The secret life of stuff part 2

(For part 1, go here).

What if we knew the provenance- the “life history-” of every item for sale, prior to deciding whether or not to purchase it. Would it effect our buying decisions? Is it even possible?

Apparently it is, but it takes an enormous amount of time, effort, and money to track the back story of products for sale in western society. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, “decided to turn his attention to… ‘ecological intelligence’ to see how easy it might be to make informed choices about products… He concluded that it is virtually impossible… [despite the fact that] if any product on the market has hidden environmental impacts, every time someone buys it they are in effect rewarding those impacts.”

And “green washing,” whereby companies exaggerate or even make up environmental “benefits” about their products, is a thing. So unfortunately, it’s the rare case when the public can have an authentic market signaling effect on companies. Without government intervention, this is not going to change. Thus we arrive at the crux of the matter, where the environment meets human needs, and demand meets design. In Hill’s words, “we have to think more creatively about how materials become products, and then become ‘waste.’ We have to think about the whole chain of production and consumption… where [products] come from, how we use them, and where they end up.”

So let’s think about that, from the consumers’ perspective. Even if a consumer has stopped buying “luxuries,” and is purchasing only what s/he needs to fill basic needs, grocery purchases are, as I’m sure you know, almost completely opaque as to provenance. The only info we are typically “allowed” is product name, ingredients, supplier/company, and MAYBE where that company is located. With fresh produce, even that limited info is kept from us.

One doesn’t stop to think how much trust we’re expected to invest in the companies that supply the food we eat! We are effectively dependent upon suppliers, and the grocery chains they sell to, for our food. Food that is critical to the health and well-being of ourselves, our families, and the other human beings who make up the networks we depend upon to survive and thrive.

I’m taking a moment here. I am pausing to breathe. I really don’t like being dependent on corporations for anything. I trust you will understand when I say that I’m inserting a cheerful bluebird of happiness picture here to facilitate my own calm… Ah.

Ok. To sum up the relative powerlessness of consumers as to whether or not companies consider the sustainability of their products, from “cradle to grave,” i.e. from conception as product, through design and sourcing of raw materials, to production, transportation to markets, sale, and disposal, the author of The Secret Life of Stuff (2005), Julie Hill, says: “Prices do not on the whole factor in environmental damage, so the prices people pay cannot… take care of that damage… designing products to address environmental concerns has not been part of businesses’ perceptions of what constitute our most important needs and desires.”

This translates into “the idea that the market will magically deliver sustainable products free of negative externalities, especially FAST, as consumers’ demand dictates, is a pipe dream. Forty-five years of neoliberal capitalism, and cheap oil, has entrenched global supply chains and labor, and constricted the mindset of the vast majority of companies, investors, and entrepreneurs.” Which is not to say that sustainable products are unavailable, not in development, or impossible. It IS to say that sustainable products should, if the market operated as neoliberals say it does, be available, on a widespread basis, NOW. That they aren’t, when demand for them unequivocally exists, is market failure, and a source of deep frustration for consumers. Obviously, we’re not in positions of power or efficacy as consumers in this neoliberal economy.

It’s also the inevitable result of neoliberal capitalism, and most- MOST- corporations aren’t stereotypical, forest-razing bad guys, rabid for profit, and oblivious to a concept that used to be bandied around a whole lot more… “corporate social responsibility.”

So let’s return to Hill, as we come to the most critical part of her book. Here she addresses: HOW can we be sure that products that companies make are truly “green?” How can we as consumers feel easy in our purchases, knowing that we are rewarding companies that minimize their negative externalities as they meet our basic needs, and also our demands for sustainable “luxury” items?

It’s all, says Hill, in the design of products: “Design really means ‘intent.’ If our intent changes, then the practical manifestation of that intent in the shape of well-designed solutions will follow… Imagine a world in which the [specifications that govern intent] always features the environment.” Then she lays out six principles that, if established, would ensure that consumers’ product choices are consistently and reliably sustainable:

1- “Everything sustainably sourced: all materials are sourced according to strict conditions on managing their human and environmental impact- this includes timber, minerals, textile fibers, and even water;

2- Everything designed for recovery: all products are designed for their materials to be recovered and recycled;

Uhuru design- reclaimed materials/wikimedia

3- Nutrients cycled: valuable nutrients from food, animal, and human wastes are returned to the land to minimize the use of artificial fertilizers; as are biodegradable materials such as timber, paper, textiles, and plant-based plastics when they can no longer be recycled;

4- All energy renewable: but demand for energy may also need to be kept within limits;

5- Stemming the flow of stuff: there are strategies to reduce the flow of resources through the economy, including keeping products in use longer;

6- Care with new promises: new technologies are very carefully scrutinized- developments such as genetic modification, and nanotechnology have to subscribe to the principles above, and not add any new problems.”

Admittedly, if all six principles were all at once codified into law, along with strong and effective enforcement options, the new specifications regulating design would be a tall order for companies to adhere to, especially quickly. BUT, Hill is unquestionably laying out what will have to govern product development, from conception to disposal, in the future. These six principles do nothing more, nor less, than ensure that consumers can buy products that don’t cause environmental damage, that companies then seek to hide. All that does is bite consumers in the butt later on, as their tax dollars are used to ameliorate those hidden negative externalities.

Getting to the point of being able to implement these principles will involve a process. It’ll be part of the process of transitioning to the green economy. Indeed, these principles, in one form or another, will comprise a key part of the green economy, because without them, products for sale will not be sustainable.

U Michigan sustainability

I am eagerly looking forward to the day I can buy food, and other products, that I can trust were produced, and transported, sustainably. This will often mean that the things I purchase were grown or manufactured locally. Maybe I’ll even be able to purchase them with a local currency! But that is another post.

Hill discusses all six design principles in detail, and states that, “Reconfiguring the economy along these lines… is the biggest challenge the human race has yet faced.” I’m not so sure. I think that localizing, a process that sees people satisfying needs and wants within their own communities, is a promising and attractive idea. The nurturing and support of one’s neighbours and “city-mates” in creative endeavours, whether it be growing organic food, or making pottery, or decorative items, or wonderful, fresh daily bread, or one-of-a-kind furniture… well, these are the kinds of efforts and entrepreneurs one used to be able to find everywhere. And they are part of what makes a city vibrant, prosperous, and pleasing to live in. Here’s hoping we make it happen.