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Consumer Goods from cradle to grave

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Sensi Grower
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Joined: 07 July 2004
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    Posted: 26 October 2004 at 21:05
As Kermit the Frog lamented, it's not easy being green.

But it is possible, said a group of "green" product advocates who gathered Friday as part of the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Paul Thacker, associate editor of Environmental Science and Technology, moderated a discussion on ways for producers and consumers alike to develop an economically viable market for green, or environmentally sensitive, products.

Kim Carlson, EarthSmart consumer for the Today Show on NBC Minneapolis and chief executive officer of Cities Management, reported that the green market is a burgeoning business. In the United States alone, the green market is now a $230 billion industry, with organic goods accounting for $1 in every $10 of purchased food products.

And the expansion doesn't stop there. Ecotourism, a form of tourism designed to observe and preserve the environment of delicate ecosystems, is the fastest growing segment of travel, Carlson said, and hemp, considered a environmentally sensitive source of industrial textiles and oil, is projected to be a $1 billion market by next year.

"Anything that related to baby boomer health or our children's health will be a hot item in the next few years," said Carlson.

Major companies seem to be taking notice. Lester Lave, director of the Green Design Initiative at CMU, said that almost all of the Fortune 500 companies put out social responsibility reports, a new phenomenon where companies explain what, if anything, they are doing to ensure the social, economic, and environmental well-being of the local and global community.

"Companies would not be going to that kind of trouble if they did not think it was worth it," Lave said.

But the battle, the panel stressed, is far from won.

Chris Hendrickson, Duquesne Light professor of engineering at CMU, pointed out holes in the ongoing environmental dialogue.

"When the subject of products comes up, there's a tendency to focus on one stage of life," Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson explained a product's life cycle, referred to as "cradle to grave." By only concentrating on the "death" of a product, or when it's thrown out, producers miss out on a large part of the picture -- the initial production, packaging and transportation of the product, known as the birth. Focusing on the "birth" saves energy and materials, but Hendrickson said that many companies do not share this holistic view.

"Mainly, they're really organized to worry about their own facilities," said Hendrickson.

Carlson touched on one of the other big hurdles to the green movement -- a dearth of consumer knowledge. The panelists also suggested that a lack of industry guidelines complicates the issue. Even if shoppers express an interest in green or organic products, they often become confused by the differing claims, what Carlson called the lack of a "clear path."

"Consumers, in general, when they go to the grocery store, have no clue," said Carlson.

Lave ended the session with simple advice: "If you want to be green, I would urge you to live a simpler life."

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