Green Products Unwrapped
Find me conflict free IT equipment - now!

At ECO-Buy we do a lot of supply chain sustainability assessments for companies.

I get involved advising on relevant sustainability standards that the companies could refer to in procurement to help avoid risks in their supply chain.

What I am finding is that the major product sustainability certifications don’t cover some of the key risks that buyers want to eliminate from their supply chain.

Some of the risks that come up include human rights, labour standards, worker safety, corruption and bribery.

No one wants to be associated with product and services that have risks in these areas. Being associated with negative social impacts can have a significant impact on a company’s reputation.

But it’s been nearly 15 years since Nike’s connection with sweatshop labour became a mainstream issue, yet most sustainability certifications are silent on the issue.

Is it simply too difficult to develop a standard around product related social issues?

Say you are looking to buy IT equipment for example - computers, monitors and printers. You would normally look at EPEAT. It’s a fairly comprehensive and widely accepted sustainability standard that covers energy use, design for recycling, toxic substances etc. Alongside Energystar, EPEAT has become the dominant sustainability standard for IT equipment internationally.

But it is silent on human rights, labour standards, conflict minerals etc. And these are the topical issues right now.

Where does this leave us?

Firstly it leaves the door open to certifications that do include the ‘emerging’ social and environmental issues.

Secondly it means buyers have to refer to social certifications to fill the gap. But hang on there aren’t any that fill the gap. Find me a certification for fair labour in the IT industry.

Thirdly it means that buyers have to do their own research - or engage supply chain specialists to do this- like ECO-Buy.

But I suppose the main problem is that while EPEAT is a standard - developed with broad agreement from a range of industry experts, and having open and transparent criteria for assessing environmental performance, the assessment of broader risks seems to fall outside standards. There is no label on IT equipment that says ‘this was made with fair labour’ or is ‘conflict mineral free’.

We are often left looking at company voluntary disclosures, codes of conduct, and high level initiatives such as the Global Compact etc. Difficult, time consuming and potentially risky for the buyer. This is how we were before certifications on environmental performance came in….

20 years ago! 

Foam friend or foe?

Expanded foam is such interesting stuff - don’t you think?

Is it an environmental friend or an environmental foe?

That depends so much on the application it is used for.

The key characteristic of expanded polystyrene foam  (EPS) is that is mostly air. The typical density is less than one tenth that of most plastics, or timber for that matter.

Being mostly air means it makes very good insulation.

EPS is widely used in packaging including seafood and fruit packaging where its properties of light weight, insulation and moisture resistance are exploited to maximum effect. Being a good insulator also means it is also being used more and more in the building industry to reduce energy and resource use. 

Being so light though means its best features work against it when comes to waste management.

The slightest puff of wind means any empty foam packaging blows away into the nearest water course. Which gives the product a bad reputation.

Being low density also means that EPS is quite expensive to dispose of in landfill so there is an incentive to recycle.

Low density also ruins the economics of recycling due to the cost of transport. It is not economical to transport air. To overcome this recyclers use machinery to squeeze the air out and increase the density to between 200 and 400 kg per m3. A much more economic proposition. Recent developments in this area are meaning there are more and more mobile EPS compaction machines around and increased recycled rates.

Unfortunately you can’t then convert this squashed EPS back into EPS so it mainly gets turned into recycled plastic products such as CD/DVD covers and sometimes into bollards and stakes. But at least it does get recycled.

Some EPS is recycled in its expanded form. It gets used in the building sector to make waffle pods – these are forms that help make concrete slabs more efficient. These can contain up to 30% recycled EPS. But due to the low density the challenge is finding enough waste EPS close to the waffle pod manufacturer.

EPS helps save energy in range of building applications including as insulated cladding. We have known for years that Australian houses should be better insulated so it’s good to see houses being built to be more like beer coolers.

So how do we optimise the environmental benefits?

It sounds like the construction sector would welcome increased recycled content in their products. If attention can be made to developing good logistics to efficiently transport EPS to facilities that can reprocess it we can have an energy saving industry based on recycled content materials. Energy saving insulation and building materials based on recycled content is about as good as it gets. 

Who would have thought? - EPS as a green solution! 

Flicking on the electric vehicle switch

While I try to convince buyers in Australia that a green vehicle should be defined by both its low carbon emissions and its air pollution rating, a news item has popped up that puts this debate into perspective.

In Norway, an electric vehicle has become the highest selling car.

Looks like they have given up debating whether diesel vehicles threaten air quality and moved on to bigger and better things.

So, what’s going on in Norway?

The Tesla S is a revolution in plug-in electric cars. It’s not an ugly, tiny, slow electric car of old. It’s a high performance four door five-seater car with 500km range and acceleration to match the Holden V8 the police use.

It has none of the downsides of range, performance, looks or practicality typically associated with fully electric cars. It is equal or better than a fossil fuel car in most respects.

Ok… well yes there is a downside. The Tesla costs over $100 000 equivalent so it’s not cheap motoring. But taking into account running costs? Maybe over the longer term.

The strong appeal of the car, combined with generous government incentives (registration, free parking, driving in bus lanes) has Norwegians going crazy for the Tesla S. To the point they will pay a premium for a second hand one to avoid waiting times on a new one.

Signature Red

A convergence?

I think there could be a convergence happening that may help flick the switch on electric vehicles, especially in certain applications. As electric vehicle technology gets more advanced, the price comes down, the performance improves and the proposition becomes more attractive. It’s a virtuous circle.

The Tesla shows that electric vehicles can be a popular, practical option, and being a best seller makes people take notice, leading to even greater investment.

But at the same time renewable energy such as solar is becoming more cost competitive with fossil power. The cost of solar panels is falling around 25% per year.  So while concerns about where the electricity is coming from are justified, they may be short-lived.

So what about Australia?

I doubt the Tesla will become the fastest selling car here. In addition to it not even being available here yet, the government incentives aren’t very strong.

But electric vehicles are ideal for low-speed stop-start applications such as delivery vehicles, garbage collection, street sweeping and plant and equipment. Electric vehicles in these applications is already happening overseas, whether hybrid electric or fully electric.  Many of these vehicles don’t travel huge distances so could be recharged back at the depot using solar power. This no longer just a fantasy.

So while Australia might not enjoy the incentives offered by the Norwegian government, investment overseas can have a flow on effect to the rest of the world. The Tesla being the biggest selling car in any country sends a strong message about the future of electric vehicles, drives investment and innovation, and should help bring true low emissions vehicles a step closer for all.

Can laundry detergent cause a sex change?

One of my colleagues, undertaking a supply chain risk assessment for a company, asked how important biodegradable cleaning products were for commercial laundries.

Commercial laundries are regulated, so their waste should end up being treated anyway. It’s not like the waste water is going straight into the river or lake, right?

I was a bit stumped by this question. On the one hand, it’s true that that commercial cleaning products would enter the sewer system and therefore end up in the sewerage treatment plant rather than be dumped in the river. But on the other hand, surely anything non-biodegradable would go straight through the treatment system into the sea or river?

While my colleagues with wastewater expertise tried to tell me no, a bit of research showed that certain substances are much harder to remove from wastewater than others. One of those is Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPE) which have been described as the ‘workhorse’ surfactant for commercial laundry cleaning for many years. Nonylphenol Ethoxylates are an endocrine disruptor, mimicking the hormone oestrogen, and can persist in the environment for up to 60 days. Basically they are highly toxic to aquatic organisms and can cause male fish to turn female.

The EU and Canada have largely phased out NPE in all industrial applications, and the US EPA is doing a voluntary phase out by December 2013. But what is happening in Australia?

While there are voluntary standards that rule out the use of NPE (e.g. GECA) there appears to be no formal push to phase these chemicals out in Australia. Especially in industrial applications which don’t get the same scrutiny from consumers as domestic products do.

And is NPE being used in Australia? A quick google found a supplier of industrial detergent and laundry detergent that contains ’10-15%’ Ethoxylated Nonylphenol.

But how about this? That same company also says that “This product is biodegradable according to AS 4351 and should have minimal long term impact on the environment”

How can this be? Knowing NPE is being phased out specifically due to its toxic effects on aquatic life (overseas at least), I can hardly believe that a product containing the same substance would be biodegradeable. Outrageous.

So where does that leave us?

Firstly there must be plenty of products out there claiming to be biodegradable that aren’t. So it’s important to make proper checks and always look for certification.

Secondly it sounds like we need to be more specific about the ingredients in laundry detergent – especially those destined for industrial markets. This is where lists of ‘red light chemicals’ are the way to go here.  ECO-Find has listed Alkyl phenol ethoxylates, particularly nonylphenol ethoxylates, on its red light chemical list for many years.

Finally, I defer to the philosophy of the US EPA who say:

“regardless of the expected risk levels, reducing the intrinsic hazard of a product is a desirable pollution prevention objective”.

Meaning if there are less hazardous materials that can do the same job, it is always preferable to avoid those with potential to harm the environment or human health.

How green is AdBlue?

I was recently asked whether AdBlue is a green product or not and thought I would look into it.

Being weary of the many fuel additives that claim environmental advantages but actually don’t provide any real difference, I though AdBlue was one of these. But it’s an interesting new technology.

As you may be aware, diesel engine vehicles are becoming more and more popular in Australia. The muted clatter of diesel engines is a common sound now outside schools and around shopping centre car parks since it has become the fuel of choice for SUV vehicles and European hatchbacks.

Traditionally the Achilles heel of diesel engines is the NOx emissions from their exhaust systems. Despite their fuel economy, diesel engines traditionally produce far worse air pollution than petrol counterparts, particularly particulates and oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

Thankfully, emission standards have forced manufacturers to clean up the exhaust emissions for these engines. This has not been easy. To meet EURO V emissions standards, most diesel vehicles have employed technologies such as exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and particulate filters, all of which have pros and cons leading to added complexity. Particulate filters for example get clogged with particulates (better than in your lungs I suppose) if the vehicle is only use for short distances such as dropping the kids off at school or going down to the shops.

So where does AdBlue fit in?

AdBlue is a proprietary name for a urea-based liquid that is injected into the exhaust of diesel engines to convert the NOx emissions to Nitrogen and water. It’s a nice bit of green chemistry in that sense. (Urine jokes aside)

Vehicles (mostly trucks at this stage) that are AdBlue equipped have a separate tank that needs to be filled with the AdBlue from time to time. Most of the time you top up the AdBlue at service time but you can also buy the liquid separately.

Is it a green product?

Well yes in the sense that AdBlue actually does reduce emissions. It works, and most trucks and an increasing range of passenger cars are equipped with this technology.

But not in the sense that it’s just part of the way the vehicle works. It’s not a fuel additive that you can buy and pour in your fuel tank. That would be a very bad idea indeed (ruin the engine). As far as I know you also can’t simply install an AdBlue injector on an older vehicle or use the technology on a petrol vehicle. It’s not offering a magical solution.

But the thing I find fascinating is that by working directly on the exhaust side, it opens up a range of possibilities for emissions control technology. Perhaps one day, post treatment of exhaust gases could be applied to other exhaust gases and leave the air that little bit cleaner.

Does a product have to be niche to be green?

Am I the only one that feels a bit strange if a mainstream product gets a green tick?

I think it’s all down to the philosophy behind green products and eco-labels.

Green purchasing is based on buying products which are greener than all the rest. The assumption is that the mainstream products are the problem and that the green product is the solution. The theory is that as the green products take market share mainstream companies are forced to develop greener and greener products and services to compete. 

It’s true that the higher the green standard the more highly it’s valued (not just by buyers but by suppliers). Buyers of green products obviously don’t trust the mainstream products. So I suppose the further they can distance themselves from the mainstream the better. Maybe it’s a form of green snobbery? 

But doesn’t that mean that green products are condemned to being niche at this rate? With most eco-labels and certifications are aimed at rewarding the top 20% performing products they can only impact 20% of purchasing. They cease to be effective once more than 50% of the market achieves them. While green products may flourish, if they only have 20% market share – what impact are they having? Worse still who will have heard of those products? The label will get really low exposure and visibility. To make real change we need all products to be greener – not just a niche.

It’s a real quandary – the more challenging the standard– the more people trust the label. The more accessible the standard, the more products meet the standard and the greater the potential impact.

Perhaps half way through the life of the standard (before its updated) is when it does the most good – perhaps at this point the market share is over 20%, possibly up to 50% . By now there might be enough products out there to raise the profile of the standard and give buyers a decent range?

It’s a a real balancing act.

I think most environmentalists probably squirm a bit if a mainstream product gets an eco-label. They do not trust it. So, what does it take for a mainstream product to be accepted as green?

It’s all about trust – we should rejoice if a mainstream product meets a trusted standard – and we can be sure that the standard is not being ‘watered down’.

For example, we are starting to see more and more products with FSC certification. While I admit that when a large mainstream toilet tissue manufacturer released a product with FSC certification I thought ‘what’s the catch?’ But in this case, FSC hadn’t lowered their standards, it’s just that the timing was right for them to get behind it. As more products become available, the public awareness grew and now more and more people have heard of FSC.

So with the right kinds of eco-label or standard, and trust built up over a number of years, it should be possible to get green products into the mainstream where they can have the greatest positive impact.

Green products with dirty secrets?

Should we look at green products in isolation from the rest of the company’s activities and the other products it makes? Does it matter if a company makes a green product without greening all its products and activities?

Many suppliers have a suite of activities or products that they offer. This may include some green products and some not so green or it may include entire activities that are either contentious or just ‘not green’. Can we ignore these products and activities in the search for the perfect green product?

One of the motivations of green purchasing is to reward suppliers able to supply green products, the idea being that this will encourage the market to develop greener and greener products etc.

Imagine your shock and horror when it turns out your preferred supplier is green over here but dirty or contentious over there? Nothing illegal but just not the green or sustainable according to your point of view? For example, is it ok to buy solar energy (supporting renewable energy) from a company which also works in the nuclear energy field? There is nothing illegal about nuclear energy, it’s just I doubt there are many people who support both solar and nuclear at the same time.

But how should we take into account the contentious issues? If the virgin paper fibre sourced from native forest is contentious, can we just buy the recycled paper option from the same company and move on? Or is the recycled paper option, which ticks all the boxes in your criteria, still tainted by the company having major stakes in selling contentious virgin fibre paper? Should we reward companies for doing the right thing or punish them for doing wrong?

Taking this approach to the extreme, do we only consider fuel efficient vehicles from car companies that don’t also make gas guzzlers? Or take a look at the least efficient products in the range, before considering the most efficient?

The approach has merit since it would ramp up the pressure on the companies if they weren’t greening all their activities and products. Suppliers would not only have to make green products but would have to avoid making non-green products at the same time. No more token green products out one door while the churn out the run of the mill products out the other.

Then I had a thought that brought me back to reality – would this approach make it virtually impossible to find a product that meets both criteria? In many categories I suppose the answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start asking the question.


What’s the opposite of greenwash?

While I am not so angry this week, we keep coming up against the same problem here at ECO-Buy. I am beginning to wonder if you can have reverse greenwash.

I think one of the issues with greenwash is that buyers sometimes want to believe that a product is green so they tend not to question it and believe the marketing hype about how green it is – even when it’s not.

Well reverse greenwash is the opposite. Products that represent a real environmental improvement sometimes struggle in the market due to entrenched buying behaviour.

We hear the same thing time after time from suppliers:

“They look straight past our product and just buy what they have always bought.”

“We trialled recycled material on a footpath and now they want to wait 5 years to see how it performs before doing anything more. I will be reaching retirement age by then!”

“It’s not us that have to innovate, it’s our customers.”

The success of some genuine green products relies more on the attitude change of the buyers than the technical performance of the product.

ECO-Buy ran a roads and footpaths forum in 2010 and the ’risk averse’ buyer culture was seen as one of the main barriers to increasing the uptake of recycled materials. Three years later we are hearing the same thing. This is despite more testing of the products, and no evidence that using recycled materials in roads and footpaths has resulted in any low quality roads.

So unlike greenwash, here we have a product which is proven to be green but buyers are wary of buying it.

I am not saying engineers should abandon their standards and start using ‘innovative’ materials to build bridges that fall down or make bumpy roads. But there is certainly a need to look at what the barriers are to using new and innovative products and materials and see if resistance is justified.

It’s not the price either – there are plenty of examples where green products that can actually save organisations money still suffer from the same fate. Worse, we have heard reports that contractors inflate prices to cover for the fact they are unfamiliar with products and to ‘cover the risk’. But what risk?

All is not lost.

ECO-Buy is working with suppliers and organisations right now to develop ways around this problem. Understanding the barriers, working out information needs to address them, and being innovative in the way the products are marketed.

I reckon that some of the proven green products have a harder time in the market than the non- proven greenwash type products. There is a lesson there.

This is why I call it the opposite of greenwash.

With greenwash, sellers appeal to the irrational and emotional side of buyers – hoping they will just believe what the seller tells them. The opposite is that despite being given factual information, the buyer refuses to accept it or discounts it.

Hopefully, in my life time, ECO-Buy will be able to help suppliers of genuinely green products overcome these barriers so that the truly green products are successful in the market and it is the greenwashed products that are ignored!

In a knot over green fibre claims

It’s not often I say ‘seller beware’ but here is a good example about how not understanding the product you are selling can leave you in hot water.

For at least the last five years, bamboo has been promoted as the miracle green product. Everything from bamboo flooring to bamboo plates and cutlery, as well paper, its all come across my desk.  Amazingly there is even bamboo socks, towels and underwear.

The marketing pitch promotes the sustainability of bamboo; it grows fast, doesn’t need pesticides, is abundant, and has properties which make it ideal for flooring (high hardness) and fabric (absorbent, antibacterial).

I have never really understood how bamboo can be turned into socks and towels. Wouldn’t it be scratchy? But I am assured by numerous suppliers that this fluffy fabric really is bamboo fibre.

Well it turns out turns that this bamboo fibre is actually rayon fibre. Calling it bamboo fibre is a misnomer – greenwash if you like.  Rayon is a man-made fibre which can be made using pretty much any cellulosic (plant sourced) material including wood. While the source material (wood or bamboo) might be natural, the process of making it is not. Furthermore none of the inherent properties in bamboo are found in the rayon fibre – including so called antibacterial properties.

So while growing bamboo may be sustainable (we are not discussing that here, but personally I would like to see forest certified bamboo), making Rayon from bamboo involves a toxic chemical process. It’s not what you would call green.  Picture lots of caustic soda, and carbon disulphide just to get started.

There are plenty of suppliers out there promoting bamboo fibre but it is getting risky. The FTC (Fair Trade Commission) in the US has recently come down hard on companies promoting rayon derived from bamboo as bamboo fibre. Several major companies have received fines totally over $1.5m in the US over their bamboo fibre claims.The FTC’s view is:

“The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft “bamboo” fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.”

(I think the FTC agrees that if socks and underwear were genuine bamboo fibre they would be scratchy!)

In some ways this issue is less about buyer beware and more about ‘seller beware’. Somewhere in the supply chain these companies were told this product is bamboo fibre and they set up their marketing around it. By not fully understanding risks in their supply chain, suppliers risks huge fines, not to mention their reputation, and damage to the whole sustainable product market (all the usual harm associated with greenwash).  

So while the buyer should beware, in the end they can still wear their socks and use their fluffy towel whether it is bamboo or rayon. But for suppliers, it’s serious.

Not fully understanding your product and its supply chain can be a real headache.


Changing course on diesel emissions

I was in a discussion about fleet management and the relevance of the Green Vehicle Guide the other day and it opened a can of worms.

It’s these fancy turbo diesels with ridiculously good fuel economy becoming so popular that is at the heart of the matter.

Fuel economy means low CO2 emissions, so plenty of organisations, including the Vic Government use CO2 emissions or fuel economy as their basis for choosing greenness. This tends to favour diesels. Fuel economy also leads to lower running costs so it’s a very attractive measure for organisations.

Funny thing is the Green Vehicle Guide does not rate these diesel powered vehicles very highly. So what’s going on?

The Green Vehicle Guide rating system is based on an equal mix of Greenhouse Rating (CO2 emissions) and Air Pollutant Rating (carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter). Diesel powered vehicles get penalised for high air pollutants , typically rating a 6 of 10 on the guide for air pollutants, versus 7.5 for equivalent petrol.

As a result, there are no diesel vehicles in the top 20 of the Green Vehicle Guide (these are all electric, hybrid or petrol). I struggled to find any 5-star diesel vehicles despite there being quite a range of 5-star vehicles overall. In fact Holden and Ford’s large sedans are available in 5 stars courtesy of being LPG powered.

This all sounds reasonable. Diesel exhausts are nasty. This year the World Health Organisation elevated the carcinogenic status of diesel exhausts (particulate matter) to the highest level. They are now considered a known rather than probable carcinogen. Good Environmental Choice NZ have even added criteria for their office activities standard which gives preference to petrol over diesel in urban areas.

But at the same time, diesel engines are getting cleaner (as are all engines in line with stricter standards). So much so that the Green Vehicle Guide itself is considering scrapping their Air Pollutant Rating based on the assumption that all new vehicles meet mandatory emissions standards. The focus will instead be placed on CO2 emissions, fuel consumption and emission certification level (e.g. Euro 4).

Interesting. We are going in two directions at once on this (do that in a car and see what happens!).

On the one hand we are saying that all vehicles create the same levels of emissions (based on compliance with the same standards) while on the other we are also raising the level of concern over diesel emissions.

In the Green Vehicle Guide discussion paper it says that even the toughest standards (which Australia will have in force by 2018) allow higher emissions for diesels than for petrol. In the meantime, petrol engines will meet significantly higher emissions standards than their diesel counterparts across a range of emission types. So it’s not really fair to assume diesels are as clean as petrol yet.

So can we have our cake and eat it too? The fuel economy and low CO2 emissions of diesel without the air pollution?

It’s getting there, 2018, but in the meantime perhaps the NZ advice is on the mark. When considering fleet purchases, understand that it’s not all about CO2 emissions. Other factors come into play – especially air quality.

With diesel emissions being more of an issue in congested urban areas, consider whether a diesel vehicle is the best choice for city use. Outside urban areas, where fuel efficiency is more the issue, diesel is fine. Also remember that emissions standards for diesels are improving so make sure that that the vehicle meets Euro 5 or higher.

And if you ride a bike make sure you check if that big truck in front of you is Euro 5 before you breathe in the black cloud of exhaust.