Originally published at edge.org
Every manmade object — all the things in our homes and workplace — has an invisible back story, a litany of sorry impacts over the course of the journey from manufacture to use to disposal. Take running shoes.
Despite the bells and whistles meant to make one brand of running shoe appeal more than another, at base they all reduce to three parts. The shoe’s upper consists of nylon with decorative bits of plastics or synthetic leather. The “rubber” sole for most shoes is a petroleum-based synthetic, as is the spongy midsole, composed of ethylene vinyl acetate. Like any petrochemical widget, manufacturing the soles produces unfortunate byproducts, among them benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene. In environmental health circles these are known as the “Big Four” toxics, being variously carcinogens, central nervous system disrupters, and respiratory irritants, among other biological irritants.
Those bouncy air pockets in some shoe soles contain an ozone-depleting gas. The decorative bits of plastic piping harbor PVC, which endangers the health of workers who make it, and contaminate the ecosystems around the dumps where we eventually send our shoes. The solvents in glues that bind the outsole to midsole can damage the lungs of the workers who apply it. Tanning leather shoe tops can expose workers to hexavalent chromium and other carcinogens.
I remember my high school chemistry teacher’s enthusiasm for the chemical reaction that rendered nitrogen fertilizer from ammonia (he moonlighted in a local fertilizer factory); we never heard a word about eutrophication, the dying of aquatic life due to fertilizer runoff that creates a frenzy of algae growth, depleting the water’s oxygen. Likewise, coal-burning electric plants seemed a marvel when first deployed: cheap electricity from a virtually inexhaustible source. Who knew about respiratory disease from particulates, let alone global warming?
The full list of adverse impacts on the environment or the health of those who make or use any product can run into hundreds of such details. The reason: most all of the manufacturing methods and industrial chemicals in common use today were invented in a day when little or no attention was paid to their negative impacts on the planet or its people.
We have inherited an industrial legacy from the 20th-century which no longer meets the needs of the 21st. As we awaken from our collective naivete about such hidden costs, we are reaching a pivot point where we can question hidden assumptions. We can ask, for example, why not have running shoes that are not just devoid of toxins, but also can eventually be tossed out in a compost pile to biodegrade? We can rethink everything we make, developing alternative ingredients and processes with far less — or ideally, no — adverse health or environmental impacts.
The singular force that can drive this transformation of every manmade thing for the better is neither government fiat nor the standard tactics of environmentalists, but rather radical transparency in the marketplace. If we as buyers can know the actual ecological impacts of the stuff we buy at the point of purchase, and can compare those impacts to competing products, we can make better choices. The means for such radical transparency has already launched. Software innovations now allow any of us to access a vast database about the hidden harms in whatever we are about to buy, and to do this where it matters most, at the point of purchase. As we stand in the aisle of a store, we can know which brand has the fewest chemicals of concern, or the better carbon footprint. In the Beta version of such software, you click your cell phone’s camera on a product’s bar code, and get an instant readout of how this brand compares to competitors on any of hundreds of environmental, health, or social impacts. In a planned software upgrade, that same comparison would go on automatically with whatever you buy on your credit card, and suggestions for better purchases next time you shop would routinely come your way by email.
Such transparency software converts shopping into a vote, letting us target manufacturing processes and product ingredients we want to avoid, and rewarding smarter alternatives. As enough of us apply these decision rules, market share will shift, giving companies powerful, direct data on what shoppers want — and want to avoid — in their products.
Creating a market force that continually leverages ongoing upgrades throughout the supply chain could open the door to immense business opportunities over the next several decades. We need to reinvent industry, starting with the most basic platforms in industrial chemistry and manufacturing design. And that would change every thing.