Mary Hunt is an advocate for environmental sustainability standards and the unique voice behind the "In Women We Trust" blog. She’s just become the Communications Director for Channel Logic, a newly formed rep firm and resource for sustainable furniture. Here’s why she thinks environmental standards are so important. In Part 2 of her interview, we’ll hear her predictions for how fast the industry can become sustainable.
1. Everyone seems so focused on simply buying the next green product. You seem to have homed in on making sure those products meet standards that keep them "honest" from a green point of view. Why are standards so important?
It’s all about honesty and trust.
Consumers aren’t stupid, especially women consumers who have been comparison shopping their whole lives. Frankly, they can see the green smoke and aren’t "buying" the message that companies are selling. Part of that comes from living through the last 40 years of environmental activism. They’ve seen laws ignored over and over. The other part comes from the majority of the population having high speed Internet access. In seconds they can tap thousands of product review sites and millions of bloggers voicing their opinion. That puts consumers in control and companies in the position of having to prove themselves way beyond where they ever had to before.
Credible standards give companies the guidelines and rules that everyone can literally live with as we struggle to dial back global warming. The best standards conduct a Life Cycle Assessment on products. That means that they measure the environmental impact of the entire product life from raw materials to production to reuse. To keep LCA’s honest and believable, they need a third party to audit them.
As they say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If companies don’t measure the CO2 coming from the entire life cycle of a product, whether it’s made at one location or 10, how will they know if they are being green or brown?
2. How did you get so excited about standards in the first place? Where did you see the possibility, the potential impact for standards to make a real difference?
I worked as a media sales rep for Thomas Register of American Manufacturers during the late 80s and early 90s. My job was to help manufacturers with their print ads, catalogs, and websites. TR was industrial yellow pages, which means everything starts with a key word search.
The process the industrial buyer went through then is exactly the same process the online consumer is going through now. First a buyer used a key word or phrase to "search" for the product or service. Then they would select 3-4 ads to evaluate. Those 3-4 usually came from being biggest on the page, or the top of the list in the case of the online version. It was pretty much a gut reaction pattern that we saw repeatedly. Bigger ads or top of the list received the most attention. Once the buyer located choices, then they refined the search by the competency factor: Which product/service could back their trustworthy first impression? Who would they call first?
This is where it got interesting from a social experiment point of view.
The biggest company didn’t always win. When it came to job shops, the “standards” drove the quality cut. The first standard or qualifier was SPC, Statistical Process Control. Did the company use the process to ensure a higher percentage of quality parts? It was interesting to watch the peer pressure happen. As soon as one company claimed SPC on their ad, the next year almost everyone had it.
That was followed by TQM, Total Quality Management. Not only did the part have to be in spec, but the entire management of that product line had to be done a certain way. The same thing happened. One company would take the leadership role and soon they rest followed.
Then the global market opened up with ISO, the International Standards Organization. If a company was certified to ISO 9000 standards, it met the demands of a global market. ISO became the top benchmark, but it was tough to get. The certification process was long and expensive. Some companies couldn’t play at that level and they lost market share because of it. Yet, sure enough, one by one the serious players got certified.
ISO has since branched out to include other environmental certifications. That’s the ISO 14000 series. Like the other ISO standards, it’s anchored in processes. It doesn’t measure issues that affect irreversible and dangerous climate change, however.
The point is, every time the bar was raised via a stamp or a standard, market peer pressure brought the other companies in line.
3. In the end, can we really put any hope in "standards," per se? If they require government action to be implemented, won’t we be waiting forever? After all, look how long it took for the organic standards to be passed. 20 years? 30 years?
That’s the beauty of this, we don’t have to wait decades for the government to implement standards. The government didn’t mandate that manufacturers become SPC, TQM or ISO certified, the market drove that. In the same way, the sustainable standards like FSC, SMART, LEED and many more all are being driven by consumer demand and peer pressure among market leaders.
The EPA set marketing guidelines in the 90’s. Those don’t measure CO2. They just try to help companies know when they are crossing the line and creating “greenwash.” Most people know “Energy Star” as a label they can trust. Energy Star covers only energy expended in your home, however, not the energy expended to make the appliance. It was created before we knew what caused global warming.
USDA Organic is taking off as a standard because thanks to sites like yours, women are learning that organic clothes and foods are not only good for the body, but also low on CO2 production as well.
As long as consumers demand and buy the current labels, companies will follow the money and use standards to become more competitive. We don’t need all consumers to do this. As little as 1% can set off a tipping point of action.