Green Biz in the Black

  • A green "stop-n-shop." Locali's in L.A. (Photo by Devine Browne)

When the banks failed and the recession
hit last fall, lots of people predicted
that the burgeoning green economy would
get nipped in the bud. But that’s not
what happened. Julie Grant spoke with
some business experts about the status
of green companies:

Transcript

When the banks failed and the recession hit last fall, lots of people predicted that the burgeoning green economy would get nipped in the bud, but that’s not what happened. Julie Grant spoke with some business experts about the status of green companies.

Last fall, the iconic supermarket of the green movement was in trouble. After years of growth, Whole Foods’ stock prices were plummeting.

Nancy Koehn is professor of the history of retailing and consumer behavior at the Harvard business school.

She says despite the lingering high unemployment rate and the store’s notoriously high prices, things are looking better today for Whole Foods.

“They’ve rebounded very effectively over the last six months. their stocks trading up considerably, traffic is up in the stores, per customer tabs, or receipts, if you will, are up.”

But Koehn says Whole Foods customers might be a core group that’s committed to buying green. The jury is still out on whether green companies will win over mainstream consumers.

Lots of people rushed to Wal-Mart last Christmas – to get things as cheaply as possible in the wake of the financial meltdown. But Koehn says the large-scale flight to Wal-Mart has mostly run its course.

“The question now is – are consumers now, in this post crisis world, going to move to a new normal? – which includes a different way of thinking about the impact of our dollars on how what we buy affects a whole range of issues and people in the world.”

In other words, will people re-consider buying cheap goods made in China since many American jobs have been lost to that country, environmental concerns about products from China and that country’s record on human rights.

And, Koehn says even Walmart is becoming greener both in its operations and its products. For example, it now sells only energy efficient lights bulbs.

Joel Makower is editor of GreenBiz –dot-com. He says changes at WalMart are just a small part of the green business story today. Although, he might not have said that a year ago.

“I think the remarkable story of 2009 is that the green economy did not disappear when the overall economy went south. that it’s not only remaining in place, but the number of products and services from better cars to better cosmetics to computers are coming in to the market.”

Even though we’re the ones who buy these things, Makower says the future of the green business isn’t really about consumer demand. He says there’s a confluence of green technology, government regulation and available capital that’s driving the green economy forward.

“We’re going to be seeing that in energy, we’re going to be seeing that in buildings, we’re going to be seeing that in vehicles. We’re already seeing that in information technology. Where these things are coming together and regardless of consumer demand are being made available and attractive to consumers.”

Makeower gives the example of the IPOD. He says it wasn’t developed because people demanded it, or because we were running out of material to make CDs – it just offered a better technology – and so consumers have been buying it. In the process, the IPOD saved tons of material that was to be used on CD packaging.

These new products aren’t necessarily being labeled green products. And Business historian Nancy Koehn says American companies are going through a huge transition that won’t make such labels necessary.

“Because pretty soon the core aspects of what we define as green today will be such a part of so many businesses that we won’t make this distinction, we won’t have this kind of differentiation by the word green.”

Koehn says companies that have already started going green might be ahead of their competitors right now – in terms of energy efficiency and offering a wider array of green- products. But because of stockholder demands, government incentives– and eventually consumers – other businesses will likely start catching up to them.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Target Drops Pvc

  • Target has finally agreed to stop using PVC in its products. (Photo by Lester Graham)

After a two year campaign against the retailer, Target says it will do what Wal-Mart and other retailers have already done. It will
stop using PVC plastic in its products. Lisa Ann Pinkerton Reports:

Transcript

After a two year campaign against the retailer, Target says it will do what Wal-Mart and other retailers have already done. It will
stop using PVC plastic in its products. Lisa Ann Pinkerton Reports:


Commonly known as vinyl, polyvinyl chloride, or PVC plastic contains phthalates, which are used to soften
hard plastic. But they are also believed to be toxic to humans, wildlife and the environment. Target says it
will phase out PVC in its products and ask its vendors to do the same.


Mike Shade with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice says large retailers are taking the lead on
PVC and that will influence the marketplace:


“By getting large manufacturers and large retailers to switching to safer materials that will drive costs down
and make it easier for smaller companies to do the same.”


Shade says many of Target’s baby accessories will be PVC free by January and most of toys by the fall of 2008. The next

step, he says, is to get retailers
like K-Mart, Sears, and Costco to do the same


For the Environment Report, I’m Lisa Ann Pinkerton.

Related Links

Business Trash Audits

  • Plant manager of Anheuser-Busch points out the plastic labels of the beer bottles now being recycled. (Photo by Karen Kasler)

Chain restaurants and retailers often test
their latest services and products in Columbus, Ohio
before launching them nationwide. It’s one of the
nation’s big test markets. But ‘going green’ is not
a trend that’s going well. Karen Kasler reports
recycling rates are well below the national average.
But businesses in this key market are beginning to
show more interest:

Transcript

Chain restaurants and retailers often test
their latest services and products in Columbus, Ohio
before launching them nationwide. It’s one of the
nation’s big test markets. But ‘going green’ is not
a trend that’s going well. Karen Kasler reports
recycling rates are well below the national average.
But businesses in this key market are beginning to
show more interest:


Columbus often bills itself as the nation’s test market. It’s demographics are seen as a reflection
of the nation as a whole. But this national test market is not at the front of the curve when it
comes recycling and other ‘green practices.’ For example, many companies around the country
have going green in the last few years, but businesses in Columbus are just starting to test the
waters.


John Remy works for SWACO, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio It operates the area’s
landfill. Remy has only recently noticed a sudden jump in the number of calls he’s getting every
day:


“The boss wants the business to go green, and so the employees are left to, how do I go
green? And so they call us and want to know, how do I go green? And how do I do it five
minutes before I called you?”


SWACO advises businesses to audit their waste — to dig into trash cans and dumpsters and see
how much paper, plastic, glass, cardboard, food and other material is there and can be
recycled. Some big corporations were already working on that. Columbus’ Anheuser-Busch
brewery is one of big brewer’s 12 plants nationwide. Plant manager Kevin Lee says “green beer”
is not just a St. Patrick’s Day thing here. He says it’s a way of doing business, from the way the
bottles are labeled:



“The backing off of these labels that are applied onto the Bud Light bottle, we recycle the
backing, and there was approximately 66,000 miles of backing a year that is plastic
backing that’s recycled.”


To the cans that fall off the filling lines and end up in hoppers:


“And we send those cans back to a recycling area where the cans are crushed, they’re
sent for aluminum recycling purposes…”


Lee says the idea is to save money and cut down on trash:


“Everything that is consumed off the line, whether it’s the waste beer or the
waste cans or the waste bottles or cardboard, we want to take those materials, treat them
or recycle them, so that we reduce our demand on the environment certainly, reduce our
costs, and that allows us to be the most responsible manufacturer we can be.”


Multi-million dollar automated operations can afford to smoothly snap new green technology
into their production lines, but it’s a little more hands-on in smaller companies and in non-profit
organizations.


Catholic priest David Gwinner did things the old-fashioned way at St. Paul’s parish just north of
Columbus. He stands by one of two eight-cubic-yard recycling bins outside the church offices.
And he says he started by sorting the trash on his own:


“Many days I would take the recycling, separate it and take it in my car.
Yes, in my Oldsmobile sitting over there and my dog, Margaret. And it started to be two,
three trips a day.”


After a few months of dumpster diving, Gwinner decided to organize the St. Paul’s staff in a
recycling effort. In the last year, Gwinner says everyone has gotten in on it – workers in the
administrative offices, guests in the meeting rooms, and the thousand kids in the school. Now,
the trash dumpsters are emptied three times a week instead of every day, which Gwinner says
has saved the parish 2,400 dollars over the last year. But Gwinner says it’s about more
than money. He’s preaching that this is a “partnership with creation,” and now his mission is to
get that message out to his 12,000 parishioners, many of whom own businesses:


“And if they had one or two or three pounds a day, times 12,000, times 365 days a year.
That tells the story of how huge… it’s a million tons a year that SWACO is receiving that’s
going into the ground. And they believe that a great percent of that is recyclable.”


A study a few years ago concluded 60 percent of commercial and residential trash is
recyclable, with paper and plastics the most common things thrown away. But even as
businesses are trying to take their bottom lines to zero when it comes to waste, their employees
may not be taking that attitude home. 88 percent of people in this test market town don’t
recycle. That number is nearly four times the stat from a recent Harris poll which shows the
national non-recycling average is 23 percent.


For the Environment Report, I’m Karen Kasler.

Related Links

Sex Toy Safety

  • The Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis is one of the adult toy retailers which has stopped selling certain kinds of toys because of questions about the chemicals used to make them. (Photo by Lester Graham)

(Listeners should be aware of the adult nature of this report. It includes
sexually explicit descriptions.)


Not everyone uses sex toys. But some people certainly do use them. The American
sex toy industry took-in more than one-and-a-half billion dollars in revenue
last year. But there are growing public health concerns about chemicals used
to manufacture some of the adult toys. No government agency regulates sex
toys because the adult toys are labeled as novelty items. “Novelty” means
these toys are not intended to actually be used. Kyle Norris reports some
retailers want the industry to stop using the potentially harmful materials in
the toys:

Transcript

(Readers should be aware of the adult nature of this report. It includes
sexually explicit descriptions.)


Not everyone uses sex toys. But some people certainly do use them. The American
sex toy industry took-in more than one-and-a-half billion dollars in revenue
last year. But there are growing public health concerns about chemicals used
to manufacture some of the adult toys. No government agency regulates sex
toys because the adult toys are labeled as novelty items. “Novelty” means
these toys are not intended to actually be used. Kyle Norris reports some
retailers want the industry to stop using the potentially harmful materials in
the toys:


(Readers should be aware of the adult nature of this report. It includes
sexually explicit descriptions.)



A couple of years ago, Jennifer Pritchett and Jessica Giordani opened up The
Smitten Kitten, a small sex-toy store. On the day that their first shipment of
adult toys arrived they excitedly gathered around. As they ripped open the
box, a noxious odor permeated the air. It was that new, vinyl shower-curtain
smell:


“And we saw these oil spots. That’s what it looked like oil seeping through
the cardboard boxes. We were a little concerned, obviously, and we opened
them up and each of the toys, almost down to every single one, was beading
some oil-like substance up on the toys, through the product packaging,
through the styrofoam peanuts, and then through the cardboard.”



The entire shipment of adult toys was ruined. Pritchett started asking around
to the folks she knew in the industry. Someone told her that the oils leaching
from the toys are called phthalates.


Cheaper-end sex toys are made with polyvinylchloride, or PVC. PVC is a
synthetic material used in tons of things like building materials, medical
appliances, everyday household items and children’s toys. And much like
the children’s toys, most of the cheaper adult toys are manufactured in
China. There are no regulations on the manufacture of the adult toys in
China, and no regulations on the imports of toys in the United States.


In order to make PVC softer and more flexible – which is a desired effect in
certain adult toys – plasticizers called phthalates are added. And a lot of
phthalates go into jelly toys to make them more jelly-like. In fact, the
leaching toys Jennifer Pritchett had ordered are actually called jelly toys. But
that very un-technical term did not sit well with Pritchett. She sent a few of
the best-selling toys on the market to an independent chemist. To see what
the adult toys were really made of.


For instance one of the most famous sex toys in the country is called “The
Rabbit.” Everybody knows about that. Sex and The City had a big episode
about the rabbit habit. Oprah Winfrey gave away one to every person in her
audience. They’re everywhere. And I sent that particular toy to a lab, and it
came back that 60% of the total weight of that toy, so 60% of the total
volume of material is a chemical called dioctyl phthalatem, which is a
known carcinogen and teratogen.


It turned out the rabbit toy was made with materials from a class of
chemicals that’s linked to cancer and birth defects. It’s not known whether
materials used in some adult toys are dangerous to human health or not.
Because no one is testing them on humans.


In 2006, the Danish Technological Institute did study the health risks of
chemicals in adult toys on lab animals. Researchers found that some
phthalates are harmful to mice and rats in large amounts. Pritchett says that
if the consumer public knew that the materials in their toys might be a risk,
they probably would not use them. She says that the big picture here is about
a lot of things. And one of those things is a culture’s discomfort with
sexuality:


“It’s about a regulatory system that can’t even say the words ‘adult toys’ let
alone regulate it like they do children’s toys. It’s about a market structure
where people can make thousands of percent profit on cheaply made toys
and nobody’s going to do anything about it.”


There’s a lot of money in sex toys. Carol Queen is the staff sexologist at
Good Vibrations, a well-established California sex store. She says that
people have worried about phthalates in the toys that children suck on, like
pacifiers. In fact in Europe, children’s toys with dioctyl phthalate and other
kinds of phthalates have been banned. Once people started worrying about
children’s toys, they soon started to wonder about adult toys.



“In terms of the dildos and the insertable vibrators, at the very least, those
things are going to and on the mucosa, and if somebody’s having fun it’s
staying there for a little while. There’s friction, there’s the possibility of
leaching. And all of those things are potentially correct. The problem with
the discourse is that so far no one has had the opportunity to truly understand
what the implications health wise and otherwise might be for these materials
on human body. Because people don’t test sex toys.”


The big concern here is that sex toys directly touch mucous membranes. And
this contact is not buffered by any layer of skin. So the materials used in an
adult toy can potentially more easily be absorbed into the body.


For this report, I contacted more than twenty medical and health
professionals. They were the heads of research universities that specialize in
sexual studies. Or OB-GYN doctors, or the directors of sexual health clinics.


None of these health professionals were willing to be interviewed about
what can happen to someone’s body when they use adult toys made out of
potentially hazardous materials. They just don’t have the information about
it. Although when I spoke with them, the majority of those health
professionals were curious to hear this report.


We finally spoke with Dr. Susan Ernst. She’s the director of the Gynecology
Clinic at the University of Michigan’s student health services. She confirmed
that this topic is not on the radar for many health professionals:


“It hadn’t come up as a topic with patients. It hadn’t come up in any of the
medical conferences that I had attended. It hadn’t come up in the medical
journals that I have read. So I am embarrassed to say it came up through the
lay press bringing it up as an important issue.”


Dr. Ernst says that if a patient is using an adult toy that is potentially
dangerous, then health care professionals need to be knowledgeable about
this topic.


Jennifer Pritchett of Smitten Kitten says friends sometimes mention rashes
or burning they experience when using adult toys. They’ve been to the
doctor. But physicians often wrongly assume that it’s an STD or a toy that’s
not been cleaned properly. And the problem doesn’t go away.


The doctors don’t think about a connection between the chemicals used to
make the toys and how they might affect the body.


Pritchett says when she mentions that possible connection to a friend, she
can see a light-bulb go on over their head. Now that’s speculation of course,
but she thinks people need to put all of the pieces of the sex-toy puzzle
together. That’s why she stopped selling the jelly toys that were leaching
phthalates:


“We have to say we know the chemicals in these toys are dangerous. We
know they’re dangerous in other respects. We know if children put these in
their mouths, it’s dangerous. I think we’re going to have to extrapolate and
say well if adults put these in mouths or other parts of their body it’s also
dangerous. We’re just going to have to make a little leap there. But the
industry who is invested in keeping toxic toys on the market hides behind
that. They hide behind the novelty use only. The ‘nobody’s proven that this
specific toy causes cancer.’ I think it’s a cheap argument and I hope it doesn’t
stand up for too long.”


Pritchett says it’s not as if people are only buying adult toys as gag gifts. But
because the toys are so controversial, nobody expects the government to test
the safety of them anytime soon. But people are starting to talk about the
issue. A few months ago an adult toy trade magazine did a cover story called
“Attack of the Phthalates.” And one of the biggest adult toy retailers recently
announced it was phasing-out products that contain phthalates. Because
more people who use these toys are becoming concerned about whether
they’re putting themselves at risk.


For the Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

Related Links

Study: Wildlife Refuges Bring in Cash

A new report from the federal government says many of us are spending a lot of money at or near national wildlife refuges. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

A new report from the federal government says many of us are
spending a lot of money at or near national wildlife refuges. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:


The Interior Department says 37 million people visited National
Wildlife Refuges last year, triggering 1.4 billion dollars
in economic activity. The Department says the spending created almost
25,000 private sector jobs. Larry Wargowsky manages one of the
refuges. He says it’s mainly tourist dollars, not local spending,
that’s fueling the growth.


“That’s very critical… local money doesn’t cycle as much as new money
coming in from visitors into the local economy. It multiplies and
helps everything from the retailers to the motels.”


Wargowsky says unlike some of the national parks, the wildlife refuges
are by and large not in danger of being loved to death. Travel industry
officials say the new report shows eco-tourism is big business.


The Sierra Club says the study provides more reasons not to drill for
oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


For the GLRC, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

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A Lighter, Brighter Christmas?

  • Author Bob Lilienfeld suggests that we find ways to express our love for each other in less material ways. (Photo by Denise Docherty)

The message from advertisers this holiday season seems to be: buy more because you and your family deserve it. Retailers are hopeful we’ll all spend just a little bit more to make the holidays shiny and bright. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham went to the shopping mall with a guy who thinks we ought to scale back our spending during the
holidays:

Transcript

The message from advertisers this holiday season seems to be, buy more because you and your family deserve it. Retailers are hopeful we’ll all spend just a little bit more to make the holidays shiny and bright. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham went to the shopping mall with a guy who thinks we ought to scale back our spending during the holidays:


Bob Lilienfeld is one of the co-authors of a book called Use Less Stuff. As you might guess, he’s an advocate of using fewer resources, including buying less stuff during the holidays. We asked him to meet us at a big shopping mall to talk about why he thinks buying less means more.


Lilienfeld: “I want you to go back to when you were a kid. Think about the two or three things in your life, the things that you did that made you really happy. I guarantee none of those have to do with physical, material gifts. They have to do with time you spent with your family or things you did with your friend. But, it wasn’t the time you said ‘Oh, it was the year I got that train,’ or ‘the year I got those cuff links,’ or ‘when I got those earrings.’ That’s the principle difference. We’re trying so hard to be good and to let people know that we love them, but the things that we love about other people and that they love about us have nothing to do with material goods.”


Graham: “There’s a certain expection during the holidays, though, that we will get something nice for the people we love and here at this mall as we’re looking around, there are lots of enticements to fulfill that expectation.”


Lilienfeld: “That’s true, but we’ve been led to believe that more is better, and to a great extent more gifts is not better than fewer gifts. Quality and quantity are very different kinds of thoughts and we’ve been led to believe economically that quantity is more important. But, in reality it’s the qualitative aspects of life that we long remember and really are the ones we treasure.”


Graham: “Now from the news media, I get the impression that if I don’t do my part during the holidays in shopping, that it’s really going to hurt a lot of Americans, the American economy. $220-billion during the holiday season. It’s 25-percent of retailers’ business. So, if I don’t buy or if I scale back my buying, won’t I be hurting the economy?”


Lilienfeld: “It’s always been 25-percent of retailers’ business, even if you go back 30 or 40 years, and that’s probably not going to change. It comes down to your thinking through what’s good for you, what’s good for your family, what’s good for your friends and not worrying so much about what’s good for the economy and what’s good for big companies.”


Retailers are expecting sales to be better this year than last year. So, that simpler lifestyle that Lilienfeld is talking about is not widespread enough to have any real impact on the overall shopping season. But apparently the economy isn’t strong everywhere.


We talked to some shoppers about their holiday shopping plans and the idea of simplifying things. Many of them told us that the economy was forcing them to cut back on gift buying…


Shopper 1: “Well, because of my limited budget, I have to buy, like – I have a list – and I have to buy one at a time, so, being pretty poor is being pretty simple. I’m kind of already living that way.”


Shopper 2: “I don’t need to celebrate Christmas by buying people gifts. And I can give people gifts all year long. And I — Christmas is kind of sham-y to me.”


Shopper 3: “This year, yeah, my family is like, ‘Don’t get me anything.’ I’m going to do something, but hopefully it will be smaller and less expensive and all that.”


Shopper 4: “Well, I don’t feel compelled to buy something because an economist says it’s my part as an American. And I think people are going to get smarter and smarter about how they spend their money and the almighty dollar.”


With the constant messages on television, radio, the Internet and newspapers to spend, there’s a lot of persusive power by advertisers to buy now and think about the cost later.


Since Bob Lilienfeld is such an advocate of a simpler lifestyle, it makes you wonder about his own shopping habits.


Graham: “Do you ever find yourself in the shopping mall, buying stuff for the folks you have on your Christmas list or your holiday list?”


Lilienfeld: “All the time. But, what I try to do is two things. One is think about the fact that more isn’t necessarily better. But the other thing I really try and do is look for gifts that are what I call ‘experiential’ as opposed to material. Tickets. Things where people can go to plays or operas or ball games so that they have an experience. Same thing with travel. I mean, if I could give my father a gift or if I could help him afford to go somewhere, like to see me and the kids, that gift is probably worth a lot more to both of us than if I just gave him a couple of bottles of wine.”


And Lilienfeld says you don’t waste as much wrapping paper when you wrap up tickets.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

New Law Requires Seafood Labeling

  • A new law states that labels on the majority of seafood will need to list the country of origin. Some are worried about the amount of time and money this will cost. (Photo by Ivan Pok)

Seafood lovers will soon know where their dinner was caught. A new U.S. law requires most seafood to have a label that names the country it came from. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Peter Payette reports:

Transcript

Seafood lovers will now know where their dinner was caught. A new U.S. law requires most seafood to have a label that names the country it came from. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Peter Payette reports:


The label will tell the country of origin and whether the seafood was farmed or wild. Processed foods like canned tuna or fishsticks will be exempt and smaller stores won’t be required to label their food.


The new law is supported by some in the fishing industry who think shoppers would rather buy seafood caught in U.S. waters. But other suppliers and retailers complain the law is forced marketing and has nothing to do with food safety.


Linda Candler is with the National Fisheries Institute. She says it will cost billions of dollars for the industry to keep track of all the necessary information.


“We’ve already heard from several retailers that, in order to keep their record keeping to a manageable level, they will cut the number of their suppliers. Meaning, they’ll have less flexibility in price.”


The law is now in effect. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t enforce it for six months. They say that will give the industry some time to adjust to new requirements.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Peter Payette.

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