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The Hidden Life of What We Buy

Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: travels to find where my stuff comes from, by Fred Pearce
Eden Project Books
Cradle to Cradle: re-making the way we make things, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough
Vintage
Ecological Intelligence: knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy, by Daniel Goleman
Allen Lane

sinner

Reviewed by BERNARD STEEDS

Everything we buy has a hidden life.

This life occurs before the product gets to us – as the raw materials are extracted or grown, as the product is processed or manufactured, as it is transported to us. It occurs while we own the product – through the energy it consumes, or the toxins it emits. It occurs after we have finished with it and sent it for dumping or recycling.

But when we buy product we are not told about these costs. In general, the companies that profit do not have to tell us. Nor, generally, do they have to take full responsibility. They may not even be fully aware themselves of the impact of their products, either on the environment or on people’s health and welfare.

Each of these three books is an attempt to address this issue – to explore the ‘life cycle’ and ‘environmental footprint’ of the stuff we buy: one by telling us about it, one by arguing that we should be told more, and one by offering a solution.


In Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, British journalist Fred Pearce (who recently bagged New Zealand for its record on carbon emissions) seeks to get to grips with his own ecological footprint. He visits dozens of locations around the world, finding the sources of his food, clothing, computer equipment, the metals that are used in cell-phones and soft drink cans, and the oil and coal that power his life.

Along the way, he discovers that fair trade does make a difference, if only modest, and that Kenyan vegetables and New Zealand meat may be better for the environment than the same food grown in Britain.

But, again and again, he also encounters the terrifying results when companies can profit from exploiting a resource but do not have to bear the full environmental and social costs.

He visits Mauritania, where he finds the world’s most productive fishing ground is being systematically depleted under the authority of a European Union ‘sustainable’ fishing deal.

He finds out about the dangers of wiping out ‘biodiversity’ to farm single species that are then vulnerable to disease (bananas now are apparently less sweet and tasty than they were fifty years ago because the dominant species was wiped out by a fungus) or how in many countries rainforests and wetlands are being wiped out in favour of sugar and palm oil.

He finds out how Mafia-style ‘musclemen’ make exorbitant profits by exploiting small-scale farmers in the Bangladeshi prawn industry, how children known as ‘chocolate slaves’ are used to harvest cocoa in West Africa, and how old computers sent for recycling can end up in Bihar Province in India, where child labourers wash them in hot acid – breathing the fumes, and without protective clothing – to get copper from the circuit boards.

Pearce’s book is an engaging, sobering account of the impact a typical western lifestyle has on the planet and on people. Since I read it I have found myself hesitating over everyday purchases – cups of coffee, clothes, books. It has left me wondering – somewhat helplessly – about the impact of my purchase, and about how I can compare one product against another when neither tells me where it’s from.

That is where Daniel Goleman comes in.

A psychologist and author of million-sellers Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, he argues that the solution does not lie in more effective environmental regulation, but rather in market forces and a concept he names “radical transparency”.

In his world, when you go shopping, every product will have its entire life cycle available to the consumer. Just tap its bar code into your smartphone and a website will tell you all you need to know about whether your salad oil was grown in a sustainable plantation or by underpaid labourers on a razed rainforest.

“Whether we are a single consumer, an organisation’s purchasing agent, or an executive managing a brand, if we knew the hidden impacts of what we buy, sell, or make… we could become shapers of a more positive future by making our decisions better align with our values.”

It’s a nice idea, but it scarcely hints at the complexity involved in environmental decisions. How do you choose between a product that can be recycled and another that is made from recycled content? Or between the recycled product and one that lasts twice as long? Or between one that requires harmful chemicals in its manufacture and another that uses more energy?

Nor does Goleman acknowledge everyday reality that most buying decisions are rapid and made on the basis of habit: they are what marketers would call ‘low engagement’. Are we really going to stop for five minutes in the aisle, while the kids pull all the lollies from the shelves, to compare the carbon footprints of Ricies and Weet-bix?
Even with good information, the issues are too complex for quick, everyday decision-making. Goleman ‘solves’ this problem with a leap of logic that is common among environmental writers: to solve our problems we need to design a better human – in Goleman’s case, one that is as emotionally sensitive to long-term, unseen threats (such as rising sea levels) as to immediate, visceral ones (such as, say, a spider crawling into your mouth).

Cradle to Cradle, an updated edition of a book first published seven years ago, attacks these problems from a different angle. Most attempts at environmental and social regulation are about being “less bad”, the authors argue, when they should be about being “good”.

Put another way: in the conventional ‘cradle to grave’ approach to producing goods and services, resources are extracted, used, wasted and dumped, all with harmful consequences for people and the environment. What’s more, as Pearce has shown, many of the costs are not borne by those causing the harm, but by others – from sweatshop labourers in developing nations, to the ratepayers who bear the costs of recycling and landfilling excessively packaged non-re-usable goods in western towns and cities.

In a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach, every product is designed to be part of a natural cycle for which the manufacturer takes full responsibility and during which every step returns some benefit to the people and ecosystems that are affected.

Instead of having factories that emit fewer contaminants, why not design factories that emit by-products that are useful? Instead of recycling some bits of products and dumping the rest, why not design products that can be leased from the manufacturer and returned when it has outlived its usefulness, to be taken apart, and fully reassembled or reprocessed into something just as valuable? Instead of burning coal to provide power to buildings hundreds of miles away, why not design buildings that produce as much energy as they consume?

“The solution is not to make human industries and systems smaller,” Braungart and McDonough write, “… but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores and nourishes the rest of the world.”

This sounds utopian, but the authors, an architect and an industrial chemist, have walked the talk. Another example is a Swiss textile mill which was told that its carpet trimmings were hazardous waste and could therefore not be burned in Swiss industrial incinerators (the carpet could, ironically, still be sold for use in Swiss homes, while Swiss officials required the trimmings were to be exported to Spain for incineration there).

The mill hired Braungart, who switched the mill from synthetic fabrics to natural ones (wool and ramie), and eliminated thousands of commonly used dyes, finishes and other process chemicals some of which were carcinogenic or otherwise toxic, selecting instead a limited range of thirty-eight dyes which were known to be safe for the environment and human health. What’s more, getting rid of some dyes also eliminated the need for other harmful chemicals and processes such as those needed to make the dyes colourfast.

By making the industrial process both simpler and more natural, the mill was able to produce higher quality products at lower cost.

What’s more, the water leaving the factory after manufacturing was purer than the water that had gone in (factory inspectors initially believed their equipment was broken). The trimmings were usable as mulch by a local gardening club. And the mill, which had been regarded by officials as an industrial polluter, no longer had to deal go to the expense and hassle of ensuring its emissions complied with environmental regulations: it simply produced no harmful waste.

McDonough, meanwhile, has been working on a project, backed by Brad Pitt, to rebuild a hurricane-ravaged district of New Orleans and, in the process, turn it into the greenest neighbourhood in America.

The difference between Cradle to Cradle and the other two books reviewed here lies in where it places responsibility for environmental harm. While Pearce and Goleman rightly acknowledge the impact of consumers on the environment, their power (our power) is relatively blunt: we can either buy or not buy. It is the businesses that profit from extracting resources and from making and selling goods that can actually change the way things are made.

Of these three books, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is the most readable, and is an excellent introduction to the hidden life of what we buy. Goleman’s concept of “radical transparency” is useful if limited. Cradle to Cradle comes closest to describing a world worth living in.

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BERNARD STEEDS is a Wellington writer.