warming and the transparency of their sustainability efforts.
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