Sustainability And Growth

This week’s cover story on sustainability focuses on a green supply chain—manufacturers who are working to ensure that the ingredients that go into their products are produced in a sustainable fashion by workers who are treated fairly. Senior Editor Melody Voith talked to four niche consumer-brand companies about their relationships with raw material suppliers and profiled their efforts to work with those suppliers to ensure that the raw materials supported the companies’ green claims. Even for relatively small companies catering to high-end markets, Voith’s reporting suggests, ensuring a green provenance for raw materials is a challenge. Soap manufacturer Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, for example, is committed to using only tropical oils that are certified to be organic and made under fair-trade practices. “Finding palm, olive, and coconut oils that meet Bronner’s high standards,” Voith writes, “has taken Gero Leson, the company’s chief operating officer, to the ends of the Earth.” The kind of commitment practiced by Dr. Bronner’s simply isn’t possible for all companies, Voith notes. Unilever, for example, which makes Dove soap, is the world’s largest buyer of palm oil. Unilever has committed to buy all of its palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015, Voith writes. But the company acknowledges that “there isn’t yet sufficient volume coming through segregated supply chains where buyers can have confidence that the refined oil which they are buying comes from a plantation, mill, and refinery that have been certified sustainable.” It’s easy to dismiss the sustainability efforts of niche players like Dr. Bronner’s and the other companies Voith discusses in her story. They’re small and they cater to upscale customers willing to pay a premium to demonstrate their green sensibility. But larger companies are paying attention to consumers’ increasing concern about the environment and their impact on it. Walmart, for example, has 11 “Standards for Suppliers” posted on its corporate page. The “Environment” standard states: “Suppliers must ensure every manufacturing facility complies with national and local environmental laws, including all laws related to air emissions, water discharges, toxic substances and hazardous waste disposal. Suppliers must validate that all input materials and components were obtained from permissible harvests consistent with international treaties and protocols in addition to local laws and regulations.” As Voith points out, the ingredient prospecting carried out by the companies she interviewed “may smooth the way for mass-market brands to improve the sustainability of their raw materials.” This issue also contains many letters we received in response to my editorial “Addicted to Growth” (C&EN, June 28, page 3). As you can see, about an equal number of writers agreed and disagreed with the editorial. The editorial was also posted here on the “Editor’s Blog” and received a number of comments, the first two of which pretty much defined the scope of disagreement on the subject of endless economic growth. The first reader to comment wrote: “After reading your editorial … ‘Addicted to Growth,’ I am appalled! ‘Earth … no longer exists’? This is a CHEMISTRY magazine and such editorials have no place within its pages. Furthermore, if you are not living on an Amish farm and riding to work on horseback, you are a complete hypocrite. “‘Growth is a religion’? So is environmentalism!” The second wrote: “I strongly agree with both McKibben’s sentiments and the Editor’s post, but I fear that humankind may prove incapable of implementing and accommodating a ‘controlled decline.’ “Instead, I often hear business and political spokespersons, developers, and engineers voice their earnest conviction that ‘when the economy recovers,’ jobs, economic growth, and construction will return to previous levels. “If responsible leadership cannot envision and acknowledge a progressively resource-limited and ecosystem-damaged world, how can we plan for a controlled decline in growth—and wealth?” Thanks for reading, and commenting.

Author: Rudy Baum

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