The Rise of Product Sustainability Rating

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Walmart's announcement earlier this month that they were creating a product-rating questionnaire for its suppliers is only one of many indicators portending a massive trend: the green product label.

Expect labels on products within a few to five years on everything from diapers to dish detergent indicating carbon footprints, water and energy use, resource consumption and health impacts. At some point international, national or even local rating agencies will devise or weigh in on such standards.

Already a biodegradable corn-based plastic bag sold nationally has on its box the stamp of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. The state of California is studying a Green Chemistry initiative that would require declaration of significant health-adverse chemicals in every product sold in the state.

Bay Area start-up TrueCarbon is hatching a voluntary scheme to provide a labeling icon for consumer products like soda that would indicate how much carbon was produced in the manufacturing and distribution of each can.

A logo, tracking number and website link will provide more information, and will allow consumers or the manufacturer to offset the carbon from their bubbly with funding for sustainability projects.

The Good Guide, put out by a professor from UC Berkeley, rates hundreds of products according to sustainability and health attributes that come from the need to know where did it come from, how was it made, and what's in it?

As the global supply chain gets more complex and products have begun to stop labeling where they were manufactured, like Hershey chocolate bars, now manufactured in Mexico, these are not simple questions.

The Good Guide allows user to filter their product ratings based on environmental, health or social criteria, and the results--based on chemicals, manufacturing processes, labor, country of origin and more--are presented in numeric order.

The Good products come out with green indicators with higher numbers (7-10), questionable light brown and the shady products come out with dark brown (5-6). Natures' Path Corn Puffs rated 8.3 on the environmental scale with Cocoa Krispies Choconilla (yum!) rating 5.2 on the same scale.

My point is that Walmart's announcement is significant but hardly earth-shaking, especially since they have not stated a target date by which they will demand eco-labeling or public disclosures.

The company's major tier of US suppliers have to fill out the 15-question surveys by October. That leaves the majority of Walmart's suppliers off the hook, as only a minority of the retailer's products come from the US.

Any savvy company with an eye to the inevitable will be preparing its own internal matrix of product and service impacts. These will include not only carbon inventories, which go light on getting information on "Tier 3" categories (suppliers vs Tier 1, the company's own operations), but on all its product impacts all the way from mining, to manufacturing, chemical components, transportation and disposal.

That would include getting all the details from suppliers of suppliers of suppliers, which is uncommon in most retail product supply chains

Taking an assessment of what's out there now in Walmart's survey, The Good Guide,  California's Green Chemistry initiative and beyond, should help companies define better what the future will look like when it comes to eco, health and social labeling.

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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Warren Karlenzig published on July 30, 2009 9:05 AM.

San Francisco's Sunday Streets: How Vibrant Can City Space Be was the previous entry in this blog.

Low-Carbon High Growth Conference Appearance with UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon is the next entry in this blog.

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