Over the past decade, a loose-knit group of environmental activists,
progressive business people and government officials has developed a
new concept for sustainable living. It is called "clean production" and
it is an exciting idea because it offers hope in a world of bad news,
and it offers activists something to be FOR instead of AGAINST.
Until now, it has not been clear exactly what the phrase "clean
production" might mean. Some people speak of "industrial ecology" while
others discuss "zero waste systems." Now, FINALLY, a new organization
in Canada, called Clean Production Action, has published a first-rate
CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO CLEAN PRODUCTION and suddenly everything is
clear. Written by Beverley Thorpe, the CITIZEN'S GUIDE tells us
what "clean production" is, why it is important, what organizations are
working to achieve it, and the main strategies that citizens can pursue
at the local level to promote the needed shift to clean production.
Here we are quoting Beverley Thorpe:
What is Clean Production?
Clean Production is not just about producing things in factories in
a "clean or cleaner way" as some people think. Instead it is a holistic
way of looking at how our design and consumption of products is causing
severe ecological problems. Clean production offers a way to reverse
our current non-sustainable use of materials and energy.
Clean Production is rooted within circular concepts of product life
** implements the Precautionary Approach to material selection and
system and product design [see REHW #586];
** questions the need for products in the first place;
** designs products for durability and reuse;
** minimizes the use of renewable energy, water and raw materials;
** uses non-toxic or safer inputs in production processes;
** re-circulates ecologically safe materials;
** reduces consumption in current material-intensive economies while
maintaining quality of life and materials;
** assures sustainable work;
** protects biological and social diversity;
Clean Production ultimately means the use of renewable energy and
materials, the minimal use of resources, the design of sustainable
products, the production of sustainable food and the generation of
waste that is benign and returnable back into the process.
Clean Production begins with a systems look at material flows in
society. In particular it looks at the Product Chain: where raw
materials come from, how and where they are processed, what wastes are
generated along the product chain, what products are made from the
materials and what happens to these products during their use and at
the end of their commercial life.
It also questions the need for the product itself. Often the service
that the product provides can be supplied by other means, using less
consumption of materials and energy.
For example, one-use aluminum beverage cans -- even if they are
recycled -- are highly energy intensive and displace tons of minerals
in bauxite mining compared to refillable glass bottles that are reused
on a local basis. Similarly, good reliable public transport is more
efficient than cars because it moves more people with the same amount
of resources and energy. Better still, we can redesign our systems of
habitation to be even more effective. We can design cities and towns to
incorporate a mix of residential, commercial and retail service that
reduces the need to move from the suburb into the city and back every
The Four Elements of Clean Production
According to various definitions developed over the years, there are
four main elements that make up the concept of Clean Production:
1. The Precautionary Approach
When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human
health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and
effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. [See
REHW #586.] This places the burden of proof on proponents of an
activity to prove there is no safer way of proceeding, rather than on
victims or potential victims of the activity to prove it will be
2. The Preventive Approach
It is cheaper and more effective to prevent environmental damage than
to attempt to manage or "cure" it. Prevention requires examining the
entire product life cycle from raw material extraction to ultimate
disposal. It encourages the exploration of safer alternatives and the
development of cleaner products and technologies. For example,
prevention requires process and product changes to entirely avoid the
generation of incinerable waste streams by designing non-toxic products
made from materials that can be safely recycled or composted.
3. Democratic Control
Clean Production involves all those affected by industrial activities,
including workers, consumers and communities. Access to information and
involvement in decision-making, coupled with power and resources, will
help to ensure democratic control. Clean Production can only be
implemented with the full involvement of workers and consumers within
the product chain.
4. Integrated and Holistic Approach
Society must adopt an integrated approach to environmental resource use
and consumption. We need to think in a systems way. For each product we
buy, we need to have information accessible about the materials, energy
and people involved in making it. Access to this information would help
build alliances for sustainable production and consumption. Integration
also means taking a holistic approach whereby we don't shift risks
between media or the environment and workers or consumers and don't
create new problems while addressing an older one (e.g., genetic
engineered plants as a replacement for pesticides).
Clean Production Criteria
1. Clean Production systems for food and manufactured products are
** Energy efficient;
** Made using renewable materials which are routinely replenished and
extracted in a manner that maintains the viability of the ecosystem and
community from which they were taken;
** Made from non-renewable materials previously extracted but able to
be reprocessed in an energy efficient and non-toxic manner.
2. The products are
** Durable and reusable;
** Easy to dismantle, repair and rebuild;
** Minimally and appropriately packaged for distribution using reusable
or recycled and recyclable materials; or
** compostable at the end of their life.
3. Above all, Clean Production systems
** Are non-polluting throughout their entire life cycle;
** Preserve diversity in nature and culture;
** Support the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
4. The life-cycle includes
** The product/^technology design phase;
** The raw material selection and production phase;
** The product manufacture and assemblage phase;
** The consumer use of the product phase;
** The societal management of the materials at the end of the useful
life of the product.
[Now we skip two excellent sections of the CITIZEN'S GUIDE, the 8
reasons why clean production is important, and a brief section
describing some key actors in the field of clean production research
and advocacy. The CITIZEN'S GUIDE then describes 5 strategies that
activists can use:]
1. Measuring Resource Use and Working to Reduce Materials and Waste
Several methods exist for advocates to measure resource and material
use that can serve as excellent tools for campaigning for Clean
Production. They provide easily understood visual or numerical
estimates of unsustainable practices and allow advocates to engage in
discussions for change.
Ecological Footprint is one way of measuring the amount of space we
need in a year to supply all our material use and absorb all our waste.
[See REHW #537 and see http://www.edg.net.mx/- ~mathiswa and related
links.] The results are displayed on a map as a "footprint" to show how
big an area is needed to provide for the needs/demands of the citizenry
of that area Global calculations show that we are consuming over one
third more than nature can reproduce. For industrialized countries this
rate is even faster. As mentioned earlier, North American consumption
and waste generation would necessitate 2 extra planet Earths if the
rest of the world copied our production and consumption model.
[The CITIZEN'S GUIDE describes other techniques for measuring just how
unsustainable our lifestyles have become, and for determining specific
steps we can take to bring them back into line with the constraints of
2. Consumer Right to Know: Life Cycle Assessments?
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a tool to holistically evaluate the
environmental consequences of a product across its entire life, or from
its "cradle to grave." It can be used to support a decision about a
purchase, innovation of production processes or product approval. LCA
is a method to evaluate the environmental effects associated with any
given activity from the initial gathering of raw material from the
earth until the point at which all residuals are returned to the
Life cycle assessments are not perfect by any means:
** In some ways the pitfalls of LCAs mirror the pitfalls of attempting
to do a "scientifically sound" risk assessment for chemicals. It
depends on the assumptions used and the availability of data.
** LCAs never factor in social criteria such as who is impacted and
where the materials are extracted or where the product is made. This is
seen as too difficult to quantify on top of all the other assumptions
necessary in analyzing material and energy flows. Worker and consumer
health are included to some degree in environmental assessments of the
Why should we demand life cycle assessments? Because
** Public availability of this type of information will promote
environmental responsibility on the part of producers leading to
process and product innovation and more environmentally sound product
design, rather than a simple focus on facility specific impacts.
** It will allow consumers and public interest groups to independently
verify environmental claims made by producers to ensure that they are
not merely "greenwash."
** It allows us to form new coalitions with people affected along the
chain of production, such as trade unions and consumer groups. In
particular it allows advocates, as well as producers, and government
agencies, to identify hot spots during the life-cycle of a product.
[To be continued]
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Beverley Thorpe, CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO CLEAN PRODUCTION (Montreal,
Canada: Clean Production Action, April 1999). Available from Clean
Production Action, 5964 Avenue Notre Dame de Grace, Montreal, Que,
Canada H4A 1N1; tel: +1 (514)484-4207; fax: +1 (514)484-2696. E-mail:
Descriptor terms: clean production; sustainability;