Day 3: Oct 13, 2009

January 25, 2010

One of my professors from undergrad, Dr. Scott Paeth, continues to be a sounding board for my inquiries about ethics, even several months into my post-grad life. As my academic advisor and my Senior Thesis mentor, I had the opportunity of developing a relationship with him that expanded beyond the parameters of the classroom; I still consider him a great friend and mentor.

Two months into my new job as the Sustainability Coordinator at Dordan Mfg., I was struggling with the “ethics of sustainability.” I shot Dr. Paeth the following email, looking for any direction to point my ethical compass towards:

Hey! 
 
How is the school year going? Good stuff? 
 
Okay, so consider the following: 
 
I went to a contract packaging facility on Friday, which basically assembles the different components of the package i.e. paper card, plastic clamshell, sticker, product, etc. They don’t make anything, they just put it together. This facility is the home of the Chia pet. Ironically, the Obama Chia is made in
China, imported to the US, packaged in the US, and then distributed in the US. Similar products are made in China, packaged in China, and then distributed in the US. How can companies market themselves as green, while the product and often tines package is made in China under lax environmental regulations and poor working conditions? 

In a nut shell: I am trying to figure out how to market ourselves as an ethical company, both environmentally and socially, but am having a difficult time because marketing in general seems disingenuous…why do consumers care about being green when they don’t even consider the people that are making the product and the conditions they are working in? 
 
Sorry to ramble– I am just so frustrated. I keep trying to sell our product to people who get their packaging from overseas. Yet they market themselves as green. I can’t tell if the green washing acts as a distraction from the reality– that the only thing that matters is money– even at the expense of people’s lives. 
 
If you have any insight, or books, or information pertaining to the ethics of advertising or environmental advertising or overseas manufacturing or anything that you think might provide some clarity to this cluster of craziness, I would be very happy. 
 
Oh, the real world is hard! 
 
I look forward to hearing from you! 
 
Best, 
 
Chandler 
 
I met up with Dr. Paeth the following week, who gave me a bunch of books on business ethics and the “corporate soul.” To be honest, however, this was the first time that I realized that his extensive knowledge didn’t apply to my new job: he was not able to provide me with the data I was requesting nor was he able to explain why certain information, even information about consumer products’ and their packages, could be classified as proprietary. I believe that this initiates the schism between the academic and the corporate for me; the great divide where one world no longer informs the other—a.k.a. “the real world.”

Paeth did hook me up with one of his colleagues in the science department. Although we never met, he suggested I look into the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which, he offered, may shed some light on why it is difficult to find environmental information on different packaging materials. While I found some vague information on this Act, it wasn’t until January 4th of 2010 that an article came out in The Washington Post that described this Act in laymen’s terms; I have included the pertinent sections of the editorial below:

Use of potentially harmful chemicals kept secret under law

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; A01

Of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States — from flame retardants in furniture to household cleaners — nearly 20 percent are secret, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, their names and physical properties guarded from consumers and virtually all public officials under a little-known federal provision.

The policy was designed 33 years ago to protect trade secrets in a highly competitive industry. But critics — including the Obama administration — say the secrecy has grown out of control, making it impossible for regulators to control potential dangers or for consumers to know which toxic substances they might be exposed to.

Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, manufacturers must report to the federal government new chemicals they intend to market. But the law exempts from public disclosure any information that could harm their bottom line.

Government officials, scientists and environmental groups say that manufacturers have exploited weaknesses in the law to claim secrecy for an ever-increasing number of chemicals. In the past several years, 95 percent of the notices for new chemicals sent to the government requested some secrecy, according to the Government Accountability Office. About 700 chemicals are introduced annually.

“You have thousands of chemicals that potentially present risks to health and the environment,” said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that documented the extent of the secret chemicals through public-records requests from the EPA. “It’s impossible to run an effective regulatory program when so many of these chemicals are secret.”

Of the secret chemicals, 151 are made in quantities of more than 1 million tons a year and 10 are used specifically in children’s products, according to the EPA.

The identities of the chemicals are known to a handful of EPA employees who are legally barred from sharing that information with other federal officials, state health and environmental regulators, foreign governments, emergency responders and the public.

YIKES! It appears as though I have opened up a can of worms. Tune in tomorrow to see where this information takes me.

One Response to “Day 3: Oct 13, 2009”

  1. Gee, now I feel awful! I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help more.

    Truth be told, doing this kind of ethical analysis requires a great deal of detailed investigation into the production processes, environmental impacts., etc. Unfortunately, all I could give you was a general understanding of how to go about analyzing the situation, since I didn’t have the kind of expertise on the particulars of environmental ethics and production processes.

    At any event, I’m sure you’ll find more resources that will help you, in addition to those you’ve already found. Take care!

    Scott

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