Friday, February 10, 2006

Industrial Nutrient Content

Joel Makower's recent article posted on GreenBiz about Timberland's new "nutritional label" started my thoughts spinning back to my readings on sustainable manufacturing methods. In fact, the concept of Industrial Nutrients first came to my attention as I read "Cradle to Cradle" by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart a few years ago.

Timberland, perhaps better known in some circles as the outfitter of trendy urban teens, is also well-known for its efforts at social responsibility. The program, revealed in another GreenBiz article, Timberland Introduces New Packaging Initiative, as well as the Timberland website, is anothe step in providing production information to consumers. Consumers that have a strong desire to support a company that strives to minimize its impact will no doubt benefit by such labeling.

The problem, as Joel points out in his article, is that few people will understand what the measures of energy used to manufacture the product means. To make an embodied energy measure make sense, one would have to relate it to something people understand on a daily basis. Perhaps equating the energy in the shoe to how long you could run your refrigerator, or television, or hair dryer on that amount of energy. On the other hand, the fact that they are providing this information may motivate some consumers to look into energy use and renewable energy. It also puts them ahead of the game, assuming more companies feel the need to provide this information and reduce their energy use.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a coworker some time ago as we solved the world's problem of the day. What he suggested was a global currency based on energy. Instead of paying with Andrew Jackson or George Washington, we would have an electronic card that linked to an account that stored "watts" of currency. It makes sense. Every good or service requires energy in its manufacture and delivery. The computer I am typing on contains components built from raw materials sourced from all over the world. As the product comes together, the costs and prices of the components are inherently valued with an energy component, though it is monetized in a different form of currency. To make the system more complete and accurate, the valuation would also incorporate any impacts on the environment that add a social cost or reduce the value of natural capital. Perhaps the carbon trading schemes that have been proposed over the past twenty years would mesh nicely with a currency based upon energy.

As I am not an environmental economist, I am unfamiliar with how the harvest of wood or the mining of iron ore would be valued as a "cost" to the natural world. Since I am also not an international currency trader, I have no foundation for how "watts" would be valued across borders. Would goods produced with energy from Nigeria have a different value than the same goods produced with energy from Canada? I suppose the country of production would not be so important as how the energy was produced and how it impacted the ecosphere. Have I just developed a thesis?

My thoughts also turned back to my involvement with the AltWheels Transportation Festival. One of the ideas we had was to provide the same form of label for the cars, trucks, and bicycles that were on display at the event, with a relative comparison of emissions between the vehicles. When people see the difference in the amount of "something" and they know the "something" is bad (in this case carbon emissions), they may have a stronger understanding and potentially a reaction.

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