We've all seen it: a mother crouched on the floor, arms outstretched, cooing to her baby as he lopsidedly plops first one hand, then the other, on the carpet, dragging his chubby knees behind him. His short journey complete, he rolls onto his well-padded bottom and proudly explores the inside of his mouth with his fingers in an endearing show of gurgles and drool.
Now look a little closer -- not at the baby, but at the carpet. Clinging to the fibers could be any of the 75,000 synthetic chemicals developed and released into the environment since World War II. Fewer than half have been tested for potential toxicity to human beings, fewer still for children. And that child just put any number of them into his mouth.
This scenario doesn't even include the particulates floating through the atmosphere, narrowing his small airways, or the peaches he was just fed, which contain residues of an organophosphate pesticide. Add in more details -- his mother working in a dry cleaner during her pregnancy, his dad failing to kick that smoking habit -- and a truly alarming picture can emerge.
Over time, the nature of childhood illness has evolved from epidemics like scarlet fever, smallpox and measles to chronic and disabling conditions like cancer, asthma, neurological impairment and hormone disorders. Though genetic predisposition certainly plays its part, Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, likens the gene code's influence over illness to merely loading the health risk gun. "The environment," he says, "pulls the trigger."
Environmental causes have been implicated in ailments from autism and attention deficit disorder to violent behavior, prompting widespread alarm among parents and activist groups and an unprecedented flood of research from the scientific community. "The more we learn about chemicals," says Dr. Gina Solomon, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, "the more we learn that very, very early in life is the most susceptible period."
Relative to their weight and size, children ingest more food, drink more water and breathe more air than adults. Their behavior only makes matters worse -- children play on the ground, where there is more dust, paint chips and other dangers, and they frequently put their hands in their mouth. They also eat a much less varied diet, exposing them to concentrated pesticide residues. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average one-year-old drinks 21 times more apple juice, and eats two to seven times more grapes, bananas, pears, carrots and broccoli than an adult.
Children's bodies are ill-equipped to handle such a firestorm of exposure. Childhood is a period of critical organ development and fast growth. The brain growth spurt lasts all the way through age two, and once disruption occurs in the nervous system, it cannot be repaired. A child's natural defense mechanisms are not yet fully developed, especially during the first few months, and they are less able to break down certain toxins and excrete them. Molecules of many toxins, such as lead and other metals, are small enough to pass through the placenta to the fetus and can weaken or break down the protective screen of the blood-brain barrier.
This early exposure can cause subtle functional changes, says Solomon, "changes not in the appearance of the brain but in the way the brain works; changes not in the appearance of the internal organs but in the way those organs function."
Children are subject to social vulnerabilities as well, such as environmental injustice, poverty and malnutrition, which they are helpless to avoid or control. But we need not rely on this knowledge alone to spur parents, doctors, corporations and governments to action. The changing face of childhood illness is already clearly documented.
Asthma affects almost five million American children under 18 years of age, and it is the number one cause of school absenteeism in America, outranking even colds and flu. Incidence increased more than 92 percent from 1982 to 1994, according to the American Lung Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that asthma-induced deaths nearly doubled during this time.
Children's airways have smaller diameters, so a small amount of pollutants may significantly narrow them, causing serious problems for a child that may be only a mild irritation to adults. Triggers vary widely, from cigarette smoke and molds and mildews to the off-gassing of vinyl materials. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollutants, which in the short run can inflame the respiratory tract and lungs. In the long run, they can diminish lung function and the capacity to exercise, leading to increased rates of lung disease and cancer.
A greater metabolism means children need more oxygen relative to their size and body weight, causing them to breathe more rapidly and inhale more pollutants per pound. Their lungs continue to grow until the age of 20 -- development that can be thwarted by repeated exposure to pollutants.
Common air pollutants, such as emissions from cars, incinerators, chemical plants and refineries, and fine airborne particulates and smog, pose a special problem for urban children. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, asthma has become the leading cause of children's hospital admissions. In 1990 alone, asthma was estimated to cost the nation $6 billion in health care expenditures.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), cancer is the chief cause of death by disease in children under 15 years of age. In that group alone, an estimated 8,600 new cases and 1,500 deaths will occur in 2001. Thanks to better treatment, the death rate has dramatically declined (down 62 percent since 1960), but incidence has been climbing more than one percent a year for the past two decades.
Between 1973 and 1995, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) calculates that child brain and nervous system cancers increased 26 percent; acute lymphocytic leukemias grew 13.5 percent. These increases were even greater in children under five, where brain cancer rose 53 percent and leukemia 18 percent. In children so young, unhealthy lifestyles and diets are unlikely instigators; due to the rapidity of increase, so are genetic alterations.
Though improved detection may figure in, environmental causes may account for more than half of all cancers, says the ACS. Ionizing radiation and chemotherapy are the only proven causes of childhood leukemia, but other possible agents include radon, improper diet, solvents, tobacco smoke, alcohol, electromagnetic fields and infection. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 96 pesticides as potential human carcinogens, and one NCI study found that in children whose parents used store-bought home and garden pesticides, the rate of leukemia was four to seven times greater.
Hormones promote the normal development of many body functions, including those of the neurological, immune and reproductive systems. But some synthetic chemicals may mimic or block their function.
Pesticides, such as DDT, atrazine, chlordane and lindane, and industrial by-products like dioxin, furans and PCBs, have been identified as endocrine disruptors. These chemicals "biomagnify" in the food web and are "persistent," passing from generation to generation. A mother's lifetime exposure is stored in her body, where it affects all prenatal and early postnatal development. A child's exposure then continues through eating certain foods and breathing chemicals, and through behaviors such as crawling on contaminated surfaces and putting objects in her mouth.
Endocrine disruptors have been linked to testicular and ovarian cancer (which increased 78 and 65 percent, respectively, in U.S. teens between 1973 and 1995), a doubling in the male birth defect hypospadia (a deformed penis) and an increase in undescended and undersized testicles. A New Scientist study found that girls with the highest prenatal exposures to PCBs and dioxin entered puberty 11 months earlier than girls with lower exposures.
Of the three million babies born in the U.S. each year, 250,000 (seven percent) are born with birth defects either immediately apparent or appearing later in life. This figure has increased between 1970 and 1985 for 18 of the 27 most common birth defects, some by as much as 1,700 percent.
If we take a cue from recent wildlife phenomena, some of these cases could be attributed to environmental pollution, which may genetically damage eggs or sperm or interfere with hormones that control sexual development in the brain. Florida alligators exposed to organochlorine pesticides grew penises one-third their normal size; fish and fish-eating birds in the Great Lakes, where PCBs are persistent, grew abnormal thyroids.
A 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association study found that women occupationally exposed to organic solvents, such as factory workers, lab technicians and graphic designers, have a 13-fold increased chance of giving birth to a child with a major defect, including heart valve dysfunction, soft larynx cartilage, small penises and deafness. It was found that solvent-exposed women also suffered more miscarriages, and their babies had lower birth weights. Major components in lighter fluid, spot removers, aerosol sprays, paints, glues, cleaners and solvents -- like so much else -- can readily pass through the placenta to the fetus.
Impaired Mental Development
Educators and doctors have been slow to recognize that chemicals can also affect learning, says Theo Colburn, co-author of Our Stolen Future. "Some studies suggest that contaminants at levels currently found in the human population could impair mental development enough to cause a five-point loss in measurable IQ," she says. Even such a small drop in IQ could make a big difference in society -- affecting a person's ability to understand sophisticated problems.
Twelve million children under age 18 suffer from learning disabilities, reports the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), and behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Disorder -- other possible signs of low-level chemical exposure -- now affect one out of six U.S. children.
Some of the most insidious and well-documented chemical offenders include lead, mercury, PCBs and dioxin. Though these four are all federally regulated to some extent, 24 billion pounds of developmental and neurological toxins continue to be released in the U.S. each year, according to a recent report co-sponsored by the LDA. Only 1.2 billion pounds of these are reported to the EPA.
As we continue to gain technical understanding of the routes of exposure, we gain practical understanding of steps that will reduce risk. Even before they are born, you can create for your children a healthy growing environment. Taking folic acid before pregnancy can prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, which strike fetuses during the first few weeks. All women of childbearing age may also want to consider a simple blood test to ensure that their thyroid gland is functioning properly. "A baby's intelligence depends as much on levels of thyroid hormone reaching the brain during critical periods of development as on inheriting smart genes," says Colburn. In one Pediatric Research study, decreased thyroid hormone in pre-term and low-birth-weight babies in the first weeks was associated with an increased need for special education by age nine.
Reducing the amount of fatty foods eaten prior to pregnancy is also a good bet, as that lessens exposure to persistent chemicals like PCBs and dioxin. Americans now carry dioxin levels in their bodies hundreds of times greater than the "acceptable" cancer risk defined by the EPA, and 95 percent of that results from eating red meat, fish and dairy products.
Fish intake should be monitored in any case. The EPA now warns that 1.6 million women and children are at risk for mercury poisoning, as well as anyone consuming more than 30 pounds of fish per year. In fact, one out of every 10 U.S. women are at risk of having newborns with neurological problems due to mercury exposure in the womb, says a CDC study released earlier this year. Local freshwater advisories are helpful indicators. Pregnant women should avoid altogether certain carnivorous species such as swordfish, shark and tuna, which may hold exceptionally high levels of mercury contamination.
Feed a Cold...
Dr. Howard Mielke, an environmental toxicologist with Xavier University, says "nutritional deficiencies certainly contribute enormously to the problem." A deficiency in calcium, for one, can promote accumulation of lead in the digestive tract, bones, brain and kidneys, which may result in lead poisoning. A study by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey showed that nearly 60 percent of four- to eight-year-olds consume too little calcium. When exposed to lead in the environment, these children "may be faced with anemia, reduced IQ and learning difficulties as well as aggressive, violent and anti-social behavior," reports the study's co-author, Dr. John Bogden.
Even nutritious foods may carry hazards. In 1998, the USDA found pesticide residues in 55 percent of nearly 7,000 fruits and vegetables tested; 29 percent had residues of multiple pesticides. A 1999 Consumer Reports study analyzed government data on 27,000 samples of produce and computed toxicity scores for 27 foods. It found that one in 10 kids who eat Chilean grapes, four in 10 who eat U.S. peaches, and half of those who eat frozen U.S. winter squash will get more than the "safe" dose of a very toxic insecticide.
Edward Groth, director of Technical Policy and Public Service for the Consumers Union, is quick to point out that the report is "not about fearing food. It's about giving people information so they can make smart choices." He says parents should not feed their children any fewer fruits and vegetables, but they should shop wisely. He adds that they should also buy foods known to have lower pesticide levels and, when possible, locally grown, organic produce (which a 1998 Consumer Reports study found had little or no residues). Preparation is important, as well. Adults should wash and peel many foods, like apples, peaches and pears, since some chemicals tend to concentrate near the skin. And parents should diversify children's diets, spreading foods out over time, giving children's immune systems time to catch up with ingestion.
An even more effective approach may be to deliberately teach children about the links between their food and the environment, says Florence Rodale of the Rodale Institute. "Adults have already formed habits that are really hard to break," she says. "Children can be molded. If you place the right ideas in their minds, they will stick forever."
...Starve a Cupboard
Beyond just eating better food, "You can choose to have a healthy, less-toxic, less-allergenic household," writes Lynn Marie Bower in Creating a Healthy Household, a thorough guide published by the Healthy House Institute. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that 85 percent of U.S. households store at least one pesticide, and 47 percent of households with children under age five store at least one within their reach. Ridding cupboards of these chemicals is a good starting point. "All basic pest problems really come down to prevention," says Kagan Owens, program director of Beyond Pesticides. "Eliminate the things they're attracted to," she suggests, such as moisture under sinks and food scraps around counters and floors.
Integrated pest management (IPM) uses less toxic measures to defeat serious invasions and can be extended to the front yard, where children typically roll and play. Of the 34 most commonly used lawn chemicals, 11 cause cancer; 20, nervous system poisoning; nine, birth defects; and 30, skin irritation. Safer alternatives exist, but parents can also take strategic steps like planting native grasses more likely to resist local pests.
Little arms thrown around a family pet can pose a serious health threat, as most pet products contain organophosphate pesticides, which are connected to both short-term hospitalizations and long-term ramifications such as increased risk of Parkinson's disease. According to EPA research, a child can surpass the safe level of exposure by 500 times on the day of a flea treatment. The NRDC suggests combining simple physical measures, like regularly washing and brushing pets and mowing pet-frequented areas, with safer, non-pesticide products or new spot applications.
Returning from school with a headache and sore throat may signify an ordinary childhood bug, but it could also betray a much bigger problem. A 1999 U.S. General Accounting Office report confirms that 2,300 people were treated for pesticide poisonings that occurred at school between 1993 and 1996, although little information is available on either the amount or type of pesticides used in the nation's 110,000 public schools. It's no surprise then that most parents have no idea what their school's pesticide policy is. Opening dialogue with school officials may lead to advance notification of pesticide use, or the restriction of the most potent pesticides in favor of less-toxic IPM techniques.
Don't Stop There
"Though mean lead levels continue to decline, they remain a crushing reality for the highest-risk populations," says Don Ryan of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Drinking water continues to carry lead from old plumbing, and 50 million housing units, including most homes built before 1960, still have lead paint on interior walls -- a major source of exposure. And though lead was phased out of gasoline in the 1980s, it persists in soil, especially in urban areas with high traffic. The CDC recommends that all children living with such risk factors have their blood lead levels tested at 12 months and 24 months.
"It's a disgrace that one-third of preschool children in some neighborhoods are at risk," says Ryan. To limit the hazards, inspect your home for peeling paint, but don't attempt to remove it yourself. Old paint is often better sealed off with a fresh coat. A simple home kit will measure lead levels in dust. You can also regularly wipe down surfaces and floors and clean children's hands and toys. Lead continues to pervade some consumer products, such as mini-blinds, calcium supplements, antacids and hair dyes, so always check product labels.
Other steps to consider:
Replace old thermometers with new, mercury-free varieties. Mercury released from broken thermometers may enter the water supply through drains or volatilize into indoor air. In 1998, more than 18,000 calls were made to poison control centers and emergency rooms because of them.
Even though the Consumer Product Safety Commission asked manufacturers two years ago to voluntarily eliminate phthalates (a chemical added to soften PVC, or vinyl plastic) from toys likely to be chewed by children, many products still contain high levels. Using cloth, wooden or non-PVC toys and teethers will help avoid direct exposure to these "probable human carcinogens," which are also linked to liver and kidney damage.
Studies have shown that clear plastics, including baby bottles, can leach an estrogen mimic into hot liquids. Choose opaque, tinted or glass varieties, and promptly replace worn, scratched bottles.
Have your tap water tested and filtered. American tap water has been found to contain microorganisms, arsenic, radon, lead and pesticides, and children consume two and a half times more water as a percentage of body weight than adults. The journal Epidemiology reported that an increased risk of birth defects is strongly associated with unfiltered and polluted tap water.
"About 85 percent of people with asthma also have allergies," says clinical allergist Dr. Jeff Wald. Controlling your home environment will help, he says. To stave off dust mites and animal dander, vacuum carpets and launder bedding and curtains frequently. To battle molds and mildews, ventilate rooms when showering and cooking, and use a dehumidifier on humid days. For severe asthma, watch for the local ground-level ozone warnings that are often reported in the news.
Secondhand tobacco smoke exposes children to some 4,000 substances, more than 40 of which are known cancer-causers in human beings or animals. In fact, environmental tobacco smoke is responsible for 150,000 to 300,000 lower respiratory infections a year (and 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations) in those younger than 18 months old. It aggravates asthma in as many as one million kids a year and has even been suspected to increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which annually claims as many as 7,000 young lives.
Perchloroethylene (PCE), a solvent used in dry cleaning, is a neurotoxin also linked to liver and bladder cancer. It concentrates threefold in breast milk and can lead to jaundice in infants. Environmentally benign wet cleaning, on the other hand, does not cause fabric to off-gas chemicals or facilitate the release of PCE into groundwater.
When selecting wood for playgrounds and decks, avoid lumber that was pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenic (CCA). Unsafe levels of arsenic can leach out of the wood, onto children's hands and into soil. Though it has been banned or restricted by nine other countries, many major retailers in the U.S. still sell it in playscapes and picnic tables.
Parents should not, however, try to place the entire toxic burden upon their own shoulders. "Not only is it overwhelming, but it's not the right way to solve things in our society," says Daniel Swartz, executive director of the Children's Environmental Health Network. "The government needs to take an active, strong role. We need to set safe standards."
Jennifer Bogo is a former managing editor of E Magazine.
There's no question about it, bottled water has become a hot commodity. Americans pay $4 billion dollars a year for the privilege of drinking it. Sales of bottled water have grown nine-fold in the past 20 years, and tripled in the last 10, making it the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry. A third of the people who buy bottled water do so because they trust that it comes from a clean source, according to a 2000 consumer usage survey. But is the fragmented system that regulates bottled water really able to give people the peace of mind they pay for?
While the quality of public water supplies is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bottled water that crosses state lines is regulated as a food product by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). City water supplies must assess sources of potential contaminants, but federal rules specify no requirements, like setbacks from dumps, industrial facilities or underground storage tanks, for the protection of bottled water sources. What's more, if the bottles are packaged and sold within the same state, as 60 to 70 percent of U.S. bottled waters are, they are subject only to state standards, which vary widely from each other and from federal guidelines.
Disinfection to eliminate chemical and microbiological contaminants has become common practice as a result. Although bottlers are not required to do so by the FDA, disinfection is required by at least five states, including such water-guzzlers as New York, California and Texas, making it an unavoidable step to marketing a national product. But a loophole has recently allowed one bottler to divorce itself from this system of inconsistent state and federal rules. By letting the quality of its water speak for itself, Trinity Springs is raising fundamental questions about the condition of all groundwater.
Water packaged under the Trinity Springs name flows in Paradise, Idaho, from a group of three geothermal hot springs, which rise through a crystal-lined granite batholith from 2.2 miles below the surface. Carbon dating places it at over 16,000 years old, and at its deepest it is heated to a temperature of over 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The absence of tritium, a ubiquitous product of fallout from nuclear testing in the 1940s, indicates its unusual isolation from surface waters and any other potential contaminants such exposed waters may carry.
After extensive contamination testing that exceeded both FDA and EPA standards, and is ongoing, Trinity decided that it wasn't necessary to disinfect its water. High levels of naturally occurring minerals -- silica and fluoride -- have instead allowed the product to find a home as a dietary supplement under the 1997 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. As the first and only spring source to take that approach, Trinity has raised eyebrows in at least eight states. None more so than in Texas, which outright embargoed the brand in July -- first for selling what appeared to be a non-disinfected bottled water within state lines, then for technicalities on the font-size of its mineral supplement label.
Why not just save itself the legal headache and disinfect for national distribution? "When you inject a high quantity of disinfectants, it creates a blank palette, destroying any naturally beneficial bacteria as well," says Mark Johnson, founder of Trinity Springs.
And besides microbes, good or bad, nitrogen, pesticides, solvents and arsenic have also been detected throughout groundwater supplies, and have subsequently found their way into bottles, regardless of disinfection. A third of the 103 bottled water brands tested in a four-year scientific study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) contained such contaminants in at least some samples, at levels that exceed state or industry standards. The results point out the limitations of an end-of-pipe solution to water-quality problems.
Chemicals typically used to disinfect water may react unpredictably with such substances, adding their own potentially dangerous element, as well. Chlorination, which can create byproducts suspected to be carcinogenic, is used primarily on municipal water supplies (from which 25 percent of bottled are actually sourced). Most bottlers use processing methods like reverse osmosis, filtration, ultraviolet light and treatment with ozone gas. Although ozone does create far fewer byproducts than chlorine, it may react to produce bromate, which in EPA studies has been shown to cause cancer in rats.
"Water has been commoditized, and the standards dumbed down to benefit large bottlers," says Johnson. "You can get away with a lot when you disinfect water. If you don't disinfect, you must protect the source and increase environmental awareness so that the source stays protected."
The need to protect our water supply is more important now than ever, with an additional three billion people likely to press its limits over the next 50 years, says the Worldwatch Institute. Groundwater pollution is essentially permanent, because it recycles slowly, remaining in aquifers for an average of 1,400 years. It's also exceedingly expensive -- initial cleanup of contaminated groundwater at some 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years, says the National Research Council.
"Obviously, the right thing to do is to have very strong protection of source water so that it's pristine, constantly monitor it and have public disclosure of test results on the label," says Eric Olson, lead author of the 1999 NRDC report. Labels on bottled waters now are misleading, says Olson. The FDA requires the disclosure of only three things: the class of water (such as spring or mineral), the manufacturer and the volume. "Consumers are most worried about paying good money for water that comes from a pristine source," Olson says, "while it may really be pulled from sources like the Akron water system."
It's a consumer-driven industry, says Bill Miller, president of the National Spring Water Association. "There are people who won't protect the source until it becomes necessary to keep from driving consumers away, and others who feel it's the right thing to do. Patronizing the companies that produce a high-quality product," says Miller, "will give them the income and ability to protect that source."
"We're a little mosquito on the back hide of this $19 billion elephant," says Bill Sheehan, national coordinator of the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), of the nonprofit advocacy group's relationship with Coca-Cola. Ever since the soft drink giant abandoned the use of recycled material in its plastic containers six years ago, GRRN has been steadily gnawing away at Coke's corporate image.
Coke's 1990 promise to use 25 percent post-consumer recycled plastic content in bottles sold in the U.S. was a considerable step in the right direction for the industry leader, which four years later took one giant leap backwards. Although it continues to use recycled plastic in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden, and even refillable bottles in France and Latin America, it reverted to relying entirely on virgin plastic for the U.S. market in 1994, while simultaneously introducing a single-serve 20-ounce bottle which incorporates more plastic still.
GRRN blames backsliding by Coca-Cola for the plummeting rate of recycling plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) soda bottles -- from 53 percent in 1994 to 35.6 percent in 1998. Over 25 million of the PET Coke bottles are sold every day, totaling 10 billion bottles. That's 800 million pounds of virgin plastic, land-filled each year -- plastic that could otherwise be incorporated into the manufacture of pillow stuffing, fleece jackets, carpets, auto parts, or more importantly, reformed into plastic Coke bottles, closing the manufacturing loop.
Closing the loop is something that GRRN, founded in 1996 as a North American network of recycling activists, is determined to see happen. "This is more important than just a big bunch of plastic bottles," says Sheehan. "It's a way of raising the issue of the need for corporate accountability for waste, and the need for extended producer responsibility."
Coca-Cola is not alone in its negligent corporate policy. Pepsi made the same promise, and likewise hasn't followed through. And while the American Plastics Council abandoned its goal to recycle 25 percent of rigid containers in 1996, citing cost, it spent $20 million to advertise the benefits of plastic that same year. "There are responsibilities that go along with leadership," reminds Sheehan, "and Coke's the market leader. It's being irresponsible, and if the company wants to do that, it has to be prepared to deal with the consequences."
"Think before you drink Coca-Cola" was the message delivered in full-page ads in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, urging consumers to call a company hotline and mail crushed two-liter bottles back with the message to "Use it again!" Long-distance phone company Working Assets also joined the campaign, printing action alerts on the phone bills of over 300,000 customers; local governments in Florida, Minnesota and California passed resolutions targeting Coke's recycling waste; and socially responsible investors such as The As You Sow Foundation have asked the company to stop its ardent lobbying against bottle bills. (In bottle bill states, 78 percent of beer and soda containers are recovered, as opposed to 38 percent elsewhere.)
GRRN's Coke campaign has most recently added the momentum of a "dirty job boycott" from students at 150 universities, and a 20-foot inflatable Coke bottle that has made appearances across the country at events from the Washington, D.C. Earth Day rally to the Superbowl.
According to GRRN, Coke could produce a 20-ounce bottle made with 25 percent recycled plastic for only about a 10th of a cent more than virgin plastic, using recycling techniques already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Yet in March, the only concession from the company was to up its recycled content to 2.5 percent.
As the battle with Coke continues, GRRN has tackled a few other recycling offenders: Miller Brewing, for instance, which began test-marketing an amber-colored plastic beer bottle with aluminum caps and metalized labels in 1998.
The huge problem this poses for recycling systems burdened by sorting the colored bottles has inspired the support of local governments. The city of Los Angeles passed a resolution in February, requesting that Miller not only resolve the recycling issue before further marketing its bottle, and incorporate 25 percent recycled plastic into the manufacture, but for the city's Bureau of Sanitation to give Miller the bill that taxpayers would likely have to foot for recycling problems.
Along with Friends of the Earth, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Chicago-based Sustain, the nonprofit is taking on the federal government as well, charging that Congress runs one of the most poorly managed recycling programs in the U.S., and demanding that the nation's leaders at the very least play catch-up with the recycling practices of the rest of the country.
"Congress should be the role model for the nation on recycling; we shouldn't be asking the country to increase their recycling efforts when we do nothing to advance our own," agreed Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, noting that Congressional offices are not required to comply with even the minimum standards for separating trash.
According to the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, three-quarters of the waste collected in House buildings last year -- nearly five million pounds of paper -- was too contaminated with food waste, metals, glass, plastics and medical waste to recycle. House leadership had eliminated recycling requirements in the fiscal year 2000 Legislative Appropriations Bill, costing U.S. citizens the loss of recycling revenue (an estimated $300,000 last year) and the added expense of landfill fees.
Corporate and Congressional offenders alike are still but building blocks to GRRN's larger goal: to eliminate waste at the source, rather than manage its outcome. The organization has been spearheading the North American arm of a growing international movement that promotes Zero Waste, a radical resource efficiency that comes about through reducing consumption and maximizing reuse and recycling.
"The power of GRRN is that it doesn't have to compromise," says Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, the largest nonprofit recycler in the U.S. "GRRN is a group of people from the trenches, not your ivory tower types, who know you change the world one company, one electoral office, one country at a time."
If the goal of Zero Waste were as aggressively pursued in the U.S. as it is elsewhere (Canberra, Australia has aimed to eliminate waste completely by 2010), it could have big ramifications, not only for land use, but for climate change as well. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cutting the amount of waste created in the U.S. back to 1990 levels, and increasing our national recycling rate from its current level of 28 percent to 35 percent, would slash greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to that produced by the annual electricity consumption of roughly 11 million households, or by taking seven million cars off the road.
Although increasing recycling rates is certainly a priority, GRRN is looking beyond the weight of a few billion containers to a much larger -- and heavier -- issue.
The American supermarket has always offered a virtual cornucopia of goods, but never before has the selection been quite so eclectic, or so green. Scan the shelves today and find toothpaste that contains no saccharin, preservatives or dyes and comes in 100 percent recycled paperboard packaging; vegetable-based, biodegradable, chlorine-free laundry detergent; a colorful array of organic yogurts and ice cream that comes in unbleached paper pints. Flip through a catalog for flashlights and radios that generate their own electricity, or fleeces made from the soda bottles you may have recycled on your very own curb. Pick up the phone to call Grandma, and your long distance company automatically donates money to a worthy nonprofit.
Only 30 years ago, "green business" was a sleepy backwater, presided over by relatively moribund firms that catered to a small cult of "health fanatics." The products themselves were poorly marketed, expensive, and often ineffective in use. But the new generation of companies -- including Tom's of Maine, Seventh Generation, Stonyfield Farms, Ben & Jerry's, Real Goods, Patagonia and Working Assets -- was smarter than that. They aimed their products at mainstream consumers, and went head-to-head in quality with established supermarket brands. In time, they were able to compete in price as well, breaking down one of the last consumer resistance barriers. The result has been incredible growth of a category that barely existed 30 years ago. This is now a $7.9 billion industry, with a large and devoted consumer base.
The bewildering array of exhibitors that gather each year for the "Eco-Expos" on either coast are proof-positive of this retail phenomenon. The Expo-West, held in Anaheim, California this past March, boasted over 2,400 booths showcasing natural products from organic textiles to pet shampoos, and drew 30,000 attendees. "People come thinking it'll be a cottage industry," says Susan Benanati, vice president of marketing for New Hope Natural Media, which organizes the event. "And they get blown away."
The Novelty of It All
The sheer novelty of the new products has helped secure their place in the mainstream marketplace. Once there, the results have been impressive. Stonyfield Farms, the nation's fastest-growing yogurt company, is now number five in the country, according to Food Processing. But CEO Gary Hirshberg recalls a time when, fresh from milking the cows, he would literally kick the manure off his boots and walk into meetings with retailers. "We found our way onto the shelves with a combination of chutzpah and naivete," says Hirshberg, still somewhat amazed. "The reason we got there is that they saw we were offering something different, a little curious and even weird to them. They didn't buy into our politics or even care."
But the popularity of such "curious" products is sweeping the politics along, to the great good fortune of local communities and the environment. Stonyfield, for instance, awards grants to dairy farmers to promote sustainable agriculture, prints environmental messages on yogurt lids, and donates 10 percent of profits to efforts like organic farming associations and environmental radio. Stonyfield also began the daunting task of reducing its contribution to global warming, and is now offsetting 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 100 percent of its emissions, with reforestation projects.
Now a printed guide, Stonyfield's Carbon Cookbook is distributed to help other businesses make similar environmental choices. The White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the first restaurant in the Chefs Collaborative, a growing coalition that encourages restaurant owners to buy directly from local farmers, to use it to measure and offset its carbon emissions as well. The Cookbook is one more proactive tool for owner Judy Wicks, who already buys alternative power, ensuring that 44 percent of the cafe's electricity comes directly from windmills. Restaurants, she feels, are an especially effective business medium for reaching outside the choir of established activists to deliver an environmental message.
"We like to say we use good food to lure innocent customers into social activism," Wicks half jokes. Besides great locally and organically grown meals, the cafe serves up eco-tours, which this year will take customers into the countryside with a regional planner to examine the effects of urban sprawl; an annual Farmer Sunday Supper, each course of which is dedicated to a local farmer who discusses issues that affect the farm; and table talks, which feature speakers on issues from biotechnology to globalization. "By being outspoken about what we believe in, we develop a community of like-minded people who share our values," says Wicks.
And that community is making its presence known. "Our customers don't just like our ice cream -- they like what our company stands for. They like how doing business with us makes them feel," write Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in Ben & Jerry's Double Dip, a written testament to the popularity, and profitability, of socially responsible business. "Our experience is that you don't have to sacrifice social involvement on the altar of maximized profits. One builds on the other." The concept of being a values-led business has grown from an outlandish dream for idealistic entrepreneurs to a reality whose roots are cemented firmly in the marketplace.
From Market Niche to Mainstream
This retail phenomenon is perhaps nowhere so obvious as in natural food stores, once an anomaly on the retail landscape, but now within a short drive of most Americans, and doing $1 million in business. They're also dealing in much more than just granola. In 1999 alone, according to SPINS data, environmentally friendly paper products like toilet paper, paper towels and coffee filters experienced tremendous growth in natural stores, jumping 20 percent in sales. Likewise, personal care items like feminine products and baby diapers leapt 26 percent and household cleaners, near 30 percent.
Once content to let customers swing by the natural food store down the street to pick up alternative items, supermarkets have since realized that people began buying their household staples there, too. The result is the invasion of natural products to mainstream grocery aisles, a concerted effort from retailers to lure wayward shoppers back. "People who buy natural products are no longer a handful of consumers committed to environmental ideals," says Laurie Demerritt, vice president of marketing for the Hartman Group. "That dedicated group of individuals is diffusing into the marketplace."
Last year, a Hartman survey of 26,000 consumers revealed that close to a third had purchased organic foods or products in the last three months, 60 percent were open to the idea, and only 10 percent were disinterested. This represents a dramatic change from just two years prior, when 40 percent would not even consider broadening their shopping horizons. Despite the burgeoning interest in natural products, brand loyalty hasn't necessarily followed suit. Over 80 percent of the organic food buyers surveyed couldn't name a single brand, while some named mainstream products like Cheerios.
This response has been eye-opening for environmentalists, who are amazed to learn how far green thinking has penetrated into mainstream shopping, and it's also meant an open door for new companies trying to work their way in. The recognition will come, assures Demerritt. In the meantime, people continue to put their money for products they see as better for them -- and as time passes other attributes will likely become important as well.
Armed with the proper tools, shoppers are already making this transition apparent. The Council on Economic Priorities' Shopping for a Better World ranks brand-name products according to social-conscious categories like hiring practices, corporate giving and environmental policy, assuring consumers that their purchase of toothpaste or breakfast cereal is truly reinforcing positive values. The book, which has sold over a million copies since its first printing in 1988, has found its listings translated directly into marketplace behavior. Four out of every five of the book's readers say it has influenced their choices in the supermarket enough to switch brands.
In turn, companies are realizing that people will pay more for a product they can believe in. According to the 1999 Roper Starch Green Gauge report, people will spend nearly eight percent above and beyond the cost of the item for energy-efficient major appliances, and six percent more for electricity-saving home computers. They will shell out close to another six percent for biodegradable plastic packaging, recycled-paper products and cars that are a third less polluting.
And while it would be foolish not to cash in on the growing consumer consciousness and higher price premiums that frequently go hand-in-hand, environmental improvements often save corporate headquarters money, too. Reducing use of raw materials saved Xerox $45 million in 1998, as more than 72,000 tons of old machines were recycled or refurbished by the company. A recently introduced 97 percent recyclable photocopier not only exceeds all standards for energy efficiency, but is expected to save $1 billion through long-term remanufacturing of reusable parts.
Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest beer brewing company, is expecting to save 500 million gallons of water and $60 million a year by reducing utility usage. BankAmerica, the largest small business lender in the U.S., saved $7.1 million by reconditioning and reissuing more than 35,000 pieces of equipment, everything from typewriters to ATMs. Perrigo, a leading manufacturer of store brand pharmaceuticals, improved indoor air quality and saved $35,000 a year simply by switching to environmentally benign cleaning products for its facilities.
And renewed corporate commitment to environmentally preferable goods and services has only served to strengthen their growing market. Imagine, for instance, the potential effect on supply when McDonald's, the world's largest food retailer with over 24,000 restaurants, spends more than $3 billion on recycled-content products, from playground equipment to tray liners, as it has since 1990. Or when the U.S. federal government, the single largest consumer in the world, mandates that federal agencies identify and purchase products that create less of a burden on the environment, as a 1998 Executive Order requires.
A Chair at the Table
As added incentive, shareholder money is increasingly being funneled toward the companies with the best social and environmental records. Socially responsible investing (SRI) allows people to divert financial support from companies with questionable corporate practices and reward those that act responsibly. According to the Social Investment Forum, more than $2 trillion is invested in the U.S. in a socially responsible manner, up 82 percent from 1997. That's one dollar of every eight under management in the United States.
Even Greenpeace, famous for dramatic direct-action stunts like scaling buildings to hang banners and blockading whaling vessels with rubber rafts, has taken to the boardroom. In March, the international nonprofit bought 4,400 shares of oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell, and proposed in its annual shareholder meeting that Shell build a solar panel factory capable of producing five million panels a year, enough to equip 250,000 homes with a two-kilowatt system. Greenpeace's appeal was not to the company's social conscience, but to its bottom line. A report commissioned by the environmental action group estimates investment in the solar factory would garner a 15 percent return, more than the average profit of Shell's activity in oil and gas.
"It's not about whether you own stock A or B, but making stock A or B better companies." says Patick McVeigh, executive vice president with Trillium Asset Management. Trillium not only screens for the good and bad actors in the environmental community, but advocates on the part of its investors, most recently joining in the successful effort to pressure Home Depot over the use of old-growth lumber. "Pulling money is a last resort," says McVeigh. "If we are invested we feel we have a responsibility to insure they are operating in fashion we're comfortable with, and will raise our voices if they're falling short."
The collective voice of socially responsible investors resulted in 220 shareholder resolutions filed in more than 150 U.S. companies in 1999. Some 54 directly requested environmental improvements, such as the long-term phase out of chlorine-bleached paper, an immediate halt to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and detailed reports on emissions of greenhouse gases.
Last year, of the more than 175 separate socially screened mutual funds in the U.S., 79 percent included screens for environmental criteria. One of the newest, Portfolio 21, raises the bar even higher by investing money only in those companies that incorporate sustainability into the core of their business practices. A year of research and 1,500 company analyses later, a narrow field of 30 made the rigorous cut. Astropower, which produces solar energy cells that are more efficient and cheaper to run than its competitors; and Sony, which has scored breakthroughs in energy efficiency and plans to make every product environmentally sensitive by the end of 2000, are two which meet its standards.
Hewson Batzell, CEO of Innovest, a New York City investment advisory firm, believes that regardless of the industry sector, the companies with the best environmental performance have the best financial future. "If you're a nice person it doesn't matter," Batzell says, "but you will ultimately be ahead of competitors, and be able to make strategic moves faster." So far the numbers are proving him right. From 1997 to 1999, the assets from all of the socially responsible investments grew at twice the rate of all assets in the United States.
Taking a Natural Step
"We're at an interesting place," says Carsten Henningsen, chairman of Portfolio 21. "It's a place where ecology and economy come together, where doing what's right for the planet also becomes a financial advantage." A fresh focus on product design, energy efficiency, materials consumption and waste management is making it clear that environmental considerations are more than just green business, they're good business. Perhaps this is the biggest revolution in business today -- the one that's sweeping established corporations in all industry sectors.
The most wholehearted of these companies follow a philosophy called The Natural Step, developed by Swedish cancer doctor Karl-Henrik Robert in 1989. The Natural Step, which has since become an international movement, offers a framework for incorporating sustainable practices into existing cycles, revolutionizing business from the floor of the board room to the floor of the shop. It acknowledges that there are important economic benefits to be gained by learning to operate in harmony with nature, and significant consequences to hitting her limits.
International furniture-maker IKEA was the first major corporation to adopt The Natural Step 10 years ago. For a $7 billion company with over 40,000 workers and 150 stores in 28 countries, this is no minor goal. And the effects of completely realigning a large corporation with environmental goals (from the common-sense approach of building longer-lasting products with stricter standards and incorporating green principles into store design to training thousands of employees in environmental awareness) is not minor, either. "It is not enough to be friendly toward the environment," says Anders Moberg, IKEA's president. "We must adapt to it."
The principle of adapting to and imitating the cycles of nature has also inspired a shift from flat product sales to a continuous flow of services, focusing on the customer's needs while inspiring a higher quality and durability of goods. Interface, one of the best examples, has created a carpet that uses 35 percent less material with twice the life span. In a new leasing arrangement, the company owns the carpet but replaces tiles as they wear out, both reducing 97 percent of the resource flow and tripling profits.
Electrolux, Swedish maker of solar-powered lawnmowers and extremely water-efficient home appliances (its dishwasher uses less than four gallons per cycle), has likewise given away 7,000 washing machines to homes on the Swedish island of Gotland. The company instead charges for each load of laundry washed, promoting more efficient behavior, and ultimately conserving water and energy.
The success stories are setting an example none too soon. Every year, another 50 trillion pounds of waste is created by the U.S. alone, less than two percent of which is recycled. Add in wastewater, and the total tops 250 trillion. Every hour 5,000 acres of forest cover disappear and every second, 750 metric tons of topsoil are lost. Over the past century, the surface of the Earth has warmed one degree, aided by the 6.5 billion tons of carbon that are each year converted to a greenhouse gas. And this century, population will once again double, but resources per person will drop by one-half to three-fourths.
Until recently, "these issues were not mere straws but wet hay bales that would break the backs of the whole team of camels," says Paul Hawken, author of Natural Capitalism.
But Hawken predicts we are on the verge of another industrial revolution, one based on the value of natural resources as well as economic ones. "For every company that has publicly committed to this path, a dozen more are watching and studying," says Hawken. "Their success, and every move they make toward sustainability, will greatly influence and determine the future of this planet."
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Unfortunately, not all environmental claims can be taken at face value. Americans are more likely to conduct business with companies that support strong causes like environmental protection, reveals a Cone/Roper report. A majority of 61 percent would like to see those ethics communicated in the companies' marketing, and so many are putting it there, regardless of their ability to back it up. Earth Day 2000's "Don't Be Fooled" report (www.earth-day2000.org) highlights the worst of this past year's "greenwashers," companies that make false or misleading environmental claims. The practice has become so well documented in recent years that the term "greenwash" now shows up in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.
And being a "true blue green" company is no guarantee of success. Three of the most environmentally sound toilet papers have all been "recycled" in recent years, falling victim to low consumer demand. Just as they started to achieve recognition, Ashdun Industries' CARE products bowed to the marketing clout and instant retail dominance of mainstream competitors like Proctor and Gamble's Brawny paper towel. Two independent and "green" magazines, Buzzworm and Garbage, also found it too tough to compete. "The readership of all the environmental magazines in the world combined isn't a fraction of that of TV Guide or People," says E Magazine's publisher, Doug Moss. "While a majority of Americans are self-proclaimed environmentalists, few connect caring for the planet with consumer-driven lifestyles."
That may soon change. Struggling enterprise may find solace in growing support systems like the Social Venture Network, and its Social Venture Institute, founded by Hirshberg in 1996 to mentor green businesses. They may find solidarity in the membership list of Businesses for Social Responsibility which has more than 1,400 affiliates, including American Express, General Motors, Time Warner and Wal-Mart.
And they may take comfort in the new generation of business leaders, led in part by the student-driven network of business graduate students, Net Impact. By reassessing the traditional career path of corporate leadership, these future CEOs plan to make social values an integral part of the new economy -- an economy which, according to Managing Director Daniel O'Connor, "situates business within the context of an evolving humanity, not as an end in itself, but as a means to a better way of life for all."
Jennifer Bogo is associate editor of E, The Environmental Magazine, where this article first appeared.