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How do we take this public health crisis, the loss of life, our paralyzed economies, and apply what we are learning to our equally urgent climate emergency?

The immediate crisis is painfully tangible. But that doesn’t make the profound, longer-term transformational shifts that are needed to protect our planet any less relevant to us, our economies or our financial markets.

These will just take a little longer to be seen and felt.

Three months ago, the threats of pandemic and our climate change emergency were similar. Both were problems scientists warned about but didn’t look to be happening anytime soon. They were problems for some future year and our governments did little to prepare, or were in the process of reversing protection and preparedness

Then, when the COVID-19 Pandemic started, many Governments didn’t want to take action that would damage the economy so were slow responding, allowing the virus to spread to a point where now, as I write, over 1,300,000 million people have fallen victim, at least one-third of the world’s population is in lockdown and the Pandemic is everywhere a first priority.

But what of that other, ‘future” problem, Climate Change? Might our governments, chastened by one ‘future” problem becoming a “now” problem turn their attention to Climate Change once COVID-19 is beaten? Let’s hope so because Climate Change is a far more difficult problem than the Pandemic and likely to have far more impact on humanity.

So what lessons can we learn from the pandemic that are relevant to climate? The first is that we were woefully unprepared. Despite warnings from the medical community, from scientists, expert opinion was suspect, ‘big government’ was bad and that meant it was easier to ignore.

Likewise, we are largely ignoring the warnings about climate. Science has shown that global GHG emissions must decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. They must be at net zero by mid-century if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming. Yet we have not been able to stimulate significant global action to this end.

The Paris Agreement in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals and agenda to alleviate poverty and protect our planet, looked like the beginning of global collective action but not enough has happened since. Governments have translated their Paris Agreement commitments into nationally determined contributions that aim to reduce emissions. But if these are, indeed, to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050 as they must, they would have to be five times more ambitious.

Yet the voices of courageous climate youth activists such as Greta Thunberg are drowned out by inexpert climate-denier opinion across mainstream and social media channels that allow many of our politicians, to ignore what we can plainly see in weather events, migration and other systemic shifts as we move beyond our planetary boundaries.

And how can we get around the structural political problem that politicians exist and get re-elected, where there are elections, in the short run, the time period of a pandemic, while climate change is a long-term phenomenon, albeit increasingly experienced in the short run?

The second lesson is that we have ignored the warnings. For years the wildlife markets in China and elsewhere had been seen as repositories for disease, yet the trade has continued. It’s easier to maintain status quo than act against entrenched interests. We continue to destroy our remaining forests, reducing habitat for wildlife, pushing animals and humans ever closer, and at the same time impacting our climate by reducing watershed protection, eliminating our carbon sinks. Stressed climate, habitats and animals lead to drought and disease. Yet we have failed to act, again preferring not to regulate or legislate protection.

The third lesson has to be the spectacular speed of transmission and impact on our economies of the pandemic in our globalized, hyperconnected world. There are no barriers to pathogens or to the economic consequences of our global shutdown. We are much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.

We can extrapolate to a world where GHG emissions are not curbed, where we keep burning fossil fuels, and warming is not kept within the 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels that the IPCC has warned is manageable. Indeed, we are on a trajectory currently toward a potentially catastrophic 4 or 5 degrees of warming.

We assume that we will continue living as we do, consuming as we have, but we cannot without suffering the consequences. We know from the IPCC and other scientists that we have a decade to shift our global economy or we will reach a point of no return in terms of our climatic shifts.

Perhaps our current taste of swift change will show us all that we cannot take anything for granted, that although many of us haven’t experienced anything like this moment in our lifetimes, others have experienced devastating war or disease. History is replete with sudden shifts and we are not immune.

Unchecked GHG emissions will, in the not so distant future, start to have far more permanent and disastrous impacts on all of us than the current COVID 19 pandemic but unlike a disease that swiftly slips into our communities, keeps us from jobs and kills our vulnerable and then, recedes in a year or two, impacts of our changing climate will be longer in coming and irreversible, at least in our lifetimes. There will be no vaccine for climate change other than worldwide, radical policy change today.

The positive that we should take from our current moment is that there can be swift change. The Chinese government has announced a ban on the wildlife trade, people have stayed home to protect the more vulnerable from disease and companies have encouraged work from home arrangements that will help slow the spread. Governments have rolled out stimulus packages to protect workers and companies. Policy makers and scientists are working collectively to gather data, model the spread of the pandemic, push for new drugs, vaccines and formulate appropriate responses.

The pandemic has kept us at home, slowed our pace, kept us from any travel that wasn’t absolutely necessary. It has made us conscious of unnecessary buying, of hoarding. We have been shamed, at least in Hong Kong, for not wearing masks, for leaving our homes when quarantined, for acting against the public good.

We must not think that, once the pandemic fades, we can return to old consumption patterns. Rather let’s consider what is necessary in our lives and how we help reshape a society that is less consumptive, more centered, innovative and collective, one that no longer taxes our planet and its biodiversity.

We must think about how we invest to promote sustainability, how our supply chains will produce to protect, not encourage, destruction of our important forests and biodiversity, and promote worker rights. It is to our governments that we look in a time of crisis and it is up to our elected officials also to act to protect us not only from this pandemic but also from our climate tragedy.

The collective response to the pandemic has been swift, perhaps not swift enough, but hopefully the four months since December when the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan has been sufficiently dramatic and impactful to show that we can act locally and globally to stem another existential challenge: Our climate emergency

Please watch, this great video from Hong Kong’s Clean Air Network. It really says it all.

  • Hong Kong University of Science and Technology/Civic Exchange research has shown that 53 percent of the time, the pollution that affects us most in HK is from transport – trucks, buses and ships
  • Last March the government introduced retirement schemes for old Commercial Diesel Vehicles as well as selective catalytic converters for taxis and mini-buses
  • And last year, data did show that HK’s air improved slightly
  • More good news: The government recently tabled regulation in Legco that mandates ships switch to cleaner from bunker fuel while at berth
  • But measures to improve our air have been largely offset by the huge increase in private car ownership in recent years as well as the massive development initiatives that are being undertaken
  • The Hedley Environmental Index estimates that in 2014, air pollution caused 2,616 premature deaths, 32.657 billion in lost dollars, 174,926 hospitalizations, and 4.253 million doctor visits
  • The so-called “end of pipe” solutions the government has introduced are certainly a beginning but inadequate alone
  • Hong Kong needs to follow Singapore and European cities in establishing low emission zones, pedestrian zones, electronic road pricing and intelligent transport solutions
  • We urgently need a smarter, cleaner city. This is within our reach.

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Angkor Hospital is the spectacular facility in Siem Reap, Cambodia I have written about in previous blog posts. Last year, the hospital offered 157,000 treatments to children free of charge, ranging from physical therapy and dental care to heart surgery. The boy above is an AHC heart patient who prior to surgery could hardly walk. When I came across him with his mother in the packed waiting room – back for a check up – he was running across the courtyard. His mother wanted to show me his scar.

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The hospital includes an incredible team of 49 Cambodian doctors and 149 Cambodian nurses, not to mention an equally dedicated support staff of 130. Although foreign teams do sometimes assist and train in more complicated procedures, there are only two full-time foreign doctors and two full-time foreign nurses at AHC. Above is the ER team comparing notes on patients.

The AHC budget for this year is US$4.5 million U.S., which works out to a cost per child of US$23. This compares to an average cost per child in the U.S. of US$1,853. Throughout this year, an average of 1,400 children were visiting the Emergency room at AHC and its satellite clinic thirty kilometers away, while 290 patients required admission. On average, the hospital’s three surgeons performed seven surgeries daily.

Those numbers have increased over the past few months, however, with a regional dengue outbreak and a larger number of patients seeking quality medical care they can’t find or afford elsewhere. In some cases, patients have had to rest on mats in the corridor for lack of ward space, while others have been sent to other hospitals.

A new four-floor building is now under construction. This will help improve medical care and create an additional 250 sq meters in the main hospital. Among the additions will be a neonatal ward, a new ward for recovering children, an expanded ER and labs (including the research lab, which is a partnership with Oxford University). Beyond the recent pressure from larger numbers of patients, an April medical audit identified a lack of adequate space, the small ER and lack of neonatal unit as the top three weaknesses of AHC.

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AHC works hard to provide the quality of medical care and compassion that a sick child would receive in a developed world context. The type of treatment offered at AHC, which is free of charge, is rare in Cambodia. This includes support to chronically ill patients, physiotherapy and palliative care for very sick children.  A home care program follows up with many such patients and includes a social work team.

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Some patients and their parents who aren’t able to see a doctor on the day they arrive must wait until the next day. The hospital provides cooking facilities, clean water and mosquito netting, which, innovatively, is tied between benches in the waiting area.

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These two children were waiting with their mother and a sick sibling, who needed medical attention.

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Beyond providing medical care and support to government hospitals around Cambodia in developing their medical and nursing protocols, AHC helps educate communities about issues related to health care. Some of the main causes of sickness, the main reasons that patients end up at AHC’s gates, are drinking contaminated water, poor sanitation and poor nutrition. In the context of working in one of Cambodia’s poorest regions where malnutrition is surprisingly still rife, AHC staff teaches children and their families the basics to keep them healthy.

By Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd

That coveted bowl of shark fin soup, those shark cartilage capsules said to bring health benefits, might not only be bad for the oceans but also pose a risk for degenerative brain disease in humans.

A new study from University of Miami researchers shows shark fin contains high concentrations of  a neurotoxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (also Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS).

The findings, published in the journal Marine Drugs, followed the testing of seven species of shark: blacknose, blacktip, bonnethead, bull, great hammerhead, lemon, and nurse sharks for β-N-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA.  Samples were collected as fin clips from live shark in South Florida waters.

The study’s co-author, Professor Deborah Mash, director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, was part of   a 2009 study that showed patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and ALS had unusually high levels of BMAA in their brains of up to 256 ng/mg. By contrast, healthy people, the study showed, had no BMAA, or only trace quantities of the toxin in their bodies.

In this latest study, the team found high BMAA levels of between 144 and 1836 ng/mg in shark fins.

BMAA is produced by cyanobacteria, which are found  in lakes, rivers, estuaries, and marine waters where nutrient loading from agricultural and industrial runoff, sewage, groundwater inflow and atmospheric pollution accelerate bloom growth.

This is then eaten by small aquatic marine animals, which in turn are consumed by sharks, potentially posing a health risk to consumers of shark products.

The study cautioned that, “further studies are needed to confirm this finding and to demonstrate that widespread BMAA detections in sharks may occur outside of South Florida coastal waters.”

High concentrations of BMAA were, however, detected in the fins of some sharks collected in areas with no active cyanobacteria blooms. Sharks are highly migratory, making it likely that they pass in and out of areas where cyanoblooms may have occurred over time, the study says.

Consumers in Asia eat shark fin soup at wedding or official banquets and purchase shark fin cartilage powder or capsules  as dietary supplements, which claim to combat and/or prevent a variety of illnesses.

However, the study points out that, “the benefits of these supplements have not been significantly proven, nor has shark cartilage been reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Let’s hope regular consumers of shark products think carefully about their health before slurping down another bowl of shark fin soup or popping more cartilage capsules.

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.

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.