What’s in a Rubber Duck? Stuff Under Scrutiny

Rubber Duck Sniff Test

Rubber Duck Sniff Test

The Ecology Center recently launched a provocative website, Healthy Stuff, which lists the environmental toxins contained in over 900 products, anything from cars to children’s toys to women’s handbags. Rather than rely on product ingredient lists or company social responsibility reports, the data comes directly from a machine called an XRF Analyzer, which uses X-ray fluorescence to detect the presence of toxins such as lead, cadmium, mercury, bromine, chlorine, and arsenic. 
The results often surprise consumers. Of the 400 pet products chosen for testing, over one quarter had detectable levels of lead, 7 percent of which had levels higher than the Consumer Products Safety Commission allows for children’s toys. Over half of the children’s car seats tested contain one or more chemicals such as chlorine, bromine, or heavy metals. All of the baby bath toys, including rubber ducks, tested contained chlorine.  Overall 90% of back-to-school supplies contained one or more chemicals highlighted for their potential negative impact on human health.

Regulation typically allows for small amounts of these ingredients in certain product categories, for example less than 330 parts per million lead exposure for children’s toys is an acceptable risk. Yet highly concerned consumers and health advocates are taking the hard line, asking for the elimination and removal of all toxins. As SIGG recently found out, the disclosure that BPA was an ingredient in their bottle liners made prior to August, 2008 enraged the company’s fan base, even though the company insists that the bottles are safe.

What is being asked of company owners? As Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology Center says, “Product manufacturers and legislators must take the lead and replace dangerous substances with safe alternatives.” Is this issue of concern to your company, and are you taking steps to change your manufacturing process for this heightened scrutiny?

SIGG Scandal Proves Consumers Own Brand

Wrote this for MediaPost after learning about the SIGG scandal.

Steve Wasik, the CEO of SIGG, has not been tweeting much lately. Caught in a scandal over the company’s delay in disclosing the presence of BPA in its bottles made before September 2008, Wasik has been speaking to bloggers and angry consumers on a one-to-one basis. As one of those once-proud SIGG-toting fans, I had the chance to speak with Wasik personally because I wanted to know how and why this happened to a company that had such devoted advocates among the green community.

Steve Wasik is the first to tell you that he’s an accidental environmentalist. A U.S.-born Kellogg grad, he told me, “Prior to my joining the company, I did not have a lot of experience with the green movement. I’m still learning.” Wasik is deeply sorry for delaying the news about BPA in the bottles. As he stated on the company’s in his column for the Huffington Post, “We were right to make the announcement. But I was wrong to have waited this long.”

What did green mean to SIGG, and how has that changed? Originally, SIGG saw itself as a steward of the environment, committed to providing a product that eliminated the need for wasteful disposable plastic bottles, keeping them out of landfill. SIGG had been monitoring the BPA discussions, and as a Swiss company, SIGG claimed high standards for internal testing. To this day, Wasik insists that the now infamous BPA-laden bottles are safe, and do not leach.

While it’s frustrating to learn about the presence of BPA in SIGG bottles, I wanted to know, what is so great about BPA — why bother to use it in the first place if there is a potential health risk. “BPA is the building block of packaging,” Wasik explained. “It is an anti-corrosive agent, which is critical for long-term storage of liquids, and is prevalent in most packaging,” from the lining of tin cans to plastic beverage bottles. It is still only outlawed in baby bottles in Canada, and in a handful of products in U.S. states and municipalities. BPA is still everywhere, and most governments still consider it safe. Yet, the green movement was always ahead of regulators, with an increasing sense of alarm that BPA is a potential cancer-causing agent and hormone disruptor.

So if SIGG was becoming aware of BPA as a marketing risk, why not simply come clean and disclose it publicly, let consumers be the judge? According to Wasik, SIGG’s bottle lining supplier was “in an agreement not to discuss these ingredients.” SIGG manufactures 95% of its products in house, but it depends on external suppliers for its liners. The supplier was highly protective of the exact ingredients list, and refused SIGG the right to disclose how their products were made. When asked, SIGG maintained that the liner chemistry was proprietary, and would remain so in an attempt to keep copy-cats at bay.

But Wasik was concerned enough to initiate the process of developing a non-BPA-based liner with another supplier as early as 2006, recently launched as “EcoCare,” a “special powder-based co-polyester liner certified to be 100% BPA- and phthalate-free.” When we asked if the new supplier allows ingredients to be disclosed, Wasik tells us that this will happen soon, that SIGG will demand this. To date, however, the company has not disclosed the full ingredient list.

This leads us to Wasik’s No. 1 recommendation for companies seeking green credentials: “Be transparent. Be as transparent as you can be.” While SIGG was trying to be green, the concept had taken on a whole new meaning. In the mind of SIGG’s fans, the benefit shifted from keeping disposable bottles out of landfill to protecting the health of themselves and their families.

The green movement made the SIGG brand through conversations in local mommy groups, community gardens, and charity walks. But the movement is also energized by a public discussion online, as consumers are able to now directly converse with NGOs, activists, scientists, and bloggers who are defining an increasingly sophisticated understanding of what it means to be environmentally good.

How do you avoid your own SIGG scandal? Yes, be open, back up your claims with data and full ingredient lists, but also listen carefully to how the dialogue is being shaped through networked conversations. The biggest lesson here is that the green movement owns what it means to be green.

Paying for the Experience of Making: The Bamboo Bike Studio

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Bamboo Bike Studio

Bamboo Bike Studio

It’s not enough to just buy green. The greenest consumers want to do more than just vote with their wallet. They may just want to roll up their sleeves and help you teach them how to make the very thing that you’re selling. Take the example of the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

The Studio, opened in June of this year, offers a two day, 16 hour workshop on how to build a custom bike, out of bamboo, from scratch. At $1,250, the price of the workshop may seem shocking to those that see the benefit of purchasing a $100 model from their local superstore. But the ability to create and make their own bike in one weekend is an experience for which over 60 people have paid a premium.

In fact, it follows on the trend mentioned here on Open Forum, The IKEA Effect: setting up projects with a dose of assembly required in order to garner a higher level of commitment from your consumers. “It’s a way of showing people they are capable of doing something they would never even consider doing. It makes you feel awesome,” Sean Murray, the 26-year-old co-owner of the Bamboo Bike Studio, told the NY Daily News.

The founders have grand, world changing visions. Working in collaboration with the Earth Institute and Columbia University, the studio contributes profits towards a plan to build bamboo bike factories in bamboo-rich but steel-poor areas like Africa and South America. Before they exported the idea to developing nations, the founders wanted to test out their ideas locally, in Brooklyn, and invited their customers to help. What do you think of this idea? Would your customers pay for the privilege of helping you make your products?

Gazelle.com – A Recommerce Company Making Cash from Trash

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Gadget Tree

Gadget Tree

Preparing for a move back to the east coast,Gazelle.com’s cofounder Israel Ganot took his collection of used electronics to Staples for recycling. He was surprised to discover that the recycling program asked him to pay approximately $15 for the privilege, even though he knew from his days at eBay that the gadgets could be re-commissioned and even resold for value. Gazelle.com was born to not just solve the problem of ewaste, but to create a market for used electronics with revolutionary idea: Recommerce.

Recommerce follows the axiom that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that significant business opportunities abound in creating the infrastructure for more intelligent reuse and recycling networks. Both Ganot and his co-founder Rousseau Aurelien have deep knowledge of the reseller marketplace. They knew that decommissioned phones could be resold on secondary markets, creating a profit opportunity for companies that provided recyclers a cost-free way to handle their used electronics.

How it works: look up your used or decommissioned gadgets on the Gazelle.com site to determine their value, answer a few questions, and the company ships you a box (in most cases free of charge). Once you then send your used electronics to Gazelle.com, you can elect to receive payment or to donate to one of 23 causes.

When Gazelle.com takes in unfixable or otherwise worthless gadgets, the company responsibly disposes of the objects with one of several responsible recyclers. Ganot asserts that Gazelle.com’s end-of-life recycling partners are “best of breed” and rated by the Basel Action Network, a third party NGO that advocates for responsible recycling. Ganot told us during an interview, “Only 5-10% of our electronics wind up with these recyclers. The rest are resold and put back into use.”

The real potential for Gazelle.com lies in the hidden drawers and closets of American homes. According to the SVTC, over 70% of used electronics are stored away in peoples’ homes, since electronics recycling is often complicated, costly, and confusing.  Electronics that have hazardous substances like BFRs, PVC, and pthalates have been found to cause damage to human and environmental health when not responsibly recycled. This may be a leap of faith, but the hope lies in the secondary market influencing the designers and marketers of these devices. By extending the life of these machines electronics manufacturers may finally have a financial incentive to design for longevity as an alternative to design for obsolescence.

To date Gazelle.com has applied social media and PR strategies to promote the service. Because the story of the company is compelling to environmental advocates, Gazelle.com has received positive word of mouth and endorsements. If you are interested in Gazelle.com as a solution to your own personal gadget graveyard, you can learn more atGazelle.com, or follow the company on their Twitter feed@gazelle_com.

The Measure of Money: Social Impact Investing Grows Up

For Open Forum at Inhabitat:

SOCAP 2008

SOCAP 2008

Are financial markets a force for social good? 1000+ entrepreneurs, NGO staffers, and financiers attended the second annual Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP09) to answer the question. One year later, the conversation transformed from enthusiastic optimism to a more scrupulous discussion about measurement, metrics, and proof. Interest in environmentally and socially beneficial investment is at an all time high, and so is the need for a common way to understand how money delivers positive impact.

Socially-focused investment has been around awhile. You can choose a social mutual fund, or work with your broker to screen out companies that do the worst harm, or screen in companies that are more consistent with your personal values.

Therein lies the problem with social investing. For financial returns, everyone agrees that measures like discounted cash flow, earnings per share, and market capitalization are all indicators of a company’s health. For social and environmental returns, the measures are more subjective, and even the more quantitative metrics like a company’s carbon footprint do not follow a standardized method for measurement. Even the Triple Bottom Line methodology has been put into question for its lack of teeth and “vague commitments to social and environmental concerns,” according to two ethicists Wayne Norman and Chris MacDonald.

How will emerging standards organizations address social and environmental impact with greater rigor and transparency?

The Impact Reporting and Investment Standards organization (IRIS)
. Launched at SOCAP09, and led by The Rockefeller FoundationAcumen Fund, and B Lab, IRIS plans to create a common language and framework for defining, tracking and reporting the performance of impact capital. One of the group’s key initiatives is to share the Acumen Fund’s measurement Pulse software management system for non-financial data (developed in partnership with Google and Salesforce.com). Launched as a “user configurable open source toolset,” the plan is to evolve as an industry standard for funders and grant givers to transparently track impact.

Perhaps by next year’s Social Capital conference, we will have a shared understanding of how to measure for good, and green.