Many businesses of different scales and sectors are progressing towards greener products. The movement has many drivers, from the increasing cost of energy and waste treatment due to a depletion of traditional resources and increases in regulation, through to the potential for increased market share. A critical factor in all cases is how to measure the ‘greenness’ of the product as well as how the producer or retailer should demonstrate to customers that their product is green.
Selecting the appropriate green metrics by which to evaluate products is a difficult business. The volume and complexity of the data compiled by a life cycle assessment (LCA), for example, make it time-consuming to analyse even for those with experience in the field. Getting this information across to the general public is not easy. To reduce such a wide range of safety, environmental and sustainability issues into a single traffic light system sounds attractively simple, but in reality the lack of consensus on the weighting of these issues makes it very difficult. It is unlikely that a single methodology will be appropriate for all products, especially when most contain a mixture of different chemicals.
These issues have led to a complex web of methods for reporting green performance to consumers. But while some consumers may relish the opportunity to have more influence over their environmental impact, the worry is that others may be overwhelmed by the volume of information and become apathetic to the cause.
At a recent symposium on green chemistry and the consumer organised by the UK’s Green Chemistry Network, Peter Malaise, concept manager of natural detergents firm Ecover, described the power of the Gpartnership - the Gconsumer plus the Gproducer - by using his own company as an example of how the responsible consumer’s ethical and moral code set the targets that the responsible producer aims to fulfil. By communicating its experience, the responsible producer can transform the consumer’s ideas into practical realisations through developments in technology and scientific evidence of the environmental impacts of chemical products. This influence is not limited to the end product users, but also to manufactures and retailers who can make sustainability demands of their supply chain.
To implement the Gpartnership approach, however, requires performance indicators; a transparent methodology that enables businesses to demonstrate their progress towards environmental targets, so consumers can make informed decisions about their purchases.
Product labelling is a tool that has been used with some success in influencing market trends. As an example, Roy Miller, quality assurance technologist at B&Q, has spoken of the group’s success at nearly halving the average VOC content of its paints through product labelling. Likewise, the energy efficiency labelling scheme for EU domestic goods has been such a success that it may in future be extended to TVs, boilers and non-household appliances.
The Carbon Trust has also developed a product-labelling scheme, which calculates the greenhouse gas emission over the life cycle of a product. Applied to products across a range of sectors, including Walkers’ crisps and Boots’ shampoos, The Carbon Trust aims to influence the consumers’ choice of brand, and help them to identify carbon intensive products and provoke lifestyle changes. In joining the scheme, producers agree to work towards lowering the GHG emissions associated with their products, with guidance from The Carbon Trust.
The success of these consumer-based goals is limited, however, due to the small numbers of products carrying the label. The general public do not yet have an appreciation of what a reasonable carbon footprint would be, for example, for their lunch, a bar of soap, or for their cosmetics.
Marks & Spencer recently reported that it would be abandoning product-labelling schemes in order to focus on the company’s green performance. Mike Barry, M&S’ head of corporate social responsibility, claims more rapid reductions in GHG emissions will be gained by reducing the firms total carbon footprint rather than labelling products and waiting for consumer purchasing trends to drive reductions.
Consider the basic premise of green chemistry, though, and it is clear that green stretches beyond carbon emission. While government, business and the public focus on climate change, other potential environmental hurdles include water shortages and landfill site shortages, as well as the introduction of potentially persistent, bio-accumulative and/or toxic chemicals into the habitats of plants and animals. A true measure of green would need to cover a range of environmental burdens associated with product manufacture, use and disposal to reflect the actual sustainability of a product.
Life cycle assessment is the most comprehensive method for determining the sustainability of chemical products or comparing the sustainability of alternative products or processes. Adisa Azapagic, professor of sustainable chemical engineering at the University of Manchester, has shown that data may be obtained from LCA in ways that help stakeholders to identify ‘hotspots’ or areas for concern or potential improvement.
Richard Henderson, manager, sustainable technologies, of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Nigel Stanfield, innovations director, Europe, of InterfaceFLOR outlined two examples of how LCA tools have been developed in house by businesses. Development chemists at GSK have available to them a web-based tool Fast Lifecycle Assessment of Synthetic Chemistry (FLASC) to aid their decision making when developing a synthetic route to an active pharmaceutical ingredient, by assessing the sustainability of the chemicals used.
InterfaceFLOR’s sustainability index is applied in designing its modular flooring, focusing on the use of recycled and renewable materials, reducing the mass of material required, embodied energy, product biodegradability, greenhouse gas emissions and toxicity. Products are graded on their performance, allowing the company to monitor its progress towards ‘Mission zero’ to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020.
LCA can be costly, but for businesses that have not invested in developing in-house tools, there are external tools and accreditations. Lauren Heine, director of applied science at the Green Blue Institute, has outlined some metrics to help formulators of chemical products produce a greener end product, including the Green screen for safer chemicals, on which compounds are ranked against four benchmarks that promote continuous improvement.
An alternative approach
At the University of York, we have come up with an alternative approach. We propose a form of compromise whereby a reasonably large amount of information is provided to the consumer but simply divided into pre-consumer and post-consumer categories. In the ‘before’ category, the producer would provide an inventory of manufacturing areas that contribute to the product’s environment footprint. In the ‘after’ category, the inventory would cover consumer activities that would add to the overall product environmental footprint. This information, or at least most of it, would be available on the product website and would allow consumers to make decisions on, for example, the selection of additional resources used during product use – for example, heat and water – and the options for disposal of any unused product as well as the packaging. The consumer can not only assess the information and make informed comparisons between brands, but also become an active stakeholder in the process by recognising and acting on activities that will influence the overall environmental impact of the product.
James Clark, Lucy Nattrass and Louise Summerton are based at the University of York Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence