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I’ve been thinking recently about Fiduciary responsibility and what that has come to mean over the past two decades of rapid growth.

I’ve been thinking about how and why the interpretation that has crept into investment culture over that period – simply to maximize rates of return  – has slowed an appreciation of investment that doesn’t cause social or environmental harm.

It goes without saying that this has also slowed investment that promotes social good as well as generating returns.

I’ve also been thinking that by itself  this narrow interpretation ignores both business risk and opportunity  – neither of which should be ignored considering the dictionary definition of fiduciary duty:  to act prudently.

Writing in a Capital Institute blog, Stephen Viederman, former president of the US-based Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, argues that foundations should align program work with investment strategy – something that is all too rare.

“Foundation fiduciaries have an obligation to seek  ‘good’ and ‘competitive’ returns, not necessarily to maximize them,” he says.

Part of the problem has been the accompanying  “myth of financial underperformance from ‘social investing,’ a myth that still lies at the heart of the problem for finance committees who conveniently forget that two-thirds of traditional active managers underperform their benchmarks every year,” Viederman says.

“Yet the profit-maximizing argument–that you will underperform if you do sustainable investing–comes up time and time again in conversations and is never examined by the people who are making it.”

Indeed, most investors are not considering the business risk associated with investing, for example, in a power company, a textile operation or mining business in a region that is water scarce.

Most ignore the reputational risks associated with investing in factories or plants that are polluting, overly consumptive of resources, or engaged in bad labor practices.

“All investments are about the future, but most investment decisions are made on retrospective data, which as fund offerings make clear, are not predictors of future earnings,” says Viederman.

“We need to ask about …  ‘predictable surprises,’ which include climate change, the BP Gulf disaster and the financial bubble among others. …Any institutional investor who ignores them is in breach of their fiduciary duty. To be prudent, as in the prudent person, is in its original meaning, to be farseeing.”

The ADM Capital Foundation launched a web portal, China Water Risk, in October to provide investors and companies with information about water scarcity and pollution in China.

Part of the thesis behind the initiative is that better investment decisions produce better returns in the long run and these usually come with more information – and not the information investors traditionally have sought.

But, certainly, few could disagree that the regulatory environment is changing to reflect resource consumption and that water pricing in the near future will reflect scarcity.

Few could disagree that NGOs are increasingly sophisticated in exposing pollution incidents (see my blog posts on IPE’s Ma Jun and Apple, on Greenpeace’s Dirty Laundry and other reports) and that local protests in China are growing around pollution incidents.

Workers are no longer content to suffer exposure to hazardous chemicals silently, or work extraordinarily long hours without proper compensation.

All are, potentially, a drag on profits. Would it not then make sense for fiduciary duty to include analysis of  such risk?

Fully Risk-Adjusted Returns (FRR), as they might be called, should certainly not be lower as a result, indeed given the current and future challenges the world faces, they could even be enhanced by additional information.

For those who missed this, one company that is looking to consider the impact of production is PUMA, which earlier this year announced the results of an unprecedented environmental profit and loss screening.

This was a big step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed and to emissions. The value assigned was also a step toward determining the true cost of production of PUMA apparel and shoes.

Results from PUMA's Environmental Profit and Loss Analysis

The analysis showed that raw material production accounted for the highest relative impact of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and water consumption within PUMA’s operations and supply chain.

According to PUMA’s report, the direct ecological impact of company operations translated to the equivalent of 7.2 million euros of the overall impact valuation. An additional 87.2 million euros was distributed along the four-tier supply chain.

Thus, the overall environmental impact of GHG and water consumption amounted to 94.4 million euros. That compares to a third-quarter net profit of 82 million euros.

“By putting a monetary value on the environmental impacts, PUMA is preparing for potential future legislation such as disclosure requirements,” the company said.

“By identifying the most significant environmental impacts, PUMA will develop solutions to address these issues, consequently minimizing both business risks and environmental effects.”

Finally, a new and important report from IESE Business school, “In Search of Gama, an Unconventional Perspective on Impact Investing,” steps into the discussion with questions such as:

  • By focusing exclusively on the creation of financial wealth for individuals are financial markets destroying value for society?
  • Is social responsibility a component of investment that is necessarily detrimental to financial return?
  • Should changes be made in the taxation and supervision of financial transactions to account for financial markets’ responsibility to society?

Clearly, business as usual is no longer smart business and change is imminent. Considering the impact of investments and reconsidering how we make investment decisions will be the way forward.

Let’s start  by redefining fiduciary responsibility, considering Fully Risked Returns. Clearly, returns may actually be enhanced either when viewed through the lens of an appropriate risk framework/weighting or in reality as a result of a superior business environment.

I keep hearing about how expensive sustainable fashion inevitably is and that since we are used now to so-called fast fashion, it’s just not practical to think we will easily give up cheap apparel. But is greener fashion really more expensive? And how can we educate consumers  on this topic? These were two issues discussed during a panel I moderated last week as part of the Redress Forum in Hong Kong.

Among other featured topics during the day of presentations were, the business of sustainability, eco-labelling, best practice and inspiring the next generation.  The sense after a day of conversation was that there is still far to go in terms of really producing apparel that is truly sustainable for a mass audience and that the myriad eco-labels are often confusing to the buyer, designer AND the consumer.

In terms of waste, there is little that helps a consumer understand the recycled content of clothing and Hong Kong-based Redress announced it was introducing a new consumer-directed label that would help. A major fashion brand will be introducing this label shortly along with a new eco collection that includes a high percentage of recycled textiles – an exciting development here!

Although in the UK, for example, the sense among younger designers is that sustainable is the future, in Hong Kong, whether to wear fur even in summer seems more of a concern than sourcing green clothing, according to HK Tatler fashion editor, Arne Eggers. In the land where luxury is king and brands are everything, even the Tatler Green issue struggles for advertising, he said.

Still, also on my panel, “Educating and Engaging Consumers” was Tobias Fischer, regional CSR  manager Far East for H&M and he said that for his company sustainable equalled cost-saving. He became irritated every time sustainable fashion was described as more expensive, pointing out that sustainable involves saving costs on energy, water, chemicals, textiles etc.

“Current manufacturing is not factoring in the true cost of production,” said Filippo Ricci of UK’s From Somewhere and co-founder with Orsola de Castro of Estethica, established five years ago to showcase young designers committed to working eco sustainably as part of London Fashion Week.

And of course he’s right. In developing nations with few enforced regulations, the factory dying process causes untold damage to rivers and downstream populations when waste is simply pumped into waterways. Meanwhile, excessive chemicals used to grow cotton pollute the topsoil, groundwater and again damage the health of agricultural workers.

Heavy use of energy, often from coal, to produce apparel that satisfies our seemingly uninsatiable appetite for clothing means power plants must pump out waste emissions that pollute our air. Excessive consumption of water, particularly in already water-scarce regions (many of these in China) further limits supplies for future generations.

With consumption of clothing 60 percent higher over the past decade and the cost of clothing lower than ever, it just is not realistic to think that factories can continue to pump out product that doesn’t factor in any of the social or environmental costs of production. Already, with labor prices in China rising as living standards improve and regulation there tightens, inevitably costs  even of fast fashion will have to rise.

Meanwhile, however, many brands are simply taking their business elsewhere – looking to Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia among others to maintain the rock bottom prices we have come to expect, particularly from discount stores such as Target and TJ Max in the U.S.

Last week we spent some days plowing through one of the most important areas of tropical rainforest in Borneo,  central Kalimantan’s Sabangau, looking for Orangutans, gibbons, Langurs and other primates as well as learning about the ecology of the peatland habitat.

For two days we started at 4:30 am in the dark, wearing headlamps, looking for the elusive apes. Although boards (built on a former logging railway) run for some kilometers through the 45-hectare grid within which the researchers we were visiting spend most of their time, much of the forest walking was through deep peat swamp that occasionally reached mid-thigh! See the photo above of  intrepid ADM Capital partner Robert Appleby taking the measure of the peat’s depth!

The walk, more often a run, as over hours we chased to reach the spot where a gibbon grouping or orangutan had been spotted by the Dayak or foreign teams working the forest, was often a challenge but incredibly rewarding nonetheless.   Seeing the majestic creatures in the wild was truly breathtaking. The gibbon photo above was taken by the OuTrop crew.

We were visiting Oxford Primatologist Dr. Susan Cheyne who along with other senior wildlife conservationists leads a team of young researchers working out of an old logging camp situated in the designated Sabangau “Natural Laboratory” about an hour and  a half by road, boat and foot from Palangka Raya. The Laboratory sits within the 500,000 hectare Sabangau National Park, which actually is not yet officially a national park.

This year ADMCF has provided support to Dr. Cheyne through Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU), which also backs the conservation and research effort. Dr. Cheyne and her team monitor the distribution, population status, behaviour and ecology of the forest’s primates, carry out biodiversity and forestry research, and work with local partners to implement conservation solutions.

The team is sponsored in Indonesia by the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), which is responsible for conservation of the important 50,000 hectare peatland forest.

That involves mostly ranging and firefighting, although there is also an ongoing effort to dam the many canals built through the forest that were used to transport the illegal logs to the river and are now drying up the swamp. Estimates are that the peatland, as deep as  19 meters in some spots, is sinking with the lowered water table and this of course threatens the trees and amazing wildlife, which is just beginning to recover from logging.

Sabangau was turned over to conservation  in the late 1990s after Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) research managed to document the incredible biodiversity of the forest and establish clear records of substantial populations of primates, clouded leopards and other endangered species.

Previously Sabangau was a logging concession, although luckily it was only selectively cut. More destructive though was the illegal logging that followed in the late 1990s – when the canals were cut through the swamp and more of the forest was chopped. Still, the research team has shown that surprisingly primates are returning to the peatland forest, which also has regenerated well.

Estimates are that the Sabangau previously hosted populations of about 14,000 orangutans and 40,000 gibbons and now numbers of each are at about half that amount, according to Dr. Cheyne.

Along with Dr. Cheyne, two other senior OuTrop primate researchers work from the Setia Alam camp: Simon Husson and Helen Morrogh-Bernard, who were among the first to identify the orangutan populations in  Sabangau and set up the camp with CIMTROP early last decade. OuTrop has been excellent at attracting paying volunteers and research interns to help survey the primates and biodiversity in the peat forest. Each individual seems to play a strong role in helping to build a portrait of the unique ecology of Sabangau. Certainly, more help is always needed for this important work, which is critical to inform conservation and indeed learn about the behavior of the animals.

To illustrate the importance, previous research establishing that the populations of apes lived in the forest was enough to persuade the Indonesian government that the area should be conservation forest. Now, new research is showing that adult male orangutans might need much larger range areas than previously believed, while gibbon family groupings perhaps also need more dispersal space in order to establish healthy populations.

The teams also believe that because food (flowers and fruits)  in the acidic peat swamps is not as plentiful as in regular tropical forest, apes may develop sophisticated mental maps of so-called “destination trees” and return to these in season to maximize their travel efficiency. The concern is that if these large feeding trees disappear so will the feeders.

Out of curiosity, we visited Block C of the Mega-Rice project. Which was indeed a sorry sight: So many kilometers of barren land subject to annual and devastating fires on the peatland where nothing now grows but scrub.

In the last days of the Soeharto era, Indonesia’s corrupt leader apparently handed logging concessions equal to about 1.4 million hectares to two sons and declared an ambitious plan to convert the Kalimantan peatland forest into rice padi, to be farmed by migrant workers from Java. The idea was to make Indonesia self-sustainable in rice production.

But the Project was a failure because acidic peatland was completely unsuitable for growing rice. Huge canals were built in the peat, ostensibly to control water-levels but instead drained the once-flooded swamps. Of course, the sons profited handsomely from the logging concessions, which many believe was the real motivation behind the Project.

In a major drought in 1997 the peat dried out entirely, caught fire and burned for months. This resulted in a smoke haze that covered much of south-east Asia and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning forests in Indonesia are largely responsible for the country’s designation as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The former Mega-Rice area continues to burn annually during the dry season and is considered one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters. Luckily the Project was stopped before the Sabangau Forest itself was drained and cleared.

A Greener Apple: SCMP Op-Ed April 7, 2011

When Apple announces profits for the second fiscal quarter this month, analysts expect record figures amid a slew of new products. The previous quarter was already a record for Apple, which posted revenues of US$26 billion and profit of US$6 billion. The question we should ask, then, is: does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost?

The well-documented poisoning of workers and violation of environmental regulations at some of Apple’s key suppliers shows there is an obvious gap in environmental and socially responsible management throughout the company’s supply chain.

Over the past nine months, Chinese environmental organisations have pushed global and local IT brands to recognise social and environmental problems within their supply chains and resolve them. Among the 29 brands targeted, Apple was the only company to be evasive, if not completely unresponsive.

Recently, Apple admitted that 137 workers were poisoned but continues to place the blame with the supplier, Wintek.

Throughout their lifecycle, from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal, electronic products have the potential to affect human health and the environment through the release of chemicals and energy consumption. Printed circuit boards and battery production, in particular, create heavy metal pollution.

Part of the problem, of course, lies with the consumer, whose demand for cheap goods means the purchased item doesn’t reflect the true cost of production – the toll on the environment,and on public and worker health.

Furthermore, information technology companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in – meaning we consume endlessly, looking for the latest product. Who should bear those costs? In the case of poisoning and pollution incidents, the violating supplier has a responsibility, as does the government department where a lack of supervision may have caused the incident.

However, a company such as Apple cannot avoid its own responsibility either. Amid economic globalisation, Apple has not retained any of its own factories and even the production of parts as small as screws has been outsourced. That does not mean pollution and occupational injuries during the manufacturing of Apple products have disappeared.

We must remember that suppliers who violate environmental standards and ignore workers’ health do this to cut costs. Analysis of the distribution of profits in the supply chain for the iPhone 4 has shown that, for each iPhone 4 selling for US$600, Foxconn and other Chinese assembly companies receive only US$6.54. Apple’stakings for each iPhone 4, on the other hand, is up to US$360.

With power comes responsibility. Is it really fair for Apple to grab most of the profit yet shirk responsibility for environmental pollution and worker poisonings in its supply chain?

Apple claims that “we require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made”. But environmental protection groups have found that Apple has seriously violated its own promises. Yet, the company is deeply involved in supply chain management – from the choice of materials to the control of dust levels in the production process.

At present, China’s environmental-information disclosure is expanding, meaning that many companies’ environmentalviolation records can be acquired by the public. Brands have already started using this information to ensure suppliers are not in violation of local environmental laws.

Apple needs to change its opaque supply chain and social responsibility management system, and work to overcome problems in its supply chain

Ma Jun is director of Beijing’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs

Hong Kong vegetables, mostly imported from the mainland, contain high levels of lead and traces of other metals, including cadmium, according to research released last week by the Hong Kong Baptist University. This followed last month’s revelation by Chinese government scientists that 12 million tons of Chinese rice are contaminated with heavy metals.

The Baptist University tests were of 93 vegetables imported from the mainland and bought at local Hong Kong street markets or supermarkets, as well as of produce grown on Hong Kong farms, between September and December last year.

The most contaminated vegetable was apparently mainland-grown choy sum, which is also one of Hong Kong’s most consumed vegetables.

An article in the South China Morning Post on Friday showed that although the levels of lead in the study were 2.8 times higher than the global standard, they were acceptable under Hong Kong regulations. Traces of Cadmium also were found in some vegetables.

According to the SCMP, Hong Kong’s standards are shockingly 20 times less stringent than those of the World Health Organization, the European Union or Australia.

Author of the study, Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-Chung of Baptist University’s Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre told the Standard that ninety percent of vegetables in Hong Kong were imported from the mainland.

“The result demonstrates that lead pollution in mainland farm produce is serious,” he was quoted as saying.

In China, heavy metal pollution in crops comes mostly from contaminated irrigation water, pesticides or excessive application of chemical fertilizers and hormones as well as direct heavy metal contamination of the soil as a result of emissions from nearby factories.

Long-term consumption of vegetables polluted with heavy metals can contribute to cancers as well as damage the nervous system. Excess cadmium can also cause kidney stones, while excess lead can affect brain activity in children.

Wong pointed out in the SCMP article that leaf vegetables such as choy sum and spinach were more likely to absorb heavy metals. He suggested people alternate between these and fruit vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants.

China has recognized that food security is a real issue for the country, following scandals over melamine in baby milk and many others that have caused unrest in many parts of China following discovery of contamination.

In February the SCMP reported that government scientists revealed millions of acres of Chinese agricultural land and 12 million tons of grain, or about 10 percent of the country’s rice crop, were contaminated by heavy metals. China’s southwestern provinces, where much of the country’s export manufacturing is concentrated, were particularly contaminated, according to the article.

Potential economic losses from the contaminated rice, which is enough to feed more than 40 million people, hit 20 billion yuan or HK$23.66 billion a year, the China Economic Weekly said, citing 2007 statistics from the Ministry of Land and Resources.

China is also confronting a serious and potentially costly health crisis, with clusters of “cancer villages” springing up downstream from factories and near mines.

At  the annual plenary session of China’s parliament this past week, soil contamination was a topic of urgent discussion.  In a news report on China.org Jia Kang, a CPPCC National Committee member and head of fiscal science at the Ministry of Finance, called for legislators to begin drafting a soil protection law.

Jia was quoted as saying that land pollution already threatens the sustainability of economic growth and social stability.

Meanwhile, the same site quoted Health Minister Chen Zhu as saying that comprehensive evaluations of health risks from soil pollution are underway. Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian in recent months has said he will work to curb soil pollution during the period of the current, or 12th, Five-Year Plan – a framework for China’s economic development over the period.

The most recent plan, introduced at the parliamentary session this past week, calls for China to step away from exclusive focus on rapid economic growth to a more balanced development model that includes more benefit sharing and recognizes the environmental challenges the country faces.

The annual parliamentary gathering generally sets the country’s political tone and government priorities.

Let’s hope that food security stays at the forefront of China’s agenda and that we see action from officials both on the mainland and in Hong Kong to protect public health.

Greenpeace photo of worker and wastewater textile discharge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That trendy shirt or pair of jeans, the underwear we buy these days mostly comes with a “Made in China” label.  When choosing clothing presumably we think first about style and second about price. Can we afford the style and quality? We rarely think about the environmental or social cost of the item, the “true” cost of manufacturing a coveted dress.

We don’t know about the dye that washes into the local rivers where the item is made, the chemicals spreading downstream from manufacturing plants, contaminating water supplies and making local people sick. We want, we can afford, we buy. But should we without knowing how our clothes are made and the damage they do in the process?

Last year, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, Americans spent about $340 billion on clothing and shoes, accounting for 75 percent of the global market. Of that, 99 percent of shoes and 98 percent of clothing was made abroad, where environmental and social laws are less stringent and enforcement of those that do exist is significantly looser.

The trouble is, many of the clothes we wear, particularly the cheapest, are highly polluting to produce at the low cost-point. According to the World Bank, 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, and there are at least 72 toxic chemicals in our water that originate solely from textile dyeing. Of these, 30 cannot be removed.

That’s a real problem for the textile industry: In China, Polluted water causes 75 percent of diseases and over 100,000 deaths annually, the World Health organization has said. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.

Estimates are that 70 percent of lakes and rivers in China are polluted, as well as 90 percent of the groundwater. In all, an estimated 320 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water – more than the entire population of the United States.

It used to be that clothing was made close to home, so we knew when a textile mill or garment manufacturer was polluting the local water or air and U.S. mill towns experienced some of the same problems China now faces, with local rivers often fetid and colored by dye. With greater awareness of the hazards, then years of battling, government regulatory authorities set tougher environmental and labor standards to make sure production wasn’t exploitative or damaging to our air and water. Manufacturers were forced to comply, installing capture equipment on smokestacks and treating any wastewater before pumping it into rivers.

But that made clothing more expensive to produce and then with the opening of China in the mid-1970s and the growing availability in the 1980s of cheap labor along with manufacturing capability, most of the production process gradually shifted there. Eventually, environmental and social laws were put in place in China too but often local enforcement is limited and corruption rampant.

That has meant many factories and textile mills have been able pollute at will. When they have been fined for violations, the fines are often insignificant relative to profit. That, and the fact that an abundant migrant labor force comprised of some of the hundreds of millions who previously lived below the poverty line and were willing to work for cheap, meant clothing could be produced at prices that didn’t factor in either the real cost of labor or the environmental damage.

Those costs were left for future generations to cover in health care, clean-up and other forms of support.

The result is that we are all now hooked on the irrationally cheap. Prices on fabric and clothing imported to the U.S. have fallen 25% since 1995, partly due to the downward pricing pressure brought by discount retail chains, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Still, in China, the future is now. While migrant workers, now with a better standard of living, want fair wages and benefits such as health insurance, the Chinese government recognizes that the holy grail of economic growth at the 10 percent plus levels seen over the past two decades is unsustainable if the rampant environmental degradation continues apace.

Unrest has been growing across the country, particularly around perceived labor and environmental violations, with tens of thousands of mostly small protests annually, many of them unreported.

Besides the cost of cleaning up contaminated water, land and air, pollution will cost China billions in additional health care, lost productivity and early mortality, dragging down growth, the government recognizes.  The World Bank in a 2007 report estimated China’s environmental costs at around $100 billion a year, or about 5.8 percent of GDP, including the impact on mortality.

So any way you look at it, those clothes we like to buy in abundance, and have been taught in recent years to purchase and throw away without thought because prices are so cheap and styles constantly new, are a real problem for the environment, for workers who make them and ultimately for China’s economy.

In a report released in December, Greenpeace recounted time spent in two textile industry towns in Guangdong province:  Xintang, the “Jeans Capital of the World,” and Gurao, a manufacturing town 80% of whose economy is devoted to bras, underwear, and other clothing articles.

Greenpeace testing found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang and Gurao. In one sample, cadmium exceeded China’s national limits by 128 times.

Xintang, known as the “Jeans Capital of the World”, produces over 260 million pairs of jeans annually, equivalent to 60% of China’s total denim production, and 40% of the jeans sold in the United States each year.

Gurao, “the capital of sexy,”  in 2009 produced 200 million bras, or enough for every third woman in China to have one. But this prosperity has come at the cost of the degradation of the local river, the Xiao Xi.

Villagers told Greenpeace that the dirty, fetid river is no longer fit for drinking or laundry. Fish no longer live in the river and people living nearby complain that they must endure the stench from the wastewater. When the river overflows, their yards and homes are flooded by wastewater.

Unfortunately, Gurao and Xintang are not unique, representing just 2 out of 133 textile manufacturing cluster towns where there exists unregulated or at least tolerated hazardous chemical use and release – all in the name of economic growth and jobs.

True, the rise of China over the past few decades has been startling, and the achievements not to be forgotten. In no other time in history has one government accomplished a similar feat: Pulling some 300 million people out of poverty. The questions remain, however, around the price of that transformation and how the government will choose to address this looking forward.

Indeed the 12th five-year plan, unveiled in March, includes provisions for reform that involve working to rebalance China’s Economy and improve livelihoods.  The government is keen to shift the growth model from export and investment driven to domestic consumption drive, and will focus on the quality of economic growth, not just the growth rate itself, perhaps reducing GDP targets to around 7 percent. There will be additional investment in alternative energies and a push toward promoting less-polluting industries, with a shift away from more polluting producers.

As wages rise in China, however, this is a trend that is already underway, with some of the dirtiest factories moving to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam, where regulations are even lighter and costs less. Once again, rather than cleaning the supply chain and charging higher prices to reflect cleanup costs and higher wages, some brands are just looking further south.

Luckily, this is not universally the case. There are retail brands that are looking to improve their own supply chains and influence the industry more broadly.

In March a coalition of retail companies, apparel and shoe manufacturers, fashion houses, non-profits, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a new organization that seeks to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothing industry worldwide.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which includes Wal-Mart, Hanes, J.C. Penney, Nike, Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, and Patagonia, among others, will help to develop improved sustainability strategies and tools to measure and evaluate sustainability performance. The group of thirty organizations began working on this informally last year.

The group announced it was developing a database of the environmental effects of every manufacturer, component and process in apparel production, with the aim of using the gathered information to give the garments a sustainability store.

Part of the problem for the apparel industry is the complexity of the supply chain. There are many bits and bobs that go into producing our clothes and each piece may be produced in a different factory and then assembled in yet another. That means accounting for the environmental impact of any one item of clothing, tracing the zippers, the buttons, the natural fabric, the dyed fabric, is quite a feat.

Still, for the new coalition, tracing the various parts that make up one jacket or pair of trousers is the goal, along with conveying that information to the consumer. The idea is that eventually there is a label that allows shoppers to see how well their coveted item of clothing is produced and learn about its impact on both the planet and people.

And as consumers we all have a responsibility to think about how much and how we consume. Are our expectations around price and how long we use an item of clothing unrealistic?

Greenpeace last week released the results of its third-annual green electronics survey – a look at how leading electronics manufacturers companies are doing. All but Apple and Phillips of the 21 companies contacted agreed to be ranked on three criteria; removing toxic substances, responsible take-back of their end-of-life products and energy efficiency.

The survey was motivated by the fact that throughout a product’s lifecycle – from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal – electronic products have the potential to impact human health and the environment through the release of dangerous substances and energy consumption.

China is the world center for processing IT products and that country’s environment is paying the price. Printed Circuit Board and battery power production especially create heavy metal pollution.

Part of the problem is consumer demand for cheap products that don’t reflect the true cost of production – they don’t reflect the toll on the environment, on public and worker health.

Furthermore, IT companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in, which means we consume endlessly looking for the newest or better product, boosting company revenues but at huge environmental and social cost, that, again, is not reflected in the price we pay.

The Greenpeace survey found a general improvement in green features compared to the previous two surveys in 2008 and 2007, including a significant decrease in use of hazardous chemicals and almost all products met or exceeded energy efficiency standards.

But lifecycle management was still the weakest point, with very little use of recycled plastic, varying take-back practices and few marketing efforts to prevent fast obsolescence of products.

Generally, also, Greenpeace found that electronics companies were becoming more transparent in the amount and type of product information provided to customers, often listing product’s chemical make-up and performance details.

Apple and Philips, however, once again refused to disclose any information to Greenpeace. Of course this reluctance to provide information is disappointing and not limited to probing by Greenpeace.

Beijing-based IPE, led by environmental activist Ma Jun, has also over the past year focused on the IT sector for its significant contribution to environmental degradation in China.

IPE has also contacted electronics companies about environmental violations and Apple is among those refusing to address questions about noxious emissions by factories producing its products.

Writing in a Guardian blog earlier last year, Ma Jun said 34 Chinese environmental organizations, including Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Green Beagle, questioned heavy metal pollution produced by companies in Apple’s supply chain in a letter sent to CEO Steve Jobs. Last week Ma Jun said that the only response from Apple has been a demand for proof that the polluting factories are producing electronics for Apple.

“The links between these companies and Apple are clearly established,” Ma Jun said last week. “We are working now to provide the company with hard evidence. Their unwillingness to release information about their production processes reminds me of Nike in the 1990s,”

By contrast, in an interview with Asia Water Project last year Ma Jun praised Hewlett Packard and Samsung for duck disclosure and movement toward greener products. Indeed, HP and Samsung were among the companies singled out in the Greenpeace survey for the producing some of the greenest products.

Why single out Apple, as IPE has done? Does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game, for producing innovative, quality and well-designed products, have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost? Shouldn’t Apple be a leader also in its production processes and not a laggard?  Should we as consumers not demand more from the companies that sell us our products?

Fortunately, consumers ARE beginning to taking note. Companies that fail to adapt are poised to suffer huge reputational and revenue losses as a consequence.  A game-changing opportunity awaits those companies that choose to meet this challenge.