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David Brodwin's blog

Let the EPA Be a Real Referee

America’s entrepreneurs have long applied chemistry to make new products that enrich our lives. But sadly, many chemical innovations have turned out to be dangerous, even deadly. Asbestos and formaldehyde cause cancer and have been largely banned from consumer products. Bisphenol A, an additive to plastics, makes plastics clear and tough but is believed to disrupt human hormones.

A few consumer companies, such as Seventh Generation, Method and Naturepedic, have devoted themselves to making products that are safer to use while still getting the job done. Behind these familiar names stand other innovators who push the science forward; these companies develop safe and effective chemicals that companies like Seventh Generation can incorporate in their products.

To protect public health and attract entrepreneurs to invent and commercialize safer chemicals, we need a referee. The referee needs to decide, quickly and scientifically, what chemicals are safe and what chemicals are not. That way, venture capital can find its way to legitimate business opportunities, and manufacturers can make sound decisions regarding what chemicals they can use without fear of disruption and lawsuits.

The Environmental Protection Agency wears the referee’s jersey, but the law under which it works desperately needs to be modernized. The EPA follows the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is nearly 40 years old. The law is unnecessarily restrictive and cumbersome. For example, of 80,000 chemicals in current production, some 62,000 of them have never been tested under the law; they can’t be tested, because they are grandfathered in.

Because the law is cumbersome and restrictive, some states have moved ahead with more stringent standards. When a big state like California sets a tougher standard, manufacturers are encouraged to find safer alternatives that they can market nationwide, rather than make and stock different variants of their products for different states.

The current situation doesn’t satisfy anyone. The lack of clarity about what products are safe and what products are dangerous creates legal risk for manufacturers, public health risk for consumers, and makes it hard to raise money to commercialize better alternatives. In addition, chemical manufacturers hate the complexity and uncertainty that results when any state can create its own unique regulations.

This situation cries out for streamlining and offers potential improvements to all stakeholders. A bill is working its way through Congress with the awkward name of the “Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act,” and the unpronounceable acronym “FLCSA.” This bill is co-sponsored by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall, D-N.M.

Despite the presence of the words “chemical safety” in its name, this bill appears designed to delay and drag out the process of testing chemicals to determine their safety. In turn, it will obstruct the innovators who stand poised to bring new and better chemicals to market. The bill mandates a slow pace: only 25 chemicals will be reviewed in the first three years of work. The bill prevents the EPA from taking action on chemicals found to be toxic without an exhaustive, case-by-case investigation of each specific product in which a hazardous chemical is used (and there could be hundreds). Finally, the bill prevents states from preempting federal regulation, even when no federal regulation has been formulated yet.

All of these provisions will have the effect of further slowing an already slow and cumbersome process. These rules are designed to delay decisions as long as possible, rather than make quick decisions quickly based on sound science.

America’s research scientists and entrepreneurs have great capacity to innovate. If untethered, they can solve the public health problems caused by dangerous chemicals, and at the same time, return a profit to their investors. But to realize the full power of the market, we need regulatory reform that brings clear decisions, not one delay after another.

David Brodwin is a co-founder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. This article appeared in U.S. News & World Report April 6, 2015.


Save Money, Live Sustainably?

American consumers have begun to care more about sustainability and to express their concerns as they shop. Increasingly, consumers want to know how the stuff they buy affects the planet and how it affects the people who produce it and sell it.

This emerging change in consumer behavior prompts retailers to give consumers better information. The giant retailer Target rolled out a “ Sustainable Product Index” in 2013. A few weeks ago, Wal-Mart rolled out a major new program, called “ Sustainability Leaders,” designed to shine a favorable (green) light on suppliers who design and market more sustainable products. Wal-Mart’s new program is a welcome step forward, and it might help them catch up with competition. But it reminds us how hard it is to create genuinely useful, honest and objective sustainability ratings.

The first challenge with ratings is that everyone defines sustainability a little bit differently. Any company setting out to rate products and companies on sustainability must decide what to emphasize: Is climate change the most important criterion? Labor conditions in the factory producing the product? Or other environmental impacts, such as the use of toxic materials or consumption of irreplaceable rain forests? Wal-Mart’s has rolled out several different programs; in addition to environmental sustainability, it boasts programs that focus on protection of U.S. jobs, global sourcing practices and women’s economic empowerment.

Once the priorities are established, a rater must decide whether it is going to actually inspect the products and practices of the companies it rates, or allow companies to rate themselves. Self-reporting is popular because it can easily be gamed. With self-reporting, companies can win a good rating without necessarily deserving it. Unfortunately, third-party review is expensive, and most companies being rated don’t want to subject their proprietary technology to outside review. Without government policy that requires inspections and testing, as, for example, the Food and Drug Administration does with pharmaceuticals, it’s going to be hard for us to get beyond self-reporting.

Even if we accept the constraints of self-reporting, we can ask companies to provide specific information that allows for a meaningful rating. For example, companies could be asked to provide specific information on the carbon footprint of particular products, or the pollutants released in manufacturing a particular product. But Wal-Mart appears not to go even this far. They ask questions that deal with process, effort and goals. These things matter, but not nearly as much as results.

Wal-Mart has worked with a group of companies and other stakeholders called the Sustainability Consortium to develop questionnaires that they ask their suppliers to complete for each product.. The details are proprietary, but a sample question suggests that the approach is not too specific. For example, suppliers are asked, “Does your company have goals for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions released during the manufacture of your … products?” Clearly, a supplier could answer “yes” to this without in fact having made any actual progress towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Worse, a company could potentially answer “yes” even if its products were among the worst in the industry for greenhouse gas emissions.

Even under ideal circumstances, ratings are challenging to implement and interpret. The sustainability of a product can vary depending where and when a product is purchased and consumed. A pint of blueberries can have a low carbon footprint if you live in Michigan and you’re getting your blueberries in season from the local farm stand. That same pint of a blueberries has a very different carbon footprint if you are air-freighting them in from Chile in February.

Wal-Mart deserves props for what it is attempting to do with its Sustainability Leaders program, even though the current version of the program is limited, and even if it turns out to be partly greenwashing, as critics have argued with respect to Wal-Mart’s other sustainability programs. The Sustainability Leaders program appears to be based on a sound cross-section of expertise; Wal-Mart and other founders of the Sustainability Consortium have brought leading environmental advocates to the table, including Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Federation and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. And in the past, Wal-Mart has brought meaningful pressure on suppliers to take steps that boost sustainability while cutting costs.

By scoring products and suppliers on sustainability, Wal-Mart and other companies lend credibility to the principle that sustainability matters. This encourages consumers to take sustainability into account. It certainly helps. But we have a long way to go before consumers have truly meaningful information that they can use to shop with sustainability in mind.

David Brodwin is a Co-founder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. This article appeared in U.S. News & World Report March 30, 2015.