Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#651 - Clean Production -- Part 2, 19-May-1999

Clean production is an exciting new idea that offers
environmental and economic-development activists something to be
FOR instead of merely AGAINST. As we saw last week, clean
production is not just about making the same old products by
slightly cleaner methods; instead, it is an entirely new way of
looking at materials and energy starting early in the life of a
product or service, carefully thinking through each step from
extraction of raw materials through manufacture, packaging,
transportation, marketing, use, and final disposal. Unlike
"pollution prevention" and "recycling," clean production asks
fundamental questions about consumption: is a particular product
even needed in the first place? And is it being produced in a way
that promotes the goals of the community?

Now a loose-knit organization called the Clean Production Network
has evolved from a two-year collaboration between environmental
justice activists,[1] mainstream environmental groups, labor
unions, and academics -- specifically, the Lowell Center for
Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts at
Lowell,[2] and the Center for Clean Technologies and Clean
Products at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.[3] The
Clean Production Network was created to help U.S. labor and
environmental groups light a fire under governments and
corporations, to promote the needed shift to the new way of

Joel Tickner at the Lowell Center says, "The purpose of the
[Clean Production Network] project is to have a proactive,
solutions oriented vision for the future -- the environmental
movement is always on the defensive and pollution prevention
isn't doing enough so we have to move beyond it. Industry and
government are out there defining clean production but the
grassroots movement isn't. As you know, we've always been
fighting [against] things rather than saying yes to things."
Clean production offers grass-roots activists something to say
Yes to.

Beverley Thorpe of Clean Production Action (with offices in
Canada and England[4]) has now written the definitive CITIZEN'S
GUIDE TO CLEAN PRODUCTION,[5] which we began reviewing last week.
The Guide is accompanied by a lengthy "contact list" of groups
around the world working on clean production.[6] The "contact
list" also includes a short but useful bibliography.

To recap, clean production has four main elements:

1) Precaution: 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.]

2) Prevention: 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 and choosing the
least-damaging alternative (including, in some instances, the
alternative of doing nothing).

3) Real democracy. 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," says Beverley Thorpe.

4) An 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. A holistic
approach would avoid moving hazards around (from water to air,
for example) or from the environment to workers or consumers. It
would also avoid creating new problems while solving an older one
(e.g., genetic engineered plants as a replacement for

Beverley Thorpe's GUIDE offers 5 strategies that activists can
use to promote clean production. Last week we discussed the first
two: (1) Different ways of measuring excessive use of resources,
then working to reduce the wasting of materials and energy. And
(2) providing consumers with information about the full
life-cycle of products and services so that they can make truly
informed choices. Specifically, Thorpe urges the careful use of
"life cycle assessments" -- a specific technique for studying the
consequences of producing products or services.

The third basic strategy is broadly called "producer
responsibility." One kind of "producer responsibility" requires
corporations to publish reports on the environmental and social
consequences of their business activities, and to constantly
strive to improve their performance. Some corporations have begun
voluntarily. For example, Hewlett Packard (HP), the electronics
giant, adopted a product stewardship program in 1992. HP examines
the environmental performance of its suppliers world-wide and
expects them to develop (a) a policy of continuous environmental
improvement and (b) a plan for implementing the policy. For
example, HP's suppliers are expected to find the least-damaging
and most-reusable plastic resins.

Some retailers have begun to take responsibility for the products
they sell. For example, the Swedish retailer of home furnishings,
IKEA, refuses to sell products made by unsustainable forestry
practices or made from PVC plastic. B&Q, a major do-it-yourself
housewares and sporting goods chain in Britain, ensures that all
of its products are certifiable as having been produced by
sustainable forestry practices. By the end of 1999, B&Q suppliers
will be expected to know the key impacts of each of their
products, throughout the product's life, and have a specific
program to reduce those impacts. For example, all of B&Q's carpet
suppliers are required to get involved in efforts to produce
recyclable carpeting, and suppliers of bathroom products are
required to seek alternatives to PVC plastic.

Products have social impacts as well as environmental, and the
Clean Production Network considers both kinds equally important.
For example, the CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO CLEAN PRODUCTION describes
the international Clean Clothes Campaign,[7] which is an alliance
of retailers, consumer groups, and national solidarity groups in
India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, plus labor unions,
women's organizations, and churches. The Clean Clothes Campaign
holds retailers and clothing companies accountable for poor
working conditions in the garment trade, as well as the intensive
use of pesticides to grow cotton. The Campaign has negotiated a
code of conduct for retailers and buyers called the Fair Trade
Charter for Garments.[7]

Thorpe highlights other examples: the Clean Computer Campaign
developed by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in San Jose,
California, for example, which is producing a "report card" on
each computer manufacturer and is advocating that manufacturers
"take back" their computers for reuse and recycling when they
become obsolete.

Thorpe's GUIDE offers a useful list of questions that can be
asked of any manufacturer, retailer, restaurant, or even school
cafeteria manager regarding their efforts to locate and purchase
minimally damaging goods.

Thorpe's point is that "free trade" is making government
regulations less and less effective as time passes, but
corporations can still be pressured by organized citizens. As
Thorpe points out, the success of the anti-genetically-engineered
food campaign in Europe has shown the power of consumers. (See
REHW #649.)

Another approach is to establish alternative consumption patterns
directly, not waiting for corporations to reform their behavior.
For example, community supported agriculture (CSA) offers a way
for communities to support family farms, provide themselves with
wholesome, reasonably-priced food and at the same time withhold
their support from agrichemical corporations and the chemicalized
farms they hold in thrall.[8]

A new idea, now spreading throughout Europe and parts of Asia, is
called "extended producer responsibility" (EPR). It basically
means that the manufacturer retains responsibility -- physical
responsibility, economic responsibility, and legal liability --
for a product throughout the product's life. In the extreme case,
the consumer never owns the product at all, but leases it from
the manufacturer who is obligated to take it back when its useful
life is over. EPR initiatives are being worked out now in
Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden,
Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the UK. Clearly, this is an idea whose
time has come. However, Beverley Thorpe reports that the U.S.
government is lobbying hard to kill EPR initiatives, on the
grounds that such laws represent barriers to free trade. The U.S.
government also argues that everyone bears responsibility for the
products that manufacturers offer us and that it is therefore
unfair to hold manufacturers responsible for their actions.

In her "what you can do" section, Thorpe recommends that
activists get their local government to initiate a "green"
procurement policy, refusing to purchase toxic materials, for
example. (See REHW #602.) Or join the campaign, spearheaded by
the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, to support EPR
initiatives.[9] Or replace your local recycling campaign with a
local Extended Producer Responsibility Campaign. As Thorpe's
GUIDE points out, "We should recycle, but it is not the first
thing we should do; it is the last. Redesign first, then reduce,
reuse and finally recycle if there is no other alternative."

Two other strategies for moving toward clean production are
ecological tax reform and ending government subsidies for
polluting industries.

Ecological tax reform aims to shift taxes away from value-adding
activities (such as work) and onto value-depleting activities,
such as water pollution and logging old-growth forests. As a
soon-to-be-released report from Sustainable America says, instead
of taxing wages and income, we could be taxing carbon (i.e.,
fossil fuel use); major pollution sources; fertilizers and
pesticides; vehicle emissions; land speculation; contaminated
sites; waste; water; and the depletion of forests and
fisheries.[10] Environmental taxes are usually intended to be
"revenue neutral" -- they don't cost any more than present taxes,
but they provide new incentives for preserving neighborhoods,
waterways, and other natural resources.

Ending government subsidies to polluting corporations is an
obvious way to promote clean production -- a subject we will
cover in a future issue, though not next week.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] For example, a recent meeting in Detroit, Michigan included
representatives from Sustainable America (New York, N.Y.); West
Harlem Environmental Action (New York, N.Y.); the Environmental
Justice Center at Clark Atlanta University (Atlanta, Ga.); Deep
South Center for Environmental Justice, Xavier University (New
Orleans, La.); the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (Santa Fe,
N.M.); the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, Mi.); the
Southern Organizing Committee (Atlanta, Ga.); Tennessee Citizen
Action (Nashville, Tenn.); Detroiters Working for Environmental
Justice (Detroit, Mi.); United Auto Workers (Ann Arbor, Mi.);
Ontario Toxic Watch Research Coalition (Kitchener, Ontario); the
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (San Jose, Cal.); Sierra Club
Southeast Michigan (Detroit, Mi.); Natural Resources Defense
Council (New York, N.Y.); Environmental Defense Fund (New York,
N.Y.); and others.

[2] University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Lowell Center for
Sustainable Production, One University Avenue, Lowell, MA
01854-2881. Contact: Joel Tickner. Telephone (978) 934-2980.

[3] Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies, University
of Tennessee Knoxville, 600 Henley Street, Suite 311, Knoxville,
TN 37996-4134; telephone (423) 974-8979. The director is Gary
Davis. See: http://eerc.ra.utk.edu/divisions/clean/-

[4] Clean Production Action, 5964 Avenue Notre Dame de Grace,
Montreal, Que, Canada H4A 1N1; tel: +1 (514)484-4207; fax: +1
(514)484-2696. Or: P.O. Box 12201, London SW17 9ZL, United
Kingdom; telephone and fax: (44) 181-672-4354. E-mail:
bthorpe@web.net (Canada); ticknerj@woods.uml.edu (USA);
iza@cpa-iza.u-net.com (UK); beckros@ebox.tninet.se (Sweden); or
pawel@otzo.most.org.pl (Poland).
Http://www.gemini.most.org.pl/cpa/ .

[5] Copies of the CITIZEN'S GUIDE can be ordered by sending a
check or money order for $10 US plus $3 shipping and handling ($6
for airmail outside North America) to The Lowell Center for
Sustainable Production, One University Avenue Lowell, MA USA
01854; email: lcsp@uml.edu. Make check or money order payable to
The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.

[6] The very useful Clean Production Contact List and
bibliography is available on the ANPED website at

[7] See www.cleanclothes.org.

[8] On community supported agriculture, see

[9] Contact the International Campaign for Responsible
Technology, c/o Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 760 N. First
St., San Jose, CA 95112; telephone (408) 287-6707; E-mail:
svtc@igc.org. Http://www.svtc.org.

[10] See www.sanetwork.org.

Descriptor terms: clean production; sustainability; clean
production action; producer responsibility; extended producer
responsibility; hewlett packard; ikea; b&q; clean clothes
campaign; clean computer campaign; silicon valley toxics
coalition; green taxes; tax reform;