How Green is my Footprint?

Oh, to be raised by an engineer.

In my workplace, the rest of management mouth “green,” but that’s about as far as it goes. For instance:

  • In the four-plus years I’ve been in and out of the building (one story, 5,000 sq. ft.), our HVAC system was, is, and remains a mystery. There appear to be an array of “zones,” apparently controlled by individual thermostats. The readings and settings of each bear no reasonable relation to that particular zone’s climate at any given time. Our Sacramento seasons are Hot/Dry and Three Months of Alaska Summer But No Rain. The employee base (N=20) is overwhelmingly younger female, and therefore susceptible to the fashion dictates of perennial wardrobe transparency – which leads to geographic thermostat battles that rival any shaky marriage. Finally, throw in a server room amidships that must remain as hospitable as Ice Station Zebra, stir, and things remain interesting. Periodically, Russian expatriates stomp around on the roof, present a bill, and leave.
  • It takes 35-40 seconds to generate skin-temperature water in the restroom lavatories for hand-washing purposes, around which there is always bulk finger food of some kind available in the kitchen. Hello, H1N1. (Water waste and third-year drought aside, there could be a correlation between this and our sick leave profile, but that would require (1) awareness and (2) an audit.) The solution? An end-of-run recirculation pump – $400, parts and labor. (I know because I did it at home, years ago.)
  • The bare outline’s been presented and the opportunity exists to recycle metal, mixed paper, and plastic conveniently. Based on the evidence, though, our twenty to thirty-somethings seem to have missed the fundamentals that are second nature to my sons and their spouses, who are in the same demographic. (Oh, to be raised by the son of an engineer, carrying the baggage of law school…)

Well-trained, mass-media consumers that we are, I shudder to think about personal choices and their environmental consequences. (Being forced to count the number of SUVs and other needlessly pimped rides on decaying California roads doesn’t help.) What’s a body to do? Well, the choice is to petition our legislators to provide incentives or mandates to change our behavior or to take the initiative ourselves. I favor the latter. Contrary to what is thrown at us every waking moment, we are not entitled by birth to squander our dollars and votes on irresponsible choices. There is a price and will be a reckoning. (Attention, Neo-Cons: lest you think I’ve gone all Ayn Rand and adopted your isolationist, personal responsibility mantra wholesale, I do believe that what profit-mongers can get away with calling “green” – and “natural,” “organic,” and maybe even, or especially, “food” – needs serious legislative and regulatory attention. The sooner the arranged marriage and reign of King Corn and Queen Petrodollar ends, the better.)

Last Friday, on Bill Moyers’ Journal, David Goleman highighted a couple tools:

  • Good Guide, a nonprofit venture supported by an impressive array of databases (over 200), social investors, and pointy and propeller-headed advisors. (Asians and women and Berkeley – Oh, my!) Using your browsing device of choice, you can go there and measure the consequences of buying and using more than 70,000 products, just about as conveniently as you count calories. Here’s a taste. Among cold cereals, Cheerios and Wheaties scored more than twice as high as Kashi Organic Strawberry Fields in three performance categories – Health/Nutrition, Environmental, and Social. (Not counting calories? Better start – to be less expensive, remedial health care will have to be scarcer, so don’t bank on elective body-mass reduction or organ substitution. This can help.)
  • Skin Deep takes you in the same direction for beauty and cosmetic products. In its fourth year, the site posts safety ratings for nearly a quarter of all products on the market – 42,665 products with 8,377 ingredients. Their dual based rating system – a hazard rating that represents a synthesis of known and suspected hazards associated with ingredients and products and a data gap rating that describes the extent to which low hazard scores associated with some ingredients or products are based on definitive data demonstrating safety or, at the other extreme, on a near absence of data either demonstrating or disproving hazard – are based on their in-house collection of personal care product ingredient listings, integrated with more than 50 toxicity and regulatory databases. In the tooth whitening arena, Crest, Colgate Simply White, and Rembrandt varieties rate as seven of the eight highest-hazard (score = 7) products. So, how committed do you need to be to the sodium fluoride family?

Goleman’s “new” thesis, which he calls “Radical Transparency” in Ecological Intelligence (Aside: Does every notion require an M.B.A. worthy “branding” phrase?), is that we change the marketplace by (1) becoming informed, (2) acting on it, and (3) sharing the information with both your new corporate sweetheart and the one you jilted, and your friends. Get the data you need to make good decisions and act on it. Radical.

It’s out there. No excuses. If not you, who? If not now, when?

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